Making Thinking Visible

Making Thinking Visible
Making Thinking Visible

Arts Integration

Arts Integration
Arts Integration

A Good Book Can Start The Year Off Right!

I have a problem. It might not be apparent when you enter my classroom. I hide it well, behind innocent cabinet doors and colorful book baskets. I hoard books. I buy them and covet them and crave them. My classroom library is organized but bursting at the seams. My book cabinets are like suicide cupboards. I open them cautiously and ferret through them quickly before the shelves vomit them onto the floor. I can't help myself. Last year, a fifth grade student told me that I need an intervention. 

A room without books is like a body without a soul.
                                                                                                -Marcus Tullius Cicero

 My room has a lot of soul. I learned early on in my career that a good book can change my classroom world, create a paradigm shift, and cultivate respect, empathy, imagination and empowerment. I moved around a lot early in my career, so I needed to take those powerful books with me. I never stopped hoarding. Let me tell you about some of my back-to-school teaching treasures. 

At the beginning of each school year, I always look for THAT read aloud, the quintessential back-to-school book that inspires my students, and leads to good talk, writing or art.  One year, I found Imagine by Bart Vivian.

This short but gorgeous book is about taking the everyday stuff of life and imagining it to be something different.  Some illustrations turn a tree house into a castle.  Others are more about children dreaming about their futures...a girl watches the ballerina in her jewelry box and imagines herself on stage as a prima ballerina.  A boy sees a fire truck and imagines himself as a fireman rescuing someone from a burning building. 

The pattern of the book adds to the story. The real life  objects are in black and white.  Turn the page, and the dreams, wishes or fantasies are in full color.

I couldn't wait to share this book.  So on the second day of school, with my third and fourth graders on the carpet in front of me, we read it together.  We discussed the pattern of the book, the illustrations, and we cleared up vocabulary.  When we say the word dream,  it has multiple meanings.  So we talked about hopes and wishes and how they might be different from daydreams or fantasies.  Then, we talked about how all of these are different from the type of dreams we have when we're asleep. 

I gave each student a thought bubble which they covered with artwork about their hopes for their futures or their wishes for how their school year would go.   While students were creating, I took their pictures with my iPad. Another student helped me use a photo editing app to create a dream-like appearance.  All of that led to this:

My next back-to-school pick is a golden oldie...The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown. Margaret Wise Brown is the author of early childhood classics like Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny. First published in 1954, people often think of it as a primary read aloud, but I use it with older kids. It uses formulaic and poetic text to examine every day subjects more closely. Like this:

The important thing about the sky is that it is always there. It is true that it is blue, and high, and full of clouds, and made of air. But the important thing about the sky is that it is always there. 

We read this book together, and then I ask my students, "What's the important thing about you?" If they were going to write a verse about themselves for this book, what would their verse say? We write our thoughts down in our writer's notebooks. Then, I take it a step further, "What part of your physical body would be associated with that important thing about you?"

For example, the important thing about Ms. Willis is that I notice things other people don't see. My eyes would be associated with this.  After we massage our details about ourselves and choose that important body part, we take black and white pictures of that part of us and write a verse about ourselves. 

The important thing about me is that I notice things that other people miss,
like when someone has hurt feelings, 
or is alone on the playground, 
and the time my chocolate puppy Gracie didn't feel well. 
But the important thing about me is that I notice things that other people miss.
My kids love getting creative with the ipad cameras and then writing about how their pictures show the important things about them. What makes this an upper elementary lesson is the metaphorical thinking it demands that students do. The black and white photos and their poems make a stellar beginning of the year bulletin board.

If you want to try this yourself you can grab a writing page to help you, for free! Click the picture to snag it!


My last book recommendation is another golden oldie. I do use newer texts in my classroom...honest! But when I find older treasures that I love and that my kids wouldn't necessarily pick up themselves because they aren't recently published, I want to use them.  The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes was first published in 1945! It's a Newberry Honor book that has never gone our of print. 

This small chapter book tells the story of a young Polish girl named Wanda who comes to school every day wearing the same clothes. The other kids in her classroom ridicule her. Wanda tells them that she has 100 dresses at home. Her classmates are merciless. Wanda leaves the school suddenly, and her classmates feel terrible because it's too late for apologies. Maddie, one of Wanda's classmates, vows that she will never again stand idly by and say nothing when she sees someone being treated poorly.  The theme of this book is an important one, and I've used it as a comparison text for countless picture books with the same theme. I teach a high ELL population, and wearing the same clothes to school every day is not uncommon for struggling immigrant children. Want to cultivate some empathy? Check this classic out. It's timeless.
The first weeks of school are so important for setting the tone and culture of your learning community. The books and projects you choose to share impact your classroom culture. 
For more reading and writing ideas for the beginning of your school year, click the pictures to learn more. 

This week's WE TEACH SO HARD podcast is about finding great read alouds for your first weeks of school. Come give us a listen! Click the picture.
Also, be sure to visit Retta, Kathie, and Deann's blogs below for more great read aloud suggestions, tips and freebies!

Episode 4 with WE TEACH SO HARD: Setting the Stage for Parent Curriculum Night & Open House

Flop sweats, butterflies in the belly, and live cricket mayhem...This episode has it all! Give it a listen! Click  HERE!

The Building Blocks: Reader's Workshop 101

Teach the reader, not the book.
                                                                                       -Wild Child 

I was one of the lucky ones. I didn't struggle in reading class. I was in the "bluebird group." The worst reading experience I had was when the volunteer librarian wouldn't let me check out Nancy Drew chapter books when I was in second grade. My teacher mom marched herself into school, in her best teacher pantsuit, to talk to the librarian. The next week, I immersed myself in Nancy, Beth and George's detective antics. I was lucky. Reading wasn't an opaque wilderness.

As a teacher, I was lucky, too.  I learned about the workshop model very early in my career. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time at the University of Arizona. I finished my master's degree within the Language, Reading and Culture department. The entire program was workshop-based. I had died and gone to heaven. 

Why is the workshop model heaven? Let me count the ways...

  1. It allows the teacher to differentiate for each student.
  2. Student choice is honored and welcomed.
  3. It teaches the reader and not the book.
  4. It's strategy-based.
  5. It makes the reading process transparent for students.
Like all great teaching methods, it's not without its challenges, but it's worth doing. If you weren't exposed to the reader's workshop model early on, it can feel really overwhelming. But listen, I didn't say that I had all the blocks in place at the very beginning. No way! Like any rigorous and student-centered method, implementation takes time. Teaching is an art form that develops with practice. So what is reader's workshop?

The reader's workshop consists of 5 parts: An interactive read aloud, a mini-lesson, independent reading with conferring and small group instruction, a mid-workshop teaching point, and finally the share. 

Juggling these parts at first can make a teacher crazy. I like to think about it like marathon training. When I decided to train for a marathon (26.2 miles), I didn't walk out my front door and go for a 20 mile run. I began with a 3 miler, and then upped the distance gradually. That's how you start implementing reader's workshop... you gradually master the components. 


In reader's workshop, you begin your block of time by sharing a read aloud. This is not just a book you liked in the Scholastic book order. Read aloud texts act as mentor texts. That means, they serve an instructional purpose. What you choose to read is determined by what your students need, and what you need to teach them. You're using the text to explicitly teach reading strategies. 

During this part of the workshop, you read your mentor text aloud to students, stopping to discuss and model your comprehension thinking out loud. You might ask students to share their thinking. This is not a passive-I'm-gonna-read-this-book-after-lunch-to-calm-them-down reading. Students should be actively engaged. Sometimes, they doodle, draw or record their thinking in their reader's journals. Other times, I've asked them to listen for something, or I've reviewed our thinking from the previous session and by doing so, I've given them a purpose for listening. 

I have the ONE COPY of the book. This is not a whole-class read.  I typically write our thinking on chart paper. This serves as a record from chapter to chapter. 


After the interactive read aloud is done, the mini-lesson is next. The purpose of the mini-lesson is to teach one reading strategy to the whole group. During the mini-lesson, you introduce one teaching point, you will probably use excerpts from the interactive read aloud to help you do so. You model the strategy for students. 

Then, you have them practice with you or a partner. This is called guided practice. Finally, they try it on their own. Before sending students off to read independently, remind them of what the teaching point was, and that you expect them to try it while they read. Sometimes, you might ask for them to provide evidence of this by way of an entry in their reader's notebooks or on a sticky note that they'll share later. 

Remember, it's a MINI-lesson. It's 15 minutes long. That's it.


During independent reading, students read to themselves. As an upper elementary teacher, I don't do a lot of center work during this time. There are two reasons why: 
  1. Upper elementary students need to develop reading least 50 minutes at the fifth grade level, 40 minutes for 4th grade, and 30 minutes for 3rd grade. This is research-based! Look up any reading guru. He or she will tell you. Honest.
  2. Sometimes, center work is often "busy work." Teachers are afraid their students won't read for the expected duration. Stamina and refocusing strategies must be taught. Why waste valuable reading time with busy work tasks? The way students become readers is by READING!
During the independent reading time, I'm not eating bon-bons. I'm teaching.

I teach guided reading or strategy groups at this time. These are small-instruction groups that I've formed to support learners who are either reading at a similar instructional reading level, or who are reading at different levels but have similar reading strategy needs. 

I form these groups using Fountas & Pinnell reading assessment data or NWEA data. They are not static. They change as my readers change and grow. This is a change from the "once a bluebird, always a bluebird" reading group mentality.  During small group instruction, we discuss vocabulary, word study, read short texts or portions of longer texts together, and tackle specific strategies they have shown that they need during assessments. 

Each group member has a copy of the text. I meet with about 3 reading groups a day. Every group doesn't meet every day. My high-need group will see me every day. My other groups will see me 2-4 times a week. Each reading group takes no longer than 15 minutes. I tend to be wordy, so I set a visual timer to keep me on track.

In between groups, I might touch base with a couple of students who are reading independently. I'll have a 5 minute reading conference where I'll check in with them and quickly discuss their thinking. These are called reading conferences. I jot down notes and move on. 

Is every child in a reading group? No. Instructional equity doesn't mean equality. My job as a reading teacher is to give each student what he or she needs. My level Z 5th grade reader doesn't need a reading group. That would just slow her down, so I confer with her instead...or she might engage in a student-formed literature circle or reading partnership. 

At some point, I stand in the middle of the room or back in the instructional area, and I check in with my readers. It might look like this, "Readers, look this way. What details are you noticing that your author used to show the character's internal actions?" Students respond. Sometimes, if I know it's going well with the mini-lesson teaching point, I might add more rigor to it during this check-in. 

That might sound like this, "Readers, we've been practicing noticing when the author uses specific details to show the character's internal action, but now I'm wondering if you agree with the choices the author has made. From now until the end of our workshop time, find a few minutes and use a sticky to jot your thinking down about the choices the author has made. Be ready to share!"

This part lasts no longer than 5 minutes, and it's often shorter than that!

The last thing I do during the independent block is to facilitate a share. The temptation to leave this out is sometimes overwhelming. In fact, it's still the part I haven't mastered to my liking. I call my reader's together in the instructional area again, I reiterate the teaching point, and I ask students to share what they learned while practicing it during independent reading. Sometimes, they just raise their hands and share aloud, and other times, we pair-share and I eavesdrop while they talk with their partners. If we've used sticky notes, they put these up on chart paper that I've prepared, and we go over them together. This takes about 5 minutes.

That's a 90 minute reader's workshop block, in a nutshell. When I began teaching with the workshop approach, I focused my efforts on the interactive read aloud and reading groups. Later, when I felt like I had some teaching fluency with those, I turned my attention to my mini-lessons. This was hard. I had to edit myself because my mini-lessons were actually maxi-lessons. I worked with a literacy coach for a while. This helped me tremendously. 

Then, I tackled the mid-workshop teaching point. It wasn't until I became a literacy coach myself, that I realized that I needed to work on the Share component of my workshop. 

My point is that as teachers, we are always learning. It's the very nature of our jobs. So if you're always learning, why not try an approach that is student-centered, makes reading strategies transparent for readers, and turns non-readers into readers? 

If you're interested in more detailed information about reader's workshop, follow this blog! Over the next two months, I'll be writing about each of the 5 workshop parts in more detail.

In the meantime,  check out the reader's workshop planning pages below. They'll make your start up easier! 

Pssssst! In case you haven't heard, you can chat with me about reader's workshop on FaceBook! Visit at

You can also tune in weekly at WE TEACH SO HARD. It's a great way to talk shop! Click the picture below.

Consider joining our FaceBook pitch, just teachers who want to talk shop! Click the image below to join.

What Happens When Your Team Isn't A Dream?

What happens when your team isn't a dream? It has probably happened to all of us at some point in our careers. So what do you do?

Listen...'cuz you teach so hard.

WE TEACH SO HARD Episode 2 Keeping it Real on The First Day of School

Hey friend! Grab a cup of coffee and give us a listen as we discuss 1st day plans, tips and tricks. A new podcast episode is now playing HERE!

Back to School & The First Days' Razzle Dazzle...Feathers & Sequins Not Necessary

Give 'em the old razzle dazzle,
Razzle Dazzle 'em.
Give 'em an act with lots of flash in it,
And the reaction will be passionate
                                                                              -Billy Flynn (Fred Ebb/John Kander, "Chicago")

I used to feel a lot like Billy Flynn on the first few days of school. Billy Flynn is the flim-flam lawyer character in the musical "Chicago." The first day of school felt like opening night at the theater...a little bit of grease paint, some sequins, some feathers... and JAZZ HANDS! 

First impressions are important. As much as we'd like to pretend that they aren't, humans are wired to assess, analyze, and judge within seconds after meeting someone new. And as teachers, we want our students to like us. It'll make our jobs easier, they'll learn more, and we'll feel good about ourselves, because let's face it, we are surrounded by a society that often boos us off the stage. We need to feel good about ourselves. 

Teaching is, after all, a form of show business.
                                                                                            - Steve Martin 

So, I performed. Yes, feathered boas were involved. On the first day of school, I played music, I taught the routines...acted them out, I cracked jokes, and I had them laughing in the aisles. Which is fine and dandy, except I was exhausted half way through the day. And, no one nominated me for an academy award. 

About thirteen years ago (I'm a teaching dinosaur), it occurred to me that I was working harder than my students, and this epiphany changed my teaching life. My paradigm shift meant that my first day of school, and the days and weeks that followed, became student-centered instead of teacher-centered. 

Click to download the observation sheet.
Now, my first days of school look different. They are prime time for teacher observation. One of the things I do is engage my students in game play.  I do this because I want to see my students interacting with each other. I want to watch the social dynamics and how they handle challenge.
I use a visible thinking routine called See-Think-Wonder. I have recording sheets that I use.They're 11" X 17" pages, divided into squares, six to a page.  Each square represents a student. I record my student observations on these sheets, all week.

Before we begin playing games, I draw a looks like/sounds like anchor chart, and we talk about what cooperation and collaboration looks like and sounds like. Then, we play.  I've found a few games that work well for the first days of school. I try to choose games that are not heavy in content, but have a smidgen of challenge. I do this because I need my kids to be independent so I can watch them and not have to support them with academic content. While they play the games, I watch them and record what I see.  I try to get to each grouping over the course of game play. 

I'm watching for sportsmanship, emotional resilience in the face of loss, perseverance and empathy. I'm also looking for problem-solving skills, bravado or cockiness, confidence, self-control, or a lack of these traits.

10-20-30 is a great game for the early days in upper elementary. You just need decks of cards. That's it. Kids work with a partner (it's a cooperation game, not a competition game). The object is to try to get through a whole deck of cards by removing three at a time to make sums of 10, 20 or 30, but there's a twist that makes it hard. You can find the directions for this free game by clicking on the picture.

I created another game called "Operation Slam." In this game, students receive a page full of little circles. Inside each circle, there is a number. Students play in partners to color in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division facts. They may string together as many in one number sentence as they can find. They record their number sentences on a recording sheet. When they find 3 or more numbers that can go together in an equation, they color them in on the circle sheet with their chosen colored pencil. The partner with the most circles colored in wins the game. Click on the picture!

Another game that works well is one I found from Tried and True Teaching Tools. I asked families to donate used Jenga games they were no longer using. I followed the directions and colored the ends of the blocks with permanent markers. The colors coordinated to task cards. When students pulled an orange Jenga block, they answered an orange task card. The cool thing about this game is that it's structured to provide support to the child who is "in the hot seat." Click on the picture view this game. 

After each game, we return to our cooperation/collaboration anchor chart that we created together. We discuss the game, but then we zero in on how we worked (or didn't work) with each other. We make a list of our "Be sure to's" for next time. We write class collaboration goals based on their self-evaluations. 

Then, when they're at music, art, p.e., or recess, I cozy up with my observation sheet. I reread my notes. I may have written, "Tommy bragged to Ben about winning."  I move to the "think" part of the See-Think-Wonder routine. What do I think about that as a teacher? I know this may sound pretty lame, but it's not. In fact, when you give yourself a chance to really reflect on what you saw and heard, the revelations about your kids can be startling. 

For example, I might think that Tommy is actually insecure because he needs to brag. I might think that Tommy might have a problem with his emotions when he loses. I might think that Tommy is really competitive. 

After I do this thinking. I write questions that come up about my kids. For example, I wonder how Tommy would act if he played a game with a younger buddy. I wonder what Tommy's home dynamic is and how he navigates it. I wonder if Tommy is a perfectionist. I might ask, "What is important for me to remember when I teach Tommy?"

This is the See-Think-Wonder routine. I teach this routine to my students, and they use it throughout the year. However, in this instance, I use it to help me think more deeply about my kids. You can probably guess what I do next. The first week observations I do inform the classroom community and procedure lessons I teach the next week. And so the show must go on...with my kids as the stars.

There's no business like show business.
                                                          -Irving Berlin

P.S. Feathered boas still rock my lessons, but now my students wear them!

I use these resources to begin my school year. I hope they can help you as well.

Be sure to check out these other back-to-school posts from the phenomenal teacher authors below!