Happy Birthday to Me…..and to You!



June is my birthday month!  For the first time in my life, I will be in school on my birthday (June 23), which isn’t as fun as being off.  So, to celebrate my birthday, I have decided to dedicate the month of June on my blog to a big celebration.  What does that mean for you?  Giveaways!

Stay tuned for lots of giveaways in the coming weeks!  The first two will start this week!!!

Happy Birthday to me!


What Do You Want to Know- Question #4

Great question from Susan Dee today!

I teach a 4th/5th grade looping class using the workshop model. In the fall I will return to 4th grade to begin a new loop. My biggest frustration has been around grading! We use the traditional A-F system. Any ideas for making it easier???

I addressed this a little in Question #2 earlier in the week.  I also use the traditional A-F grading system in my district and I have managed to infuse it into my reading/writing workshop.    How do I manage this?  Rubrics!  Lots and lots of rubrics.  

I grade almost all assignments using a rubric.  Rubrics make teachers’ expectations clear and show students how to meet those expectations.  From projects to letter-essays, my students know exactly what I am looking for and how I will be grading the assignment.  And the rubrics allow me room to assess each student on an individual basis.  

Because I grade using rubrics, I usually end up with scores like “34/42”.  I do not convert these to an A-F grade.  Instead, I use a point system throughout the marking period.  Each assignment is worth a specific number of points (derived from the rubric) and I put the points a student earns in my grade book.  At the end of the marking period, I add up the points a student earned and divide it by the number of points they could have earned.  That number is then their marking period average!  For example, a student who earned 178 points out of a possible 205 would receive an 86.8% for the marking period.  This would be a B in my district.  

I also like the point system because it allows me to weight certain assignments.  The homework grade is always worth 50 points, projects/tests are worth more than 50 points (usually closer to 100 points and sometimes even more) and quizzes are worth less than 50 points.  Yes, I even grade tests out of points!  For me, this is the most accurate way to reflect the work my students do.  

I hope this helps!


I was on a 7:33am train this morning, heading to New York.  By 8:45am I was strolling down 34th St., headed towards the Javits Convention Center.  It was an exhausting but fulfilling day.  BEA was huge and overwhelming, but here are a few of the highlights:

  • At 9:40am I asked a Scholastic rep where they would be disseminating the Catching Fire (The Second Book of the Hunger Games) at 10am. She pointed off in the distance and said, “They’ve formed a line over there.” “Over there” turned out to be a huge line, wrapped around one whole side of the convention center! But it was well worth it when I was handed my copy of Catching Fire (The Second Book of the Hunger Games). 🙂
  • At 10:20am I made my way over to the Traditional Autograph signing area. Imagine my surprise when I saw that the line for Sarah Dessen was just as long as the line I stood in for Catching Fire!  But again, so worth the wait.  Sarah Dessen was a complete sweetheart and I got my class an autographed copy of Along for the Ride
  • While waiting in line for Sarah Dessen, I struck up a conversation with the nice girl behind me, who worked for HarperCollins.  She actually knew and recognized my blog!  That was pretty darn awesome!!
  • Scored an ARC of Kristin Cashore’s Fire. Stumbled upon it in the Penguin booth and it was like Christmas morning!
  • Lots and lots of books!  The Bloomsbury Walker booth had tons of ARCs, which was great.  I loved meeting the reps from Egmont, which seems like a fantastic new publisher on the scene.  And did I mention books?!

Now, I am completely drained and exhausted.  I walked around with two tote bags and a backpack full of books all day.  Needless to say, I am sore and tired!  But what a great day!  I just wish I could have stayed longer and met more authors and bloggers!  I am sad I missed out on Maggie Stiefvater, Laini Taylor, Jane Yolen, Kristin Cashore, and so many more!!!!

What Do You Want to Know- Question #3

Today’s question is from Deanna…..

 I have a few questions. Would you share with us your curriculum map? Also, I have heard of teachers who combine their reading and writing workshop conferences together, just meeting once but discussing both reading and writing. Have you ever done that? What do you recommend? One last one…how long do your students silent read each day?


I’ll take these one at a time. 🙂

My curriculum map changes every year.  This is my fourth year teaching, so I am still experimenting with what works best.  And next year I will changing from 2 classes at 2 hours each to 4 classes at 1 hr each.  This means my curriculum map will change again!  But in reading, I begin the year with my own modified version of the Fountas and Pinnell first 20 days of reading. I also use the first month to set the tone in reading workshop, as my students have not experienced it before. Then, I read Tuck Everlasting near the beginning of each year. I use this unit to teach my students how to annotate a reading (inspired by Monica Edinger!).  And around April/May, we read The Devil’s Arithmetic as part of our Holocaust unit. Holocaust education is part of our district’s mission, so it is taught at every grade level.  Oh, and I teach literary essays (using Calkins’ Units of Study) as a reading unit, usually around December.

Other than that, I teach a lot of mini-lessons, based on the needs of my students. Comprehension Connections: Bridges to Strategic Reading and Strategies That Work: Teaching Comprehension for Understanding and Engagement have been lifesavers for me.  I base my mini-lessons on our read-alouds, which change from year to year.  Right now, we are studying Greek mythology while reading The Lightning Thief as a read-aloud. This also ties in to the social studies curriculum.

In writing, I am also still experimenting.  This year I taught the following units of study:

  • writer’s notebooks
  • personal narrative
  • friendly letters
  • persuasive business letters
  • personal essay
  • research papers
  • poetry
  • multigenre research papers


For the second question, I already talked a bit about my conferencing routines here.  I do not combine reading and writing conferences, because many of my reading conferences are informal!

As for silent reading; it’s the building block of my reading workshop!  At the beginning of the year, I spend a lot of time building up my students’ stamina. We begin with as little as 5 minutes of independent reading time each day, adding a few more minutes in each consecutive class.  By the middle of the year, I devote an average of 10-20 minutes each day to independent reading.  Some days, we read even more!  Plus, I train my students to pick up a book any time they have a free second.  Their novels travel with them from class to class, so they frequently read when they finish in-class assignments.  Some of them even read on line in the hallway!  But I do not skip silent reading unless it is absolutely necessary.  If I don’t make time for independent reading, why should my students?

I also model during silent reading, by reading myself.   I often spend some of the time helping students choose books or conferencing, but I make sure my students see me reading a few times each week, too.  It’s a great example to set, showing them how reading is such an integral part of my life.  Plus, the books I read are always picked up as soon as I add them to the bookshelf, because my students trust my opinion.  Plus, they spend a few days staring at the cover while watching me read and react, so they are usually dying to read the same book!  Once they finish a book we have both read, we have fantastic conversations.

I am still working on a schedule for next year, when my classes will be 55 minutes long.  No matter what, I will make time to read silently.  And to read aloud.  It’s just going to be a tight squeeze with the time crunch.

What Do You Want to Know- Question #2

Christy asks,

I teach 5th grade reading/language arts. What types of activities and assignments do you take grades from?

First, let me explain that I teach using the workshop method, but I do not teach in a workshop-based school.  We grade on an A-F scale, and I am expected to assess my students on this scale.  However, I have managed to modify assignments and grading to make it work for me.

I should begin by pointing out that I grade on a point scale.  Each assignment is worth a specified amount of points.  At the end of the marking period, I add up the amount of points a student received and divide it by the number of points a student could have achieved.  This works well for me, because I use a lot of rubrics.  It also allows me to easily weight assignments.  

Now, my reading assessments are varied.  As I have explained previously, my students are responsible for one letter-essay every 3-4 weeks.  These letter-essays are assessed on a 1-4 scale, using a rubric.  Each student hands in 3 letter-essays each marking period.  I also do a lot of reader’s response and metacognitive response work.  For example, my students just finished their Holocaust/WWII book clubs.  Each book club was responsible for answering 4-6 essential questions from the unit, using knowledge from their book selection.  This was worth 50 points.  Then each individual was responsible for a reader’s response activity that focused on theme (adapted from Day-to-Day Assessment in the Reading Workshop: Making Informed Instructional Decisions in Grades 3-6).  Each question was worth 10 points on a rubric.  Together, this was added up for a 100 point grade in my gradebook.  This is just one example of an assessment I use.

I do give traditional tests and quizzes.  Vocabulary is tested using quizzes and the points earned are added to my grading book.  And while I don’t do whole-class novels often, I don’t dispose of them completely.  At certain points during the year I do give traditional comprehension tests on novels.  I try to only do this 1-2x each year, because I use so many other assessments.  However, my students need to know how to take traditional comprehension tests in order to survive middle school and high school.  I also try to use these tests to assess their writing.  For example, I include essays and literary essays after we finish those units of study.  It helps students to realize the link between reading, writing, and the content areas.

Finally, we do projects!  These are always graded with a rubric.  Always.  I DO NOT do book reports.  Please, don’t assume project=book report.  Instead, we do activities related to our unit of study.  For example, our current read-aloud is The Lightning Thief and we are studying mythology in class. (This goes hand-in-hand with their current social studies unit). Most recently, my students did a project where they modernized a Greek god/goddess. They drew a picture of their modernized god/goddess and wrote a modern myth about them. One student explained the war in Iraq as the result of a fight between Ares and Hades. Another wrote about Poseidon causing Hurricane Katrina. It was awesome! They got to have fun and be creative with art, reading, and writing and I had a great assessment.

Hopefully, this helps explain my assessments.  It’s hard to boil it down into a blog post, so please comment if you need any clarifications or have more questions!

Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

A few weeks ago I came home to find an envelope from Scholastic on my porch. I opened it and let out a little yelp of joy, as a copy of Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver fell into my hands. I had just mentioned here how much I wanted to read it but figured I would have to wait until its publication in August.  First of all, the cover design is absolutely gorgeous- a stark design of blue and white.  And now that I have read Shiver, I can attest that Stiefvater’s writing is even more beautiful than the cover.  Lyrical, yet stark at appropriate times, her subtle characterizations will leave you in tears.

Sam lives a double life- one in the warmer months of summer and one in the winter.  During the warmer months of spring and summer  he’s human.  But when the cooler temperatures of winter begin to chill the earth, he shape shifts into a wolf for the winter.  Each year that he changes, his time as a human becomes shorter and shorter.  Sam knows that eventually he will remain a wolf forever, leaving behind all of his human emotions and attachments.  But through it all, human or wolf, he watches and loves Grace, the girl who sits on her swing and doesn’t shy away from his stare.

Grace loves the wolves that run through the woods behind her house; some people might even say she’s obsessed.  And this is despite the fact that she was attacked by the wolves as a young child, dragged into the woods and almost killed.  However, she was saved by a wolf with striking yellow eyes. She watches and loves him, never understand why she’s filled with such longing for what she sees as “her” yellow-eyed wolf. When she meets Sam, a boy with those same striking yellow eyes, she is immediately drawn to him.  As impossible as it seems, she knows he is her wolf.  Her savior.  And her obsession.

Soulmates, they know they are meant to be together.  But Sam knows that their time together will come to an end.  He knows this is his last summer.  What are they willing to do for the chance of more time together? 

Maggie Stiefvater may be one of the best writers I have ever read when it comes to creating chemistry between two characters.  The love between Grace and Sam is palpable between the pages of the book.  The story is told by both Grace and Sam, making it even more magical. Stolen glances, brushes against each other, and silent looks of longing create a love between a girl and werewolf that is completely believable.  In fact, Sam and Grace may surpass Bella and Edward when it comes to forbidden love!  But unlike Bella, Grace is a solid, strong heroine.  And Sam is human and flawed, though he sometimes may seem perfect to Grace.

This is a romance for the ages- poetic, lyrical, soft, bittersweet, and full of longing.  Stiefvater is a gifted writer and I fully admit that she had me sobbing at points during the story.  I can’t believe that I have to wait until 2010 for the next book in the series!  

 But the true sign of a book that will be a huge hit?  One of my girls was paging through the book when she saw it on my desk.  She begged me to loan it to her and I said I couldn’t, not until I finished reading it.  Today, I was reading the last 10 pages during our independent reading time, while she sat and stared at me, willing me to finish.  I handed my ARC over and within minutes she was gushing about how amazing the first 3 chapters are.  I fully expect her to come in tomorrow with the book finished, and I know she’ll be raving about it to all of her classmates!

What Do You Want to Know- Question #1

I’m so excited that my last post received so many comments!  I will be answering everyone’s questions over the next few days.

The first question is from Mary:

I teach 4th grade in a self-contained GATE class. I also teach Language Arts through a workshop format and I struggle to find enough time in the day to meet with each student at least once a week. How do you address this issue in your classroom? Right now, I meet with groups of students on a rotating basis and check their notebooks and chat about their books, but I’d love to hear other ideas!

I have to be honest here- conferencing is the weakest part of my workshop.  Right now, I teach two classes for 2 hrs each, but I have to cover reading, writing, spelling, grammar, and vocabulary in that time.  I combine as much as I can, but I still feel crunched for time.  (Don’t remind me that next year I will have 4 classes for 1 hr each!)  But I do conference with my students as much as possible.  I talk with my students about their reading constantly.  Some of these conversations are informal- on the lunch line, at the end of the day, during homeroom are just some examples.  But I do document anything I learn during these conversations.   A conference is a conference, right?

The best decision I ever made was to use letter-essays in my reading workshop.  About 3 months into the year, I teach a writing unit of study on literary essays.  Upon completing the unit, my students are assigned letter-essays.  Once a month, they write me a friendly letter about the novel they are reading or have just completed.  The letter-essays force them to think metacognitively about their reading and their book selection.  I have about 50 students this year, with about 10 letter essays due each week.  My morning class is due on Tuesdays and my afternoon class is due on Thursdays.  This allows me time to write back to each student without becoming overwhelmed.   I learn so much about their reading and thinking through these letters that it is well-worth the time I spend on them.  It does take a lot of training at the beginning, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.  And the letter-essays are graded on a 4-point rubric.  This way, I have an assessment for my grade book, too.  

Before learning how to write letter-essays, my students fill out a brief reading log reflection after independent reading in class.  I do this in the beginning of the year while they are building their stamina and I am getting to know them as readers.  Plus, I can tie the mini-lesson into the reflection, which my administration prefers.  This way I have tangible evidence of learning during independent reading.  Once my students move to letter-essays, they can work on those during independent reading time- some of them use post-its, some write in the margins, some take notes.  It’s all a part of fostering their independence before moving to middle school.

As for writing workshop, I meet with students about once per week, unless they request to see me more.  My conferences are usually brief and I don’t always teach a skill/concept during this time.  But I do discuss their writing, how they are feeling about their writing piece, and any major revisions/edits I might see.  To be honest, I spend  a lot of my conference time helping kids through writer’s block and anxiety.  My students haven’t had a lot of workshop experience and by 6th grade they tend to hate writing.  I spend a good portion of the year building their confidence by complimenting what they are doing well in their writing.  So far, it’s working great for me!  Most of my students this year have improved by leaps and bounds.  It almost makes me wish I could loop with my kids to 7th grade.  Almost. 😉

I hope that answers your question, Mary!  I apologize for not being a better conferencer in my workshop!

What Do You Want to Know?

As readers of this blog know, I teach 6th grade language arts using a workshop method.  It’s not always easy, but I wouldn’t have it any other way!  Is there anything you are wondering about how I handle reading and writing workshop in my classroom?  If so, comment here and I promise to answer any questions!

Here, I Promise!

I’m still here…it’s been a hectic weekend, to say the least.  My grandmother ended up in the hospital and will be getting a hip replacement (hopefully) sometime tomorrow.  Needless to say, I’m a nervous wreck.  I know she’s stronger than me and will be beyond thrilled to finally be able to walk and get around without pain, but it doesn’t stop me form worrying.  I’ll have my cell phone out on my desk all day tomorrow.  

After visiting with my grandmother at the hospital this morning, I drove home to meet up with Chris.  We joined two of my friends from school and drove into the city for a taping of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.  We got to see a performance by the Beastie Boys, who were amazing but looked so old!  And more exciting?  We saw David Cook perform two songs!  It  was amazing to be in that small studio and to have David Cook right in front of us.  And man, can that man sing!  Plus, we got Magnolia Cupcakes afterward and got to take pictures with Jimmy Fallon and David Cook.  Well worth the trip and a great distraction.  

I didn’t get all the reading done that I wanted to this weekend, but I’m planning to read a lot this week.  I’ll need to take my mind off everything else going on.  Thank goodness for reading.

Oh. My. Gods by Tera Lynn Childs

Our current class read-aloud is Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1). Always a big hit because of the adventure and “regular kid” protagonist, I am constantly on the lookout for similar books. And this year, my class has taken a special liking to Greek mythology and has been seeking it out on their own. When I read a recent blog review of Tera Lynn Childs’ Oh. My. Gods. I added to my next book order. The synopsis sounded like it might be a match for some of my girls who are enjoying Riordan’s work but also looking for something with a little more romance and girl power involved.  Tera Lynn Childs’ series fits the bill!

When Phoebe’s mother comes home from a vacation and announces that she is engaged to a Greek man and that they will be moving to Greece, Phoebe’s world is turned upside-down.  Before that moment, her entire life was planned out- she would earn a track scholarship to USC and attend with her two best friends.  Just like they have been planning since junior high.  Instead, Phoebe is suddenly whisked away to an island off the coast of Greece where she will be forced to exist for the next nine months.  Starting a new school in her senior year might just be the worst thing to ever happen to her.  Except for the fact that she is also stuck on a random Greek island, halfway across the world from everyone and everything normal in her life.

Stranded on some secret island in the middle Aegean Sea, she is forced to attend the super-exclusive (aka super-snobby) Academy, where her new stepfather is the headmaster.  Oh, and the kids who go to the school are a little different than her classmates back in southern California.  They just happen to be the descendants of the Greek gods. Yeah, those Greek gods.   Suddenly, her rock-solid plan of maintaining a B average, continuing her running/training, and getting the heck off this island in 9 months seems almost impossible.  Not to mention the fact that she now has to contend with an evil stepsister, who has superpowers, and the Grecian god she has a crush on, who just might be the biggest jerk in school.  

I loved this book and can’t wait to read the sequel, Goddess Boot Camp (Oh.My. Gods). The Greek mythology that is incorporated into the story includes minor gods and goddesses and not just the twelve Olympians that are focused on in Riordan’s series. I loved the mentions of Plato, Aristotle, and other famous ancient Greeks, too. My students are going to love the unrequited love story and the hunky guy Phoebe develops a crush on. This will make a great beach read for a lot of them this summer and I look forward to passing it on to them!