Are You a Good Listener?

Four Steps to Learn About Students Through Listening

This past week, I had my students read an article about assessing students at the beginning of the school year and the article described listening to students as a form of assessment. I was met with skepticism about the idea that listening to students can be a form of assessment. We learn quite a bit about our students just by listening to them. Hearing their thoughts, what they have to say about a topic, and their stories from life outside of school can provide insight into their interests and background and can help us make connections to the curriculum content. 

During the time of COVID-19, listening better to others has been a popular topic. As  Zoom has replaced face-to-face encounters, it has become increasingly challenging to listen to others for prolonged periods of time. So, how do we listen better over Zoom? And, how do we listen better to our students when we are not seeing them face-to-face on a daily basis? Below are suggestions to help you be a better listener this year: 

  1. Eye Contact: 

My kids were playing together one afternoon last week and I overheard my older daughter telling her sister that she needs to look her in the eye when she’s speaking instead of looking at a toy. Clearly, she was learning about eye contact in school! Intention is where it starts! If you intend to listen and hear what a student has to say, start by looking at her when she is speaking. This can be applied to both in person and remote teaching. Looking the speaker in the eyes also teaches the student that she should look at you (rather than at her desk or something else) when you are speaking to her. 

  1. Avoid Multitasking: 

Life is busy today, especially for teachers who are teaching in so many different formats. Whether you are teaching virtual or in person, try and focus on the student who is speaking and what is being said rather than doing something else. You would not want to miss out on hearing a funny story because you were sorting through paperwork. 

  1. Ask Better Questions: 

If you already know the answer to the question you are asking, my suggestion is to find a new question to ask. We often do not listen well to others because we do not ask interesting questions. Questions like How’s it going? or How are you doing today? usually result in similar answers. Instead, ask questions that the students need to think about and that you do not know the answer to. Here are some of the questions to consider asking: 

  • What’s your goal for today? What are you excited to learn about today? 
  • What did you do when you read that sentence? Tell me about what you did to read that sentence. 
  • What is the best book you have read recently? Why did you like it so much?
  • Who is your favorite author? What do you like about this author’s books? 
  • What about reading is challenging for you? 
  • What about reading is fun for you? 
  • Who do you know who is a good writer? Why is that person a good writer? 
  1. Listen! Put Thoughts of Your Response on Hold:

Here’s the most challenging part of careful listening – rather than prepare your response while the student is speaking, listen instead! We can’t truly hear the answer if we are wrapped up in our response. Instead, try and hear the student while he is speaking and then consider your response.

By listening carefully to the readers and writers in our classroom, we are able to learn about the strategies they use as they are engaging in reading and writing as well as how the students are making meaning of texts and sharing their thoughts and ideas. Here’s to a fall season of listening to and learning about the readers and writers in our classrooms! Just remember to document what you learn! 😊

Everyday, Getting Better at Getting Better

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I started teaching last week. And, this fall I am teaching over Zoom. My first class did not go as it normally does – the students did not walk into the classroom, find a table with a familiar face, sit down and begin catching up before class. I was not able to move the students around the classroom, putting them into different groups to meet their classmates. Nor was I able to do the usual Getting to Know You Icebreakers. 

The argument can be made that we are teaching and our students are learning during a time of crisis. We are teaching through uncertainty as well as pain and suffering. However, times of difficulty can also be times of hope and possibility because the challenging experience will provide a new perspective and awareness, which will give new opportunities for teaching and learning. 

The first Zoom class I taught was new to everyone – the students and me. I have never had to begin a semester in a virtual setting, and the first class felt strange, different, and a bit challenging – for everyone. At first, each of the students came into the classroom with their cameras off, making it seem as though I was introducing myself to blank boxes. But, by the second day, everyone had seemed to settle into this new way of teaching and learning, including arriving with their cameras and microphones on, ready to engage in discussion, which got me thinking – Everyday, we are getting better at getting better. While the virtual classroom is new, each day we are adjusting to it and getting better at it. This fall is like none we as teachers or students have experienced. Therefore, there are going to be bumps in the road as we adjust and refine our methods.  

Everyday, Getting Better at Getting Better has become my motto for the semester. Each day, we will get better and by the end, my hope is that my students and I will have a positive perspective on virtual learning, which includes new possibilities.

Do you have a motto that is keeping you going during this time? 

If so, share in the comment section below!

New School Year, New Beginnings

Welcome to the Literacy Teacher’s Life! This is your go-to blog about instruction for teaching reading and writing, as well as living the life you want to live! If you are a literacy educator, this is the space to help you as you plan your reading and writing instruction for students. My name is Elizabeth, and I am a teacher who has been in your shoes. When I started teaching elementary school, I had so many questions: What systems to put in place? When and how do I communicate with families and colleagues? What am I going to teach the students in my classroom?

I love beginnings! And, the start of the school year is one of my favorite times of the year because it is a time of new routines and new possibilities. Though the start of this school year looks different from any other beginning of the school year we’ve ever experienced, there are still things that can be done to make this time feel fresh and new. Here are some start-of-the-school-year routines and rituals that I am still doing this year:

Setting up a Classroom Space

This is going to be a first day of school unlike any other we’ve experienced. While setting up our classroom space is always exciting, now, for many of us, we have not set up a socially distanced classroom or a virtual classroom. This summer, I have been thinking through my office space and how I can use it to effectively teach. I set up my new whiteboard and have chart paper and markers in one spot that is easily accessible. I spent time organizing the children’s books I will need when teaching. My goal is to make my teaching materials readily available when I need them! This applies to teaching in a classroom setting or a home office turned virtual classroom. 

Right before schools moved to remote instruction in March, one of my students, who teaches in Brooklyn, brought home as many of her teaching materials as possible and set up a classroom in her basement. She put up one bulletin board filled with her students’ work and another bulletin board with the daily routines. Having materials that the students used in the classroom on a daily basis visible during her remote lessons helped the students feel more comfortable and kept a sense of normalcy.

I recently spoke with another student who just landed a new teaching position. She will be teaching face-to-face this fall and called me to talk through high-traffic areas in the classroom and how to manage these spaces. She had always envisioned having a writing center in the classroom full of different materials her students could use when crafting pieces. In order to maintain social distancing, she is making writing bins for each of her students and filling them up with different materials they can work with at their desk. The great thing about this is she can rotate and change the materials as needed for each student and can individualize the boxes as students are working on different writing work.

Staying Organized

I would describe myself as a very organized person. I do best when my things are in their rightful place and not scattered all about. To keep organized, I have assigned each class I am teaching a shelf in my office, so that all the materials I need are in one place. This way, everything for my classes goes in a central location so it is easy for me to find.

This fall I have been thinking about how to stay organized with regards to communicating with students. Because I will not see my students in person each week, I want to be upfront with them about how I will respond to emails and course material. Yes – they can set up a Zoom call with me, but it is not the same as stopping by my office to say a quick hi or ask a quick question. So, I have to have a plan in place so that they know what to expect from me. This year, my plan is to respond to emails within 24 hours so I do not keep students waiting or build up unnecessary anxiety. I recently attended an online training with a teacher who said that he and his colleagues have a friendly competition over who can respond to emails the fastest. He always wins! While you do not need to have a competition, figuring out a plan to respond to emails from parents or students will be helpful and alleviate extra stress. Another trick is to set aside specific times each day to check and respond to emails. For example, I tend to look through emails around 3:30PM on weekdays – it’s a time when many emails have come in and I can get responses out before the end of the day.

Buying School Supplies

As someone who enjoys fun notebooks and nice pens, buying school supplies is one of my favorite parts about this time of the year, and it’s one that I do not want to miss out on. Each summer, I typically buy new markers, colored pencils, and chart paper to use with my students. Since I will not be teaching them in person this semester, these supplies are not necessary, but I will need other materials. This year I decided to buy a magnetic white board easel and many different colors of dry erase markers so I can easily model skills and strategies when teaching remotely. It will also allow me to answer questions that come up during synchronous sessions. This has been a very popular purchase with my daughters who love drawing pictures on it and writing lists of toys that they will play with. One item that I did not expect to be purchasing is an external microphone for better quality audio for any videos I create for my students this semester. 

Another key supply I am using as the school year approaches is my planner, which I use to plan my days, weeks, and months. I also have a notebook dedicated to my teaching, which gives me a space to keep track of lesson ideas or areas I need to revisit with my classes. I like colors so I have been using colorful pens when writing. Currently, I have been using and enjoying the Stabilo Point Visco Pens, Gelly Roll pens, and Erin Condren’s Dual Tip Markers.

What are some routines and rituals you are doing this year to get set and situated for the year ahead? Let me know in the comments below!

Picture Books to Learn About Your Students

I try to use authentic books with students as often as possible – starting at the beginning of the school year. This is because it’s important to make the reading-writing connection visible to students, it promotes building trusting relationships with students, and it celebrates the learners in your classroom through authentic writing rather than through generic worksheets.

Reading and writing are reciprocal processes, which means that the reading work the students do supports the students’ writing, and writing through different genres supports reading. Starting at the beginning of the school year, when reading aloud to students, try pointing out the ways the author is using his/her writing to share something about him/herself or tell something about a particular topic. By teaching students to read like a writer, they are learning to pay closer attention to different elements of the writing such as the tone, voice, word choice, setting, and character development. These are all important reading skills that we want to teach students, and they are also important writing skills that we want students to apply to their own pieces. 

It’s very hard to learn from someone you do not trust. Have you ever had a teacher you did not trust? If so, did you learn much from that teacher? The answer to that question is probably not. Without trust, we are much less likely to put energy into trying new things or taking on new or difficult challenges. One way to build trusting relationships with students is to create mentor texts that share parts of yourself and your life with students and then invite the students to share about themselves through their own writing. One thing to keep in mind is that you need to see the child for who he/she really is – not a version of the child you heard about from a previous teacher or another student.

A friend of mine and I were talking in mid-August about busy work and how we dislike being asked to do busy work. I would argue that most people do not like busy work. So, why give students busy work to fill the time? Rather than asking students to complete generic All About Me worksheets at the beginning of the school year, celebrate the learners in your classroom through authentic books and writing. You will learn more about who the student really is as a person and a learner as well as send the message that authentic writing is valued in your classroom. Here are three books and writing activities I use at the beginning of the year with students:

“My Map Book” by Sara Fanelli

This is one of my favorite books to use with students at the beginning of the school year because kids can easily relate to it. “My Map Book” is drawn and told from a child’s perspective, and it encourages readers to examine their own worlds. The author takes the reader on a journey through the maps of her life – a map of her family, a map of her day, and even a map of her tummy! This expands the definition of what a map is and invites students to create the maps of their lives by using similar maps as the author, or they can veering off course and creating maps of other parts of their world. I use “My Map Book” to show students how we read illustrations, so as writers we need to include as many details as possible into illustrations. I also explain how the labels are used by the author to support the reader’s understanding of the map. If you create your own map book to use as a mentor text with students, you are showing your students what is important to you in your life, which will hopefully invite the students to do the same in their own maps. This book and writing activity can be used for any grade – Kindergarten through fifth grade, but the expectations will be different for the different grade levels. For example, a kindergartener may create a book of 2-4 pages and the child may need to dictate the labels so that you (or another adult) can write them. A fifth grader, on the other hand, can expand their maps to places outside of the home and into more of their other interests.

“Best Part of Me: Children Talk About Their Bodies in Pictures and Words” by Wendy Ewald

An award-winning photographer asked children to answer the question, “What’s the best part of you?” The children’s responses are presented in this book. The photographs are in black and white and each child included in the book has written his/her own story in the child’s own handwriting, which I believe is so powerful. While reading the book to students, make sure to point out how we as the readers can get a glimpse into each child’s personality. For example, one of the children, Camila, included four stars that frame the title of her piece as well as her name. These are details that students can include when crafting their pieces. You can do a similar activity with the students by posing the same question, “What’s the best part of you?” and then taking pictures of the students – either in black and white or color. The students can then add the writing to go with their picture and these can be put together and hung up around the classroom. Once finished, the students’ work can be a springboard into conversations about diversity, including ways we are similar to one another, different from each other, and also unique.

“The Important Book” by Margaret Wise Brown

In this book, Margaret Wise Brown (author of “Goodnight Moon”), explores the importance of everyday objects. I love that each poem featured in this book has a structure that can be easily replicated by students. Specifically, the poem begins and ends with the same sentence about the object. The poems include rich vocabulary words, which is wonderful for all students, including students who speak multiple languages. When I have done this with my students, I have asked them to brainstorm objects, activities, or people that are in their everyday life and after selecting one, they write a poem with the same structure as in the book – the same line at the beginning and closing of the poem. Then, they write 3-5 lines about the topic they selected and include an illustration. I have laminated the poems and hung them around the classroom. This book gets poetry into the classroom right from the beginning of the year and shows students that poetry can be fun! Writing is an act of discovery and this book and activity provides students with a structure to follow for their poem, but encourages them to play with the structure. So, they can stay within the rules, but also break the rules at the same time.

What books do you enjoy using with students at the beginning of the year? 

Leave a comment below and let me know what books you are using to learn about your students this fall!

Don’t Fret the First Day!

Beginning of the Year Activities to Help You Learn About Your Students

The beginning of the year is the time to learn about the students who are in your classroom. It is important and necessary to make the time to learn about the background and interests of the students. The first year I taught fifth grade, I fell to the pressure of the other teachers on the grade level. During our team meeting at the start of the school year, the other teachers, who had been working together for many years were joking about who would be the first to get to the content. One of my colleagues advised me to begin teaching math on the second day of the school year and form guided reading groups on the second week of school. Looking back on this now, it was ridiculous that I felt so much pressure to jump right into the content and not spend more time learning about my students and establishing strong routines. What can I say, I was the newest member of a strong and long-standing team, and I felt pressure to “keep up.” Over the years, I have discovered which activities work to learn the most about students, so I am going to share some of my favorites on The Literacy Teacher’s Life:

Photo by Sarah Dietz on

Self Portrait

On the first day of school, regardless of the grade level I am teaching, I ask the students to draw a self-portrait. Having the students create self-portraits is also a writing scaffold because they can use colors, lines, and shapes to communicate emotion and how they see themselves. It also allows students to show their other abilities and talents and sends the message from day one that literacy is more than words on a page, but rather how we see the world and make meaning of our lives.

Teaching Tip!

I hang the self-portraits around the room or on a clothing string line that hangs from the ceiling. Once I take them down, I do not send them home with the students, but I keep them in their files. At the end of the school year, I ask the students to draw another self-portrait. When I hand them their self-portrait from the beginning of the school year, it is always fun to see how they have changed during the year.

Going Remote?

This activity can be done virtually! Have students create a self-portrait and send a photo of the completed project to you with a few sentences either written or in a voice memo about themselves. The completed self-portraits can be featured in a Google Slides presentation so that the students can meet each other.

Photo by Julia M Cameron on

Me Bag

The Me Bag is my favorite beginning of the year activity that can be done at any grade level. The idea behind the Me Bag is that each student will fill up a bag with items such as pictures and sentimental objects that represent themselves. Then, when they are introducing themselves to the class, they can pull out the objects or photos to help explain who they are, which provides a great visual. One year a student had sunglasses in her Me Bag and I assumed she included them because she enjoyed being in the sun or enjoyed the beach. She explained that sunglasses are a very important part of her identity and she wears them daily due to the very blue color of her eyes, which are extremely sensitive to sunlight. Allowing students to explain why they included each item breaks down assumptions and gives students the space to speak and tell about themselves. Me Bags can be presented and shared with the whole class, but if students are more reluctant to speak in front of the large group, they can share in small groups, or even with one partner.

Teaching Tip!

I have the students decorate the bags. They can draw, make a collage, or put photos all over the bag. It adds another layer of personalization to the activity.

Going Remote?

Meet with students in small groups (4 or 5 students) to have them share items in their Me Bags with one another. This way, the students will learn about a few of their peers’ interests, while you also learn something about each student in your classroom.

Heart Maps

Heart Maps (Heard, 1999) capture what is closest and most dear to our hearts. Students can include illustrations and text to document what matters most to them. This is a great activity for multilingual learners because they can translanguage or write in a combination of English and their home language(s). I tend to have students create heart maps multiple times throughout the year, but I like to do this activity at the beginning of the year when students are more likely to include topics that truly interest them rather than those that would earn them social capital to fit in with the others. You can hang the Heart Maps up in the classroom so that students can learn about one another.

Teaching Tip!

Heart Maps can also be used during writing instruction, and students can go to their heart maps when they need important and meaningful writing topics.  

Going Remote?

Have your students create heart maps (here’s a pdf!) and create a Flipgrid video sharing a few of the items that they included in their heart maps and why they are important to them.

What are some activities you are doing at the beginning of the year to learn about the learners who are in your class? 

Drop a line below and let me know!