An Opinion on Opinion Writing…

I’ve seen many folks around the district launching their Opinion/Argumentative writing units.  As CCSS states, from Kinder-12th, all students are required to get experience in writing in this genre.  One thing I do enjoy about Common Core is how they take such a layered approach to writing as you venture up the grades.  Check it:

Kinder:  Use a combination of writing, dictating and drawing to compose opinion pieces where students tell the reader their topic and state their opinion

Third grade:  Write opinion pieces that state an opinion, provide reasons, use linking words and phrases and offer a concluding statement

Fifth grade:  Provide opinion pieces that support a point of view by introducing topic, providing logically ordered reasons supported by facts and details, link with words, phrases and clauses and end with concluding statement.

Eighth grade:
Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.
Introduce claim(s), acknowledge and distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and organize the reasons and evidence logically.
Support claim(s) with logical reasoning and relevant evidence, using accurate, credible sources and demonstrating an understanding of the topic or text.
Use words, phrases, and clauses to create cohesion and clarify the relationships among claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence.
Establish and maintain a formal style.
Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from and supports the argument presented.

The trick with Opinion writing (in my opinion),  is finding topics that MATTER for our students and giving them a REAL audience to write to.  When writing is authentic and purposeful, students are more motivated to write!  When they’re more motivated, they produce better stuff!

Have you heard about the Learning Network from the New York Times?  They just published a list of 301 prompts for writing opinion pieces.  It’s geared towards teens, but what I love is that the topics are so student-centered, relevant and real.  The topics are here!  They also provide student examples and even a writing contest!  I mean, what teen wouldn’t be motivated to write an opinion piece on the Chris Brown and Rihanna break-up?  Or the validity of skateboarding as a sport?

What are topics that matter to our elementary and middle school aged kids?  What will spark motivation in even our most reluctant writers?  All things to ponder before we dive into this type of writing with our students.

Here’s what a 5th grade EL student from Manor wrote to her principal last year.  This student was often reluctant to write, but when she found out she was actually going to put this in the principal’s mailbox, she was thrilled! She also chose this topic as something she wanted to change at her school.

Dear Mr. Richardson,

I’m writing to you because I think that all students should have a mechanical pencil at school.

First, with a mechanical pencil you don’t need to sharpen it.  With a regular pencil, it interrupts your work time because you always have to sharpen it.  Also, when you sharpen your pencil, all the pencil shredding comes out and it makes a HUGE mess.  Finally, the sharpener is very disturbing and you can’t focus.

Furthermore, mechanical pencils are very comfortable.  In fifth grade, we do a lot of writing so we need our fingers to be comfortable.  In addition, a mechanical pencil is much easier to write with on tests.  Finally, with a regular pencil, your fingers slip and get sweaty.

My last reason is that mechanical pencils look cooler than regular pencils.  First, they have twisting erasers and they last longer than regular pencils.  Second of all, there’s a button that makes the lead come out.  To add to that, mechanical pencils come in a variety of colors like neon and pastel.

As I’ve said, I think mechanical pencils are a better option for Manor school.  Mr. Richardson, I hope you will consider this as we think about supplies for next year.


Happy Opinion Writing!!

A Visit with Ms. Fleming: Part One

I walked into Ms. Fleming’s room ready to film her mini-lesson on “Getting to Know Our Characters” and I found myself happily distracted with her shared reading pieces that I saw hanging around the room.  So, since I’m procrastinating on editing the video, spending all my free-time on Amazon doing not-so local Christmas shopping, I thought I’d blast out a few quick tips on the Whys and the Hows of the the quick and high-yield instructional strategy called Shared Reading.

Why Shared Reading?

Shared Reading could easily be dismissed as a fluffy activity that gets past over for DEAR time or Popcorn Reading or, even worse, simply forgotten about all together.  Dust off that rickety coat rack turned chart-holder-with-good-intentions! Rev up that new I-pad projector!  Welcome Shared Reading into your classroom, I say!   Popcorn Reading and Round Robin Reading are DEAD, people.  Haven’t you heard?  Shared Reading is easy to implement and, once engrained into the daily routine, you’ll never look back…even you skeptical upper elementary and Middle School teachers.  Check out what the NY Times has to offer in the way of Shared Reading–FREE!

What is Shared Reading?

Shared Reading is one of those eight instructional practices that we as a District are moving towards implementing across the sites as we work on developing our RVSD Literacy Framework.  It is an instructional practice where students and teachers read and reread a text, often in chart, big book or projected form.  For the younger set, the purpose of shared reading is often FLUENCY & ENGAGEMENT, however, you can layer and extend a shared reading piece in myriad ways to do the following for EVERY age:

Model and teach the characteristics of a specific text-type or genre, like poetry, song, short non-fiction articles, short stories etc (3rd-5th graders, have you heard of StoryWorks Magazine?  A GREAT source for short non-fiction)

Model effective reading strategies (like close reading!) in a text that is accessible to all and then use text as the piece that all students produce a written response from (New York Times makes it easy and FREE here for 4th-Middle Schoolers)

Use as a contextual base for phonics work/sight words and/or comprehension skills and strategies like this:

or this:

Use as a way to introduce a paired text to parallel content (ie. a poem about Native Americans while you’re doing text book reading about the same topic)

No matter what text you are using for SHARED READING, the process over the week should be the same:

1.  The text should be large enough for all to see

2.  In lower grades, the text should be read and re-read throughout the week in JAZZY (more on that later) ways so that by Friday, even the low-progress readers can read it with confidence and fluency

3.  Ideally, the shared reading piece should be linked to content or word work or both!

Let’s check out the three types of SHARED READING that Ms. Fleming incorporates into her days, shall we?

1.  Morning message

2.  Interactive/Collaborative text

3.  Twin or Paired text


Ms. Fleming starts everyday with Shared Reading using a flexible approach called:  THE MORNING MESSAGE.  Here is one example of her Morning Message:

IMG_3089Ms. Fleming wrote it in letter format to familiarize her first graders with that text type.  She also incorporated her weekly sight words (your, they, make) and some sight words from last week (are, can, our).

Here’s another Morning Message from a different day:

IMG_3109Again, this was written in letter format with sight words written in red.  The Morning Message is read several times in CHORAL fashion to promote fluency and to engrain sight words.

Ways to JAZZ up that CHORAL practice:  All Boys Read!  All Girls Read!  Read it whisper!  Read it LOUD!  Read it in Song!  Read it like a rock star!  Read it in opera!  Call on students to read it as they transition from one activity to another!  Dramatic read with hand gestures and the like!  Watch these fourth and fifth graders read with dramatic engagement and comprehension playing “The Nutty Professor Reading Game”

Ways to Make the Morning Message Interactive:

Here’s another example right HERE of a Morning Message written with words and letters missing to make the experience more interactive and focused on spelling patterns.

Here’s an example of a interactive Morning Message in an upper grade classroom.

Here’s a GREAT blog for K/1st grade with all kinds of variations on Morning Message.


A second example of shared reading is a COLLABORATIVE TEXT that the students dictated and Ms. Fleming wrote.  Ms. Fleming uses the students who are having a birthday as the content:


Birthday students are interviewed by the class while Ms. Fleming “holds the pen” and writes.  As she writes, she models stretching words, writing using standard conventions etc.  This presents a model of writing for students while also demonstrating the act of writing and all the “noisy” work that goes into it.  This is a perfect example of a “WE DO” exercise in the gradual release model of instruction.

Ways to modify and extend collaborative text across the grades:

*Students retell or summarize a story orally (with teacher guidance) using sequence or transition words and teacher writes on chart or types up on I-pad as they go.  Use this as shared reading text all week.

*Whole class contributes to writing a narrative, opinion or informational text while teacher scribes, guides and projects on wall.  This can be used as shared reading AND a model for writing that you would expect students to produce on their own. (Gradual release…again.)

INTERACTIVE writing is where the teacher and student “share the pen” and the students physically contribute to the piece on the chart paper or sentence strip.  Yet another “WE DO” activity.  Here’s what it can look like (Sorry, Ms. Fleming, I can’t get your photo to upload):

Here’s another image where 5th grade students “share the pen” with each other to create a collaborative text-structure graphic:


One of the most efficient ways to intersperse the CCSS new thrust of non-fiction & poetry, in my humble opinion, is to incorporate it into the instructional practice of shared reading.  Ways to do this:

*Project a Scholastic News, Storyworks or NYTimes poem or article on the screen!  Read, re-read, close-read, compare/contrast, annotate!

*Project a POEM tied to a Social Studies, Science or current event theme!  Read, re-read, close-read, annotate, written response, compare/contrast!

*Project lyrics to a popular song and discuss the layers of meaning.  Seriously engaging for kids and any time you can intersperse pop-culture, go for it.  It’ll make you look cool, even if you’re not.

*If you’re old skool (like me), write a poem on chart paper each week, laminate, hang with circular brackets and, by year’s end, you’ve got fifty shared reading texts for the next year & you just flip them over each week.  Put it in a literacy center with some reading wands and you’ve got yourself a little Read-to-Self or Read-to-Partner activity.  Give it a little more punch by making a copy and putting it the homework packet each week for extra fluency practice.

Here’s some Poetry Links on-line that are some great resources for shared reading:

This has GREAT poems arranged by theme (for 1st,2nd and above):

Scroll through link below for some short but layered poems tied to themes:

Click to access Gr3Poetry_2.pdf

Georgia Heard has lots of great resources for poetry in the classroom:

Hubbard’s Cupboard Blog for great info on all elements of Balanced Lit for K/1st

How do you use SHARED READING in your classroom?  Any Balanced Literacy practices you’d like to showcase?  Email me!  Stay tuned for more from Ms. Fleming’s room!

The Marriage of ‘Complex’ and ‘Just Right’

With parent conferences fast approaching, our ability to explain how we negotiate, communicate and understand the instructional balance of exposure to “Just Right” books and complex texts might be called to the plate.

Why should students be reading “just right” books?  What is our rationale?  Are we labeling them and pigeon-holing them into leveled boxes or offering them a differentiated approach that builds foundational reading skills?  How do we also assure that our students can grapple with complex texts?  Outside of “book boxes”,  are we exposing our students to rich texts above their level;  books that offer up the rich vocabulary, layers of meaning and complicated plot structures that will propel them as readers;  make them love reading?  After all, shouldn’t that be the goal?

Recently, I was reminded of how careful we need to be when we explain to our readers and our families about this leveling system.  I was choosing books for an intervention student the other day.  She said, “Oh, that’s a J book.  I can’t read that.  I’m an H reader.”    I cringed.  Ugh.  Was I responsible for her thinking that?

NPR has a FANTASTIC four-part series on classroom vignettes of Common Core implementation and, specifically, the big changes in reading instruction.  The five minute piece RIGHT HERE explains how we should strive to achieve that balance of ‘just right’ and ‘complex’ so that our readers feel both motivated and confident to break out of their comfort “independent” level.  Listen to it (ready…GO!) while you’re making that copy or changing your words in the pocket chart or downing that sip of cold coffee from this morning.  I promise, it will make you pause and reflect on how you head into the next few months.

“No child ever learned to swim with his feet planted firmly on the bottom of the shallow end.”

“If you’re never teaching them complex stuff, they’re never learning complex stuff.”

Ideas for engaging ALL levels of readers in the “complex stuff”:

1.  Rich and engaging read-alouds that hook readers in and make them see reading as a worthwhile pursuit.  (I’m working on generating a list of these by grade level);  using these mentor-texts to model what proficient readers do and think while reading;  requiring that students respond, make claims, defend and think critically about these texts

2.  Whole class novels CAN work (Am I going to be stoned to death for this?) if we use them as the impetus for teaching vocabulary, higher-level thinking skills and accountable, academic discussions with peers and if they are not the ONLY form of reading that is happening in a mixed-ability classroom.  I think where whole-class novels go wrong is when we throw kids into the deep-end of reading over and over again and say, “Swim.”  Without floaties.

3.  Mixed ability groups or partnerships of readers that require that ALL students participate, collaborate, present, defend and create together.  Johnny “J level” in 4th grade needs to stand next to Joey “Z level” and see how he thinks and talks and reacts to books.  This is Vygotzgy’s  “Zone of Proximal Development”, where the synapses fire and learning occurs.  Much of the collaborative work that GLAD espouses is based on this principle.

4.  Hold kids and ourselves accountable for our teaching and their thinking by using formative assessments.  “Is my teaching sticky?”  Here’s a great list of creative, on-the-run, easy-to-implement formative assessments to get kids to demonstrate if they’re gettin’ it.

5.  Talk in sophisticated ways with students and they will feel (and act) in sophisticated ways.  I know that sounds simple, but, it sort of is simple.  Teach to the top and the others will rise.  The first part of that same NPR piece speaks to that.  Do you have five minutes?  Listen in.

How will you achieve the balance this year?  That’s a question I’ll be pondering over break too.


Mad Skills

I wanted to share some great work that the second grade team at WT is doing in regards to the “Foundational Skills” and “Language” Standards of the CCSS.  They’ve figured out a way to incorporate teaching the very specific mechanics, grammar & word knowledge that CCSS requires using a quick, daily approach called “Language Boards.”  It’s like the daily warm-up or D.O.L (daily oral language) of yesteryear.

IMG_2981 IMG_2982 IMG_2983

The Nuts and Bolts of Language Boards:

1.  Designate a spot on a whiteboard that can be used all year for your “Language Boards”

2.  Look through the “Language” and “Foundational Skills” sections of CCSS at your grade level.  Create “stems” for the standards.  “Stems” are what you see in the photos above in blue construction paper.  The “stems” stay the same all year, but the examples below (that students must work through) are what change daily.  For example, one of the first grade Language standards is:  Distinguish shades of meaning among verbs differing in manner (e.g., look, peek, glance, stare, glare, scowl) and adjectives differing in intensity (e.g., large, gigantic) by defining or choosing them or by acting out the meanings.  One could create a stem that says:  Draw a picture of these two words and think about how they are different.  Then, on Monday, the two words could be:  cry, bawl.  On Tuesday: glare, peek.  On Wednesday:  tiny, small.  For third grade, a Language standard is:  Form and use regular and irregular plural nouns.   A language stem for the year might be:  “Read this noun.  Write it’s plural form.  Is it regular or irregular?”

3.  All students have a “Language” notebook where they write their Language work down each day.  Mrs. O said that after six weeks or so, they may change some stems, add some stems etc. so that throughout the year, they cycle back and add new knowledge continually.  Having all the stems pre-made makes it easy to see which ones they’ve taught and which ones they still have left to teach.

4.  After 10-15ish minutes, teachers quickly review the answers as a group54.  Every now and again, as a formative assessment, teachers have students rip out a page from their Language Notebooks and use it to answer the all-important question:  Do they get it?  Is my teaching sticky?  

Why “Language Boards” Work:

1.  They take minimal preparation and can be used throughout the year.  This can be done at any grade;  you just need to look at your grade level standards (here) and modify to meet the requirements.

2.  They are quick.  No teacher should spend hours each day droning on about dangling modifiers or doing meaningless fill-in-the-blank activities that rarely translate to real reading or writing.   A quick shot in the arm (10-15 minutes) of grammar, mechanics and vocabulary is what “Language Boards” supply.

Who Needs Language Boards:

1.  According to CCSS, we all do!  Every grade level has a foundational skills section and a language section.  Look at them as your scope and sequence for teaching grammar, mechanics and word knowledge.  If you haven’t even ventured to these sidebars yet, I won’t tell anyone.  Promise.  These two sections of CCSS are a great guide for figuring out that ACADEMIC LANGUAGE that our students need to know, use, identify and understand.

2.  The structure of “Language Boards” assures that we teach all of our grade level standards by year’s end.  I’m a huge fan of writer’s workshop, but sometimes the nature of “mini-lessons based on student need” can mean that we never actually dig deep into what adjectives are or how to divide up words into syllables or the power of verbs.  “Language Boards” occur, then, outside of the workshop framework, although the skills should translate into real writing.  A great way to use “Language Boards” is during transition times like:   first thing in the morning, right after lunch or following recess.

2.  ELLs benefit greatly from explicit instruction in the way our language works.  Recently, I asked a second grade EL student what a verb was.  Stumped, he tentatively replied:  “A, E, I, O, U?”  Hhhmm, Verb/Vowel…I got the confusion.

To address these common confusions and misunderstandings, the new ELD standards, which are aligned with CCSS, suggest that we layer our teaching with “language objectives”.   For example, if you’re teaching about character traits, motivation etc., then teaching the academic language of ‘adjectives’ (sneaky, shallow, confident, verbose) would be a natural “language objective” for that lesson.  If you’re teaching about making your writing flow in sequence, then a perfect “language objective” might be on ‘transitional words/phrases’.  Check out a great list of common transitional phrases for narrative writing here.    A 4th/5th grade teacher in SF had these great charts posted in her room so her mixed language learners could refer to it while working on their writing and reading:

IMG_2464 IMG_2465

So, if we want our students to write with more clarity, specificity and detail, then knowing what these words in our language are called will help our students be able to manipulate them in their writing.  Additionally, understanding the ‘shades of meaning’ around words and the reasons why authors choose certain words, is going to aid in student comprehension and inferencing skills.

If you’d like the second grade stems, please email me!  The WT team gave them to me and would be happy to pass them along!

“Just Right” is the buzz around here.

One of the shifts that’s been kicking up some dust around here is the organizing, leveling and genre categorizing of our classroom libraries to make way for Reader’s Workshop with even our youngest of students.  Check out Ms. L’s Kinder library over at HV:

IMG_2813 IMG_2812 IMG_2811 IMG_2810 IMG_2809 IMG_2808 IMG_2807


How about Ms. M’s 5th grade room at WT:


As many folks start to become more adept at administering Running Records using Fountas and Pinnell’s Benchmark Assessment System (Do you know your grade level benchmark for the upcoming report card period? Take a look at this handy-dandy chart as a guide), people are eager to get the “just right” levels of books in their classrooms that support their varied readers.

Why Create a Leveled and Genre-organized library?

If you support the idea of “meeting students where they are”,  a foundational belief that Balanced Literacy is grounded in, then a classroom library that is accessible for all is a means to that end.  Additionally, if you’re considering implementing Reader’s Workshop into your practice, then a burgeoning and well-organized library is the key for supporting engaged and independent readers.  Check out the comments that WT 2nd grade team has made in regards to using their classroom libraries to launch Reader’s Workshop:

“Kids are reading more and are more engaged!”- N.F.

“Kids are more self-aware of just right levels!” – M.O.

“It’s fun to bring in our own reading lives!” – C.H.

The second grade teachers at WT have just finished up their first “Launch Unit” of Readers’ Workshop.  On Monday, they’ll embark on their second unit called “Investigating Characters”.  Where did they get their user-friendly, easily digestible, day-by-day lessons?  Right here on Teachers Pay Teachers.  It appears that you can get most, if not all, Lucy units on this site, a la ‘Cliff Notes’ style (We love Lucy’s, but they’re a bit, er, text-heavy for our harried teaching lives, no?)  You can also find the K-5 Writing Units distilled into one-page mini-lessons.

Over at HV, Kinder teacher Ms. L says that she’s never had kinder students so engaged by books (even if they’re just moving their finger along the page and inventing the story) so early on in the year.  She’s been getting them motivated by talking about reading stamina.  They’re up to 15 minutes of engaged, independent, quiet reading and they’re only five and six!  Check out this cool bar graph that first grade HV teacher, Ms. G, did to get her students motivated to read long like real readers!  Lucy talks about stamina and there’s some great “launch” mini-lessons from the Daily Five book in the “Read to Self” chapter.


How Does a Leveled and Genre-organized library move me towards implementation of CCSS?

CCSS demands that students “read widely”  and “read from a balance of fiction and informational texts” and that they do so with greater independence than was required in the past.  One way we can meet these demands is to create a daily structured time for independent reading in our “just right” books.  Obviously, organizing the library is but the first step.  Next comes thoughtful mini-lessons, coaching, conferring, small groups and formative assessments grounded in the books that students are reading.  All fodder for future blog posts!

How does a Leveled Library Meet the Needs of all Learners?

For some English Language Learners, reading grade level texts can be challenging.  Very often ELs don’t have the English supports at home and/or lack the structural, visual and context cues in a text due to unfamiliarity with the English Language.  For ELs, then, having books at their level in the classroom will lower their affective filter, give them the fluent practice that they need and allow for input to be more comprehensible.

We all have had (or currently have) the kid whose reading is so off the charts, he/she is bored and unchallenged by grade level curriculum.  A leveled library where students are offered choice meets the needs of these high-achievers as well.  Harry Potter at age five?  If that’s your “independent” level, have at it!

Yeah, yeah…well, what about Middle School (or 4th and 5th graders)?

Check out this post on Edutopia about combining choice, leveled books and blog writing to engage students and create “a community of passionate readers.”  When students have a sense of agency in their reading and feel their task is purposeful, reading really can become revolutionary.

How do I Create a Leveled and Genre-organized Library?

1.  Beg, borrow and steal books from garage sales, book drives, parent donations, DonorsChoose grants, Scholastic Book Clubs, library discards and anywhere and everywhere you can get your hands on them.  Another great resource is the Children’s Book Project on 43rd Avenue in San Francisco where you can have 75 FREE books for each visit!  Limitless visits!

2.  Use these resources for leveling:

*Go to and click on Book Wizard.  Type in the title of the book and it will often give you the GR (guided reading) level.

*Use this tome by none other than Foutas and Pinnell which offers a comprehensive list of leveled titles, K-8.

3.  I read somewhere that a classroom library should be 1/4 leveled with 3/4 organized around genre and interest bins.  Some great bins of books that I’ve seen around the District are:  Our Favorite Series Books, Graphic Novels, Historical Fiction, Biographies, Author Study bins, Poetry and Song, Earth and Space, Dinosaurs, Things that GO, How-to Books, Our Favorite Characters, Our Favorite Read-a-louds, & Books that make us weep or laugh.

If your classroom library has been at the forefront of your teaching for years or if you’re a newbie in utilizing it as a way to promote engaged, independent and “just right” reading, please leave your comments below!  Also, who’s willing to showcase a library or have me video you in a mini-lesson?  Reply below!

What questions, concerns, instructional practices etc. would you like to see addressed on this site?  Next up will be:  Demystifying the mini-lesson!

Coming clean

Having a job that gives me District access to many teachers and classrooms has turned me into an instructional kleptomaniac.  I’m serious.  I blame YOU, talented RVSD teachers, for my thieving habit.  Each time I enter a classroom, I unconsciously grease my palm and, before I know it, I’ve got management tricks, instructional tidbits and creative trinkets of CCSS and balanced literacy implementation spilling out of bulging pockets.  For fear of being caught and to clear my fretting conscious, I’m coming clean.

RVSD teachers, my name is Kelly Eyler.  And for the past year and a half, I have been robbing you blind!

So, welcome to my new RVSD Blog.  Selfishly, a place for me to own up to my habit and, altruistically, a place for YOU to become inspired by the fabulous teachers and the inspiring youth that surround you.

My hope is that this blog can help us all.  For me, I’m hoping this outlet will allow me to be more visible to folks across the District in a more impactful way;  And for you,  I hope it becomes a resource for ideas and professional development as we move towards aligned literacy practices and digging deeper into Common Core.  The goal for this site is to:

Highlight differentiated practices within Balanced Literacy that benefit English Learners & every learner

Support the implementation of the Common Core District-wide through an ELD lens

Showcase instructional practices across the District that support CCSS and Balanced Literacy

I’ll be sending out a post each week (or so) that features teachers, practices and ideas straight from RVSD sites as well as links to professional articles, videos and blogs that support our work at RVSD.

Fear not, for if I have stolen an idea or snapped a photo or taken a video of you, I will always ask your permission to be featured.  In addition, I will be welcoming any ideas that you might have for blog topics that you think will help us all in moving forward with CCSS, Balanced Literacy and supporting every learner.