Distance and Home Learning: Writing Ideas and Resources

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So what’s a retired teacher to do when she is quarantined, can’t see her students in person, and only do a bit of virtual tutoring? She organizes her thousands of teaching, presenting, and tutoring photos in order to make it easier to share in these blogs and social media. In the process, she finds photos of the amazing writing activities her students have done over the years!

Right now, I am both grateful and NOT grateful to be retired from teaching. I wish I were out there with all of you figuring out how to do distance/remote teaching (and I’m gathering photos and info on all the amazing remote teaching from my teacher friends to share in an upcoming blog!). But, since I am temporarily a full-time caregiver for my Dad, who is 88, dealing with a painful knee injury AND at high risk for COVID-19, I am grateful to be available for him.

So here’s another blog with some writing resources that teachers can use for distance learning and parents can use for homeschooling!

Storyjumper

Story Jumper

I discovered Storyjumper while tutoring a few years ago. The student I worked with needed help with writing, both expository and narrative. We did plenty of essays using prompts given by her writing teacher, but to give her a break from essays, I had her use this wonderful website to create her own picture book. It was around Thanksgiving, so she created a book about a turkey invited to dinner with a farmer, who was a supplier of turkeys to grocery stores. The turkey was understandably nervous, but when she arrived, the farmer had a surprise, but welcome announcement…he would no longer be killing any turkeys! 🙂 Before I had her use this website, I created my own picture book so I would be able to guide her through hers. My book stars one of my cats, Princess Leia, and you can check it out HERE!

Rory’s Story Cubes

Love, love this app; I’ve been using it for years and it’s such a great way to launch a writing piece for kids! I first discovered it while working as a literacy specialist at Mammoth Heights Elementary in Parker, Colorado. Since I did not have a class of my own students, only pulling groups of kids literacy support, I was the go-to person to cover classes when a sub didn’t show up. THIS was my emergency tool. I would bring the app, put it under the document camera, and have a student come up to “shake” the cubes. Once they landed and were organized, we discussed what the image on each cube might mean; however, I stressed to the students that they did not have to use the consensus of the majority of the class, they could choose to interpret the cubes in any way they chose. Next, I had them create a writing piece (fiction or non-fiction) around the cubes. I eventually created a planning sheet for the students to plan out their pieces.

I have used this many times during tutoring. Sometimes it’s a quick begin or end of session challenge; we “shake” the cubes and they have to quickly come up with a paragraph using all the cube image ideas (see photo above on the left). Other times it’s a mini-project we work on; roll the cubes, have the student decide on the meaning, and then plan out a narrative story, fill out character profiles and find photos on the internet of what their characters might look like (see photo above on the right).  Here’s something I haven’t tried yet, but I want to: use the cubes with your students or own kids to develop oral storytelling skills. Shake the cubes, and create an oral story to tell!

You can buy the actual cubes from the link above, or on Amazon, or download the app on either Google Play or iTunes. If you’d like the Story Cube planning documents, comment below with your email address!

 Biblionasium

Book reviews

During this quarantine,  I know that many teachers and parents are having their students read, read, read…and that’s wonderful!  Once they finish a book, have them practice their expository writing skills by writing a book review on Biblionasium, a wonderful website where kids can write and read book reviews. The review can be a great tool for having them practice editing and revising skills when done!

KidPub

Kid PubHaving your students or your own kids write stories or poems? Or do they do this on their own…perhaps they are budding novelists or poets? Set up a free account on KidPub and have them share their writing with others and READ what other kids have written. There are categories for all types of genres, including fan fiction, and all submissions are vetted to make sure they are appropriate. I’ve had students find other kids’ stories to read, then review it tell me how they would revise it….a great critical thinking activity!

I will stop there for now…but if YOU have some great resources that work well for distance and home school learning, let me know in the comments below.

Be sure to check out my other blogs on resources for remote/distance/home learning:
Reading Resources
Project-Based Learning. Resources
Math Resources, Part 1
Math Resources Part 2

Remote Writing Resources

Reading Resources for Homeschool and Remote Learning

“The most valuable resource that all teachers have is each other. Without collaboration our growth is limited to our own perspectives.” – Robert John Meehan.

Right now, many parents are having to become their child’s teacher and it’s so important that teachers and parents support each other during the coronavirus and school closures! I’ve seen that all the teacher-bloggers are writing about how parents can support their child’s learning at home, and how teachers can set up remote learning opportunities for their child. I thought I would weigh in on some of my favorite resources for teaching reading that can easily be used at home.

Newsela: Grades 3-12:  I have used this website full or informational articles for years, even though in the last year they made much of the content only accessible via a paid subscription. But upon visiting their website today, I saw this amazing announcement!

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The articles are either taken from newspapers around the world and adapted for various reading levels, or are written specifically for students. In addition to news articles, they have biographies, primary sources, famous speeches, and pro/con pieces. Each article comes with a writing prompt and a quiz. The quizzes can be very challenging, and I spend time teaching my students how to use close reading for the questions and strategies for choosing the correct answer.  I have used this Newsela reading log for my students to keep track of their articles and scores. I have also used a Google spreadsheet with bar graphs for a more visual representation of the students’ progress; feel free to copy the sample and use it for your child or students! FYI…parents can sign up for a parent account!


Readworks (1st – 12th): Both parents and teachers can sign up for free accounts on this outstanding website for reading passages. You can find fiction stories, narrative poems, biographies, and informational articles on anything. Each passage comes with a question set, vocabulary activities and a writing prompt that always requires the student to provide text evidence in their response. I used these free resources from Jennifer Findley’s website to help students with finding evidence.  Readworks is also offering tips on remote learning, as well as a webinar on “Effective Remote Learning”; click HERE for more information.


Learning A-Z/Reading A-Z (K-8): Learning A-Z is offering FREE digital resources to teachers for the rest of the school year…learn more HERE! I love this website so much that when I started my tutoring business, I bought a yearly subscription for $109.95 – one of the best buys ever! This website has leveled books, both fiction and non-fiction, as well as phonics, sight word, and reading comprehension passages and activities.  I could not begin to dream of teaching reading without this website! Important tip: In order to save paper and printing costs, I download the books or passages on my Macbook, put them in my iCloud folder and then open up the folder on my iPad for students to read. They can also highlight the text on the iPad!

And….if this website wasn’t already incredible, they recently added graphic books! This has been a HUGE hit with my tutoring students!


Common Lit (Grade 3-12) is yet another excellent website for students to practice reading skills and strategies, and both teachers and parents can sign up for accounts. You can students into your roster, then assign reading passages (they have both fiction and informational text, as well as excerpts from novels) that come with an assessment and writing and discussion prompts. My favorite feature is being able to turn on the “guided reading mode” which allows the student to read part of the article, then answer a comprehension question before more text appears. This helps the student to read for meaning and think about the text while reading. For my tutoring students who are struggling readers, this is a huge help! Here’s their information on how they can help teachers with remote learning. (Note: While they have some passages for younger students, it’s mostly geared for grades 5 and up.)

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Just a few more online reading resources…

Tween Tribune from the Smithsonian – reading passages for K-12
Colorado Kids and the Mini Page
Kids’ Magazines (see photos below)

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Tell me in the comments about other reading resources for learning at home and watch for more posts soon on resources for teaching writing and math virtually or at home! Remember, we’re all in this together!

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CCIRA 2020 Recap: Ideas Galore for Teachers!

Anyone who stops learning is old, whether twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing you can do is keep your mind young.  Mark Twain

I have been attending the wonderful CCIRA (Colorado Association of the International Literacy Association) conference for over 20 years, and have presented there many times, including two different presentations this year, one on using Lego projects to foster reading and writing skills, the other on teaching literacy through genre studies (More on these presentations in future blogs!). I chose these session topics since the theme of the conference was “Innovation: Imagining the future of literacy.” While working in schools, I used shared my notes and learnings with the teachers at my school, but since I’m retired, I’m going to share all that I learned about teaching reading and writing with all of you!  I hope that you are able to grab a few good ideas from the sessions I attended.

At her session on teaching writing skills first to students so they can learn to read as a writer, Colleen Cruz, one of the authors of the Units of Study series, shared several ideas that resounded with me:

  • We need to let kids talk about books that they “love to hate”. Of course, as teachers, we always need to foster a love (or at least a strong liking) for reading, but it’s unrealistic to expect that all students will love all the books they read. We teachers all have books we LOVE to hate! Mine are a few gems from Honors English in high school: The Odyssey by Homer and The Prince by Machiavelli. There are several books I’ve abandoned as adults, but I can’t say I hated them like I hated those two. What about you? What books do you love to hate?  Share in the comments below!
  • Cruz made a great point about the difference between editing and revising, saying that anyone can edit writing, even someone else’s writing. But not just anyone can revise someone’s writing…the author should be the only one to. This gave me a pause, as while working with students on many a writing piece, I feel that the younger students need to have someone explicitly model how to revise as that is a very high-level thinking skill. They can quickly understand the concept of fixing mistakes, but too often they feel that once that is done, they are done with the piece. I’ve had to approach this skill very tactfully, by giving them suggestions and ideas on improving their writing such as, “Do you think it would make more sense…” or “Do you think this sounds better…” or “Would your character really say or do this?” But I fully agree that once students are older and understand the concept of revising, they should be in charge of the revision.
  • Critical literacy was a theme at not only Cruz’s presentation, but at a session on Media Literacy, presented by Tracie King, a media specialist from my former district, Douglas County Schools in Colorado. Both Cruz and King shared videos from the Fortnite game. We had discussions about not only the violence in the videos but the lack of emotion from the characters when they end up to be the last man standing…having killed all the others and blown up many buildings. Cruz made the point that video games have become the new “backyard”; many parents just open the back door and let them go play, without thinking of the consequences of what they might be playing at. She also had kids watch a video clip from Thor and count how many times violent acts appear in the video. King uses these questions adapted from the Center for Media Literacy:Screen Shot 2020-02-08 at 1.28.12 PM
  • I once again attended an excellent presentation on exploring narrative possibilities by a former Douglas County district colleague, Jennifer Gottshalk, a writing specialist.  She offered so many fun ideas for kids in narrative writing:
    • She presented several old, run-of-the-mill prompts to use on National Tell a Lie Day, April 4th (I had no idea this holiday existed). She had us take one of these “tired” prompts and craft a believable lie around it. I wrote one about a trip to Australia (never been there) and the horrific journey there, with canceled flights, terrible hotels, etc. IMG_5967
    • Another great option for writing prompts…a kid-friendly version of the Cards Against Humanity, called Not Parent Approved.  This game (which I am planning to get for the whole family, grandkids included) has some hysterical prompts on cards that your students would love writing about!Screen Shot 2020-02-09 at 10.08.12 AM
    • Another fabulous idea…you can type in your search bar the words: Visual Writing Prompt and find some amazing ideas to use with your students! You can filter the results to match your grade level or types of prompts (note: check it out first on your own before you project to students; internet searches can yield some “interesting” things!)Screen Shot 2020-02-09 at 10.04.05 AM
      • Jennifer offered another source for photos, but without captions, for writing prompts, Unsplash. My tip for the same kind of photos is Pixabay.
    • A few other ideas for writing prompts from Jennifer:
      • What is the “cheese touch” on your school’s playground? (And check out the hilarious clip from The Diary of a Wimpy Kid movie!)
      • How about this for a prompt…memoirs from a Disney Princess (or any other franchise character kids like!). Jennifer first showed us this video clip from Wreck-it Ralph which features pretty much every Disney princess ever…this will help kids to choose one. Here’s my “memoir” from Cinderella: “Everyone remembers me as sweet, good, kind, cheerful, blah blah blah. But that’s not really me…that’s what you saw in the movie. I am a fully rounded person with good AND bad traits! For example, when riding the royal carriage, I silently swear at other carriage drivers. I also send anonymous hate Tweets to my stepmother and stepsisters (they deserve it!). And, when eating at the royal banquets, I’m supposed to eat like a bird, so I grab some extra rolls and put them in my royal handbag to enjoy later…”
    • By the way, Jennifer is a published author of some young adult books! Check out her website!Screen Shot 2020-02-09 at 10.32.33 AM
  • Todd Mitchell, another Colorado children’s book author, shared with us some ideas for quick writing games, mostly around poetry. One is a “Lost and Found” poem; he had us make a list of things we have lost, then things we have found. He said these items you love and find should not be objects; he pushed us (as we should do with students), to go deeper than that. Here is my attempt as the poem:
    • I lost…my ability to go down the stairs without holding on to a rail.
    • I lost my little daughters who are now grown up into young women.
    • I lost my “school family” when I retired.
    • I found my purpose when I became a teacher
    • I found sleep when I retired from teaching
    • I found a new family when I married my husband.
  • After we wrote these poems in our session, he asked someone to share, then he had another person volunteer to be the “official listener”; they were the person who would listen carefully, then volunteer their feedback. Todd only allows positive feedback from the official listener. I think this is such a great idea; this ensures that someone is going to offer the brave soul who shares their poem some feedback!

That wraps up my feedback for CCIRA! I hope that you are able to try a few of these ideas in your classroom; if you do, please post in the comments!  Stay tuned for my blog posts on using Legos for reading and writing activities and teaching literacy through Genre Studies (Part 2). Here are a few sneak peek photos!

From Thanksgiving to New Year’s: Holiday Activities for the Classroom!

Blog Happy Holidays

The holidays are coming up before you know it, it’s time to get some activities ready for this busy holiday season! I remember that December was one of the hardest months for me to teach as I was not only trying to keep excited kids engaged and learning, but I also had all of the family Christmas shopping and preparation going on. So I hope that these ideas will make your holiday season a little easier!

Holiday Roll a Math-Word-Problem Story

My tutoring students and I have had so much fun with this for the past few years, and I wish I had created this during my school teaching days! Many of the students I work with do fine with math computation, but when it comes to integrating reading into math, they have difficulty. So in addition to having students use close reading to SOLVE math word problems, having them WRITE their own word problems opens up a whole new way of thinking. Not only do they need to come up up with a challenging word problem, but they also need to craft a real-world situation around that problem. Here’s a great blog post from Primarily Speaking on having younger students write their own word problems. Here’s another resource from ThoughtCo. for you on how to lead students through writing word problems.

Screen Shot 2018-10-01 at 8.09.19 PMIn my product, Teachers Pay Teachers Year-Round Roll-a-Math-Problem Story, I have sheets for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s (as well as all of the rest of the holidays The product will open in Google Drive so you can make your own copy, and on many of the sheets are links for students to find out more about customs, traditions, and people of holidays. I am also currently working on a Hanukkah one and will update the product in TpT soon. Check the slideshow below to see some past ones written by my tutoring students for both Halloween and Thanksgiving.

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Do you want a FREEBIE of this fun, easy activity? Keep reading!

Fantasy Holiday Shopping!

Oh my gosh, my students had SO much fun with this during the last holiday season! This is such a perfect way to get students to practice their math computation skills in an authentic way. I saved all my Christmas catalogs that came in the mail and brought them to the tutoring session, along with the handout I needed for the math work: addition, subtraction, multiplication or division. Students then went on a “shopping spree” using the catalogs, recording their items and the cost and then doing the appropriate computation. I had a few students make a presentation of their “shopping” and had them include WHO the gift was for, and why they were getting that particular gift for them…so there’s a literacy integration as well!

CLICK HERE TO GRAB YOUR COPY OF FANTASY HOLIDAY GIFT SHOPPING!

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Using the same “Fantasy Shopping” idea, I had my high school student use her list of vocabulary words taken from texts we had read and then use those words in explanations of what luxury item gifts she could buy if she had the money.  I gave her a list of websites with outrageous, incredibly expensive gifts. This was great practice in using words in context, as well as utilizing descriptive words.

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Another holiday vocabulary activity I did with a middle school student was to have her choose words from her personal word wall on Padlet (these were words from texts we had read that she was unfamiliar with), and use a FREE account on Smilebox to create greeting cards with these words. Again, a great way to practice writing skills and using vocabulary in context. In her cards below, can you tell which ones her vocabulary words? 🙂

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I hope you and your friends and family have a wonderful holiday season!

Here’s your freebie…click HERE to receive your Freebie of the Christmas Roll-a-Word Problem story! Click HERE to purchase the entire year-round set of the roll-a-word problems!

Copy of Math Roll-a-Word Problem

 

Is Your Classroom Literacy Rich? Part 3: Classroom Libraries

I believe that a classroom library is the heartbeat of a teacher’s environment. It is the window into an educator’s own personality, and it reflects the importance of literacy in the classroom. I believe that every teacher — no matter what subject he or she teaches — should have one.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron on Edutopia

Growing up, my favorite place in the world was a library, and it still is! As an adult, I have continued to frequent public libraries, first with my daughters while they were growing up and now on my own.  I love that the majority of tutoring I do takes place in public libraries! I remember clearly being in the library of Hartman Elementary School in Omaha Nebraska, around 1968 and discovering Little House on the Prairie, the book that for me, changed my life.  I had been a voracious reader before that, but this was a book I connected to in a powerful way.

Teachers need to ensure that our students have opportunities to connect with books, right in their classrooms. Classroom libraries are one of the most important elements of a Literacy-Rich Environment.  In my previous post on this topic, I provided an overview of all the important literacy elements for a classroom. Now it’s time to delve more into how to make your classroom library the best it can be!

All students must be able to access, use, and evaluate information in order to meet the needs and challenges of the twenty-first century. – NCTE Statement, May 2017

Note the use of the words “all students”. Classroom libraries are most often associated with primary classrooms, but they need to be in intermediate, middle and high school classrooms. One of my former school colleagues, who now teaches middle school writing, sent me photos of her classroom library in response to a request for photos. She said that her students always ask why she has a classroom library if she teaches writing! I applaud her for having the library, pictured below, because as Stephen King says, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

Middle School Classroom Library
Carol’s Middle School Writing Classroom Library

But classroom libraries are not just for reading and writing teachers in middle and high school! Content area teachers should not only have books on and about their content in their classrooms but all kinds of reading material…fiction, informational books, resource, magazines, etc. There will always be those early finishers…of assignments or tests. Why not have reading material handy? Perhaps one of those students in your math class might come across one of your favorite books and ask to borrow it? Every teacher can make a difference in the reading life of a student! Check out the classroom libraries in these classrooms: (l–r, top to bottom – science, art, art again and music). By the way, I put out several requests to teachers for photos of classroom libraries in math, science, social studies, industrial arts, etc. and received NO response.  Do you know of any teachers who have one? Let me know!

Now, down to the nuts and bolts of putting together a classroom library. In a presentation at CCIRA many years ago, Linda Cornwell, formerly of Scholastic books, stated that students in classrooms with well-designed and well-stocked library collections:

  • exhibit more positive attitudes toward reading
  • read more widely for a variety of purposes
  • demonstrate higher levels of reading achievement

In addition, she suggested the classroom library should:

  • look inviting to all students
  • be organized for easy access and materials
  • include a comfortable area for reading
  • offer an array of materials from many genres

Some things to consider when organizing your library:

    • How will you store your books to make sure they can be easily accessible to students?
      • My personal preference is colorful, plastic tubs, or even just clear ones. But years ago, while in observing in a classroom, I found this unique storage system…one of those rotating racks they have in stores for browsing!
    • Do you have guidelines for the use of the library?
      • I’m sure you don’t want students getting up in the middle of an important lesson to browse for books, so you need to let them know then the library is “open” and when it is “closed”. You could create some signs for your library letting them know when it’s okay to browse. In addition, there need to be guidelines for when students are using the library…here are some ideas:
        • how to respect books
        • how to shelve books back in the correct place
        • the use of quiet voices in the library and the importance of respecting others’ reading time
        • And for even more ideas on guidelines, you can find so many ready-made posters on Teachers Pay Teachers!

  • Have you shown students how to find materials?  Are there signs to help them?
    • Just as modeling when teaching something new to your students, you will need to model and/or explain how to use and check out and return materials from the library. The younger the student, the more modeling is needed. For secondary classrooms, the procedures can be more relaxed, but I’m sure you still don’t want to lose everything in your library! Check out this teacher’s blog post on how she introduces her classroom library to her students!
  • How have you categorized and arranged the materials?  Does the organization promote the reading of different types of materials?

    • I love that Teachers Pay Teachers have sellers who offer book bin labels in all genres! And of course, you can always make your own!
    • I found several blogs and websites for ideas on how to organize your library. This blog discusses organizing the library by genre; Reading Rockets stresses that there is no right or wrong way to organize and they offer several suggestions, including the reminder to LABEL your books so they can find their way home if misplaced. Here’s a blog on Scholastic with more organization ideas.
  • Does your library invite browsing and using? Is there a comfortable area to read?
    • Check out these photos and decide for yourself! (Note that you don’t need to spend a lot of money to make it inviting and have comfortable seating…pillows, a rug, a lamp, beach chairs….just simple things will work!
  • Do many of the books have their covers facing out?
    • I had never even thought about having my books facing out (probably because I was an intermediate teacher coming from a high school teaching job) until I read the chapter in Jim Trelease’s book, The Read-Aloud Handbook, and learned about rain gutters in the classroom…wait, what? Rain gutters? YES! Trelease promoted the practice of hanging rain gutters on your classroom wall in order to house books with their covers facing out. Think about it…when you go to a book store next time, look around to see HOW many books are facing out so buyers will notice them.  So, the same thing in the classroom; books facing out will help the “buyers” in your classroom notice books easier. And while you are teaching a lesson, those students whose minds wander can study all the books and decide which one to check out sooner.
    • After I talked about this idea and showed photos at our district literacy training sessions, we suddenly had a rash of rain gutters popping up in classrooms! Eventually, when new schools were built, shelves specifically for this purpose were added. But even if you don’t have shelving like this, there are other ways to have your books facing out. Check out the photo gallery below.

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Oh, and last but not least…if you are a new teacher who does not have many books for your library, and you can’t necessarily afford a binge at Barnes and Noble…here are a few ideas for finding books:

  • Retiring teachers
  • Garage and estate sales
  • Library used book sales
  • Donors Choose
  • Ask parents for book donations
  • Use book club points
  • Craig’s List and eBay
  • Scholastic warehouse sales
  • Create an Amazon wish list and share with parents
  • Kids Need to Read donation application

A classroom library: If you build it, they will read.

– Jim Bailey, title of his Nerdy Book Club blog post

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