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A Fresh Start: 4 Ways to Foster a Sense of Belonging


A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don't function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick. 
                                                                                              -Brene Brown



It's the start of a new school year, and I'm excited and anticipating another great adventure...the smell of new crayons, a new drawer of neon post-its, a rainbow of Flair pens, my pages of idealistic lesson plans, and my new kids. The beginning of a new school year is my favorite time of year, and I suspect it's part of the reason that autumn is my favorite season. It's a fresh start. For everyone. 

It's a fresh start for school-loving kiddos who come to school so ironed and perfect that I suspect their underwear was probably starched and pressed. It's also a fresh start for the kid who walks in wearing a threadbare t-shirt and holey jeans. You know the type. The kid who drums constantly. The one who, a month into the school year, you can tell what kind of day you're going to have by the way his hair is standing up on the back of his head. The fifth grade girl who comes perfectly coiffed, but has so much insecurity coursing in her veins that it takes your breath away. It's a fresh start for those kids, too. 

Every classroom management guru will tell you that the most important thing you can do is to form relationships with your students. It's vital for their emotional well-being and their learning.
Children need to belong. The despair and isolation felt by some of our kids is heartbreaking. So how will I foster a sense of belonging in my new classroom this year? How will I give my kids a fresh start? One starfish at a time. Remember that story?

'...there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can't possibly make a difference!'...the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said 'It made a difference for that one.' 

In the first month of school, I have lunch with every child in my classroom. It's a private lunch. I give each child an invitation. The day of the lunch, I set out placemats for us. I provide a sweet treat for dessert, usually cookies. My student brings his/her hot or sack lunch to the classroom. I have my lunch with me. We eat together and talk. That's it. Nothing earth shattering. But it kind of is. 

I've seen the most challenging students bask in the one-on-one attention.  They want to be liked by me. They want to feel that connection. THIS WORKS. Seriously. 

If you haven't tried this yet, please think about it. It's a game changer. You can snag some free invitations for this here

We all do back-to-school projects. We do them for a reason. They help us observe our students doing different tasks, they give our kids a chance to communicate about themselves, and if they're well thought out, they can give our students a sense of belonging. 

I do a writing/art project with my students called "Where I Belong." We begin by reading about Australian Aboriginal peoples. This gives me a chance to watch my students interacting with nonfiction text. We use a visible thinking routine to think through the article. They write a summary of the short informational article I provide them. Then we begin to talk about where we feel a sense of belonging. This concept of belonging is intrinsic for Aboriginal peoples. 

We brainstorm a list of places and then practice stretching the details of our list, until students have written a poem about where they belong. 

Finally, we create a piece of artwork to go with our belonging poems. The artwork is associated with the informational article we read about Aboriginal rock art and the significance of hand prints. When we share with each other, we do so in a popcorn style. 

We stand around the room in a big circle. One person begins by reading a line from his/her poem. Someone else jumps in when they feel like it, reading one line. Then another, and another. What occurs is a whole class improvised poem about belonging. It's a goosebump moment. Afterward, we display our poems and artwork for the school to enjoy. 





You can find the "Where I Belong" project below. Click on the picture to see it in more detail. 






Last year, I tried something daring. I was looking for an alternative recess idea. I wanted something that would appeal to many, that I could handle on a weekly basis, and that might break down the playground social barriers. I discovered a yoga resource for kids. 
I purchased the resource and printed and laminated it. I invited my kids to bring yoga mats to school, but I kept a few extras in case some didn't have access to one.  I created five stations around my classroom. Each station consisted of about 5-6 yoga poses and breathing exercises. Students rotated through the stations in 3 minute intervals. When the chimes went off on my phone timer, they moved to a new yoga station.

I began the session by reviewing the poses and breathing. Then, they rotated through the stations on their own. Sometimes, we played soft instrumental music. My kids ate it up, boys and girls! Some even chose to miss important recess soccer or basketball games in order to do yoga. My kids had a common goal: To do yoga together once a week! Our afternoons were calmer, as was their lunchroom behavior, and they interacted with students who weren't necessarily in their posse.
This yoga product isn't my own creation, but it's one of my favorite TpT discoveries. You can access it here.



The fourth thing I use to build community and a sense of belonging in my students is called The Gift of Gab. Every Monday morning, we sat in a circle on the carpet to share about our weekends. However, there was a catch. You could only share using one word! Check out the poster below to see how it works.

My students begged for this every Monday morning. It became one of our traditions. It helped me take their emotional temperatures after their weekend lives. They enjoyed the time to gab with each other, and we reviewed nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs! More importantly, they learned how to listen to each other respectfully. 
You can grab The Gift of Gab resource for free. Just click on the picture below. 


I wish you the best fresh start this school year, and I hope it's filled with a sense of wonder, community, and belonging.  Happy Back to School!


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Vocabulary Instruction in the Reader's Workshop: Making the Pieces Fit


How do you fit it all in?
                                                                   -Concerned Teacher 

In my last blog post, I wrote about how I teach tier 2 vocabulary words. I developed a whole approach using research-based instructional strategies with a fun twist for increased student engagement. If you missed that post, you can read it here

After publishing, I received many questions via email and in my tpt store. Almost everyone asked the same question: How do you fit it all in? I get it. I really do. As classroom teachers, we're inundated with curricular and non-curricular demands daily, hourly, and some days by the minute. So your questions are valid.

How do I fit it all in?

I grappled with this question for quite a while before I found something that works for me. The school district I work for mandates 90 minutes for reader's workshop and  60 minutes for writer's workshop. I had to fit in word study (we use Words Their Way), as well as the academic vocabulary instruction. These two are not synonymous. Words Their Way teaches spelling patterns, phonics, and Greek and Latin roots. Tier 2 vocabulary are robust, academic vocabulary words that students are likely to encounter across all topics and content-areas and in testing situations.  

Fitting it in felt like this in the beginning!
At first, I tried to keep all of the pieces of my reader's workshop intact. That means, I taught a reading strategy mini-lesson every day, my students read independently for at least 30 minutes every day, and I taught either guided reading or strategy groups every day. Then I tried tacking the vocabulary lesson on at the end of the session. I ended up not having time to share my mentor text with my kids. I had to have time to read aloud in my 90 minute reader's workshop block. That was non-negotiable. 

Then, I had my Elsa Moment. I let go of that impossible expectation. I really did. Because you know what? If I made my vocabulary lessons part of my cycle of mini-lessons and/or small group instruction, I was still teaching reading. Sure. I wasn't teaching the prescribed unit  mini-lessons, but my kids were still learning how to read. They were learning to read and comprehend hard tier 2 words that they encounter across all subject matters. Once I had that paradigm shift, I regained my sanity. Check out the chart below to see how I did it. 



Some important notes about this schedule...
  • Words Their Way practice occurred at home. It was a short homework task that students completed every night (5-10 minutes tops).
  • I teach 2 to 3 tier 2 vocabulary words every week.
  • I assess on Fridays, every other week. The assessments are quick and to the point. 
  • I'm not a fan of a "centers approach" in my 5th grade reader's workshop. Why? Experts say that kids need to read at least 30 minutes a day. Fifth graders should be reading 50-60 minutes daily. Guess what? It isn't happening at home. 
  • Therefore, the only other task during independent reading time is that my students complete a vocabulary thinking task in their notebooks. 
This approach isn't the only way to incorporate vocabulary instruction, but it is the schedule that has worked for my classroom. I would love to hear how you "fit it all in!" Share in the comments!



If you're looking for a way to teach tier 2 vocabulary words or want to pump up your word study practices, check these out. Just click on the picture!












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Diving Into Academic Vocabulary: A Teacher's Quest for Rigor, Engagement & Meaning



Like it was yesterday. Seriously. I still remember my first swimming class at the community pool. I wore a robin's egg blue bikini with a bow attached to the swimsuit top. It had little pink flowers on it. My mom had put my hair in pigtails. I was so excited. I was six years old. The swim teacher remains faceless in my memory, but she wore a red one-piece suit. 

Our first lesson was floating. She convinced me to lay back on her hands and relax. I was floating on my back! Then, I had to put my face in the water. I leaned forward into her outstretched arms and after way too much cajoling, I put my face in the water. She let go. I was floating on my stomach! And then, I inhaled. I snorted. I retched. I coughed. I cried. After that initial experience, my swim lesson experiences are hazy. I don't think I ever got past the doggy paddle, because I could keep my face out of water for that. 

Teaching tier 2 academic vocabulary felt like my first swim class. I waded into the shallow end of the pool, hopeful. I even left my arm floaties on the pool deck. And then I snorted water...

Types of vocabulary are broken into 3 tiers. Tier 1 vocabulary are words that seldom need to be directly taught. Tier 2 vocabulary are robust, academic vocabulary words that students are likely to encounter across all topics and content-areas and in testing situations.  Tier 3 vocabulary are words that are domain specific like “math words” or “social studies words.” 

What I had done was purchase a vocabulary product from an educational publisher. I was looking for an easy way to begin, and this seemed like the best way to go at it. A month into this worksheet-oriented resource, my kids were moaning every time we talked about vocabulary. I was bored, too. I tried to pep up my lessons, but the problem was that the resource I had purchased never moved beyond "this is the word, look up the definition, memorize it, write it in a sentence, test it." Incidentally, my kids didn't do well on the assessments, and I found myself having to review and reteach over and over again. 
I needed something engaging. My students and I needed to be excited about it.  I reread vocabulary research, and thought about what I know about pedagogy. Kids need to have ownership over their learning. They respond well to games. Choice can be a huge factor in a student's success. I put the book on the free table in our staff lounge and began to build my own pool of vocabulary lessons and activities. 

First, I made student jobs in our vocabulary workshop. We had a Dictionary Digger, a Word Caster, Wall Mason, Sound Mixer and Town Crier. The Dictionary Digger looked up the vocabulary in the dictionary or online dictionary. The Word Caster read the vocabulary sentences that I wrote on the board for each lesson. The Wall Masons built the vocabulary word wall on our cabinet doors. Each day we introduced a new word, they were in charge of placing it correctly. 

The Town Crier rang a bell and announced vocabulary headlines that summarized our weekly vocabulary learning. And finally, the Sound Mixer played a sound effect each time the vocabulary word was used throughout the day or in a content-area lesson. I had purchased a nifty sound effects handheld machine at Target just for this purpose!

I introduced props into our vocabulary workshop. The Town Crier used a large old-fashioned school bell to summarize the vocabulary learning for the day. The Sound Mixer used the sound effects machine. The Wall Masons wore bandannas around their necks and kept a large bedazzled paintbrush on their desks for the week. The Word Caster wore a feathered boa or movie star sunglasses. The Dictionary Digger wore a pair of garden gloves as he or she paged through the dictionary. The kids couldn't wait for their turns at the jobs!

Finally, I incorporated some whole-class games. We played these in the morning instead of doing worksheet-y bell work. They required strategy, talk, and critical thinking. We had a blast!


Part of my dissatisfaction with the canned vocabulary program I had purchased was its lack of rigor. It was worksheet after worksheet. In fact, it reminded me of the spelling workbooks I loathed when I was in elementary school. So I reread Robert Marzano's research on vocabulary instruction and I discovered Making Thinking Visible by Mark Church and Ron Ritchart.  

Suddenly the pieces began to fall into place. What I wanted in my vocabulary instruction was student voice. I wanted my kiddos to be talking about words, exploring them, looking for them, and playing with them...the way writers and readers do. Visible thinking routines did that for us. 

I developed my instructional routines for teaching vocabulary. First, I introduced vocabulary words by placing them in a context.  For example, I introduced a vocabulary word like analyze by writing three sentences (funny and engaging) that used the word. These sentences were about the students, myself, or humorous classroom situations. 

Ms. Willis analyzed how much time it would take until her teacher forgot about her homework.

Carson wanted to analyze how much chocolate it would take for Ms. Willis to give the class an extra recess.

Janie needed to analyze how many basic facts problems she could complete in one minute. 

Using the sentences, we discussed what we thought the word analyze means.  Then the Dictionary Digger looked it up either in a dictionary or an online dictionary. We compared and contrasted our predictions with the dictionary definitions. 

Then, I began to play with using routines like Circle of Viewpoints, 3-2-1, CSI, Headlines, and Generate-Sort-Connect-Elaborate in my lessons. The 3-2-1 routine was one of my favorite routines to use at the very beginning of my vocabulary quest. After unpacking the new vocabulary word, we met in thinking councils and thought of three words that came to mind when we thought about  the vocabulary word. 

Then we asked two questions about the word. We discussed those questions. We tried to answer them.

Finally, we created one metaphor or simile for our vocabulary word. 

Check out this example for the word analyze:

3 WORDS: Dissect, parts, think
2 QUESTIONS: In what subject areas would we use this word? Does the meaning change if we change part of the word to make it analyzed or analysis?
1 METAPHOR/SIMILE: Analyze is like looking for the greatest common factor of  two numbers in math class.

These routines and Marzano's steps for teaching vocabulary rocked our world and my instruction. After my first couple of lessons with the thinking routines, it became apparent that we had waded into the deep end of the pool. 


In order for vocabulary to stick, my students had to make meaning for themselves. We accomplished this through tons of peer-to-peer and small group discussions. Thinking routines demand that of learners. My students began to think more symbolically and metaphorically. Discourse happened. Accountable talk happened.  We used thinking routine language like:

Why do you think that?

At first I thought...now I think...

I need to be sure to remember...

I think...because...

 Their independence grew, and they were able to use thinking routines in their vocabulary notebooks. They were able to explain their thinking more succinctly. 

This quest has been a long journey. Over the course of four years, I've waded into the deep end of the pool, without my arm floaties, and I put my face into the water. Even when I came up sputtering, I kept going. It was worth it.  It changed how my students view word study and who they become as writers and readers. This time in the pool, I didn't even cry. 

                                                           Until next time, 


I worked hard so you wouldn't have to... You can snag everything you need for your own vocabulary quest right here! Click below! It's discounted for the entire month of July!



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