Friday, December 9, 2016

Taking Back My Joy

This season, my joy is under attack.  Attack from many angles, and I’ve had enough.  I’m done feeling stressed.  I’m done feeling defeated.  I’m done feeling like I’m not enough.  Just DONE.

I’m taking back my joy.

This month I am making a conscious decision to not succumb to feeling overwhelmed.  If something is stressing me out, I’m going to find a way to walk away.  It won’t always be easy, but reaching my breaking point is just not going to work for me. 

I choose joy.

You see, you might not know this about me, but I have an inner warrior.  Divinely inspired, I like to think of her as a kind of warrior princess.  Most of the time, she is hidden away.  All most people can see when they look at me is normal, average, everyday me.  Nothing that would make most people look twice.  But I know she is there.

She’s arisen before.  When my dad died when I was just a teenager, she put on a brave face and pulled me through.  When I had to send my husband off to war as a young bride, she was there.  When I had to send him off again years later, this time with 4 kiddos needing EVERYTHING from me, she was there again. She got up everyday with a smile and did what needed to be done.  For a year.  When I had to help my mom fight through a messy divorce, she was there for both of us. She’s really something, this woman of strength.

Most days I don’t need her.  Most days I am good on my own.  Most days I will let her lie in wait- resting up for the times she is truly needed.  I know someday I will really need to call on her- when I face a real challenge.  When I or someone I love gets sick, or when I lose someone I love very, very much.  It happens.  It will happen.  And I will call on her strength then.

For right now, though, I need some of that strength to fight for my joy. It might seem small to some, but when your joy is under attack and you feel yourself getting discouraged or overwhelmed, it is a serious problem.  Especially when it is such a wonderful time of year and your family is depending on you.  My emotional tone sets the tone for my family, and I refuse to let anyone ruin their holiday, especially me.

Now that my inner warrior has risen and rallied, here is what we have decided to do:

Overwhelming to-do list?  I’m tearing it up.  I’m going to enjoy my time with my kids and hubby, and after everyone is asleep, I’m going to take a bath (maybe even with a glass of wine).  Ahhhh- that is just what the doctor ordered in this crazy, fun-filled holiday season. I’m taking care of me.

Too much dirty laundry?  Everyone pick out one or two things you desperately need for the next two days, and I’ll wash one load.  Just one.  Then another load tomorrow.  It will work itself out.  I promise.

A zillion assessments need to be done before break?  Ok.  We’ll take it one step at a time.  I’m not going to stress about it, and we are NOT going to stop enjoying each other’s company.  Sometimes we will even just stop, drop, and enjoy a good holiday story together. 

Christmas gifts for my students?  Let’s keep it simple. A book, a fleece scarf, and a candy cane.  Nothing fancy or inspired by Pinterest, but that’s ok.  My kiddos know I love them.  That’s what really matters. And anything wrapped in festive paper is some serious fun when you are six.

Personal holiday shopping needs to get done?  Amazon, here I come.  What can’t be ordered online will be lovingly hand-selected when I shop BY MYSELF on Saturday. I try to plan just one day and make it a marathon.  I love the hustle and bustle (and it is even better if we have snow!), but one day is the limit for my sanity.  Then I wrap all at once while watching my favorite Christmas movies.  Because that is what I like to do.  It fills my bucket, and I really need a full bucket right now.

When I put it like that, I am actually looking forward to this wonderful holiday season. 

Are you?

What steps can you take to take back your joy?

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Stress-Free Guided Reading

Is guided reading stressful to you?  Are you unsure what you should be doing on a weekly or daily basis with your young readers?  Worry no longer!  I am here to give you some simple steps to make your guided reading time meaningful, intentional, and easy to plan!

How often should I meet with my groups?
You will get a lot of different responses from different “experts” on this, but I will tell you I meet with all of my groups each day, 4 days a week.  Guided reading is simply one of the stations in our daily literacy center rotation, as outlined in my post here.
If you choose to set up your guided reading in a different manner, please, please, PLEASE make sure you are meeting with any student who is reading below grade level on a daily (or almost daily) basis.  That should be non-negotiable.

What should I focus on in each group?
Early emergent readers will be naturally concentrating on getting through the text- your focus with them should be on sight words, phonics, making predictions about and finding the pattern in the text, and above all, READING STRATEGIES (what to do when they get stuck on a word).

Emergent readers will work on fluency, reading with expression, making sense of the text, and comprehension.  Developing readers will focus more on digging deeper with the text. 

I always try to continue the focus of our Reader’s Workshop mini-lessons in the guided reading groups, when possible.  If we are learning about problem/solution in whole group, continuing that focus in the small group really helps cement the concept for them.  They are practicing at an individual level what we have been practicing with our whole group read-alouds.

Where should I get the books for guided reading?
Anywhere you can!  Hopefully your administration supports guided reading and you have sets of leveled books either in your classroom or in a shared space.  I have some book sets in my classroom and more in the library that I can check out.

I have also purchased non-fiction units on TPT (Lyndsey Kuster and Stephanie Stewart have fabulous ones) that have books on 3 levels.  These are good fits for my groups.

Don’t think that you have to always work with BOOKS, either.  I have created non-fiction visual vocabulary units that start whole group with great visuals on the SMART Board, then use leveled text passages with small groups, like the following:

Many of my customers have even used my Close Reading packets (see my post about those here) in small groups with great success.

How long does it take to plan for guided reading lessons?
If I tell you it takes me very little time to plan for groups, you might not believe me.  I used to spend HOURS planning for my groups, but I have found that it is just not necessary to do that!

Don’t get me wrong- you will need to plan. 

The bulk of your planning time for each group should be in the text selection- make sure you are choosing quality texts for each group that are not only the correct level, but also neatly fit into your purpose for them.  Keeping your text selection very intentional is vital to quality instruction.  Everything else will fall into place if you have the right text.

I know that many guided reading sets have lesson plans that go along with them, but you should be very careful here.  Maybe I am just an outside-the-box thinker, but I have rarely found that those lessons line up with my vision for teaching a text.  Definitely check it out for ideas, but think carefully about what YOU want your readers to gain from a text.

What should a daily lesson look like?

Your students should be warmed up and ready to go when you start your lesson. Some teachers achieve this with reading a familiar book first, some start with sight word review. 

I have found it easiest to have students at a Fluency Center right before coming to the guided reading table so I don’t have to spend precious minutes getting ready to read.  The Fluency Center contains familiar books they have already read (kept in colored baskets that match their reading group), One Breath Boxes and Fluency Phrases (from my Chunky Monkey Phonics series), their Poetry Notebooks, familiar big books, and the weekly phonics poem (from Chunky Monkey’s Spelling units).  Students are highly engaged in this center and come to the table excited about the reading process and ready to tackle a new challenge.

Check out my freebie packet below (at the end of this post) to get more specifics on the following pieces in a lesson:

Reading the Book
Purpose, Before, During, and After the Book
Word Work
Reader’s Response

I don’t always have time for all of these components in one day, but we do make sure to do them weekly or with the rotation of one text.

How long should we spend on one book?
I like to spend 3-4 days, depending on the book.  Some of the lower leveled books don’t have a lot of depth to them, though, so for those I find two days to be sufficient.  If I do spend 3 or 4 days on a book, that will include our word work and reader’s response to the story, too.

How often should I take a running record?
I take informal running records every day. I try to listen to two students read.  I take notes in a binder (each child has their own tab and I use simple notebook paper to take notes).  After listening to them read for a few minutes, we discuss their strengths and address one simple teaching point quietly while the others read.  If possible, I try to give them an opportunity to put the teaching point in practice- by listening to them read further, giving them a few words to try out their new strategy, etc.

How do I decide on a teaching point?
Teaching points can be something the student is doing ALMOST right, or a strategy that would help them be successful with something they are struggling with. 
I have common teaching points for young readers listed here:

What are some possible Reader’s Response ideas?
Students can pose questions to each other (or to me- they love that!) or they can respond with writing.  Depending on the level of the group, we respond in different ways- cut apart sentences, interactive writing, collaborative writing, exit tickets, etc. 

These ideas can be found in the following freebie in my store:

All of the Word Work and Reader’s Response ideas use simple materials you probably already have in your toolbox.  Simply keep this little packet close by at your guided reading table, and you will have everything you need to keep your groups moving along quickly with minimal planning needed from you!

I hope you have found this little post to be helpful!  I would 
love to hear your comments on this topic...I love to hear from readers!!!

Also, if you haven’t already done so, please follow my blog, Facebook, Instagram and/or TPT store to keep in touch!

Much love, 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Step by Step Instructions for Getting Centers Started

A new school year brings us fresh new learners and fresh new challenges.  I’ve already laid out my case for using literacy centers in your classroom, but if you haven’t tried it yet, go back and read 
this post.

Teaching students how to complete centers in your classroom requires careful planning, training, and lots of practice, much like everything else at the beginning of the year! We practice everything from coming to the carpet to lining up for dismissal, so it makes sense that something as complex as our center rotation would require lots of practice.

Like most of you, I always start the year off with everything being whole group while I teach routines and procedures.  After the first week or so, though, we are ready to start getting ready for centers.  Notice I did not say we were READY for centers, just ready to get ready. 

Independent Reading Center
From Day One, we are practicing building our reading stamina.  I tell the students that our goal is to be able to read at least 20 minutes consistently so I will know they are ready for centers. I hold this “carrot” out for them because
 1) I know they are excited to start centers,
2) it sets up a reasonable goal for them to strive for, and
3) they really do need to be able to read independently for 20 minutes, since that is our typical length of each center.

Word Work Center
While they are working on building up that stamina, even with a mini-lesson, our Reader’s Workshop time does not take up its full time slot in our schedule, so that gives us a little wiggle room for adding some early center practice.

By the second full week, we have started our phonics unit (we always start off with a simple review of short vowels using Chunky Monkey’sShort Vowel Unit).  Most students remember short a from kindergarten, so it is more about learning the different facets of our phonics lessons than about learning a new sound.  Of course, there are those students who really need a good, solid review of the short vowels since they didn’t completely master them the first time around.  So I’ve found this to be a great way to accomplish both goals at once.

Since our phonics units are the same as the spelling patterns they learn each week, we start practicing our spelling centers first.  Literacy Centers will eventually involve student choice, but not at first.  I want all students to know how to complete each activity correctly initially.  So my tables of students remain static- everyone stays at their own spot while we practice simple word work centers like Disappearing Spelling Words, Letter Tiles, Dough Words, White Board Spelling, Letter Stamps, and Spelling Games.  We review the expectations for each activity and students get time each day to try out one or two centers while they practice their spelling words for the week.  I simply move the activities from table to table each day so each student practices each center activity.

Fluency Center
We practice reading One Breath Boxes and Fluency Phrases with partners as part of our beginning phonics practice, and we learn how to build the poem in our Pocket Chart whole group.  All of these activities will be completed in the Fluency Center once Literacy Centers begin in earnest, saving valuable instruction time for other aspects of phonics and reading. 

The Listening Station is also part of our Fluency Center (we are listening to fluent reading), and that takes at least one whole-group mini-lesson to introduce the concept of cassette tapes and CD’s!  I do not yet have iPads or iPods in my classroom for students to use, so I have to rely on my stash of old school listening centers from years past!  Hey, I consider it a valuable history lesson for my kiddos. Ha!

Writing Center
This center needs less prep time than the others as far as introducing the different center options, but we do practice each activity during a Writer’s Workshop session, so they understand the expectations for first grade quality work in this center.  We practice such activities as Author’s Choice (little blank mini-books they can use to create any book they want), Vocabulary Writing, Four Square, and List Writing.

By the time we’ve practiced all of these centers, it is usually the end of the 4th week of school.  The students are almost always reading for 20 minutes at a stretch, so we are ready to learn how to rotate centers.

I group my students into their guided reading groups, then give them folders to match their group’s color. 

Each group starts in the same center every day and follows a set rotation around the room designed to maximize efficiency and learning (see my previous blog post about our rotations here).  Each group visits each center every day.

Before starting, we review the expectations of centers.
Here are the expectations for literacy centers in my classroom:
1.      Stay in your center.
2.    Stay on task.
3.    Work quietly.
4.    Work the whole time.
5.    Have fun!

After reviewing the expectations, I pass out our Center Recording Sheets and teach the students how to use them.  I have them write our weekly spelling words and high frequency words on the page so they are always handy for practice or review in centers.

During the first week of Center Training, students do not have a choice in their centers, so we go ahead and mark the centers together each day before starting rotations.  I show them the activity they will be doing in Word Work and Writing, how it correlates with the picture on the drawer it is stored in, and where to find the matching picture on their recording sheet.  We then mark it with the initial of the day (M for Monday, etc.).  This is helping them practice marking which center they do each day, which is important information for me once they start making their own center choices.

Next, they are off to their first center and we get started.  We rehearse different voice levels and agree which ones are appropriate for which center.  We usually like Level 1 whispers for Fluency Center, Level 2 soft table voices for Guided Reading and Word Work (only since they have a teacher at those tables working with students- normally Word Work is Level 0).  Writing and Independent Reading need to be Level 0 to help students focus and concentrate on their literacy activities.

While students dive in to their assigned activities, I have a group at the guided reading table.  Instead of diving into guided reading, I usually take the first week to play simple games with student we will use for word work activities- word sorts, sound boxes, etc.  The reason for this is two-fold:  1) these activities will be easier and take less time if they are familiar to the students in the near future, and 2) I really need to have my focus on the WHOLE classroom to monitor how students are doing in all of the centers.  It is important to catch off-task behavior early and nip it in the bud so it doesn’t become contagious and accepted.

After about 10-15 minutes, I buzz our timer and we practice cleaning up quickly and standing at our centers until everyone is ready to switch.  I like to pass out pirate coins (our school’s token reward system since we are the Pirates!) to the group or groups who cleaned up exceptionally well.  This sets the bar high and groups quickly know what is expected of them.

To make sure they know where they are going next, I ask each group to point to their next center (we rotate in a circular pattern around the room), then it is time to SWITCH! 

Join me next time for more details about Guided Reading- I will even have a freebie for you!  You don’t want to miss it!


Sunday, November 22, 2015

5 Simple Steps for Successful Literacy Centers

Hi friends!  I am so excited to finally be blogging again!  It has been a busy fall, and my home and TPT to-do lists are constantly screaming my name, but I really, really want to share a few things with you about my Literacy Center instruction.

I have a passion for Guided Reading and Literacy Centers.  Truly, they are the backbone of my classroom instruction - the meat-and-potatoes of my first grade curriculum.  Some things can be skipped or pushed to the next day, but not these key components.  The structure and routine we have built are crazy important to me.  

The way I run these key components reflect my true beliefs about how children learn.  I strive to make these things a priority when planning and designing lessons and activities for centers.

Literacy Centers should be STRUCTURED.
Maybe some teachers can handle students working on different things each day while they randomly call groups back to the guided reading table, but not me.  That type of system just doesn’t work for me.  I need a structured routine that enables students to know exactly what they are doing now, and what comes next, at all times.

We follow a predictable schedule Monday-Thursday
 (Fridays are for spelling tests, crafts, science experiments, computer lab, and other fun things).

I have five reading groups based on their reading level, and they stick together through all 5 literacy centers every day (remember, when I say every day, I mean Mon-Thurs)…

In the next few weeks, I will be blogging about our activities in the following centers and describing how I set things up at first.  (when I’m done with each post, I will make these clickable links):

The Fluency Center
The Guided Reading Table
The Writing Center
The Word Work Center
The Independent Reading Center
Setting Up Centers at the Beginning of the Year
Changing Things Up Mid-Year

 In our classroom, our literacy centers are structured in a very intentional way to support student engagement, learning, and the needs of our learners.  Students rotate through all the centers every day in a clock-wise motion.  Working in the Fluency Center gets students “warmed up” and ready to read in the Guided Reading Center.  Each week in Guided Reading, we have a Reader’s Response that requires writing, so students frequently finish it up in the Writing Center (right after guided reading).  Guided Reading is the noisiest center since we discuss what we are reading, so it is placed on the opposite side of the classroom from Independent Reading (so those readers can have as much peace and quiet as possible to concentrate.) As you can see, a lot of thought went into the planning of our center rotation and the location of each of the centers in our classroom.

Each group starts in the same center each day, so their routine is predictable and my groups follow the same sequence at the guided reading table (important because of some students’ pull-out times for Title One reading, ELL, Speech, and other special support).  I need to get these students to my guided reading table each day, even if they miss other centers. Guided Reading is a non-negotiable in my class, and my centers routine is scheduled in a way to make that possible for every student, no matter their special out-of-the-classroom needs.

Literacy Centers should be PURPOSEFUL.
Each center has a purpose- an important purpose in Balanced Literacy.  All of the activities in each center provide a special emphasis in some type of literacy practice.  I have multiple options available for writing, word work, and fluency practice because there are so many facets of each of these elements.  I want to make sure I am addressing all of the skills needed to be successful readers, writers, and thinkers.

Literacy Centers should be ENGAGING.
Students love to work in centers when they are fun and engaging.  Sometimes it is the little things that make an activity fun for a six-year old.  Practicing writing spelling words is okay, but writing spelling words on rainbows with skinny markers is way more fun!  I try to find engaging center ideas so students will want to stay on task and complete their practice or inquiry.

Literacy Centers should allow for DIFFERENTIATION.
When an activity meets a child’s needs, magic happens.  The truth of the matter is…..all of our students have different needs!  They come to us with such a wide variety of experience, exposure, interests and skills that it is unlikely that one activity will meet everyone where they need to be.  I make sure students of every level will be engaged with SOMETHING in each center- they have many choices because their interests and skill levels are so vastly different.  For example, my lower students really enjoy the simple word work that allows them to use different tools to make their sight words (water painted on chalkboards, playdough, salt trays, etc.), but my higher students are much more engaged with Mystery Words or Dictionary Hunts- the skill levels are widely different because my students have different needs.
Drawers for the Word Work Center
Drawers for the Writing Center

Literacy Centers should require ACCOUNTABILITY.
Each center has multiple recording sheets so that I can see what they’ve been working on during their center time.  There are a few centers that don’t require a recording sheet, though.  I have students use the paper below in their Center Folder each week. 
Our Weekly Center Paper

On Monday before center time, students practice writing their spelling words, sight words, and phonics chunk, then through the week they write an M, T, W or Th in the box next to a center when they complete it.  That tells me which center they did on which day.  Students know they need to complete a variety of activities in each center to become great readers and writers.  They should only do a center once a week so they can become well-rounded.  I do want them to be able to continue working on an activity another day if they need to, though, so I allow a little flexibility in that area.

Thursday afternoon I unpack all of the papers from their center folders and peek at their work from the week before stapling them together and sending them home.  If I need to have a conversation with a student about completing work, choosing a variety of centers, or documenting their learning in a meaningful way, I pull them aside on Friday before sending home their work.  I also usually write a quick note on their center paper to remind them what we discussed (and alert parents to their child’s focus or goal for the next week). 
Our Center Folders are color-coded to match the students' Guided Reading Groups.
 We keep them together in a basket in the Fluency Center.
I also love to pull a few examples of quality work for Friday’s sharing time.  I display their center work proudly and point out the extraordinary details they used in their writing, neat handwriting efforts, or the care they took to completely finish a difficult task.  If there is a center that is being overlooked or only given half-efforts by multiple students, I’ve found that this is a great way to re-motivate students to really engage with this activity.  If students still struggle with the center after that, I may need to re-think the activity and its appropriateness.  Singling out quality work usually does the trick, though. J
The Fluency Center

Join me next weekend for a peek into our Fluency Center!

Monday, August 24, 2015

A Close Reading Giveaway!

Hi friends!  This week’s Building Back to School linky party’s topic is Reading Tools. Thanks for joining me! 

 I have been obsessed with Close Reading this past year.  Why?  Because I have been working without a reading curriculum, that’s why!  You see, my first grade team all used a basal series when I started teaching first grade 5 years ago.  An out-of-date basal series.  I did, too, for the first two years while I was learning the ropes.  My principal, though, kept urging me to try giving up the basal and using newer best practices for teaching reading.  School-wide, we were already adding Guided Reading and Reader’s Workshop for teaching comprehension strategies.  The theory was that these two areas should cover all of my students’ reading needs.  I decided to give it a shot, and jumped in with both feet. 

It became quickly apparent that my students needed two more elements to round out their reading program.  We needed a phonics program and we needed a solid, strategic plan to deal with complex text, preferably using a common story. I knew it was important for all my students to be exposed to grade level (or even a little higher) text and learn some strategies for navigating it.

After a frustrated search for a phonics program that made sense to me (and my firsties), I finally decided to create my own.  Voila! The Chunky Monkey First Grade Phonics program was born.  I spent a full year working on that program (and am happy to say it is DONE! Now I am working on matching spelling units/activities).  
Click here to check those units out.

 Same thing with Close Reading- I bought and tried out many close reading products from wonderful TPT sellers, but I felt like something was missing.  My students weren’t really engaged in the text and only having a couple of writing activities to go with each story didn’t seem like enough time with the text (not to mention my kids didn’t enjoy that much just plain writing).  After mulling it over for a few months, I finally came up with a plan.

My vision was for a week’s worth of activities to go with each story.  Interactive activities.  Drawing and making connections and vocabulary and cutting and gluing and tracing and more illustrating and writing and lots and lots of highlighting. THAT might have a shot at keeping my first graders engaged in the text and willing to keep going back to it.  Also, I knew it would take at least 4 or 5 days for most students to become fluent in the complex text, and that was important to me.  They should be able to fully understand and independently READ the text by the time they are done close reading, shouldn’t they?

I created the template for my vision and wrote 4 stories for the spring.  I test-piloted them with my students and GUESS WHAT???  They loved them!  They enjoyed each day’s activities and fluently read the text by the end of the week. After just a few weeks, they knew exactly how to go back into the text to highlight text evidence for their answers and how to use surrounding text to figure out the meaning of unknown words.  They AMAZED me.  

 The students’ favorite part each week?  Hands down, it was getting to use the different colored highlighters!  I created these labels to go with the series, and they have been very popular.

 I didn’t have enough highlighters for each student, though, so many had to use markers.  I solved that this summer by picking up 3 or 4 packs of highlighters every time I went to Wal-Mart.  Now I have enough for every student to have a set of 4 colors when we read closely!

This summer I finished the spring set of first grade stories and wrote a set for the fall.  I am almost finished with a fall set for second grade, as well.  Each set has 6 weeks of Common Core aligned close reading stories and daily activities that follow seasonally appropriate topics.  Each set includes 3 fiction stories and 3 non-fiction stories (one biography, one how-to, and one informational text).

Would you like to try one out?  I have a freebie week for you to try with your students! Just click on the cover. 

The highlighter labels are also a freebie….many upper elementary teachers have been using them for standardized test prep, which is genius (but not really on my radar, PTL). 
Click here to download those.

This week I will be giving away a FULL YEAR of my Close Reading Interactive Stories (Fall, Spring, and Winter- which is not finished but will be!).  Just enter the Rafflecopter below! 
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Thanks so much for stopping by!  

Special thanks to Whimsy Workshop for the detective clipart, KPM Doodles for Chunky Monkey, and KG Fonts!

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