The Compelling Why: Using Short Texts to Support Close Reading

Using short informational texts can be a powerful instructional tool, but it’s not always clear exactly why we should use them…or how! 

I want to start with a note about the value of using authentic texts with young readers: there are so many different types of informational materials in the world—from brochures to directions and recipes, to blurbs and biographies—and students need to be exposed early on to real-world informational text in the classroom.  In the small group setting, teachers can guide students during close reading and supported re-reading of short texts, and differentiate instruction based on students’ individual needs.  

Using these types of short informational texts gives teachers three powerful instructional strategies:

  • Focus and target instruction 
  • Provide opportunities to practice reading informational and authentic text 
  • Prepare students for the types of texts they will find on the new assessments

Focus and Target Instruction

Why can using short texts help teachers to focus and target instruction?  Current expectations for elementary students include the ability to read, then compare and contrast multiple texts on the same topic. Kids also need to be able to read several texts on the same topic, synthesize what they’ve learned, and then be able to knowledgeably share that information orally or through written projects.

This kind of comparative reading can be done efficiently in small groups if teachers use short content area texts. These texts don’t have to be long in order to provide information on various aspects of a topic—a short, focused text can offer a young reader plenty to absorb.  And, this practice of using multiple short segments of content material is common when doing research all the way through the college level.

Plenty of Practice with Informational and Authentic Text

Why can using shorter informational text prepare students to read on the Internet and other digital media?  Most websites (like news sites, or this blog) organize their content in brief segments.  To read Internet content is to absorb key concepts in short bursts. Similarly, content-focused chapter books in the elementary grades often provide two- to four-page chapters on various aspects of a subject.  (A book about an animal might have one chapter about what the animal eats, another about where it lives, and so on.) And yet each of these chapters is actually a short, focused reading. Teaching with short texts helps prepare students for the kinds of reading they will encounter on the Internet or in chapter books.

Assessment Preparation

Why do short texts help prepare students for assessments? Because students will be expected to read, re-read, and demonstrate comprehension of short texts that:

  • are complex and at grade-level
  • present a variety of text features
  • use academic vocabulary (that students must learn in context)
  • are sourced from a range of media and text types

Because the informational texts are filled with content intended to build knowledge, they are organized in short segments; these may be reading a subheading and the section on a topic, or a single chapter in a longer book. That is how a reader naturally reads, studies, and learns content material. These texts can be very complex and provide opportunities for teachers to work with students in small groups with authentic texts. The informational texts can provide reasons to read closely, to be read and re-read.  

The old adage, “good things come in small packages,” truly applies to using short, informational texts as a part of  powerful small group instruction.


Editor's Note:

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Fostering Independence: The Key to Small Group Instruction

Educators know that the whole-class lesson is just one small part of instruction, and that differentiating instruction is critical; it’s how we ensure that we meet the unique academic needs of each and every child. We need to take the time to build on strengths and address vulnerabilities.

In order for all of this exciting work to happen, the first step is to have a well-managed class. We need to have systems in place at the beginning of the school year that allow students to work independently (and keep on working independently!) on something meaningful for extended periods of time. In other words, when it comes to small group instruction, you need successful systems out of your groups (quite literally) for things to work in your groups.  

As a first grade teacher, I notice the following tendencies among my students: they finish their work very quickly (sometimes too quickly!), they often need me for questions and comments, and they are working toward building stamina while working independently.  I wouldn’t exactly call these “problematic” behaviors—my students are 6 and 7 years old!  While this is expected behavior of a first grader, it can be difficult to work with a small group and expect minimal interruptions.  I offer you a simple solution: foster independence.

During small group instruction, these questions are always at the fore: 

  • How do we keep our other students engaged?
  • What is the rest of the class doing?
  • How do we ensure that our entire class is on task?

Read below to find out how I address these questions by fostering independence in my first grade classroom.  

Hand Signals

How many times have you been working with a child or a small group and another child comes over to you and asks to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water?  The next thing you know, you're having a conversation with that child about interrupting, and your small group has become distracted.  Better yet, have you ever noticed a child waving his or her hand in the air and impatiently waiting for you for the same reasons? Verbal or not, these small interruptions may lead to big problems for your guided reading group. I have therefore implemented the following lesson on the first day of school:

On the first day of school, when we begin to learn classroom routines and procedures, I always introduce and practice hand signals for water and bathroom breaks.  If kids raise their hands and ask to use the bathroom or get water, I have them “ask me again” using the correct hand signal.  If they come over to me while I'm working with a child or group, I send them right back to their seats and ask them to use their hand signals. I either respond with thumbs up (yes) or I point to my watch (wait).  These hand signals help to minimize interruptions during small group instruction (and throughout the rest of the school day!). 

Working "Long and Strong"

One thing your students may be doing during small group instruction is working independently.  From day 1, we want to encourage our students to read, write, solve math problems, etc., “long and strong” (i.e., working for long periods of time, without stopping, while staying focused on their work). Promoting perseverance beginning on the first day of school requires a lot of celebrating and positive reinforcement. One motivation tool is to set a timer every day:  if you time them reading for 10 minutes one day, aim for 11 minutes the next day. Become a cheerleader! You can also graph their results and hang it up to show how proud you are and to encourage them to do even more.  The “longer and stronger” they work independently, the more time you have for your small groups.

Give Students Individual Tools

There is a wealth of individual tools that teachers can use to help promote independence, such as individual word walls, steps to solving math word problems, writing checklists, and so forth.  Usually these tools are small and can fit into a child’s folder or desk.  

Here are some of my favorites:

Reading Mat: This is the ultimate tool for building reading stamina.  In the beginning of the school year, I give my students a folder, red paper, and green paper. I allow them to cut out any shape they want, and to glue green on the left side, and red on the right side. Then they decorate it and I laminate it.  I love to have the students make the mats themselves—they get excited and feel a sense of ownership and accomplishment.  Each day during independent reading, they pile all of their books onto the green side (green means go!).  Whenever they finish a book, they put it on the red side (red means stop!).  Once all of their books are in the red pile, guess what?  They push it back to the green pile and reread. 

Reading Response Menu: “I don’t know what to write about…” is another phrase I hear quite frequently in my 1st grade class. My students keep the attached “Reading Response Menu” in their desks and they use it almost daily during reading time.  (They also have a take-home “Reading Response Menu.”)

Talking Tools: Students outside of your small group may not always be working independently—they may be working in partnerships or on a group activity with their peers. When my first graders engage in collaborative learning, it is essential that they stay on task and that their conversations are academic-based.  If they are engaged and focused on their work, I can focus my attention on whichever group I’m working with.  I have created laminated sheets, such as this, to help support the conversations my students have with peers.  Like any classroom tool, it needs to be taught and practiced. 

"When I'm done, I can..."

How often do you hear “I’m done!” throughout the entire school day? Students work at all different paces and finish at different speeds.  We need to provide students with options: what can they do when they’re done? This may be something as simple as an “early finishers” basket with extra work, or asking your kids to read quietly on the rug.  Whatever you choose, teach it at the beginning of the school year and keep reminding your students, so that you can work in small groups with few interruptions. 

Below is a sample anchor chart to use during writing when kids say “I’m done”—I usually just point to the chart. 


I love integrating technology into all subject areas in my classroom. When students are working independently or in small groups I encourage them to work with technology. They read ebooks daily on the classroom computers, and use educational apps on iPads, Kindles, or other tablets. Most students are able to maintain focus for long periods of time when using a device. 

Bottom line: Teachers must engage in small group instruction—it’s nonnegotiable!

The rest of the class needs to be engaged in something meaningful that they can work on independently. During those precious first few weeks of school, it is essential that teachers provide students with the necessary tools to become independent thinkers. Fostering independence immediately, from day one, is the key to small group instruction. Working independently is also an important life skill that students will need to carry with them throughout their lives.


Tigers Read: Making Summer Learning a Team Effort

During the last few days of the school year, children across the South Carolina Upstate received a collection of books to read over the summer.  The children, rising second graders, all participated in Reading Recovery®. Reading Recovery is a short-term, early intervention for students who are having difficulty learning to read and write. During the intervention, students work with a specially trained reading teacher who individually designs and delivers literacy instruction based on the child’s unique strengths and needs. While the students make accelerated progress during the school year, summer is always looming.  This year, given the research on summer reading slide that suggests many students lose reading skills during the summer, the Clemson University Reading Recovery and Early Literacy Training Center for South Carolina (CUTC) wanted to do everything possible to make sure the gains children made during the school year held during the months of June, July, and August. 

Enter the Tigers Read! initiative. Tigers Read! partners the nationally recognized Clemson University Football team’s head coach Dabo Swinney and his All in Team Foundation,  Scholastic, and the CUTC in an effort to help ameliorate summer reading slide. The Tigers Read! Initiative provides 10 high-interest, high-quality books for each child to read during the summer months.  Instead of having a “summer slide” we hope these 10 books will result in a “summer reading rise” for the children who participate in the program. When the initiative was first discussed, the connections between football and summer reading were overwhelming clear.


Athletes spend a great deal of time practicing. Football players lift weights, study game videos, and walk through the same play over and over as they prepare for the big game. This is the same kind of commitment needed from children during the summer – in order to maintain and progress in reading skill development they must practice, practice, practice. The old adage, “practice makes perfect” couldn’t be more fitting and certainly holds true for both sports and reading.


Players must be highly motivated. Football players are motivated by their teammates and coaches and have an internal drive that keeps pushing them to succeed. They are always working to win the next game or the next championship. Readers must have a similar motivation, a motivation that keeps them up at night begging to read “just one more page.” One key to being a motivated reader is developing the habit of reading.  To develop the habit it important that students spend time each day reading for pleasure. 

Coaches and Teachers

A good football coach cares about winning, but—more importantly—cares the players. Coach Swinney recently has received many coaching awards and understandably so. He always refers to his players as student-athletes and touts his player graduation rate, as much if not more than his record on the field. A good coach cares deeply about the person, and the same is true of a good teacher. A coach or teacher who supports a growth mindset instills in the athlete or student the importance of dedication and hard work. Coaches and teachers can make all the difference in the life of a child, their influence reaching well into the future.


Athletes and students certainly need the right tools to be successful. Football players need footballs, cleats, pads, and helmets in order to play. And kids need books in order to read—without them summer reading slide is inevitable.  Research evidence indicates that book ownership is related to reading growth.  Children participating in the Tigers Read! Initiative are given 10 books to read over the summer and these books are for their home library.

Initiatives like Tigers Read! make sure children have the needed tools to be successful by ensuring free access to high-quality books.  Further, the Tigers Read! partnership that pairs a foundations, a business, and schools make quite a winning combination. So let’s all cheer, “Go Team!”

Interested in learning more about Tigers Read? Check out these articles from Anderson Independent-Mail and The Greenville News

Creating Transformational Educational Leaders

The superintendent position of any school district is an important role that all employees and students of the school system rely on, as well as the community as a whole. The superintendency can become a lonely position, as there are no other similar positions in a district. Mr. Jack Hoke, the Executive Director of the North Carolina School Superintendents’ Association (NCSSA), is looking to change that with the Next Generation Superintendent Development Program.

Jack Hoke has had a long and celebrated career in education. After spending 32 of his 36 years in multiple levels of administration, including the role of superintendent, he decided that he wasn’t finished advancing the educational systems in North Carolina. His motivation to continue working in education is the 1.5 million students in the North Carolina public school system and thinking about the individual needs of those students.

In a conversation with Mr. Hoke about this innovative approach to creating transformational educational leaders, three main ideas on how to make this change emerged:

  • Networking
  • Building a support system
  • Staying current with state and national educational perspectives


Many school systems provide times for “job alike” meetings. Job alike times are typically a chance for people in the district with the same job to come together to creatively problem solve, and to develop new curricular guidelines or operational procedures. Mr. Hoke points out that “the superintendent is a unique position because it has no equal in the district.”

This means that superintendents need to network across the state and across the country. Networking with colleagues and corporate sponsors are big parts of the Next Generation Superintendent Development Program. By committing to eight days of face-to-face meetings, these networks provide support, and time for collaboration and positive influence.

Building Support Systems

Jack pointed out that of the 115 districts in North Carolina, 85 of them have a superintendent that have been in the position for fewer than 5 years.  Mr. Hoke stated that “building a strong system of support for these educational leaders is one of the ways that the Next Generation Superintendent Development Program hopes to build a knowledgeable base of superintendents with over five years of experience. One innovative way that the North Carolina School Superintendent Association (NCSSA) is helping create this system of support is by building 'thought partners' into the program."

Pairing up one of the 25 program participants with a program graduate is a key component for creating this coaching model. Over the course of the eight face-to-face meeting days, they will spend six hours with their thought partner exploring issues such as educational innovation, how to adapt to the ever changing field of education, and the need and means to transform learning in their school districts. These thought partners are also available electronically between meetings. Being current superintendents themselves, the thought partners offer both current information and up-to-date research in their coaching role. They have found the most success in grouping thought partners geographically. 

Staying Current

The third main idea is helping the superintendents stay current with state and national educational perspectives. As many school systems face an increase in student numbers and a decrease in school funds, every position in a school system is asked to do more with less. This includes superintendents. The school system is the largest employer in many districts and every decision made by the school district has immediate impact on the community. 

Staying on target with current perspectives is a key component to the Next Generation Executive Leadership Program. By focusing on creating personal leadership goals that also align with district, state and national goals, it ensures that the participants stay knowledgeable about the changes in education at all levels.  Attending national and state level events with national speakers and legislative updates also helps facilitate each superintendent reaching this goal. 

One example is this year’s NCSSA Superintendent's Summer Leadership Conference that will feature national speakers Dave Weber, President of Weber Associates and Dr. Bill Daggett, Chairman and CEO of the International Center for Leadership in Education.  All of these opportunities ensure that superintendents stay focused on the gap between the students’ needs and what the school system is providing. 

In today’s educational climate, it is imperative that we have innovators like Jack Hoke who continue to push our current educational leaders to continue to be supportive learners who are building networks while also staying abreast of innovative ideas that help close our students’ academic gaps. By shifting the focus of the superintendent role from a lonely perch atop the district ladder of success, to a necessary cog in the wheel of an educational innovative network, Mr. Hoke is changing the lives of 1.5 million North Carolina students, one leader at a time.



Hamilton 101

UPDATE: Listen to Wayne D'Orio talk about Hamitlon 101 on EWA Radio (click here)! This article originally appeared on Scholastic Administr@tor

Six years before the play Hamilton opened Off-Broadway, creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda had a thought: Whenever I finish this play, it will be useful for teachers. That’s because before Hamilton won 11 Tonys, before its cast album was streamed 365 million times, before the top ticket prices soared to a record $849, Miranda debuted the show’s first song, “Alexander Hamilton,” at the White House Poetry Jam in 2009.

When video of the four-and-a-half minute performance hit YouTube, the number-one comment was, “My teacher showed us this in APUSH,” Miranda told Newsweek, using the acronym for AP U.S. History.

Six years later, when the play opened at Manhattan's Public Theater, one very interested observer made smart use of his second ticket by inviting Lesley S. Herrmann of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. As soon as the play finished, Herrmann turned to the man who invited her, historian and award-winning author Ron Chernow, and said, “We have to get this in the hands of kids.” Chernow's 2004 biography of Hamilton inspired Miranda to write his play.  

Fast forward another year to May 2016. Thirteen teams of 11th graders from around New York City are waiting anxiously in the wings to perform their own two-minute pieces on events or people from the birth of our country. “Welcome to the best day of the year for us here at the Richard Rodgers: EduHam,” says an enthusiastic Miranda as he looks out on a theater packed entirely with high school students. After the student performances, the high schoolers will see Hamilton, culminating their immersion in the life and times of the “10-dollar founding father without a father.”

So how did the hottest show on Broadway not only team up with two nonprofits to bring 20,000 11th graders, one of every four in the city, through the doors of the Richard Rodgers Theatre but then entice each of them to interpret original documents from the founding of our country and create their own artistic interpretation of a historical moment?

Laying the Groundwork

In some ways, this partnership between Hamilton, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and the Rockefeller Foundation was a whirlwind project, going from idea to fully realized program in less than a year. But in other ways, the seeds of the project were sown much earlier.

Miranda knew firsthand how powerful creating your own artistic project could be to young people; indeed that’s how he got his start in musical theater. He wrote three original songs when he was in eighth grade to help teach classmates the content of The Chosen, a coming-of-age story that takes place in Brooklyn in the 1940s. “My first musical I ever wrote was a class assignment,” he revealed to Arrive magazine.

Hamilton producer Jeffrey Seller himself has a history of bringing Broadway to high school students. He created an educational program for the musical Rent, his first theatrical success.

And Gilder Lehrman has a long track record of creating history programs that benefit schools. Two-thirds of the students who take AP U.S. History visit the institute’s website, and its total traffic is expected to increase to 10 million visitors this year, up from fewer than 2 million visitors two years ago. 

Miranda’s father, Luis Miranda Jr., expressed interest in creating a program for schools, and he and Seller subsequently met last summer with Gilder Lehrman’s director of education, Tim Bailey. Bailey showed them a recent program he had written called Vietnam in Verse. The lesson plan used poetry and music from the era to discuss the issues of that period. Seller was impressed: “You’re in,” he told Bailey.

He and Luis Miranda found the money needed for the project, getting the Rockefeller Foundation to put up $1.5 million. The funds helped pay for the curriculum’s creation and subsidize the tickets needed for the 20,000 students. The play offers each seat for $70, basically its cost to run a performance of the play without making a profit. Rockefeller pays $60 while students pony up $10, both a nod to Hamilton and a way to make sure they’re invested in the project.

“Works like this don’t come around very often, and when they do we must make every effort to maximize their reach,” said Judith Rodin, president of the foundation.

Here’s a story that talks about American history and the ideals of American democracy . . . in a vernacular that speaks to young people, written by a product of New York public education,” Rodin told The New York Times. “Could there possibly be a better combination in terms of speaking to students?”

Creating a Student Study Guide

Bailey started working on the framework of the project in September. He knew he wanted to have students deal directly with primary sources. Gilder Lehrman is the owner of 60,000 documents from American history, and Bailey knew that having students read and respond to these sources, while challenging, was key.

Summarizing key documents and events reduces moments to one story, Bailey says, robbing students of the ability to interpret, and disagree, about both people and history. But Bailey knows that asking students to read documents written more than 200 years ago can lead to lots of eye rolling. “There’s a fine line you have to watch as a teacher, between good instruction and frustration, and that line is different for every student,” says the former history teacher. “It’s a really complex skill for an educator, but it’s really what you have to aim for.”

Bailey’s study guide has students do a close reading of two documents, loyalist Samuel Seabury’s Free Thoughts on the Proceedings of the Continental Congress and Hamilton’s A Full Vindication of the Measures of the Congress. The guide instructs students to pick key words from the excerpts, then summarize the readings in the author’s words. For the last part of the lesson, students then restate each excerpt in their own words.

“We have to teach students the skills to unlock those sources,” he adds. “We provide enough structure so that students won’t freak out.”

He also has students mine the two excerpts from Seabury and Hamilton to discern exactly where each line in the song Farmer Refuted originated, demonstrating how Miranda went from fact to verse.

While Bailey worked on the classroom materials, others at Gilder Lehrman set up a private website where students can log in and not only see parts of five songs that are performed during the show, but also view nine video interviews created exclusively for them. In the videos, Miranda explains how Hamilton is different from other founding fathers, Chernow discusses the artistic license used in historical non-fiction, and actors read from actual documents of the period.

Miranda, handling the actual love letter Hamilton wrote to his not-yet wife Eliza, reads: “You not only employ my mind all day; but you intrude upon my sleep. I meet you in every dream and when I wake, I cannot close my eyes again for ruminating on your sweetness.” He looks up and tells students, “This puts whatever R&B song you’re listening to right now to shame.”

“We have amazing access to the show,” Bailey says. “It’s unprecedented.”

The website also features information on 30 different historical figures, ranging from Martha Washington to Hercules Mulligan, the tailor who used his access to British troops to spy for the Patriots. The site highlights 14 key events from the era, as well as 20-plus documents from The Federalist Papers to Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.

Projects and Performances

If the program sounds like a lot of work, it’s actually not, Bailey explains, adding that the whole project is expected to take only two or three classes. Most of the student work, including a suggested three hours of rehearsal, takes place outside the classroom. The program includes an 11-page teacher guide that discusses objectives, procedures, and alignment with four Common Core State Standards. The lesson includes a rubric that guides teachers in how to assess student work.

Students are given wide latitude in what, and how, they perform. They can present a rap, a song, a poem, a monologue, or a scene. And while their performance has to represent the era, they decide which key people, events, or documents to include.

“There are performances that had nothing to do with the shows,” says Bailey. One girl recited poetry about Phyllis Wheatley, a former slave and the first published African-American poet, who’s not in the play, and another student reworked the rapper Drake’s “5AM in Toronto” to tell the story of the Boston Massacre. (To see all the student performances from the May show, visit ABC’s Good Morning America.)

In May, students performed as Miranda and Christopher Jackson, who plays George Washington in the play, introduced each act and led the cheers. When a student named Reynaldo performed a dramatic rap as Hamilton that ended with his being shot by Aaron Burr, Miranda and Jackson were floored. “Whoa,” Jackson exclaimed. When Miranda recovered, he said, “I look forward to catching that single on iTunes.”

Right now, the educational program is only slated to run in New York for one year. (There have been two all-student matinees so far. The remainder will take place in the fall.) Bailey is confident the program will be approved for another year, and hopes that it can be expanded to other cities where the show is expected to open; Chicago will get a production starting in September, while two touring productions are expected to start in San Francisco in March 2017 and in Seattle in 2018. A London production is expected as well, and running an educational program overseas is certain to elicit different student viewpoints.

The program has reaped praise from high schools all the way to the White House, where the whole project first got started. When the cast came to perform at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in March, President Barack Obama said the soundtrack has become a favorite in his household, and he praised the educational component. “I'm thrilled they are working with New York public schools. There’s now a curriculum to give students context and a deeper meaning—or deeper understanding of our nation’s founding.” he said. “I hope this helps every teacher who spent hours trying to make The Federalist Papers teenager-friendly. The remarkable life of Alexander Hamilton will show our young people the possibilities within themselves and how much they can achieve within the span of a lifetime.”

Family and Community Engagement Is a Partnership

Family engagement in education—often referred to imprecisely as “parental involvement”—extends beyond incidental communication with schools or helping with homework. Effective family engagement is best achieved through a balanced and reciprocal partnership among schools, families and the community. 

The Role of the District

Beginning at the district level with the implementation of strategic plans and yearly goals, best practices prescribe the deliberate and meaningful inclusion of families and community partners. This means that families and the community collaborate with schools on shared plans and initiatives that support student achievement. All roles and responsibilities are clearly defined and supported, with a commitment to providing resources for ongoing professional learning for school staff, and ongoing, actionable communications for families, so that the connection between school and home is continuous and beneficial for all.  When this level of engagement occurs, families and communities share ownership of student achievement, which is sustainable even if district or school leadership changes. It also means that a foundation of successful engagement can be expanded in the future. 

The Role of the School

It is crucial for teachers and staff to develop deep knowledge of their communities. Schools are increasingly diverse, with students who might be multi-lingual or multi-ethnic, who practice many different religions, or who come to school with special needs.  And in many cases, what we once thought of as traditional family structure has changed, and students may live in foster, blended, or other kinds of families. We also often hear from teachers that the families who consistently come to school—especially once their children enter sixth grade—are the families of students who are doing well. When some families do not participate in school activities or communicate with the school, it may seem like they don’t care. In fact, the case may be that cultural, language or logistical issues (such as inflexible work schedules) prevent families from communicating with schools. So the school’s biggest challenge is learning how to create partnerships with all families. Schools must be able to understand their students’ families, and be equipped to engage with them in a flexible and responsive manner. 

For leaders, teachers and school staff, strong professional development can provide concrete strategies on how to identify factors that impact whether and to what degree families are able to communicate with schools. Schools are then able to differentiate engagement in order to effectively work with all families on an ongoing basis.

The Role of the Family

For families, meaningful engagement starts with learning how to work in partnership with schools.  This begins with a family’s strong connection with their child’s teacher, which allows cooperation and the means to provide deliberate support. In addition, through both these important conversations and opportunities to learn from other educators and families at the school, families can learn how to ask different kinds of questions at home in order to establish a deeper connection with their child’s academic progress. For example, instead of asking, “How was school today?”, they will learn to ask questions with purpose: “What did you learn today?” “Which character do you like in the story, and why?” When schools have great home connections, they are able to encourage students to read more at home, which increases vocabulary, and, ultimately, overall academic achievement.

Effective family and community engagement is therefore more than a series of meetings scheduled throughout the school year. It must begin with systemic implementation, and then evolve as a proactive, responsive and deliberate relationship of equal partners.


Reading Workshop: Thinking, Talking, & Learning

I’m fortunate to be in a book club with a group of longtime friends, many of whom are retired teachers. On my drive home the other night, I was brimming with energy after spending the evening thinking and talking about our most recent selection, A Man Called Ove (Fredrik Backman, 2015). I thought about how my book club is a meeting of people who love to read, and who want to share that love with friends, thereby supporting each other cultivating our lives as readers. I pondered the parallels between the flow of our book club meetings and the routines of reading workshop with my students. I have found that the way we support each other as readers during my book club is very similar to the most effective support that teachers can provide readers in the classroom, in which we invite students to share in conversations that will boost their energy, engagement, and learning. 

Begin with a Shared Book Experience—Read Aloud

In our book club, we all have something to say because we’ve read the same book. If you eavesdropped on our conversations, you would hear responses like, “Hmm!” or “Really?” as members share their insights. In our classrooms, there’s nothing like a well-chosen read aloud to spark a shared response. At a recent conference, MaryEllen Vogt, co-author of the SIOP book series, was in the middle of reading and talking about a text when the audience exclaimed, “AAAAAAH!” MaryEllen wisely replied, “I hear the sounds of comprehension!” What a smart way to label thinking for students! Kids can’t help but gasp when you turn the page in Alan’s Big, Scary Teeth (Jarvis, 2016) and—spoiler alert!—readers discover his teeth are fake. That gasp is important! Now I take a moment to note the sounds students make while listening to a read aloud, which tell me that they understand the text. The next time you do a read aloud, listen for the sounds of comprehension!

Foster Thoughtful Listening 

Why do we listen to each other during book club? We listen because we care about and respect each other. We want to hear what our fellow members think because it deepens our own comprehension. How do we help children better understand the reasons to listen thoughtfully during classroom conversations? I think that sometimes we are so focused on teaching children how to listen that we forget to explain why it is important. A few years ago, our school social worker introduced us to the concept of whole body listening (Truesdale, 1990). Whole body listening is an approach to teaching listening that makes the abstract concept of listening more concrete for children. It does this by explaining all the different body parts listeners use along with how active (or inactive) listening makes the speaker feel. For example, whole body listeners use their brains as they think about the speaker is saying and use their hearts because they care about the speaker. Teaching students to listen with their brains and hearts has helped them to better understand what it means to be an active participant in our collaborative conversations. When we can cultivate conversations that mirror a book club discussion, everyone’s thinking is elevated.

Teach and Demonstrate Useful Strategies 

During book club discussions, it is always interesting to notice the different strategies my book club members use to increase their comprehension. Some members put sticky notes in their books, others create character webs. I happen to do a lot of writing in the margins of my book.

As we think about the strategies that we teach, we want to target the ones that will support learners long after they leave our classrooms, when they are in book clubs of their own. Early in the school year, my students and I read wordless books together. I demonstrate to my class how I infer and predict as I try to figure out what is happening in the story.

To cement this demonstration and support students as I release responsibility, I use an anchor chart. You’ll notice this chart allows me to differentiate based on the needs of my students, because I know that not every strategy will work for every child. We build on this foundation throughout the year, continually adding to students’ repertoire of strategies to use during independent reading.

Support Independent Reading 

As longtime friends and colleagues, all book club members know each other’s reading preferences and are on the lookout for titles to recommend to each other. Thus, we end each meeting by sharing book suggestions and creating a shared “Someday” list in our book club journal. As educators, most of us only have one year to get to know our students’ interests and book preferences, so it is wise to begin the year with a reading interest survey like the one found in Scholastic’s Next Step Guided Reading Assessment Once we know students’ interests, we can match them to books and help them create their own “Someday” lists. Of course, in order have enough books to do this for a year, a robust school and classroom library is a must. In book club we support each other in finding, reading, and understanding books. The same holds true for independent reading in our classrooms.


Celebration is essential both in our personal lives and in our classrooms. We begin each book club by chatting and catching up on each other’s lives, and we’ve celebrated many milestones like newborn grandchildren and retirements. In my classroom, I celebrate students’ approximations and strategy use. As I’m sitting beside a reader, I might say, “I noticed you used the picture clue to help you figure out that word! That’s what readers do!” Regie Routman defines celebration as, “affirming, congratulating, showcasing, noticing, and making public the positive and specific actions and work learners have done or are attempting to do” (Teaching Essentials, 2008, p. 29). Whether you’re reading this post near the end of the school year or during summer, I’m guessing you’ve had the the “I’m going to be better at ______ next year reflections.” Instead of looking ahead, let’s reflect and share some celebrations! How have you helped your readers think and talk about books this year? 

Storyworks Jr.: Differentiating Instruction with the Video Read-Aloud

We know that 3rd grade is a critical year for both kids and teachers. It’s often the first year of high-stakes testing, for one thing. It’s also when students cross a crucial bridge in literacy, from learning to read to reading to learn. For a long time, 3rd-grade teachers had been asking us for a magazine just for their students—which is why we created Storyworks Jr. (You can read more about how and why we created this extension of the successful Storyworks brand here.) As the magazine’s editor, I’m excited to tell you about one of its strongest forms of teacher support, which happens to be a powerful differentiation tool. (More on that in a minute.)

Storyworks Jr. offers readers a wide range of genres—fiction, paired texts, read-aloud plays, poetry, debates, writing activities—and lots of nonfiction. And within all that super engaging text, we give teachers plenty of opportunities for differentiation. For example, our main narrative nonfiction article appears in a lower-Lexile version, a higher-level version, and what we’re calling a “starter” version, which is a very basic presentation of the facts for struggling readers. We’ve got audio versions of several stories, too. 

But we’re especially proud of our new approach to video, which we’re calling the Video Read-Aloud. We see it as a real game-changer for instruction (and that’s exactly how teachers who’ve used it are describing it!).

Our Video Read-Aloud is basically a hybrid of everything that’s most effective about audio, and everything that’s most engaging about video. It lets teachers build interest and provide background information. At the same time it supports students by modeling a fluent reading of a text that’s visually inviting. 

For instance, our first Video Read-Aloud was about the eruption of Mount St. Helens. In this new format, the author (in this case, our Editorial Director, Lauren Tarshis) reads her narrative nonfiction article, while photos and footage pull students further into the story. Teachers tell us that for those students who don’t know the first thing about camping (which is what the boys in our story were doing when they were caught in the eruption), the video immediately allows them to envision the experience. And it dovetails perfectly with Common Core’s Speaking and Listening standards.

The video serves as an ideal way to differentiate. For instance, struggling readers can watch it as a “first read,” and then read the article in small groups or with teacher support. They can also watch the video while reading along at home or in the classroom, to reinforce the story and build fluency. Meanwhile, on-level readers can watch the first two or so minutes of the video, then turn it off. (This way their interest is piqued but they don’t know how the story will unfold.) They can then read the article in full, and watch the rest of the video.   

Curious about our debut Video Read-Aloud? You can watch it—and check out our prototype issue—by clicking here

Making Time for Science and Social Studies

Let’s face it—finding enough time to teach science and social studies can be a challenge. For example, as a first grade teacher, my schedule allows me only a single 30-minute block in which to tackle both science and social studies, and that just isn’t enough instruction time for these crucial subjects. Thirty minutes just isn’t enough time to teach anything!

In order to make the most of my time with my students, I decided to think creatively about how I can incorporate science and social studies into our daily schedule. Below are the strategies I found most useful, which can help elementary school teachers find time for science and social studies in their packed schedules—not only in a short 30-minute time frame.

1. Teach Science and Social Studies Units Separately

This is a simple and common-sense strategy that has worked well for me. Each year, instead of teaching science and social studies simultaneously in the classroom, I teach my units separately. This provides to my students the opportunity to dive deeper into each subject, rather than just touch the surface of both. Students achieve mastery when they go deeper, not wider. 

2. Teach Thematic Units

This essentially means incorporating science/social studies content into reader’s and writer’s workshops. At the beginning of each school year when I sit down with my first grade teammates to create our curriculum calendar, we strategically choose which science or social studies unit best corresponds with our reading and writing units.

Below is a sample 1st grade Common Core–aligned curriculum calendar, which I created with colleagues at my former school.

This type of planning works well with nonfiction reading and writing units because I strategically select texts that support my science and social studies units of study. During whole class, small group, and independent work, students have the chance to practice important nonfiction reading skills and strategies while also learning science and social studies concepts, and reinforcing that new knowledge by thinking and talking about the texts.

By the same token, students can apply what they have learned from rich reading content to support their writing. For instance, they may use research about animals to write an all-about book, or use information learned about the seasons to write a persuasive paragraph, or write a poem about properties of matter. The possibilities are endless!

I’m sure you’re now wondering: How can I incorporate science and social studies into my fiction units? I have to admit that integrating science and social studies during a nonfiction reading and writing unit comes more naturally. But although integrating these areas of study into fiction can be more difficult, it is still a rewarding challenge. One social studies unit I particularly enjoy is Citizenship, when we spend quite some time discussing what good citizenship means. I partner this exploration with a Kevin Henkes author study and a realistic fiction writing unit. Henkes’s books convey life lessons that support many of the ideas around citizenship that we discuss as a class, and which my students incorporate into the characters they create.

This leads me to my next suggestion:

3. Teach Science/Social Studies in Lieu of Writer's Workshop 

Don’t panic! You will only need to do this one, maybe two days each week.

Like most teachers, I realized this problem of not having time to do it all during my first year in the classroom. My literacy coach at the time said that writer’s workshop only has to be done three times each week, and you can do science or social studies during that block one or two times a week. This was eye-opening, and I’ve carried this guidance with me since then. My current principal also encourages teachers to do science and social studies “labs” once a week during writing time! Being able to teach science or social studies during writing essentially opens up one or two additional hours each week to teach content! It is also a perfect time to do those activities that definitely take longer than 30 minutes: science experiments, research, engagement in group projects, and so forth.

And even though it isn’t the “official” writers workshop writing process, there's still significant writing involved. Science writing includes recording observations and data, writing steps to a procedure/experiment, and writing conclusions and any new information learned. “Social studies writing” includes taking research notes, writing reports, or writing new information learned in a social studies notebook. Students will absolutely still be writing every day.

4. Choose Science and Social Studies Texts for Guided Reading Groups

This suggestion is a great opportunity to creatively involve science and social studies in your weekly schedule. When planning and implementing guided reading groups, strategically pick science and social studies texts that align to your current unit of study throughout the school year. During this time, students in your guided reading groups can have yet another opportunity to absorb content while practicing reading strategies.

5. Make Science and Social Studies Texts Available and Accessible in Your Classroom Library 

During each unit, select and have “thematic unit” book bins accessible to your students in a way that is best suited for your classroom setup, on display and in a special place where your students know to visit for books to read. When kids “book-shop” and choose their just-right books for independent reading, encourage them to pick one or two books from the “thematic unit” bin. They can read these books during independent reading time and be exposed to science and social studies content.

6. Home Projects

Science and social studies take-home projects promote further discovery for students on topics they may want to learn more about. They can take their time to conduct research, and then prepare their work for an audience. This will also give them an opportunity to perhaps work with technology and collaborate with their families at home. When students present their projects to the class, they get the benefit of both public speaking and learning from their peers. (Participating in the school science fair is another way to achieve these goals.)

7. Collaborate with School Science Teacher 

I took advantage of this when teaching in New York City. On the days when my students had science, I would teach related content during classroom time before science, and then the science teacher would follow up with an experiment, or vice versa. This is especially valuable for building background knowledge necessary to conduct an experiment. It also provides an extended period of time for engaging in exploratory science-focused learning. 

My strategy is to provide my students with science and social studies content whenever and wherever possible, without being constrained by the half-hour block I'm given to cover these two content areas. 

BONUS: Click here to download a PDF poster version!

Making is a Community Event

Take two crazy school librarians, one supportive administration, 80 volunteers and committee members, more than 500 participants, many generous sponsors, and almost 70 hands-on learning activities and what do you have? It’s SLIME! (Otherwise known as the Students of Long Island Maker Expo.)

The maker movement has transformed the way students think and learn. Their learning is self-directed and knowledge acquisition is inquiry-based. These are the cornerstones for developing lifelong learning skills. We both have active makerspaces in our school libraries because we see inquiry learning as a stepping stone to innovation and deep knowledge acquisition.  

Inspired by the maker movement and with the goal to do more beyond our own libraries and our own districts, Kris founded SLIME and Gina jumped on board as co-director.  Though we work in different school districts, we joined forces to provide unique learning experiences for our community at-large.  We’ve even participated in the inaugural National Maker Faire in Washington, DC representing SLIME.

SLIME, an annual event now in its second year, brings together K–12 students, educators, parents, organizations, and community members from all over Long Island to have fun and learn from one another. SLIME celebrates creativity and innovation through hands-on activities that explore everything from recyclables to robotics.

Are you thinking about creating your own maker expo? Here are 5 lessons we have learned, which will help your planning:

Get school leaders on board

When we hosted our first SLIME, Bay Shore Middle School’s principal (Dr. Outlaw) agreed to host the event for us. Although she wasn’t sure exactly what this day would look like, she trusted us and supported our decisions. We got her input about event particulars such as securing the venue and date, and then she allowed us to pursue our vision. Having administrators as allies is necessary when opening up the space to the entire community.

Get help

Organizing a maker event requires a lot of support. You will need a dedicated committee who can oversee all the elements that will make your event a success. Build a network through your school community, and even your family and friends.  Involve your local parent association, as well as educators from other districts. There are more people than you might think who would like to participate. During the event, kids can help out by running errands and even being in charge of project stations.

Get funding…of all kinds

Let’s face it, funding is critical! Many of local civic organizations and businesses like to support educators, and a maker expo allows them do so while also gaining recognition for their business. Present them with specific ways they can help, like sponsoring an activity, but also be prepared to welcome donations in any form. While monetary support can help you to purchase necessities as well as other items on your wish list, donations such as refreshments for volunteers, printing services, and goodies for swag bags are also a great way to get what you need. 

Think about posting a donation request on your school website, and harness the power of social media. Twitter and Facebook can help you connect with scouting troops and crafting groups who can help. You should also ask your friends and family to save recyclable materials. For months leading up to SLIME we save tuna fish cans, toilet paper tubes, plastic tablecloths, baby food jars, and CD cases.  And sometimes you might get happily surprised! Two weeks before our first SLIME event, we received a grant to purchase art supplies and a digital camera with a portable printer. You might even find a use for those 300 picture frame corners that you found on Craigslist!

Make it fun

There is a quote we love from Benjamin Franklin, which is a guiding principle for us: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” Remember... It’s all about the kids! An expo can be a showcase for what students created at school, but it’s not school. What participants loved about SLIME was finding the joy of learning. While standards and assessments are necessary to help students reflect on their progress, the first question you should ask yourself when organizing an activity is “Will kids enjoy this?” If they aren’t having fun, then it’s just another day at school. 

Get the word out

How do you get all those people to show up to an event that’s never been done before? The answer lies in advertisements, marketing, and communication. Start with the school librarians to get the word out, but don’t stop there. Contact district administrators, and network at local conferences. Use listservs to spread the word, and use every lead possible! Couple that with social media and you’re on your way to a successful event. 

Roll up your sleeves and start planning your own expo! Visit our website, join our Facebook group, and follow the event on twitter at @SlimeExpo.

Kristina Holzweiss of Bay Shore Middle School (Bay Shore, NY) was named School Library Journal School Librarian of the Year in August 2015. Be sure to check out her other blog post, My Story: From a Job Cut to Becoming School Librarian of the Year.  Together, she and her colleague Gina Seymour of Islip High School (Islip, NY), are spearheading the maker movement in Long Island school libraries. Follow Kristina at @lieberrian.

Gina Seymour (Co-Director of SLIME) is the library media specialist at Islip High School. She is the recipient of SSLMA School Librarian of the Year (2014) award, serves on the ALA's Website Advisory Committee, and is Chairperson for YALSA’s Website Advisory Committee. Follow her at @ginaseymour.



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