Saturday, April 30, 2016

An Introduction To Poetry

By:  Suzanne St. John
Ugh!  The dreaded poetry writing unit. I’m not sure I'm a poet myself, so it's hard to introduce poetry in a manner that will be fun, learning-filled and inspiring.  This year, though, the introduction of two new mentor texts changed the way I taught and will teach poetry in the future.

  The day I started poetry writing, the children were skeptical and somewhat disinterested.  My new enthusiasm changed that notion quickly. We took a look at different types of poems each day.  We read fun, silly poems that allowed the children to express the funny, creative side of writing that only needed a few words (maybe a potty word or two). Acrostics were a great place to start. Next, we moved into the tapping and blending experience of haiku poetry. We learned how to write cinquain poems, good news/bad news poems, and other fun, quick poem writing experiences.  The best part was sharing.  My students would laugh while their peers read aloud silly poems, giggling and squealing with delight. At once, they began to understand the use of language to affect the reader’s emotion, so we were ready for a more in-depth poetry experience.

 In Poetry: Powerful Thoughts in Tiny Packages, book seven of Lucy Calkins' and Stephanie Parsons' Units of Study for Primary Writing: A Yearlong Curriculum, she explains an interesting procedure for teaching "seeing with poets’eyes."  As instructed in the text, I placed three or four items on each table where the students sit.  I then asked them to describe the items, not an exact description, but through the eyes of a poet.  How does it make you feel? What does it remind you of? What do you think it feels like?  Because students could only observe the objects, they had to come up with similes and metaphors to describe their items.  It was challenging at first, but as I walked around and found good examples, I would share them out so students having difficulty would understand what it meant to "see with poets’ eyes." One student described a pink feather as, "A piece of the rainbow that fluttered off in the wind," another described a green holiday jingle bell as, "A shiny gumdrop, plump and ready to eat."  This was a wonderful start to seeing like a poet! In addition to sharing student work, there are excellent examples provided in Calkins' & Parsons' first chapter.  This also allowed students to consider items they were looking at from a fresh perspective. 

Another important mentor text was Daniel Finds a Poem by Micha Archer.  This book is beautifully written and children easily relate to the boy, Daniel.  Daniel speaks to different animals, insects, and items in nature to identify "what poetry is." We read this book several times.  Each time we identified different things that could be considered poetry. As we started writing our own nature poems, I did get some resistance as this task was not quite as easy as silly poem writing.  I referred back to the lesson we shared on "seeing with poets' eyes" and using one’s senses to describe things we find in nature through a poem.  Many of the poems started something like, "I like the splattering sound of rain on the window." This is nice, but five lines of, "I like, I like," felt less than poetic.  The revelation was to take the "I like" portion off the poem and help the child see the beautiful line within the "I like" statement.  The verses in the poem moved into lines that now read, "The splattering sound of rain on the window." This was the beginning of some beautifully written poems.

After working on nature poems for several days, we finally published an anthology of  first grade nature poems.This became a typed and illustrated book of student poetry that was reflective, introspective, and written through the "eyes of a poet." It is one of the most rewarding pieces I have led my students to create.  In addition to their beautifully written work, the children simply refused to quit writing poetry and insisted we continue to work on it, "At least another week."  I am thrilled that these children have learned to love writing expressively, creatively, and poetically.  I am grateful to Lucy Calkins and Stephanie Parsons for their guidance in all things writing.  I am equally thankful to Micha Archer, author of Daniel Finds a Poem, for the beautifully written mentor text that took us on a reading and writing journey.  I am thankful for Sarah Svarda, my school librarian, for passing along an incredible book to use as a tool to inspire remarkable writing.

About the Author:

Suzanne St. John is an early childhood educator.  She is passionate about teaching writing and developing a love of reading and writing in her students.  She currently teaches 1st grade in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. 

Monday, March 28, 2016

Book Review: Writing With Mentors by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O'Dell

Book Review:  Writing With Mentors by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O'Dell
by:  Chandra Verbic

This book, geared towards the upper grades, is all about using mentor texts to guide your reading and writing instruction in the classroom.  “Mentor texts are model pieces of writing – or excerpts of writing – by established authors that can inspire students and teach them how to write” (Marchetti, O’Dell 2015, 3).  In my elementary classroom, I used mentor texts to introduce genres of writing or to cite specific examples, but after reading this book, I was able to see how they can be so much more than that.  And arguably, they are the most important piece of your literacy instruction.  Not to mention, this book is filled with QR codes that, when scanned, take you exactly to the websites and sources that are being discussed.  It’s a great interactive feature that I found myself using more often than not. 

In this review, I’m going to look at the various lessons and strategies that Marchetti and O’Dell lay out for the upper grades and discuss how I would best adapt them for grades K-6, and more specifically my first grade classroom.  Let’s jump in!

Sourcing Mentor Texts

The first thing you need to tackle, in any classroom, is sourcing your mentor texts.  Where do I find them?  How do I ensure their quality?  Will my students like them?  Will they be engaged and inspired?  These are all questions I had when I was thinking about where to gather these mentor texts.  Ultimately, “good writing is good writing, regardless of the genre, so you shouldn’t have to look too far into these engaging sources to find what you need to teach” (Marchetti, O’Dell 2015, 17).  But for those times that mentor texts don’t come easily or organically, there is a really helpful chart that I found in this book:

Remember, you are choosing mentor texts to inspire your students, give them a vision for their writing, and move them forward throughout their writing process (Marchetti, O’Dell 2015, 23).  Bonus points though if the mentor texts also use digital savvy vocabulary (to connect to your reader), is a regular publication (to keep your readers interest over time), and has a familiar author (for reliability).  I remember recently how much more interested I was to read an article about how J.K.Rowling (a favorite author of mine) used Twitter to engage with her audience -releasing her thoughts about conspiracy theories of Hogwarts, commenting on things she’s working on, and giving insider information into the world of Harry Potter. 

Now, I’m not going to break down each chapter (although I could… the book was full of wonderful strategies and roll out lessons for your literacy block), but instead focus on my three favorite strategies and how they apply to K-6. 

Mentors Show Students How To Plan

Mentor texts are your students' road maps.  They guide them in the direction of becoming better writers.  But before we arrive at any destination, we must plan for the journey.   When I taught first grade, I specifically focused and spent time teaching students how to brainstorm.  Then how to narrow their focus, arrange their ideas into cohesive thoughts, and begin writing their piece.  This is essential in any grade.  So how do mentor texts fit into this journey?

“Mentor texts help students generate ideas for writing.  At the beginning of a new writing study, we simply remind students that their mentor texts are one of the many resources that might help them come up with something they are excited to write about.  Once students find potential topics in the mentor texts that they’re reading, we encourage them to jot them down on a running list of ideas.” (Marchetti, O’Dell 2015, 109)

When my first graders were doing their Wonder Bubble research projects, they often struggled to find a topic.  I would have them brainstorm and think about what interests they had.  But after reading Writing with Mentors, I think I would approach this brainstorming session a little differently.  Instead, I would have them look at what types of books they like to read about.  For example, I had a student who was always reading books about space.  He liked to learn about the Solar System, but more importantly, he had a fascination with the various galaxies and “other life forms” out there.  He ended up doing his research project on Jupiter, which was okay.  But had we used the mentor texts that he liked to read as his “road map”, we probably could have narrowed his focus more and got him excited more about the topic at hand.  I get excited just thinking about all the rich writing opportunities that would have came out of those mentor texts, vs. just an arbitrary brainstorming session. 

Student Conferences with Mentor Texts

Writing conferences were a big part of my literacy block.  I would meet with my first graders and we’d review all their writing up to that point.  I would focus on what they were struggling with and would push them further in their writing journey.  I always enjoyed this individual time with my students, but now I have a way to deepen this learning opportunity!

Marchetti and O’Dell have some great strategies for conferring with mentor texts. 
1.      Keep the students mentor texts in a binder (or writing folder):  What a great idea!  Once your student has an article or book title that he/she enjoys, keep it with their writing.  That way you can refer to it as you conference with them, reminding them of these additional models.  You can even organize these mentor texts by genre, topic, or technique using sticky notes or tabs. 

2.      Keep the main thing, the main thing:  If a student is struggling with a topic, use the mentor text to generate ideas.  If a student doesn’t understand proper use of onomatopoeia, use the mentor text to show how it’s incorporated to boost the story’s quality, not distract from it.  Whatever the struggle though, keep the focus.  There are so many things we can look for in a mentor text, that it can be distracting.  Pull it out, highlight what you need it for, and move on.

3.      Be prepared to demonstrate and let the student do most of the talking:  These are two things in one, but I think they are related.  If your student is struggling to plan or implement a strategy, bring your own folder of mentor texts with you to the conference.  Then show your student how the mentor text inspires you or helps you plan your writing and do a live demonstration!  After that though, switch sides.  Let your student discuss what they noticed you doing or express what they would like to try.  Then pull their mentor texts to do the same modeling activity with them holding the pencil.   

Using Mentor Texts to Publish Student Writing

Publication was always such a big portion of my writing workshop.  We celebrated each and every published story with a celebration of all kinds – outdoor picnic, extra recess, hot chocolate, pajama day, and my most favorite: dancing on our desks!  It was my favorite time in my classroom. 

Because mentor texts are published pieces of writing themselves, they are wonderful examples of how a publication should look.  But more importantly, your students can examine what makes this text interesting to them.  Why did they pick it up and read it?  Why did they choose it as a favorite?  Does their own writing do the same? 

This chart, included in Writing With Mentors, illustrates how authors incorporate visual effects into their writing.

Students can choose to pull together these presentation elements to elevate their writing (Marchetti, O’Dell 2015, 154).  This forces your students to think about their audience.  Who will read this piece?  What perspective will they have?  And it opens the conversation up about editors and publication houses in the real world.  In Writing with Mentors, the authors even delve into who to write a query letter (a proposal of writing ideas to editors, agents, and publishing companies).  I think that this can be incorporated even into the elementary grades.  My students used to submit publications to the Scholastic, Kids Are Authors contest each year.  We used previous winners of that contest as mentor texts to see what elements our story needed to have.  It would have been interesting to extend that learning even further into the query letter and allow students to think about the step after you get your ideas down on paper and to answer questions such as:
·         What information belongs in a query letter?
·         Who are they directed? 
·         How do writers make their query letters stand out?
So many teachers end their units at publication, but after reading this book, I can see how we can push and extend the learning even further.  And that’s where you hit the potential student writers and authors and editors interest levels.  You may have the next literacy agent of Heinemann sitting right in front of you! 

Overall, I thought this book had a tremendous amount of lesson ideas and strategies to use in your literacy block for grades K-12.  I think it is one to add to your personal collection and one that can elevate your teaching style.  It’s easy to get stuck in a rut during literacy because the methods there are so tried and true.  Once you find something that works, it’s hard to veer away from it.  But I think it’s important to introduce new ideas into your classroom instruction for both you and your students, using Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell as your mentors. 

Follow Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O'Dell on Twitter or visit their blog for new posts and updates.

 Chandra Verbic is a first grade teacher, turned college professor.  She currently teaches in the teacher licensure program at Lipscomb University and authors the blog  She loves reading the latest children’s literature to her two children, drinking too much iced coffee, and taking time to stop and dance on her desk.  

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Treat Yourself Self to Reading Nonfiction: Notice and Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies

By: Angela Bunyi

When I was asked to read, review, and write a blog that provided easy “take-away” points for the newest nonfiction edition of Notice and Note, I eagerly agreed. I devoured and heavily relied on the fiction edition that preceded it when I was an intervention teacher for the upper grades.
Then I became a little overwhelmed as I quickly realized that this book is not for the faint at heart. But don’t be dismayed! I adore this book, perhaps more than the fiction version because I believe the importance is more impending for our profession. It’s important to state upfront that ANY blog post review on this book will merely be a cursory skimming of the 298 pages. This one included. It is not a book that can or should be digested in one sitting.
In other words, it’s that good.
So, before I even begin, here is my take away for you. Treat yourself by grabbing a copy of this book yourself and read it. Slowly. I challenge you to read this book over a series of weeks. Ten to twenty minutes a day. It just doesn’t feel right covering much more because of the depth and importance contained within.
And think about this important nugget for just a second. How many books, articles, and PD have you received that give you an approach on how to read fiction deeply? Countless. Now think about nonfiction. Does your brain tend to think of nonfiction text features and facts? If so, there is so much more to dig into! This starts off with the mere definition of what nonfiction is (within the first twenty pages). I don’t want to give this away but if you are using the age-old “not false” or even “informational” be prepared to have a few aha moments while reading.
Of course, it wouldn’t be right to at least cover a few key ideas to gnaw on. Cursory level, mind you.

For those that are familiar with the first book, this book is clearly divided into four sections: Issues to Consider, The Importance of Stance, The Power of Signposts, and The Role of Strategies. Fitting right in with the nonfiction, 21st century approach, you will find QR codes in each section to watch the lesson concepts in action. Each section also includes the research, student examples, and common questions.  
Speaking of questions
Students are asked to read nonfiction text with three questions in mind:
§  What surprised me?
§  What did the author think I already knew?
§  What changed, challenged, or confirmed what I already knew?

These questions require you to disseminate important from interesting facts as well as questioning sources.
My inclination was to immediately go for the nonfiction signpost section when I got my hands on the book. I adored the signpost examples provided in the first fiction edition and copied them exactly as shown in the book for my students. This version does not disappoint, but it really is just one of the four sections compared to being the section for me in the fiction book. There are five signposts described by the authors:
§  Contrasts and Contradictions – when the author presents something that contrasts or contradicts what the reader is likely to know, think or have experienced, or shows a difference between two or more situations, events or perspectives
§  Extreme or Absolute Language – author uses language that leaves no doubt about a situation or event that exaggerates or overstates a case
§  Numbers and Stats – author uses number or words that show amounts or statistical information to show comparisons in order to prove a point or help create an image
§  Quoted Words – author quotes others, directly, with what we call a Voice of Authority or Personal Perspective, or citing Others’ Words
§  Word Gaps – author uses words or phrases students recognize they don’t know

You can download an overview of the four sections from Heinemann, which I found very helpful:
Launching It in Your Classroom
The authors include a five day cycle of lessons, which I have NOT tried in my classroom YET. First off, I am now a first grade teacher and need to adjust it to fit with instruction in my classroom.* Secondly, I am also taking my own advice and going back to digest it all. This includes creating posters for questioning, signposts, bookmarks, and watching all the videos.
Which means, I am here for any questions you have as we both read through the book together. Share your thoughts, successes, or suggestions!
One more resource you might want to check along with the book are the Notice and Note student bookmarks which include both the fiction and nonfiction signposts.

Angela Bunyi is a first grade teacher at the Discovery School in Murfreesboro, TN.  She enjoys bursts of healthy eating and working out, reading in her sunroom, and petting her cat, Mochi.  #shemightbeacrazycatlady 

*Beers and Probst state, “By 2016, every student in school will have been born in the 21st century. They will have grown up with the world at their fingertips.”

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Weird! book series: Three stories, three points of view

By:  Laura Filtness
School Counselor

A counselor friend of mine recommended the Weird! book series by Erin Frankel to me and I am so glad she did. I could go on and on and on about this series but the testimony really comes from my students. Each month I do a book giveaway for great behavior. After reading aloud the second book in the series, one of my boys asked me if I could please buy the books for the next giveaway. Even though he only has a one in nine hundred chance of winning, he was so into them that the odds didn't matter! And he’s not the only one. Even my most hesitant and challenging students are totally into these books. Why? I have my theories. First, the illustrations by Paula Heaphy are youthful yet mature. Second, the topic is totally relevant to every student. Third, they are so well written. Author Erin Frankel, who is also an educator, makes these books so relatable.  Maybe it's because she also experienced being bullied as a child. Lastly, the series makes you want more. The books are easy to read, catchy, and intriguing. Like a great movie, you can’t wait for the sequel and feel sadness when the trilogy ends.

The Weird! series is a three part series that focuses on bullying. The first book, Weird! is told from the point of view of the target. (Side note: I think it’s very important to use the term target and not victim. Anyone can be a target, but not everyone has to be a victim.) The second book Dare! is told from the perspective of the bystander or the person witnessing the bullying. To wrap up the series you get to hear from the bully's side in Tough!.

The books take place in a school setting. At some point you can expect that your own students will be a target of bullying, a bystander to bullying, or the bully themselves.  As a School Counselor, I use these books in my classroom lessons. Teachers can use them in their classroom when talking about respect, during a class meeting, or as a book/author study.

Don’t try to read these books in one sitting. I see my students once a month so it’s taken us three months to get through the series. This really keeps them on the edge of their seats. You should really plan to spread the books over a three day, three week, or three month time frame. Don’t overwhelm your students - let it sink it, settle, and stew. I really believe that if you let the students marinate with the books it allows them to take their thoughts to a deeper level.

When planning to use these books there's so much you can do. Here's what worked with my students:
Introduction: First, I showed the students the cover of all three books and asked them to make observations about each. I then read the back cover and we discussed how each book was told from a different perspective. This lead to a short discussion on point of view which included them making educated guesses on which book was told from what point of view.
Reading the story: (Heads up - set aside a chunk of time to read these books. My classes are forty-five minutes long and they used every second of that time.)  Even though these picture books are short, the students love making observations and connections between the stories.
I started with three simple prompts:
  1. “What do you notice about this page?” or “What did you notice about the illustrations?”
  2. “What connections can you make to the story?”
  3. “Tell me what you think will happen next,” or “Make a prediction about what’s going to happen.”
The discussion was really student led from there. Everyone, and I mean everyone, had something they wanted to point out whether it was a story (with names changed to protect the innocent), or a guess about what would happen to the character. I didn’t write down all of the discussions and where they went, but I can tell you that each class really let it morph to where they wanted or needed the conversation to go.

Writing reflection: To help reflect on the story I had each of the students respond by completing the bully triangle. It's from the Stand Up Against Bullies: Grades 3-5 workbook by Marco Products.

In the bully triangle the students identify the following about the bully, the victim and the bystander(s):

Who is the bully or who were the bullies?
What did they do?
Why do you think this happened?

Why was the victim chosen?
What did the victim do to solve the problem?

What did the bystander(s) do?
Did the bystander(s) help stop the bully or encourage the bully?

Love what the Weird! series did for your students? The dynamic duo of Erin Frankel and Paula Heaphy have also written Nobody!: A Story About Overcoming Bullying In Schools. I have no doubt this story will make the perfect follow-up to the Weird! series.

About the Author:  Laura Filtness is the School Counselor at AL Lotts Elementary School in Knoxville, TN.  You can visit her blog, Paws-itive School Counseling or follow her on Twitter @sassy_school.  Laura creatively infuses her love of dogs into her counseling program.  The best way to sum up Laura's love of her dogs is that she won a crazy dog mom contest. Her dog, Boss, is a certified therapy dog with H.A.B.I.T. and loves helping kids read.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A Long Walk to Water: A Mentor Text That Inspires Opinion/Argument Writing

blog post written by:
Sarah Svarda

Have you ever read a book that made you want to take action immediately?  When I finished A Long Walk to Water, the first thing I did was look up the website for Water For South Sudan.  The second thing I did was follow Linda Sue Park and Salva Dut on Twitter because I wanted to know about anything and everything that either of them had to share with the world.  As Linda Sue Park states in her TedX Talk (below), books like A Long Walk to Water do two things for the reader:

1.  Reading the book provides practice at life for the reader.  In this case, the story helps the reader experience unfairness.  The reader learns how to deal with unfair experiences through examples from the characters.  In a Long Walk to Water, Salva's response to the unfairness he faced was with hope and perseverance.  As the students read, they will learn to face unfairness in the same way through Salva's example.
2.  The reader experiences and develops their own empathy for others as they read.  This empathy encourages engagement for that reader.  
This outcome of empathy and the need for engagement is the perfect opportunity to let your children become engaged with the story outside of the walls of the school building.  Read A Long Walk to Water with your children.  Research and brainstorm ways that your children can help the families and children have clean water in South Sudan.  Write.  This is the perfect opportunity to have your children write opinion/argument pieces encouraging others to help their cause.  You will have automatic engagement because the students can't wait to help.
Here's what the book has already inspired as stated by Linda Sue Park in her TedX video (below):

1.  To date, readers of A Long Walk to Water have raised more than one million dollars for Water For South Sudan.
2.  Sixty wells have been dug with that one million dollars.
3.  Each of the sixty wells can serve 2,000 people.
Do the math.
4.  When children no longer have to spend the whole day walking to get water for their families, they can go to school!

Linda Sue Park shares the following books in her TedX Talk which are also great mentor texts to inspire your students to take action and write opinion/argument pieces in the classroom:

Have your students read Wonder by R.J. Palacio and  write opinion/argument pieces about bullying.  Check out the Kind Classroom Challenge as well.  Our fifth grade reading teacher's classroom is a certified "Kind" classroom.  She can't say enough about how the kids have become involved and taken on the ownership of treating each other with respect and kindness.

Crenshaw is a bittersweet story that shares the reality of homelessness that so many of our students face on a daily basis.  After reading Crenshaw, your students will be inspired to share the statistics of homelessness in school-aged children and to educate their peers about what can be done to help. 

Do you have any texts that you've read to your class that inspire opinion writing?  If so, please share them in the comments below.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Mesmerized: Bringing the Scientific Method to Life

MESMERIZED: Bringing the Scientific Method to Life
Written by:  Shea Payne
With an additional blog post link from Chandra Verbic of  C. Jayne Teach

Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France
Written by: Mara Rockliff  Illustrated by:  Iacopo Bruno


The day Ben Franklin first set foot in Paris, France, he found the city all abuzz. Everyone was talking about something new. Something remarkable, thrilling and strange. Something called Science!
But soon, the straightforward American inventor Benjamin Franklin is upstaged by a compelling and enigmatic figure: Dr. Mesmer. In elaborately staged shows, Mesmer, wearing a fancy coat of purple silk and carrying an iron wand, convinces the people of Paris that he controls a magic force that can make water taste like a hundred different things, cure illness, and control thoughts! But Ben Franklin is not convinced. Will his practical approach of observing, hypothesizing, and testing get to the bottom of the mysterious Mesmer’s tricks? A rip-roaring, lavishly illustrated peek into a fascinating moment in history shows the development and practice of the scientific method—and reveals the amazing power of the human mind. (Via Good Reads)

Lesson Idea:

Teaching students the scientific method is a way of bringing critical thinking and problem solving into your science curriculum. It sparks the interest of budding inventors, curious questioners and kids who just want to know how things work! The scientific method is found in every curriculum in every state and can be easily incorporated into any grade level curriculum by using this wonderfully creative and beautifully illustrated picture book.

In my 4th grade class we used this book to guide a project based lesson on using the scientific method where we created inventions that might be used to solve common problems in everyday life. The students kept and inventor’s “notebook” (we used a section of our interactive science notebooks) , where they recorded their steps through the scientific method, their data, experiments, ideas, drawings and anything else they found useful to help them complete their task. That information was then used to design a final writing piece where the student walked the reader through his/her scientific process from start to finish.

We began our lesson by reading the book and discussing how and why Franklin felt compelled to prove Dr. Mesmer wrong. The book is beautifully illustrated and very interesting, so my students loved it! As we went through the book, we paid special attention to how Franklin went through the scientific method to answer his own questions about Dr. Mesmer’s powers.
For homework that evening, the students were to come up with two common problems that either they or their family faced. The next day, we went through each student’s problems and we discussed if there was already an inexpensive solution, if there was a way to solve the problem and how might we go about coming up with a solution. This took a little time, and in fact, I broke this up into two days. We narrowed it down to four problems that we thought we could solve. Our problems were…

  •        How to keep your cats from eating dangerous houseplants
  •        How to keep your ear buds from getting tangled up in your backpack
  •        Fly repellant
  •        How to keep rugs from rolling up on the corners

The students then chose a problem that they wanted to work on to create a solution or invention that would solve the issue. They were all given the option to work alone or work with a partner or group. Every student chose to work with a partner or a group. From there, we progressed through each step of the scientific method, one step at a time, recording everything as we went along.
When it came to conducting an experiment, the students brought in their materials and conducted the majority of their experiment at school. The only exception was trying the spray on a plant and testing it with a real cat. That was done at home.

After the projects were created, the students took their notes and wrote a final project draft from the first question to the end product. They included a drawing and diagram of their final product. In two of the projects, we had actual prototypes!

From the day we read the book to the day we presented our projects, this activity took seven days. The students LOVED the creative problem solving and I will definitely be using this lesson again!

About the Author:  Shea Payne is a 4th grade teacher at The Discovery School @ Bellwood in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. She enjoys spending time with her family, sewing and looking for exciting new ways to teach her students.

Since this book was such a hit, another friend of mine also blogged about using Mesmerized in the classroom.  Visit C. Jayne Teach to view Chandra Verbic's extensively thorough blog post titled: Mesmerized:  Collliding Science and Social Studies through PBL 

Friday, October 30, 2015


By:  Elizabeth Shepherd

Theme is one of the more difficult literature concepts to teach at the elementary level since students at that age are much more comfortable with the concrete than they are with the abstract. To jump start this process it can be helpful to connect the concept of theme with something they are more comfortable with, something like hashtags!

I was inspired by a post I found online at The Curly Classroom.  This blog post discussed students creating hashtags exploring themes of movies they were familiar with. That got me thinking….why couldn’t my students do that with books instead? For the purposes of this lesson I chose to use wordless picture books. They were a perfect fit for so many reasons; no words meant no reading level so none of my students were intimidated with reading struggles, they were quick reads allowing plenty of time for reflection, I was able to emphasize the importance of attention to detail in illustrations when looking for context clues, and I got the chance to expose students to an often overlooked genre of books.

The Lesson
We started by discussing what a hashtag is. I showed the class real world examples from my own social media accounts and then together we came up with hashtags that could be paired with a tweet about finishing the first Harry Potter book. During the discussion I guided student thinking by emphasizing those suggestions that were more about theme and less about the reader’s opinion or tiny details. In this case we were looking for #magic or #friendship not #boring or #Quiddich. It helped when I pushed them to think about the “big picture” of the book and less about the details. (If you'd like to go more in-depth with a hashtag lesson, Wonderopolis has a great post titled, "What is a hashtag?"

Next I booktalked wordless picture books and we had a brief discussion about how to read the pictures. We also reviewed the procedures for reading with a partner. Then I passed out a book, a pencil, and a Post-It to each pair of readers. Their mission was to spread out, read their book with a partner, and then write down as many hashtags as they could think of before time ran out. If time allowed they were able to share their three favorite hashtags with the class. Since this lesson was taught to my library classes, I was able to compile the best hashtags and post them in the hallway to display student work and also to advertise for wordless picture books. (Side note: circulation for wordless picture books drastically increased after this lesson!)

My Results
As evidenced from the pictures, my students still have some work to do on theme but I feel confident that this lesson was memorable and was a great starting point to delve deeper into the concept of theme. I used this with 3rd-6th grade students but I believe it would also work well with older grades. In fact, this lesson was most effective with my 5th and 6th grade students since many of them were already using hashtags on their own social media accounts. Most of my 3rd and 4th grade students knew what a hashtag was or had heard the term before but had little practice using them so we had to spend more time than I would have liked on that part of the lesson. If I were in a regular classroom, I could see myself coming back to the hashtag concept throughout the year with everything students read whether it’s an excerpt from the textbook, a primary source document, a chapter book or graphic novel they’ve been working on independently, or a nonfiction close read.

Overall I felt the students enjoyed the lesson, the topic was memorable enough for me to reference it easily later, and the results were promising enough to encourage me to try this concept again next year. #understandingtheme #winner #nowyougiveitatry

About the Author
Elizabeth Shepherd is a media specialist at Cason Lane Academy in Murfreesboro, TN. She enjoys reading books for children, geeking out over geeky things, and providing free tech support to her friends and family. #haveyoutriedturningitoffandonagain.