Category Archives: Literacy

I believe literacy is what connects us. Whether deciphering words, images, songs, facial expressions or body language, literacy is what empowers us to communicate. A truly literate person is a listener, consuming information in a critical and mindful manner. A truly literate person is producer, responding to the world around them and creating new forms of expression.

As an educator, teaching literacy begins by living a literate life. I read and read and read. I write, a lot. Videos, images, infographics and blogposts flow through my twitter and facebook accounts, and occasionally into the classroom. Sharing these habits is where my teaching in the classroom begins.

In the classroom, the workshop model is my preferred teaching method. I usually introduce a concept or skill through a quick mini-lesson, then gradually release control over to the students. In this way the kids can apply their learning to engaging and meaningful content of their choice.

Want to learn more about the web resources I use? Check out my Literacy Links.

Story Starters

Story Starter Word Cubes

This is a first for me.  I have been contacted by SmileMakers to preview one of their products, of my own choosing.  As an avid writing teacher, and a writer myself, I chose to review their Story Starter Word Cubes.

It looks like the blue cubes are characters; the yellow ones are settings; and the reds are events or actions.  I imagine rolling the cubes and creating an outline for my story first, and then developing the story elements in rough drafts.

I look forward to reporting back on how the Story Starter Word Cubes help facilitate creative writing.


Reading: Understanding Genre Help Us Make Predictions

Today we began to think about how to use what we know about genre to make predictions about our books. To illustrate this point we compared nonfiction and fiction books.

We already know that nonfiction books are full of information, and fiction books tell a story.  Would you expect to see the same thing in both kinds of books?  Of course not.  I can open an informational book to any chapter and be able to understand what is going on.  But, I would feel lost if I were to open a fiction book and start reading from the middle.  THUS, we expect different things from different genres.


Furthermore, a fiction book will have story elements such as a main character, a bad guy, a problem and a solution.  Today I introduced the book CHRYSANTHEMUM by Kevin Henkes.  Before I read the book we made some predictions using what we know about fiction books.

After telling the Magical Minds that this book was about a girl mouse who goes to school for the first time, they brainstormed:

Who would be the main character? – Chrysanthemum
Who might be a bad guy? – A school bully
What might be the problem? – Being bullied at school
How might the problem be solved? – A teacher will help

As we read the story, the Magical Minds discovered their predictions were right on!  They discovered that using what they know about genre, they can determine what will happen in their books.

For homework the Magical Minds are asked to think about the books they checked out of library.  Using the guide sheet below, they will name the genre of their book as well as list/write sentences about what they expect to find inside their book.

Just Right Books


How do you know a book is just right for you?  When you go to the bookstore, how do you choose a book?

Some would say, “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover,” but first impressions mean a lot.  I agree with the Magical Minds, it’s important to “Take a look” at a book before choosing to read it.

If the topic of the book isn’t interesting to you, you probably wont like the book.  If you aren’t that into sloths, a book about sloths might not be for you (but, then again, good books will creep up on you).


We also talked about how a just right books is probably going to be different for each person.  For example, my Just Right Book is quite challenging for the Magical Minds.  A Just Right Book is not difficult to understand.  You know most of the words, but occasionally come across something words you don’t recognize.  Some people use the five word test.

The Five Word Test: open a book to a page in the middle.  Read the page and count how many words you do not know.  If there are more than five words you don’t understand on one page, it’s probably too hard.

There is no problem with reading an easy book.  I do this all the time. My guilty pleasure is reading young adult novels in bed.  They are, what I call, “yummy-eat-em-up” books. My wish is for each Magical Mind to have an easy book they can curl up with.  But, an easy book doesn’t challenge the mind to grow.
There is also no problem with occasionally reading a challenging book.  My professional development books can be quite difficult, full of challenging words and concepts.  I read these books slowly and carefully.  Although they are engaging, I wouldn’t say it’s fun. Challenging books are often discouraging.  The moral of the story: We grow and learn the most when we read books that are Just Right.

Writing is a Process: Lessons from Sharon Creech

Thanks to Mr. Schu at Watch.Connect.Read, I discovered this fantastic interview with Sharon Creech and her editor.


I think the quality  of the interview stems from the quality of Creech’s relationship with her editor.  Rather than a deluge of tedious questions, we are given a window into their conversation.  As friends they discuss how Sharon’s past experiences meld into her new story, “The Unfinished Angel.”

Creech describes how she writes short scenes with little understanding of where the story is going.  She has learned to trust her writing process.

Inspired by authors like Creech, Natalie Goldberg and Ralph Fletcher, I have begun to compile small scenes from a story that is brewing in my head.  Like Creech, I do not know where the stories connect, but I have a sense they will.

Five lessons I learned about writing:

1. Write – a little bit each day.

2. Trust the Process – write what feels right, even if you aren’t sure how it all fits together.

3. Be Patient – stories take time to grow inside a writer as they make connections between life experiences.

4. Collect Seeds – capture memorable moments that can be used to build a story.

5. Edit with Compassion and Awe – listen for the voice and the hidden stories within a writer’s work.  As the editor of my students’ work, I can help them grow in both ability and confidence.

Differentiated Instruction: A Child Centered Classroom

“A differentiated classroom is a
place where the teacher proactively
plans and carries out varied
approaches to content, process, and
product in anticipation of and
response to student differences in
readiness, interest, and learning
needs.” - Carol Ann Tomlinson

The Magical Minds are different. Each one is beautifully unique. They have different interests, different skill levels, different learning styles, different needs.

How do I know this? I talk with the kids, alot. There are small chats scattered across the day. There are reading, writing and math conferences. Sometimes we have special tea dates, which are one-on-one meetings (with tea) designed to assess and address the needs of individual kids. I take notes. I take lots of notes.

Unit Expectations and Anecdotal Notes

When I plan, and when I instruct, I think about these differences.  I think about what each of my kids needs to grow and feel successful.  As Angela Maiers put it, I think “how can I advance THIS learner?”

I begin with choice.  The Magical Minds choose their books, their writing projects, research topics, as well as their means of presentation.  The result = kids who are engaged and interested in the work they do.  It belongs to them.  It stems from them.  Part of my job is to help the third graders make good choices.  I provide the reflection time, the self-assessment tools and the conversations they need to understand their own interests, learning styles and needs.

Cultivating Self-Awareness

I teach independence. I carefully build (and adjust) the structure, routines and expectations that empower these third graders to work with focus, dedication and confidence.  Eventually they don’t need me (well, at least not all the time), and I am free to roam the classroom with my camera and my notes.

Independent Learners

While the majority of the class is solving a math problem, writing stories or researching an inquiry question, I stop to meet with individuals and/or small groups.  During these conferences I provide instruction that is specifically designed for the child/group in front of me.


“Come Party With Us” – A Lesson in Persuasive Writing

In connection with our unit on Natural Resources, I asked the Magical Minds to write to someone and persuade them to help support a sustainable planet.

I conducted a week’s worth of writer’s workshops on how to write persuasively,  introducing the third graders to powerful strategies and techniques.  Inspired by Emily Manning’s lesson, “Can You Convince Me?” I introduced the Magical Minds to a variety of persuasive strategies, including ethos, pathos, logos and kairos.

Before I sent the third graders to work independently, I modeled how to use persuasive writing in a real-life situation.  Together, the Magical Minds and I wrote a letter convincing ISE’s Director to come to our classroom party. Using this guide sheet, we brainstormed cajoling sentences, and we organized our thoughts using the Paragraph Hamburger:

When we were all done, it looked like this:
Note – participants in our class party were asked to come dressed as a Famous Person in connection with our unit on Change Makers

After effectively coaxing the Director to come party with us, the Magical Minds sat down to the task of writing their own persuasive letters to a person of their choice.  We worked together to create a rubric that would guide them through their writing process, and would later help them understand how well they had done.

Rate This Reader’s Fluency: “Whistling”

Before listening to some good and bad examples of reading fluency, the Magical Minds and I created a rubric we (and YOU) can use to assess reading fluency.  NOTE: We based our criteria on a list created by Mr. Salsich’s 3rd Grade Class:

Please listen to the following poem and rate how well the reader did.  If you have specific feedback, please leave a comment below. Enjoy!