Famous Quotes Bulletin Board

Famous Quotes Posters

When it comes to classroom decorations, mine have tended to fall into one of two categories: things students and I use as part of our lessons and for reference year round (ex.: Vocabulary Word Wall and our Genre & Author’s Purpose Wall), and things the students create themselves as part of a specific lesson (ex.: Shades of Meaning and Spooky Synonyms Bulletin Board). The most popular bulletin board by far doesn’t exactly fit in either category, but is closer to the second.

Each year I choose a bulletin board, or section of the wall, to be my “Wise Words from Famous Figures” display. My students insist on calling it “Wise Dead Guys,” despite the fact not all of the people represented are dead and about half of them are women, but I have to admit it’s kind of catchy. Before school starts, I post the twenty posters that make up my personal collection, being sure to leave plenty of space for additions.

On the first day of school the students and I look at the posters, take turns reading some, and talking about which we find particularly inspiring and why. I then challenge students to help the collection grow. They can participate by bringing me a name and a quote from people they learn about throughout the year, or people they know of and admire for some reason. I then do my best to find a photo of the person (Creative Commons has some good search engines to help you ensure the images are royalty and copyright free.), add the quote and their name, print, and add the newest poster to our board. If students wish, they can design and submit the completed poster themselves, but I never want lack of knowledge, or access to a computer and printer, to prevent anyone from participating.

The other option students have for participating is to submit different quotes by people already represented on our board. These I type up and print on 3×5 cards, attaching them around the original poster. Some people end up with many additional quotes, others end up with none, but that’s fine with me. Each year’s board is different and I love how unique they are.

Other teachers often remarked on the board and expressed a desire to have one of their own, but specific to the content area they taught. In response, I developed seven more sets of posters, each for a different content area. Each set has 15 posters, with the exception of the presidential set which has 45. My American history and government friends got a presidential set, including a quote from every president from Washington to Biden. My STEM friends ended up with three sets to choose from: computer/technology, mathematicians, and scientists (there are a few people who repeat, but I tried to ensure the quotes were different in each set). Before you think I forgot the A in STEAM, I didn’t, there’s a complete set of quotes from famous artists. Physical education teachers often don’t have many bulletin boards, but I created a set with quotes from athletes as well. Finally, the one closest to the area I teach, is the authors set, designed for my friends in ELA. To my music teacher friends, I am sorry, the set of musicians and famous composers has yet to be finished.

This bulletin board, whatever you choose to title it, is truly one of the most popular ones in my classroom. The students really get into curating our collection of quotes, and it helps me learn a lot about who they are how they think. If you have some blank wall space I highly suggest you give it a try. Happy teaching, everyone!

Decorations With A Purpose

Frequency Adverbs Poster–FREE!
Steps To Comprehension Poster–FREE!
Shape Poster–FREE!
CER Posters–FREE!
Story Elements Poster

I have not had themed décor in my classroom for nearly two decades now. It’s not that I’m against it, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it and I marvel at photos of classrooms I see on the internet. I started out theming my bulletin boards and classroom to some degree, but it didn’t work for me. After a couple of years I started to observe my students and take note of what they looked at and utilized in the classroom (something I highly suggest every teacher do, preferably earlier in your career than I did), and I noticed that it was not my beautifully designed/themed décor. What my students actually paid attention to were the things that helped them complete their work. This was a beginning of a shift in how I spent my time, money, and available wall space in the realm of classroom décor.

This change was reinforced by a conversation I had with a student several years after my approach to classroom décor altered (please forgive the grammar, my students are all English language learners):

Student: Miss, you have a poster that tell how do the math!

Me: I know, I put it there, you can go look at it if you want.

Student: Why you do that? It tell answer!

Me: You’re right, it tells you how to find the answer. I did it because I want you to know how to find the answer. Knowledge isn’t a secret, I want you to learn as much as you can. {students gets a confused, I think my teacher is crazy, look on her face} Why don’t you go look at the poster and then work on your math some more?

This conversation made me a little sad because the student had obviously come to the conclusion that teachers are supposed to try and hide information from them in some way, as if knowledge is something that is to be kept secret. This, of course, is not the case, and I don’t know any teachers who would try to do this. While knowledge is something to be worked for, it is not a secret. I want my students to work and seek out knowledge, but I don’t want them to feel as if they have to somehow beat the system or cheat in order to learn and succeed. This clip from the television show, Boy Meets World (season 2, episode 20) sums my point up nicely:

Every teacher I know does everything he/she can to help students grow, learn, and succeed. That is why we create resources and enjoy talking with other teachers about new ideas and methods. My move away from themed/coordinated decorations was another way that I could do this (Kudos to you if you can manage to produce anchor charts, word walls, and other decorations that are also coordinated to a central theme, I cannot!). The focus on anchor charts and other decorations that help students remember procedures and detailed information also goes along with my desire to give more authentic assessments. In order to keep the walls from getting too cluttered, I have a few things that stay up year-round (such as my word wall, genre/author’s purpose wall, and famous quotes board), but other resources get rotated based on what we’re learning. I try to have up the resources related to the unit we just finished and the one on which we’re currently working.

I’ve included links to several of my various posters/anchor charts in other blog posts (click the pictures to go to the poster, click the blue captions to go to the blog posts), but I’ve seen so many social media posts lately about classroom themes/decorations that I wanted to explain how and why my thinking on the matter has changed. I also thought it’d be a great opportunity to share with you some of the various posters and anchor charts that I’ve been successfully using for years (many of them are free). Again, I have only admiration for the beautifully themed classrooms out there, and I stand in awe of teachers who can theme their anchor charts and word walls too. This is simply what works for me and my students, and hopefully it will be an encouragement to others who, like me, find the prospect of theming and coordinating an entire classroom’s décor a little daunting. Happy teaching, everyone!

Need some posters/anchor charts for math? I’ve got you covered:

New Teacher Classroom Purchases & Setup

Each year in May I start seeing the same basic post appearing in every teacher group I’m part of on Facebook. A newly-graduated, soon-to-be first-year teacher wants to know what he/she should be doing to prepare for the coming school year, specifically what he/she should be buying an how he/she should be decorating and setting up his/her classroom.

For a long time I scrolled by these posts thinking, “Wow! That’s great! I bet that person will make a good teacher, he/she seems really excited. I don’t really have an answer to his/her question though.” The more I thought about it, the more I realized I was wrong. I do have an answer to this question, several in fact, and I wish someone had shared this information with me when I was first starting out. So, today I’d like to share with you an open letter to all first-year/novice teachers regarding purchasing materials for and setting up your classroom.

Dear New Teacher Colleague,

Congratulations on your new job! I know you’re anxious to start buying things and planning your classroom, and I have no doubt you’ll do a great job, but could I give you some advice I wish someone had given me 20+ years ago when I first started? You see, when I see your questions about “must-haves” and “amazing” things for the classroom, I am not really sure what to say. I am not you, I don’t know your teaching style, situation, or any of the important details that go into answering that question. What I can tell you though is that I spent a lot of time and money on things that I thought were necessary and amazing, many of them recommended to me by other teachers, and much of it ended up being wasted. So, while I can’t give you a list of items to add to your wish list (though I’ll try), I would like to share with you three principles that, had I known and followed them when I first started, would have saved me a lot of time and money.

1. When decorating and setting up your classroom everything should serve one of two purposes: to further your students’ learning, to make your job as an educator easier. If it doesn’t accomplish at least one of those two things, it either doesn’t belong in your classroom or is in the wrong location. Cute, Pinterest-perfect classrooms are great, but functional classrooms where students learn and teachers teach are better. Perfectly color-coordinated themed décor makes for great photos, but it doesn’t necessarily result in student learning. Focus on enhancing student learning and making your job easier (because we all know everyone else is going to make it harder!). More on decorating with a purpose in next week’s post (including links to some free and low-cost items that have graced my classroom walls for years).

2. If you must buy things (either because you just can’t help yourself or you happen to get one of the 10 positions available with a classroom budget), stick to the storable, consumable basics. You don’t know what the school will supply, parents will supply, previous teachers will leave in the room, retiring teachers will give you, or the PTA will donate. So purchase things that won’t go bad and if they are supplied/donated you can save yours for later. Some things that would fall into this category (and the category of you-can-never-have-enough) would be: pencils, erasers, colored pencils, markers, copy paper, lined paper, dry erase markers, glue sticks, and construction paper. Look for the sales, buy as much as they’ll allow (many stores allow teachers double or triple the limit), and store it–especially pencils and erasers, the kids must eat them, it’s the only explanation for how they can go through so many… I’ll say it again, having a Pinterest-perfect classroom makes for great photos, but your perfectly themed and color-coordinated decoration won’t help much when the students have nothing to write with or on. Oh, and one last thing: as tempting as it is, don’t cheap out on the off-brands and dollar store versions. It may seem like a good deal, but the lower performance, lower quality, and lack of durability will end up costing you far more in the long run. Buy the Crayola pencils and markers, buy the Elmer’s glue sticks, the Expo markers… your sanity is worth it.

3. Take time to get to know yourself as a teacher before investing a lot of money in durable classroom supplies/decorations. I wish I’d done this, it would have saved me a lot of money! Will you have everything you want? No, but just as a young adult you don’t have a home with everything your parents have, you are a young teacher and can’t expect to have everything your veteran colleagues have. It takes time to get to know your style and needs/wants. It takes time to gather all of those supplies, games, books, etc. Stick with the basics for now: a good electric pencil sharpener, a long-arm stapler, a laminator (I recommend a cold laminator as you can cut through it without worrying about it peeling, it doesn’t require warm up time, and is very portable), a couple pairs of nice scissors, and maybe a paper cutter (guillotine). All of these things will also help you as you create and purchase task cards, games, and other manipulatives for your students. Invest the time to print, laminate, and cut them on cardstock the first time around, it’ll save you a lot of time and energy (and money) later. Other teachers in your building will be happy to loan you more durable manipulatives, games, etc. Borrow their manipulatives and games, try them out, take note of what you like and what you don’t. Then you’ll be able to make better, wiser purchases that will work for you and your students.

The fact that you’re already thinking about and planning for your classroom tells me you’re going to be great. I am truly excited to have you as a new colleague. I hope you have a wonderful and successful first year!

Happy teaching, everyone!

Descriptive Shape Vocabulary

Free Shape Vocabulary Poster Set
Free Shape Vocabulary Poster Set
Free Shape Vocabulary Poster Set
Guess My Shape Game

Last fall I saw a Facebook post asking if anyone had a shapes vocabulary poster that included the adjective, as well as the noun form, of each shape name. I realized that I had no such poster, the value of such a thing, and decided to make one. The one turned into a three page set (tabloid size, 11 x 17 inches) as I decided to include some 3D shapes, as well as 2D. The posters are free to download, simply click one of the pictures or links.

Shape vocabulary isn’t something I think about much anymore, but it is something I’ve had to teach quite a bit in the past. I spent a lot of time with it when I was teaching a middle school self-contained class of newcomers and we had to do a geometry unit (geometry is my math nemesis). I tried everything that semester from a very basic shape book for my newest arrivals (it’s actually something I developed and used the year I taught kindergarten, first, and second grade beginning ELLs) to a version of shape quotations that I read about on another blog. I had a shape vocabulary poster, of course, and my students all had shape vocabulary stickers in their math notebooks, but the idea of including the adjective form of the words never occurred to me. Looking back on it, I wish I’d thought of it then, but it’s going to have to be one for the “better late than never” pile and I’ll do it from now on.

When I was teaching that dreaded geometry unit, my students’ favorite game to practice the various vocabulary they were learning was Guess My Shape Game. The game was inspired as I was watching students play Guess Who to practice their vocabulary for describing people. They were doing a great job, using a lot of the vocabulary we’d been learning for body parts and clothing, and it got me thinking about the shape vocabulary we’d been learning. My students were doing fairly well with basic shape names, but were struggling with vocabulary for shape attributes, such as edge, vertices, etc. I thought, “This would be the perfect game to practice such vocabulary, they’d have to ask questions that use the vocabulary words to guess the correct shape.”

That night I went home and started work on my first ever Cover Up Game. The game was created by making a game board for each student with twelve different 2D shapes on it. Since students would be choosing different shapes to be the “mystery shape” from a pile of cards, both boards could be identical and had no need of the numbers my other cover up boards have (this also means the game doesn’t require the 12-sided dice the other cover up games do). The shape cards were just a slightly larger version of the shapes on the game board and without the name labels. I printed everything on cardstock and laminated the boards and cards for durability. (Side note: as much as possible I use cold lamination for my games and activities. It is thicker than hot and never peels, even as it ages or after you cut through it. I have some games that I laminated, cut, and have been using for over two decades. The students have bent the pieces and I’ve wiped them down with disinfecting wipes and they still look brand new!)

The game is simple to play:

  1. The students each draw a shape card, keeping it secret from their opponent.
  2. Students take turns asking yes or no questions about the mystery shape’s attributes.
  3. Students use the information gained from their questions to mark off shapes that don’t fit the criteria. (example: If the mystery shape has four edges, it cannot be a circle or a triangle, so those shapes would be marked off.)
  4. When a student thinks he/she knows what the mystery shape is, he/she asks, “Is your shape a _________?” If correct, he/she is the winner. If not, the game continues.

Since students can draw multiple cards, the game can be played over and over with the same partners. Sometimes we’d have a tournament and students would change partners every round based on if they won or lost.

Marking off the shapes that don’t fit the given criteria can be done in different ways. I suggest either using dry erase markers to X them out or some type of cover. Favorite covers in my class include milk jug lids, mini erasers, and plastic counters. Ultimately it doesn’t really matter what you use as a cover, but since there is the potential for needing as many as 11 covers per student, you want something that is cheap and easy to replace when lost or damaged.

I can’t remember who posted that question about a shape vocabulary poster on Facebook, but I wish I could. I’d like to thank him or her for inspiring me to create something new and starting my trip down memory lane. It’s been years since I thought about that geometry unit! Whoever that might have been, if you read this post, thank you! Happy teaching, everyone!

Sentence Types Mobile Project

Sentence Types Mobile Project Rubric and Templates: FREE
Sentence Types Cover Up Game: Paper
Sentence Types Cover Up Game: Digital

I don’t know about you, but I hate teaching sentence types. Declarative, interrogative, exclamatory, imperative…who cares! As long as students can write and correctly punctuate a sentence, I’m happy. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees with me and I do have to teach the formal terms for the four types of sentences. Fortunately, no one really seems to care how I teach the information, so long as the students learn it. Today I’d like to share with you one activity and one game that all of my students enjoy when learning this particular vocabulary.

Sentence Types Mobile Project

As you have probably figured out by now, and I explain in my Authentic Open Book Assessments post, I’m not a big fan of traditional assessments. I prefer what I call “cheating-resistant” or “non-Googleable” assessments. I’m also a big fan of assignments that result in classroom displays (see my posts on Appetizing Adjectives, Picture Perfect Prepositions, Pronoun Snowpeople, and Shades of Meaning for more examples). So, rather than assign a worksheet where students fill in the correct end punctuation and label the sentence types, or a similar assessment, I decided to have them create mobiles. Each mobile had several required elements: all four sentence types had to be named, definitions for all sentence types, end punctuation for each sentence type had to be indicated, and three example sentences for each type had to be included. How students put their mobile together and communicated this information was up to their imagination. All I asked was that their final product be creative, neat, and organized. Yes, I do realize that students could still Google the definitions and example sentences. Yes, I do realize that they could still cheat. But it is much less likely for them to be able to do this when they complete the assignment in class. Let’s also be honest here: if a student really wants to cheat, he/she will find a way. I just do the best I can and ask the same of them.

The creativity of students never ceases to amaze me! I provide them with construction paper, glue, yarn, hangers, hole punches, and markers. If they want to use other supplies they are welcome to anything in the classroom, or they can bring them from home. Some students have brought things such as glitter (which I grudgingly allowed and then regretted), but most have been content to work with the supplies we had on hand. One particularly creative student brought in a craft ring and fashioned a three-point hanger out of the yarn. Another student attempted to make punctuation marks out of balloons, trying to twist and bend them as you would a balloon animal, but wasn’t totally successful. Suffice it to say, the end results are always at least interesting, and often inspiring.

To make the use of this particular activity easier, I have a free download for you. The download includes a very brief project requirements description, a simple rubric, and templates you can allow the students to use (if you choose) or you can use to create an example mobile. You can get the download by clicking on the picture above, or either of the links in this paragraph.

Sentence Types Training Game

The game we like to play is another of my cover up games. You can read all about cover up games in the linked blog post, but I’ll give you a brief description now. The goal of cover up is to be the first person to completely cover your game board. Generally I use milk jug lids as covers (because they are free and plentiful at my house), but other popular options with my classes have been counters and mini erasers (some kind of dog themed eraser would be cute with this particular game). On a student’s turn, he or she will roll either two six-sided dice or one twelve-sided die. The student then finds the corresponding square on his/her game board and states what type of sentence it is. If he/she is correct, he/she covers the space. If the corresponding space is already covered, the student does nothing and his/her turn is over. Sometimes my students prefer to play with the additional rule that allows them to remove their opponent’s cover from the indicated space, but we don’t always do this.

This particular game is themed around sentences you might say to your dog. I play up the fact that I often talk to my dog, Karah, and she often gets confused. The students need to help her by correctly categorizing and punctuating the sentences on the board. Even my older students think it’s funny I talk to my dog (and will generally admit to doing the same), and it allows me to be a little silly with them. Each playing board has twelve unique sentences, so when students finish one game they are able to trade boards and play again immediately.

As with many of my games and activities, this particular one needed to be adapted for distance learning. The paper version is great, but it doesn’t work so well while teaching digitally. A digital version is also available, and students enjoy playing it just as much. To create the digital version, I simply adjusted the “Dice” Script that my husband wrote for me so it would allow students to “roll” a number between one and twelve, rather than one and six. The students really like playing the various digital board games, and I really like how these scripts allow them to play without having to move between multiple tabs or programs.

Sadly I haven’t come up with a digital alternative to our mobile project, so we had to forego doing it this year. In the meantime, we enjoyed playing Sentence Types Training Game, and are looking forward to the fall and hopefully being back in the classroom. Happy teaching, everyone!

Appetizing Adjectives

Last fall I told you about one of my favorite adjective board games, Alphabet Adjective Zig-Zag (check it out, it’s free!). Today I’d like to tell you about two other adjective activities my students and I love. Both activities require only common classroom materials (paper, scissorsglue sticks) and grocery store ads. 

Before we get to the activities, let me tell you how I supply my students with grocery ads. The first thing I do is save the ones that come in the mail each week. This ensures that I have a good variety, and it’s really not a difficult task; I just toss them into an old paper box in my basement, rather than the recycle bin. If I’m in need of large quantities of ads, I will visit the local stores shortly before closing time (or in the late evening if it’s a 24-hour store) on the day the ad expires. Ask at the service counter and they’ll happily give you all they have, or tell you to help ​yourself from the display, they’re going to throw them out in a few hours anyway. You don’t get the variety this way, but it does quickly give you a very large quantity.

Delicious Descriptions
The first activity I want to share with you is one I do with my beginning and low intermediate students. Each student will need a poster board or large sheet of paper (bulletin board paper works, or visit a place where they print newspapers, they’ll often sell you an end roll very cheaply), scissorsglue stickmarkers, and grocery ads. They may want a ruler as well, but that is optional. Have the students divide their paper into 28 squares (seven rows of four squares each works best). Use the first two squares as the title for the project. In each of the remaining 26 squares write a letter from A-Z. Put the letter in the upper right or left corner, it shouldn’t take up much room. Students are now ready to begin work.

The first step of the assignment is to find a food that begins with each letter of the alphabet, cut it out, and glue it into the correct square. I allow students to count brand names as the letter for the more difficult to find letters (such as Q and X). Grocery ads are great for beginning learners because all of the foods are labeled, providing them with the needed vocabulary support. The second step of the project is to label each food with it’s name and a descriptive adjective. I allow my lower level students to use any adjectives they can think of (but I tell them they can only use an adjective three times in the entire project), such as “red apple.” More advanced students are not allowed to use colors or shapes as adjectives, and I challenge them to use alliteration whenever possible (I’ll often offer extra credit as an added incentive). Some descriptions are still fairly basic, such as “amazing apples,” but others get quite creative, i.e.: “wrinkly pasta” for rotini. Sometimes I’ll also challenge more advanced students to write complete sentences for each food, but not too often.

The final posters are always very colorful, and make great classroom displays. Other than making everyone hungry, no one has ever complained about this particular activity. As a teacher, I love the rich vocabulary practice, and the built-in support. 

Cafeteria Cuisine
Delicious Descriptions is not challenging enough for my intermediate and advanced students, so they have a different project: Cafeteria Cuisine. The goal of the project is to imagine the school cafeteria as a restaurant and create a menu for it. I provide them with copies of the school’s lunch menu for the month and example menus from real restaurants. (Side Note: I actually spent several months asking different restaurant mangers/owners if they’d be willing to give me a real menu, rather than a paper take-out one, that I could use with my students. Almost all of them were more than happy to help, and now I have a nice collection.) You can do this project with just normal paper and markers, but it’s much easier on a computer. When I first started doing this project many years ago, we used Microsoft Publisher’s tri-fold brochure layout to make our menus. Today I like to use Google’s Applied Digital Skills lesson, Create a Brochure, which teaches students how to make a trifold brochure in Google Drawings. This saves me a lot of time because the step-by-step instruction is already done, and the program is much more user friendly. 

Students are responsible for creating a name, logo, and the menu itself. I tell them their menu must include drinks, sides, mains, and desserts sections. Each item on the menu must have a one to two sentence description, and include a minimum of three adjectives (adjectives can be in the name or description). Other than those few requirements (name, logo, menu with description, at least three adjective for each item), students are free to do whatever they choose. They have a blast and the results are always amazing! I like to share their final products with the cafeteria workers at the school, and they always enjoy seeing what the students have done. At one school we only had two cafeteria employees, a husband and wife team, and they cherished the students’ work. When they retired over a decade later the students’ menus were some of the things they made sure to take with them. 

These projects were lifesavers for me when I was teaching multi-level groups! I could teach the same introductory lesson to all of my students, and they could work on their individual projects simultaneously. Those two-four days were a nice break for me, as I was usually trying to do my best imitation of a one room schoolhouse teacher, facilitating up to four unique lessons a class period. Even now, years after those days, my students and I still really like these projects. I hope your students enjoy them as much as mine have. Happy teaching, everyone!

Wanting to go beyond basic adjectives? Check out my comparative and superlative adjectives board game, it’s available in both paper and digital formats ($1 each):

Picture Perfect Prepositions

In October, I blogged about some of my students’ favorite preposition practice activities, Mousy Prepositions and More Preposition Fun. Today I’d like to share with you yet another fun, and free (utilizes common classroom supplies), preposition practice activity or assessment: Picture Perfect Prepositions, a scavenger hunt activity.

The goal of this activity is to assess students’ understanding of various prepositions. Most of our practice activities are very hands-on, requiring students to demonstrate their knowledge of prepositions, which is great. The problem lies in my having something concrete to assess. As I alluded to in my last post, Authentic Open Book Assessments?, I prefer to give open ended, even project based, assessments. If I can find a game, or activity based assessment, so much the better. This prepositions scavenger hunt is the perfect assessment in my opinion. It is very hands-on, provides the students opportunity to be creative, gives me an authentic and accurate assessment of their knowledge, is fun, and even results in a classroom display!

The teacher preparation of this activity is very fast. All I do is prepare a list of 5-10 prepositions that I want to assess. Occasionally I’ll give a list of 15-20 prepositions, and allow students to choose which to include in their final submission. I adjust the number of required words based on how much time we have in class to do the activity. After preparing my list, all I have to do is grab my box of old magazines and catalogs (anything with pictures that students can cut up; I keep a box in my basement and throw in anything that comes in the mail from magazines to Christmas toy catalogs, to advertisements), some glue sticksscissors, and white copy paper. Everything else is up to the students.

Students then hunt for, and cut out, pictures that represent each preposition, glue them onto the copy paper, and write a sentence that describes the picture using the target preposition. As you can see from the pictures, their grammar isn’t always perfect, and their sentences are often very simple, but it is clear they understand the prepositions.

Every student is different in how long he/she takes to complete this project, but on average it takes my high

beginner to low intermediate students about two 45 minute class periods to complete ten sentences (allowing time for students to get materials out, work, and clean up each day).

​I tell students to write their names on the back of the pictures (though they don’t always listen to that part of the directions), and after I record grades, I put the pictures up in our classroom for everyone to enjoy. While it may not be the prettiest of classroom displays, my administrators have always had positive things to say about the students’ work, and are generally impressed at the level of language they are able to produce. 

My students have always found scavenger hunts to be fun activities, and I am able to check my students’ mastery of many skills that would otherwise be relegated to boring worksheet-based assessments. Stay tuned, because on Thursday I’m going to share a similar activity we do with adjectives. Happy teaching, everyone!

October 2022 Update: check out Where Do I Need To Go? for yet another free, non-worksheet activity that includes preposition practice!

Shades of Meaning

Teaching synonyms is a never ending process. Often, around Halloween, I will introduce my word cemetery bulletin board (now also a digital activity), and students will complete synonym graphic organizers, decorate tombstones, and look up synonyms for words we’ve declared dead. This board quickly grows stale though, and I need other synonym activities to keep students learning new words.

A second classroom decoration producing activity we do is shades of meaning. This activity is simple and virtually preparation free. The only thing I have to prep ahead of time is obtaining the paint chip cards. I do this by asking stores that sell paint if they have any of the paint chips with four or five different shades of a color all on the same card that I could have. Stores are always happy to help and I’ve never had a lack of supply. Besides the paint shade cards, all that is required are some markers, letters for the display title, and some form of thesauri (Word Hippo is a favorite digital version of ours).

To begin the activity we review what synonyms are and how to use a thesaurus. I take things a step further though and we talk about degrees of meaning. I want students to realize that synonyms aren’t all equal, and some words have stronger meanings (or at least connotations) than others. The baby was crying, but was it whimpering, sobbing, wailing…?

After our review and discussion, each student is given a set of overused words (anywhere from 1-4, depending on the number of students and how much time we have), a piece of paper, and access to a thesaurus. They then look up the overused words, consider the synonyms, and choose three or four of them to work with. The challenge of the task comes in that they can’t just simply write the synonyms in any order they choose. They need to put the words in order from strongest to weakest. In order to be issued a paint card and marker, students must show me their list of words and explain why they ordered them in the way they did. Once they have successfully ordered their words, and explained their reasoning, students then write the words (one per shade) on the paint chips, placing the weakest word in the lightest shade. 

I like this project because it helps students understand that language can be very precise, as well as descriptive. The requirement to explain their reasoning behind the ordering of the words always leads to some interesting discussions, and more than once a student has put words into an order I initially disagreed with, but they made a convincing argument that won me over. I also like how they have to really dig into the synonyms, not just copy them from the thesaurus. You can’t successfully rank words by strength, and defend your choices, without knowing what each individual word means, and how it differs in meaning from the other synonyms. Ultimately students end up considering the synonyms’ definitions and example sentences, as well as other factors when making their choices. Ultimately this quick (the entire process takes one class period or less) activity produces a lot of learning!

Steps to Comprehension

Steps to Comprehension Posters

We’ve all experienced it, the desire to scream, cry, pull our hair out, do something, when students answer basic knowledge-level questions incorrectly. It dives me absolutely insane having to watch students take a test and get questions wrong, especially when the answer is right there in the text. I just want to say (ok, shout), “Look back at the text! Read!” Thankfully, most of my students eventually stop putting me through this torture and learn to look back at the text before answering. How do I get them to do this? A combination of a lot of explicit instruction, a ​set of posters displayed prominently in my room, and just a little bit of “torture,” middle school teacher style.​

One of the first poster sets I put up every year, and leave up all year, is my Steps to Comprehension posters. This is a set of seven footprints with the steps I teach my students to follow when answering any comprehension question. The first poster simply says, “Steps to Comprehension.” Each of the other footprints lists a single step:

  1. Read the question and choices.
  2. Read the passage.
  3. Read the question and choices again.
  4. Find a sentence or two that tells the answer.
  5. Read the question and choices again.
  6. Mark your answer.

These are simple steps, but it is amazing how much reinforcement it takes to get students to follow them.

Once school begins I dive straight into explicit teaching and reinforcement of these steps. Before introducing and reading our very first piece of text for the year, I point out the posters and we talk about them. We read each step and talk about how doing this action will help us answer the question(s). I then introduce our text and model the steps, verbalizing the thoughts that go through my head as I am reading and comprehending a passage. We work through several texts over several days (weeks, months…) as a group, the whole time verbalizing our thinking/rational for what we’re doing. I encourage the students to, whenever possible, underline the sentence(s) that help them answer the question and write the question number next to them. To be sure students are getting enough practice, I like to use daily reading comprehension practices as part of our morning/bell work. I have quite a collection of photocopiable books for this purpose, but two of my favorite publishers are Evan-Moor and Scholastic. As they begin working through the process on their own, students don’t verbalize their thoughts as much, but I still require them to underline and number sentences to support their answer choices. As we go over the answers I will encourage students to share what sentences they underlined and why for different questions.

Eventually, once students are proficient with the steps, and are consistently able to correctly answer various levels of comprehension questions, I allow them to choose if they want to continue underlining sentences or not. There is a caveat though (this is where the “torture” comes in), any student who does not complete a comprehension assignment with 90% (or whatever percentage I deem fair) accuracy or better, must correct his/her mistakes AND underline sentences in the reading. He/she is also required to underline sentences from the beginning for the next comprehension assignment. The students hate having to correct their mistakes, and most hate underlining the sentences to begin with, so it usually only takes enforcing this rule once or twice before all students are scrupulously applying the steps to comprehension.

This simple set of posters and small adjustment to my lessons made a huge difference with my students. Students still get questions wrong from time to time, but nearly as often, and almost never a basic knowledge-level question that is answered directly in the text. The poster set can be downloaded for free by clicking the picture or link above. Happy teaching, everyone!

Describe That Picture!

Describe That Picture! Free Digital Activity
Describe It! Free Poster

While Mr. Potato Head may be the most popular descriptive writing activity I do with my students, he is far from the only one. The second most popular lesson is probably Describe That Picture! I think the reason the students like this one so much is because they don’t have to do all the thinking on their own. The brainstorming part of the assignment is a group effort. Allow me to explain further…

The set up of this activity is slightly more involved than Mr. Potato Head, but not much, and the storage is a lot easier! You will need 4-6 pictures (depending on how many students you want in a group) of different subjects. I have a set of about 12 that I’ve found over the years, printed on full-size sheets of paper, and laminated. I found most of them by looking at the results of various Google image searches and saving what caught my eye. Since I wasn’t selling or distributing them in any way I wasn’t too concerned about copyright (I told students the images weren’t mine), but if you’re looking to find royalty free images that are marked for reuse, Pixaby is always my go-to option. I’ve also used postcards at times, but find they are a little smaller than students like, and more difficult to see. You will also need several large sheets of paper, one for each image in each group. In the past I’ve varied between using pieces of bulletin board paper taped to the wall, and sheets of ledger size paper placed on tables. I think easel pads would also work well, but never had one to try it out. The final thing you’ll need is a different color marker for each student in the group. Once you have your supplies, create your stations by placing a large piece of paper and an image at various locations around the room. You want to give students enough room to work, but not spread out too much because you’ll have more than one group working at a time. 

Students complete the activity by choosing a marker and a photo to start with. A timer is set (I always used one on my smart board or my phone) and students are given 60 seconds to write down as many descriptive words and phrases as possible for their photos. Once time is called, students all move one photo over (taking their markers with them), and start again. For the second, and all following rounds, I give students 90 seconds because they first have to read what those before them wrote. They are told to not repeat what other students have said. I encourage students to try to write at least 3-5 things for each photo. We continue rotating and writing until students have viewed and wrote notes about each photo.

Students then return to their original photo and read over the descriptive words and phrases their classmates wrote. If there are any questions, or words they don’t know/can’t read, they are given time to consult with their group members. They then use the words and phrases from the brainstorming paper to help them compose a descriptive paragraph for the photo. I tell students that they don’t have to use all of the suggestions, but to try and use as many as possible. I also encourage them to make inferences about the events of, before, and after the picture in order to create a descriptive narrative, rather than just a paragraph about what they can see.

Since remote learning and social distancing have become the norm for this year, I needed to tweak this activity. I chose to make it digital by creating a Google Slides deck for each group. I chose Slides because it is familiar to my students, but I can easily see this working with Jamboard, Padlet, and a host of other apps as well. The first slide of the deck has directions for the students (basically the same as described above, but I give 90 seconds for all rounds to keep things even and give students time to remember how to work the digital components). Slides 2-6 are the brainstorming slides. On each slide is a photo (most from Pixaby), “infinite” piles of digital sticky notes in five different colors, a 90 second timer (YouTube video), and a button that links to the paragraph slide for later. To make the “infinite” piles I used the shape tool to draw my sticky note, changed its color, formatted the text, copied and pasted it about 30 times, selected all of the shapes, aligned them to the middle, and then aligned them to the center. I then dragged the entire pile to the location I wanted it, copied and pasted the entire pile, changed the color of the new pile, and dragged it to where I wanted the second pile to be. I continued pasting, changing the color, and dragging the piles until I had five. Slides 7-11 have the pictures repeated, a text box for the paragraphs, and a button that links back to the corresponding brainstorming page. The hyperlinked “Paragraph” and “Notes” buttons allow students to quickly jump between the brainstorming and corresponding paragraph slides as they write. 

Once I had my slides set up, all that was left to do was share it with the students. I made a copy for each group, and shared the appropriate copy with all group members receiving editing rights. Students were then able to complete the activity in real time from wherever they were. I can also assign them the activity in stages, giving brainstorming an earlier due date than the paragraph, for asynchronous learning.

Describe That Picture! really is a fun activity, and I always enjoy seeing what the students come up with! You can get the Google Slides deck for free by using one of the links in this blog, or the button below. You can also get the free five senses poster I hang in my classroom, and more descriptive writing activity ideas via the same methods. Happy teaching, everyone!