September 15, 2012

Making the Social Studies and Literacy Connection

Making the Social Studies and Literacy Connection - Two great informational texts and two freebies to use on Constitution Day!
Free Resources for Constitution Day

September 17th is Constitution Day, and it’s a great time to integrate social studies into your literacy lessons. I discovered two outstanding informational text books to read and discuss with your students, and I couldn’t resist creating some freebies to go with them! Both books are perfect for upper elementary students, and if you only have one copy of each book, you can read it aloud and show the pages so your students can follow along. If you don’t have these books now, you can click the book covers below to order them from Then use the activities later in the year when you are studying the US government or the Constitution. You'll find these freebies in my Constitution Day freebie on TpT during September and on my Social Studies page on Teaching Resources all year round.

What's the Truth? (Sorting Activity)

Author: Christine Taylor-Butler

The Constitution of the United States is a part of the Scholastic "True Book" series, and it's an excellent informational text for upper elementary students. What's the Truth? is a hands-on sorting activity to stimulate thinking before you read the book to your students. Print one set of cards per team, and ask team members to cut the cards apart and stack them in the middle of the team.

Here's what to do:
  1. Before you read the book, ask students in teams to take turns picking up a card, reading it aloud, and discussing whether or not they think the statement is true or false. 
  2. As they decide if each statement is true or false, the card is placed into one of two piles accordingly. 
  3. Optional: Have team members write a T or an F on the back of each card for future reference. 
  4. As you read the book, stop from time to time and ask your students to discuss what you've read so far. If you mentioned a concept that was on one of the cards, they may check to see if they classified it correctly. 
  5. After you finish reading the book, review all the statements to be sure everyone has the correct answers. 

Constitution Discussion Questions

Title: If You Were There When They Signed the Constitution 
Author: Elizabeth Levy

If You Were There When They Signed the Constitution is a longer book and will take several days to read. I've created a set of Constitution Discussion Questions that you can use when you finish reading the book or where appropriate during the book. Because the questions are quite challenging, I suggest using the Talking Sticks discussion strategy in small guided reading groups or as a whole class.

The book is most appropriate for upper elementary students, but you may be able to use it with middle school students as well. You’ll need to preview the book to decide. The discussion questions are fairly generic and can be used with any in-depth discussion or study of the Constitution. After you’ve discussed all of them as a class, you may want to have your students choose one to write about in a journal entry.

Where to Find These Free Resources

These sorting cards and discussion cards are available for free in several places. During the month of September, you can download them from my TpT when you click over to my free Constitution Day Literacy Lessons. You can also find them on the Social Studies page on Teaching Resources. Additional activities on that page include a Branches of Government sorting activity, a cooperative learning lesson to learn the meaning of the Preamble, and a printable you can use to create your own Classroom Bill of Rights. 

With limited time in the elementary school day, it's important to be able to sneak in a little social studies with your literacy lessons. These activities can be used on Constitution Day or any time when your class is studying U.S. Government or the Constitution. What are some ways that you connect social studies and literature in your classroom?

September 13, 2012

Awakened: Hope for the Year Ahead

The first few weeks of school often whip by in a blur of activity, but around the middle of September things slow down considerably. This time of year is also when educators face the reality of their current teaching situations. The glow of excitement about the new school year may be fading, and many feel overwhelmed by the challenges ahead. They may begin to experience feelings of stress and even helplessness in response to a challenging class, difficult students, uncooperative parents, or a less-than-supportive administration.

If you're experiencing those feelings, I highly recommend Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching. It was written by Angela Watson of The Cornerstone for Teachers, and it definitely makes good on the promise of its title.

As soon as I first saw this book on Angela’s website, I was intrigued by the title and the book’s description. I had recently been reading a number of personal growth books about the impact of positive thinking on one’s life, but I had never seen those concepts applied to the teaching practice.

When the book arrived, I devoured it in a matter of days. Actually, I had to force myself to slow down while reading it, because there was so much wisdom on every single page that I wanted time to savor each new chapter. Angela’s basic premise is that it’s not our circumstances that determine our happiness, but rather our mindset and our responses to those events. We often face circumstances beyond our control, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we are powerless. In Angela’s words,
"The only factor that you have complete control over is your mindset: the way YOU think and perceive things, and the way YOU choose to respond. If you want to create meaningful and lasting change in your job satisfaction, the best place to start is with your own thought patterns and attitudes." 
You might read those words and think, “I’ll bet she’s never been in a situation like mine.” However, when you read the book, you’ll find that assumption to be absolutely unfounded. In fact, she titled her introduction, “How I Learned Everything the Hard Way,” which speaks volumes on its own. In Part One of Awakened, Angela shares many stories of her day-to-day experiences as a new teacher, and it’s clear that her situation was extremely stressful. She then traces her own path from being overwhelmed and discouraged to becoming happy and fulfilled as a classroom teacher. Angela is very candid about how her journey was founded on her Christian faith, but the methods and advice she offers are practical, down-to-earth, and applicable to people of all faiths. As she explains, her recommendations are based on “personal experience, scientific research, and a range of spiritual and psychological principles.” She explores the physical and emotional toll that stress takes on us as well as how to identify sources of stress in your life and deal with them effectively.

One of my favorite parts of Awakened is Part Two, “Breaking Free of Destructive Habits.” If you’re like me, you may recognize many of those 10 bad habits as practices you unconsciously adopted without realizing how they can destroy your chances for happiness. In each chapter, she examines one negative habit, shedding light on how it manifests itself in our lives as well as practical strategies for overcoming that habit. What I love about Angela’s approach is how she focuses on replacing negative self-talk with a more positive way of thinking. Many self-help books tell you to think more positively or look for the good in everything, but they seldom give you specific words to help you reframe your thoughts.

Part Three is titled, “Cultivating a Positive Frame of Reference,” and this part is where Angela shows you how to examine your assumptions about your thinking to alleviate stress in the future. This section includes taking a close look at our unrealistic expectations for ourselves, valuing peace above control, and separating practical problems from emotional ones. Everything in this section resonated with me, and her advice is rock-solid. I love how she ends the chapter by outlining a typical teacher’s day and showing exactly how someone would apply positive self-talk to difficult situations.

Awakened is not just for new teachers; it’s for any teacher who feels overwhelmed and helpless in the face of the crushing demands of the teaching profession.  When we find ourselves in circumstances we can’t change, we need to remind ourselves that the only path to happiness is to look for the good in everything and use life’s challenges as learning opportunities. However, it’s important to remember that becoming “awakened” is a process that takes time. Angela herself says it best,
"Being awakened is the initial realization of truth, the moment when the light illuminates a situation and you can see it clearly for the first time. Growth begins there, but a true awakening is a process."
By now you may be thinking, “Where do I sign up? I want that book!  I NEED that book!”  Yes, you can purchase it from, but I would recommend buying it directly from Angela herself on the Cornerstone for Teachers website. First of all, Angela sends her orders out by priority mail within 24 hours so you’ll get it right away. Also, every copy you order from her is autographed! If you want a digital copy of Awakened, you can purchase that from Angela as well. She has several different formats available.

I know this has been a long blog post, but Angela's amazing book deserves a thorough review.  If you’re experiencing any stress or feelings of discouragement right now, please consider reading Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching. Not only will Angela’s methods transform your teaching, her words of wisdom may very well change your life. You’ll also become awakened to the true potential within yourself, your own vast potential to make a significant difference in the lives of your students.

September 10, 2012

Honoring 9/11 - A Delicate Balance

September 11th is a day when many of us will reflect on a series of events that made a lasting impression on our lives. If you are like many teachers, you may be struggling with whether or not you should discuss 9/11 with your students. Even though this event happened before your students were born, you may feel a need to  recognize the events of that significant day. Last year I discovered a great book to read aloud on September 11th, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. I'd like to share a few ideas for using this book in your classroom.

Read aloud the The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, the amazing true story of Philippe Petit who walked on a high wire between the two towers right after they were constructed. The story focuses on his daring feat and simply mentions at the end that the towers are gone and only live on in our memories. Be ready for the question that is sure to arise, "What happened to the towers?" How you answer that will depend on your students' ages and what you feel is appropriate to share.

Discuss the The Man Who Walked Between the Towers
You can use this set of question cards I created for the book to discuss it with your students. These questions would work will with the Talking Stick discussion method, but because of the sensitive nature of the topic, I suggest discussing these questions as a whole class or in small guided reading groups rather than in cooperative learning groups. These questions deal specifically with Philippe Petit's daring feat and do not deal with the events of 9/11.

Compare and Contrast Literature and Informational Text
Start by reading The Man Who Walked Between the Towers aloud and telling your students that it's based on a true event. Ask them to help you create a list of questions about the event that include additional information they wonder about what happened. Then ask them to read a news account or an encyclopedia article about Petit's walk between the towers. I found a description of his walk in an article about Petit on, and I edited it to create a shorter PDF version to use with students. Please remember that this is intended for use with during a reading activity, and the details in the Wikipedia article may not be 100% accurate. As a class, create a Venn diagram or other graphic organizer to compare and contrast the two versions of the event. What was left out in the story? Why did the author leave out these details? Are any of the details different between the two versions?

Explore Numbers and Measurements
The Man Who Walked Between the Towers includes many references to lengths, heights, and widths. I created a page of task cards showing those amounts that you can use with your students. After reading and discussing the story, show all 8 cards to your students and ask them to try to remember what each amount referred to in the story. You could even give each team or pair one set of cards and have the students write that information on the back of each card. For example, on the back of the "Quarter of a mile" card, they might write "height of the towers." After they work through the deck and make their guesses from memory, reread the story aloud to check and discuss answers.

Experiment with center of gravity
One thing that amazes me about this story is the way Petit can be so confident about his ability to walk across the wire without falling. The story does not get into the scientific aspects of how he's able to do this, but it has to do with that 28-foot balance pole he carries. This is a perfect opportunity to have your students explore center of gravity concepts. Rachel Lynette's book Gravity: Forces and Motion has some excellent discovery activities for this concept. One of them involves trying to balance an orange on a pencil, which is nearly impossible, and then adding forks to the sides as shown. Add a lump of modeling clay to each fork handle, and you can balance the orange easily. The lumps of clay move the center of gravity to a point lower than the orange, allowing it to balance. You can find a more complete explanation in this book or other science books about force and motion. 

Discuss Events of 9/11
I realize that none of these suggestions deals with the events of 9/11. If you want to talk to your students about what happened on that day, I would suggest starting with the free BrainPOP video titled September 11th. I showed it to my 5th graders, and it was very really helpful as a foundation for a discussion about what happened. The 6-minute video explains why these events occurred without going into unnecessary detail. Be sure you watch the video yourself before showing it to your students so you'll know how to answer their questions.

September 11th will be a difficult day for many of us. We remember that day with sadness, and also with an awareness of how quickly our lives can change. It was a day when we discovered that our sense of security about our own lives can evaporate in a flash. However, I don't believe we should allow our feelings about those events to negatively impact our children. Children need to feel a sense of security in order to grow and thrive, and we should be mindful of this tomorrow. That's one reason I love the book, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. Reading this story to our students allows us to honor the memory of the day the twin towers went down in a gentle way without instilling a sense of fear and insecurity in our children.

September 5, 2012

Tips for Teaching Informational Text

About the only thing we can count on in education is that something is always changing! Our society changes, technology changes, our students are changing, and as a result, the curriculum is constantly evolving. Change can be exciting, but often it’s frustrating as well. This is especially true when it comes to the Common Core Reading Standards and the new emphasis on informational text. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to explore this aspect of the CCSS while writing Graphic Organizers for Reading: Teaching Tools Aligned with the Common Core. Now I’d like to share some of those tips and strategies for teaching informational text with you.

Comparing and Contrasting Text Types
One of the best ways to get started is to have your students compare informational text with literature. Sounds like the perfect time for a Venn diagram, doesn’t it?  Show your students several examples of both types of books, and ask them to help you brainstorm how those text types are alike and different. Record their ideas on a class Venn diagram. If you have a document camera, use it to display the pages of the book so that everyone can see all of the features on each page clearly. If you don’t have a document camera, ask the students at the back of the room to move closer and have a seat on the floor near you.

Choosing the Right Informational Text
Most students are very familiar with fiction, but they may not be nearly as familiar with nonfiction. That’s why it’s important to select just the right informational text to use for this lesson, something that includes a variety of nonfiction text features. Last year I discovered the perfect book for this activity. Did you know that Rachel Lynette of the Minds in Bloom blog is the author of over 70 nonfiction books for kids? In fact, she has a nice Informational Text Structures freebie that you'll want to check out. Rachel sent me a copy of Gravity: Forces and Motion, and it turned out to be just what I needed as an anchor text for my Informational Text Features Search lesson. If force and motion are not a part of your curriculum, take a look at Rachel Lynette's other nonfiction books on I'm sure you'll find something that fits in with what you are teaching now or will be teaching later in the year.

When you display a nonfiction book like Gravity: Forces and Motion, your students will see at a glance that informational texts look quite different from literary ones. Within a few minutes, they will identify many details to add to your class Venn diagram. As you can see from this snapshot of Rachel’s book, informational text elements often include numbered steps, headings and subheadings, illustrations with captions, and so on. Explain to your students that these items are referred to as “text features,” and the author includes them to help make the text easier to understand. As you discuss each feature, ask your students how it helps them to comprehend, or understand, the text.

Informational Text Features Search Freebie
After your students become aware that informational texts are different from literary ones, they can apply their knowledge to text of their own choosing. Because I included this lesson in Graphic Organizers for Reading, the easiest way for me to share it with you is to give you the directions and graphic organizer as a freebie. Click the image or this link to download your copy. Before teaching the lesson, gather a collection of books on a variety of topics that include many different informational text features. If you don’t have enough of these types of texts in the classroom, it’s worth a visit to the school library to hand pick books on a variety of topics and reading levels. Or you can schedule a class visit to the library and ask your students to find informational books on topics that interest them.

Combo Book Giveaway
Last year when Rachel sent me her book, Gravity: Forces and Motion, she also sent me a second autographed copy to pass along to one of my followers in a giveaway. Since she generously donated one of her books, I’ve decided to donate one of mine, too. These two books are a natural combination because Gravity is actually one of the recommended texts in Graphic Organizers for Reading: Teaching Tools Aligned with the Common Core. Even if you don’t teach science, you can use Rachel’s book in conjunction with the lessons in my book to help your students become more comfortable with reading informational text. Before you know it, your students will discover that nonfiction books can open doors to worlds they never knew existed!

Note: The giveaway end at 9 p.m. EST on September 10th. I'll be selecting and notifying the winner soon.