Monthly Archives: August 2015

Reading Level Insanity

“You’re not ready for Harry Potter #1, but you can check out Harry Potter #3.”

This actually happening. My neighbor relayed to my wife an almost tragic exchange between her third-grade son and the library clerk at a local elementary school. Her son had recently scored in the 700s on his Lexile test. During his next visit to the school library, he chose the first book in the Harry Potter series to try. When he approached the checkout counter, he was told his book choice was too high for his Lexile score, but he would be allowed to take the third book in the series.


And I say…Are you serious?!?

A flurry of thoughts jet into my head all at once; I’ll try to untangle them. First, this lacks any type of common sense. Why would anyone think starting with the third book in any series would actually help a student’s ability to comprehend? We would never suggest this with a movie series, but yet, we have educators who are so dedicated to reading levels they are blind to the importance of choice.

My second thought wonders, How prevalent is this? Is this an isolated case or is this happening all across our country? Are we so labeling kids with letter and numbers which can fit into a spreadsheet that we ignore what is best for them? Visiting the Lexile website, viewers are assailed with this disturbing image, suggesting kids are thrilled to be labeled with a number:


Finally, sadness takes over as I realize the Harry Potter #3 suggestion was made by a library clerk, not a media specialist. In schools across the country, media specialists have become the victims of budget cuts, and Harry Potter #3 suggestions are the outcome. This movement to eliminate media specialists began six to seven years ago in my area, and the consequences grow more visible every year. Aging collections nobody is caring for, overworked paraprofessionals not being paid enough for their time, and a lack of common sense with book suggestions affect our students as readers. We can only hope this trend is reversed soon.


Publishing Writing During the First Weeks of School

My fourth graders and I just finished the fourth week of school, and we celebrated their first pieces of published writing on Friday. Some teachers might argue this isn’t enough time to complete a unit, but I would suggest otherwise. Publishing early helps students understand the purpose of practice, the goal of the writing process, and the importance of sharing our work.

In our classroom, writer’s notebooks hold all of our writing practice. These are places the students can explore ideas and practice new skills learned during our mini-lessons. This practice helps students to grow and improve as writers. However, sometimes the students struggle to see the value in this. Having them take a seed from their writer’s notebooks and grow it into a published piece helps to give relevance to the work we do in our notebooks. When we return to working in these notebook next week, the students motivation to put forth a strong effort will increase.


Our first unit also defines the entire writing process for students. Students see the differences between pre-writing, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing. They understand why I don’t want them worried about spelling during the drafting stage (we’ll take care of that during editing) and why they shouldn’t play with fonts while revising (that comes when we publish). They also see the purpose of various pre-writing activities.


Finally, publishing teaches students the idea of an audience. Incoming fourth graders almost universally see writing as a school thing they do just for teachers to read. We want young writers to broaden this definition, sharing their work with other students, parents, and the world. Showing students this early in the year brings dividends later in the year. The idea that our writing will be seen by many people increases student motivation and effort. Here are my students sharing their work with another class:


You might be thinking, “My students aren’t ready,” or “Their writing isn’t good enough to publish.” You’re probably worried that their first published pieces won’t be “good enough.” My advice? Stop worrying about this! If you can get a published piece finished early in the year, you’ll see the benefits to students for the rest of the year. Good luck!

Don’t Meet With Small Groups…Yet!

Teachers know we want to meet with small groups of readers. We love it! We can’t wait to conduct group conferences about students’ independent reading books, introduce new books in book clubs, and try to nudge students up into the next reading level with guided reading groups. I even bought and read Jennifer Serravallo’s Teaching Reading in Small Groups this summer so I could continue to develop my small-group skills.

Unfortunately, we rush. Because we get so excited to meet with groups of kids, we often don’t establish the rest of our reading workshop. Then, our group meetings become harried; we’re rushing to get to too many groups, dealing with problems outside of the group, or being interrupted once or twice a minute.

My solution has been to build the stamina of my readers (fourth grade) before attempting any group meetings. We’ve had school now for two and a half weeks, and I’ve met with a total of zero groups. Instead, we have worked to improve our focusing ability so we can easily read for 30 minutes, with an extra ten minutes after that available for students to read e-books. We tracked this every day at the beginning of the year using this chart:


Now, as I begin to meet with groups during the next two weeks, students will be able to read independently. I don’t have to put together meaningless games, stations, and worksheets which have almost no reading, activities whose sole purpose is to occupy students’ time while I meet with groups. Instead, they will be reading books they love, and nothing helps create readers like time and choice.

Is it flawless? Of course not. I still have a few students struggling to build their reading stamina, and yes, we’ll have some other problems throughout the year. However, by waiting to start meeting with groups, we have been able to successfully establish a system that will work. When you look in my classroom, you will see readers reading.

Ten Books to Read Aloud During Community Circle

Community Circle is a wonderful time to share a quick book. When I choose a book to share at my fourth grade Community Circle, I’m looking for two criteria: I need it to be fairly short, and I want it to focus on a desirable trait I would like the students to develop. From respect to responsibility, these books can provide a common language to build character. Here are some of my favorites.


Have You Filled a Bucket Today? by Carol McCloud – Even at fourth grade, students still benefit from the metaphor in this book — everybody carries a bucket of good feelings. You can either be a bucket-filler, adding to others’ buckets, or a bucket dipper, trying to take from others. A great book I reference all year long.


Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson – What if the last thing you said to someone was something mean? What if you never had a chance to make it right? This book helps kids ask those tough questions.


Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes – A classic, but there is no book better for helping children understand the power words have.

big al

Big Al by Andrew Clements – In our classroom, we want students to be accepting and work well with all different types of students. This book can help spur a discussion about how we all have important things to offer.


Oliver Button is a Sissy by Tomie dePaola – This wonderful book often sparks a discussion of gender roles and how we don’t always fit into the categories we are supposed to. It’s also a great book to discuss supporting each other.


Just Kidding by Trudy Ludwig – Any book by Trudy Ludwig is excellent for a Community Circle, but this is my favorite. Upper elementary kids sometimes don’t realize there are different ways to be “just kidding,” and it’s not always a kind way to talk.


Say Something by Peggy Moss – At the beginning of the year, I make sure students understand what a bully is; most already know. What they don’t understand is the responsibility of a bystander. This book helps us develop that understanding.

tops and bottoms

Tops and Bottoms by Janet Stevens – So far, most of my list has focused on the life skills of caring and respect. We also want students to be hard workers and take the initiative to help themselves. This book is a great choice to begin developing this work ethic.


Stone Soup by John Muth – Teamwork is key in any classroom where students will be expected to work together. This book illustrates how together we can achieve more.


Shh! We Have a Plan by Chris Haughton – This is definitely the newest book on my list, but it is a perfect pair for Stone Soup. To be a productive team, we have to be open to others’ ideas. This hilarious book communicates this message.

Good luck with your Community Circles this year!