Thursday, April 30, 2015

Outdoor Reading Kind of Day

If you walked outside of the Willow Creek building today, you were sure to spot classes spread out along the pavement, grass, and courtyard reading a good book. In the final countdown to summer, Willow Creek Wolverines celebrated "B" day-- or Buddy Reading on a Beach Towel! What a fun way to celebrate readers and enjoy the beautiful weather. I love how WCE Teachers used Spring Fever in a positive way by allowing students to soak up the sunshine with their nose in a book! 

Here are a few pictures I was able to capture today: 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Get Connected

Today I am attending a workshop called Future-Ready Innovators. It is comprised of several outstanding speakers who encourage change and innovation in schools today. George Couros was our first speaker and I was blown away by his enthusiasm for education. He believes in students and he believes in teachers. One point he made was that in today's digital world, isolation is a choice you make. There are so many opportunities to stay connected with others that you have to really choose to stay disconnected. One way I connected with educators across the country and across the world is through Twitter. George said, if you don't know what a hastag or handle is, you are illiterate in today's society. I thought his point was worthy of a blog post on how you can get connected with Twitter.

Note: Check out the Twitter Glossary if you are unfamiliar with any of these terms.

1. Create a handle. 
When I first discovered Twitter, I was confused by it's purpose. I had this cutesy handle and shared only personal information, as if it were Facebook. Twitter has evolved into a digital professional community. Now, I use twitter strictly in a professional manner, with the exception of the obligatory new baby pictures! I chose to make my Twitter PUBLIC, so that means anyone can see what I post. I keep this in mind with each post. This has increase the amount of followers I receive and the connections I have made. I also chose to make my handle my name because it was simple. Others choose create handles that describe what they love. Either way, make it easy for people to remember and recognize what you do. Be sure to include brief information in your bio, too.

2. Know who to follow. 
Start following others and follow their followers. I started out by simply watching twitter. I saw what others posted to get a feel of how I was supposed to use it, and to be honest, I still am learning this! I looked up my favorite educators, researchers, and authors and learned who tweets a lot. Then I started following others who they follow. It was a chain reaction and now I am able to be connected with educators across the country.

3. Participate in chats.
Here's my weakness. I am more of an observer of chats right now. On specific nights of the week, educators come together around a common topic and chat. Depending on your interest, you can find a different chat happening each night of the week.This is a way to stay connected with current research and learn more about what others are doing in their classroom.

4. Tweet and Retweet. 
Share what you are doing in your classroom, what you are learning from a workshop, or questions you have on twitter. Be sure to use an appropriate hashtag (#) for it to get out to the right community. To start out, I simply started just retweeting tweets I found interesting. Now, I am more comfortable composing my own tweets and sharing my learning in 140 characters. 

5. Take it back to your classroom.
If your students have access to technology, show them how they can use twitter to connect with you. Don't be intimidated to be connected with students in this way. Twitter is a great way to build relationships with student and encourage lifelong learners. 

Twitter is just one way educators can collaborate and get connected with each other. Embrace this connection. Share the amazing learning going on in your classroom and hear ideas from others that teach the same grade or subject. Innovation is not age specific. Anyone can be just takes a step in the right direction and people to follow along!

George shared this challenge and I extend this to the teachers at Willow Creek: 

You can follow me on Twitter: 

Use this Willow Creek Hashtag to share what happens in your classroom: 

Don't forget to tag our district:

Monday, April 20, 2015

Classroom Resources for FREE

Are you looking for ways to grow the resources in your classroom? Every year each new group of students require so many different types of resources to help create lifelong learners. I wish everyone saw how much teachers give out of their own pocket to support students. Whether it was buying snacks for my students who came to school hungry, buying supplies for a hands-on science experiment, or buying new and engaging titles for our classroom library, I spent my own money. While these were all GREAT causes and I never thought twice about spending what I earned on the students I loved, I began searching for ways to find other contributors. Here is what I have found so far. I haven't always gotten lucky, but every now and then one will come through! If you have more suggestions, comment below to share! 

Donors Choose 

This site allows YOU, a teacher, to post the needs of your classroom. You create a project and people can go on to donate to your cause. Right now, I am experimenting with this site. I have heard so many teachers get lucky with anonymous donors fulfilling their whole request, but unfortunately my first request fell through. From scouring other's posts about creating an appealing donors choose project, here's what I've learned: 

1. Have a catchy title.
2. Keep the cost under $400. 
3. Describe your students and your needs.
4. Share your project via Facebook, Twitter, Newsletters, Email Signature...
5. Donate to your own cause because it shows you believe in your project.

I just started a new project to try and get an iPad to use with my students in intervention. You can find more about it here: iPads for Reading.

Similar sites to Donors Choose

Scholastic Book Rewards

I have had so much luck with this program. I send home the order forms with my students and then I get to use the bonus points to order books for our classroom. This works better if you have your own classroom full of students. I can't really take advantage of this anymore now that I see kids in an intervention setting. Don't forget to explain the idea behind this to parents. They are more willing to purchase books when you explain that the whole class reaps the reward! 


Whether it's from a retired teacher or a teacher willing to part with materials, RECYCLING can be your friend. 

Freecycle is a website that lists people willing to give away (recycle) various items.

Do Something

Get your students invovled by having them post your classroom needs on your behalf. 

Do you have a success story from one of these sites? Share your story below!

Monday, April 13, 2015

Fine-Tuning Your Literacy Block

I recently presented at TWU's Spicola Forum. This free event provides professional learning opportunities for Texas educators and TWU's student teachers. I hope you will consider attending this next year! For those of you who missed the presentation, I wanted to share the information on this blog.

As a Literacy Coach, I see a pattern of questions asked by teachers and most revolve around the organizational structures for their literacy block. Below you will find five tips for fine-tuning your literacy block.

1: Know WHAT and Know HOW

It is absolutely critical to know WHAT you teach. In Texas, we have the TEKS that lay out the standards we are responsible for teaching. Other states use Common Core. Regardless of the name, it's important for you to know where to start. Standards should guide our instruction but do not serve as a checklist. If you spend time trying to check off each individual standard, you will run yourself into the ground. The best thing about teaching literacy is that it integrates beautifully. When standards are taught in isolation, they become skill & drill exercises with worksheets. Students will be much more engaged and have a higher quality of learning when standards are address in authentic and meaningful ways.

This brings me to the HOW: Balanced Literacy. Balanced Literacy approaches literacy instruction in a comprehensive manner, containing all components necessary for reading and writing. This allows teachers to address TEKS in an integrated, authentic, and meaningful way. The components of Balanced Literacy include: Read Aloud, Shared Reading, Guided Reading, Independent Reading, Word Study, and Writing.

To have an effective literacy block, you must know what you are responsible for teaching and know what research says is best practice for instruction. Because research is being done every single day in classrooms across the country, this requires teachers to stay up to date on current practices. You can continue your  learning by joining NCTE or ILA and subscribing to their corresponding journals, Language Arts and The Reading Teacher. Another great way to continue professional development is through Twitter. You can follow leading researchers as they share about their work in real time. Twitter also has PD nights for various topics where you can chat with other educators about what is happening in your classroom. This digital forum takes PLC's to a whole new level! 

2: Let Assessment Drive Instruction

One frustration I often hear from teachers is, "But I need a grade!" While it can be tempting to create assignments solely to get a grade, try to think of ways you can use assignments to measure student understanding, form small groups, and reach individual needs. Some authentic types of assessments include Running Records, Anecdotal Notes, Observation, Fluency Checks, Rubrics, Checklists, or Written Response. Assessments can take place during the mini-lesson, reading or writing conference, guided reading, independent reading or small group time.

Formative assessment during the whole-group mini-lesson provides opportunities to quickly see how your class is following along. I often choose to do "thumbs-up/thumbs-down" for a quick visual on who understands. I also use post-it notes where students could quickly write down a response to be added to our anchor chart. These formative assessments take a very small chunk of time but provide an immense amount of information on student understanding.

Here is an example of a quick formative assessment using post-it notes from a classroom at Willow Creek.

A reading or writing conference is a one-on-one conversation with a student about their reading and writing so far. It allows you to build a relationship around literacy and set specific goals with that child. During conferences, I took notes about our conversation and stuck them in a folder so I could access them later. With technology now, it would be just as easy to use one of these apps to do the same: Evernote, OneNote, Confer, CCPensieve.

Self-Assessment can be a valuable tool to use with students in the classroom. In my room, we always created a checklist or rubric of expectations together and the students used that to grade themselves in addition to the grade I gave. This allowed the students to become reflective of their work and sparked some great conversations during conferences.

Reading response journals are another great way to assess literacy learning. My students kept up a journal during independent reading time. We talked about this journal each time we conferred. The journal listed the book titles and genres they read along with responses to reading each day. Sometimes a reading response was in the form of a sticky note in their book to track their thinking. 
This 2nd grader is writing a response to Splat Says Thank You!

Finally Running Records were the most informative form of assessments that I used in my classroom. I conducted Running Records once a week for my students. This may differ depending on the grade level you teach and the level of your students. Running Records are the best way to quickly assess a child's ability to accurately and fluently read at a particular level. I also used this information to give them a grade for reading, but most importantly, I used the information from my noticings of their reading to make adjustments for the next week. 

Any types of assessment you do in your class should always, always, always inform your instruction. Gone are the days of weekly stories with comprehension tests on Fridays. Reading and Writing assessment should be authentic, meaningful, and student-focused. 

3: Have a Flexible but Regular Schedule

A schedule can make or break the organizational structure of the literacy block. The first thing I look at when observing a classroom is how the day is broken down. I first ensure that students are getting adequate time to read and write. Then, I look at pacing. I ask, how much time is spent with the teacher in front of the class and how much time are the students working independently or in a small group? I also look at the amount of variation from day to day. Students need consistency. It helps them know what to expect each day and it allows you to hold them accountable for those expectations. It's also important to have an element of flexibility so when something needs to change, students can adapt quickly. Determine what the essentials are for your classroom, while abiding to the expectations of your school/district, and set your schedule accordingly. 

For this fifth grade class, Allington's six essentials shaped their day.

A literacy block should include the following components:

  • Morning Meeting: A quick 10-15 min community gathering to review skills in context
  • Word Work: 10-15 minutes of hands-on working with words
  • Read Aloud: A shared experience hearing a text read aloud to integrate content areas, build vocabulary, becoming a reading model, expose students to a variety of genres and topics, and help them associate reading with pleasure.
  • Reading Workshop: 
    • Reading Mini Lesson: 10-15 minutes to connect learning, teach, and demonstrate reading skills & strategies in context
    • Independent Reading: 30-45 minutes for students to independently try strategies taught in mini-lesson, read texts of their choice, and confer with a teacher or classmate.
    • Guided Reading:Small and flexible grouping that uses leveled texts matched to reader's needs. 3-4 groups a day for 10-15 minutes per group.
    • Share: 5-10 minutes for students to share what they did as a reader that day
  • Writing Workshop:
    • Writing Mini Lesson: 10-15 minutes to connect learning, teach, and demonstrate writing skills & strategies in context
    • Independent Writing: 30-45 minutes for students to independently try strategies taught in mini-lesson, write on topics of their choice, and confer with a teacher or classmate.
    • Small Group:Small and flexible grouping that uses is focused on what the writers need. 3-4 groups a day for 10-15 minutes per group.
    • Share: 5-10 minutes for students to share what they did as a writer that day
  • Intervention & Enrichment: 20-40 minutes of intense intervention or enrichment outside of the normal literacy block to support those students who need additional help
Timing and organization may vary depending on grade level and school. Try to vary the pacing up to accommodate students that need frequent breaks. You will notice that the timing above sticks to 10-15 minute increments. Independent reading and writing time is the only long stretch of time and that can be broken up within to provide variation. Keep in mind attention span. Let go of the temptation to control the teaching. Allow your students to take ownership of their own learning. Be the facilitator.  

4:Organize Your Space

As a new staff member at Willow Creek, one of the first things I noticed was the organization of the classrooms. Every classroom is organized so it is functional, and no, not all the teachers here are Type A or OCD. We know how to have simple systems and we know how to make them work. Organization is not just about looking good. An organize classroom runs smoothly because everything has a place and students know where to access materials. I was so impressed with my pinterest-worthy school that I created a You Tube video highlighting some of the classroom organizational structures. Enjoy! 

5: Be Clear, Concise, and Consistent

Having clear, concise, and consistent expectations will make your literacy block run smoothly. Spend several weeks setting up routines in the beginning of the year. Remember, this may take up to six weeks for students to master. Give it time to work and stick to it! If you are changing routines in the middle of the year, allow adequate time for students to adapt. And yes, you will most likely spend the first week back from any long break reviewing routines and procedures. 

Even though our district is moving away from using the Daily Five for reading instruction, I still believe they have the best way for introducing routines at the beginning of the year. I used these methods as a fourth grade teacher. They conditioned my students to understand what my expectations were. It took endless repetition and reminders, but finally my students became accustomed to our classroom procedures.

Most importantly, remember that it's all about the kids. No one procedure will work for every class or individual student. You will have to adapt to meet the needs of your class.

Have any questions, comments, or suggestions? Comment below!


Additional Resources You May Enjoy: 


Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A Focus on Writing

One of our fabulous 4th grade teachers at Willow Creek attended a workshop by Gretchen Bernabei that focused on STAAR Writing. I hope you will find her insights helpful in planning your writing instruction. Gretchen Bernabei's tips are helpful for all classroom teachers, not just those in grade levels with the STAAR Writing Test.  However, Gretchen does seem to understand the different demands of the test and how we can help students find success.To learn more about the STAAR Writing format, check out this handout from Gretchen's website: STAAR Genre and Format. Also, her website,, is fully stocked with additional free resources and information.

A Focus on Writing

In the fall, I had the opportunity to attend a Gretchen Bernabei workshop focused on STAAR Writing.  I found her ideas to be simple and refreshing.  Too often the minute details of the writing process are overwhelming, even intimidating, to teachers and students. Students struggle to see themselves as successful writers and the idea of creating a full page piece seems impossible.  

11 Minute Essay

Gretchen’s approach using the 11 Minute Essay, gives students an immediate sense of ability.  While it is not a polished piece, it is a great start.  I was excited to take it back to the classroom and pleasantly surprised with the writing my students produced in such a short amount of time.

The idea of the 11 Minute Essay is for students to be guided through their writing in individual sections using a prompt (G.B. refers to using her Lightning In A Jar). For the first minute, students reflect and write their idea/opinion/thought about the prompt. They only have 60 seconds, so students must get straight to the point. When the timer is up, students take a deep breath and think about a story connection (this might be a book they’ve read, a teacher has read to them, or any story they’ve heard that relates somehow to the prompt). Students have three minutes to make the connection, explain it, and write it down. Time’s up, take a deep breath! The next three minutes are spent writing about a movie connection (this seems to be a favorite in my class). And for the last three minute section, students take a deep breath…and make a personal connection to the prompt. In the workshop, we made a history connection but I found my students struggled to connect and we have since opted for the personal connection instead.  Finally, the last 60 seconds! Students take a deep breath and spend their final minute reflecting and connecting their writing back to the prompt. The first several times we did this, students were flinging their hands in the air from “writer’s cramp” with smiles on their faces! In 11 minutes (15 if you count the deep breaths and thinking in between sections), students write close to ¾ of a page or more.  They were thrilled and felt successful.

Here is a handout that MISD created walking through each step of the 11 Minute Essay.

Gretchen Bernabei has a plethora of ideas to use to extend and polish the 11 Minute Essay such as “pitchforking”, AAAWWWUBIS!, “lasso and brand it”, and BaDaBing Sentences.  These and many more, are easy to incorporate and can be found in her resource Fun-Size Academic Writing for Serious Learning. Gretchen also has a website with many of the tools used and additional resources at

Check out these books by Gretchen Bernabei: