Category Archives: lesson ideas

Stranger Things Classroom Set Up

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 have two large bulletin boards in the classroom. One I use to hang exemplar student work so I used black bulletin board paper to cover all the boards and then found these Stranger Things wall decals on Amazon to add some character elements from the show. I also love these Stranger Things grammar posters from the PIY Shop on Etsy for the back bulletin board. The PIY Shop has awesome posters and displays that I have used in the past like the Marvel grammar posters and diverse book middle school book characters.

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.

More pictures coming soon.

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Book Influencer Kit Summer Reading Assignment

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!

The image above was posted by Abigail Owen on her website. The influencer book she showcases contained:

  • The custom box that matches the cover art and is a piece of art all by itself, inside & out
  • A custom temporary tattoo to match the cover, created by artist Amy Shane
  • A collapsable hand mirror that says “Born to Rule” on the back (the tagline)
  • A diamond art kit that is a skulls and flowers design
  • The book itself!

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.

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#GeniusHour, Curiosity Time, & Passion Projects

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)

Genius Hour Menu

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:

The Most Magnificent Idea by Ashley Spires (2014)

What Do You Do With An Idea by Kobi Yamada (2014)

It’s Never Too Late by Dallas Clayton (2014)

The North Star by Peter Reynolds (2009)

I have also curated genius hour resources on these past blog posts.

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:

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Middle School Student Reading Assessment

Earlier this May I had read a post from Isabelle Popp on Book Riot, “What Do Your Favorite Books Say About You?” Intrigued by this article I found myself thinking this prompt would make a great opening narrative essay assessment and assignment for students. And a reading assessment came to fruition.

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.

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Back to School Stranger Things Themed Syllabus & Opening Day Activities

It’s a syllabus.

It is a hyperdoc.

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.

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Picture the Dream: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Picture Books at the New York Historical Society

Bryan Collier (American, born 1967), UntitledAll Because You Matter, 2020, written by Tami Charles, collage. Collection of the artist.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

 

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Enhancing Meaning Making with These 4 Graphic Organizers

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.

  1. 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.
It Says – Find information from the text that stands our or addresses a question. I Say – Think about what you know about the information. So What – Combine what the text says with what you know
to come up with the answer.

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.

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New York Times Editorial Contest for Students

The the past five years The New York Times has hosted an editorial contest for middle and high school students. Students are asked to submit 500 word opinion editorial about an issue that matters to them. The newspaper’s website actually invites teenagers to share their opinions about questions NYT pose — and hundreds do, posting arguments, reflections and anecdotes. The contest is a bit more formal and open to all students ages 10-19. You can find the complete rules to the student contest HERE.

This NYT writing contest is a great teaching tool for writing and reading units of study. Persuasive writing is a key standard and learning target within the Common Core and Next Generation Literacy Standards. We are ending the school year with a mini-inquiry into editorial writing. First, students were immersed in a variety of NYT student writing contest winners and then students will write their own 500 word editorial.

The assignment has been adapted from the contest requirements and I have provided students with a graphic organizer to help start their writing. The student’s editorial is based on a culminating social studies podcast project that my humanities colleagues have created:

Task: Create a podcast with a team of students (of no more than three) that finds a thread in history and follows that thread through. Explore a current events topic and trace the history of that topic throughout time.

What is a “Throughline”? 

A Throughline is a theme, plot, or characteristic that connects stories together. Throughlines help the viewer or reader do a few things: understand the theme/character better over time, layer experiences, make predictions, and become invested in the story.


For example: Take the enduring issue of inequality and the topic of Black representation in Congress. Look all the way back to Reconstruction to the first African American man in Congress and trace the story of Black representatives and senators throughout our history and discuss why this unequal representation exists.

Utilizing the research completed for the podcast project, students are taking a particular stance on their podcast project.

For example: If students are researching and creating a podcast on the similarities between George Floyd and Emmitt Till, their editorial might address how history repeats itself or the failures of the American justice system, students might write about how racism still exists and Black Lives Matter.

Each student brainstormed five different perspectives about their podcast topic. Together, social studies and English are working collaboratively to support student research, writing, speaking, listening, reading, and digital literacy skills. Research must be done, facts are collected, evidence is weighed and carefully selected. To strengthen an argument further, a counter point is added and debunked. Students are motivated by topics they have selected and are using their voice to persuade others.

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Identity Choice Novels & Playlist

Students are reading books with themes of identity as our last unit this school year. Student outcomes include

  • Recognize how people and characters define themselves as individuals through multiple complex factors, including culture, family, peers, and environment, and that defining oneself is a complex process
  • Read texts of various lengths to analyze content and structure, and cite evidence
  • Respond to texts (orally and in writing) coherently and thoughtfully
  • Develop and support claims with textual information
  • Participate in small-group and whole-class discussions

Students selected from five (5) choice novels:

Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson – Newbery Honor

Acclaimed author Renee Watson offers a powerful story about a girl striving for success in a world that too often seems like it’s trying to break her. Jade believes she must get out of her poor neighborhood if she’s ever going to succeed. Her mother tells her to take advantage of every opportunity that comes her way, which Jade has. Every day she rides the bus away from her friends to the private school where she feels like an outsider. She’s tired of being singled out as someone who needs help or someone who people want to fix.

Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Nevin

Libby and Jack get tangled up in a cruel high school game—which lands them in group counseling and community service—Libby and Jack are both angry, and then surprised. Because the more time they spend together, the less alone they feel.

Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo – A National Book Award Winner. 

A young girl in Harlem discovers slam poetry as a way to understand her mother’s religion and her own relationship to the world.  Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. 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 notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers—especially after she catches feelings for a boy. (Some mature topics throughout the book.)

The Truth As Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor – National Book Award Finalist

Mason Buttle is the biggest, sweatiest kid in his grade, and everyone knows he can barely read or write. Mason’s learning disabilities are compounded by grief. Fifteen months ago, Mason’s best friend, Benny Kilmartin, turned up dead in the Buttle family’s orchard.  An investigation drags on, and Mason, honest as the day is long, can’t understand why Lieutenant Baird won’t believe the story Mason has told about that day.

Everything Sad Is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri – 2021 Michael Printz Award

An autobiographical novel, middle-schooler Daniel, formerly Khosrou, tells his unimpressed and at times cruel classmates about his experience as an Iranian refugee.  Modeling his storytelling on Scheherazade and not beholden to a western mode, Daniel Nayeri writes a patchwork of memory and anecdote.  He layers stories upon stories to create a complex, hilarious, and devastating understanding of memory, family, and perspective. This book is a complex read due to the interweaving of stories in past and present and suggested for advanced readers. 

I created this identity playlist to help student meet learning targets and draw connections text to self, text to text, and text to world.

This is just a highlight of some of the slides. To get a copy of this playlist you can access HERE.

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One Pagers for Deeper Reading Comprehension

The One-Pager is a single-page response that shows a student’s understanding of the text. It is a way of making representation of one’s individual, unique understanding. It is a way to be creative and experimental and respond to reading imaginatively and honestly. The one pager assignment is a perfect summative assessment for students to showcase comprehension, synthesis, analysis, and evaluation skills. 

The requirements for the one pager are up to the teacher. I try to change up the one pager requirements with each assignment. Students complete two one-pager assignments in my class during the school year, I do not want to assign more than that because it loses it luster. Below are some examples of what students can include in their one pager. Also note the different one pager assignments I have shared in this blog post. 

Elements of the One Pager:

Write the title and author so that it stands out on the page.

Answer three (3) of the response questions from the question bank (see back) citing textual evidence to support your claims. – Sometimes I provide a question bank with higher level thinking questions for students to respond to where as if I am assigning the one pager later in the school year, I might have students create their own question and provide a short response answering the question. 

Pull out two (2) “notable quotes” or phrases that jump out at you, make you think or wonder, or remind you of something. 

The quotes must pertain to an aspect of the central idea/theme in the text. The quotes must emphasize key points to be remembered or used to explain the major concept. Write them down anywhere on your page.

Use different colors and/or writing styles to individualize each “quote” or phrase.

Include a visual image or illustration, which creates a visual focus; these images need to illustrate what pictures you have in your mind from reading.

Make a personal statement about what you have read–what does it mean to you personally? What is your opinion, final thought, big question or personal connection?

FILL THE PAPER UP with your words, images, and symbols. 

What Not to Do 

• Don’t merely summarize–you’re not retelling the story.

• Use unlined paper only, to keep from being restricted by lines.

• Don’t think half a page will do. Make it rich with “quotes” and images. 

Want More  . . . check out this blog post on NCTE providing more description and samples. My co-teacher provides specific students with PDF templates and checklists to help students with the visual layout of a one pager and also break down the assignment into smaller parts. 

Can one pagers be digital for your students who do not like or think they have artistic abilities, of course. Additionally, I have even had students work in groups to make collaborative one pagers for chapter notes when we are reading an whole class novel like Animal Farm. Working together helps break down the assignment into smaller pieces and also encourages discussion about the key elements of the reading and assignment. 

One pagers can be meaningful as an assessment tool, creative response to literature, and or check for understanding. One pagers are a powerful way to ask students to reflect upon what they have read. ISTE Standards for Students require students to be creative communicators as well as literate humans. One pagers are an invitation for teachers and students to consider alternative formats and opportunities to be creative communicators and design thinkers while at the same time, foster literacy learning in both a traditional and a blended learning environment

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