endlessly creating

teaching, books, projects, & other things i love

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Reading Passport

During a four-hour drive yesterday, I suddenly had the idea to introduce reader’s workshop this year by talking about all the awesome places I traveled – through books! Then I thought it would be fun to post a map in the classroom, with a “books help you travel” type quote, and then keep track of all the places my students and I “visit” throughout the year. I think I would have dots/stickers of some kind (color-coded by genre?) and have students label them with title and reader’s name. I’ll post more about the map once I finalize my plan for it!

What I’m posting about today is my second theme idea: creating “passports” for individuals to track their reading. Now that I have these things in place, I want to develop a whole travel-themed approach to reader’s workshop for the year! I don’t feel like I did an effective job of helping students get immersed in literature last year, and I’m hoping this approach will help emphasize that particular benefit of reading.

I used a type of foldable one of my teachers taught me years ago and created a template for a passport that allows for 4 mini-reviews and a list of 10 additional books:

1. Cover

See below for more, including a downloadable template and a video tutorial!

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Excision Poetry

I love excision poetry. I think it’s gorgeous and often haunting because it’s like a secret story within the page it was taken from. I wasn’t really able to incorporate it into my poetry unit this year, but when I was looking over past test results in preparation for the STAAR I realized that many of my seventh graders had scored low on the standard for graphical elements, specifically how capital letters, line length, and word position contribute to a poem’s meaning. I wanted to do a low-intensity review activity to help solidify this concept, and had a great idea using excision poems!

First, I had students choose a page from a book they’d read, randomly or one with a specific scene they liked. I didn’t want to have them all lined up by the copier forever, so I ended up capturing the pages by just freezing my doc camera and then copying the image into a word document, where I cropped/resized so the book page filled the paper. This way I was able to have a few kids choose their pages at a time while the rest of them were doing classwork.

The next day, I showed the kids a poem I’d written by excision (see below) and we made observations, then discussed how “the poet” had made certain decisions about how to arrange the words on the page. After that I showed them the book page I had used (the original example just had the words I chose underlined, but later I added the doodling), pointing out how the formatting on the page forced me to NOT have significant capitals or line length in my original draft – I changed those things later to add to the meaning of my poem.

I purposely included some significantly longer/shorter lines and unusual capitals to make sure they'd have things to comment on :)

I purposely varied my line length and used unusual capitals to make sure they’d have things to comment on :)

After that, I had students make their own poems using their pages I’d printed out before class. We also looked at some examples of artistic-looking excision poetry (thanks, Pinterest!) and decorated the pages. Some of the kids did a really incredible, creative job – one student took a love scene and managed to excise it until it sounded like it was about murder!

Left: Her page described a creature hissing and crawling. I LOVE how she made her words slither down the page like a snake! Right: Blood splatters on a zombie page. Isn't the last line chilling?

Left: The page described a creature hissing and crawling, so she made her words slither down the page like a snake!
Right: Blood splatters on a zombie page. Isn’t the last line chilling?

The one thing I would change in the future is to allow more time for the “art” portion of this lesson. For my purposes, it was just a quick review activity for state testing, but I would rather encourage students to decorate their page in a way that relates to the tone or content of their final poem and then share it with the class.

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Poetry Activities

I looooove poetry and have so much fun teaching it, even though most students tend to hate it. I’ve been planning to share some of my more successful poetry activities for months now, so here they are!

Kisses & Kiwis

Sadly, I can’t take credit for coming up with this awesome activity – a coworker demonstrated it at a PD session over the summer (he uses kumquats, but my grocery store didn’t have any) and I had to try it. It’s a fun way to emphasize sensory details and produce some impressive writing!


Each student received a Hershey’s Kiss and each table group got half a kiwi (which I cut into individual pieces when we got to touch/taste). We created a chart including columns for each of the five senses, then spent 30 seconds per sense jotting down our observations. It’s important that these 30-second sessions are silent so kids can focus on their observations, and I encouraged them to explore their subjects in detail – crinkle the wrapper, peel back a bit of the kiwi’s skin, try to squish/tear/break it, etc. It can get pretty silly, especially when we’re thinking about how the objects sound, but the students enjoyed coming up with weird ways to make observations. After the charts were complete, they used their observations to write brief poems full of sensory details. I also encouraged them to try to include metaphors or “deeper meaning”, which led to one excellent-but-inappropriate poem (they’re talking about putting things in their mouth, what did I expect?), so be careful to frame the assignment more specifically than I did.

Scavenger Hunt

One of the great things about poetic devices, especially similes and hyperbole, is that they’re everywhere (not even intentional! POINT PROVEN). Students don’t realize that poetry can pop up in songs, stories, advertisements, and even casual conversation, so this activity is designed to help them understand poetic devices by identifying them in the real world. I had students try to collect examples that appeared naturally in their daily lives, then write them on notecards and post them on the wall, creating a kind of bar graph of poetic devices.


Terrible picture, but you get the idea.
Hyperbole came up so often in conversation that students still point it out sometimes!


Students put the quotation and source on one side of the card,
and their name and the poetic device on the back.

The student who found the most examples in each class received extra credit on the final, but making the assignment optional led to a disparity in how much everyone participated (the reason it was optional was because I wanted them to pay attention to their surroundings and naturally find examples – not just google “examples of personification” and print out a list). I think next time I’ll give students a “bingo card” type of thing so they can keep track of how many examples they find and be more motivated to find a variety of poetic devices.

Haiku Posters

I’ve done this assignment a couple of times and find it to be a good way to teach the emphasis on natural subjects in haiku, as well as providing a break from our usual writing routine. You could also go outside and find a place to make observations on your campus, but if you don’t have a very pretty area to do this you might get a lot of haikus about gravel or something, haha. Instead, I had students choose an image of nature from a magazine to write about. Many public libraries have old magazines you can just take, or you can find old National Geographics for pretty cheap at some used book stores. Luckily for me, I was given a subscription to Smithsonian Magazine as a gift and that had tons of great images for my students to use as inspiration! After choosing an image, they wrote three haikus based on what they observed, then created a poster featuring the image and their best haiku. They had to get their haikus “approved” before starting the poster, which ensured that they’d written the proper number of syllables and made an effort to write a quality poem.




Ed Tech! Ed Tech!

I have to start by saying I’m not always thrilled with the push to get technology into the classroom. It often feels like tokenism or trying too hard to connect with “kids these days” – oh, hey, they like Facebook, so I guess if we do some computer stuff in class they’ll learn better? Technology for technology’s sake is not a magic solution for motivation/engagement/whatever you’re trying to accomplish, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be useful and fun… and I finally found a way to use it that has been super effective so far!

My sixth graders just finished a unit on feature articles, and since most of our mentor texts came from news sites and blogs, I decided I wanted their final draft to be published in blog format as well. A coworker had suggested Kidblog a few months back, so I decided to check it out.

It’s pretty simple, and one thing I loved right away was that students don’t need an email address or any other Internet “presence” – which has been a real problem in the past since many of my students are still too young to sign up for accounts without lying about their age. You create the class blog, and students can edit their password and profile from there. You have access to their accounts, which came in handy when several of them immediately forgot their passwords :) Only members can view blog posts, so you don’t have to worry about information becoming public, although we still discussed internet safety and protecting your privacy before getting started.

I posted a blog entry with the assignment details so students could check the expectations without needing to dig through their folders for a handout, and I used my own blog to teach them how to format their work and provide an example to refer back to as needed.


Not pictured: a great way to show that sentences should vary. Yikes.

My students loved posting their feature articles online. Many of them actually went and read each other’s posts when they were finished, rather than playing games or other “when you’re done” computer lab activities, and they had a lot of fun commenting on each other’s work. I randomly assigned three classmates to each student, and they had to read those three articles and post positive, constructive, and meaningful comments (we’ve gone over how to do this during other publishing activities throughout the year), but beyond that I allowed them to more casually interact with one another. Of course, I still moderated all the comments so I was able to make sure students were behaving and expressing themselves appropriately, even if they weren’t particularly academic about it.

Two things really sold me on using Kidblog in my class. First, a few students asked if they could use the blog outside of class to post other things (writing for fun?! I’m not sure if I should allow such a thing!). Secondly, some of the students who didn’t publish before the grading period ended actually went back and finished the assignment later, knowing they wouldn’t get a grade for it – they just wanted their classmates to see what they’d written!

Our next unit is drama and I hope to go on a field trip to a movie or play, so I’m thinking we’ll use the blog to write reviews or advertisements for the show. I’m also considering finding a way to use Kidblog for reading responses or book club discussions!

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Classroom Organization

I’m trying to post more often, so here’s a round-up of some of the things I do to stay organized and provide my students with the resources they need for success!


My desk gets messy sooo fast. Combine that with my students’ tendency to lose things, and we go through a ton of handouts! If I keep extra copies on my desk I end up buried in paper, but if I file them away somewhere I have to stop class to dig them out when students show up without their materials. Here’s how I keep my current papers easily accessible during a unit:


They’re tacked to the bulletin board next to my desk, along with my schedule and other helpful things!

Yeah, I know, this is probably a no-brainer. I actually found those folders in a random cabinet and figured I might as well use them! Once I’ve handed out copies of a story I just drop the extras in the envelope and put a sticky-note tab on them so I can quickly identify what I”m looking for later.


I don’t know how I would keep all my classes straight without color-coding. My schedule, file cabinet, turn-in trays, and these boxes with students’ reading folders are all divided by color.

Well, they used to be color-coded. We rearranged the 7th grade classes part-way through the year.

Well, they used to be color-coded. We rearranged the 7th grade classes part-way through the year. Shoulda taken the pictures before the boxes got all beat up!

I even use matching highlighters to identify students on my overdue library book list and when I leave sub plans. Yeah, I’m a little crazy.

Mentor Texts

Even with my lovely hanging organizers and the kids (theoretically) using the file cabinet to keep track of handouts, I like to keep the mentor texts for a current unit out in the open so students can reference them when they’re working on classwork:

These copies include annotations we went over during class to help students identify text features.

These copies include annotations we went over during class to help students identify text features.

During writer’s workshop kids will sometimes come up to the wall to double-check an example text! It’s also a nice way to display what we’ve been working on in case an administrator comes by :)

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Little Victories

Sometimes I get overwhelmed. For awhile I’ll be thinking “yeah, I’m totally rockin’ this!” or at least “okay, not bad for my first year”, but then I’ll see what someone else is doing or my students will bomb a benchmark test, and I kinda fall to pieces. “I’ve taught them NOTHING! I shouldn’t even BE a teacher!” And, of course, these meltdowns don’t do me any good because I waste so much time stressing out that I don’t have time to, you know, improve. I have my freak-out, scramble to plan for the upcoming week, and pretty much continue feeling awesome/decent/mediocre until the next realization of my own inadequacies. I think one thing that has stopped me from really upping my game has been the sense that there is so much to change, and it’s an overwhelming feat to fix everything all at once. But then last week, I finally had the realization I probably should’ve had a long time ago:

I don’t have to fix everything all at once.

Are there things I do well as a teacher? Yes. Are there things I could do better? Of course. Are there things I’m not even doing yet, even though I really should? Absolutely. My problem has been that I think, “Okay, so I need to figure out a way to work more grammar and vocab into the curriculum, AND I have to make sure I’m addressing every point on every IEP, AND I need to make tutoring more effective, AND I need to conference with students more often, AND my current homework policy isn’t working, AND AND AND…” then eventually I just think “well, there’s no time to figure all of that out now,” and I don’t figure out any of it. This time was different because I just randomly chose a few things which wouldn’t require a lot of prep work and told myself to do a better job than I’ve been doing. Here are a few things that made me proud of myself and my students last week:

Conferencing: I struggle to spend one-on-one time working with students, even in the classes that behave well enough that management doesn’t prevent it. I tend to think that if I can’t sit right there and work through every concern, it’s not enough (sensing a pattern yet?). This time, I just briefly checked in with every student as they were starting an assignment. Do you have a topic? Do you know where to find information? Do you have a plan to move forward? Good. Next student. It was really very easy, and I was able to spend more time with the kids who really needed it, without ignoring the ones who were on track. Perfect!

Tolerance: It’s so important to me to create a safe environment, but I don’t always feel like I’m effective at calling students out for saying things they shouldn’t. I think I usually come off as too harsh, so the kids think they’re “in trouble” rather than “intolerant.” I made more of an effort last week to calmly, but firmly, make my students aware that certain forms of thinking are not acceptable. Here’s a conversation from when a girl took a larger stack of books to put away than a boy:

Student: Haha, she’s manlier than you are!
Me: Really? Do you have to be a man to be strong?
Students: Uh… no.
Student: Miss, it’s okay, you’re strong!
Me: That doesn’t matter. I’m just saying, being manly doesn’t really have anything to do with how many books you carry.
Students: OHHHHHH!

Yeah, they still tend to react as if someone got burned by some clever quip I said. I would much rather they realize that I just want them to think about the words they’re using and why, but it’s a step. I do have one student who now self-corrects every time she starts to describe something as “retarded”, so I am seeing some progress!


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Last week got off to a rough start, so I wanted to do something different during reader’s workshop to turn things around. Instead of doing a mini-lesson on summarizing then having students read/practice as I had originally planned, I decided to spend the period teaching and practicing the strategy of visualization… in the form of finger-painting!

We discussed what visualization means when you read, focusing on how the “movie” that plays in your head can help you better relate to characters and understand what’s going on. Then they all got comfy laying on the floor, sitting in my chair, hiding under their desks, etc, and closed their eyes while I read an evocative passage from Life of Pi by Yann Martel, one of my favorite books and a gorgeous example of vivid imagery! I also love that he actually TELLS the reader to visualize in a few places (bolded):

You must imagine a hot and humid place, bathed in sunshine and bright colours. The riot of flowers is incessant. There are trees, shrubs and climbing plants in profusion–peepuls, gulmohurs, flames of the forest, red silk cottons, jacarandas, mangoes, jackfruits and many others […] Suddenly, amidst the tall and slim trees up ahead, you notice two giraffes quietly observing you. The sight is not the last of your surprises. The next moment you are startled by a furious outburst coming from a great troupe of monkeys, only outdone in volume by the shrill cries of strange birds. […] To me, it was paradise on earth. I have nothing but the fondest memories of growing up in a zoo. I lived the life of a prince. […] I might stop by the terraria to look at some shiny frogs glazed bright, bright green, or yellow and deep blue, or brown and pale green. Or it might be birds that caught my attention: pink flamingoes or black swans or one-wattled cassowaries, or something smaller, silver diamond doves, Cape glossy starlings, peach-faced lovebirds, Nanday conures, orange-fronted parakeets. […] Every morning before I was out the main gate I had one last impression that was both ordinary and unforgettable: a pyramid of turtles; the iridescent snout of a mandrill; the stately silence of a giraffe […] I wish I could convey the perfection of a seal slipping into water or a spider monkey swinging from point to point or a lion merely turning its head. But language founders in such seas. Better to picture it in your head if you want to feel it. […] It is something so bright, loud, weird and delicate as to stupefy the senses.

Before reading, I reminded them to think about what they would hear, smell, see, and so on if they were actually in the story. Afterwards, I modeled my own thoughts about visualization, pointing out that I don’t necessary recognize all these plant and animal names, but I’m struck by the vibrant colors and chaos of the zoo, and my visualization is affected by my own experience with zoos and images I’ve seen of the rainforest. Then students turned and talked about what they noticed as they listened. After that, it was time to paint!

I spread four pieces of butcher paper around the room and had students sit around them on the floor. I read the passage a second time while students began drawing and painting what they had visualized. Each class just added to what the previous class had created so we ended up with a community visualization:

For most of my classes, this was a welcome break from our routine, especially for the sixth graders who have been adjusting to the change from elementary to middle school – we were all getting kind of burned out toward the end of the first grading period, and the kids were delighted to have time to play and get messy!