Thursday, May 31, 2018

Our Top 10 Book Series for Middle School

It's very common for other teachers or parents to ask for reading recommendations for their middle school student(s). While I could give them a list that could keep most readers busy for months on end, I wondered what my readers would I asked them. Last week, I posted A Few of Our Favorite Reads, but I discovered that books that are in a series are very high on their list. As a reader this makes sense. When we connect with characters, we want to continue on their journey to see how things end up in the end. We feel like they've become a part of our lives.

One thing for us to remember is no one book is a perfect fit for every student. We must know our students to know what may fit for them. Some common denominators when recommending books is finding those that are both addictive (moves at a pace that will keep the attention of the middle school reader) and appropriate (in content and readiness). 

So here is my students' list (in no particular order) of their top ten book series for middle grades readers: 

  1. Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling
  2. Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
  3. The Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
  4. The Babysitter's Club (graphic novel series) by Ann M. Martin (author) and Raina Telgemeier (illustrator)
  5. The Blackthorn Key series by Kevin Sands
  6. Dork Diaries by Rachel Renee Russell
  7. A Tale Dark and Grimm (Grimm Series) by Adam Gidwitz
  8. The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer
  9. Legend series by Marie Lu
  10. The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins
Would this have been the exact list that I would have put together? Probably not. There would have been a couple on this list that may have been different. But in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter. We want our students to have choice and a voice in their reading selections. Reading selection is a very personal decision. As their teachers, we need to provide them with plenty of options (and guidance) in selecting their next great read.  This list definitely showed me some places where I need to build my classroom library.

What are your middle grades students reading now? What's the book (or series) that you cannot keep on your shelves?

If you are looking for a way to give students voice and choice in their reading and sharing, check out this post: Flipping for Book Chats with Flipgrid.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Flipping for Book Chats with Flipgrid

Here are few things we know about middle school students and reading:

  • Students want choice and voice.
  • A recommendation from a peer typically outweighs one from a teacher.
  • Interest can trump ability.
  • Readers need direction when finding the right read for themselves.
  • Learners become stronger readers by spending time reading.
So as teachers how do we provide them with all of those opportunities while not losing the focus of supporting students on proving mastery of reading standards and skills? Over the last several years, we have incorporated several different practices in order to find the perfect blending of best literacy practices and student choice (which one could argue is a best practice).

On the first day of school, students decorate an index card with words and images that represent them as an individual. I collect these to use as equity cards with our Free Reading Fri-Yay celebration each week. We choose seven to eight different cards each week; those students lead a quick one- to two-minute book chat selling their book to their classmates and making recommendations. Their classmates can add new titles to the "Must Read List" that is in their ELA composition notebook. As their teacher, it gives me insight into reading preferences, learning styles, challenges, and interests which I can document on the back of the card to help drive my instruction and support my unique readers.

While this process was working to a degree, I noticed that students were struggling with book chats. They would either get caught up in the speaking portion of the chat and forget the important aspects of the book they were promoting or they would get caught up in the details of the book and they would forget about the speaking skills we had been developing. Also, I noticed that my readers were also forgetting to write down their next great read on their list and would often abandon selecting a book at all.

As I was searching for a way to meet all these challenges, I came across Flipgrid. With Flipgrid, I could create a grid with a separate topic for each class. Every two weeks, instead of speaking their book chats live in front of the class, they would record it as a video on Flipgrid. We created a list of expectations:

  • each chat could be up to 90 seconds long
  • chat books that we had not read in class or that had not been chatted numerous times
  • include a summary that convinces others to read that book
  • avoid big spoilers
  • recommend who would enjoy that book

What is great about Flipgrid is that students can access it on any device from a desktop to a smartphone.  They can record their video as many times as they would like. Because they were limited to 90 seconds, my learners knew they had to write out their book chat and practice it in order to get all the important details within the short time limit.

I set the topics to need my approval before they went live to our grid. What I saw from my students was amazing. The quality of their speaking and the books that they chose to share drastically inclined. Their personalities blossomed. Although these book chats were only due every other week, I began having students post multiple chats a week to share with their peers. (Of course, it didn't hurt that they were seeing how many views and likes they were accumulating.) And while giving students a voice helped every student grow, I noticed the biggest difference with my ELL, ExEd students, and struggling readers. They were engaged in book chats at a new level; they had the time to think, practice, and share their reading with their peers because it removed some of the obstacles that they face in the classroom.

Student-voice is a powerful thing...and with Flipgrid, I was able to deepen their voice as readers and give them an authentic audience to share their reading. If you haven't ever used Flipgrid, check it out. Your students will thank you for it!

Thursday, May 24, 2018

These are a Few of Our Favorite Reads

It's very common for another teacher to ask for my recommendations of books to put in front of their readers. And while I could talk about literature for my middle-level readers for H O U R S, I decided it was time for me to ask my students for their recommendations to see how closely their favs matched my perception of their recommended reading. I had students nominate and vote on their favorite book this year. Some of them were expected, others were a surprise.

One thing to remember is that as the teacher, it is our responsibility to know our students and what they are ready to tackle. Some common denominators when recommending books is finding those that are both addictive (moves at a pace that will keep the attention of the reader) and appropriate (in content and readiness). We need to try to remember that not every book is the perfect fit for every child at every point in their lives.

Below you will find their top ten recommended books (a following post will list their top ten book series).
  1. Ghost by Jason Reynolds
  2. Smile and Sisters by Raina Telgemeier
  3. Schooled by Gordon Korman
  4. Wonder by R. J. Palacio
  5. Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper
  6. Restart by Gordon Korman
  7. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeliene L'Engle
  8. Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
  9. Invisible Emmie by Terri Libenson 
  10. Posted by John David Anderson
Now I realize that should I have asked this question last week or next week, this list might look very different, but it really gave me some insight into what my readers were loving at that time and areas that I need to build up in our classroom library.

So I'm interested. Are your students reading some of these same titles? What are some of their favorites?

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Turning Field Trips into Learning Experiences for ALL Students (those going and those staying at school)

I love experiential learning. It's amazing to see students experience new things, make new connections, and learn about the world beyond our classroom walls all by taking a visit to another place. For many of us, field trips bring to mind happy memories of riding on a bus, talking with friends, eating special sack lunches and seeing new things.

However, as educators, we need to stop and think about the students who are NOT attending the field trip. By and large, these students are not attending field trips because of a decision made for them by their parent or guardian. They dread the impending trip expecting to be left with the infamous "sub work" for those school days. Don't these students deserve to have these rich learning experiences too?

As their teachers, what can we do to connect the learning taking place away from the campus and make it meaningful for ALL of the students?

This year, our sixth-grade team decided to re-evaluate our practices involving field trips for all of our students, those attending our three-day trip to New Orleans and those who would be remaining at school for those three days. Before the trip transpired, students were placed in four-five member teams. Each team would be comprised of students who were going and those who were staying at what we dubbed "Camp Awesome." Learners were given a list of learning expectations for both groups of students. They were each tasked with the responsibility to document their learning in four different areas (these areas came from the learning standards that would be mastered on the field trip). Student teams knew that once the field trip and Camp Awesome were concluded, they would be responsible for creating a collaborative project that demonstrated their combined learning from different experiences.

As one of the Camp Awesome teachers, we looked closely at the standards that students would be mastering on the field trip and then designed interactive, hands-on activities for each of those days at school. We intentionally chose different types of activities so that the members of the team could share different experiences with one another.

The students on the field trip would be experiencing the history and culture of New Orleans through tours, a jazz riverboat ride, and a Creole cooking class where they made jambalaya and bread pudding. At Camp Awesome, students completed a Canvas module filled with interactive sites that walked them through the history of New Orleans and Mobile, mardi gras traditions, and the evolution of the music in that region. Additionally, they experienced the music, created masks for their own krewe, and made (and tasted) Po' Boys, pecan pralines, and beignets.

The field trip students were also traveling to the World War 2 Museum. So, at Camp Awesome, students participated in a WebQuest to learn about the Navajo Code Talkers and the British Code Breakers led by Alan Turing. Then they had the opportunity to use some of their knowledge to navigate through a series of puzzles and problems in an adapted Breakout Edu game called Decoding the War. If they successfully completed the breakout, cracked the enigma code and stopped Hitler, they had their own VE celebration complete with confetti poppers.

While on the trip, students experienced a touch lab at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, visited the Aquarium of the Americas, the Audobon Zoo, the Insectarium, and went on a swamp tour. At Camp Awesome, students got to examine specimens collected by one of our science teachers. We also arranged for the biology department from the University of Alabama to come out to do a hands-on presentation bringing a collection of live reptiles, amphibians, and arachnids for the students.

At school, we were also able to squeeze in a webinar with National Hurricane Scientists and NOAA personnel and some other fun, content-specific learning experiences. (We were hoping to take the students on a Google Expedition of the beach and Normandy and Pearl Harbor, but we ran out of time.)

Throughout those three days, the students at Camp Awesome were, well, awesome. They brought devices to take photos of their learning. They created a Google document that they could share with their other teammates in order to take collaborative notes. Every single day, students thanked us for planning such an amazing day. If their parents came to check them out, they begged to be brought back to school if there was still classtime left. And as a side note, can you guess how many behavior challenges we had? If you guessed zero, you would be correct.

At the conclusion of the New Orleans field trip and Camp Awesome, the teams were given time to work together in science and social studies to complete their collaborative learning project to demonstrate their mastery of standards. On the due date, the teams were each assigned to a teacher to present their project (that meant each teacher saw and assessed 6-8 presentations). Some projects were elaborate pop-up scrapbooks, others were published books, while others were different types of digital presentations. When asked, the students could explain their learning, sometimes reminding a student of something they had taught them.

Due to the overwhelming success of this endeavor, my mind is whirring in other ways we can connect similar yet different learning experiences to enhance and empower ALL students in meaningful and authentic ways. The days of leaving work packets or showing endless movies to watch should be over. Let's take the time to deeply look into how we can make the most of every minute we have with our learners, whether they are in our classrooms or on a field trip. Because that is what each and every one of them deserves.