This year I wanted to set up my classroom with a Stranger Things theme. I found great items on Etsy, Amazon, and inspiration photos on Pinterest. Here is a tour of my classroom with links to the items purchased. Please note I am not being paid for any of these endorsements.
Let’s start with the blank wall where my co-teacher’s desk used to be. Since she has changed classrooms and I am sharing my classroom with my colleague who does not use a teacher desk like myself, we have a blank wall which I hung this photo backdrop purchased on Amazon. Add some fairy lights and it brings ambiance to the room. We are looking for a donated couch or inexpensive couch to place against the wall.
I found this awesome antique cabinet that is perfect as a cell phone dock and picked up a new school supplies organizer at HomeGoods. I have a file folder for catch up work for students when absent. I keep all these items on a table by the door so that students can access what they need. I already have some Halloween decorations set up and the notebook is for a bathroom sign out.
The entire length of my classroom are bookshelves underneath the windows and this year I decided to arrange the books by color. We had a grant for books and I was able to order a dozen new titles to include with the units of study. Many have a humanities theme to parallel with the social studies curriculum.
You are probably wondering where all the desks are and how they are arranged. I have the desks arranged in a horse shoe and in the back two round high top tables and one high top table near the front.
Scrolling through social media I came across some posts where book influencers post images or video unboxing a publisher’s influencer kit. A book influencer is someone with more than 5,000 followers promoting books and reading. Publishing companies develop an influencer kit in order to market and promote a new book and title. An influencer kit includes a copy of the book, nicely designed press materials, and a few small gifts or products that complement the content of the book.
Oh, I would love to be unboxing some of these amazing publishing book kits!
Inspired by the images, I designed this book influencer kit summer reading assignment for my students. Students will create their own influencers box based on their summer reading. For additional fun, you can have them create TikTok like videos unboxing and showcasing the influencers kit for others. The objective is for students to make the book’s content come to life. Students will have to think of creative ways to pull the book’s content off the pages and into something fun and tangible.
Consider creating a print showcasing your favorite quote or phrase.
Make the package personal by including a letter or handwritten note.
Include products that will help a reader put the concepts in your book into practice. Maybe include bright glow in the dark stars if the protagonist is fascinated with the universe and the possibility of UFOs. Or atomic fireball candy if the book is Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb: The Race to Build and Steal the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon. Even simple items like themed socks, buttons, and stickers can add a little something extra to your package.
Design the box so that it is visually appealing. Choose colors and fonts that connect with the story.
The influencer’s kit should contain 4-5 items including the book to market the book to other readers.
I am so excited to see what my students put together.
Passion driven learning is essential today. And it cannot just be the teacher’s passion. Students are at the heart of the classroom and in building a community in your classroom all member’s voices and interests must be taken into consideration. Passion driven learning includes student’s passion and interests. Genius Hour and passion projects are one introductory step in helping to cultivate a classroom where passion, curiosity, and creativity are at the front and center.
I was first introduced to Genius hour more than 8 years ago through the buzz that other teachers shared on social media and at edtech conferences. While offering genius hour and curiosity time for my students, I have seen my approach to active and student centered learning evolve in many ways. The end result has always been the same, for my students to know: “You matter, you have influence, you are a genius, you have a contribution to make” (Angela Maier, Classroom Habitudes)
If we look to the corporate world, Google recognized that workers were more intrinsically motivated and creative when they had more autonomy (freedom). Employees were allowed 20% of their work time to pursue “side-projects” that interested them but were not specifically part of their job description. So, if this works in the business world, why not try it in the classroom?
Would students be more intrinsically motivated to learn?
Would students be able to unleash their creativity and inherent drive to learn, solve problems, and create?
Genius hour and passion projects are all about igniting innovation in the classroom Genius hour allows students to take the reins of their own learning and explore the topics and subjects that are of interest to them. Teachers need to go beyond teaching a subject that they only know because of a test or just to pass the class. School shouldn’t only be about passing a test, but rather creating a culture of learning where students are engaged, making connections, and helping to solve problems that will make the world a better place.
How does one start or kick off genius hour? How does one sustain genius hour throughout the quarter or semester or even the entire school year? These are two questions that I hear often.
First, it is important to introduce survey your students about their own passions, interests, likes. Having students complete student questionnaires & interest surveys are great places to record preliminary project seed ideas. Additionally, I show videos to inspire students about young adult entrepreneurs and social activities. I also read aloud picture books that inspire creativity and growth mindset. Titles include:
Through the genius hour models and mentors and completing questionnaires and surveys students might begin to choose a project they want to dedicate some time to. Students then begin researching, creating, and collecting information and inspiration for their own curiosity project. On the Genius Hour menu posted above, you will notice that each project is 10 weeks long and students try a different passion project every quarter. Some students use the same topic in all four projects where as other students like these opportunities to switch things up every few weeks. After four-five weeks of researching and curating, students begin reflecting and thinking how they might share their learning with others. Sharing is an important part of the genius hour process.
Showcasing Passion Projects is an important part of the process, students are going to present their research and findings to a wider and authentic audience. I have had students create blogs about their process and complete an Elevator Pitch. Students have showcased their work in a gallery or expo to the larger school community. Students can create a TED Talk or Masterclass about their project.
After students go through the genius hour or passion project cycle, reflection is a major piece. Reflection can be in the form of a Google Form or Flipgrid video reflection. You might want to have students reflect weekly rather than wait to the very end of the project to divulge their process and final product.
Looking for even more resources, check out these links:
I have scaffolded the article for students to explore what their favorite books say about them as readers, writers, and individuals. My plan is for this assignment to be an un-graded pre-assessment of their reading and writing skills. I can use the data from their essays to map out writing lessons for the school year and learn about their reading habits. I made a same organizer for myself as a model for students.
It’s a menu of opening day activities for students.
Actually, it is all three rolled into one.
I saw a class syllabus from @MrsGearheart laid out like a game board with station activities for each part of the syllabus. Students read and complete the syllabus to earn badges. I loved the format but was thinking how to personalize it for my middle school students. And wallah, here is the syllabus, hyperdoc, and first days of school menu choice board for students to complete. The syllabus covers about the teacher, class expectations, each of the units we will complete throughout the year, information about standards based grading, and classroom policies.
Rather than the badges, that @MrsGearheart created – and there are a lot. I have paired down a menu of activities for students to complete the first two days of classes. For the appetizers, students choose one to complete and share about themselves with the whole class. Thinking in different formats, students can either create an infographic about themselves using Adobe Express or can conduct an interview with a peer on Flip(grid). The main course is an assignment that all students will do the end of the week. It will not be a graded assignment but will help me learn about students’ reading and writing skills, likes, and literary influences. I will share that assessment in next week’s blog post. For dessert, these are short activities to help students get comfortable with the tech platforms I use weekly and also tell me more about themselves. I am a dessert person so I thought, why not complete all these activities. I think students will be able to do the appetizers and desserts over two 40 minute class periods. If you would like a copy of this template, you can click here.
The poignant installation “Picture the Dream: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Picture Books at the New York Historical Society explores the events, people, and themes of the civil rights movement through the children’s picture book.
Picture books are compelling forms of visual expression not just for young children. This exhibition showcases 80 artworks from picture book artists who interweave art and storytelling, history and now. Looking at the excerpts from many pictures books around the themes of the civil rights movement provides depth, diverse voices, and powerful meanings. The stories presented inspire young people and viewers to speak up and speak out as agents of transformation and social change. The exhibit tells important stories about the movement’s icons, including Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges, Congressman John Lewis, Ambassador Andrew Young, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Scenes are presented of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Ruby Bridges integrating her New Orleans elementary school, and the Black students who catalyzed the sit-in movement at the segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Some of the many highlighted illustrators and authors include Faith Ringgold, Brian Pinkney, Nadir Nelson, Jacqueline Woodson, and many more.
Picture the Dream is an open invitation to start important discussions with children, friends, and family about race, equity and social justice. Take a look at a list of all the books in the show and here is the family discussion guide created by High Museum of Art in Georgia. You can also find lesson plans and a powerpoint of 19 key images from the exhibit in this teacher resource kit.
Here are some ways I use picture books with my middle school students to present key themes and scaffold complex ideas.
Read Alouds – Don’t just leave read aloud to elementary school teachers, in secondary education reading aloud picture books help to create a classroom community and build multimodal comprehension skills. Images and words work side by side to communicate a message. Read aloud can be used to hook students into a lesson or even useful as a teaching point during a mini-lesson.
Gallery Walks – Images are powerful storytelling tools. Just like in a museum exhibit, hanging up the images from the picture books can allow students to read closely, infer the dialogue, and convey meaning from the visual text.
Small Group Work – I often during station work leave a collection of picture books at one station for students to read, evaluate, and analyze to pull out key details and draw connections. Scaffolding guiding questions help students look closer at the images and text and the story presented. I might ask students what do they see, what does it say, what do I think, and continue with sentence frames or specific questions to climb the ladder of critical thinking.
Jigsaws – Each student reads a different picture book along the same theme or topic and then shared the powerful elements of the story with the small group. Students put their heads together to make connections and draw conclusions about the bigger questions presented in the texts.
I’m presenting on Literacy Tools and Strategies to Support Social Emotional Learning at ISTE U’s Summer Learning Academy 2022. This professional learning opportunity allows educators to learn at their own pace about the topics we all care about, now through Oct. 14. For $64 you have can access to amazing professional development. More at iste.org/sla.
Check out the Padlet of curated resources related to my presentation on SEL with teaching tools, strategies and related research.
I am a big proponent of graphic organizers to help students organize and visualize information. Graphic organizers are helpful to outline a writing task or showcase understanding during reading. Jay McTighe and Harvey Silver write in Teaching for Deeper Learning (ASCD, 2020), “The use of graphic organizers enhances meaning making and promotes deep understanding of critical content – especially when reinforced through questioning and summarizing.”
In 8th grade I begin the school year providing graphic organizers for all students to utilize and access to organize content information. I share and utilize different organizers with each assignment. Sometimes I might demonstrate filling out the organizer and use think aloud to show students the process of making meaning using graphic organizers. Slowly, using gradual release, I encourage students to create their own graphic organizers in the second semester of the school year. The first twenty weeks of school students have curated a toolkit of strategies and organizers for to choose which are the best to create based on the assignment and learning goals.
Here are four different organizers that are the go-tos for note making and organizing information.
It Says, I Say, So What – Taken from Smoky Daniels, this three column organizer helps students record the literal details of a text, make connections and inferences. Inferences are hard for many students, especially struggling readers, because the text does not explicitly say. To make an inference students combine what the text says with what they know to come up with the answer. They need a scaffold, something that visualizes and helps students internalize the process of how to infer. The It Says—I Say chart helps students finally see a structure for making an inference.
2. Window Notes/Organizer – Jay McTighe and Harvey Silver introduced this type of note making in Teaching for Deeper Learning (ASCD, 2020) “Window Notes at its core is an invitation to think actively, to express curiosity, and to use prior knowledge and personal feelings to help construct meaning during note making process. Students use a window shaped organizer that encourages them to collect four different kinds of notes: 1. Facts: What are the important facts and details? 2. Questions: What questions come to mind? What am I curious about? 3. Connections: How does this relate to my experiences or to other things I have learned? 4. Feelings and reactions: How do I feel about what I am learning?”
3. Know. Question. Reflect. New Questions (KQRN) – I am over KWL charts. I think they work well in elementary school but when I see them utilized in middle and high school, we are not asking students to use higher level thinking. Here is a blog post I wrote ten years ago with alternatives to the KWL. What are some other organizers that are alternatives to the KWL and activate schema at the same time? The KQRN. This is another note making organizer that helps students extend their thinking about an idea or concept. Now with any of these organizers, the teacher wants to model for students how to complete these graphic organizers with examples and think alouds.
4. Character Traits Organizer – Characterization and theme are two key elements we study when reading literature in 8th grade English. Characterization refers both to the personality of a character and the way in which an author reveals that personality. A character’s personality is made up of different qualities, or character traits, that the reader discovers as the work unfolds. An author often gives characters several different traits to make them seem real and believable. Helping students develop the language to describe character traits and read to identify character traits is necessary to work on throughout the school year. Characterization leads to insight and inferences about theme. I have a stand alone organizer for character traits but also have created a hyperdoc based on the short story Raymond’s Run by Toni Cade Bambara that scaffolds the entire process of curating character traits then building out a written response about characterization as it impacts theme.
I love playing games in my classroom. I create games as well as use board games and dice games to create engaging learning experiences for my students. When I started presenting workshops on gamification in the classroom, I found this great carry-all storage box to hold all the gaming paraphernalia from classroom to workshop space. Here is a similar one at Michaels and it is under twenty dollars.
Now, the contents:
Dice – Dice are great for think-dots activities, random rolls, story cubes, roll and tell, dice breakers. I have foam dice, Rory’s Story Cubes for writing prompts, and metaphor dice for poetry and figurative language review. I keep extra dice from board games like the ones pictured above from Legends of Hidden Temple which have pictures of animals on the dice.
Play Dough – Looking for a quick do-now for your students to showcase their thinking or an idea, use play dough. It is perfect for students with sensory and kinesthetic needs. Students can recreate a scene from their reading using play dough or create a sculpture of a symbol that represents the text. Edutopia has an article with fifteen ways to use play dough in secondary classrooms. I like giving students their own individual play dough and then having a gallery walk after they make their sculpture individually or in small groups.
Lego Mini-Figures – Legos are also great for building representations or showcasing a scene from a book students are reading. I carry around a small tackle box filled with mini figure parts for building avatars. Avatars are often a game mechanic to allow personalization in a game, you can choose the gender and adapt it’s appearance, from skin and hair color to dress code typically. I provide students with an opportunity to create and design their own avatar and then write the backstory of the avatar: who are they, where are they from, what are their strengths and weaknesses?
Hot Potato – The hot potato was something that I had to have because it is perfect for passing around the classroom or in small groups to share ideas and thinking. This toy shakes after a certain period of time and when it shakes, the student who is holding the potato is the speaker. I often have sentence or question starters for students when in small groups to select who will share next.
Stickers – Stickers can be used as rewards or badges when playing a game. I have been using Sticker Mule the past few years to personalize stickers for my classroom. The stickers that are on the top of the game box are from the television game show Legends of Hidden Temple. The image is of Olmec. Outside of Legends of Hidden Temple, the Olmec colossal heads are the most famous artifacts left behind by the Olmec civilization. The Olmec people are believed to have occupied a large part of modern-day Southern Mexico. Olmec was part of Legends of Hidden Temple and the sticker, personalized on Sticker Mule is a “The Pendant of Life.” If a student wins the pendant of life, they can use it for a free pass on an assignment.
If I could fit more into the game box, I probably would. I do have all my board games and card games in a different bin. I will save my favorite board games and card games for another blog post. For now, stock up and get some of these gaming elements to bring some fun and friendly competition into your own classroom.
Writing is a powerful thing. If we want to inspire students to write, we can use young adult fiction with protagonists who write to encourage and arouse the writers within all our students. I just finished reading Jeff Zentner’s In the Wild Light and found myself dog-earing so many pages with powerful passages and statements about a writer’s life.
“We think language as this tame thing that lives in neat garden beds, bound by rules and fences. Then someone shows it to you growing wild and beautiful, flowering vines consuming cities, erasing pavement and lines. Breaking though any fence that would try to contain it. Reclaiming. Reshaping. Reforming. In my life, I’ve never known anything else that felt so full of infinite possibility. Words make me feel strong. They make me feel powerful and alive. They make me feel like I can open doors. (Zentner (2021:264)
Here are 13 young adult books that offer teen protagonists who write:
Cash Pruitt is the protagonist in Jeff Zentner’s In The Wild Life by (2021). Cash loves his rural Tennessee hometown, his grandparents who raised him after his mother died of an overdose, and his best friend Delaney Doyle, a science genius whose boundless knowledge of the natural world fills him with wonder. Both children of an opioid-addicted parent, Delaney and Cash have a deep bond and when Delaney’s scientific discovery – a mold with powerful antibiotic properties – both are awarded scholarships at a prestigious boarding school in Connecticut. Cash worries his grandfather, who has emphysema, will die while he is away at school, but accepts the scholarship. At school he takes a poetry class that shows him the power of language to reshape experiences of pain and fear into beauty. As in Zentner’s earlier works, grief is a central theme explored in many forms.
In the YA novel Angel of Greenwood by Randi Pink (2021) Angel and Isaiah are two young Black teenagers living in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma in the days leading up to the Tulsa Race Riot and massacre. The two come together for a summer job running a mobile library, delivering books to poorer black areas. Despite early contention and philosophical differences (Angel is a follower of the more conservative Booker T. Washington; Isaiah prefers the teachings of the more revolutionary WEB De Bois) the two fall in love as the world around them begins to catch fire. Isaiah writes poetry throughout the story and it is great to see a young man use poetry as a form of expression.
Dear Martin by Nic Stone(2018) using letter writing and journaling to understand Justyce McAllister, a good kid, an honor student, and always there to help a friend. None of that matters to the police officer who just put him in handcuffs. Despite leaving his rough neighborhood behind, he can’t escape the scorn of his former peers or the ridicule of his new classmates. Justyce looks to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for answers. He starts a journal to Dr. King to find out.
Jaqueline Woodson is an amazing young adult author who has powerful stories to tell. In her book From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun (2010) addresses what it means to be a family. Melanin Sun has a lot to say. But sometimes it’s hard to speak his mind, so he fills up notebooks with his thoughts instead. He writes about his mom a lot–they’re about as close as they can be, because they have no other family. So when she suddenly tells him she’s gay, his world is turned upside down. And if that weren’t hard enough for him to accept, her girlfriend is white. Melanin Sun is angry and scared. How can his mom do this to him– is this the end of their closeness? What will his friends think? And can he let her girlfriend be part of their family?
The Diary of Anne Frank is a classic. In 1942, with Nazis occupying Holland, a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl and her family fled their home in Amsterdam and went into hiding. For the next two years, until their whereabouts were betrayed to the Gestapo, they and another family lived cloistered in the “Secret Annex” of an old office building. Cut off from the outside world, they faced hunger, boredom, the constant cruelties of living in confined quarters, and the ever-present threat of discovery and death. In her diary Anne Frank recorded vivid impressions of her experiences during this period. By turns thoughtful, moving, and amusing, her account offers a fascinating commentary on human courage and frailty and a compelling self-portrait of a sensitive and spirited young woman whose promise was tragically cut short.
Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (2020) has won the National Book Award and the Printz Award. The book is told in poetry. Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking. But Xiomara has plenty she wants to say, and she pours all her frustration and passion onto the pages of a leather notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers—especially after she catches feelings for a boy in her bio class named Aman, who her family can never know about. With Mami’s determination to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself. So when she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she doesn’t know how she could ever attend without her mami finding out. But she still can’t stop thinking about performing her poems.
In Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl (2018), Cath is a Simon Snow fan. For Cath, being a fan is her life―and she’s really good at it. She and her twin sister, Wren, ensconced themselves in the Simon Snow series when they were just kids; it’s what got them through their mother leaving. Cath’s sister has mostly grown away from fandom, but Cath can’t let go. She doesn’t want to. Now that they’re going to college, Wren has told Cath she doesn’t want to be roommates. Cath is on her own, completely outside of her comfort zone. She’s got a surly roommate with a charming, always-around boyfriend, a fiction-writing professor who thinks fan fiction is the end of the civilized world, a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words.
Ava Dellaira’s Love Letters to the Dead (2015) begins as an assignment for English class: Write a letter to a dead person. Laurel chooses Kurt Cobain because her sister, May, loved him. And he died young, just like May did. Soon, Laurel has a notebook full of letters to people like Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, Amelia Earhart, Heath Ledger, and more–though she never gives a single one of them to her teacher. She writes about starting high school, navigating new friendships, falling in love for the first time, learning to live with her splintering family. And, finally, about the abuse she suffered while May was supposed to be looking out for her. Only then, once Laurel has written down the truth about what happened to herself, can she truly begin to accept what happened to May. And only when Laurel has begun to see her sister as the person she was–lovely and amazing and deeply flawed–can she begin to discover her own path
Newbery Medal Winner, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (2010) begins shortly after a fall-out with her best friend. Sixth grader Miranda starts receiving mysterious notes, and she doesn’t know what to do. The notes tell her that she must write a letter—a true story, and that she can’t share her mission with anyone. It would be easy to ignore the strange messages, except that whoever is leaving them has an uncanny ability to predict the future. If that is the case, then Miranda has a big problem—because the notes tell her that someone is going to die, and she might be too late to stop it.
Eighteen-year-old Eliza Mirk is the anonymous creator of the wildly popular webcomic Monstrous Sea in Eliza and her Monsters by Francesca Zappia (2019). When a new boy at school tempts Eliza to live a life offline, everything she’s worked for begins to crumble. In the real world, Eliza Mirk is shy, weird, and friendless. Online, Eliza is LadyConstellation, anonymous creator of a popular webcomic called Monstrous Sea. With millions of followers and fans throughout the world, Eliza’s persona is popular. Eliza can’t imagine enjoying the real world as much as she loves her digital community. Then Wallace transfers to her school and Eliza begins to wonder if a life offline might be worthwhile. But when Eliza’s secret is accidentally shared with the world, everything she’s built—her story, her relationship with Wallace, and even her sanity—begins to fall apart.
In Riley Redgate’s Final Draft (2018) the only sort of risk 18-year-old Laila Piedra enjoys is the peril she writes for the characters in her stories: epic sci-fi worlds full of quests, forbidden love, and robots. Her creative writing teacher has always told her she has a special talent. But three months before her graduation, he’s suddenly replaced–by Nadiya Nazarenko, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who is sadistically critical and perpetually unimpressed. At first, Nazarenko’s eccentric assignments seem absurd. But before long, Laila grows obsessed with gaining the woman’s approval.
Natalie’s best friend, Zoe, is sure that the novel Natalie’s written is good enough to be published. But how can a twelve-year-old girl publish a book? Natalie’s mother is an editor for a big children’s publisher, but Natalie doesn’t want to ask for any favors. The School Story by Andrew Clementsis 20 years old but a perfect read for 5th and 6th graders. Zoe’s brilliant idea is that Natalie can submit her manuscript under a pen name, with Zoe acting as her literary agent. Can Natalie and Zoe pull off their masquerade?
What happens if your notebook ends up in the wrong hands? Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy (1964) is about Harriet M. Welsch, a spy. In her notebook, she writes down everything she knows about everyone, even her classmates and her best friends. Then Harriet loses track of her notebook, and it ends up in the wrong hands. Before she can stop them, her friends have read the always truthful, sometimes awful things she’s written about each of them. Despite being written decades ago, there are some key themes about friendship that are worth noting.