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Vincent Van Gogh, Constellations & Coordinate Graphs


Sometimes, our students give us the best ideas. We were mucking through our solar system unit in science, reading about how the night sky is charted, when Charlie said, "This kind of reminds me of how we graph points."

I love moments like this. It's like everything kind of slows down, and our brains begin to connect the dots (no pun intended). Charlie's response was the catalyst for this project. To this day, he likes to say that he added the spice to our fifth grade coordinate graphing unit. And he would be right. 

I went home that night and began to pull resources together for a multi-disciplinary project. There was one Common Core State Standard that had been causing grief...


5.G.A.2 Graph points on the coordinate plane to solve real-world and mathematical problems. 


It was the "real world" part that perplexed me. The next week, we got down to business. We began by reading about Vincent Van Gogh. I chose this artist because "Starry Night" is a painting that most students recognize, and I wanted to bring our study of constellations into the math class. I found two children's books that did a nice job.
In Katie and the Starry Night, a young girls visits famous paintings. When she view's Van Gogh's "Starry Night," the stars come tumbling out of the painting. She experiences the painting as she attempts to round up the rogue stars.

In Vincent Can't Sleep, readers experience the night sky through Vincent's sleepless eyes. This book explores how Vincent's lifelong insomnia provided inspiration for one of his greatest works. 

In addition, we read a straight biographical sketch that I wrote about Van Gogh. 
After reading the books, biography and a quotation biography that I created for my students, students responded to the readings by using the Step Inside thinking routine. You can read more about that here.

We also spent some time observing "Starry Night" up close and personal using our SMART board, so it would be projected big enough for us to notice small details. 

Later on in the week, we researched different constellations. We extended our science learning a bit and read about some of the myths associated with the constellations. I created constellation cards for my students to use. I also curated a list of websites about constellations and uploaded them in our Google Classroom site. 

Finally, we were ready to begin reviewing our coordinate graphing concepts. We practice graphing X and Y coordinate data and applying increase and decrease rules to that data. Students accepted a commission from a wealthy patron who wanted a night sky with one constellation picture created for her home. It must be inspired by Vincent Van Gogh's "Starry Night."  My kids chose a favorite constellation and graphed it on a small coordinate grid. They recorded the coordinates for their constellations. 

Then, real life came traipsing in all over their artistic dreams. The wealthy patron wrote them a letter explaining that she wanted the picture to be double the size. It had to be larger. At this point in the project, students demonstrated that they could write a mathematical rule for their X and Y coordinates, apply it, and graph them to create an art piece double the size of the original. 

After doing this, they used oil pastels to create their art piece inspired by Vincent Van Gogh. Then, they cut out an horizon scape that I had printed on 11"X 17" paper. They traced these on black construction paper and glued them to the bottom part of their night skies. This made their art look similar to Van Gogh's. Instead of painting a village scape, they used black construction paper cities, forests, lighthouses, etc. for a silhouetted effect. 

The last step of this project was a student learning statement in which I required my students to reflect on what they learned about coordinate graphing, rules, constellations and Vincent Van Gogh.  

What I absolutely love about this project is that I could combine some really rigorous literacy goals with science concepts and equally challenging math goals. And my students were ON FIRE with enthusiasm and engagement. Charlie actually said, "This has something for everyone, Ms. Willis!" And again, he would be right. 

You can find the Starry Night project by clicking on the picture below!

And if you like multi-disciplinary projects like this one, you have to check out the ones below! They will rock your classroom world!







The Thing With Feathers: Children's Literature for Teaching Hope



The other day, while I was wasting time on social media, I saw another post about a child who committed suicide. According to The Jason Foundation's 2017 statistics, suicide is the second leading cause of death in youth ages 10-24. When did we lose our hope? How do we talk to our students about hope and connection?

HOPE is this month's Book Talk-Theme Talk in my podcast group, We Teach So Hard. This theme has become one of our recent favorite podcast episodes, but it also feels timely and necessary. We've chosen some stellar hope-themed literature to share with you.

An Angel for Solomon Singer, by Cynthia Rylant, tells the story of how a poor, friendless man wanders the streets of New York City. He misses his rural life he had growing up and wishes for beauty and meaning in his life. Things begin to change for Solomon when he finds a special cafe "where dreams come true." Solomon discovers friendship, connection and hope in the cafe. 
I'm also recommending Train to Somewhere by Eve Bunting. The central character of the story is Marianne, a small girl secretly dreaming of being reunited with her mother, who promised to return for her after she makes a new life for them in the West. Marianne is left at an orphanage. The picture book begins with Marianne riding one of the orphan trains with other children, all of whom will be placed with families at each stop. Marianne's hopes and anxieties about finding her mother at one of the train stops are palpable. At each stop, all 13 of Marianne's companions are adopted. On the final stop, an older couple waits for her. They were planning on adopting a boy. Instead, they adopt Marianne while comforting her with, "Sometimes what you get turns out to be better than what you wanted in the first place."

Both of these books are fantastic for teaching about mood, as well theme. One of my favorite ways to teach mood is to introduce a plot mountain to my students. We chart the story on the plot mountain. I tell my students to think about the part of the story when the character's struggles seem almost insurmountable. That's the summit of the plot mountain. Everything before that is rising action to that pivotal point of struggle. Everything after that is falling action. 

Then, I play excerpts from 4-6 instrumental music recordings. We discuss which music would make the best soundtrack for the points on the plot mountain. Students think about mood, the emotions of the characters during their struggles. There's something about bringing music to literature that really excites kids. They love creating "play lists" for these picture books.

Because I was a music teacher, long ago in another space and time, I used to have a piano in my room. I would play excerpts for students to build a soundtrack for our picture book read-alouds. 

Another way I've approached this is to provide a list of Youtube instrumental tracks that I've curated. Students explore the list and then create the playlist for the book. Finally, they write a reflection that explains their choices and their thinking. 

The illustrations in both of these books are gorgeous...and wonderfully moody. If you choose not to use a plot mountain with your students, simply pairing music selections with specific story illustrations is powerful, too. 

However you choose to teach your students about hope, my wish for you and your students feel truly connected and valued. I've included a free resource to help you when incorporating music into your other academic subjects. Click the graphic to the left!

Be sure to visit my podcast buddies' blog posts about their hope-themed books and teaching ideas. You won't be sorry!

Bringing Hope in Times of Angst // Tried & True Teaching Tools
Hope is a 4-Letter Word // Socrates Lantern
Finding Hope // Rainbow City Learning


If you're looking for a great podcast episode to round out your week, give our Book Talk Theme Talk Hope Episode a listen! Click the We Teach So Hard graphic to listen.       

If you like my arts integration ideas in this blog post, you may be interested in these other teaching ideas...they're creative, rigorous, and engaging!

Love is in the Air: Using Kid Lit to Teach Discourse





Sometimes, getting students to talk feels like a traumatic trip to the beauty shop. Stick with me here. You walk into the salon with grand expectations. You've pinned several haircut photos highlighting the life-changing style you desire. You've agonized over auburn vs. chocolate brown, and whether or not either color will age you. 

You sit in the chair and share your vision with the hair wizard. She smiles her knowing smile and turns you around, away from the mirror. You hum as you flip through the latest issue of Cosmopolitan and think to yourself, "I'm not too old to read this magazine. I'm still relevant." 

Finally, she flicks off the protective cape covering your shoulders and spins you around to face the mirror. For a fleeting moment, you struggle to adjust your face into an emotionless mask. "What the hell was she thinking?" you wonder. "Was I speaking Greek?"

The first time I asked my students to talk independently about a book chapter we read together was just like that. I came to them with big expectations. I told them what I wanted. They smiled their knowing fifth grader smiles... and did something entirely different. Why? Because discourse, conversation, discussion skills (whatever you choose to call it) need to be directly taught. So,  I rolled up my sleeves and developed discourse mini lessons to teach my expectations. 

So how do I make sure that our attempts at discourse aren't like a traumatic trip to the hair salon? I make our discourse goals transparent. Before hand, we talk a great deal about what makes a great conversation. We list the skills on chart paper. Then, I use these skills for my mini-lessons over the next couple of weeks. You can see the list we generated on the Yakity-Yak mini poster. Each of these became a series of whole group and small group lessons. 

Every time I taught a discourse lesson, we created a poster as a memory tool for the skills that they learned. We used table top tents to remind ourselves of the expectations. However, the most powerful practice we did was to reflect on our discourse skills after every formal discussion. Students asked themselves, "What did I do well this time? What are my be-sure-to's for next time?" And then, they also reflected on how their thinking changed as a result of the discourse. 

Now it's mid January, and I'm preparing my literature choices for February and thinking about how I will continue to grow my students' discourse skills. January is always a month of review, isn't it?

I've selected three books with a common theme of love to share. All of them explore relationships with grandparents or older relatives. I want my students to engage in compare/contrast talk and writing over the course of this mini-unit. 
The three texts I'm using are below!
 In The Hundred Penny Box, Michael's great-great aunt Dewbert is 100 years old. She has a penny for every years she's been alive. Together, they play a game. Michael chooses a penny from her collection and she tells him what happened in the year it was minted. She keeps her pennies in an old wooden box she calls her hundred penny box. She tells him that her life is in that box. Taking the box from her would be like taking her life from her.  Michael grows to see that things are changing for Aunt Dewbert. Her mind is growing feeble, and sometimes she's confused. 

Three children follow their grandpa up into the attic where he pulls out his old bowler hat, his tap shoes, and his gold-tipped cane. He relives his vaudeville days on the stage for them so the children can see what it was like to be a song and dance man.




Peter is thrilled that Grandpa is coming to live with his family. That is, until Grandpa moves right into Peter’s room, forcing him upstairs. Peter loves his grandpa but wants his room back. He has no choice but to declare war! With the help of his friends, Peter devises outrageous plans to make Grandpa surrender the room. But Grandpa is tougher than he looks. Rather than give in, Grandpa plans to get even.

We'll be using these books to review our discourse skills, write compare/contrast essays, and discuss characters' view points.  I'm so excited to stretch my learners a little more!

Interested in accessing the discourse lessons and materials I developed while teaching my kiddos? You can snag this growing product right now at a low cost. Currently, it includes the colored posters, table tent, and student reflection sheets I used with my students. By February 9, 2020, the price will be going up when 8 discourse lessons and their interactive notebook pages are added. Click on the picture to the right. 


You MUST visit Kathie, Retta, and Deann's blogposts to read about more awesome love-themed book recommendations and lesson ideas. Be sure to stop by and listen to our podcast about the books, too. It's a great episode!


Rainbow City

Socrates Lantern


Tried & True Teaching Tools





Click the picture to listen to the latest episode of We Teach So Hard!



Honesty-Themed Books For Your Reader's Workshop

Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.
                                                                                                                     -Thomas Jefferson

Emptying my dad's change jar out on the living floor is one of my favorite childhood memories. My sister and I were always fleecing my father for his spare change. Early on, we learned about the power that pennies could wield at Dan's Convenience Store down the road. And on hot summer days, we rode our bikes around one-armed or no-handed while we slurped down orange sherbet pop-ups that we'd bought with our begged spare change. Spare change meant sugar, bike rides, and sticky fingers when the ice cream inevitably dripped down our hands and handlebars.

So when I discovered The Hard Times Jar by Ethel Footman Smothers, published in 2003, my own happy childhood memories were triggered. Instead, my students and I found a beautifully written book that provides a window into a household with a very different reality. 

Emma Turner is a little girl who loves books. She loves reading them and writing them. She dreams of owning her own "store-bought" book, but she and her family are migrant workers. There isn't money for extras like store-bought books. Emma decides she'll use some of the money she makes picking apples to purchase her own book. But then, her mother announces that she won't be picking apples this year because she'll be going to school for the first time. Emma is devastated, until she discovers that her classroom is filled with real books. Emma is in heaven! The only rule is that she can't take the books home with her. 

Emma breaks the rule and takes the book home. She has to confess to her teacher about what she has done. Her mother, realizing that this honest action was very hard for Emma, gives her money from the hard times jar for her very own book, because hard times aren't just about not having bread or milk. Sometimes, hard times are about doing hard things, like being honest when you've done something wrong. 


This book has become one of my new favorites in my Empathy Project (you can read about that HERE or HERE). However, good children's literature is rich with multiple themes. Honesty is a big lesson in this picture book. I'll be using this book over the next week to teach about theme. 

One of my favorite ways to teach my students about theme is to have them reflect on theme over the course of several picture book read alouds.  We begin by placing a sticky note on a designated page in our reader's notebook. They date the sticky note, and write their definition of honesty. Then we read the first picture book, The Hard Times Jar. We discuss the theme of honesty and how it played out in the book. Then they place a second sticky note, write the book title at the top of it, and write a new definition of honesty, based on the book we just read together. They also write a statement of how their thinking changed. 

Next, we read 3-4 more books with an honesty theme. Each time, we add another sticky note and our thinking about the theme in our reader's notebooks. The most powerful part of this is when students explain how their thinking changes every time we read a new book. 

Finally, I give them a sentence strip. They place their sticky notes in order from first to last in order to see the evolution of their thinking. They describe this evolution with a discussion buddy. At the very end, they write about it in a very short essay. I use that essay as a reading and writing assessment. 

My students love this approach because they get to talk about their thinking. I love it because I can see how their thinking develops over time. 

I've made a featured freebie for the month of December, just for you! You can snag the theme bookmarks I give my students for free. They're like an anchor chart on a bookmark. Simply click the picture.


You can hear more about honesty-themed books by listening to our latest Book Talk-Theme Talk episode. My podcast buddies had a ball talking about these books and our ideas for how to use them in our classrooms. Click the picture to access the episode.

OR, you can read about the other honesty-themed books I'll be using in my theme talks by visiting my podcast buddies' blog posts below. They've written about some fantastic books and have included some great teaching ideas to go with them!





Gentle Rebellion 101: A Teaching Story


Once upon a time, there was a fearsome dandelion fighter. Every week, he rode a 20 horsepower mower across an immaculate lawn... a lawn manicured so carefully that when the neighborhood association whipped out its Home Depot measuring tape, no matter where they measured, his grass was exactly 1 1/2 inches tall. At the end of each weekly battle, the warrior strutted across his lawn with a hoe in hand and grubbed out each dandelion green that his weed and feed fertilizer had not killed. 

Now next door to the lawnmower knight, there lived a young girl. Her favorite past time was to lay in the tall grass and weave dandelion crowns for Gracie, her dog, and Eddie Spaghetti, her marmalade cat. Every evening after the knight had retired to his suburban castle, she picked fluffy white dandelion heads and gently blew them across the knight's lawn. Then she closed her eyes and dreamed about a yellow sea of dandelions and all the beautiful crowns, necklaces and bracelets she would create for the neighborhood strays. It was an act of Gentle Rebellion.

Last Friday, I was lucky enough to attend a free professional development day at the Detroit Institute of Art. I had just spent three mind-numbing, soul-sucking weeks of teaching, grading, planning building professional development, attending leadership meetings, and teaching a weekly night class at a local university. Add parent-teacher conferences and some health challenges, and it was the perfect storm. I thought about not going. I wasn't feeling well. I could easily stay home. I was past exhaustion, but I went. The conference was on creativity, and I had been looking forward to it for weeks. 

I arrived at the Detroit Institute of Art and was given a free copy of Say Something by Peter H. Reynolds, a free copy of Start with a Dot, also by Reynolds, a number of free art posters for my classroom, and a little museum notebook for note-taking. I nestled down into the lecture hall and mourned the cup of coffee I had left in my car. When Reynolds walked out onto the stage, one of the first things he said was, "Education needs gentle rebels. Lean outside the box without getting fired." 

I forgot about my coffee. 

He told his story. The one about doodling all throughout his school career...the one about his boundless energy, and the math teacher who changed everything for him. The math teacher who asked him if he had ever thought about illustrating math concepts. The math teacher who suggested he make an animated movie, and then helped him do it. 

By the time Peter H. Reynolds was done speaking, I felt two things I hadn't felt in a while...alive and valued. I know I sound like I'm spewing sentimental drivel, but he reminded me of something I had forgotten. Once again, I had forgotten to take care of myself, and I had overlooked my impact on my colleagues and students. 

His keynote was the start of a fabulous learning day. We learned how to use visible thinking strategies and art in order to teach empathy . We were given the opportunity to engage in deep conversations about art. We learned about creative exploration and used junk and stamp pads to create our own works of art, and then discussed ways we could use the same thinking and creating processes in our classrooms. 

We painted and drew, all the while brainstorming ways to incorporate creativity into our every day classroom lives. 

The art institute filled our bellies with amazing food (no boxed lunches here), and we were given time to talk and think with the colleagues around us. 

And throughout it all, Peter H. Reynolds sat with us, painted with us, talked with us, ate with us, and quite frankly, held up a mirror for us to remember our own worth and power. It was an amazing day.

When Peter talked about gentle rebels, I pictured the hundreds of dandelion seeds that float delicately from my yard into my neighbor's yard. Often times in education, initiatives are rolled out (like a steamroller),  ideas are brainstormed (always makes me think of barnstorming), concepts are scripted and managed like a lawn cut so short that noone wants to walk on it because it's uncomfortably prickly. I was relieved when reminded that it only takes one whispering seed of creativity and belief to float into the fertile young minds in my classroom. I'll have a new crop of dandelions before I know it. 

P.S. If you ever get a chance to hear and see Peter H. Reynolds present, do it. You won't be sorry. While you're at it, buy his books. All of them. 


Thinking about ways to catch your breath with the upcoming break or spread a little calm? Check out these goodies. There's a freebie just for you!




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