Sunday, September 17, 2017

Don't Skip Whole Group Instruction

Teaching using a guided math model does not mean you have to say good-bye to whole-group instruction. In fact, it's very important to start with a mini-lesson before you begin your small groups/math centers.

Here are some reasons why:
> You set a purpose for the day. Students will know the learning goal and will stay on task.
> You help build background knowledge. You can introduce vocabulary words students will interact with during their math centers.
> You can quickly see how well students have mastered the concept and adjust math groups as needed.

Let me share with you 4 ways you can start your math workshop block. This whole-group instruction should be no longer than 15 minutes. 

It is very important that you teach math vocabulary to your students. Not only will they see these words in math problems, but you should expect students to use these math words as they explain how they solve their math problems. 

Our math text book has vocabulary cards for students to use. If your textbook doesn't have this, you can have students create vocabulary flash cards using index cards. Students can also use part of their interactive math notebook to keep a list of math vocabulary words by topic. 

Other resources: has a wonderful illustrated vocabulary website. (Click here to view

Using Number Talks with students is a way for students to build mental math strategies. Number Talks are math warm up problems where students are asked to explain how they solved the problem in their head. Students are not to use pen and paper. It is the teacher's job to write down student thinking and guide students to use the strategies that are most efficient. 

Where can you get these math problems from? Some textbooks come with a daily math warm up problem you can use. You can also look through the practice problems from the day and pick a couple to complete before you start your guided math groups.

Other resources: is a math treasure that you will find very helpful. Click here to visit.

We are very comfortable thinking aloud as we read a story in order to show students how reading is an active process. Yet, we don't spend much time thinking aloud as we solve math problems. Teachers need to model the process that goes into solving a math problem. 

Teachers don't always have to do the thinking aloud. You can break up your class into groups of about 5 students. They solve the word problem together, and then you pick a couple of groups to share their thinking process. 

You can use word problems from your math textbook. I am also linking my math trifolds below. They are available for grades first, second, third, fourth, and fifth


I love technology, but sometimes it can be a big waste of time if you don't show students exactly what to do. You can use your 15 minutes of whole-group instruction to introduce and practice new technology activities. 

There are two main computer activities that we focus on in my classroom. My school bought each student an math subscription. You can show students which skills you want them to focus on and practice a few before they complete the assignment on their own.

I have recently created paperless math centers for students to complete during math workshop. These are digital, interactive math activities that are aligned to the common core standards. Teachers can easily assign these resources using Google Classroom or Microsoft 365. Below are links to the growing bundles for grades third, fourth, and fifth.


I hope you have found these suggestions helpful :)

Don't skip whole group instruction when using a guided math workshop model. Four example whole group instruction activities.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

5 Things to Do While Your Students Are Writing Independently

When your students are writing, how can you make the most of your time? Here are five ideas to impact your student writers.You've just finished teaching a writing mini-lesson to your class, and now you send them back to their seats to dive back into the drafts they've been working on this week.

You look at the clock.

You smile.

You've actually managed to keep your mini-lesson relatively "mini" today, which means your class has a nice chunk of time to write independently. You walk over to your desk and take a swig of your room-temperature coffee to celebrate the moment. Ahhhhh.

Now what.

What are you going to do?

It's easy to let this time slip away drinking room-temperature coffee "supervising." But you have this nagging desire to... well, teach. So how can you make a difference? How can you use this time, be it twenty-five minutes or five, to help students become better writers?

Here are five ways: 


Holding one-to-one writing conferences is powerful and a classic component to any writer's workshop model. Whether you keep a strict schedule and extensive records, or use a simple chart like the one started below, when you meet with an individual student about their writing, those focused couple of minutes can directly help that student become a better writer.
(Click to download the chart.)

I encourage you to meet students at their workplace to hold these writing conferences, as opposed to calling students back to a table where you remain. When you are the one who moves to the student, it has a few advantages. First, you are in control of transition time. If you want to  take a moment to record some notes, you can, but you are not waiting on any student to dilly-dally their way back to you.

Second, when you visit a student at his/her desk, you are the guest. I always felt like this dynamic gave the student just a tick more confidence than when he/she came into "my territory." And I want the student to feel confident and open about his/her writing. Though I will coach and suggest and offer guidance, I want the student to remain the decision-maker.

And third, when you confer at a student's desk, the students sitting nearby receive some "second-hand coaching," just by being there, giving you a little extra bang for your buck.


Especially if you've asked the class to try out the skill or strategy from your mini-lesson, doing a "quick-check" is a practical way to get a pulse of how well students were able to apply the new technique to their own writing.

Let's say your mini-lesson was about using transition words to help your writing flow. And you ended the lesson with, "Okay boys and girls, I want you to try using a few transition words today while you're writing." After students have had some time to write, interrupt the class and say, "Please put a star in the margin next to a transition word you used today. I'm coming around to check. I'm so excited to see them all."

Then take a marker and work your way around the room. I like to put a check mark in students' notebook to show I've seen their example. These aren't conferences. You want to get around to everyone in just 3-4 minutes. You're going to want to stop and help or coach some students, but instead, just make a list of students that could use some reteaching.

Sometimes the skill/strategy doesn't lend itself to marking a single word. You can also teach students how to put a bracket around a section of their draft that best shows their attempt at the skill/strategy... maybe it's a sentence or paragraph. This might take you longer to check through them, and you might want to have students stack their open notebooks (open to the page with their bracketed section) to look through after school.


Use patterns you notice from your writing conferences, or the list you made from a quick-check, to pull a strategy group.

Maybe you have a list of five students from yesterday's quick-check on transition words who could use some re-teaching. So today, while the class is writing independently, you pull these five students back to you with their writer's notebooks and you review the lesson again, and have them try it out right there with you.

Use strategy groups not just for reteaching and review, but also to push and enrich writers who are ready to make another jump.

With a strategy group, you get a lot of bang for your buck: you already know these specific kids need this specific instruction, and you're doing so in a group rather than one on one, thereby making efficient use of your time.


On certain days, try pulling three to four students back to a common table where you are sitting. Have them go about their writing with you nearby. These students could be some of your struggling writers, but they don't have to be. I actually prefer to bring back a mix of writers. (You'll see why in a moment.) In this set-up, you aren't there to teach a specific lesson (like a strategy group). You are there more to guide and coach individuals as needed.

I like to check in with each of the students at the table individually, getting a sense of what they are working on and offering guidance (similar to mini writing conferences), but as I'm doing so, I'm trying to find connections to the other writers I've brought back to the table. After this quick round of checking in, which doesn't last more than a few minutes, I then start initiating conversations between writers... "Hey Sarah, I noticed Robby here is working on his lead. He's trying to get the reader's attention a little better. Can you show him how you did yours? Robby, listen to Sarah for a minute." Or, "Hey Teddy, Max here has some dialogue going on with his characters. Will you show him that part in your story where you have some dialogue but also remembered to still explain what's happening around the characters?"

When you have a group of writers at hand, you can use them to facilitate these valuable interactions.


Having a couple of students share a strong example of a skill/strategy the class is practicing can be a productive way to wrap up your writing block. In order to to this, be proactive during students' independent writing time: search out and find a few of these examples and mark them with a certain symbol, maybe a little speech bubble in the margin of their notebooks, with a bracket around the section to share. As you look, be sure to gather a sense of the overall success the class had applying the skill/strategy (or combine with a more official quick-check).

With a couple of minutes left, have the marked students share with the class just the small section that applies the skill/strategy.

Often when we ask the class if anyone would like to share their writing, it's like opening a whole can of worms that is unfocused and lasts too long. With this technique, you get a productive couple of minutes that helps tie straight back to the focus of the day's lesson.

*   *   *

One of the most common issues that can prevent you from using independent writing time to really make a difference with your student writers is this sentence... "Teacher, I don't know what to write about." These story starters can eliminate that issue. They use engaging prompts paired with compelling photos. And they are anything but ordinary. Try a set for free HERE, or check out my monthly sets HERE.

For more reading and writing ideas, come visit me at my blog, The Thinker Builder. And while you're there, be sure to sign up for my FREE newsletter, and receive a mini-pack of my response pages as my gift to you!

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Teaching about Themes in Literature

Let's face it... teaching about themes in literature is hard! It's so difficult, in fact, that teachers don't seem to have a unified approach to teaching it. If you do a quick search on Pinterest, you will soon realize that there seems to be two approaches. Some teachers teach their students that the thme should be stated in one word (honesty, friendship, etc.), while other teachers stress that the theme should be stated in a complete sentence.

I struggled with this for years, constantly second guessing whether I was teaching it "right". I finally decided that I needed to choose an approach and be consistent. I chose to embrace the "complete sentence" philosophy because it appeared to best match my state's standards. 

Last year, I ran across this blog post by Bonnie of Presto Plans that made me feel more confident in my decision... but it also challenged my thinking a bit! I realized that I was guilty of confusing the MORAL of the story with the THEME at times. Bonnie has a fabulous chart that illustrates the differences between main ideamoral, topic, and theme. These words are often confused when teaching students about themes in literature. 

Now that you know a little about my "journey" with teaching theme, let me share a few of my favorite tips and activities for teaching upper elementary students about themes in literature!

Are you teaching upper elementary students how to identify the theme of a piece of literature? This blog post features FREE posters, an anchor chart idea, and five helpful tips!

1.  Use the cupcake analogy.

I use a PowerPoint lesson to introduce students to this analogy on Day 1 of my theme unit, and refer to it constantly. My students have always responded extremely well to it!
Teach your students how to identify themes in literature with the cupcake analogy! This blog post contains FREE posters, an anchor chart idea, and five helpful tips!

2.  Use a guided question to help students get started. 

This guided question is the one that I have found works best: 
"What does the author hope the reader realizes after finishing this story?"
Also, allowing students to brainstorm the answer to this question with a partner can be extremely helpful when this topic is first introduced.

3.  Search out lots of examples of theme statements.

Some students struggle with writing theme statements because they tend to be a bit abstract. Therefore, it's important to read many theme statements with students in order to get a "feel" for their abstract nature. Click on the following images to download these free posters
Themes in Literature... TWO FREE Posters full of common themes!    Themes in Literature... TWO FREE Posters full of common themes!    
Notice that the word "selfishness" is underlined on the first poster. I point out to my students that any number of negative traits can be written in place of "selfishness". Therefore, these are a few more theme possibilities:
  • Dishonesty can lead to negative consequences.
  • Laziness can lead to negative consequences.
  • Rude behavior can lead to negative consequences.

4.  Read aloud picture books, and work together as a class to identify the themes hidden within the books.

My go-to author for this concept is Patricia Polacco! Her books are so beautifully written, and always contain a theme that is relatively easy to pick out!
When teaching students how to identify themes in literature, be sure to use Patricia Polacco's books! This blog post contains many tips for teaching theme.

An A From Miss Keller: Facing challenges can help you grow.
                                        Challenges can be overcome with hard work and patience.
                                         Value your friendships.
My Rotten Red-Headed Older Brother: Families face adversity together.
                                                                Family members are there for you when life gets messy.
Mrs. Katz and Tush- Friendship can come in forms you might not expect.

5.  Create a tool for future reference.

Theme is a topic that you will be referring to throughout your school year. If you're like most upper elementary teachers, when you finish reading a book with students, you'll take a moment to decipher the book's theme(s). Therefore, it is helpful for many students to have some sort of tool they can reference. My favorite tools that allow for future reference are anchor charts and interactive notebook entries. Below, you will see my theme anchor chart.
Theme Anchor Chart, plus tips on teaching students how to identify themes in literature. FREE posters, too!

Click on this image to hop over to my blog and download this free interactive notebook entry.

Is teaching students to identify the theme of a piece of literature one of your yearly objectives? If so, be sure to check out my THEMES BUNDLE! It even contains my lesson plans that shows how I have organized this particular unit for my own students.
Teach your students how to identify themes in literature with the cupcake analogy! This bundle contains several ready-to-go resources for upper elementary students!

Thanks for stopping by today! 

Pin for later:
Are you teaching upper elementary students how to identify the theme of a piece of literature? This blog post features FREE posters, an anchor chart idea, and five helpful tips!

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Our Favorite Resources For the New School Year

Here on the Upper Elementary Snapshots blog, we're always working hard to bring you the best teaching ideas and resources for upper elementary! This post is all about our most highly-rated resources for the school year. Read more about us here, and then check out our recommended resources below!

Classroom Management & Growth Mindset

When you're starting a new school year, classroom management is always on your mind! We have some wonderful resources to help your students grow into hard workers this year!

As a classroom teacher you are under constant scrutiny by administrators, parents, and the general public. How you manage your classroom impacts not only your students' academic growth and happiness, but also your teacher evaluations and in many cases your pay and job security.

A poorly managed classroom results in avoidable behavior problems, decreased motivation, general feelings of stress and uneasiness and lost time on task. Investing the time to sharpen your classroom management skills, implement strategies and tools to streamline management tasks and developing routines and strategies to ensure your classroom "runs itself" will be greatly rewarded in countless ways. The CLASSROOM MANAGEMENT BUNDLE is jam-packed with ideas, tools and resources to make you a highly-effective teacher! 

I like to start the year with discussions about the importance of having a growth mindset because it sets a positive tone for the new school year. I also like to be able to quickly refer back to growth mindset concepts at various points during the school year, like when we begin a new unit that is particularly challenging. 

This 85-slide PowerPoint is designed to introduce your students to 5 major components of growth mindset beliefs. Along with the PowerPoint, it contains lesson plans for 5 days, directions on how to split the PowerPoint into 5 lessons, PowerPoint companions, and 5 worksheets your students can complete each day after going through the PowerPoint slides.

Customize the perfect agenda for your students this school year! The One Stop Student Binder will teach students the important skill of staying organized all year long. Includes weekly agendas, calendars, schedules, progress sheets, data tracking and more.

With this purchase, you will get FREE updates for LIFE!!! This student binder is currently dated through July 2018. As I update this product each year, or anytime in between, you will be notified, and be able to get all the updates for FREE! That means that this student binder can be used from year-to-year without ever purchasing a new one!

English Language Arts

Looking for help turning your students into quality readers and writers this year? We have ELA resources that are engaging and easy to implement!

The Complete Guide to Writing is a resource that  engages students in fun, meaningful writing prompts while teaching them the organization of these 5 types of writing. 

Teach Opinion, Informational, Explanatory, Personal Narrative, and Creative Narrative writing like a pro with this resource! Each unit includes teacher examples and all printable student organizers. Print out the pages you need, and you're all set to teach your students how to write incredible, well organized essays! This is great for 4th & 5th grade teachers that want to easily teach their students the writing process without having to spend hours planning each week.

It seems like every conversation I overhear my students having starts with, “Would you rather...”! I remember having the same conversations with my friends when I was in school! So, why not use conversations that students are already having and apply them to critical thinking, opinion writing, and collaborative discussions! 

This resource includes 16 Would You Rather prompts and comes in two formats: DIGITAL and PRINTABLE! Editable versions of each are also included!

These activities can be used in a variety of ways. They are a perfect way to get students interacting and getting to know each other. Students ponder each option, then write about and defend their choices. Next, students discuss their choices and reasoning, and write a final reflection. Students can discuss in pairs, small groups, or as a whole-class!

Starting the year with writing and continuing throughout the year is so important for our students. With this Month by Month Writing Prompts, Posters, and Graphic Organizers Bundle you are certain to keep your students motivated to write the entire year! Your students will enjoy the fun writing prompts inspired by unusual and offbeat holidays as well as traditional holidays. For each writing prompt there is a graphic organizer that can help your students learn how to plan and organize their writing. Colorful writing posters can be used to decorate your bulletin boards, walls, and writing prompt cards for each prompt will fit perfectly in any writing center.

This Step-By-Step SENTENCE STRUCTURE AND PARAGRAPH WRITING UNIT unit is loaded with teaching tools to give your students the foundation they need for sentence structure and how to form a strong paragraph! It is Common Core aligned with the CCSS listed on each anchor chart. You will find 116 pages in the teacher resource (including cover sheets and answer keys) and 67 pages in the student resource.

These 20 Reading Games for 4th/5th graders target key reading skills and are perfect for centers, for whole class, or for test prep. There are 10 Fiction Games and 10 Nonfiction Reading Games, which are engaging for students but very low prep, and easy to manage for the busy teacher.

Doodle notes present your students with a meaningful and engaging activity that they will love. Doodle notetaking activates verbal and visual modalities to capture concepts. The whole brain is absorbed in hearing, synthesizing, and retaining ideas. This high level of engagement not only helps with retention of the content, but it also leaves little room for distraction.

Critical Thinking & Innovation

It's difficult to incorporate 21st century competencies into your already jam-packed lessons! Check out our recommendations for incorporating creativity and innovation in the classroom.

Genius Hour is a time set aside during the school day for students to research something they are passionate about. By implementing this during the first month of school, your students become more engaged in learning and are excited to come to school each day to work on their projects. Give Genius Hour a try in your classrooms and watch student learning explode!

Put some meaningful morning work into your daily routine with these "Top 3 List" activities! Get students discussing engaging topics, creating lists, defending their choices, and analyzing their own and others' decisions, all in a clever format with little prep on your part. It's a great way to warm-up students' brains and get the morning started in a fun yet purposeful way. 

Geometrocity is a project based learning activity where students will take their geometry skills and design their own city. This multi-tiered activity allows for immediate differentiation because of the size, and students may complete parts or the entire project based on your choosing. This project doesn’t just focus on math skills, as there are components of social studies (mapping skills), writing, problem solving and comprehension skills too.

Students will be creating a city that uses 2D and 3D, practicing both plane and solid geometry. This project allows for students to practice and apply learned skills in geometry while problem solving and making decisions based on their own knowledge, creativity, and imagination. Students will utilize many types of geometric concepts such as nets to create buildings and structures, designing parts of a city with shapes, lines, angles, and incorporating multiple skills at the same time to reach their objectives.


Teaching math concepts in the upper grades can be a real challenge! These resources will help you get your students excited about learning math!

Fact fluency is so important because it frees our students up to better understand other math concepts like division. Many kids come to the upper grades without knowing their basic facts and what better way to have them practice but through games and educational play. This bundle is great because each pack contains the same 3 games for each fact. Once kids know how to play them, they can practice with any of the facts. Start the school year right, practicing multiplication facts.

Have you ever been told that you need to be implementing RTI for math? Do you know where to start? This is the reason I created the Standards based progress monitoring. Providing evidence of students learning is crucial. Progress monitoring will allow you to document student growth and make sure that the interventions that you administer are working. Everything you need to assess and track students is provided here.

Each of the Common Core Standards contain A LOT of little pieces. I broke these down into the pieces that my students needed to master in order to master the entire standard.

This resource is available for 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade!

Helping students realize that not all work comes easily is so important--so this collection of problems is geared toward helping them realize that struggling is ok, and working together can lead to new understanding, even when the answer isn't immediately evident.

What do you get? I start this unit with a number of lesson ideas and suggestions for how to get your students more engaged and self-reliant with their problem solving. I include photos from my classroom, learning posters that can be turned into anchor charts, rubrics, checklists, and more.

But what is really the heart of the unit is the 24 high level problems that will really test your students' ability to apply these new problem solving skills. Some of the problems have many solutions. Others are tricky to read and interpret. Others require them to simply "dig in" and start guessing and checking!

These math sorts are engaging activities that encourage math talk and are great for centers. Students explain how they sort their cards and build strong math concepts as they create cards of their own. Please view preview for more information and 7 FREE sorts.

What is Included?
- 80 sorts that review third grade math standards.
- Student Directions for Day 1 and Day 2 Activities
- Math Sorts Binder - Pages that list all math sorts, standard, topic, and small group lesson plan page for notes
- Dividers for Notebook - Students use these dividers to keep track of when they complete each math sort. The learning goals are also on each divider.
- An edited one sort per page version

Pin Me!

Sunday, September 3, 2017

5 Types of Context Clues to Boost Reading Comprehension

        One strategy which all good readers have in common, is the ability to use context clues effectively. When students encounter words they haven't seen before or words which they don't fully understand, context clues can help them problem solve to determine what a word might mean in that particular context. By directly teaching your students these five main context clues, they will have some of the tools they need to greatly increase their reading comprehension. 

Here's my anchor chart for Context Clues Types. I think anchor charts are great to help document learning and for kids to be able to reference concepts when needed.

The five types of context clues I like to teach can be remembered by the mnemonic LEADS. These include Logic, Examples, Antonyms, Definition, and Synonyms. I also introduce Word Parts (base words, prefixes, and suffixes) later on in the year, after we have had plenty of practice with Latin and Greek Roots.

1. Logic
To me, this is the very most important context clues strategy. Reading has to make sense, so when we come to a word we don't understand, we make inferences based on our prior knowledge and experiences (our schema) and based on the clues the author provides. Students are asked to make a good guess, using all of the clues available.

One fun activity for this is to make up a sentence with a nonsense word included, and have the kids guess what it could possibly mean based on the context clues.

For example...
We took off our sandals and walked on the sand. Once we found a good spot, we each placed our schwilieg on the sand, and sat on it while we put on our sunscreen. (So, what is a schwileg? If you said towel, you're right!)

The book called Baloney by Jon Scieszka is a fun one for this lesson.

2. Examples

Often times, the unknown word will be accompanied with an example, either before or more likely after the unknown word. When students are taught to keep reading, and not to get bogged down by the unfamiliar word, they might be able to find a good example which will help their understanding. This is not to say that we ignore the unknown word if it is pivotal to the passages understanding. If it seems important (and determining importance can be a difficult skill for this age), we'll need to do a bit of work to figure it out. If it is not an extremely important word, most readers can still come to a clear understanding without it.

One thing I like to explain to my students is that using context clues is something good readers do naturally, when reading for fun! For example, I really enjoy historical books set in Asia (not sure why, but I do). Sometimes, I'll find cultural words or words in Chinese, which are unfamiliar to me when reading these types of books. I use this as a good example for my students that problem solving context clues is a real life reading skill.

3. Antonyms
By third to fifth grade, many students can tell you that an antonym is a word with an "opposite" meaning. Many at this age, however, do not understand that antonyms may be used to figure out mystery words! When students see phrases like unlike or as opposed to, different from or in contrast with... these phrases may clue them in, to find the unknown word's antonym which helps them piece together the word's meaning.

4. Definition
Even though in real reading, we normally don't use a dictionary that often to figure out new words (although I have actually done this on occasion if it bothered me that much), students need to know that a word's definition may be found right in the text! One example of this is when an author uses an appositive (you know...says a word, comma, and then describes it, comma). 

For example...
After arguing for over an hour, the politicians decided to compromise, reach an agreement, about the city park.

5. Synonyms
Authors sometimes include synonyms to make sure their meaning is clear. The synonyms might be included in a list form (...gregarious, sociable, and friendly), or they may be included with the word "or" beside them.

For example...
When my brother found out that he was going to the state championships, he was ecstatic or thrilled. 

Once students know these five main types of context clues, they seem to find them everywhere they look. I love it when you teach a strategy and find that the kids have internalized it! One of the joys of teaching!

If you're looking for focused context clues practice for your students, I do have grade specific task cards sets for 2nd - 6th grades. Here they are, if you'd like to check them out:

2nd Grade      3rd Grade      4th Grade      5th Grade      6th Grade

Thanks so much for stopping by our blog! I would love to hear what you're doing in your classroom to teach context clues!

Happy teaching,


I'd love to connect with you!