My Mission Moment

As a special education teacher, I know reading is a struggle for many of my students. Throughout the past couple of years in the classroom, I have learned a few important qualities that many of my students share, and how to promote and maintain a love of reading in each child.

I’ve worked in a private, self-contained classroom setting where I taught students with Autism not only to read, but to love reading, and request to read every day. 

My beginning

When I first walked into that classroom, the one thing I noticed right away was that there was no bookshelf anywhere. When I questioned the lack of books, I got a dismissive answer: "oh, these children can't read." That was not an answer I was willing to accept. 

I continually bought books and placed book club orders for the classroom, until one day there was so many books that I needed a bookshelf. The books were now displayed in an appealing way that intrigued the students. They were more willing to walk over, select a book from the shelf independently, and flip through it (even if they couldn’t read yet!).  

Later, my career took me to a middle school in a district where I became a sixth grade inclusion teacher in a co-taught setting. This was something I had never done before. Naturally, when entering the classroom, I noticed tall, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, full of books for our students! We pressed on with classroom set-up and before we knew it, the kids were in the classroom ready to learn.

After meeting with a few students and discussing their reading, the general consensus seemed to be “Ugh I hate reading, it is so BORING!”

But what I really heard was, “Ms. Martin, I just haven’t found the right book yet, please help me!”

It was my mission from then on to show my students just how enjoyable reading could be. I selected texts based on students’ interests, and more importantly, I would model for them the joy of reading.

I also selected a book to read from the collection of books I had accumulated, and then gave a book talk to the students. They loved when it was book-talk-time! Afterwards, the book would be missing from the bookshelf for weeks because they were so eager to read it! If you model for your readers just how much you love to read, they will be inspired to give reading another try to find their very own connection to books. 

The importance of access and choice

These improvements in my students would not be possible without the right selection of books. There are three main rules that I have learned this year as a result. 

  • Always keep your books accessible to children. Let them pick up six different books and flip through to see if it’s a “just right” book. Let the children take them home to read. If they are easily accessible, when they finish a book they can scan the bookshelves for another really amazing book. 

  • Always keep your library (and yourself) current. Not every child wants to read a book that was written too long ago that they cannot relate to. Get on their level, model for them just how important, and fun, reading can be. Have book talks, engage your students in every type of book possible. Challenge them to go outside their comfort zone and read a genre they would not normally read. 

  • Attractive books will always interest the student more than a book with a missing or damaged cover. Teach your students to respect the books in order to keep them looking new. As much as we say, “don’t judge a book by the cover,” sometimes when dealing with a group of sixth graders, the cover is what hooks them right away.

Finding books

However, I know as a teacher I was very lucky to receive a donated classroom library—that does not happen every day. Many teachers do not receive a lot of book donations, or are fortunate enough to have parents buy books for their students.

So I want to leave you with this story: In my district, there are a lot of low-income families. These are students I have seen waiting on line at the mobile food pantry we do every other week, or students that can’t even come to school with even a pencil, let alone any books. We, as a district, are lucky enough to have a Scholastic Book Fair come to our building twice a year. At the second fair, we were presented with coupons that we were allowed to give to students who we knew would not have money to buy all the books on their “wish list.”

I was able to take five students to the book fair and present them with these coupons. They were able to select, and buy books that they wanted to read, books of their choice. When told they were able to select any books they wanted, within the price range, their faces all immediately lit up. They were like kids in a candy store, except it was even better because they were that excited to have the opportunity to buy brand never-before-been-read books.

Let's Talk Word Sorts

Let’s talk word sorts. If you’re using them in your classroom to reinforce the phonics patterns you’re teaching, you already LOVE them (most elementary teachers do). You’ve seen how they advance your students’ understanding of how patterns work in words.  They’re interactive and fun.  Plus, researchers support their use as beneficial tools for developing readers and spellers (Bear et al, 2016; Blevins, 2006, 2016; among others).  

Yay for word sorts! But, of course, sometimes problems arise. As I work with teachers in workshops across the country, several scenarios come up again and again.

See if you can relate to any of these: 

  • Do you have students who don’t actually read the words to sort them (effectively nullifying one of the main benefits of the activity)? 

  • Do you wonder how to best hold students accountable for their work when they sort words on their desks, on the floor, or in a center (after all, gluing words they’ve sorted to paper doesn’t seem like a good use of time)? 

  • Are you frustrated with a one-size-fits-all word sort approach that doesn’t truly fill the needs of all your students?

If you answered ‘yes,’ to any of these questions, then this blog post is for you!

Problem #1: Kids aren’t actually reading the words

Let’s address the issue of students who don’t read the words in the sort. You know the students, those who look at the words at the top of the sort and just visually match up the words with the same letter patterns: "Hey, these words look the same, they all have e-r, so I will sort them together! I don’t even have to read them!"

Yes, we want students to see how the words match (they are made up of the same letters), but we also want them to hear how the words match and understand why this is so, all while building their familiarity/automaticity with the patterns.

Even if we first support students by reading the words together before they are sorted, those who are experiencing difficulty may resort to this visual method rather than doing the work of decoding the words to sort them. But, doing the decoding ‘work’ is one of the big benefits of sorts!

What to do:

Here’s how I address this in my classroom: When I introduce students to our word sorting routine, I tell them there are some hard-and-fast rules. These are rules that cannot be broken! I tell students, “Before sorting a word into its proper column, you must read it out loud. No exceptions! If you get stuck on a word, read the other words you've already sorted in the column with the same pattern and/or go back and reread the header card for help. If you are still stuck, ask a peer for help, then reread the word three times before placing it." 

Naturally, I model this procedure for the class and have volunteers come forward to model the 'right' and 'wrong' way to sort words. I also set in place the routine of doing random teacher-checks as students sort, so they know they need to read the words aloud to be prepared. Students should understand this is important because if they just use the visual features to sort, they are not giving their brains the practice they need to develop their reading skills. Using this 'cheat' will not advance their phonological awareness or their decoding abilities.

Problem #2: Accountability

Let’s move on to another scenario. You have students sorting words on their desks, the floor, or in centers. They’re sorting independently or in pairs. Your aim is a quick practice activity, so you don’t want them spending time gluing the words on paper or writing the words down. How can you still hold them accountable? 

What to do:

I address this with another simple routine. When children finish sorting their words, they ask a buddy to do a "quick check" (if they've worked in pairs, they find another pair to do their check). The buddy randomly points to any word in the sort (five random words is sufficient). The child reads these words aloud. If she gets stuck, she refers back to the header card* for help figuring out the word. 

*“Header cards” have the words or word parts demonstrating the concept you want students to sort for. They are the examples.

For example, using the sample below, "If I know uck (looking at the header card) this must be 'cl-uck-ing, clucking!'” If a word is sorted incorrectly, the buddy assists and the word must be read three times before being placed correctly. I do the quick check with students who are struggling the most, so I can better support them. I might also work with them in a small group to assist as needed.

Another way to hold students accountable is to have them store the words and sort them again the following day with a different buddy doing the checking.

When we complete the sort on the first day, students collect their word cards and put them in an envelope. They write the headers on the front. On the second day, they get out their sorts again and re-sort, this time in one minute! (If one minute is too fast for your students, adjust the timed sort accordingly.) (Blevins, 2016)

Now, a different buddy does a 'quick check.' Students count the number of words they were able to sort in that minute, then remix the words and complete another timed sort, challenging themselves to get just a little bit faster. Students love the game-like feel of this activity and it builds automaticity. Finally, have students take their envelopes home and invite them to re-sort the words one more time with a parent or sibling (more accountability). This person can sign the envelope so it can be returned to school for "extra credit."

Problem #3: One-size-fits-all doesn’t fit all

Finally, sometimes we become tired of a one-size-fits-all approach to word sorts, but have trouble finding the time to locate different sorts for different needs. 

What to do:

Create a table with two or three columns. Write your header words or word parts at the top in the first row. Then, put simple single syllable words on the next few rows, moving to longer single syllable words (words with more complex onsets, like blends or digraphs) on the next rows, then simple two syllable words with simple affixes, followed by multisyllabic words and more advanced vocabulary in the rows at the bottom of the page. Here is an example for short i.

Now, all you need do is copy and make strategic cuts to easily differentiate for different groups of students. Below is an illustration of how this might occur (using a sort focused on short e).

Easy peasy! If you’d rather, you can see my new book, 85 Differentiated Word Sorts, for sorts ready-made in this way. The book covers short vowels, long vowels, r-controlled vowels, diphthongs and variant vowels, consonant digraphs, beginning blends, ending blends, and affixes, emphasizing all the highest frequency chunks as identified by research. There are also review sorts with mixed practice. All are one-page sorts, ready for you to use to reinforce the concept you’re teaching while easily differentiating with just a few quick snips. 

I sincerely hope this book makes your teaching-life a little bit easier. If you have further questions, feel free to contact me at Happy sorting!


Students Vote—Then and Now

In 1940, the average worker in the United States earned $1,725 per year. The inaugural issue of Captain America featured villainous Adolf Hitler on its cover, and race riots broke out in Chicago, Detroit, Harlem, and Los Angeles.   

Across the Atlantic, World War II was raging. In June of 1940, Paris fell to the Germans.

Franklin D. Roosevelt had steered the country through the darkest days of the Great Depression. Now, he was seeking an unprecedented third term as president, running against Wendell Willkie. Among the Republican candidates that year, Willkie was the only one who thought that the U.S. should offer more help to Britain and other Allies battling Hitler and the scourge of Nazism. 

In 1940, Scholastic invited students across the country to participate in a mock presidential election for the first time. Young readers chose Roosevelt resoundingly, mirroring the results of the national election. 

In the decades since, students have accurately reflected the national vote all but twice. Like their parents, perhaps, they thought that Thomas E. Dewey would beat Harry S. Truman in 1948, and that Richard M. Nixon would edge John F. Kennedy in 1960. 

Today, young readers can still make their voices heard. By participating in the Scholastic Student Vote, they can get a taste of what it means to enjoy the benefits—and share the responsibilities—of living in a democracy. 

This year, students can opt for Republican Donald Trump, Democrat Hillary Clinton, or a third-party candidate of their own choosing. On our Election 2016 site, readers can also learn more about the candidates, the issues, and the political process.

Who will win the Scholastic Student Vote? Stay tuned. Students who have not voted yet can cast their ballots here.

Celebrating Teachers on World Teacher's Day

Today is World Teacher's Day! Today we celebrate the hard work, innovation and passion that our teachers bring to the classroom every day. In honor of World Teacher's Day, below is a round-up of some of our favorite posts about teachers and teaching.

Civics Education

International Literacy

Guided Reading

Professional Development

Read Alouds 

Classroom Libraries

Early Literacy

Helping Students Become Readers


What I'm Reading—Maria Walther

Picture books here, picture books there, I have picture books everywhere! So, when Scholastic asked me to write this post, I looked at the book stacks in my office (see photo!) and realized I spend hours pouring over picture books.

I read picture books in my free time because they are the heart of my literacy instruction. I am a staunch supporter of read aloud experiences and use carefully selected mentor texts during my reading, writing, and literacy workshops. 

I know from three decades of experience that well-chosen read alouds can brighten kids’ moods, build background knowledge, and spark deep thinking and conversations.

What do I look for as I’m weeding through the stacks? I begin by separating the books into three broad categories:

  1. read to laugh

  2. read to learn

  3. read to ponder

I’ve based these categories on a series of mini-lessons found in Month-by-Month Reading Instruction for the Differentiated Classroom. These mini-lessons guide young children as they begin to hone their reading preferences. To spark their thinking, we read humorous titles, nonfiction texts, and stories with complex themes and ideas. Then, to sneak in a bit of opinion writing, we invite children to share their reading preferences and the reasons behind them.

Using the three general categories, I’ll share a few favorites from my stacks and my thinking behind their selection.

Read to laugh

If your students enjoy Eric Litwin’s Pete the Cat books, they’ll flip over his new character Groovy Joe (illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld). In the first book of the series, Groovy Joe: Ice Cream and Dinosaurs, Joe shares his ice cream with increasingly larger dinosaurs until there is no ice cream left. This book makes kids laugh (and dance) because they enjoy Tom’s witty illustrations, including the squirrel wearing shades and, of course, the labeled dinosaur spit!

Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie books are consistently voted the funniest in my classroom. Sadly, The Thank You Book was the last in that series. Fortunately, Mo latest book, Nanette’s Baguette, will keep your kids in stiches. Set in a handcrafted cardboard and paper town, Nanette sets off to get a baguette for Mom. After getting the baguette from Juliette, she can’t resist eating the warm, wonderful-tasting treat. You’ll be amazed how many words Mo included that rhyme with the word baguette!

Read to learn

Young nonfiction enthusiasts gravitate toward books with scary-looking illustrations and The Deadliest Creature in the World by Brenda Guiberson is filled with them. From the author/illustrator team that brought us The Greatest Dinosaur Ever (2013) and The Most Amazing Creature in the Sea (2015) this book highlights fourteen animals—from a golden poison dart frog to a Komodo dragon—all vying for the title of the deadliest creature in the world. The books in this series are ideal for reading a page or two a day. In addition, I use them for a springboard to opinion writing.

Another kid-appealing title is Creature Features: 25 Animals Explain Why They Look the Way They Do by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page. While reading this book, which is written in a question-answer format, your learners will discover why thorny devils are spiny and sun bears have long tongues. I read this book when launching students’ nonfiction inquiry experience because in this link, Jenkins and Page walk children through their process of creating this informational text.  

Read to ponder

I’m always on the lookout for books that will spark conversations about empathy and accepting differences. Mike Boldt’s book A Tiger Tail (or what happened to Anya on her first day of school) does just that. We meet Anya on her first day of school just as she discovers she’s grown a tiger tail. She unsuccessfully tries everything to get rid of her tail. Once at school, she bumps into a boy with rabbit ears and realizes, as she looks around her class, that everyone is unique and different. 

Another book that will make kids ponder is Dan Santat’s Are We There Yet? In this one-of-a-kind picture book, a boy and his family are headed on the long car ride to grandma’s birthday party. As their car travels through time and space, you read the book upside down and backwards (don’t forget to scan the QR Codes). In the end, the boy discovers that “there’s no greater gift than the present.”

P.S. In addition to picture books, the books I most enjoy reading (or listening to) are books for my book club. This week, we discussed the delightful book Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld—a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice. The type of reading I least enjoy is the reading that demands most of my time—e-mail!

Do you have favorite titles that make your students laugh, learn, or ponder? Share them with me on Twitter @mariapwalther. 

Being Accountable for Our Own Learning: Seeking Out Professional Development

In my recent post on teacher training programs, I discussed what I believe to be the characteristics of a high-quality teacher training program—qualities that helped me to best prepare for my first day of school. However, learning doesn’t stop there! With the continuous, nonstop changes in education, teachers are constantly learning new strategies, ideas, and research throughout their career.

Sometimes we are sent out for Professional Development (PD) workshops, while other times we attend required school-based or online sessions. In addition to PD workshops and sessions, teachers may choose to formally continue their education by receiving master’s degrees or a PhD, or by taking individual courses to receive credit.

What if the PD you are receiving doesn’t necessarily meet your needs and professional goals? What if attending graduate school isn’t the best option for you? What if you just don’t have the time to take classes? I believe that it is our job as teachers to be accountable for our own learning by seeking out the information we want to know. This is precisely why back-to-school is the perfect opportunity to think about your professional goals. I appreciate and understand that our time as teachers is valuable, so I present to you my favorite quick and efficient tips to “learn more,” without stepping into a classroom, workshop, or meeting.

Social Media

I’m going to be honest and admit that I’m a bit of a social media addict. I love to keep up with my friends, favorite cities, restaurants—you name it! However, I recently began to use social media for my teaching career. I primarily use Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Through these social media outlets, I am able to connect and network with teachers, schools, organizations, educational applications (apps), and educational companies across the world! I enjoy evaluating and reviewing posts and pictures to gather ideas for my classroom. I also am able to stay up to date with the most current research and practice by reading articles that I see posted on these sites, which helps me to quickly reflect and make connections to my own teaching practice. I’ve found articles on almost anything: new lessons/projects to try, classroom management ideas, organizing classroom space, etc. As you begin a new school year, perhaps you can take a few minutes to build your online educational network! 


There is a plethora of educational blogs out there! You can find a blog about practically anything education-related. I have a love for literacy and technology, so I choose to follow blogs specific to those topics. What do you want to learn and what are you passionate about within the field of education? Once you answer these questions and find something that sparks your interest, combined with some googling, I guarantee you can find a blog to subscribe to—including this one!—and this is a great opportunity to personalize your learning. Most blogs have a place to comment, which means you can create a dialogue and connect with another person who shares your interests. You can quickly skim through some of your favorite blogs over coffee in the morning, at the gym, or during your morning commute. With modern technology’s flexibility and accessibility we’re always connected—it isn’t too hard to squeeze in a few extra minutes of learning. 

Join a book club—or start one!

At my previous school in New York City, I was in a book club that centered on the text Teaching Children to Care by Ruth Sidney Charney, a book about "Responsive Classroom Strategies." The book club, led by my fabulous colleague, was completely optional and we met outside of school hours for about 30 minutes, every few weeks. We didn’t really consider this “extra time” because it was something we all genuinely wanted to learn about. It was no different from friends discussing a common interest, and together we enjoyed trying new classroom strategies and then reflecting on our experiences. It was also a great opportunity to connect with colleagues on different grade levels, as well as colleagues I didn’t know too well.  


Intervisitations are one of my favorite means of PD, as they are a chance to collaboratively learn from one another either by hosting a colleague in your classroom or visiting a colleague in his or her classroom. You can also use this as an opportunity to give and receive constructive feedback. For example, you may invite a teacher to observe you while teaching in your discomfort zone. On the other hand, you may choose to visit a teacher who’s an “expert” at something you wish to learn more about. Whatever the case, intervisitations remain an excellent chance for a more personalized PD experience.

This is especially helpful for new teachers or when you decide to learn a new curriculum or teaching strategy. Observing colleagues in action, while they are illustrating whatever it is that you may be learning about, is a terrific supplement to simply reading about it or attending a workshop about it. You can spend a whole lot of time learning about something, but it really does click when you see someone do it. 


What if you don’t have time for an intervisitation for PD? The solution is simple: film yourself and share it with a colleague (and vice versa) to satisfy the same needs as an intervisitation. This provides the chance to observe a colleague/be observed without having to physically step into another teacher’s classroom. Additionally, you can search for educational videos on the Internet. Most curriculum programs have an online platform that includes PD videos. You can even find videos on school district websites. There are many PD videos out there. Filming or searching for videos is extremely convenient because it can be done on your own time and you don’t have to worry about scheduling.  

During these precious first few months of school, be sure to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are my professional goals?

  • How can I start achieving them now? 

  • What will I continue to do throughout the school year?

Perhaps you will look at a teacher’s Facebook page, subscribe to a blog, or visit a colleague’s classroom. The possibilities are endless! We are responsible for our own learning and for seeking out opportunities that encourage us to think, “Wow, I can try that tomorrow!” We can learn from little tidbits here and there—learning doesn’t only come from formal workshops, meetings, and classes. Our time as teachers is valuable. But when you are taking your time to learn about something you want to learn about—it’s worth it! 


Two years into Twitter: transformed by the community of educators

Two years ago, we published Twitter education chats: An astonishing source of professional development by Steve Wyborney, (author of  25 Common Core Math Lessons for the Interactive Whiteboard and Week-by-Week Math Review for the Digital Classroomwhich ended up being one of the most-read posts on edu@scholastic, ever!

In 2014, Steve was new to Twitter, and just learning how to use the platform for professional development. A lot has changed in two years, and we asked him for an update on his use of Twitter for PD in 2016. 

In September 2014, I described how my journey into Twitter education chats supercharged my professional development!

Now, two years later, Twitter education chats continue to supercharge my professional growth, and I have discovered much more. They have also supercharged my context. The network of educators I’ve found on Twitter has empowered me in ways I had simply never imagined two years ago when I wrote from the perspective of someone who was new to Twitter.

My experiences using Twitter as an educator during the past two years  have led me to publish a book, moderate chats, create chats, join educational Voxer communities, utilize Google Hangouts to teach lessons in other states, deliver keynote addresses on the power of Twitter, personally meet several contacts from online ed chats at conferences, and communicate with authors, experts, and educators all around the world!  

Because of the power of this community, I frequently feel like I know information well in advance of many who are not yet involved in Twitter ed chats.

My fledgling blog, which contained a single post in August, 2014, has grown into a platform that I use to share reflections, strategies, and resources with fellow educators. Frequently, the resources that I share return to me in the form of photos of how those resources have been used in the classroom.

My experiences with Twitter have also caused me to reflect deeply, and that reflection has led me to a new question: In addition to my Professional Development, what else has been supercharged due to Twitter?

There are three areas of clarity that stand out to me:

The network of connections I’ve established has empowered my willingness to take risks

Authors, experts, and many fellow educators always used to seem too far away, completely out of reach. There were two reasons for this: The first was that I didn’t have a means to easily contact them. With Twitter, I now have that means.

The second reason, though, was actually the greater barrier. I didn’t have the courage to contact them. I thought authors were out of reach, far away, and wouldn’t have time to answer my questions. Yet Twitter has elevated my willingness to take risks. In a sense, every tweet represents a small risk—after all, each one is public statement. Now that I’ve taken several of those risks, I’ve realized a new truth: Authors are eager to hear from their readers, ready to interact, and welcome being contacted.

I no longer hesitate to reach out. 

My risk-taking grew to a point where I reached out to an author and asked if I, too, could write a book. A year later, Dave and Shelley Burgess published my latest book, The Writing on the Classroom Wall, which itself is a risk—it lays my beliefs about teaching and learning out for the world to see.  

Twitter will never be perfect – and that is powerful

Because we are the ones who utilize Twitter—and because none of us is perfect —Twitter ed chats hold both a collective and personal power. The ed chats are inhabited by educators who mutually understand that we are all seeking to improve, that we all desire to contribute and learn, and that we all have questions and want to grow. 

It’s true that some educators have been on Twitter for a long time while others have recently stepped into it. Yet all of us are on a learning journey that will never be complete. The very fact that we are all learning – together – is a large part of what makes the ed chats work so very well. The chats are filled with the ideas of educators who willingly admit that we are hungry to learn, that there is much we do not know, and that when we share our questions together, we learn the most.

It is the mutual eagerness, coupled with the understanding that we are all learners, that often makes the chats so enriching and exciting.  

Education conferences will never be the same

Due to Twitter, I now step into every conference with a clear understanding that there are many, many educators who are unable to attend – but would dearly like to draw value from the conference. Participating from afar is now much more possible through Twitter, by following conference hashtags.

So, I now attend conferences with the dual intention of learning as much as I can and sharing as much of the experience as possible with other educators who cannot be there. If I learn about a tool, a website, or any other resource that might be useful, I tweet it out. Photos, quotes, statistics, lesson ideas and book recommendations often are very useful to those not at the conference, so I share them out. In some cases, I’ll tag a particular person, but I’ll always use the conference hashtag so that the learning can be scaled out to those who cannot be there.

Additionally, I now make a list of my top 10 – 20 reflections or discoveries during the experience and tweet those out at the end of the conference. And I challenge other educators to also share their top ten reflections. During the conference, this practice reminds me of my responsibility to share my learning, and it also causes me to finalize my reflections before rushing from one session to the next.

One such conference reflection was a simple statement that occurred to me: “Reflection is the end game.” Not only do we want our students to reflect deeply, we want that for ourselves as well. Our learning is propelled by acting on opportunities to reflect.  Reflection is what helps us settle our learning into meaningful lasting connections.  

Over time, I’ve learned that the growing network of educators who are eager to contribute to each other’s practice, the availability to take risks and reach out, and the opportunity to personally connect with other educators in such a way to deepen my own risks and my own journey have transformed both my perspective and my practice.

And that is what Twitter brings to me. Transformation. Reflection. Heightened Risk-Taking. Community.  

After two years of learning on Twitter, I’ve discovered that I have been transformed by the educational community on Twitter. It is a transformation in progress, and I am eager to learn more.

Follow Steve on Twitter: @SteveWyborney

State Reading Conferences: A Fabulous PD Opportunity!

In just a few days, I’m going to hop in my car and drive down to Peoria, IL to learn from colleagues at the Illinois Reading Council Conference (IRC). The first time I presented at this conference was in 1992 when I was 7 months pregnant with my daughter (who began her third year of teaching this year!) Yes!

It takes a lot of preparation and planning to write sub plans, organize everything at home, and get ready to present to my colleagues, but I do it every year to give back just a smidgen of the knowledge that I’ve gained at IRC over the past two decades.

I have my NIU professor, Pam Farris, to thank for introducing me to IRC. Over the years, I’ve tried “pay it forward” by inviting many of my colleagues to join me on my trek to the middle of our state. Once they’ve been there, they are hooked and return year after year.

What makes IRC special is the energy and enthusiasm. When you gather thousands of teachers who want to improve their craft, you find professional conversations happening everywhere. You meet colleagues from across the state and get a chance to hear what they are doing.

Over the past several years, I’ve had the opportunity to present at other state reading conferences, including SoMIRAC (Maryland), MRA (Michigan), and CCIRA (Colorado). Each time I go, I am inspired by the knowledge and wisdom shared among the passionate, dedicated teachers who attend. In my mind, state reading conferences offer some of the best, most cost-effective and practical professional learning opportunities around, and I highly recommend that all teachers participate in their own state conference.

Just imagine—long before Elephant and Piggie books were in every primary-grade classroom library, I saw Mo Willems draw the pigeon in a room with less than fifty people in it! You never know what amazing experiences await at these gatherings, but I can assure you that you will leave refreshed and revitalized.

So, once again, I’ll be sitting together with my fellow Illinois teachers in packed rooms to hear Nell Duke talk about project-based learning, and discover new writing strategies from Ralph Fletcher and Jeff Anderson. We’ll add to our “to be read” stacks when Becky Anderson Wilkins and Mr. Schu share the latest and greatest children’s books. Authors like Jason Reynolds and Joan Bauer will tell us their stories. Now, that the conference has moved to October, I will have more time to implement the teaching strategies I learn about and read all the new books I’ll buy from Anderson’s Bookshop while I’m there. Shhhhh!  Don’t let my husband know that part!

If you can’t join us in person, follow the conference on Twitter @ILReadCouncil #IRC2016.


This post has been adapted from an earlier post.

Anything Can Be a Game

I am a huge fan of academic games! My students engage in playing academic games almost every day. Games are fun, captivating, and educational—exactly how school should always be for students. When I sit down to plan daily lessons and think about the activities in which students participate, I frequently ask myself, “How can these be games?”  

Below I'll explain why academic games are beneficial and how I incorporate them into my daily instruction.

Games are fun

First and foremost—academic games are fun! What child doesn’t love to play games? When students are amused and fascinated, they are more open to learning. They are also more likely to stay focused for longer periods of time. It is extremely important to me that my students leave school happy at the end of each day. I want them to love school and learning. Providing them with engaging learning experiences, such as academic game playing, helps me to achieve this important goal. 

Games can be used to practice old skills or learn new ones

Most importantly, games help us learn. You may use a game to introduce new content or to let students practice what they've already learned.

I love to use Bing-O to present word families, sight words, or vowel patterns during word study time. I’ll continue to use these games throughout the school year to reinforce these skills.

An academic game can also be used as an “early finishers” activity. If students finish their reading work, they may have the opportunity to play sight word Bing-O with a friend. If they finish their math work, they have the option to play a math game that corresponds with the math concepts we are currently learning. This can be as simple as rolling two dice and solving the addition problem on a whiteboard.  

Games support differentiated instruction

Academic games are naturally differentiated. First, students need to be placed in partnerships or in groups. You may decide to create homogeneous groups so that all students are on the same level. Or you may decide to spread out your more vulnerable learners among higher-level learners, and create heterogeneous groups so that students can benefit from their peers. This approach also benefits our stronger learners in that it gives them an opportunity to teach and explain concepts to others. Either way, your groups should be chosen thoughtfully, not arbitrarily. 

After you create your groups, you can invent different games for each group. For example, if you are creating a math game to practice addition facts, you may decide to use larger numbers to enrich your more advanced students and smaller numbers for those students who need more practice. You may additionally choose to use dice with dots on each side for students who need the counting support, and dice with numbers on each side for those who don’t need counting support. Another option is that if you are creating a sight word game or phonics game, you can change the word difficulty in that game based on what the group needs.  

Games consequently access multiple learning styles and needs. They especially provide a hands-on learning experience for our kinesthetic learners! Throughout my teaching career, I have found that a hands-on learning experience is remarkably beneficial for my more vulnerable learners. Not only does it create a high level of interest, but it also helps them to learn new concepts.  

When your students are focused on a meaningful task, you can easily circulate around the classroom and monitor student learning. You may decide to spend a few minutes with each group to listen in on conversations and track their learning.

This is also an excellent opportunity to meet with small groups for remediation or enrichment. After circulating, you may resolve to pull a small group to reteach the concept. Or you may plan a group ahead of time based on data and observations from previous lessons. Either way—we teachers must actively monitor and make in-the-moment decisions that benefit our students’ learning.  

Games promote cooperative learning

Not only does game playing help our students academically, but it also teaches them important social skills. In order to successfully play a game together, students need to know how to collaborate and work with others. They must understand how to problem-solve and to agree and disagree respectfully. At the beginning of each school year, my students and I discuss and practice what it means to work together. As a class, we decide what it looks like and sounds like, and then we make a corresponding anchor chart.

We live in a world where teamwork, collaboration, and communication are at the forefront of college, careers, and success. Although my students are only first graders, I firmly believe that it is our job as teachers to teach, support, and pave the way for cooperative learning skills for the classroom and in life. We need to start now!  

Academic game essentials

The following items go a long way in an elementary school classroom!

  • Dry erase sleeves: With this amazing tool, you can make anything into a dry erase board without having to laminate it. You simply slip a piece of paper inside. I use these every day and they are by far one of my favorites! It is a step above from the next item on the list.

  • Clear plastic sleeves

  • Laminator

  • Dry erase markers

  • Dice (with numbers, letters, word families, etc.)

  • Counters (virtually anything that can be used to mark a space)

  • Whiteboards

  • Number cards

  • Magnet letters or letter cards

Examples of games

The possibilities are endless when it comes to creating academic games! Here are some examples of game templates that I either slip into dry erase sleeves or clear plastic sleeves. Gather any necessary materials from the list above and your students are ready to play!

Create your own game

You can take your academic game playing to the next level with this exciting class project: create your own academic game! Your students can create their own game and then teach it to other students. This is also an excellent opportunity to engage in how-to writing and presentation skills.

Please see below for a sample game- planning template.

When people (not just children!) have higher interest and are more engaged, they are more likely to learn. If you tell a student, “Today we are going to practice writing word families” or “Today we are going to play a word family game,” which is more appealing? The game! 




How Leadership Inspires Literacy-Rich Classrooms

What an exciting time! As educators, we open another school year with all the possibility in the world as we focus on a culture and climate that is positive and reinforcing for all students. 

My elementary school is coming off of a summer of reading and writing. Students from grades K-2 were invited to participate in our LitCamp over the course of four weeks.  LitCamp was created and implemented to curb summer reading loss. Decades of studies have shown that although students from low socio-economic backgrounds tend to learn at the same rate as their peers during the school year, they are more vulnerable to losing academic ground after the summer (as much as one to two months). This contributes to the academic learning gap between students from high and low socio-economic backgrounds, and contributes to students not reading on grade level.  

Therefore, we implemented LitCamp to provide our students the opportunity to have access to high-quality interactive summer camp experiences that incorporated reading and writing.

The program was designed for rich and engaging learning built on a foundation of authentic, motivational text and the 7 strengths model to include social and emotional development. Furthermore, all students in grades K-5 were provided books and fun activities to use over the summer. This really helps to keep the brain active during school breaks.  

We experienced tremendous success with our summer reading program, which has invigorated the passion our school has for providing students authentic, enjoyable reading and writing experiences.

Therefore, what follows below will describe some of the conversations literacy leaders at my school are having around literacy.


Starting the conversation

The work we did this summer focused on the 7 strengths of super readers: belonging, friendship, community, curiosity, confidence, kindness, and hope, along with an abundance of reading for enjoyment. The enthusiasm from the teachers who were the camp leaders fostered a discussion with the entire staff during pre-service about creating an environment where all students can flourish as readers.  

This, in turn, sparked our discussion around creating a literacy-rich environment that fosters readers who love reading, and see themselves as lifelong readers. We knew that one of the most important aspects of this culture would be giving students access to texts of their choice.

I was very fortunate to hear Donalyn Miller present recently in Newport News, Virginia, and she shared that students build confidence and enjoyment as readers when they get to choose a book of interest. During the presentation Miller also shared John Green’s saying that “books belong to their reader.”  

I want the staff at Forrest to remember that books belong to the readers; not the school, not the library, not the classroom. As adults we know what we like to read, and we choose our independent reading, so why would this be different for students?  

Therefore, we decided to conduct interest inventories during the first two weeks. Then we used this data to look for trends to help us build our classroom libraries, which in turn will allow all students to have books in their individual book boxes that they want to read. I know we have all experienced a time when we did not notice that two hours had passed while we were reading, or couldn’t wait until we had time to read again—this is what we want to foster at Forrest for all students.


Access ensures equity and excellence for all: resources and schedule

This is about access for all. To develop lifelong readers, classrooms need to have certain resources, and time must be allocated to reading.   

Reading instruction must include read aloud, shared reading, small group reading, and independent reading. So a crucial question to ask is, is enough time allotted for teachers to have a balanced approach to literacy?   

Then there are physical materials that teachers must have access to in order to create a literacy community in their classroom. For example, research shows that teachers should have between 300 and 1000 books in a classroom library. We must know the students, and ensure all teachers have what they need to meet the needs of all students. Are these classroom libraries diverse, with enough read-aloud text, enough leveled readers? 

We ask ourselves, as instructional leaders: do all new teachers come out of college knowing how to allocate these resources? Do our veteran teachers know how to? We must be able to identify the literacy leaders in our building because no educator can do it alone.  


Classroom climate

It goes further than this though. Teachers must have a mindset to create a climate in the classroom that is truly a literacy community. A literacy leader will be strategic about:

  • how the desks are set up in the classroom

  • whether the lesson plans have opportunities for students to discuss the text they are reading

  • whether students have time to confer with the teacher about books and writing

  • whether students give each other constructive feedback

These are just a few of the questions that school leaders should use to guide literacy communities in each classroom.


Administrators as support

Administrators must provide the resources for the environment, and support for the climate. Teachers want to know what it looks like and what it sounds like, because school leaders tend to talk about terms or theory, but less often clearly articulate practical implementation strategies. For example, provide teachers with lesson plans that model turn-and-talk or shared inquiry discussion around a text.

Forrest teachers have a document that was created by our literacy team, and which outlines the expectations and the plan for the upcoming year. We review this at the end of the school year, and again during pre-service week. It is so important that everyone understands the path, and are on it together.

At Forrest, all staff have access to a “look-for document” that was created  by our literacy team,* and which includes best practices for environment, climate and each portion of balanced literacy. This allows staff to self-assess their classroom, and provides more opportunities for buy-in when they make their own observations.

When teachers get the opportunity to articulate their needs to school leaders, with documentation, it increases self-efficacy.  

Even several weeks into the school year, it is not too late to complete this with your staff.  My staff found it very supportive and eye-opening.


Focus for the first quarter

Our focus right now is helping staff understand the importance of the first quarter of school. You have teachers in your school that created literacy communities in their classrooms. Have them share their model with their peers during the first three/four weeks of school. They can even create visual models by photographing their classrooms and making videos of successful routines.  

In doing so, you will have a model to share with others from your own staff. So often we hear, "That’s not our school. That won’t work here." Peer modeling from within the building is a way to overcome that roadblock.  

I meet with my literacy team weekly to map out the timeline of support and we sketch out each of the agendas. We look at our resources, and the best practices for building a literacy community, and match our professional learning with teachers in alignment. This ensures the professional learning happens in real-time and teachers will implement it in the next few weeks. This document allows us to see what and where we have been and where we need to go. It is a clearly articulated plan for implementation and evaluation.


Administrators as another set of eyes

At this time, we are gathering all of this information and visiting classrooms. We will take staff feedback, and our notes, and decide the next steps of support for each teacher. We will adjust our agendas as needed based upon real-time observation. This is a great way to differentiate the support for your staff and to help each of them to feel truly valued, which will then be fostered in their classroom throughout the year.  

Our goal is to foster a love of reading so that we open a world of possible for all students. Reading transforms lives, inspires, and empowers students to explore and share ideas.


In my next post, I will discuss our literacy team meetings and Professional Learning Community agendas in detail including our small group reading professional learning monthly. Furthermore, how the work is positively impacting student reading and fostering the love of reading. 

*Our document was adapted from The Ohio State University © 2010 Interprofessional Commission of Ohio. The Principal’s Office Website is designed and maintained by the P-12 Project staff.



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