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Sentences to Get Kids Reading and Writing

Sentence. A Period-to-Period Guide to Building Better Readers and Writers
By Geraldine Woods
(W. W. Norton, 2021 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Rebecca Crockett

I picked up Sentence. A Period-to-Period Guide to Building Better Readers and Writers thinking it would build on the ideas of using mentor sentences for grammar – something I was familiar with from reading Jeff Anderson’s work.

What I found upon reading wasn’t really a grammar book at all, although it has elements of grammar included, but instead a book on using selected sentences to teach the acts of reading and writing themselves.

Part I: Instructional strategies

Author Geraldine Woods breaks her book into two sections. Part I, titled “Instructional Strategies,” gives the methods Woods uses to teach – with the process of each lesson briefly described. She includes the difference between using sentences to teach close reading versus using them to teaching writing. This difference was really key to my understanding as I’d used mentor sentences and texts for writing and grammar for years, but it never occurred to me to use such brief pieces of text to teach reading skills.

Written in a first-person conversational style (a quality I prefer in my professional development books) Sentence feels like getting advice from a respected colleague.

All of Woods’ ideas start with examining the sentences, proceed to students becoming detectives in discovering why the author in question made the choices they did, and end with optional writing and research options for student practice.

As I strive for a more student-centered classroom, I respect her focus on student observations and conversations around these guiding sentences as a jumping-off point to analyzing and ultimately creating sentences themselves.

Part II: A “buffet rather than a five-course meal”

I will admit that I didn’t read Part II “Sentence Elements to Teach” in its entirety (though it is heavily highlighted and flagged where I plan to implement lessons with my students).

This part is described by the author herself as a “buffet rather than a five-course meal” where “you can select just what your class needs and your schedule permits” (xvi).

With sub-sections devoted to structure, diction, sound, connections, and comparisons, Woods has grouped her sentence types in a format that is easy to navigate so teachers can utilize those types that their standards require or students show a need for.

In a few cases, she has coined her own terminology for sentence constructions students should notice and be able to imitate for their own uses, such as pocket structure to describe a sentence “containing two expressions of the same idea” (64).

It is evident that Woods is a master of her craft given the depth and sequencing she is able to provide. Each element described, whether parallel structure or synesthesia, contains optional introduction activities and a lesson plan based upon focus sentences (that includes both brief and extended context for sentences depending upon the teacher’s purpose), as well as specific questions to ask to deepen student understanding.

That would be enough to make this an oft-referenced book in the classroom, but Woods doesn’t stop there, instead continuing with supplemental material based upon different focus sentences, but which includes how to incorporate the teaching of specific grammatical elements and rhetoric! She ends by offering writing options and sometimes research pieces as well.

I appreciated that the appendices allow for searching by theme, genre, and alphabetically by author/text, but as a middle and high school teacher, I especially loved that she asterisks the texts she successfully used with younger students.

As I outlined my teaching year, I made space for Sentence. A Period-to-Period Guide to Building Better Readers and Writers. Knowing that I can have a stockpile of quality sentences that students can easily gain access to while working on increasingly deeper reading, writing, and yes, grammar skills, is reassuring.

I value the work Geraldine Woods has done in creating Sentence and the expertise she provides to teachers less experienced with this method of teaching.

Rebecca Crockett is currently an English teacher for grades seven and nine in north central Idaho. A fourteen-year teaching veteran, she has taught at both the elementary and secondary levels. She is an avid reader, curriculum planner, and sometimes writer for her own enjoyment and to practice what she preaches. Summers find her devouring professional development books to improve her craft; thus she has written many reviews for MiddleWeb.

Help Readers Learn ‘Strategic Processing’

A MiddleWeb Blog

John Hattie’s research puts student willingness to “own” learning near the top of success indicators. But how do we get them there? GRR is a key strategy. In a year-long series, two literacy coaches explore ways to make Gradual Release of Responsibility part of everyday practice.

By Sunday Cummins and Julie Webb

Which response would you rather hear when you lean in to confer with a student reading a recent NEWSELA article?

YOU: “Tell me a little bit about what you are learning…”


1. “Animals in the ocean move in the same ways.”

2. “Scientists from all over the world have combined their data on how animals in the ocean move and have been surprised to find out that some animals that seem very different actually move in similar ways. For example…”

The latter, right? But for many of our students, the former response might be more likely. If this is the case, you might follow with a prompt like, “Tell me more about that” or “What have you learned that’s important about this?” or “What are you doing to make sense of this part of the article that you just read?” Continue listening and assessing.

If you affirm that the student is not noticing and recalling key details in the informational text – or thinking about why particular details are important – you may need to shift into the “I DO” or focused instruction phase of the gradual release of responsibility.

This may occur in the moment, during that reading conference with that individual student, or it might occur as part of a mini-lesson for a small or large group that has similar needs.

Why model strategic processing for the student?

There are a variety of reasons why a student may not be engaged in the strategic processing necessary to make sense of a source. Truthfully, we can never fully know what that student is thinking. We can only surmise from what they have shared with us (orally or in writing) and identify teaching points they may need.

Chances are, if a student is not engaged in a type of strategic processing (during reading, writing, math, etc.), it is because they don’t know what they don’t know. They’ve never experienced that type of processing; they’ve never thought about making sense of a source or a problem in that way.

When you model strategic processing for a student, you are creating an experience that can serve as an anchor for that student’s thinking, an experience they can draw on when they strategically process text on their own.

This implies, though, that the student needs to be a fully engaged partner when you model. While you are modeling, they need to be observing closely, connecting to what they already know about making sense of a text, and adding to what they can do to problem solve.

What should the teacher’s “modeling/connecting” include?

There are three important parts of the modeling/connecting phase:

► A teacher-led explanation of the strategic processing that includes the WHAT and WHY as well as the HOW and WHEN.

► A teacher “think aloud” that makes your strategic processing visible to the student.

► Opportunities for the students to engage, bringing some of what they already know to the conversation.

Before we share an example of what this looks like, take a moment to read this excerpt from the NEWSELA article “From turtles to whales, marine animals have the same moves”:

An international team of researchers published a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The scientists used tracking-device data to better understand the [animals’] motion in the ocean. They compared the daily movement patterns of thousands of animals across 50 different species. They found that even though some sea creatures are much bigger than others, many of them share the same basic choreography.

What follows is an example of how a teacher might model “determining what’s important while reading” during a conference with a student. (This could easily be adapted to a whole group mini-lesson.) Notice how in the beginning the teacher offers an invitation to engage in a partnership.

Then the teacher moves into the What, the Why, and the How before thinking aloud using “I” statements. The When concludes the teacher’s modeling. Importantly, along the way the teacher draws the student(s) into connecting and adding. The close includes an invitation to move into the next stage of the gradual release of responsibility, from “I DO” to “WE DO.”

A Sample Modeling-Connecting Partnership

Teacher: It sounds like you have a general sense of what this article is about – how some ocean animals move in similar ways. Would it be okay if we looked together at the paragraph you just read and thought about what we are learning?

Student: [Nods.]

Teacher: [Explains WHAT.] Frequently, in articles like this, there is a LOT of information the author wants to share. It might feel overwhelming. Have you ever read a source and thought, “Oh this has a LOT of information?”

Student: Yes! That article we read about weather last week had a lot of information. I couldn’t remember it all!

Teacher: [Explains HOW.] Exactly. When I’m reading an article with a lot of information like this one, I try to remember what my purpose is. I think in this case, our purpose is to learn new information about research on ocean animals, to learn information we didn’t know before. Does that make sense? This helps me think about which details I need to think about more carefully. So while I’m reading, I’m going to be asking myself, “What is new information that seems kind of important to think about?”

Student: [Jots question “What is new information?” on a sticky note.]

Teacher: [Explains WHY.] If I notice and think about the details that are new to me, I can compare the details to what I already know. This will help me understand and remember what I read. This may also help me think about what’s important in the source.

I’m going to keep my purpose in mind – What is information that I didn’t know already? – and as I read, I’m going to notice and think through this new information.

Watch me do this. [Reads aloud the first sentence.] An international team of researchers published a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [Pauses to think aloud.] There’s a lot of information in this sentence that feels new to me. Just the first part, “international team of researchers,” is a mouthful, huh? I’m going to think about the meaning of this phrase. I notice the word “international” so I’m thinking that these people are from all over the world; the word “team” makes me think they are working together or collaborating. That’s pretty cool that a group of researchers from all over the world are working together, huh?

When I look at the next phrase, published a new paper, I think about what I know about getting writing published. It’s a lot of work to get published and you have to think that what you are sharing is very important for others to know about, maybe even new brilliant information that can change the world. Why else would you go to the trouble?

Looking at the last part – in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. I realize I have no idea what this is; I’ve never heard of this. Have you? What do you think this is?

Student: Maybe some kind of group. Maybe they do something with science because it has the word science in it?

Teacher: I was thinking that, too. We may not know for sure but we can draw a conclusion that this is some type of organization that publishes scientists’ work.

[Sums up learning.] So what have we learned from this one sentence? I’m thinking that this group of researchers has gotten together to share some very important information in a publication that reaches a large group of people who are interested in science.

This makes me want to read the rest of the article to find out what they learned and why it’s so important. What about you? What are you thinking right now? [Alternatively, the teacher could start with “What did we just learn from this sentence?” supporting the student’s response by adding what the teacher learned as well.]

Student: I’m just wondering where the researchers are from and which animals they researched.

Teacher: Right? So thinking carefully about what we are learning from this sentence led us to ask more questions. That definitely makes me want to read on, and I can use those questions as a purpose for reading, too.

[Sums up strategic processing, reviewing WHY.] So what did we just do as readers right here? We knew our purpose – to read for new information; we read a sentence and then reread that sentence thinking about the parts and what those parts mean.

We also summarized our learning. I think tonight I’ll be able to go home and tell someone about what this group of researchers has done, and if I keep reading like this, I’ll have a lot to say about that!

[Alternatively, the teacher could start this part by asking, “In your own words, can you summarize what we just did to make sense of this complex sentence? And why is this important?” and support the student’s response as needed.]

[Explains WHEN.] When you are reading, make sure you keep your purpose for reading in mind. Think of that purpose as a question like, “What am I learning that is new information?” And when you feel like you come across information that helps you respond to that question, slow down and think through that information – maybe a chunk at a time like we did, asking yourself “What am I learning that I can remember and use to understand the source better?” You may not understand everything you read, but you’ll have a better understanding than before.

Want to try doing this together for the next few sentences?

Remember the ‘release’ in Gradual Release of Responsibility

In our reading conference example the teacher chose to use focused instruction, acting as a model who invites the student into a teaching-learning partnership.

The teacher tapped into what she knows about her students and strategic processing with few assumptions, beginning by asking the student to share their best thinking. This serves as an entry point for focused instruction, with the teacher nurturing the partnership along the way with clear explanations of the What, Why, How, and When of this type of strategic processing.

Many teachers employ focused instruction with a strong sense of the What and How of a strategy, but sometimes neglect to explain Why the strategy matters and When learners can make best use of it to help them grow. These are critical steps in the teaching-learning partnership because they help us move toward the goal of fostering independent learners.

The last statement in the student-teacher discussion, “Want to try doing this together for the next few sentences?” is an invitation to continue the partnership, releasing some control of leading the learning to the student. We ultimately want our students to continue to learn on their own – without our guidance and support – and to recognize opportunities to try this type of strategic processing on their own, applying it flexibly at points of need.

Learning partnerships can be challenging

Work like this is never really over and we recognize that it’s certainly easier said than done. Teaching-learning partnerships can be challenging because we as teachers can’t always anticipate what students will say, do, or need in a learning opportunity.

The best we can do is to balance being prepared for different scenarios while staying responsive and teaching in the moment. This becomes easier with intentional study and deliberate practice, but it’s almost certainly guaranteed to be a little messy and we’re okay with that.

Sunday Cummins, Ph.D, is a literacy consultant and author and has been a teacher and literacy coach in public schools. Her work focuses on supporting teachers, schools and districts as they plan and implement assessment driven instruction with complex informational sources including traditional texts, video and infographics. She is the author of several professional books, including Close Reading of Informational Sources  (Guilford, 2019). Visit her website and follow her on Twitter @SundayCummins. See her previous MiddleWeb articles here.

Julie Webb, Ed.D., is a former classroom teacher and reading specialist in Title I schools who now consults with districts offering training and coaching in literacy instruction and assessment practices. Julie hosts LitCentric Radio, a literacy podcast that features powerful reading comprehension and writing lessons using children’s literature. She holds a doctorate in Educational Leadership from University of the Pacific and is a National Board Certified Teacher (Literacy). Visit her website and subscribe to her podcast. Follow her on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

School Libraries Build Lifelong Reading Skills

By Katie Durkin

I distinctly remember the day one of my students asked which bin they were allowed to use to check out books from my classroom library.

As all of my titles have always been organized by genre with various shelves and displays – I was surprised to hear this question. I didn’t have any books in bins in my classroom.

This student explained he was only allowed to read certain books from certain bins in previous grades and proceeded to tell me his ‘label,’ signifying which books were deemed appropriate for him to read.

Conversations like this one have occurred year after year with my students who aren’t sure how to navigate my classroom library, and in turn, our school library. They don’t know about “browsing” because they’ve been relegated to choosing reading material from a particular bin with a particular label.

Learning reading skills in the school library

Because of these conversations, I have made it a priority to teach students how to browse for books in a library – especially our school library. My 7th grade students this year haven’t been able to fully use a classroom or school library for a long time. With the mitigation strategies in place for COVID-19, books were placed on hold from the school library and directly delivered to classrooms. Many classroom libraries were not used at all.

This year my students will be visiting our Library Learning Commons, or LLC, once a month to browse for books. There are three goals I have for students: (1) listen to book recommendations from our school library media specialists; (2) browse the stacks to preview books of interest to take home, and (3) build the skills they need to independently find books of choice in the future.

Monthly school library visits

Coordinating with my amazing library media specialists, I plan to visit the school library at least once a month this year. These visits usually correspond with the end of a unit, where students are reflecting on previous reading goals and setting new ones.

I arrange each visit weeks ahead of time to make sure it fits within my schedule for curricular requirements and to make sure the library staff will be available for book talks and to answer questions from students.

For each visit, we follow a similar routine. To start, our school librarians usually pull books from the stacks related to each unit. We spend the first 15 minutes with our librarians, where they “book talk” high-interest texts. It is important for students to listen to recommendations from our specialists because they know these books and understand students’ interests.

These model book talks pique students’ interests, and in many cases students know exactly what book they want to check out before the book talks are over. Often multiple copies of a title are available, so more than one student can read the book at the same time.

Reading suggestions provided by librarians

My school librarians also coordinate with me ahead of time to see if there are specific topics or titles that may be of interest to students in each class. For example, in our nonfiction unit, students were asked to find a title about a topic of interest to them. In one class, I have a number of students who are interested in sports.

For this class, the school librarians “book talked” Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School by Steve Sheinkin, as well as Rising Above: How 11 Athletes Overcame Challenges in Their Youth to Become Stars by Gregory Zuckerman.

By the end of that particular class, all the copies of these books were checked out. My students enjoy listening to adults discuss their own reading life while they also provide a plethora of recommendations.

A whole library to explore!

Book talks from the school librarians are an essential part of our visits, but I also want students to practice skills needed to browse for books independently. This means leaving time for them to browse different options for the unit as well as books of choice.

One skill I want my students to practice during this time is previewing a book. This is a skill that can be practiced throughout their school library visit to determine whether or not they want to check the book out. While students can practice previewing a text with myself, a library media specialist or a peer, my goal this year is to have each student be able to preview and choose books independently before school ends.

Click to enlarge – Feel free to copy or download PDF.

I teach students that previewing a book can be a very individual practice, based on personal preferences. I share the three things I look at when previewing a book:

(1) the cover,
(2) the blurb on the inside cover or back, and
(3) the first line of the story.

Many students are shocked when I admit that the cover is one of the things I look for in a good book to read for fun, but I believe covers are designed with purpose. While we may not be judging a book by its cover, we are looking for book cover clues that might pique our interest enough to want to read the text.

Previewing a text is a ‘mobile’ skill – one that helps students build the habits of lifelong readers. I want them to be able to transfer this skill to other places, such as public libraries and bookstores.

Students can adapt previewing to match their preferences

Before students are sent off to preview texts on their own, I remind students of the different ways they could preview a text, and we co-construct diverse previewing reminders. Some of my students will only read a blurb of a book if they like the title. Other students will look at the length of the book. One year a student told me they read the last chapter of the book first so they would have an idea of what happened at the end.

I don’t believe it matters what students look for when they preview the text. I want to make sure they have the skills to determine why they want to read a book and have the opportunity to practice this skill, especially in a larger setting like the school library.

I know that helping students learn how to independently navigate the classroom and school libraries will take time, but I also believe with continued practice and consistent visits to the school library this year, my students will be able to make good reading choices in the future – a develop some passion for book hunting.

By going to the school library, they also get the opportunity to explore various topics they may be learning in other classes. For example, in the Science class this year, a major unit for the students is ecology. They are learning about food chains and biospheres. The school library has many more options for learning about this topic than my classroom library.

The school library: An essential resource

I believe taking my students to the school library at least once a month is an important routine in my class, even though I have a robust classroom library. Both of these spaces enrich students’ reading lives, especially since they are able to offer students a myriad of options for their choices in reading.

In essence, the school library serves a similar function as classroom libraries in terms of leveraging students’ interests. But the school library has the space and broad subject-area expertise that I cannot always offer my students.

I want my middle schoolers to have the skills they need to be lifelong readers, and ready access to books is not always going to be part of their daily experience. Utilizing the school library now, and visiting it frequently, lets students learn from our librarians’ experiences with reading, while providing time to practice important skills they will need to grow as readers who understand the intrinsic value of books throughout a lifetime.

Katie Durkin (@kmerz610) has been teaching English Language Arts to middle school students for a decade and currently teaches 7th grade Reading Workshop at public Middlebrook School in Wilton, Connecticut.

Katie is a zealous reader of middle grades and young adult books and enjoys sharing her love and passion for reading with her students. She is a doctoral student at Northeastern University studying the impact of classroom libraries on middle school students’ reading engagement. She is also the 2020 recipient of the Edwyna Wheadon Postgraduate Training Scholarship from the National Council of Teachers of English.

More Engaging Ideas for Calendar Celebrations

By Anne Anderson

Reading aloud a well-crafted, beautifully illustrated picture book is yet another opportunity to guide students of all ages to love words, love stories, and love books.

Add in notable birthdays and events from the December-February calendar and you’ve created an engaging series of activities that kids will look forward to!

Reading aloud to tweens & teens

I have come to view reading aloud to middle and high school students as a necessity. I consider this low-key, high-impact literacy strategy a must for your teacher toolbox—no matter the grade, the content area, or ability level.

I have added picture book titles to my growing collection of tidbits of weird information, birthdays of the famous and not-so-famous, and lesser-known celebrations. Now I had even more options for making the most of my instructional time.

Some days a read aloud is for pure pleasure. On other occasions, the read aloud is followed by a teacher-designed lesson that incorporates standards and activities designed to meet the needs of your students.

As part of my introduction to a picture book, I included some snippets of information about the author and/or illustrator. While that information often came from the book jacket or book websites, it sometimes came from meeting an author at a book signing or hearing them speak at a conference.

Because I wanted students to feel a connection to these books, I shared the dedications and the acknowledgements. We discussed how the endpapers complemented the story.

In order for this to be successful, you must select a book that you like. Then practice, practice, practice. It takes practice to be able to hold the book, read, and know when to show the illustrations.

Birthday Celebrations

Let’s explore some birthday celebrations with picture book suggestions for December, January, and February from my Calendar Celebrations series.For Mr. Joyce’s birthday introduce several of his books and share some background on him and his career. Since his birthday is in December, I suggest reading Santa Calls. There were no assignments related to this book. This was a sit and enjoy a Santa story.

Joyce’s The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is appropriate for National Book Blitz Month (January) or Library Lovers’ Month (February). This book has numerous instructional possibilities. You may want to extend this read aloud into a teacher-designed activity to align with your state or local standards. One possibility is to show the Academy Award winning movie and have students compare/contrast the book and movie.

On January 17 have fun presenting Ben Franklin’s birthday. There are numerous books about Franklin, but I selected Ben Franklin: His Wit and Wisdom from A to Z by Alan Schroeder. The thirty-two pages of this alphabet book are packed with information. Regrettably, an alphabet book is not a read aloud in the traditional sense.

Here’s how it worked in Room A-101. I introduced the book as usual explaining this was a “pick & choose” book—we did not have to begin with A and read all the way to Z. I “picked” a letter and shared the information from that page. For example, the letter “J” is for James, Josiah, Junto, and Jelly. Students correctly predicted that James and Josiah were people in Franklin’s life. Turns out James is his older brother and Josiah, his father. They could not decide if Junto was a person, a place, or a thing. They were completely stumped by Jelly.

As I read from this single page, I moved about the room and gave students a moment to study the illustrations which clearly enhance the text. I saw the lightbulbs come on as they learned what junto meant and why Franklin ate a spoonful of jelly daily.
They were making connections and paying attention to details, and for my students it seemed more like “fun” than school. In this instance, I heard them discussing the overall structure of the text and how the illustrator used details from the text. I got more than I had hoped for with this activity!

Select one of the many available picture books about Michael Jordan. I chose Salt in His Shoes by Deloris Jordan with Roslyn M. Jordan, his mother and sister. While the lesson may start out as a birthday celebration, do not overlook including it as part of a Social Emotional Learning lesson on developing goals.

The Book Baskets option

Not every book is a read aloud book; not every day is a read aloud day. Since I wanted students to have easy access to books, I created Book Baskets. Using baskets worked well for me, since I had more counter space that shelf space. Students helped themselves to a book if they were waiting on me to meet with their writing group, when they finished the test, or when we had free reading time.

In December I had a basket with December books – Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, and Santa Claus. January’s basket might include books for Thank You Month and Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The valentine books, along with the books for President’s Day, came out in February.
Sharing picture books with students presents another opportunity to connect with students and their interests. One does not have to be a musician to appreciate a beautiful book based on a true event, The Man with the Violin written by Kathy Stinson and illustrated by Dušan Petričić. Facilitate a discussion to meet the needs of your students.

Consider sharing the YouTube video that sparked this book – or tell the story of the 2007 experiment organized by the Washington Post.

Students may not find a Stradivarius as exciting as a 3-D printer. And that is okay. My goals continued to be to build general knowledge, strengthen vocabulary, and reinforce previously taught skills. Using picture books was one way to meet those goals.
Share this true story Beauty and the Beak: How Science, Technology, and a 3D-Printed Beak Rescued a Bald Eagle by Deborah Lee Rose.

With this story students see how scientists and engineers worked together to design a prosthetic beak for a wounded eagle. Based on the information in this text, students should be able to practice applying previously taught skills (e.g., cause/effect; time sequence; use vocabulary from the text to explain technical procedures, etc.).

Not every read aloud book has or should have an accompanying lesson. Picture books offer teachers more options for filling in the learning gaps.

While I do not remember the book I had just read to the class, I clearly recall the conversation that November afternoon:

David: Mrs. Anderson, how did you know to do that?

Me: Do what?

David: That thing . . . that thing you do with your voice. You know, how did you know to make your voice sound different?

I was stunned – here was an eighth grader who had not yet made the connection that different characters had different voices. He was not alone. It was up to me to help David and the others learn to hear those voices so they could love words, love stories, and love books.

Make the book available to students after you read it. Some students want to read it again. Some want a closer look at the illustrations. Some want to read it aloud for their own audience. For instance, once a middle schooler stopped by at the end of the day and ask to borrow a book so he could read it to his little cousin that night. YES – he had heard a good picture book!

Anne’s Tips for Building a Classroom Library
  1. Tell anyone and everyone.

Make your friends and family aware that you need books for your classroom. Ask your principal, assistant principal, supervisor or PTA/PTO president for funds to purchase books.

  1. Shop till you drop.

Visit the used bookstores. Stop by yard sales, garage sales, estate sales.

  1. Write a grant.

Check in your community for businesses that offer educational grants. Many companies offer small grants (under $500) with no deadline. Do your research.

And always have your book list available!

Anne Anderson always knew she wanted to be a teacher. She graduated from East Texas Baptist University with an English major and History minor and did graduate work at Louisiana State University and Louisiana Tech University. After teaching 8th graders for 24 years, Anne served as a content coach. Since retiring in 2011, Anne has worked as an educational consultant, presenting at national conferences and onsite trainings for public and private schools.

Calendar Celebrations: December, January, February is the second in Anne Anderson’s series on resources for months of the year. (She wrote about the first one here.) Anne has also published articles in IDEAS Plus and Voices from the Middle, publications of the National Council of Teachers of English. She is a frequent reviewer of professional books for

Sketchnotes Help Kids Grow Their Mindsets

Sketchnoting is a open-ended, process-focused activity that lets kids show what they’re learning without fitting into a teacher’s predetermined frame.

By Kelly Owens

Does blank space scare you? Or is a blank paper an inviting opportunity to delve into a creative pursuit without limits? What about your students?

Space invites creative expression. Given a choice between blank papers and preprinted pages, many children jump at the chance to fill the white space. Educators can capitalize on that appeal by offering artistic options for students to make their thinking visible.

Open-ended expression supports a growth mindset because it doesn’t pigeonhole students into thinking they must achieve a preconceived notion of perfection or produce the “right answer.”

Who is the Leader?

A product-focused activity is more teacher-directed, requiring students to follow similar directions to produce similar projects that resemble a sample. In her NEA Today article  “Encouraging a Growth Mindset through Art” Tempest NeuCollins, a Michigan K-6 art teacher and founder of Doodles Academy, says such assignments have a “narrow definition of success.” There are usually right and wrong ways to complete them, and some students may feel they messed up if their product doesn’t look like your model.

Follow-my-lead activities have their place in classrooms. My goal is to achieve a creative balance by also offering student-guided opportunities focused on the learning process. These activities put fewer limits on creativity, empowering learners to explore and actively engage with their own ideas.

Process-focused projects allow students to find their own voices and let their individuality shine. As they take ownership of the learning process, they’ll struggle to figure things out as they experiment, design, and create.

And, yes, they will make mistakes along the way. Tempest NeuCollins goes on to say, “… instead of mistakes being a failure to replicate an ideal, they are opportunities to expand ideas and use the process as an opportunity to creatively problem solve.”

Different students will approach the same assignment different ways based on background knowledge, past experiences, and perspectives. During a process-focused activity the decision-making process lies in the hands of the student and supports Carol Dweck’s idea of a growth mindset. A student’s active engagement with struggles is valued for the potential it offers for growth.

Sketchnoting Showcases Reflective Thinking

I’ve heard writers say their writing is never finished, but because of due dates, their writing is DONE. It implies the writing process continues well after a submission due date. Similarly, learning is never DONE. Since sketchnotes represent a student’s connected ideas and understandings, they are works in progress too.

Sketchnoting is a form of notetaking where students transform a blank paper into a collection of purposeful doodles, text notes, diagrams, shapes, and other graphics that show visuals of their thinking. Student-initiated sketchnoting invites learners to continuously add to their creations as their understandings develop.

Thanks to a sketchnoting book club, my co-planner extraordinaire Karen Raia and I introduced sketchnoting to our literacy learners to help them grow their visual vocabularies.

On page 30 of Ink & Ideas: Sketchnotes for Engagement, Comprehension, and Thinking, Tanny McGregor says, “We never think that we are ‘finished’ learning language.…” McGregor likens the ongoing building of visual vocabulary to the way we continue growing our oral and written vocabularies.

Karen and I strive to give our students as many opportunities as possible to play, practice, and acquire words. After a guided read aloud of Robert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess, learners sketchnoted ideas about fantasy motifs.

As you can see from this example, our students let go of perfection as they were free to creatively show the interconnected webs of their own thinking. Our takeaways:

► One size does not fit all. Open-ended sketchnoting offered students a choice of ways to approach the same learning goal.

► Students found it appealing to have the power to choose whether to use words only, pictures only, words and pictures, and other style options.

► Part of the learning process involved students making decisions about what they deemed important enough to be recorded in the sketchnote.

► Students said they felt empowered and in control. It didn’t feel like work on someone else’s terms because it was fun to be creative.

Students discovered sketchnoting strategies are transferable to other content areas, such as math.

Opportunities to Be Vulnerable

By designing a lesson with the growth mindset in mind, we open the possibility for students to experiment and play around with ideas in a safe space.

Free-form projects require the willingness of the teacher to turn control over to the learners. In her 2010 Houston TED Talk, Brené Brown talked about embracing vulnerabilities. She said we need to show children “You’re imperfect and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.”

This kind of teaching requires a willingness to do something where there are no guarantees. When offering sketchnoting opportunities to my students, I communicated that I was there to support and encourage them as they experimented with their learning process. There were no guarantees they’d hit the mark perfectly, but at least students had the chance to express themselves with something in the gray area between right and wrong. And they had fun while being actively engaged with literature.

Sketchnoting resulted in richer, deeper, more personalized responses that continued to spark excitement for learning. It also invited more critical thinking reflection questions. Why did you choose to represent it that way? How are these connected? If you were to add another element, where would you add it? Why?

Coloring Outside the Lines

When a child shows off a completed coloring book page, a natural reaction is to evaluate whether they colored neatly inside the lines. Any time a child has shown how they transformed a blank paper into a drawing or sketchnote, there’s an instant WOW factor for what their creative brain thought to do with the space. Anything they designed on the page was an enhancement of a blank page.

Open-ended sketchnoting actively engages learners in the decision-making process of deciding how to creatively show their learning. The trial-and-error mistakes students make when sketchnoting fuel the growth process – even for those who think they can’t draw and sketchnote.

For students (and teachers) this activity is about being willing to have a sense of adventure while experimenting with ways to represent your thinking. Throughout the design process, you can deepen your understanding of the topic and have fun while purposefully doodling. There’s no right way or wrong way to do it. So go ahead and try it … YOUR way!


Brown, B. “The Power of Vulnerability.” TED, June 2010.

McGregor, T. (2019). Ink & Ideas: Sketchnotes for Engagement, Comprehension, and Thinking. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Munsch, R. (2018). The Paper Bag Princess. Toronto: Annick Press.

NeuCollins, T. (2019, March 18). “Encouraging a Growth Mindset through Art.” NEA TODAY.

Kelly Owens is a reading interventionist who helps sixth grade readers and writers overcome past literacy struggles by building stamina, confidence, and a greater love of learning. As a teacher with over twenty-seven years’ experience, she has proudly represented Hillsborough Township Public Schools as a NJ Governor’s Teacher of the Year.

Kelly also co-created Buddies for the Birds, which was featured on the Emmy Award-winning show Classroom Close-up NJ. She earned her Ed.M. from Rutgers University. Additional writing credits include published work with The King School Series (Townsend Press), The Mailbox magazine, and MiddleWeb.

Case Studies Bring Scientific Ideas to Life

Discovery Engineering in Biology: Case Studies for Grades 6-12
By Rebecca HiteGina Childers, Megan Ennes, and M. Gail Jones
(NSTA, 2019 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Ilana Cyna

In reviewing this book, I was hoping to find content that would be useful in my classroom, and I was not disappointed. In fact, I loved this book so much that I now want to purchase its companion for Physical Science.

Discovery Engineering in Biology is filled with 20 thoughtful case studies, each centering around a different scientific phenomenon or discovery. The real life case study is followed by additional thought provoking activities, with the engineering challenge closing out the lesson.

The book is organized in a formulaic manner, and my methodical and orderly brain found this very appealing. There are 20 chapters, and each chapter is laid out as follows:

Introduction – This includes a brief explanation of the concept to be discussed in the chapter.

Lesson Objectives –This identifies what the student should know or be able to do after completing the lesson.

The Case – This section introduces a case study from the past followed by a few “Recognize, Recall, and Reflect” questions.

Three activities titled “Investigate and Explain,” “Activity,” and “Apply and Analyze” – These build off of the case study and extend the concept. They include additional scenarios (fictional but realistic); analysis of charts, maps, and graphs; research activities, and opportunities for the student to take on the role of scientist.

Design Challenge – In this section, students are tasked with using the presented issues and discoveries to design a solution to a real world problem. The design challenge uses a scaffolded process involving these six steps: asking questions, brainstorming and imagining, creating a plan, designing, testing and evaluating, and improving and revising.

Teacher Notes – This final section in each chapter includes lesson overviews and objectives, curriculum connections (general content, NGSS, science and engineering practices), background information, requirements for lesson preparation (materials, time, grouping, essential vocabulary), extension and assessment ideas, answer keys, and additional resources and references.

The Case Studies

I also enjoyed the offering of case studies and found them (mostly) interesting. I think it is important to know if the book offers connections to your curriculum, and so here are the 20 case studies presented in the book:

Quit Bugging Me: Controlling Mosquitoes to Stem Malaria Infection

Game of Knowns: John Snow’s Research into the Cause and Spread of Malaria

Thalidomide: Hidden Strategy and Second Chances

Vindicating Venom: Using Biological Mechanisms to Treat Diseases and Disorders

Forbidden Fruit: The Discovery of Dangerous Drug Interactions

Listen to Your Heart: The Accidental Discovery of the Pacemakers

Overexposure: Treating Anaphylaxis Due to Allergies

Crashing the Party: Combating Chronic Alcohol Abuse

The Triumph of the Pika: Understanding Environmental Impacts on Species

Seeing the Earth Glow From Space: Plants that Glow

Power Plants: Algal Biofuels

A “Sixth Sense”: Using Sensors for Monitoring and Communication

In Hot Water: The Discovery of Tax Polymerase

Cows and Milkmaids: The Discovery of Vaccines

2X or Not 2X: “Y” Should Mixed-Sex Test Subjects Be Used in Medical Research

Revealing Repeats: The Accidental Discovery of DNA Fingerprinting

Mr. Antibiotic, Tear Down This (Cell) Wall: The Prokaryotic Resistance of Penicillin

Hidden in Plain Sight: Darwin’s Observation in the Galápagos Islands

More Bark Than Bite: Using Bioprospecting to Find Cures for Disease

Cutting it Close: Using CRISPR to Microedit the Genome

What did I love?

This book effectively uses case studies to show students how scientific ideas and discoveries came to be. The story format of the case studies is appealing and the follow-up mock scenarios are relevant and engaging, providing effective real life connections. Many of the activities are thoughtful and challenging.

The engineering design process made sense to me as it is very similar to the IB design cycle, which I taught for a few years. The EDP section of each chapter begins with providing the general challenge. For example, the general challenge in Chapter 6 (The Accidental Discovery of the Pacemakers) tasks students with finding other ways that electricity can be used to treat diseases and conditions. It continues by working through each of the six steps in the engineering design process, providing hints, video links, guiding questions, and design suggestions for the students. I found this process helpful to support the students on this journey.

There were many student templates provided throughout the book. This is where I see the book’s digital version (there’s also a print/ebook bundle) being very useful, as I find that photocopies from a book are never “neat” (and I like neat!). When I order Discovering Engineering in Physical Science, I will definitely order the digital version.

I appreciated the extensive “Teacher Notes” section. I found it thoughtfully developed with many useful guidelines for teachers. I especially liked that the answer keys were provided.

What would I change?

I feel that the organization of the case studies could have been tweaked so that the case studies with more advanced topics were all found after the less advanced ones. For example, the case study for Chapter 4 (Vindicating Venom) includes one middle school engineering standard, but all of the life science standards are for high school. In my opinion, that case study should been positioned later in the book.

I got excited when I read one of the “Recognize, Recall, and Reflect” questions in Chapter 1 (Controlling Mosquitoes to Stem Malaria Infection) which asked students to consider the ethics of human experimentation. Unfortunately, I didn’t come across any other ethical questions throughout the book, which was disappointing. I would have liked to see more of this line of questioning incorporated.

Overall, I am very happy to have this resource added to my library. I have already begun to rethink some of my curricular tasks for this year, switching them out for some of the case studies presented in this book.

Ilana Cyna is a middle school mathematics and science teacher, currently teaching through the International Baccalaureate Programme. She has taken on additional roles over her 25 years in education, including lead teacher in mathematics, science, and technology, as well as being an IB MYP Divisional lead teacher.

Student Book Talks Help Motivate Readers

By Lynne R. Dorfman & Brenda Krupp


Book talks will help you create a community of readers eager to travel on their reading journey with you.

Think about your own readerly life. It’s probably driven by suggestions from personal friends and family members, people you follow on Twitter, Facebook, or blogs such as Nerdy Book Club, and colleagues you trust as readers.

That’s also the case in our classrooms. Students often want to read what their friends are reading. Regularly scheduled book talks (once or twice a month might be a doable goal) can motivate our most striving readers to try a book and spread the word – increasing the volume of books read by students across your classes.


It’s great to kick your book talks off at the start of school. With kids in grades 4-8, consider sending a letter to students over the summer to ask them to bring a favorite book with them on the first day. It could be one that they enjoyed during break or near the end of the last school year.

Model for students how they could give a two-minute book talk to their class during the first several weeks. If it is winter (not summer) break that’s approaching, encourage your eager readers to pick a new book to read at home and come prepared to talk about it when school resumes, to get the ball rolling.

Some book talk tips

These quick book talks can tempt classmates into reading their peer’s book choice for enjoyment. Here are some more moves teachers have found helpful:

  • Don’t forget to include non-fiction texts. Recent studies show that today’s middle level readers often prefer books about science, sports, famous people, pop culture, weird happenings and more.
  • Vary the genre of the book talks you feature in class so you reach all your student interests.
  • Be proactive and tempt students who tend to stick with one genre to take a risk and read a book outside of their comfort zone.
  • Highlighting Arthurian legends, graphic novels, science fiction, mystery, traditional literature, biography, and autobiography in your book talks will help kids discover new reading genres that interest them and make the search for new books much easier.
  • Several book talks tied to an assignment can help children choose texts they’d most like to engage with while also meeting curriculum goals.

Remember, a book talk is:

…a way to share a book read independently.

…informal yet well planned.

…intriguing and enticing.

…focused not scattered.

…brief (30 seconds to 2 minutes).

…just enough about the book but never any spoilers!

(Thanks to our colleague and dear friend, teacher Catherine Gehman, for these sharable pointers.)

Model a book talk to get things started

Modeling a book talk for your students not only helps them understand what we’re talking about – it promotes the idea of a community where everyone is a reader and contributor.

Choose a book you think the kids in your class will find intriguing – maybe something you’ve just added to your class library or a newly discovered series you think they will enjoy. If you do readalouds, you could do brief talks on several possible books and let the kids choose which book you will read.

To help you get started, we have provided examples of two book talks we’ve modeled ourselves:

The Undefeated. Begin by showing the book cover and sharing some of your own wondering. As you look at the title and cover art, your brain swims with questions and wonderings. Who are the people? Who or what did they defeat or resist? Students might speculate.

Then you reveal that this richly illustrated book will take you on an historical journey and introduce you to Black Americans who are unforgettable, undeniable, unflappable, unafraid, and more. Follow the poem (yes, it’s written in verse, like a poem or rap) as you view portraits of men and women who sacrificed much, encountered hardships, yet never gave up. Instead, they rose up to make a difference.The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander is ready to introduce you to men and women who endure, strive, and thrive.

How to Eat Fried Worms. Lynne’s book-talk model of this Scholastic Gold classic – for a fourth-grade class. Think of yourself as a carnival barker:

So, do you like them fried, boiled, breaded, or just plain raw?  “What?” you ask. WORMS!  If you are like Billy, you may just learn to eat them any old way. For a bet of $50 to buy a mini bike…. would you eat them?  Find out if Billy wins the bet of eating 15 worms in 15 days despite all the sneaky tactics Joe and Allen use to make Billy wonder if he can do it.

“This is a great book to read anywhere you go – short chapters make it possible to read in the car, at the dentist’s office (think of the fun when other patients see the cover!), or before you get ready for bed.  Don’t miss How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell…. unless, of course, you have a weak stomach!”

Book Talk tools and formats

You can model several formats and then allow your student to choose an appropriate scaffold for the book they want to share.

Book Talk: What’s the Genre?

  • State the title and author.
  • Identify the genre.
  • Offer two examples from the book that helped you determine the genre.
  • Share one big idea or theme the author was trying to convey.
  • Explain what in the book helped you understand this idea or theme.

Book Talk: Think and Connect

  • State the title and author.
  • Explain two fascinating or new facts you’ve learned about the topic.
  • Explain the importance of this topic by connecting to personal, community, or world issues.
  • Give an example of how this book has changed your thinking about this topic or why the topic is so interesting to you.

Book Talk: Biography and Autobiography

  • State the title and author and identify who the book is about.
  • Explain what this person did that changed the world, his or her field, or the environment, or in some way helped people.
  • Choose a person or event that shaped this person’s life and explain how.

Book Talk: To Read or Not to Read!  (Choice List)

  • State the title and author.
  • Tell the class why you are recommending (or not recommending) this book.
  • Choose two or three things from this list and offer specific details to illustrate the items you chose:
    1. Is this a genre you love? Explain what about this genre has such great appeal.
    2. Was the book a page turner?  Explain why.
    3. Did you connect to a character?  Explain why.
    4. Were there surprises that kept you interested?  Explain one without giving away the ending.
    5. Did every chapter end with a cliffhanger? Give one example.
    6. Were the illustrations a major factor?  Why?
    7. Retell a favorite part.
    8. Will this book make you laugh?  Explain.
    9. Is the setting unusual in some way?  Explain.
    10. Read a short excerpt to create interest.

Book Talk: Characters Change

  • State the title and author.
  • Reflect on the main character’s personality and think how he or she changed from the beginning to the end of the book.
  • Describe what the character was like at the beginning. Talk about a personality trait and give an example.
  • Describe how and why the main character changed. Read a short passage from the end that shows this change.
  • End by recommending or not recommending this book. Give specific reasons.

Upper elementary and middle school students love to talk, so using time for book talks supports students’ strengths, interests, and passions (a well-placed Wow! is okay). Structuring the academic day to incorporate meaningful, purposeful opportunities for students to talk about books enhances their motivation and engagement .

Making ungraded book talks a regular part of your classroom experience gives students a dependable platform to share and recommend a book they love and want to share. They provide opportunities for students to learn effective presentation styles from each other. They can also nurture a reading identity of confidence, agency, and joy.

Lynne Dorfman and Brenda Krupp are co-authors of Welcome to Reading Workshop: Building a House of Readers, a new Stenhouse publication coming in 2022.

Brenda served as a classroom teacher, a lead teacher for Souderton Area School District, and a co-director for the summer invitational writing institute for the PA Writing & Literature Project (now The West Chester Writing Project) for over a decade.

Lynne is an adjunct professor for Arcadia University and will keynote at the 2021 KSLA Conference and facilitate sessions at PCTELA 2021, the Illinois Reading Conference in March, and the ADK Northeast Regional Conference in July. She is the co-author of several books from Stenhouse, including Welcome to Writing Workshop with Stacey Shubitz, and Mentor Texts, 2nd edition: Teaching Writing Through Children’s Literature (K-6) with Rose Cappelli.

Curated Advice New Teachers Need Now

The New Teacher’s Guide to Overcoming Common Challenges: Curated Advice from Award-Winning Teachers
Edited by Anna M. Quinzio-Zafran and Elizabeth A. Wilkins
(Routledge/Eye On Education, 2021 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Linda Biondi

Being a first-year teacher is overwhelming. So much to learn and to master. You need to be innovative, stay “on your toes,” learn time management, and definitely be able to figure out classroom management.

Everything you learned while student teaching and in your Education Prep courses need to be “unpacked” and put to use.

The problem is where to begin.

Teaching and learning go hand in hand. A teacher is always discovering and creating. Where is the best resource for just-in-time advice? It’s from those in the field!

Oftentimes, the new teacher learns more of what she or he is desperate to know from teachers who just finished their first year of classroom teaching – backed up by administrators, curriculum writers (who have been teachers), coaches, and veteran teachers.

A wide spectrum of education challenges

Anna M. Quinzio-Zafran and Elizabeth A. Wilkins have done a superior job gathering resources from all over the continent that together serve as a “go-to” guide for critical areas of education, including:

  • Teaching During a Pandemic
  • Classroom Setup and Management
  • Culturally Responsive Teaching
  • Curriculum and Instruction
  • Differentiation
  • English Learners
  • Professionalism/School Culture
  • Navigating Teacher Evaluation
  • Relationship Building/Communication
  • Student Assessment and Data Literacy
  • Work-Life Balance

The New Teacher’s Guide to Overcoming Common Challenges is current and relevant. In fact, the first section deals with advice and stories from a diverse group of educators who share their hearts, joys, and frustrations experienced during the Covid pandemic. As I read this section, I had tears in my eyes as they described how they were able to stay resilient during this time and how teachers all over the world supported each other.

What is unique about the format of the book is that the reader learns about education from different perspectives and environments. You learn from teachers in urban and suburban settings, private school and public schools, all grade levels and subject areas.

As educators we continue to learn a great deal during professional development sessions, but as teachers know, the best learning comes from practice and sometimes “mistakes.” Educating children is not “one size fits all,” so hearing multiple perspectives gives the reader a chance to think about what strategy might work best for their classroom.

Educators who’ve walked the walk

This book is about conversations among administrators, professors, coaches, teachers – educators who want the best for their students. I was impressed with the frankness and candor of the contributions. The educators acknowledged their shortcomings, and it was like reading their journals.

This fantastic 200-page resource is filled with teaching tools from those in the know. Each entry is often documented with the educator’s teaching position and Twitter or Instagram link, as well as professional references that support the entry.

There are many pressing issues facing teachers today. The editors of this guide provide a concise overview of many of those issues – such as developing a school and class culture in these uncertain times and being a culturally responsive teacher.

As you read this book, you begin to put your mind at ease. You know that you will have the confidence and resources you need as you begin your teaching journey (or as a veteran teacher who is continually looking to improve their teaching).

It’s a book that you can pick up at any time – while waiting for an appointment, looking for help for a particular teaching situation, or just needing to hear what other educators have to say. It’s a must have resource to keep on your desk all year.

Educators’ take on self care

Teaching is a difficult, yet rewarding job. Teachers are on their feet all day, and when they leave the physical classroom, the students are constantly in their thoughts. The book ends by reminding educators not to over-extend themselves and by showing them how to “take care of themselves.”

One such posting is from Michelle Adler, EdD, Assistant Professor at Wichita State University who urges teachers to remember to “Take care of Your SELF.”

S-set aside time for yourself
E-engage in uplifting conversations and be present with people you care about
L-listen to others and to things that inspire you
F-find friends who you can talk to and who motivate you

This collection of writings will help educators sustain the passion and ideals that led them to teaching. You will hear sound advice on how to navigate the school system, form helpful relationships with colleagues, and connect with students and families from all backgrounds.

Thank you, Anna Quinzio-Zafran and Elizabeth Wilkins, for gathering all these voices and giving educators a chance to share their sound advice. Thank you for this fantastic resource!

After teaching fourth and fifth graders for 41 years, Linda Biondi is supervising preservice and student teachers at The College of New Jersey and Rider University. She has co-facilitated summer writing institutes in conjunction with the National Writing Project and volunteers for two service organizations: Homefront and Dress for Success of Central New Jersey – with missions to end homelessness and empower women to achieve through economic independence.

Flipping over Flippity: Flashcards and More

By Kathleen Palmieri

I recently started using a website that offers great ways to engage students in the classroom. Flippity is a free teaching resource that allows teachers a multitude of ways to gamify and add excitement to subject areas.

Flippity’s creator, Steve, is a teacher who keeps the site going as a personal project with volunteer help.

Flippity resources were created by using Google Sheets until August of 2021. At that time, Google released a security upgrade that made this kind of interface unworkable. However, the Flippity crew has found a workaround to create many engaging classroom tools (learn more here). I’ll share a few examples of how I’m using Flippity now.

A secure way to create flashcards

Due to new data privacy and security requirements stemming from New York State’s Education Law 2-d, I had to find appropriate alternatives to some of my favorite teacher tools for creating flashcards and name spinners. That’s why I was excited about Flippity, which requires no student information.

Flippity offers easy-to-follow instructions, templates, and demos. Using the workaround strategies, I recently made a quick set of math vocabulary flash cards while signed into my Google account, following these steps:

  • Copy the template provided by clicking on the link provided in the instructions.
  • Enter terms for card side 1 and the definitions for card side 2
  • Choose the color for the flashcards or leave blank for traditional black and white
  • Scroll to the bottom of the sheet to name the worksheet
  • Do not edit any cell with a blue background!

This next step is very important to be able to get the link to use your resource.

You must go to “File” and scroll down to choose “Publish to the Web.” You will be prompted about your choice and will simply click “OK.” Click on the “Get the Link Here” tab on the bottom of the template where you will be able to access your cards. You can bookmark your link to access it easily, as well as scroll to the bottom of your flashcard page for more ways to share this resource.
There are several ways to share the flashcards such as a link through email, a QR code, or in your Google Classroom. Choosing Google Classroom, you can provide the flash cards as an assignment or as material to use as a resource. You can also edit your flashcards by choosing the Sheets icon and making any edits necessary.

Be sure to choose “Automatically republish when changes are made” before making your edits. That way your changes will be automatically made without the need to get a new link.

In addition to making a traditional digital flashcard, you can embed YouTube videos as well as images by simply following the instructions that are provided on the Flippity website under the flashcard directions.

Setting up random groups

Using the Flippity Random Name Picker is popular in my classroom. The kids love to use this to create teams and partners and to choose names for classroom jobs.

Again the instructions are easy to follow and basically entail typing student names into a text box (under “Quick and Easy” choosing the “Skip the Spreadsheet” tab) and hitting submit. Bookmarking the link is key, as the resource is not saved in any other way.

I’ve created a Name Picker for my math class and for my homeroom. You can see from the header below (click to enlarge) that there are many ways to group, as well as the ability to create a seating chart.

Individualizing spelling lists

Finally, I use the Flippity Spelling Words resource with my students. This option offers a way to input a spelling list for each student, which can be individualized, or to create one spelling list that the class will be learning from.

After typing each student’s name into the copied template, input the spelling list. You can also “add a phrase in quotes to clarify homonyms.” There is an option of inputting your email address to automatically receive quiz results for students. You would need to do that for each student, but it is worth the little time it takes for this step.

If you take that step, as students take the online practice quiz you will receive an email with their results. The spelling word resource allows the students to see and hear each word read aloud, practice spelling the words, and then be quizzed to gauge their learning progress. As with all of the Flippity resources, instructions and a template you can copy are provided.

Kid friendly and hassle free

Flippity offers many ways to engage your students in learning – from creating digital board games to quiz shows and scavenger hunts, just to name a few. Flippity does not require any student information (I use first names but that’s my choice and even those can be disguised), which is important in states like New York where the law requires data privacy and security for digital instructional resources.

I would highly suggest giving Flippity a try if you are looking for an easy-to-use, kid-friendly, hassle-free teacher resource.

Kathleen Palmieri is a National Board Certified Teacher and NBCT Professional Learning facilitator. She is a fifth grade educator in upstate New York who reviews and writes regularly for MiddleWeb. With a passion for literacy and learning in the classroom, she participates in various writing workshops, curriculum writing endeavors, and math presentations.

As a lifelong learner, Kathie is an avid reader and researcher of educational practices and techniques. Collaborating with colleagues and globally on Twitter @Kathie042500 and expanding her education adventures at are ongoing practices.

Assessing Digital Stories in the Middle Grades

By Katie Caprino and Alyssa Marzili


When Sam Weigle and I wrote Digital Storytelling: An Exciting Teaching Tool! a few months back, we shared a little bit about what digital storytelling is, why it is a great instructional practice in the middle grades classroom, and some tools that may help your students compose digital stories.


In this follow-up blog post, future teacher Alyssa Marzili and I want to discuss ways you can think about assessing digital stories in your classroom.

We share tips on how engaging middle graders in a consideration of the elements of rhetoric and peer feedback and using digital tools for evaluation can help in the process of assessing students’ digital stories.

Help Students Consider the Writing Situation

One way to think about assigning and assessing student compositions is to think about helping them consider the purpose, genre, context, tone, and audience for which they are writing.

Creating a grid for students at the beginning of the assignment that helps them understand these rhetorical elements may go a long way in helping them create their stories and assess their own pieces.

For example, are students able to articulate their purpose or reason for writing, before, during, and after their digital stories are finished? Are they able to identify the features of the genre? Similarly, what tone, or attitude of the writer, is exemplified within the text? And, finally, who is the audience?

Many student writers, we think, go through much of school not even considering to whom they are writing. The authentic nature of digital stories may help strengthen their audience awareness. Encouraging students to clearly identify for whom they are writing (and preferably, it’s not just you as their teacher) is another step in the right direction.

You can also embed the elements of purpose, genre, context, tone, and audience in your rubric or feedback conversations with students and let them become familiar aspects of the learning experience.

Scaffold the Feedback from Peers

The public nature of digital storytelling makes these stories perfect for peer feedback assessment practices. Asking students to work in ongoing writing groups during the storytelling process can help them gain an audience’s feedback as they write (which is when we believe you should be giving most of your feedback, too).

You and your students can co-construct a list of criteria that can go into a rubric everyone can use to assess the digital stories (including the teacher). One tip we have is to have the writer/composer come up with 2 or 3 open-ended questions they’d like their peers to answer about their pieces. In this way, feedback is student-directed and addresses the specific elements of the writing where composers feel they need input.

Tools like Storybird ( that allow sharing with peers help facilitate peer feedback. After exploring many genres including picture books, longform, comics, flash fiction, and poetry, students can select a template (or not) and compose their own digital story. (Click below to enlarge)

When students finish a story, they can share it with peers. Peers can comment on the story, giving the student feedback. Furthermore, this is a great resource because teachers can also have students focus on a certain skill set and see the progress the student is making. This progress can help you when conducting writing conferences with your digital writers.

Invite Digital Tools into the Assessment Process

Digital storytelling relies on digital tools, so it makes sense to use them in the assessment process. Instead of a final written reflection, have students use tools such as Animoto or Vocaroo to share how they developed as writers, how they developed as digital writers, and what future writing goals they have.

You can also use similar digital tools to offer feedback on a particular student’s piece – or to create whole-class feedback, feedback that is not student-specific but rather provides insights to a group of students that they can use in their final drafts or future writing assignments.

Please feel free to share your digital story assessment successes with us! We’d love for you to reach out!

The authors appreciate funding from the Mellon Foundation.

Katie Caprino is an Assistant Professor of PK-12 New Literacies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. She taught middle and high school English in Virginia and North Carolina. She holds a BA from the University of Virginia, a MA from the College of William and Mary, a MA from Old Dominion University, and a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Katie researches and presents on children’s, middle grades, and young adult literature; the teaching of writing; and incorporating technology into the literacy classroom. You can follow her on Twitter at @KCapLiteracy and visit her book blog at

Alyssa Marzili is a senior Early Childhood Education major at Elizabethtown College with a minor in English Professional Writing. Presently, she is the Editor-in-Chief of The Etownian and the lead writing tutor. In her free time, she writes fictional books, mostly middle-level and young adult.