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Sunday, January 3, 2016

Mentor Text Display Cards


I frequently use mentor texts in the classroom, and students find them incredibly valuable as exemplars for their own writing. But too often in the past, our experience with mentor texts has been "out of sight, out of mind." Students simply forget them over time. So how can we keep mentor texts forefront in students' minds?
For each exemplar text we study, whether it be a picture book, poem, article, or excerpt from a novel, I've posted a simple letter-size display card listing the book title, author, illustrator, genre, theme, notable text features, and a text excerpt (see example below). On a bookshelf adjacent to these cards, I've shelved all of the mentor texts we've already read, as well as those I intend to use in the near future. You can view my sample Mentor Text Display Cards for Picture Books, or Mentor Text Display Cards for Novels

With just a few cards posted, already I've seen several benefits:

  • During free reading time, students will return to these texts since they're familiar and meaningful.
  • Students struggling to recall text features or literary devices will look to these cards for help.
  • Students now make discoveries of their own in their independent texts, and some have even suggested book excerpts for future sharing. This, in itself, is revealing, because students are noticing features and literary devices that haven't been formally introduced through our other texts.
  • The collection of cards serves as clear evidence of our classroom goal to create a common culture of literacy, while recognizing unique attributes of each text that we study. 
While I created the first few cards, I see no reason why future cards can't be made by students themselves. The blank prototype card I've provided is easy to duplicate and edit. After reviewing the cards I've shared, you may also decide that what I've chosen to illustrate on my cards doesn't quite serve your purposes, so I welcome you to customize them as you see fit. If you're a Google Docs user, simply open the link that I've shared, click on File in the top menu, and choose Make a Copy to create your own editable set of cards.


Looking to the future, I see some other uses for these cards:
  • Printed out, these cards can be inserted in the books they reference. That way, even if you choose not to use a book in a given year, a student can still benefit from the information the card provides.
  • Individual cards can be saved as pdf files, and these can be digitally stored for student access. My own teacher website has an index that would work well with this concept.
  • I chose to post my cards chronologically, since students will remember a book that was read "a long time ago" (two weeks ago!) and find it easier to reference if the cards are posted by occurrence. But I can also see posting cards closer to those shelves that they might reference. So my Fever 1793 card might be posted adjacent to the historical fiction section of my class library, and my Fellowship of the Ring card might be located near the fantasy section.
  • As students read their own books, they can create their own display cards to illustrate the "take-aways" of their individual texts.
Via Google slides I've provided you several cards to get started (all the books on these cards have been featured on this blog; see links below), including a blank prototype for editing online, as well as a blank that can be printed out if you prefer students to create a card using paper and pencil. Again, you will need to open the link, click on File in the top menu, and choose Make a Copy to create your own editable set of cards.

Need help teaching theme and theme statements? Check out this previous post. You can also check out my write-ups or activities for any of the following books or stories featured on the sample cards:

I'd love to hear your ideas for these cards, as well as ways you plan to customize them for your own classroom.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Student Presentations that Don't Suck

Most of us have heard of the inspirational TED Talks. We would love for students to give classroom presentations that were just as engaging and thought provoking.

Slightly less well-known than TED talks are the Ignite Talks which allow speakers only five minutes; additionally, the accompanying slides to each talk advance automatically every fifteen seconds. Now this is a format we can definitely adapt and use in the classroom!

One of my favorites is Matthew Inman, creator of The Oatmeal, speaking about How to Get 5 Million People to View Your Website:



Another favorite is Scott Berkun's Why and How to Give an Ignite Talk, which not only gives a cool insight into the Ignite format, but also provides a pretty compact lesson of effective storytelling. This one is more school appropriate, and this Ignite video could even serve as a "how to" for middle and high school students to plan their own talks:



For your next staff meeting or student presentation, give this format a shot. Perhaps just three minutes instead of five. Sometimes less is more!

Friday, October 2, 2015

Cool Trick for Managing Text Excerpts in Google Docs

My students and I often analyze text excerpts via Google Docs. I paste a substantial portion of a text into a Google Doc, students make their own copies, and they then highlight and annotate that text using the commenting feature. (This is a great way to manage self-selected close reading discussions). Difficulties arise, however, when it comes time to share, and students need to direct each other to their chosen passages. We either waste time counting paragraphs, or search for sentences at the bottom of this page or the top of that page.

I knew that sentence numbering was an option in Word, but everything I read online indicated that it wasn't possible in Google Docs. Then I stumbled onto the following video, which presented a perfect solution. Check it out, and then read on for a few helpful tips learned through our trial and error.





So simple! And my further suggestions and observations:

  • This tool is ideal for structuring annotations from close readings. See even more suggestions for improving your close readings.
  • Teach students that they can't change the font style or size of either the text or the numbers. Changing either will skew the line/number correspondence. (The Docs commenting feature does not change line spacings).
  • Show students how to use the Control + F function. Control + F opens a tiny dialogue box at the top or bottom of the screen (depending upon the browser you're using), and this can be used to quickly navigate the entire text by line number. So if a student says, "My passage begins around line 245," the entire class can type 245 into the "Find" box, hit Enter, and jump immediately to that location without scrolling. (Note that "line 243" would not work, since no line was specifically assigned that number). Students soon learn that key words from the text can also be searched this way, allowing them to locate desired text passages when building arguments.
  • Do you need to manually create that narrow number column every time? Nope. The video points out that after numbering a substantial number of pages, you can save the Doc as a template. Just keep in mind that font style, font size, and line spacings must all match those of the numbered column in order for this to work with future text insertions.
  • Can you number paragraphs instead of lines? Absolutely. But this would need to be done manually, and it would likely make more sense to number the paragraphs using a narrow column to the left rather than to the right.
  • Can two students work on the same Doc and both leave comments? Yes, and both sets of comments would show authorship. But in my experience, this leads to students racing through the text to get to the "good parts," while losing meaning and depth in the process.
  • Keep in mind that copying a Google Doc does NOT preserve comments. So a student could make a copy to share the same text with a friend, and the copy would be comment-free.
  • When else would line numbering prove helpful? If you were providing students with a passage accompanied by questions, you could refer them to specific lines within the passage easily.

Hope this helps! Let me know how you tweak it to work in your own classroom.


Monday, September 28, 2015

Reading Response Sheet

I've posted before about close reading in the classroom, and I continue to believe that close reading experiences are often most powerful when students select the passages for study.

In addition to providing students with text excerpts in Google Drive for annotating, I have also occasionally used a simple Reading Response Sheet, which you can access as a pdf or via Drive for your own editing purposes (go to File, and Make a Copy; you can then alter and edit to your heart's content).

I resisted every urge I had to over-complicate this thing, and with good results. Students felt the freedom to write only as much as they thought they would need to participate in the classroom discussion; some took laborious notes with supporting page and paragraph numbers, while others wrote gist statements with sporadic page numbers. In all cases, however, the sheet slowed them down to consider what they were reading, and to settle upon one or two excerpts that they felt passionate about discussing.

Hope you find this useful! Let me know how you might modify it for your classes.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Teaching Theme in Literature

Theme is an important concept for understanding texts of all types. Too often, however, students (and teachers!) confuse theme with topic, main idea, or author's purpose.

Let's agree that by theme we mean a universal lesson about life that one can learn from a given text. The theme of many a Lifetime movie, for example, has been "Love conquers all."


In its simplest sense, a theme might be identified by a single word. "Determination," for example, is a common theme of many movies, television shows, and of course books. But we typically want students to express the theme in a complete thought, leading to more developed ideas such as

  • Through hard work and determination, one can achieve seemingly impossible goals.
  • Determination in the face conflict can reveal a person's true character.
  • Determination is necessary to overcome adversity.
  • To one who is determined, every problem is another opportunity to succeed. 
In my own class, each common novel is centered on at least one theme, which in turn is used to generate essential questions. For the novel Holes, our central theme is Identity:

Theme: Identity
Identity might be defined as uniqueness, distinctiveness, individuality, or personality. The identity of a person or group is rarely static, but instead is constantly being changed by internal and external forces. 

Guiding Questions: 

  • How do we form our identities?
  • How does what others think about you affect how you think about yourself?
  • How is identity shaped by relationships and experiences? 
  • What can you learn about yourself by studying the lives of others?
  • When should an individual take a stand in opposition to an individual or larger group?

Why teach theme?


Identifying theme is more than an academic task on a standardized test. By understanding theme, students can 

  • better understand connections between diverse text types unified by a single theme; 
  • practice strategies and skills within the same theme, while increasing text complexity and decreasing instructional support;
  • connect prior learning to advanced topics, 
  • access familiar themes to inspire their own writing, and 
  • make connections between disciplines beyond language arts.
A novel study of Because of Winn Dixie, for instance, might spark a fourth grade unit on Identity which encompasses many other subject areas (click for full view):






















What's the best way to help students understand theme?


Often, the theme of a story or novel is stated overtly. We see this all the time in movie trailers. A voice over informs us that "a moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory" in the trailer for Unbroken, the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympian taken prisoner by Japanese forces during World War II. Watch the trailer and you'll likewise hear nearly a dozen similar statements which could easily serve as theme sentences for this story.


In Half a Chance by Cynthia Lord, our narrator Lucy frequently shares thoughts which might serve as themes for the text. In the book's first chapter, we read:


Dad always promises me things before he leaves and then forgets by the time he's home again. I couldn't help have a little bit of “I hope so” that this place would be different. That's the thing with new beginnings - sometimes they’re more than just starting over again. 

 Sometimes they change things.

Is that the book's main theme? We don't know yet, but we now have an anchor statement to which many of the book's events and details may be tethered. 

As we read the book, we discover that the family moves frequently and it is the nature of her father's career as a photographer that he isn't home as often as Lucy would like. Lucy does feel a connection to her father, however, in that she also enjoys photography. She explains that when they first move to a new place, she takes a picture as soon as they arrive. "It always makes me feel a little braver, knowing that on some future day I can look back at that photo, taken when it was new and scary, and think, I made it. Like creating a memory in reverse."


In our search for other possible overt themes, we hear that Lucy's father believes that "it's just as important to show the hard things in the world as it is to show the beautiful ones. Even in the midst of horrible things, there are bits of wonder, and all of it's true." Lucy later shares her own philosophy, explaining, "One thing I learned about moving was that once you were there, it was better to just look ahead. Because even if you went to visit the places and people you left behind, it was never the same - except in photos." Either one of these philosophies can be supported with later events in the story. It's a wonderful piece of realistic fiction, perfect for grades four to six, and fans of Cynthia Lord won't be disappointed.


But what about those books where theme is more covertly expressed? Here it's necessary to pluck out specific details and events which somehow, reflected upon as a whole, seem to express a lesson we can learn about life.



In Dan Gemeinhart's The Honest Truth, the reader is hard pressed to find a single sentence that expresses the theme of the book. In this powerful novel, Mark's cancer has returned after everyone thought he was finally healthy. Mark decides to make one last meaningful move in his life, which is to climb Mt. Rainier as he had promised his late grandfather. He leaves home without telling his best friend Jessie or his parents, armed only with a backpack full of supplies and his faithful dog Beau at his side. We alternate between the heart-breaking challenges of Mark's journey (told in the first person) and the helplessness of his friend and family at home (told in the third person). 

Throughout the book both Mark and Jessie express their feelings in haiku, a favorite poetry form learned from a third grade teacher, which the two had written in and spoken in as a form of code. Jessie, for example, writes:


"Across far, dark miles 

a friend can still hold your hand 
and be there with you."

These haikus provide hints of the book's many themes (such as friendship), but a single haiku alone fails to fully express the book's overall message about living one's life.


Extensions for the Classroom


If you've ever seen the throwback game show called $100,000 Pyramid, then you already know how to play the Theme Game. In the Theme Game, one student (the Guesser) sits with her back to the projector screen. If you don't have a screen, then placing a computer out of the Guesser's line of sight works just as well. The Hint Giver stands in front of the Guesser, and the Hint Giver (and the Audience) can see the screen or projector on which theme words will appear. As a theme word appears, the Hint Giver can provide action clues, clues from books, nearly anything imaginable that will help the Guesser figure out the theme word being shown. 


The Theme Game (see download options below) contains 11 sets of five words each, and you can certainly add more. What makes it challenging is the amount of time you allow the pair to correctly guess their five words. For my sixth graders, 90 seconds worked well for most pairs to be successful. Keep in  mind, however, that they had read many books, stories, poems, and articles in common, and so were able to provide clues rooted in those text sources; this may not be the case in all classrooms.




The Theme Game is available free in PowerPoint or in Google Slides


I've provided a simple Theme Exercise using an original short story called Cheerleading Challenge. I've provided the story in Word format, Google Docs format, and PDF format, should you wish to change the formatting, add additional questions, have students annotate the text Google Docs, etc. All versions include a simple chart at the story's end to help students organize their thinking, and this chart can be copied and added to other texts with which students work.




Finally, if you want to infuse your own texts into an exercise, then check out the Themes Statement handout. Substitute your own poems, short stories, nonfiction articles, books, etc. for the titles included there. The handout mentions a simple list of universal themes which may prove useful as an ongoing reference.

More About The Honest Truth


Fans of Counting by 7s and Wonder will love The Honest Truth. Teachers will as well, not just for its complex and compelling story line, but its models of exemplary writing.


The book contains many fantastic passages, but I found a few to be especially compelling. Students will come to understand the power of repetition in passages such as this one: 


Jess sat down and, after a few false starts, Mark's mom told her everything. She told her about the last call from the doctor and what he'd told her. She told her about how Mark had taken it... 

Mark's mom sat looking down at her hands, at her fingers tied tight together. They were a mom's hands, soft, with only small wrinkles, and chipping polish on the nails. They were empty with only themselves to hold. (pp. 69-70) 

Or the use of sentence fragments:

While we waited in the gloomy afternoon, several more people showed up and joined us. An older couple with no climbing gear but three cameras and a pair of binoculars. A family with two little kids that ran around and screamed. An old guy with a walking stick who was so lean and healthy looking he looked like he could walk a thousand miles without hardly noticing. (p. 96)

Or action:

At the last second, just before my body hit the black water, I gulped one great big breath of air. I filled my lungs, and then the freezing water grabbed my body and did its frigid best to stop my heart. 

The water was more than cold. It was ice that moved. It was strong and fast and there was nothing I could do. I would have screamed,but the cold was squeezing my lungs like a black fist. For one second I saw Beau looking down at me from the log, getting smaller as I rushed away, and then the water spun me and I was gone. The last I saw of him, his front legs were already in the air. He was jumping in after me. (p. 123)

Or emotions which are difficult to put into words:

But worst of all: It would all be without him. He was who she walk to school with. Who she sat next to in class. Who she shared lunch with. There, with all those eyes and that one little space next to her where he was supposed to be, he would feel so much more gone. And she would feel so much more alone. (p. 135)

All in all, it's a memorable novel which you can confidently recommend for independent reading, or use as a class read-aloud.