Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Guest Blogger

If you are a blogger, or an avid blog follower, you've heard of guest bloggers. People who are invited to post or someone else's blog are referred to as guest bloggers. Tomorrow, I am going to be a guest blogger of a different sort. I will be visiting a fourth grade classroom in my school to talk to them about my blog. Their teacher recently set up a class blog for them on They are using the site to blog their weekly reading log entries. Blogging is new for them, and my friend thought it would be interesting if I came in and talked to them about my blog.

I can't wait to share my experience with the children tomorrow. I hope I can convey my passion for writing and my enthusiasm for the blogging platform to them. Even more exciting is that they are going to share their blogs with me. I'm eager to read what they've written so far and to hear about all the great books they are reading independently.

Tomorrow, I'll be a guest blogger. Who knows? Maybe one day I'll get to realize my dream of publishing a children's book, and I'll get to be a guest author in a classroom somewhere. You have to learn to walk before you can run!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Texting in Class

What would you say if I told you my students were texting while I was teaching the last two days? Would it surprise you even more if I said I was totally O.K. with it? Truth be told, the children were creating text message summaries on paper iPhones, but you would have thought I let them text "for real" judging by their enthusiasm for the assignment.

I've already blogged about the value of bringing pop culture into the classroom as a means of motivating young learners. Texting and cell phones are about as mainstream preteen as you can get. Whether you approve or not, you have to admit kids are mesmerized by their cell phones, iPods, iPads, laptops, and other electronic devices.

When I was thinking of a summarizing project that my fifth graders could do when we went to library, the Somebody-Wanted-But-So strategy came to mind immediately. I love the universality and the simplicity of this summarizing technique. I can't even remember how I came to the conclusion that we would do the summaries in the form of a text message conversation, but I knew I was on to something as soon as I started pulling the project together. I "left" a blank iPhone template on my desk and everybody who walked by wanted to know what we were going to do with the phones. I reeled them right in with a, "You'll see on Monday when we go to library."

To add relevance to the assignment, I decided to have the kids write summaries of picture books in the school library collection. We're going to display the summaries in the library as book recommendations for the younger readers in the building. It's a win-win! I get a literacy grade and the kids have provided a legitimate service for the school community.

I'm including a picture of the template I created, as well as some student samples of completed projects. If you think this is a project that would appeal to your students, visit my TpT Store ( and check it out. There's a rubric included in the packet, and a bonus bulletin board idea for those of you who would like to display the finished summaries.

That's all for my Tuesday Teacher Talk this week. I hope you've found it useful.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Answering the Questions BEFORE Reading the Passage

Christmas is over. Except for a few diehard holdouts, everybody's decorations are down. It's quite depressing. In my opinion, this is the bleakest time of the year, that stretch of time between January and March. It's cold. It still gets dark early. Many of us are suffering from post-holiday let down. I simply do not like this time of year.

And, as if all of that is not disheartening enough, it's also time to break out the standardized test practice materials at school. My students came back after the weekend to find TWO test practice workbooks on their desks, one for homework and one for class. Their moans and groans were everything I anticipated when I laid the books out for them on Friday.

I handled their discontentment the same way I handle it every year - acknowledge and move on. I gave the kids my "I know you hate taking the PSSA's, but we don't have a choice" speech. I really try to model pragmatism for my students when it comes to high stakes testing. They (and I) need to accept the fact that no amount of complaining is going to make the tests go away. I coach my students to view standardized tests as a "skill" that needs to be mastered. I explain that just like I taught them everything they needed to know to add and subtract fractions with unlike denominators, I am going to teach them everything they need to know to succeed on standardized tests.

Overall, the scores on standardized reading tests are lower than the math scores in my school, so this is where we focus A LOT of our energy as we get ready for the PSSA's. I already know that the key to success on a standardized reading test is being an active reader. The challenge is trying to get my students to recognize what it feels like to read actively so that they can monitor their own level of engagement in an authentic testing situation.

I've tried many different strategies to activate my students' engagement with standardized reading passages. (Considering how boring and irrelevant many of the passages are, this is no small task.) After lots of trial and error, I've concluded that previewing a passage, then reading and ANSWERING the multiple choice questions BEFORE reading the passage increases my students' level of active engagement more than any other approach I've tried.

I am honest with my students about what I am asking them to do. I acknowledge that it takes extra time and effort to read and answer the questions twice, but I also explain that the reward for their diligence will come in the form of improved test scores. Don't think for one moment that standardized test scores do not matter to your students. You can tell them not to worry about the scores, and that they don't count toward their report card grades, but the kids DO CARE. They want to be successful on the test. If you're not convinced, talk to your students openly and honestly about their performance. They'll tell you exactly how they feel.

Once I am able to convince my students that investing in possible answers BEFORE they read a passage helps them sustain their focus while they read because they want to know if they are "right", I then try to scaffold the test-taking process for them as much as I can. We deconstruct the questions and make a list of "test vocabulary" they need to know. We make a chart of all the key words that appear in our practice questions: "point of view", "theme", "conflict", and "conclude" are a few that come to mind. We learn the difference between "right there" and "think and search" questions. We practice highlighting evidence in the text that supports our answer choices. It's an involved process, and I know the kids need LOTS of guided practice before I can release full responsibility to them during testing.

There is one other important concept that I am sure to convey to my students during "test prep" time. I make it unequivocally clear that the way I teach them to approach a standardized test passage is only a test taking STRATEGY. I don't want them to confuse it with the way I teach them to read independently. Reading for pleasure or to gain knowledge should not to be confused with reading standardized passages. I work long and hard to grow a love of reading in the hearts of my students, and I don't want to undermine their love of literature with the arduous hoops I make them jump through when high stakes testing roles around. I draw the line clearly in the sand, so that there is no confusion. I am determined to make students life-long readers AND good test takers. The first because it's my passion, and the second because it's my job.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on standardized test practice in your classroom.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

You Can Symbaloo, Too

We were recently editing and revising a writing piece in class, and were fast-approaching that slippery slope where things can quickly deteriorate from long stretches of sustained, focused drafting into controlled chaos. 

If you teach writing, you know what I am talking about. That time when, in rapid succession, each student's drafting comes to a screeching halt because they need a conference before they are ready to publish. At this juncture, it is critical that you have something engaging, but manageable for the students to work on independently as they wait for their turn to conference.

I have an "I Need a Writing Conference" station set up where the children can place their "sticks" in a basket to indicate that they are waiting to see me. This is a new system for me, and I love it. However, it only works because I make sure I have LOTS of "waiting" work prepared in advance for my students.

Learning websites come in very handy at times like these. Sites like First in Math and Spelling City can provide hours of differentiated practice, and the kids love the programs. If you have enough computers and the kids can access these learning sites independently, you'll can buy yourself plenty of uninterrupted conferencing time. But, we all know kids aren't always totally adept at entering URL's into a computer address bar.

I have found a new way to circumvent the barrage of ("I Can't get on the website.") interruptions that can potentially derail a really good one-on-one writing conference. My newest lifesaving technology is called Symbaloo. Symbaloo is a customizable start page tool that lets users add all their most important links in a format that is easy to use. Symbaloo is a software application that enables learners to organize, integrate and share online content in one setting or Personal Learning Environment (PLE). The platform also allows educators to create mixes of tailored resources and share these mixes with students. Mine looks like this:

Each tile is a link to a site I have placed on the page. I have the option of adding and deleting tiles on an on-going basis, and I can lock the tiles in place so that other users can not change or edit my page. You can use Symbaloo for free. Check it out at

In this instance, the free service was not exactly what I was looking for. I wanted the ease and additional control that comes with a paid premium account. For just $34.99 a year, I get these advantages:

  • A brand with my own logo
  • My own custom URL to send my students to
  • Students can access my webmixes without needing an account
  • The ability to determine the content that my students, staff and parents get access to by setting my own content as the default

If you want to see SymbalooEDU in action, check out my "branded solution" at Right now, my start page is set up with the general learning sites we use in class, but I am already envisioning how to customize tiles for independent research in the content areas, and how I can use the platform to enhance summer reading for my students. The possibilities are endless. 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

President's Day Poetry

Have you ever done bio poems with your students? I love doing them with my classes. We do them as a "getting to know you" activity every September. They are always hanging on the bulletin board when parents come for Back-to-School night, and everybody loves them. 

This year we did our personal bio poems in September, but then I decided to put a new twist on the bio poem template, and I reworked the format so that the kids could write presidential bio poems for part of a unit we did on the novel "The Kid Who Became President"by Dan Gutman. The presidential bio poems the kids wrote were fabulous, and we ended up displaying them as a Presidential Timeline for the whole school right before Election Day.

As President's Day quickly approaches, I wanted to share a sample poem with you. If you like the sample below, and recognize the value of having your students synthesize research about an assigned president in this creative format, visit and check out the Presidential Bio Poem packet you can purchase there. You can get a poem template, a student work sample, and a scoring rubric just in time for President's Day. I assigned the poems as an at-home project, but they can just as easily be completed in class. I hope you'll take a look at the packet. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

First Tuesday's Teacher Talk of 2013

Happy New Year and welcome to the first "Tuesday Teacher Talk" of 2013. Tuesdays are now my blogging day. I'm determined to "grow" my blog this year, so I'm setting aside a special time each week to devote to writing.

We've only been back in school for five days, and the kids are just beginning to emerge from their post-holiday stupor, so I don't have anything very earth-shattering to write about. This week, I've decided to share a very simple strategy that I use in class.

It's a technique I use to help my students learn a "sense of urgency". Sense of urgency is one of those soft skills, or behavioral competencies, that don't appear in any curriculum guide or on any scope and sequence chart, in spite of the fact that it is a requisite for success in our personal and professional lives.

"What is meant by a "sense of urgency" is not running around at 400 miles an hour with your hair on fire, but instead displaying a driving desire to accomplish important tasks... now!" A sense of urgency means being able to automatically detect those projects in our daily lives that are goal achieving and which call for immediate attention and then acting on them until they are successfully completed. Successful people do a tremendous amount of work in a minimum period of time. They have a long list of projects which are completed daily and which move them closer to the achievement of their goals. They focus on goal achieving projects and work that counts. In addition, they have a tremendous sense of urgency with respect to matters that need to get done.

Some people are born with a strong sense of urgency. Others are NOT! I am a "get it done" kind of gal myself, and, as such, I value sense of urgency. I actually talk about it with my students and try to make them aware of the importance of making plans, working with purpose, setting timelines, being organized, and adhering to deadlines.

One very simple strategy I use pretty regularly in class is counting backward. When I notice that my students are too relaxed or laid back when they should be focused or on task, I remind them of what they are supposed to be doing (finishing a sentence, packing their belongings, gathering on the carpet, etc...), give them a minute to comply, and then I start to count backward from 10 or 20, depending on the task-at-hand. My students know the expectation is that they'll be done whatever it is I've asked of them by the time I am finished counting. The change in their sense of urgency when I count backward is remarkable.

I know it's just a simple technique, but it concretely illustrates an important point I want to reinforce with my students. It shows them that you can get a lot done when you set your mind to it and act with purpose, AND it beats repeating myself a thousand times as I nag them to "get in line" or "clear their desks." If you've never tried counting backward with your students, give it a whirl.