For Teachers

What's Your Character?

We are beginning a unit that focuses on biographies and I wanted my students to concentrate on the subject of character traits.  As we were reading our current read aloud, Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt. we were continually discussing the traits displayed by the characters.  Words like funny, nice, kind, mean, and sad were being put forward by the 4th graders.  It was apparent that we needed to expand our understanding of character traits. My homework for the night was to look for resources that would help enhance my students’ understanding of character traits.  What a treat to find the following blog on Scholastic by Genia Connell.

                Following Ms. Connell’s lead, we first had a discussion around the difference between an emotion and a character trait.  Together we decided that an emotion is fleeting, while a trait is something inside you that you continually exhibit.  Using this definition, we brainstormed a list of character traits, discussing whether each word offered was an emotion or a trait.  Students added to the list as they independently read their own free choice books. 

It was time to practice what we were learning.  In small groups, we read the simple picture book, A Whistle for Willie by Ezra Keats  After reading the book again together, I asked the students what traits Peter exhibited in the book, reminding them their choice must be supported using evidence from the text.  We gathered together to discuss our thinking about Peter. Students explained that Peter was imaginative because he dressed up and pretended to be his father and Peter was perseverant as he kept trying to learn new ways to whistle when he failed the first time.  While responding to this discussion, a student commented that some traits are thought of as more positive while others have a negative connotation.  We went back to our chart and highlighted positive traits in pink and more negative traits in yellow.  This led to an interesting conversation on whether a trait might be both positive and negative depending on how it was used. 

Following Genia Conell’s suggestion, we focused the concept of traits on ourselves.  Students created silhouettes of themselves and chose 4-6 character traits which they felt best reflected their own character.  


Our reading genre over the next few weeks is biographies.  To begin the unit, we are reading the biography of Mala Yousafzai titled Who is Mala Yousafzai  by Dinah BrownWe will be looking at the character traits she possesses which motivate her in her quest for education for all.  To begin the study, we read out loud the powerful picture book Malala, A Brave Girl from Pakistan/Iqbal, A Brave Boy from Pakistan:  Two Stories of Bravery by Jeanette Winter.  

After reading the story of Iqbal, a boy forced into servitude in a carpet factory, I asked the students what character traits he displayed.  Pencils quickly went to paper as they described both the traits they found in him and the evidence they used from the text. 

Iqbal was rebellious, as he secretly wove kites into his tapestry.

Iqbal was courageous when he returned to the factory to inform others they were no longer slaves.

Iqbal was faithful, as he continued to work at the factory to support his family.

Gone were the responses students had given prior to these lessons.  The words sad and unhappy were no longer to be found.   

I’m anxious to watch my students transfer their new understanding of character traits to both their reading and their writing.  This will be the perfect time to begin lessons on showing, not telling, in writing.  Given a simple sentence, The boy is joyful, students will be asked to write what the boy was doing that helped the reader know he was joyful.  How does the boy in the sentence display that trait?  I’m sure that all the time we have spent practicing showing different traits will show in their writing.

For other writing ideas and to read past blogs,  visit



Community Helpers and Apples – Planning with Primary

This week I was privileged to spend time in first grade and kindergarten classes.  The enthusiasm and eagerness to learn displayed by these young students was a treat!

First grade was embarking on their unit on communities, beginning with community helpers.  They asked if I could co-teach a lesson introducing these community members which included a writing piece. Whenever someone mentions people who work in a community, the Sesame Street song “Who are the people in your neighborhood?” immediately begins to play in my head.  Is it possible today’s students would be as enraptured by these singing Muppets as my children had been years ago?

We began by labeling a two-column chart Community Helpers and What They Do.  We then played the first video clip of the Muppets singing about the Fireman and the Postman. (See chart below.)

The characters had the same appeal to present day primary students! 

After the video, we looked at our chart.  What community helper was mentioned in the video?  What did we learn that he or she did as a job?  What else do we know about this community helper?  (We were careful to mention that these occupations can be done by both men and women!)  Together, we filled out our chart.  

It was now time to write!  Our notes were that – notes.  We discussed what we needed to add to our notes to make a complete sentence. The students eagerly chose a community helper and a job they performed.  The room was abuzz as students wrote their sentences and then shared them with both adults and other students. 

We repeated the process with another “Who are the people in your neighborhood?” video.

Students were able to glean the information from the video, complete the chart and set off on their writing.  Before we ended the lesson, we gathered to discuss what we had accomplished in our time together. We had asked a question, looked for the answer, taken notes on what we had learned and transferred the notes to writing!  Wow!

The same process - ask a question, look for the answer, take notes on what we learned and transfer the notes to writing – happened in kindergarten.  The five year olds had been observing apples and had created a map together on the attributes of an apple.  Their teacher and I wanted them to write about their findings in an organized manner.  As their science unit was on senses, we chose to blend the two. 

Looking at their attribute map, we posed the question, “How does an apple taste?”  Students discussed the words written on their map and chose the words they felt best described how an apple tastes.  As they chose words, we circled the words in pink and wrote them on the bottom of our chart.  After we finished choosing the taste words, students set off to write.  A sentence starter “An apple tastes ..” was provided for students who needed that structure.  The kindergarteners were happy to share their sentences with us.  We repeated the process asking the question “How does an apple look?”  Students debated if a word could belong to more than one category and if they could add words to their attribute map.  As they began to write a second time, many began to combine more than one attribute in a sentence – “An apple is red and shiny.”  Using a page for each sense, students were writing books on their own, which they could now read and share with one another.

As I left school on Friday, I noticed a stack of red construction paper books in my box.  The kindergarteners had completed their apple books and wanted me to read them.  They had an audience for their writing and were eager to share their knowledge!  What more could we ask of our young writers?




Second Graders Write About Dr. Seuss - Part Two!

In an earlier blog, I wrote how impressed I was with a group of 2nd graders and their ability to read a prompt.  I was looking forward to returning to their classroom to view their plans and read their completed paragraphs on Dr. Seuss.

In all grade levels, we stress the need for students to both create a writing plan and then to actually use that plan.  To help students understand the importance of using their plan, I tell them a story about my drive to a birthday party. First, I confess to them that I am horrible with directions.  Prior to leaving for any new destination, I print out mapquest directions – both the map and the step-by-step instructions.  One day I was late to a friend’s party and left my carefully thought out directions laying on the kitchen counter.  They were useless to me there!  Although I was late, I needed to return home, gather the directions and then drive (later than ever by now!) to the party.  Writing plans are similar to driving directions.  They are only helpful to us if we actually use them! Like my mapquest directions left on the counter, writing plans do no good crumpled in the back of a desk.  Not only are students required to create a plan – they must also use it.

The second graders were excited to share their completed plans.  They had carefully taken notes as they read the passage on Dr. Seuss, finding details for each of their big ideas!  Use of a plan made the note taking simple for these young students and they were proud of their accomplishments.

It was time to take the plan to writing.  A “Just Say It” topic sentence was used to begin the writing.  Students easily followed their plan, writing clear big idea sentences followed by the interesting facts and details they had learned.  Students made a check mark on their plan as they completed each step.  By checking off each paragraph component as it was written, these second graders kept their writing organized and easy to follow!  It was obvious they were confident in their writing skills.

Upon completing their paragraphs, students began to edit their written work.  To help students slow down and carefully edit, we ask students to use colored pencils. These 2nd grade editors first took a green colored pencil and traced every letter which needed to be capitalized.  We ask students to go over every letter which should be capitalized – whether or not they have already capitalized this letter.  Punctuation is next traced with a red colored pencil.  Again, all punctuation is traced in red, whether or not it is present in the original text.  To complete the editing process, students circle any misspelled words in blue.  To help students concentrate on each word, we have them start at the end of their writing piece and work backwards.  In this way, they concentrate on each individual word.

The second graders were proud to read and share their work with others!  They had read a prompt, created a plan, taken careful notes, written an organized paragraph, and edited their writing for errors!  Wow – what an impressive group of second graders.


Your One Thing – Lessons from City Slickers

I love the movie City Slickers.   Three middle-aged men, feeling unsatisfied with their life circumstances, decide to go on a cattle-drive themed vacation.  In one scene, Billy Crystal’s character, Mitch, finds himself alone with the crusty old lead cattleman, Curly (Jack Palance.)  Trying to bestow some life advice, Curly initiates the following conversation:

Curly:  Do you know what the secret of life is?  (He then holds up one finger.)

Mitch:  Your finger?

Curly:  One thing.  Just one thing.  You stick to that and the rest doesn’t matter.

Mitch:  But what is the “one thing?”

Curly:  That’s what you have to find out.

I’ve been thinking about this movie the last few days as I’ve been preparing to have a student teacher during second semester.  Her supervising college follows a collaborative teaching model, so we will be sharing the classroom for the next 16 weeks.  Sitting down to plan our first week together, I began to compose a “Things She Needs to Know” list.  As the list grew, the need to prioritize became apparent. What was the one thing that would help her have a successful experience?

After reflecting, I’ve decided that I need to have two classroom“one things”- one for our classroom community and one for academics.  The first “thing” is being kind – me reflecting kindness to my students, students showing kindness to me, and students demonstrating kindness to one another.  Many other positive traits fall under the umbrella of being kind – respect, responsibility, compassion, and empathy. 

What is the “one thing” for our classroom academically?  It would need to be providing time for purposeful practice.  As human beings, we enjoy activities when we are given the skills and time to learn to do these activities well.  Time to purposefully and safely practice skills and concepts is a gift I strive to give my students daily.

I’m curious to learn how my 4th graders will respond to the “One Thing” question.  I will divide the question into three parts – what is your one thing for a classroom, what is your one thing for learning, and what is your one thing at home?  I’ll be sharing their responses with you. We would love to learn your response to Curly’s question about the secret of life (or teaching!)

Happy Writing!

Measured in Miles . . .

Living in Colorado, we love spending time outdoors.  Ever since our children were young, we have spent time each summer camping with friends.  My husband recently received this card – what a perfect sentiment to celebrate his birthday. The caption -  A journey should not be measured in miles, but in adventures shared and friends gained -   summed up years of traveling and camping experiences.

This card also serves as a metaphor for our experience as teachers today.  As state tests continue to grow in importance, our effectiveness as teachers and our students’ learning journey is measured by standardized test scores.  While this is the reality of our profession and we all sincerely desire for our students to be successful, learning can be oh so much more.

The writing classroom should be one where sharing ideas is seen as an adventure!  Talking and sharing is an essential part of the writing process.  Students learn best from each other, from listening to one another’s ideas and from purposefully listening to feedback on their own writing.  It is so exciting to see students celebrate when someone is able to find just the right word to express their thought, or to hear the collective “ooh” when a student uses a particularly effective phrase.

As educators, we must honor the writing process as a whole.  The writing journey consists of many small steps, from brainstorming initial ideas to selecting the best font when publishing a writing piece.  We must honor each stop in this journey.  Provide students feedback on thoughtfully collected ideas or a well-developed plan!  Be sure to highlight an exceptional choice of words or well-placed figurative language in a paragraph. Celebrate the student who completes his first paragraph in which every capital letter and punctuation mark is included.  Continue to encourage students to share each other’s writing, give and receive constructive criticism, and experiment with new ideas and language.  Help students see learning as an adventure that is taken with friends and work to create a classroom that honors that belief.  As we live out this philosophy in our classrooms, we will create students who recognize learning is an adventure shared with others. 

Do what you love – Love what you do — Life Is Good Motto

Do what you love – Love what you do — Life Is Good Motto

While waiting for a flight last weekend, I spent time in the airport Life is Good store.  I must confess – I really love their merchandise.  The shelves were packed with t-shirts, sweatshirts and coffee mugs depicting icons of recreational activities and the phrase “Life is Good.”  I was tempted to purchase the sweatshirt depicting a travel trailer, a bicycle and a kayak, three of my favorite things.

Flying home, I was remembering this store.  Every t-shirt graphic displayed a picture of some type of hobby – from fishing to enjoying a cup of coffee.  Not a single picture had anything to do with work.  There were no graphics of computer screens, classrooms, meeting rooms, or spreadsheets.  While I understand the purpose of the company, it has made me think about the atmosphere of our classrooms.  Do we approach learning with a “Do what you love – love what you do” attitude?

Not all who wander are lost . . . J. R. Tolkien

Not all who wander are lost . . . J. R. Tolkien

But some of us are!  A sense of direction has never been a personal strength.  Living in Colorado certainly helps – directions can be towards the mountains or away from the mountains.  Yet, when it comes time to locate a new place, I use all the tools at my disposal.  Car destinations are plotted on mapquest, using both the map and the step by step directions.  When hiking, I stop at every posted sign, carefully following the arrows to complete the next turn! When using an old-fashioned paper map, I have to turn the map the direction I am facing to understand where I am and where I need to go.

Meeting Our Students' Needs

Meeting Our Students' Needs

Our students come in all shapes, sizes and abilities.  As teachers, we are constantly searching for ways to meet each of their educational needs. Sometimes we have a well thought out plan, while at other times meeting our students’ needs happens spontaneously. The latter happened in one of the classes that I spend time co-teaching reading and writing skills to 4th graders. We had been teaching our students how to find evidence in text to help support their answers. We first spent time just learning how to find evidence in the text before we had our students start answering questions. We then modeled and practiced writing a “Shining Star Answer” using the proof from the text. One of our struggling students needed additional work on putting these two skills together. 

The Unplanned Teachable Moments

The Unplanned Teachable Moments

Many of us are asked to use curriculum maps to help us plan our instruction. While these maps are useful and at times essential, we must also remember to watch for those teachable moments which bring learning alive to our students.

During the first weeks of school, we were reading aloud the novel Fish In A Tree,  by Linda Mulhally Hunt. Ally, the main character, is told she is “crossing the line,” and realizes her teacher is not discussing the finish line of a race. As we talked about this idiom, one student commented that his mom tells him he is “on thin ice” when he is in trouble. Another girl piped up that her parents tell her she is “in hot water.” A lively debate started over the use of water in both idioms – one water freezing and the other heated!

Data Information and Heart Knowledge

Data Information and Heart Knowledge

“Is it worth the time it takes?” 

My teammates and I have vowed to start each planning meeting asking that question. As we look at all the standards we have to teach, the assessments we’re asked to give, and the learning engagements we want to share, we quickly run out of hours in the school day. The question was central in our discussion on whether or not to give a writing assessment to our fourth graders the first week of school.

After much thought, I chose to ask my students to write to the prompt,

In your opinion, what would be the best job to have as an adult? Explain the reasons for your choice of career.

Starting the Year – “Well begun is half done.”

Starting the Year – “Well begun is half done.”

Last spring, our school district decided to do away with parents and students purchasing the necessary school supplies. Instead, the district would charge parents a supply fee and the supplies would be ordered by and delivered to the school. Three days before our annual “Meet the Teacher” night, my classroom was filled with boxes of paper, notebooks, crayons, pencils, and miscellaneous supplies needed to start the year.