Archive for the ‘Classroom tips’ Category

Recently, I worked with teachers at Briar Gate Elementary in FBISD (Houston area). It was a delight to visit classrooms and watch literacy work stations and small group instruction in action in their classrooms. We worked together to plan guided reading lessons, too. One of the lessons I taught in 2nd grade focused on helping students better comprehend what they read. Teachers at this school use thinking maps, so we incorporated a bubble map into the lesson with great success.


Leap Pad station in 1st grade

Welcome letter from a student

Second-grader's bubble map recording what she learned while reading the nonfiction book, Goats

Bubble maps used in classrooms throughout the building


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Recently I worked with teachers at East Elementary in Humboldt, TN. In grades 2-3, we examined how to “divide and conquer” while planning together in team meetings. We helped identify each other’s strengths and then made post-it “badges” naming our roles, such as tech guru, standards picker, materials manager, kiddie lit… It’s a start at working smarter, not harder!

Grade 2-3 teachers wear their new "job" badges for team planning


Look at all my jobs!


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While on a recent visit to York City Schools I talked with a Pre-K teacher who was using the most wonderful author study materials. Here are some photos that I hope will inspire you, as they did me!

These materials are part of Blueprint for Early Literacy.

Author study materials are stored in boxes under a skirted table.

An author study display in Pre-K

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Do you need a teacher desk? How can you tell if you do, or if it’s just a place where you collect stuff? Here are some tips to help you decide:

First, ask yourself: “Do I want a teacher desk?”

1. Is my desk a place where I rarely sit but use it for stacking lots of papers?
2. Do I find myself sitting at a clean table to do work after school instead of at my desk?
3. Is my desk taking up lots of space in my room?

If you answered YES to these questions, you might want to get rid of your teacher desk.

4. Does my school require that a teacher desk remain in my classroom?
5. Do I like my teacher desk and keep it organized?
6. Is my desk a lovely space I can call my own?

If you answered YES to questions 4-6, keep your teacher desk.
Here are some ideas for planning for your teacher space:

  • Place your teacher desk area away from the entrance and your flow of traffic.
  • Don’t use the best corner in the room for your teacher space. Share with your students. (It often makes a great library area!)
  • Plan for your teacher desk area to be near cabinets or shelves for storing your stuff.
  • Put a calendar and display board by your teacher area (for posting notes and reminders).
  • Provide a space for everything important that will need to be handled here.

This desk has become a clutter magnet

A traditional teacher desk doesn't have to take up lots of space

The front of this third-grade teacher's desk is turned into a poetry work station with the help of magnetic words from a kit.

Two students use a corner of the teacher's desk as a writing station.

You can find more tips in my book Spaces & Places: Designing Classrooms for Literacy.

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I thought it would be fun from time to time to share portions of my books with you here on the blog. This way you will get to read some great classroom tips and also get a flavor for a book. This one is from Making the Most of Small Groups and it deals with forming and managing reading groups.

How Do I Form Groups at the Start of the Year?

Look at all your data. Setting up a flexible reading groups folder can really help. It will allow you to look at each child as well as the whole class. Place each child where you think he or she will fit best for now, and then be prepared to be flexible.

You can move students from group to group using sticky notes as you’re making these initial decisions. You can even place a student in more than one group, depending on the child’s needs. For example, an emergent reader may meet in one group for letter identification work and in another group for phonemic awareness. A student reading on a second-grade reading level may meet in one group that is focusing on phonics at that level and in another group for fluency if the student needs both. Be flexible in placing students in groups.

You can always try a student in a group and then rearrange the groups based on your observations. Follow the lead of the child. Look for student success. It will guide you in the right direction. Know that there is more than one way to group students.

Form your groups and then try them out. You’ll be able to tell whether students are correctly matched to the texts and skills they need. Use both your formal assessment data and your observations to inform your grouping decisions.

How Many Groups Should I Meet with in a Day?

I think it’s smart to begin with just one group a day once you begin small-group instruction. In first grade and up, this is usually after four to six weeks of school (when children have been trained to work independently at literacy work stations). In kindergarten it usually takes longer. After you are meeting with one group a day successfully, work with two small groups a day. Occasionally, you might work with three groups in a day, but this is probably not the norm. You need time for whole group and small groups. If you do too many small groups, you’ll run out of time for some whole-group reading instruction, too.

Trying to see every group every day will not yield quality teaching. Remember, quality, not quantity. It’s not about how many groups you can “fit into” a day. Rather, it’s about meeting the needs of students in small groups. You’ll want to plan your lessons daily for the next day’s groups to keep with students’ cutting edge of development and optimize learning. No classroom teacher should be expected to plan three or four small-group lessons for reading in a day plus whole-group reading instruction plus writing and math and science and social studies!

Note: If you are fortunate enough to have another teacher in the classroom to work with small groups alongside you (Title I, special education, etc.), it may be possible to work with every group daily between the two of you.

How Long Should I Meet with Each Group?

I have found that about twenty minutes per small group works well in first grade and up. In kindergarten I often work with students for about fifteen minutes. I prefer short lessons to long ones because I think students take more away from them. When lessons are short and focused, student engagement remains high and kids pay better attention. This also allows you to see more than one group if time is limited.

How Often Should I Meet with Each Group?

Generally, most teachers meet with their lowest readers more often. Most schools ask teachers to work with their struggling readers every day. Teachers are very caring people and want to treat all children fairly. But remember that fair is not always equal (a quote from my friend Judy Wallis). If you try to meet with every group every day, you’ll burn out quickly. And often you’ll find yourself just pulling a group and reading a book with kids, rather than being thoughtful about planning a lesson and teaching in that small group.

Figure 3.14 is a chart that shows how one teacher managed meeting with her small groups over a two-week period. She plotted this out on sticky notes, so she could move the groups around flexibly until she found a plan that worked. You’ll notice that she is often meeting with students on consecutive days so that she can connect instruction for them. Her yellow group has her highest students. She meets with them only once a week since they are reading well above grade level. Her lowest group is the red group, and she meets with them four times a week. Her blue group needs more support than her green group, so she meets with them a bit more often.

How Can I Meet with My Lowest Groups Every Day?

The reality in most classrooms is that it is very difficult to meet with your lowest students every day in small group because you’ll run out of time very quickly. One possibility is to meet with those children four days a week and, on the fifth day, meet with them individually for a few minutes during independent reading to have a brief conference with them.

Another idea is to find hidden pockets during the day during which you might meet with this group. For example, you might be able to meet with them for fifteen minutes as kids are entering your room in the morning. If they know you’ll be there to work with them, they may make the effort to get right to class. The rest of the class can do morning jobs and get ready for the day while you meet with this group for some extra attention.

In some classrooms there are several low groups, or the majority of kids are reading below grade level. This, again, is reality for some teachers. If you’re one of them, you may have to meet with three groups a day on many days, finding and using the pockets of time mentioned above. This works best in a self-contained classroom.

You may also have to assign students to particular literacy work stations as interventions, planning very carefully which students go to which work stations for practice. For example, if you have a low group that needs fluency practice, you might plan for them to go to the buddy reading station (to practice orally reading easy text with a partner) or to the recording studio (to tape-record themselves reading orally, then listen to and self-evaluate it) or to the computer station (to work on a fluency program).

How Do I Keep My Groups Straight—Who Read What, Lesson Plans, and So On?
Use a small-group lesson-planning notebook as described in this chapter and in Chapter 2. Keep written lesson plans and jot down which books were read in each group. Some teachers also keep a sticky note in this plan book where they jot down the date and title read by this group.

Don’t worry if you occasionally have a child in a group tell you he or she has already read a book. Odds are the child will improve during this reading of the text! I always refer to familiar books as “old favorites.” Tell the student he or she will be an expert on this book after reading it again. Just ask the child to please not give away what happens in the book so that everyone can enjoy it fully.

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A first grade teacher asked me how to teach with sight words in whole group as well as in small group. I teach with new on-grade level high frequency words in whole group through shared reading and shared writing along with posting the words on the word wall. I asked this teacher to give me a list of his sight words and then I’d look for some good poems to use in shared reading. These same poems can later be used at the poetry work station. Here’s one I shared with him from my friend, Betsy Franco’s, book titled My Very Own Poetry Collection: 101 Poems for First Graders available from www.trcabc.com

At  the  Grocery  Store
by  Betsy  Franco

At  the  grocery  store,

always  eat  before  you  go,

or  your  grocery  cart

is  sure  to  overflow.

The  treats  you  pick

will  grow  and  grow  and  grow.

Eat  before  you  go!

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What a joy it was to work with K-2 teachers at Pleasant View Elementary in Red Lion, PA right around Thanksgiving. We spent two days together planning and teaching small group reading lessons. We worked with the same groups two days in a row, so teachers could experience how to plan for connected lessons. The kindergarten group read a little book titled Fruit Salad and did interactive writing one day; the next day they reread the book and wrote a page independently about the book. Our focus was phonological and phonemic awareness and helping students apply what they know about sounds to reading and writing.

In 1st grade, the group read The Hungry Puppy, and worked on using word parts to decode words. I used puzzle pieces made from laminated sentence strips to help kids look at word parts and blending those parts together to read new words.

Our 2nd grade lessons focused on helping children “try the other sound” when decoding. These students were often using the short vowel sound to decode, but weren’t flexible in trying the long vowel sound if the short one didn’t make a word that makes sense. Our prompt was, “Try the other sound and make it make sense.” Students read part of a nonfiction book titled Eggs in this lesson. One day we created a “Try the Other Sound” chart of short and long vowel sounds in whole group because most students in the classroom needed this strategy. Then we helped one group apply this in small group the next day using small copies of that larger anchor chart.

Although our lessons focused mostly on phonics over these two days, this was what the groups we worked with needed. We included a “phonics warmup” before students read or wrote. For more ideas on these phonics warmups and information on how to choose a focus in small group instruction, see my book, Making the Most of Small Groups.

Counting the number of words in a sentence the kindergarteners will write together

Puzzle parts made of laminated sentence strip are used in a "phonics warmup" before kids read in this small group

Second graders read their "Try the Other Sound" charts together as a "phonics warmup" before they read the nonfiction book, Eggs

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“I Can” Lists from NC

A kindergarten teacher from NC shared these “I Can” lists with me recently. I love the use of the photos and the kid-friendly language to give children support in working independently. Ideally, these charts are made “with” students, so they own the work. Send samples of “I Can” lists to share on this page to me at d.diller@live.com. Would love to see what you and your students are doing!

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Pre-K authors

In my recent work with Gabriel Mistral Early Childhood Center, I worked with PreK teachers and their students. In one lesson, we talked about being authors. I showed them my book, Literacy Work Stations and talked about how I wrote my book. Then we learned about Eric Carle and what he does as an author and read his book, 1 2 3 to the Zoo. Later, some kids worked at a writing station making a counting book like Eric Carle. It is a joy to work with our youngest writers and see all they are capable of at the start of the school year!

Showing Literacy Work Stations to a Pre-K class

I show a photo of Eric Carle to Pre-K class and talk about what he does as a writer

Reading 123 to the Zoo to the class

Introducing Little books to the Pre-K writers

A student makes a counting book

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Grand opening

I’ve found that when opening literacy stations, slow and steady wins the race! I recommend introducing just one station at a time, including about 3 new stations a week (depending on your grade level). Recently, a teacher I met told me that she holds a “Grand Opening” for each new station as she introduces it. She places a balloon by that station to show that it’s the new one to be introduced that day. I love this idea! Making a ceremony about opening each new station gives it special attention and gives students something to look forward to as the year progresses.

If you’d like to inform parents about how literacy stations replace traditional seatwork, you might send home a flyer announcing your “grand openings.” The flyer could include a photo of the stations and what children will do there. I’ve included a sample to get you started. (Substitute your own stations and photos). Older students could design their own informational flyers to tell parents about the independent work they are doing at school. Celebrate with a grand opening!

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