teaching inquiry through writing workshop

Inquiry has been on my mind, ever since I started my journey as an educator. One way I try to integrate inquiry into writing workshop is having the students look at mentor texts in order to determine what good writers do.

During our personal narratives unit, in order to learn what a good writer does, we look closely at mentor texts. In the beginning of the unit, I provided students with a packet of mentor texts that my students examine closely. Our mentor texts were:

  • “Last Kiss” by Ralph Fletcher
  • “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros
  • “My Name in Gold” by Chicken Soup for the Soul
  • Goosebumps from Lucy Calkin’s Raising Narrative Writing Units of Study for grade 5
  • “Mr. Entwhistle” by Jean Little

When I taught students about how to write endings, I decided to use an inquiry approach. Usually, I would just tell students a few strategies on how to write an ending. Instead, I decided to have students read the different endings in the mentor texts and come up with what they noticed these writers did to make their ending strong. After spending time looking at the various endings of the different mentor texts, we shared what they noticed. This was what we came up with. As a teacher, beforehand I had a list of strategies that I wanted the students to learn about endings, and as students were sharing, if there were any that they missed, I made sure to include it. These were the strategies that my students came up with after reading the mentor texts:

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Then, as students worked on writing or revising their endings, I encouraged them to try different types of endings, before choosing the best one. It was fun to see the students use the different strategies that they came up with. This was one easy way that teachers of writing can integrate an inquiry approach to teaching writing. The format of the lesson was a bit different than a normal workshop lesson.

What are some ways you integrate inquiry into reading and writing workshop?

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More Than Academics: The Responsive Classroom Approach

This past summer, I had the opportunity to attend the responsive classroom training in New York and it truly challenged me as a teacher. It was a huge shift for me, and not to say I hadn’t been doing some of the things that they shared about, but it really gave me practical ways to implement what I believed as an educator. The principles of the responsive classroom approach really resonated with my core beliefs as an educator. These are beliefs that I’ve held onto as an educator, but at times, I didn’t have the strategies to put them into action.
Here are the guiding principles of the responsive classroom approach, taken from their webpage.

The Responsive Classroom approach is informed by the work of educational theorists and the experiences of exemplary classroom teachers. Seven principles guide this approach:

  1. The social and emotional curriculum is as important as the academic curriculum.
  2. How children learn is as important as what they learn.
  3. Great cognitive growth occurs through social interaction.
  4. To be successful academically and socially, children need to learn a set of social and emotional skills: cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control.
  5. Knowing the children we teach—individually, culturally, and developmentally—is as important as knowing the content we teach.
  6. Knowing the families of the children we teach is as important as knowing the children we teach.
  7. How we, the adults at school, work together is as important as our individual competence: Lasting change begins with the adult community.

The importance of the social and emotional curriculum is something I believe in strongly, but at times, I was at a loss of how to integrate that successfully with all the demands of the academic curriculum. This year, I’ve been able to integrate more of the social and emotional curriculum through some of the key practices of the responsive classroom. It is still a struggle to have enough time, but despite our tight schedule I manage to fit in time for the different practices:

1. Morning meeting- 15 minutes daily

  • Greeting- Every morning we sit in a circle on our rug and we do a greeting.
  • Sharing and/or Group Activity (Usually it’s hard to do both because of our short time.)
  • Reading the morning message letter- I hand write this out on chart paper everyday. I usually try to preview content for the day or make curriculum connections. Two great resources for ideas are:

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2. Closing circle- 10 minutes daily

  • Reflection- I usually give a sentence starter like:
  • One new thing I learned today…
  • One thing that made me smile today…
  • Now I understand more about…
  • I want to learn more about…
  • My highlight of the day was…
  • One thing I’m looking forward to is…
  • Group Activity- We do an energizer like different cheers. If we have more time, we will play a quick group game like coseeki or concentration.

3. Establishing rules- First few weeks of school

I’ve created rules with my students in the beginning of the year before going to the responsive classroom training. However, the responsive classroom training approach really emphasizes explicit teaching and modeling of rules and giving logical consequences. All the time we spend during the first few weeks really does pay off.

4. Quiet time- 15 minutes daily

Quiet time is probably one of my favorite practices I’ve put into my daily routine. This is a quiet independent work time right after lunch/recess. It’s a way to transition into the afternoon and allow students to calm down after recess. The students LOVE this time and they do some pretty amazing things! I have a bunch of students that take this time to work on independent writing projects, where they collaborate with classmates and come up with their own story together. Students can work on different things during this time. It’s a great way to foster independence and responsibility.  As a teacher, I can meet with students independently and help students with extra help.

5. Energizers- This is one thing I was much better with in the beginning of the year. Usually after students come back from specials we would have energizers. They are quick songs, cheers, games, that allow students to be active and move around.

Another big way that the responsive classroom approach has changed my class has been getting rid of reward systems. This was something that I felt strongly about as an educator, that we shouldn’t be rewarding students for good behavior with points, stars, treats, etc…We should encourage students to behave well and do their best because of their intrinsic motivation. I kind of went back and forth in the classroom and at times went to having extrinsic rewards like table points for tables that got quiet or ready first. I did class dojo points for a year and didn’t find it very effective. And now, I’ve gotten rid of all of that and my class is still on task and well behaved.

Responsive classroom has given me the strategies and tools to help me realize that it’s possible to have a smooth running classroom without dangling a carrot on a stick  in front of my students. If you are interested in getting training for responsive classroom, it is totally worth it! It was seriously the best professional development I’ve had in a long time. They have trainings in the summer and throughout the year. Check it out here: https://www.responsiveclassroom.org/workshops/  And no, I am not sponsored by responsive classroom in anyway… 🙂

Does anyone else use the responsive classroom approach in their classroom?

What are some of the successes/challenges you’ve had?

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classroom makeover 101

I was super excited for the start of the school year and wanted to rearrange my classroom to allow for more varied learning spaces. I asked my talented co-worker, Ami, for some classroom makeover help. She just happens to have studied interior design as well and is amazing at setting up classrooms for learning. I told her that she should totally have her own extreme makeover: classroom edition tv show! I would love watching that. Ami helped me move around my furniture and even got me some matching rugs for some of new areas from IKEA.  Here are a few changes that Ami helped me with:

  • Make a few cozy nooks for students to gather in the back of the classroom and also another small table in the front for students to go to for group work near my desk.
  • Moving a book shelf next to my teacher desk where I will display read alouds.
  • Bring my kidney bean table where I do small group conferences into the center back of my room closer to the student tables.
  • Making the classroom more open and less crowded. I got rid of book bins I had on the shelf next to my windows.
  • Putting some of the student tables diagonally so it’s a better use of the space.
  • Getting rid of stuff that was stored underneath one of my walls, so it’s more open and kids could read underneath there.

Another small tweak I made this year is I got rid of the name tags that I would tape onto my desk. I want my students to move desks more frequently and it was always a pain having them move around our clunky individual desks. It caused a lot of noise and was like mini-bumper tables when it was time to move. This year I used these plastic name card holders. They are great, because when I want to move seats, we can just move the plastic name card.

If you are feeling stuck with your classroom set up, ask another teacher to stop by and help! I felt like there was nothing else I could do to change in my room, but having a new pair of eyes come in and help rearrange was super helpful.

Do you have any good classroom setup tips? Leave a comment! 🙂

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10 Books to Add to Your Class Library

I’ve been trying to find time to read more children’s book, which at times can be difficult, but it does make a huge difference when you’ve actually read the books that you are recommending and encouraging your students to read. These are some newer children’s book that I have in my classroom that I loved reading, and so did my students. These are books I would recommend for students in grades 4-6. Some of the content is a bit more mature and would be better for 5th grade and up. I won’t write super detailed synopsis reviews because you can find those on amazon and goodreads, but I’ll share how I recommend using them as a teacher!

Fantasy

Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley-  My fifth grade class just finished this new book as our fantasy unit read aloud. There are great themes, metaphors, symbolism and figurative language in this story. The students loved this read aloud, and so will you, as you get sucked into the magic of believing in all that Circus Mirandus is about.

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Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan- This is a book I would recommend for your higher level readers. It is a historical fiction and fantasy book, and goes through different time periods, but weaves the stories all together through this one prophecy. If you have a student reading it, it would be good to check-in with them, and make sure they are understanding the plot and historical background.

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The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer Holm-  This book integrates science so well into the story. Ellie’s grandfather, a scientist, has found a way to make himself young again, and transforms himself into a 13-year old boy. I used this book at the end of the year as a read aloud, which my students were enthusiastic about as well!

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Realistic Fiction

The Thing About Jelly Fish by Ali Benjamin- I just finished reading this book over my spring break, and I was lying next to my hotel pool in Thailand trying to not cry while I was finishing this book. This book also deals with some mature content. Suzy loses her best friend from a drowning and she deals with that grief and guilt she feels from treating her badly before she unexpectedly passes.

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Fish in a Tree by Linda Mullaly Hunt- If you need a new beginning of the year read-aloud and all of your students have already read Wonder, this is it. My students enjoyed this read aloud, which is about Ally, who has dyslexia, and struggles to do well in school and is also dealing with bullying. It has many similar themes as the book Wonder.

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Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan- This is another book I would recommend for the high readers in your class. The main character, Willow Chance, is a gifted child, and adopted. When she unexpectedly loses her adopted parents to a car crash, her world becomes drastically changed. She finds a new “family” as she deals with the grief and loss. She is a quirky character, that you really feel for, and root for. You won’t be disappointed.

counting by 7s

The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart – This is kind of like the kid’s version of The Fault in Our Stars, but with no big romantic storyline. The main character Mark gets cancer again and finds out he doesn’t have long to live.  Then, he decides to go on an unforgettable last adventure to Mt. Rainier with his dog as his sidekick. It’ll be a book that you and your students won’t be able to put down. It could also work as an end of the year read aloud.

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Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate – I’m a huge fan of Katherine Applegate’s books like Home of the Brave and The One and Only Ivan. If you loved those books, you’ll like this one as well. This book is about a boy dealing with homelessness, so the topic is a bit more mature.

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Graphic Novel

El Deafo by CeCe Bell- This is a fun and fast read about a bunny who is deaf and needs to wear a hearing aid in school. The themes of fitting in and friendship will make it easy for students to relate to. My students couldn’t wait to borrow this book.

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Historical Fiction

Stella by Starlight by Sharon Draper- This is a moving story about an inquisitive and brave girl, Stella, who is living in the segregated south and witnesses the Ku Klux Klan in action. It would work great as a read aloud or if students read it independently, some preteaching on the historical time period would be helpful.

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What are some new books that you recommend for our classroom libraries? 

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Building Community & Inferring

One of the many benefits in working in a big grade level team (13 fifth grade teachers) is that I’m always getting amazing new ideas for my classroom from my fellow colleagues. This year I put into place a new idea which I took from my colleague. One of my colleagues, Leigh, does this great inferring interactive bulletin board in her classroom. I saw this in her room and immediately asked her what it was all about.

She starts the year by decorating this board with different items and mementos that are important to her. She puts books, photos, awards, cards, notes that show who she is. Then she has students infer about what they learn about her. Then, weekly, different students take turns to post items on the board about themselves.

This is a great way to get students to infer and also to build community in the classroom. Here was my board that I created for the first week of school.

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Now that we have been in school for quite a few weeks, it’s been great seeing the board change as different students take over. During our community circle time in the morning, the students will share what they infer. The student will let us know if we are correct or not. It also allows us to ask some great questions and hear more from the lives of our students.

Do you have any great interactive bulletin board ideas that you do in your classroom? Please share with us! 

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to confer or not to confer…

“Will you meet with every student?” I had an eager student come up to me and ask me after I shared with my class about my workshop routines. I shared how during independent reading or writing time I will meet with students individually or in small groups. My student seemed genuinely excited about getting feedback and conferring with me, which is the kind of response you want.

One of my #teachergoals (see my previous post) is to improve my feedback and I feel that conferring is the perfect place to start. In order to improve in this area, I needed to first improve how I keep my conferring notes. I’ve tried quite a few different ways to keep track of my conferences from a big 3 ring binder with tracking sheets, clipboards with student names on each box, to using different apps on my iPad (confer and evernote).

This year, I decided to go back to paper, but I created my own conferring notebook. I didn’t like the models I’ve used in the past and I had trouble finding a template that fit what I wanted, so I created my own. I wanted it to be simple enough and without too many categories, but I wanted to focus on a few areas like small group instruction, individual student goals, and teaching points.

So my DIY conferring notebook looked like this:IMG_1477

In the beginning I put a class roster page, so I can keep track of which students I meet with for individual and small group conferences. Then, I have a few pages of conference tips/reminders, and then a section for small group conferences that I can plan out in advance for the week.

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The main section of my conferring notes are pages for my individual students which I color coded each name with a label. Then, I put a goals sheet in front of each student’s section of notes so I can make sure I know what their goals are and I can check off when I the student meets a goal. So in theory it should all work out perfectly, but we’ll see how things go.

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For my writing workshop conferences, I’ve started conferring individually and in small groups for our narrative unit. When I go around to confer, I bring my conferring notebook along with my writer’s tool kit. The writer’s tool kit is something I learned from a summer writing institute I went a few years ago. Christy Curran, from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, shared this idea in a workshop about carrying a writer’s tool kit for the different genres (narrative, opinion, and informational) you teach. Inside my writer’s tool kit, I’ve have sections for: charts, mentor texts, writer’s notebook, and post-its & stickers. It’s an easy way to carry these tools around with you for easy access during a conference. I use the post-its to write the teaching point and compliment I give to my student. They keep the post-it note in their notebook to remind them about what we talked about.

It’s easy when the students are reading or writing independently to try to get other “stuff” done, but think about that student that is eagerly waiting to get your feedback, so keep conferring friends!

How do you keep track of your conferences? Please share any great ideas with us!

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#teachergoals

Well if Taylor Swift can bring about new popularity to an age old word like “goals” by putting a hash tag and squad in front of it (ICYMI, just google #squadgoals) while posting group photos with her beautiful girl gang, I’m going to start a new trend. Well I am definitely no T-swift, but I’d like to revive the idea of having #teachergoals because it’s the beginning of the school year. And who doesn’t love being able to create new goals, says the achiever in me.

As I start my thirteenth year of my teaching career, in case you are wondering I was only 13 when I started teaching (obviously), I always look forward to the endless possibilities that await me with a fresh new class of students on the first day of school. Deep down, my main teacher goal every year is to the best teacher ever, but I guess I do need to make more concrete teacher goals for myself. I really do try to push myself to be an even better teacher then I was the year before. It’s kind of the rule of teaching that you get better each year. I’ve definitely seen growth when I reflect on my practice and then make concrete goals to improve.

Now that I’m becoming a veteran (but still young at heart) teacher, I realize you need to push yourself even more to become better. It’s easy to get better in the first few years, but you have to keep challenging yourself to keep learning and improving, because once you have your bag of tricks that allows you to keep your students on task, quiet, and respectful it’s easy to get stagnant. At the end of the day, are you just good at classroom management or are you truly a great teacher? Are you really growing a genuine community of learners? Are you really differentiating and allowing for inquiry to happen? So I’m always reading new teaching books, blogs, articles and attending workshops to make sure I’m learning and growing. (I recently discovered this great teaching blog: cult of pedagogy)

So this year, I have a few teacher goals swirling around my mind.

  • Be better at giving more effective and timely feedback to my students. I totally had that biology teacher in high school that would take months to return that test, and I always wondered why it took so long. Well now that I’m a teacher, I totally understand how that’s possible. I’m giving myself a week at most to return something. Yes, it’s going to be difficult when the essays get longer and the tests get longer, but I know I can do it.
  • To improve my conferring note-taking system, so that I can be more effective in giving feedback (see goal #1) and be more reflective on where my students need help. For the past few years I decided to go digital with my conferring notes for reading and writing workshop. I used Evernote app on my ipad and it was good.  However, it wasn’t great and it wasn’t meeting all of my needs. So this year, this techie teacher went back to good old paper and I’m loving it so far. I created my own conferring notebook for reading workshop and writing workshop with colorful tabs and they are goal focused. It’s pinterest worthy and I’ll have to do another post with photos on it later!
  • To really push and challenge my students that already have gotten the concepts. As a teacher, you are usually focused on meeting the needs of the students that don’t get the concepts, which is great, but often the students that already have gotten the concepts don’t get challenged or pushed. Often times, those students get a menu of more busy work. So, I want to make sure that I’m really appropriately challenging those students as well. If you have any suggestions or resources, please leave a comment!

Ok, so even if I don’t start a new internet trend, please share with us some of your teacher goals for this new school year through your blog/facebook/twitter/instagram/snapchat and make sure to include #teachergoals. I would love to hear what your goals are!

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