Saturday, August 31, 2013

How I'm doing vocab. this year

Man, time got away from me. Already two weeks since I last posted. The school year is in full swing with tests, papers, projects, football games, and all those other things that signal we are back to it.

I have been knocked on my butt this past week with a terrible cough/cold. I also had lots of kids out sick. Never before have I had to take a sick day the first couple weeks of the year. I am feeling better, but still not totally myself yet.

Well now that I've had a couple weeks of doing vocab. in a new, CC-aligned way, I thought I'd post how it's going.

In the past, we had vocab. workbooks with arbitrary word lists, the kids got 20 words every two weeks, we'd do workbook exercises plus some supplemental stuff I came up with, then did a review game and quizzed on those words. NO MORE. And I am excited about the change.

Now, our tier 2 words are coming from what we read. Whenever I assign a reading, I go through beforehand and pick out 3-4 words (per week) that I think are difficult, yet frequently-used words my students will need to know across the curriculum and to use in everyday conversations.

I also define for them Tier 3 words (not often used or very content-specific terms). The tier 2 words I underline in the reading and have them try to figure out from context clues. Then when we discuss the reading, we come up with a consensus of a definition (if no one knows it, I let them use their phones to look it up in an online dictionary). They keep vocab. journals and keep a running list of our words: the words, definition, synonyms they come up with, and they write down the sentence it appeared in.

Every couple weeks, we take those words and will make a decorative sheet for them for our Word Wall. They can use colors and fun fonts to make a sheet with the word, definition, and a picture that shows that word's meaning. Then we hang them on our wall, so we can always see them and incorporate them into our language. So far, between my seniors and juniors, we have about 12 words up there and it will keep growing.

We also do some supplemental activities about once every two weeks. This week I had them fill out graphic organizers for each word with things like their own sentence, antonyms, synonyms, and a picture to demonstrate. I also plan to play some review games.

One game I want to do I learned at a CC conference. I plan to get note cards and for each word, do three things: one card has the word, one card has the definition, and one card has a defining picture. I'd do this for all our words so far (and cover up the word wall or take them down). Each student gets a card and has to find their two word partners. Then they have to stand with their group and show me all three cards that go together. I like this idea a lot; I just want to accumulate more words before we play it.

Extra credit:
Everyone feels differently about extra credit, and I don't offer a lot, but I do offer a few points. I find that many students don't take advantage, but the ones that really want to try to better their grade do. Each week, students can earn one extra credit vocab. point by doing one of the following with a word on our word wall:

1) Use the word correctly in a Facebook status and show it to me.
2) Use the word in a Tweet and show it to me.
3) Find a word in a book or magazine/Internet article they are reading and bring it in.
4) See the word used out in public somewhere, take a pic of it and bring it in.
5) Use a word correctly in class.

So far, I've had a handful take advantage and it's been fun. A lot of them really dig the FB and Twitter options.

Overall, I am loving doing vocab. differently than in the past, and it frees up time to do more with lit. and writing, instead of feeling like I have to get through 20 words in two weeks that they won't retain anyhow.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Room Tour Pics

Well the new school year is officially underway! We have two days of meetings, and the kiddos come back on Monday. It was a whirlwind of a day, as tomorrow will be. I pretty much have back-to-back meetings and not a ton of time to just work in my room, so I foresee some school work this weekend.

I did get done decorating my room for the most part. I snapped a few photos today.

This is the assignment area behind my desk where I'll list the agenda and HW for the week for each of my classes.

This will be my word wall, which is why it's empty. Each week, we'll focus on 3-4 Tier 2 words from our readings, and they will go up here with the definition and a picture. I also want to decorate the white wall with student work.

My smaller bulletin board at the front of the room where I keep goings-on at the school, like the calendar, bell schedules, etc.

This is the back of my room--the Macs I use for newspaper, as well as a no-longer-usable chalkboard (plus I HATE chalk), so I decorate it now with posters.  

 I still have a huge stack of junior textbooks stored on my windowsill, so no pic of that yet. I feel pretty boring when I look at all of your awesomely creative and decorative elementary classrooms with so many pretty bulletin boards and fancy reading areas! My room is pretty small, and I decorate mainly with student work, so it's not super filled at the beginning of the year. I'm excited to see how my word wall will work this year.

I hope those of you who are back already are having a great kick-off to the year. And to those of you lucky ducks who don't return until after Labor Day, enjoy the rest of your summer :)

Monday, August 12, 2013

A sample Common Core discussion using Grapes of Wrath

Our community and school always participates in The Big Read.  
It's a really cool endeavor, and the community members get super into it by organizing 10-15 activities each fall that coincide with the book or author the committee chose to study that year. At the high school, we try to study the work in some capacity at various grade levels.

This year, the committee in town chose the works of John Steinbeck from The Big Read. I am teaching 3 sections of juniors again this year, and while we don't have time to study a second entire novel (we already do Gatsby first semester), I decided to start the year with a little mini-unit incorporating the first chapter of Grapes of Wrath, as well as some supplemental materials.

I have to admit; I've never read GOW before! So today, I sat down and read chapter 1 (it's only three pages). Shorter is better for going in-depth like CC wants, anyhow. As I went through, I picked out 4-5 Tier 2 words  that my students would work with that week and put in their word journals. I also circled tier 3 words, which are words that are not used often in conversation and are content-specific, but ones that they need definitions for in order to understand the passage. These I will just provide definitions for.

Common Core is big on tier 2, or cross-curricular, common vocabulary, higher-level thinking and providing textual evidence as support. The way I am structuring the lesson is as follows:

-Distribute the book GOW and assign students to read chapter 1 for homework.
-The next day, I plan to read an excerpt aloud (CC actually suggest always reading the selection aloud after the students read it silently, but I just don't think that is feasible for everything we do, and may not encourage students to actually do the assignment of silent reading if they know I will always read it to them anyways).
-I will pass out a worksheet that has the following on it. Notice I define tier 3 words for them at the top already. The tier 2 words they are putting in their journals and that will go on my Word Wall and that we'll do activities and play games with are incorporated as questions.


Rivulet: a small, quick-flowing stream of something
Bayonet: a blade that can be attached to the end of a rifle and used for stabbing
Avalanches: a rapid downhill flow of a large mass of something dislodged from a mountainside, especially snow or     ice
Emulsion: a suspension of one liquid in another, e.g. oil in water or fat in milk
Bemused: to be confused or puzzled

Vocab. words to be added to your vocab. spiral:  dissipated, sluggish, cunningly, perplexity

1. What is the definition of the word “dissipated” (page 1)?

2. What is the definition of the word “sluggish” (page 2)?

3. Why was “sluggish” the best way to describe the smoke? What other things do you think of when you hear the word “sluggish”?

4. What does “cunningly” mean (page 2)?

5. Why do you think the author described the wind as digging cunningly? Why is that a better choice than one of its synonyms, such as cleverly or resourcefully?

6. What does “perplexity” mean (page 3)?

7. Make an inference: How would the conditions described in chapter 1 affect the livelihood of the men and women living during this time?

8. Quote material from the chapter to support your answer in #7. Please include page numbers.

9. What was the relationship between women and men like during this period?

10. How do you know this? Quote material from the chapter as support.


For every "content" question I ask, I also ask for support from the text to back up their responses. I also don't ask simple comprehension questions. This is the way Common Core is moving. Much of this I used to do anyway, but now I am working on going this in-depth with all the selections we read (within reason).

So I will have students work on these questions in small groups or individually, depending. Then we'll go over as a large group.

The next day, I am having them read an informational non-fiction piece from Smithsonian magazine entitled " Are We Headed for Another Dust Bowl?"

For this one, I think I will hand it out and have them silently read right in class. After, I plan to have some questions similar to the types I have on the worksheet above, but this time displayed in a PP presentation on my Smart Board. I don't want to just always give worksheets (though I am not opposed to worksheets as a whole, like some people are. Maybe that discussion will be for another day).

I picked up a discussion technique at a CC conference last May. I went in and numbered all my desks 1-4. I will post a question up on my Smart Board and let all students have time to think about it. Then I will randomly call a number, and all students with that number on their desk stand up. This encourages ALL students to participate (we all know we have 3 or 4 kids in class who would gladly lead every discussion, but then many others who are content never saying anything). Sometimes, I will have them share with a partner before this step or write down a response before this step as well.

So, let's say I have 4 kids with #1 and they stand up. Then I will ask them and only them to respond to the question. Sometimes I'll ask all four, sometimes I won't. It's meant to keep all students on their toes (there is always a chance their number will be called), BUT they can feel safe because they are not put on the spot (they can see the question ahead of time and have time to think/write/share with a partner before sharing out loud).

On the last day of this mini-unit, I am showing a clip from the Ken Burns film entitled The Dust Bowl. Below, I have included the preview to the film on PBS (you should be able to also find the entire film on YouTube).


Then we'll bring it altogether and discuss its implications today. The article I posted above from Smithsonian discusses how it was partially caused by humans and how it's very possible something like that could happen again in our lifetime. I don't think my students know a whole lot about the Dust Bowl past that it happened, so it'll be interesting to discuss some of the lesser-known causes and if we are headed in that direction again today.

Do you have any other cool resources you use with Grapes of Wrath? What about with the Dust Bowl? Or have you come up with any cool CC-aligned units?

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Determining Text Complexity

As I've mentioned here before, I'm part of the ELA Common Core Committee for my district. For the high school, there's just two of us represented on this committee and it's our job to kind of teach this stuff to the other ELA teachers at our school.

We are focusing on 6 big shifts happening in ELA, and we found a great video on Engage NY that explains in detail these 6 shifts (Engage NY has a TON of great CCSS resources, and I highly recommend browsing the site).

The one we are going to focus on first is text complexity. In a nutshell, CC is pushing for more difficult texts, which means *some* texts we have previously used at a certain grade level may no longer be difficult enough to use at that level.

So how do you know if a text is difficult enough?

One way is to see if it's listed under Appendix B which lists exemplar texts for each grade level. If it's there and under your grade level, you are fine.

If not, you have to do a little bit of work on your own to see if it will be rigorous enough. There are three things you need to do consider: quantitative, qualitative, and reader and task consideration.

The first is to see what its lexile score is. To do this, make a free account at and search for the book/short story/what have you that you want to teach. If you want to test an article that you find, you can copy and paste some of the text into, and it will analyze it for you. (Note: For poetry and drama, lexile score doesn't matter).

Use the chart below to determine which lexile score you need for each grade level. You need to look at the "stretch" lexile band.

Lexile Band
Lexile Band*
 K–1  N/A N/A
 2–3  450L–725L 420L–820L
 4–5  645L–845L 740L–1010L
 6–8 860L–1010L 925L–1185L
9-10 960L–1115L 1050L–1335L
11–CCR  1070L–1220L 1185L–1385L
That is your quantitative.

Do not fret if the text you want to use doesn't fall in the appropriate grade category yet! Remember, there are two other components to test.

Up next is qualitative. This is where you use your knowledge and prior experience with the text to run it through a checklist of sorts. I would recommend going viewing this document to give you an idea. I have pasted a sample of the document below.

 This one is for informational texts and there is a separate document for literary texts (which you can find simply by Googling). As you can see by looking at it, you simply run through each category for the text in question and mark which category you think it falls in. If your lexile level was low, and you get mostly low's for qualitative as well, then I think choosing a different, more challenging text is best. However, if you get middle high or high on qualitative, you can still consider using this text even it fell short on quantitative.

The last category is reader and task consideration. I would look at this document, which I have also done an abbreviated screen shot of below.


Again, it's up to your judgment to take the text and run through these questions with it. Depending on your answers here, you might be fine if this portion plays out, as well as qualitative, even if you are a little low on quantitative. This last portion of reader and task consideration speaks to educators' professional experience and taking into consideration the readers' purpose in reading, student motivation and interest, etc. So it's not as black and white as either of the other two portions.

As a last resort, if you feel the text falls a little short in all or even one of the areas, you can always supplement it. For instance, with To Kill a Mockingbird (the lexile level ends up really low, but we teach it to freshmen), the teachers who do this unit are supplementing with a higher-level and more challenging piece of information text to accompany it. This might be a current events article that relates, or a piece that discusses something of the time period like Jim Crowe laws, etc. If the supplemental piece is complex enough, our committee has come to the conclusion you can still use the original piece in conjunction with the more rigorous supplemental selection.

It seems like a lot of information (it was for me too), and it sounds like a lot of work just to pick a piece to read, but I think it will go faster the more you do it, and with the qualitative and reader/task portions, it's basically a list you can run through rather quickly when assessing a possible text choice.

I'm definitely not a CC expert, nor a text complexity expert; this is just what our committee worked on last week. If you find any inconsistencies or additional information from what I posted, please let me know in a comment! Or if you have additional resources to share, that'd be great!

Well we start back at school on Thurs. I spent a few hours getting my classroom prepared this morning and need to finish up some lesson plans this week. We went on vacation last week to Michigan and it was beyond beautiful. I will leave you with a couple photos from the trip. I hope you all have a wonderful start to the '13-'14 school year :)

The view of the harbor from our B&B

The sunsets were out of this world!

The beach and lighthouse

Thursday, August 1, 2013

August Currently

How the heck is it already August?! Linking up with Farley.

 1. My pup is currently snuggled up next to me snoring away. I'm going to miss her so much when I have to go back to work :(

2. We leave for Michigan on Sunday, and it'll be great to have a little getaway before the work grind starts again.

3. I met with a co-worker today to plan out a new class and have lots of work still to do for that.

4. I don't feel *quite* ready to go back to work yet. One more month would be great.

5. I remembered my stapler at school is broken :( I'll need to get a new one here soon.

6. I love a nice, stylish, yet fairly large tote bag to schlep around my lesson plan book, papers to grade, a water bottle, and any books I need. I love a pretty classroom (see my last post), so colorful decorations are a must. And who can start a school day without coffee?