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Guided Reading vs. Small Strategy Groups

When I was in the classroom, I implemented two different types of reading small groups during my reading block: guided reading and strategy groups. Here is the main purpose for each:

Guided Reading
To teach students reading comprehension skills and strategies in general. These are leveled groups with 4-6 students per group. In this small community, students are reading in the same range and share similar reading traits. Many students stay in the same group long-term but are constantly reassessed and moved if they exceed the reading level of their peers. In guided reading groups, I typically followed the same procedure, modeling the entire reading process.
My guided reading groups started typically 3 or 4 weeks after school started, or after I had time to assess all of my students’ independent reading levels and had solid reading block rituals and routines. Guided reading groups happened all year.

Strategy Groups
I group students who need help with the same standard, strategy, or skill. Students can be at all different reading levels. Groups should still be between 4-6 students. During strategy groups, students will be reading text on their independent reading level. Often, I would have students practicing a strategy or skill from their independent reading books on their “just right” level. You can also use differentiated passages or guided readers.
I did not regularly use strategy groups for my whole class. I would pull together a strategy group if after I assessed a particular standard, 4-6 students needed reteaching. I would also implement strategy groups for various standards leading up to a large state assessment.

It is important to note, that when implementing both guided reading groups and strategy groups you should use relevant and current data. Every month, I conducted running records on every student in my class. Students should not be in the same group based on data from months prior. Their reading level can and should be increasing rapidly (especially at lower levels). For strategy groups, I used data from very recent standards-based assessments. I like to use standards-based assessments I used in the classroom on isolated standards. If you use a district or state standardized test results, you need to be careful because:
  • The data may be old.
  • The data may be inaccurate. Are you able to see the questions? Some standardized tests have poorly written questions that do not accurately address the standard. How many questions were asked on each standard? A students’ answer on only 1-3 multiple choice questions is not enough to judge if they understand a standard.

If you are looking for some guided reading or strategy group resources, my differentiated passages and differentiated guided readers are perfect.

My “A Day in the Life” series is great for standards-based strategy groups, since each reader focus on one standard.

I hope this overview gives you some ideas of how and when to implement both guided reading and small strategy groups into your literacy block. I’d love to see or hear about your groups in action!

The Do's and Don'ts of Religion in the Classroom

Some public school teachers fear to mention anything to do with religion in the classroom. Some schools and districts even forbid celebrating holidays associated with one religion. Sometimes it’s easier to avoid a subject rather than deal with questions and criticism from parents or administrations. Avoidance can be extremely difficult during religious holidays and deprives children of forming a comprehensive understanding of diversity and culture. It is important to teach about religion in your classroom, and it’s not impossible to teach it in an appropriate way that follows federal law.

Teachers fear that even mentioning religion would be a violation of the Establishment Clause of  First Amendment of the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Teachers in their official capacity are agents of the government because they represent the school and school board. Teachers are also private citizens and have rights to free speech and free exercise under the Constitution; however, these rights are limited when acting in an official teaching or another government role.

Even though public school teachers are prohibited from teaching religion, they are free to teach about religion. Consider the difference between preaching or promoting a religion and teaching about different cultures and religions or about different religious holidays.

It is very important to teach about religions in your classroom. Religion is a large part of many cultures. Teaching about how others view the world differently helps our students become tolerant and accepting of other’s differences.

It is also important to teach how not all people associate with a religion. This is ok. Being atheist or agnostic does not make a person any less moral than a religious person.

Here are some Do’s and Don’ts when teaching about religion. 

Teach about a variety of religions
Only teach about one religion
Teach the value of diversity
Promote one religion over another
Teach nonreligion as a valid belief
Promote religion over nonreligion
Treat all religions as equal
Share your religious views

Practice religious acts such as prayer

It is against federal law to share your own religious beliefs. Even though your religion may be a large part of who you are, children are impressionable. Teaching about your religious beliefs could be seen as promoting one religion.

Often, the laws regarding separation of church and state are not followed in schools. Administrators and teachers think it is ok to have a moment for prayer or observe one religious holiday because the majority are the same religion. While some people may not be bothered by small references and promotions of religion, it still sends a message of “otherness.” Those in the minority feel this message.

Whether it be during the holidays or any time of year, ensure that you ARE teaching your kids about culture, which religion can be a large part of. But, do not teach about one religion exclusively. Use your lessons to send a message of diversity and inclusivity.  

Teaching About Kwanzaa in the Classroom

While falling around the same time as Christmas and Hanukkah, being celebrated December 26 – January 1, Kwanzaa is different in that it is not a religious holiday at all. Instead, it is a celebration of life that some African Americans (mostly from the United States) celebrate each year. Kwanzaa was established in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga to observe African culture and motivate and encourage African Americans. The name Kwanzaa comes from a Swahili phrase that translates to “first fruits of the harvest.” Celebrations of the holiday often include African stories, poems, drumming and dancing. Children receive gifts and there is a big feast on December 31 called Karamu.

There are three colors represented throughout Kwanzaa that each have a meaning. Black stands for the color of the people, red stands for their struggle and green represents the hope and future that comes from their struggle.

The kinara holds the seven candles that are lit throughout Kwanzaa. The middle candle (which is lit the first night) is black, the three candles to the left are red (lit the second through fourth nights) and the three candles to the right are green (lit the last nights). The order in which the candles are lit is to symbolize that people come first, then struggle, and lastly the hope that precedes the struggle. Each night a candle is lit, one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa, Nguzo Saba, is discussed.

           The seven principles (as outlined by Dr. Karenga) are as follows:

Being celebrated by so few people, and being overshadowed by Christmas and New Year’s, many people do not know much about the beautiful celebration of Kwanzaa. There is much more information on the holiday that I highly encourage you to read about.

If you are looking for a meaningful way to teach about Kwanzaa in your classroom, my differentiated passages come with writing activities and a cute craftivity. You can grab them in my TpT store here:

There are also some great books for you to use in your classroom library!

This links are Amazon Affiliate links. If you order from one of my links, Amazon gives me a small percentage of the sale at no extra expense to you. This helps me maintain my blog. 

National Geographic Kids has Celebrate Kwanzaa. This is a nonfiction book with beautiful photographs.

Seven Spools of Thread is a story about seven brothers living in an African village who learn the values of Kwanzaa.

Teaching Culture: Hanukkah

Even though over 39% of the Jewish population lives in the United States, many people don’t know too many basic facts about Hanukkah. With the holiday starting Sunday, December 2nd this year, I figured now is the perfect time to break down some of the basics of this Jewish holiday.

First and foremost, what is Hanukkah the celebration of? The Syrian-Greeks forbade the Jewish religion and desecrated a holy Temple in Jerusalem in 165 BCE. An army of Jewish rebels, the Maccabees, salvaged the Temple. Even though there was only enough oil to light a lamp for one day, the oil lasted eight days. Hence, the lengthy celebration each year.

The date of the Hanukkah celebration is based on the Hebrew calendar, a lunisolar calendar, meaning dates are based on solar months. This means that there is no set date that the holiday falls. Generally, Hanukkah begins sometime in November or December.

While Hanukkah is well known, it is not the most important holiday of the Jewish religion. Rosh Hashanah and Passover actually hold much more significance in the religion. However, because of Christmas and other holidays that are celebrated around the month of December, Hanukkah has taken on more importance than it once had throughout the world.

Similar to many other holidays, Hanukkah is celebrated with festive foods. Jewish people fry foods to honor the significance of the oil in the lamp. One of the most well-known fried foods enjoyed are latkes, which are fried potatoes. There is also a lot of cheese included in Hanukkah celebrations, to acknowledge Judith. People honoring the holiday also feast on jelly doughnuts, chocolate coins called gelt, and noodle or potato casseroles.

*TRIVIA ALERT* The largest menorah in the world weighs 4,000 pounds and is 32 feet high and the most valuable dreidel is worth $14,000! That’s an expensive children’s toy!

If you're looking for a way to teach your elementary students about Hanukkah, my differentiated passages mini unit is perfect for 2nd-4th grade. This includes leveled passages, comprehension questions, a foldable, writing, prompts, and a cute coloring topper to jazz up your bulletin board. You can grab it in my TpT store here:

Amazon has some great books for you too!
This links are Amazon Affiliate links. If you order from one of my links, Amazon gives me a small percentage of the sale at no extra expense to you. This helps me maintain my blog. 

Oskar and the Eight Blessings is one of my favorites. It is about a Holocaust refugee arriving in New York City, It is the seventh day of Hanukkah and Christmas Eve, 1938. As Oskar walks through the city to his new home, he experiences the city's many holiday sights, and encounters generous residents.

Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins is about a traditional Jewish folk hero named Hershel of Ostropol. He approaches a village on Hanukkah, but is surprised to find no one is celebrating. A band of frightful goblins has taken over the synagogue.

The National Geographic book Holidays Around the World: Celebrate Hanukkah: With Light, Latkes, and Dreidels is an excellent nonfiction book with captivating photographs. 

Creating a Community of Students who Have Meaningful Academic Conversations

One of the main purposes of Common Core State Standards (or any other named standards your state goes by) is to teach children to think and respond critically. When I was in the classroom, one of my main goals was to lead my students towards independence by running the classroom and leading critical thinking discussions with their peers. Often, administrators, coaches, and other teachers would come into my room and wonder how I was able to teach my students to lead our class discussions and they would chuckle at how “adult” the students sounded when they responded to their peers. My students were not only able to think and respond critically to their peers, but also push their peers to think more deeply about topics and issues.

Here is I was able to do this each year:

At the beginning of the year, I set the expectations. I gave students index cards with the “Prompts for Elaboration & Clarity,” and the “Prompts for Responding.” When students answered questions or began discussions, I consistently modeled how to respond to the speaker with respect by using the prompts on my card. All the while, students would have their cards in front of them. I would slowly invite volunteers to try to respond to a classmate using a prompt.  

For example:
Student A makes a prediction about the chapter book we are reading.
Student B uses the prompt to craft a meaningful response such as “how does your prediction connect to what we read in chapter three?”
Student B is pushed to craft a meaningful response, rather than the old “I like your prediction.” At the same time, Student A is pushed to think more deeply about the evidence they used to make their prediction.

My students would have their prompt cards everywhere! They had a copy in their bag of books and each journal. They would use them in whole- class lessons/ discussions, small groups, partner work, independent work, and eventually in their writing.

As students became more confident and experienced using the prompts, I would usually randomly call on 1-3 students to respond to another child when a child shared something or taught the class. It is critical to hold all of your students accountable for using the prompts.

They learned to use them so regularly, that sometimes during my mini-lessons or lesson closings I wouldn’t even have to further question students because their classmates had it down pat. By mid-year, most students had internalized the prompts and no longer needed to refer to their cards.

While teaching students to respond to each other critically IS time-consuming, there are few more valuable ways you can spend your time.

Grab my Prompts for Responding, Elaboration, and Clarity for free here. Let me know if you try this in your class!

Building Relationships with Morning Meetings

Building a caring classroom community with my students was one of my most important behavior management techniques. If your students know you care about them and learn to care for each other, it cuts down on a lot of behavioral problems (or it at least makes them easier to solve). One of the best ways to build and maintain a caring classroom community and culture is through morning meetings.

Here is how I set up my morning meetings:

Every morning, after morning work, I would play our gathering song. I have a love for Jack Johnson, and I am obsessed with his Curious George soundtrack, so Upside Down was our “come to the rug” song. I love it because it is calming, but has a positive and upbeat message. My students quickly learned the lyrics and would singalong as they came to the rug.

If you’ve been reading my posts for a bit, you probably know I do not like to waste any time. So, I would always have my students come to the rug fully prepared for our first reading lesson with their reading journal and bag of books.

Once the song was over, I expected all students to be at their spots and ready for morning meeting to start.

I would start off by greeting everyone and telling them something about my evening the night before or morning. I would then invite any students to share any news or exciting events. This took about five minutes most mornings. That’s it! It is something so simple that creates a welcoming environment where your students know you care about them. Doing this day-after-day helps even your closed-off students open up and feel like a part of the community.

As issues arose, I would allow students also to discuss them at this time. If a student was missing their special necklace, they would ask their classmates to help them find it. If a student was having trouble with a peer, either I would approach the subject, or I would allow them to (of course without naming names or putting the other child down.) We would spend time brainstorming how to handle issues with our peers together. This really helped my students understand their words and actions affected others.

Many of them became very cognizant that they had the power to positively impact their peers because they chose thoughtful words and actions. We also spent time celebrating the wonderful deeds our friends and classmates did.

Having these open discussions regularly with my students taught them to be leaders. They learned to be leaders in their classroom with their peers, but also in the school community. They set positive examples for others around the school and even their siblings at home. They learned to approach and resolve their own problems, rather than relying on me.

It seems like too much of a simple thing to have such a large impact, but it really worked for my students year after year. I encourage you to try regular morning meetings in your class. Your time will be well invested!

Teaching The True History about the Wampanoag and Thanksgiving

I was having a conversation with my mother earlier in the week, and she told me she had saved the “Indian” costume she made for me for Halloween when I was a little girl. She wanted to know if my daughter would wear it. I was a little taken aback by her question because I thought it was commonly understood…
  • It is improper to refer to Native Americans as “Indians.”
  • It is inappropriate to dress as a Native for Halloween because this is clear cultural appropriation in every sense of the word. (Cultural appropriation is adopting elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture. Often, the original meaning of cultural elements is lost or distorted and viewed as disrespectful.)
  • It is unacceptable, and frankly, racist to generalize all natives, because the dress, culture, and traditions vary greatly by regions and nations.
While I am absolutely not an expert on the matter, and I do struggle to understand some issues related to cultural appropriation, I am working to educate myself, and others, so we can do better for cultures that have been, and still are, oppressed.

This post contains Amazon Affiliate links. If you order from one of my links, Amazon gives me a small percentage of the sale at no extra expense to you. This helps me maintain my blog. 

I was born and raised in Connecticut and went to college in Rhode Island. My family used to frequently stop at Plymouth Village on our way to the Cape. I’m telling you this because growing up in this area, we were taught MANY falsehoods and misconceptions about the Pilgrims and “The First Thanksgiving.” To reiterate the flaws in my education around this topic, we were really only taught about the Mayflower, Pilgrims, and “The First Thanksgiving,” and learning about the “Indians” was only in the background. I do not ever remember (until college) learning about the Wampanoag people. The perception we were given of “Indians” was that they were a wild, uncivilized group who were background guests at “The First Thanksgiving.”

I still remember having a Thanksgiving feast in Kindergarten. We made black pilgrim hats and Indian headbands with colorful feathers. I was upset that I was chosen as the “Indian” because we all wanted to be a Pilgrim.

This memory makes me cringe. WE MUST DO BETTER FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS!

Here are a few common misconceptions about the Wampanoag:

The Pilgrims took over empty land, and the Natives had no fixed settlements.
The village the Pilgrims took over was once a Wampanoag village called Patuxet. Patuxet was abandoned because so many people died of plague brought by previous settlers. The village already had homesites, tilled fields, graves, and trails.
The English helped “civilize” the Wampanoag.
The Wampanoag were an established group and culture who lived differently than the white settlers. They used many resources from the land and had a deep respect for the environment. Due to English settlers’ efforts to assimilate the Wampanoag, their language Wopanรขak declined.
English settlers were kind and helpful to the Wampanoag.
While some settlers were kind and developed an alliance with some natives, it is also recorded that Europeans kidnapped Native people. At least 29 Wampanoag men were kidnapped and held in Europe for years.
The natives helped the settlers.
For a month after landing after landing at what is now Provincetown, Cape Cod, the English exploited the natives and stole supplies and food from the Wampanoag.

Natives wore blankets and feathered headdresses while Pilgrims wore black clothes and hats with buckles.
The Wampanoag wore beautifully decorated clothing made from animal skins. Pilgrims wore dresses and waistcoats of various colors including red, yellow, blue, and purple.

Here are a few common misconceptions about “The First Thanksgiving”:

Thanksgiving is a tradition that is based on a single historical feast the Pilgrims shared with the Native people.
The American tradition of Thanksgiving stems from only one paragraph in one letter written in 1621 about a harvest gathering.
The First Thanksgiving feast included turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie.
There was no cranberry sauce or pie because sugar was sparse. They may have eaten turkey, but corn, cod, and venison were more common foods.
Thanksgiving is a religious gathering to give thanks.
The first gatherings in 1621 were not religious, but likely a harvest celebration. The first religious thanksgiving occurred two years later.

Fact: Today, The Wampanoag do not celebrate Thanksgiving. To them, Thanksgiving is a solemn reminder of the English arrival that brought destruction and death to their people.
Frank James, an Aquinnah Wampanoag stated, “This is a time… to look back, a time of reflection. It is with a heavy heart that I look back at what happened to my people.”

While not as “cute” and “fun” it is critical we teach our children of all ages the truth about the Wampanoag and Thanksgiving. 

The book “1621, A New Look At Thanksgiving” is a great read with many more eye-opening facts about the Wampanoag people and the myth of Thanksgiving. If you ever get a chance, I recommend you visit Plymouth Plantation, where they are working hard to rewrite history with facts from all perspectives from this time period.

This quote from 1621 A New Look at Thanksgiving resonated with me:
“Unquestioning acceptance of biased interpretations can affect the way we treat one another, even today.”

You can also purchase my Wampanoag differentiated reading passages and writing activity in my TpT store. 

What other misconceptions about history and other cultures did you learn in school? I'd love to head your experiences and ideas on how to correct misconceptions for our children.