Friday, July 10, 2015

My First...& Hopefully Not My Last...Nerdy Book Club Posting

I was so nervous submitting my first blog post to the Nerdy Book Club.  What I wrote is not earth shattering, but for me, it was such a big step in overcoming my fear of sharing my words. 

To read my post "Where Do You Find our Reading Community," visit here.

Here's hoping that I continue to find my voice. If you would like to share your words on the amazing Nerdy Book Club, visit here for more information.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

I've Accepted the #Bookaday Challenge! I Challenge You, Too!

When we were younger, my sister and I were very lucky to have the top bunk of our orange and brown shag carpeted motor home all to ourselves. It was our home away from home during the summer months, our secret lair away from our annoying little brother...and our reading cave.

Yes, that's me with all of the crazy hair!  At least then it was the 80's & I had a good excuse!

Before a trip, whether a trek from Ohio to Florida or a weekend jaunt to the lake, my sister and I would fill the corners of our bunk with pillows, stuffed friends, and books.  Lots and lots of books!

Each week during the summer, my mom would take us to the Canfield Library where we would fill our brown grocery bags with as many books as we were allowed to check out with our green paper library cards (this was before the days of the cool I Love My Library recyclable totes).

In the dog days of summer, it seemed as if we had nothing but time for reading. Now a mom, wife, educator, and student, I fondly reminisce about my reading cave, and that precious, quiet time devoted to reading.

My time may not be quite anymore sharing a house with my husband, three sons, a large dog, two cats, and a bunny,  and I may not have a space free of Legos and Nerf bullets, but with some effort, I am still able to carve out that precious...and much needed...reading time.

This year, I have accepted the #Bookaday Reading Challenge.  Several years ago, Donalyn Miller, author of the Book Whisperer and one of my educational heroes, created this challenge as a public way to commit to reading through the summer months. You can read more about the #bookaday challenge Donalyn Miller's blog.

So, I am publicly committing to read one #bookaday and I am hoping I can inspire you to accept the challenge as well.

Donalyn's #bookaday rules are simple:
  • Set your own start date and end date.
  • Read one book per day for each day of summer vacation. This is an average, so if you read three books in one day (I know you’ve done this!) and none the next two, it still counts.
  • Any book qualifies including picture books, nonfiction, professional books, audio books, graphic novels, poetry anthologies, or fiction—children’s, youth, or adult titles.
  • Keep a list of the books you read and share them often via a social networking site like goodreads or Twitter (post using the #bookaday hashtag), a blog, or Facebook page. You do not have to post reviews, but you can if you wish. Titles will do.
(Reading Is Its Own Reward: Summer Reading and the 7th Annual #Bookaday Challenge, Donalyn Miller, 2015).

Like everything else in my life, I have to have a game plan.  I have been collecting amazing titles, both hard copies and digital books, to keep me busy for the next few weeks!  Hopefully, you will find some titles you may want to add to your reading lists!

I can't wait to see what you are reading, and to add your titles to my to-read list.

Happy Reading,
:) Jennifer

Friday, March 20, 2015

Hiding PARCC Test Prep in Plain Sight

My three kiddos hate veggies, and so I try to puree and hide them in everything from spaghetti sauce to brownies and muffins. I suggest thinking of test prep in the same way. Preparing students for the PARCC assessments should begin the very first day of school, and can be easily embedded (snuck) into our everyday instruction and assessment.
I have heard a lot of teachers worry that they are spending their valuable instructional time teaching to the test.  Maybe I am na├»ve, but I think that teaching to the test and preparing students for a new assessment design are two different things.  My sixteen-year-old son recently took his driver’s test, and he felt confident and prepared before sliding into the driver’s seat with his evaluator.  He had gone through the driver’s education classes, read through the test manual (maybe the only book he has read in recent months), and spent countless hours driving with his dad and me.  He even practiced using his dad’s big, old truck, my midsize vehicle, and my mother-in-law’s smaller car so that he would be prepared to drive any vehicle. Was this teaching to the test? Maybe…or maybe it was helping adequately prepare him so that he would be successful during the driving test.
When I think of teaching to the test, I think of teaching students to complete artificial, inauthentic tasks that they will find only on a standardized test.  I am not advocating for the PARCC or any other standardized assessments, but what I am doing is trying to convince teachers to be gentle with themselves.  The standards are new, the assessments are new, and teachers need time and support to learn. This is not going to happen in a forty-five minute session, but rather through sustainable professional development in which teachers have ownership over their learning.
The title to my post may be a little misleading as there are no silver bullets or Buckle Down Ohio books to teach students how to be successful on the PARCC assessments.  Real test preparation is going to come from teachers’ good teaching.  Teachers have to trust in their own content expertise, and the positive relationships and class culture they build and nurture throughout the school year.
To prevent artificial test prep, teachers need to delve into the standards and to reflect on their classroom instruction and assessment practices. This is hard work, and it will take time and support. Here are some steps I suggest for teachers to help avoid falling into the test prep trap:
1.     You want me to what? Again? Deconstruction has earned a bad rap with many teachers, but it is critical that we continue to deconstruct and analyze the CCSS to gain a more in depth understanding of these complex standards. Our students may be demonstrating the first two parts of a standard, but what about the third and fourth parts? It’s not that difficult for students to identify the theme in a text, but can they provide evidence of how this theme was developed throughout the text?  What does this even look like? How can it be differentiated for diverse learners?  How do we assess this? This deconstruction process is best done through collaborative discussions with colleagues, and is even better with coffee and chocolate.
2.     It’s all about the alignment.  Teachers need time and support to reflect on their instruction, and to evaluate their alignment to the standards.  What worked well this year?  What needs refinement?  Where was our pacing too fast?  Too slow?  Are we teaching to the rigorous expectations of the standards?  Are we best meeting the learning needs of our students? I created a simple checklist for teachers to help begin this conversation.
3.     Where do we find time to teach everything we need to teach? I am a big fan of Backward Design. Wiggins and McTighe (2000) argue that we can’t start planning how we are going to teach until we know exactly what we want our students to learn.  In Backward Design, essential questions are used to guide the creation of units that integrate the various elements of the CCSS. The unit is driven by standards and a culminating activity, texts are chosen as tools to address the standards, and writing, language, and speaking and listening activates are placed throughout the unit. Check out a sample integrated unit I have been building. It makes sense that things that go together are best taught and learned together.
Teachers naturally are a reflective group, and I am predicting that many of us are already thinking about what we will change for next school year. While you are reflecting on these changes, I would also encourage you to think of all that you and your students have achieved thus far this year. Be kind to yourselves.  Treat yourselves with the same understanding and patience you offer to the learners in your classroom.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Creating a Classroom Library: One Teacher's Process

A huge thank you to today's guest blogger, Abby Aebischer, a young and passionate, eight grade teacher. Abby recently spoke to our Workshop Survival group about how she set about filling her blank shelves with books to create an engaging and inspiring reading environment for her students.

In Abby's words...

My Classroom Library
As an eighth grade language arts teacher, I have always been passionate about reading.However, it wasn't until about four years ago that I decided to start building a classroom library.  Now, I can’t imagine my room without shelves and shelves filled with books!

I knew that in order for my library to be successful it needed to be appealing and user-friendly to my students.  I have found that organizing my books by genre is the most effective way to help them identify what they want to read.  Right now, my library contains realistic fiction, science fiction, fantasy, poetry/novel-in-verse, graphic novels, historical fiction, classics, picture books, informational texts, and finally, grouped together, autobiographies, biographies, and memoirs. This is the first year I have not had a mystery section; I ended up dispersing this subgenre amongst the others.  However, I have already had multiple requests by students to “bring back the mystery section please!”  Needless to say, by popular demand, it will most likely re-emerge.

Even though I have signs labeling each section of my library, once students check out a book they sometimes forget what genre they are reading.  To help them remember the genre of their book and to also ensure books make it back to the correct sections, I use stickers to code my genres.  While initially, it was a time consuming task to put a sticker on the spine of each book, I have found that it has been well worth it.  I keep a “genre sticker key” at the front of my classroom next to the book return basket for students to consult whenever they need a quick reminder of the genre of their book or where a book goes.

Two other “tricks” I use to help keep my classroom library running smoothly and my books in the best possible condition are alphabetizing and keeping a book jacket “drop-off.”  Like coding my genres with stickers, alphabetizing all of my books seemed like a daunting task at first; however, it was something that I felt would benefit my students.  Now, if someone is looking for a particular author or series, they are easy to find and grouped together.   It also helps me keep track of which books are checked out at a quick glance.

While alphabetizing has helped to keep my fictional genres more organized, I decided to organize my nonfiction section of informational texts, autobiographies, biographies, and memoirs a little bit differently.  Because nonfiction can be an unpopular choice for many students, I wanted to do something that would make it seem less intimidating and more student friendly.  So, what I decided to do was organize these books by topic rather than author.  This is a quick and easy way to help point students in the direction to topics they are interested in.  Some popular topics include animals, war, the Holocaust, survival stories, inspirational stories, and sports.

Graphic Novels, Poetry & Realistic Fiction

Science Fiction & Historical Fiction



Organized by Topics

Autobiographies, Biographies, Memoirs & Picture Books

The book jacket “drop-off” is something that I began using last year for my hardcover books.  I started having a lot of students ask if I could hold on to the jackets for them, while also noticing that the book jackets were getting torn and damaged too quickly.  So, I decided to keep a bin  in the front of my classroom, right above the return basket, for students to store the book jackets in.  It’s amazing how many students don’t really want the jacket on the book for one reason or another; I have found using the bin to be an extremely popular option for a lot of my students.
Book Jacket Drop-Off

To help both my students and I remember what they have checked out, I needed some sort of check-out/return system.  I had originally considered using a scanner to check books in and out on my computer.  However, what I found was that this process was too time consuming for me simply because I was always confined to my desk and computer.  While this is a great way to keep track of books, it just didn't work for me. 

Instead, on the very first day of school, I give each of my students a 3x5” colored index card for them to use as their classroom library card.  Since I color-code each of my classes, it was only natural to give each class the corresponding colored card.  I have found that by designating a different color for each class students are better able to locate their library card within the box, which makes the checking in and out process run more efficiently.  At the top of the the index card, students put their first and last name, book title, date in, and date out.  Whenever they wish to check a book in or out, they simply write the book’s title on their card, the date and then bring it to me to initial. 


One question I get asked often is how do you get your books?  To be honest, many of the books in my library I do buy myself, and what I have now has taken me several years to obtain. However, two other resources that I have found to be extremely helpful are Scholastic and If you host a Scholastic Book Fair, part of the profit goes to your school or classrooms to buy books. on the other hand, is an online organization that allows public school teachers to post projects for resources that they need.  I have had many projects for books funded using this charity, which has also really helped me to grow my library over the years.   

If you are thinking about building a classroom library, my advice is don’t be afraid to start small and to be patient.  Creating a community of readers is not something that happens overnight; it takes time.  Just like with our students, our classroom libraries need tended to and nurtured in order to grow and be successful!  

Good luck and happy reading!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

My Life as a Reader

My July reading list

If I were to ask your students about you as a reader, what might they tell me? My students might have said that I have way too many favorite books, that I love first lines, and that I cry during the sad parts...a lot. Most of all though, I hope they would say that their teacher loves to read, and is passionate about helping them to become lovers of books as well.

I will admit though that I have sometimes (OK...a lot of times) struggled to keep up with my reading lists as other priorities have stolen my reading time. There are many, many times that I would have much rather been reading the latest John Green book than tackling the never ending stack of essays that needed to be read and assessed.

 I have been inspired by so many of my colleagues who are voracious and passionate consumers of books.  They always seem to know the latest titles, and their classroom libraries are a testament to their love of reading and their desire to share this love with their students. I often find myself wondering where they find the time to devote to their reading.  Do they have more hours in their day than me?  Do they not grade student essays, attend staff meetings, vacuum their houses and unload the dishwasher?  Of course they do.  They have simply made a commitment to be lifelong readers, and to model this for their students.

So in our crazy, chaotic lives as teachers, how do we make sure to set aside time for our own personal reading? To help with my personal struggle, I have taken a few steps that have helped me in my pursuit to be an engaged rand lifelong reader.

  • Join a book club. Making a monthly commitment to read and discuss books is so motivating.  No one wants to be the member who dropped the ball and didn't finish the book...although I have been that member on many occasions.  My book club is an amazing group of English teachers, two professors, and one school secretary who loves books. There is nothing more inspiring than a wonderful group of readers, great books, amazing discussions...and red help tackle your reading list.
  • Join an online reading community.  I love tracking my reading on Goodreads.  It makes me feel accomplished every time I review my virtual bookshelf. The best aspect of sites such as goodreads is that you can connect with other readers.  When I see that my friends have read a book and given it five stars, I instantly add the title to my "to-read bookshelf." It is a an easy way to find new titles to add to your reading list.
  •  Twitter.  While I am more of a stalker on Twitter, I stalk some really amazing authors, readers, publishers and professional communities.  Some of my favorite people to follow are Teri Lesesne, Donalyn Miller, Colby Sharp, John Schu, John Green, Rainbow Rowell, Laurie Halse Anderson...and the list goes on and on and on.  A few of my favorite hashtags to follow are #nerdybookclub, # engchat, #bookaday and #titletalk.  All of these will provide you with far too many new titles to add to your reading list.
  • Surround yourself with other readers.  Some of my favorite moments are spent talking with readers about reading.  These friendships and conversations are invaluable.  If you don't have the time to meet monthly with a bookclub, find time to chat about books in the hallways between classes and in the teachers' lounge.  My reading life is so rich because of my friendships with such amazing teachers as Nicole, Haley, Abby, Charmayne, Michelle, Meg, Tony, Donna, Kelly...the list just goes on and on.
  • This may seem like a no-brainer, but read with your students.  I know that it is so tempting to grade papers and to respond to emails while your students are reading, but taking this time to read with your kids allows you to steal a few minutes of reading time, and shows your students that reading is a valuable, worthwhile activity.  My students always wanted to know what I was reading, and when I was finished with the books, these were usually the first ones to fly off of the bookshelf. The teachers at PMS began to post their reading lists on their classroom doors so that students could see what their teachers were reading.
So, what do you do to help making reading a priority in your personal life and in your classroom?  I would love to read your suggestions!

Friday, June 27, 2014

8 Suggestions for Reviewing Your ELA Curriculum

I have received a lot of questions lately about how to best prepare our students for the PARCC assessments. While it is imperative that we prepare students to navigate the online testing platform, there really is no "test prep" for the new assessments, no Buckle Down Ohio books, and no silver bullets. 

Test prep will begin on the first day of school through your use of reading and writing best practices, your use of formative instruction to inform and guide your instruction, and your alignment to the Common Core standards.

As you and your colleagues begin to reflect on this school year and make curricular decisions for next year, I might suggest the following steps:

1.  Continue to deconstruct the standards. I know, I know you are tired of doing this, but it is critical that everyone is interpreting the standards in the intended ways, and that we are teaching them with fidelity.  The reading standards especially are very in depth, and personally, every time I reread them, I notice something that I failed to notice in earlier readings. I might also suggest reviewing your learning targets and thinking of how they might be a more effective learning and communication tool for students and parents.

2.  Review the text complexity formula and rubrics.  Teams should continue to review their class texts.  Are we offering students opportunities to read at their independent level and do students have any student choice and ownership?  Are students reading texts at their instructional level with the necessary independence and scaffolding to support their reading growth?  Are we also exposing students to those complex, challenging texts that may be at their frustration level, supporting them with all of the scaffolding strategies in our toolbox? I might suggest reviewing the CCSS Appendix B ( and the texts used in the PARCC practice tests as models of grade-level complexity.

3.  Review the texts that students are reading?  Is it a balanced diet of fiction and nonfiction?  Are students reading poetry, shorter and longer texts, older and newer texts?  Are they reading the required (RL 10-11.7 Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.) and some of the suggested texts (RI 9-10.9Washington's Farewell Address, the Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt's Four Freedoms speech, King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail") referenced in the CCSS?

4.  Review the PARCC PCR (Prose Constructed Response) prompts and use them as models for your classroom writings.  The PARCC prompts are very different from our OGT prompts, and students will need support in unpacking the prompts, and then responding to them effectively.  Please see for a great example of a typical past prompt in comparison with a PARCC prompt.  This might lead to a rich discussion among your team about how we may need to revise our writing instruction.

5.  Review your current assessments, and consider how you might tweak them to reflect the PARCC testing design.  For example, can you add a Part B type of question which requires the students to provide evidence of their answer to your original question.  Remember, the PART B questions are usually addressing RL and RI 1 and 2, and are asking the students to prove their answers to the Part A questions. Another example would be for students to evaluate or synthesize multiple sources.

6.  What is the daily role of writing in your classroom?  Students are hopefully writing every day for various purposes.  There are over 40 different writing forms that students may be asked to create on the PARCC assessments. While it would be great to expose students to all 40 of these writing forms, we simply do not have the time to prepare students to address all of these.  We really need to concentrate on helping them to address the topic, audience and purpose (tap) of each PCR prompt, remembering that it is all about students' application of the standards. The 40 writing forms can be found at The PARCC writing rubric can be found at

7.  Continue to review the online PARCC PBA practice tests (  When reviewing the tests, pay attention to the texts, the complexity of the texts, the question design, the PCR prompts, and the skills students will need to navigate the online testing platform.  The online practice tests always begin with a literary analysis task, then provide a research simulation task, and then end with a narrative task. Remember though that students will complete the 3 tasks in 3 different testing sessions. Practice tests for the EOY assessments will be coming in the fall.

8.  When reviewing your curriculum, be sure that it is driven by the standards, and not the books students are reading in class.  Classroom books and texts are the tools or vehicles we use to teach the standards.  When creating pre and post assessments, are you assessing the standards taught in the unit, or the book?  When designing your assessments, choose texts that the students have not been assigned in class so that you are truly assessing their literacy skills, and not their understanding of a book.  Your assessment questions over classroom readings are perfect as formative assessments to check students' understanding and skills throughout the reading of the text.

I hope this list is somewhat helpful as you reflect on your year.  I know how hard everyone is working, and I hope you all have a relaxing and rejuvenating summer vacation!