Let’s talk!

There is nothing more exciting for me than watching students really talk about their learning. I love the debate, the encouragement, the giggles, and the interrupting. I love watching one student really listen to another and then jump in to share ideas. These type of exchanges happen more and more during our morning reading group. Especially when we have informative non-fiction texts in hand!

This week I pulled out a selection of non-fiction titles from the Ready to Read series including Dangerous Dinos, Slithering Snakes, Sharks and Bugs. All written by Sarah Creese. (I purchased these titles through Scholastic)

Students were asked to read the book aloud with their partner and to note down cool facts they learned and list any questions they had as they read. We had done this in two small groups (led by me and my teaching partner) the week before so the students were familiar with this process. Today though, they were in charge of the way this process would roll out.

Students took turns reading the text aloud. Some pairs wrote questions and facts as they read. Others read and then came back to the text for a second read through.

The rich discussions came out of deciding what questions were important and which facts should be noted down. Two boys reading about dinosaurs couldn’t stop laughing about one sentence that stated that a T-Rex had such short little arms that it couldn’t touch its nose. They included this as a cool fact and then went on to write a question about what use T-Rex’s short little arms had.

There was a lot of “Listen to this!” “Should we write that?” “Did you know . . . ?” I also heard “Look for the page that says . . .” “Can you read that again?” Lots of rereading and checking for understanding.

Many went on to add pictures to their chart paper. As they drew, the talking continued, using the vocabulary that they had just been reading about. “Look I’m drawing a shark swimming in the shallows.” Do you think these scales look real?” “I made the sharks jaws open so we could see the rows of teeth.”

Question lists were interesting and gave me a basis to start conversations with each group.

The best thing about this activity? Lots of discussion, reading and writing all managed by the students themselves. My role was to circulate and enjoy the conversations I joined and to do a little learning too! (Did you know some snakes can eat an entire deer? Eew!)

What do we wonder?

On Thursdays, our Grade 2 reading group is beginning to work with non-fiction texts. There is much to teach about how to interact with non-fiction text so that students best understand all of the text features. But generating excitement and the thrill of wondering and discovering new facts is an essential piece of our learning as well. Over the last few weeks we have been picture walking books and sharing all of the things we wonder.

These Pebble Plus books published by Capstone are fantastic for this picture walking exercise as they feature full colour photographs of animals in their habitats along with simple text to share together. I have the African Animals series and the Animals and Their Homes series and found both through Scholastic.

The great thing about Thursdays is that my partner teacher, Ms. Hibbert is in the room for the morning in a Resource Teacher role so we are able to work with small groups and can encourage lots of sharing and discussion.

Day 1: On the first day, we split our group into two groups and had them picture walk a book with us and generate questions about the photographs. We used a book about bears and a book about rabbits as key texts. As the students asked questions, we charted them and pointed out when one question led to another or was an extension of another question so that students could think about how to extend their thinking and how their questions connected to someone else’s questions. After 15 minutes, we switched groups and the second group’s task was to look at the questions that had already been charted and as they looked through the text, to try and extend questions or wonder about things that had yet to be asked.

We then looked at both charts as a whole group and highlighted key question words (Who? Why? Could? Do? Is? etc.). We also talked about what questions were on both lists. A popular one? “How can you tell if it is a boy or a girl?” (although one group used the terms male and female so we helped each other extend the vocabulary being used :-))

Day 2: After reviewing and charting question words, we put the students into partners and had each group choose a book about an African animal. Students then studied the photographs in the books and charted their own questions. We circulated and challenged students to extend their thinking wherever possible.

Working with a partner allowed for a lot of great discussion. Often the partners stopped and shared what they thought an answer might be. There were disagreements, connections to background knowledge and lots of encouragement. (And charting on big chart paper with felts was pretty cool!)

We then had students display their books and charts and partners “travelled along” the display looking at the questions that other groups asked.

Day 3: On this day, students chose their own books and worked independently creating a wonder web. We reminded students to tap into their curiousity and study the pictures carefully. If they finished early, they went back and read the text and/or shared their questions with a peer. One little voice carried book and paper to a table muttering, “Just me  . . . I wonder how many questions I will wonder?”

Here is Heman‘s wonder web about bees:

Sam asked some great questions about giraffes.

We have a long road down the non-fiction path ahead of us this year. But students are pretty excited that non-fiction titles can help us with all of those unanswered questions and even inspire more!

How do you generate excitement over non-fiction titles in your primary classroom? Please share!

Ice Bear: In the Steps of the Polar Bear

Today we read the Ice Bear (In the Steps of the Polar Bear) written by Nicola Davies and illustrated by Gary Blythe. Our goal: to move away from quick questions and begin asking more deep thinking questions.

Polar Bar, Nanuk, is perfectly suited to the Arctic climate and landscape. For many generations, the Inuit people have learned how to live and survive in the Arctic habitat by watching the great Ice Bear. Nicola Davies tells us how polar bears survive in the Northern landscape weaving facts on each page into the beautiful story she tells in such lovely poetic text.

As I read this story aloud, we stopped on each page to share our questions and Ms. Hibbert recorded them. Our curiousity filled three pages of chart paper!

 Deep Thinking Questions: Ice Bear There's a Book for That

We then looked at all of our questions and coded them. FO: Found Out (we discovered the answer in the story as we read on) R: Research (to find the answer, we will have to do some research)  I: Infer (we need to infer to figure out the answer – using our background knowledge and our reasoning)

Coding our questions  Deep Thinking Questions: Ice Bear There's a Book for That

As we looked at the three charts, we noticed that we had very few questions coded FO (Found Out). This is exciting as it means we are asking fewer quick questions and more complex or deep thinking questions. Using Adrienne Gear‘s Non-Fiction Reading Power we have been learning to distinguish between quick and deep thinking questions. For our purposes here – quick questions are questions that we find the answer to (often down the page or a page or two later), where there is only one answer and where once we know the answer, our thinking stops. Deep thinking questions, on the other hand, inspire more questions, often have more than one answer or require us to do research, more thinking and/or talking to come to an answer at all.

Ms. Hibbert and I were also excited to see students asking multipart questions i.e. Do babies have fur? If not, how do they keep warm? or How often does a polar bear eat and does this affect how much it eats at a time? It was also fantastic to see questions inspire other questions between the students. At one point, Shae-Lynn was sitting right beside my chair with her hand up waiting to share her question and listening to others. “Oh!” she suddenly exclaimed, “Now I have three questions!”

Students then went back to their tables to write and draw about their learning and to share what they were still wondering.

 Deep Thinking Questions: Ice Bear There's a Book for That

Some students began reading the books they were looking at for ideas on how to draw a polar bear and talked with each other about what they noticed.

All of a sudden, the research began happening as students realized that they were finding the answers to the unanswered questions we had included on our charts.

 Deep Thinking Questions: Ice Bear There's a Book for That

“Hey Ms. Gelson look what Carmen and I discovered!” Catriona summoned me over. She went on to show me the section in the book they had found that talked about polar bear fur in the water. They discovered that the guard hairs are oily and waterproof and hollow. This answered our question about how polar bears can be such good swimmers and whether or not they had fur that wouldn’t get too wet and heavy.

Look! Read here!  Deep Thinking Questions: Ice Bear There's a Book for That

Some learning shared in student writing:

* Male polar bears weigh more than females. I wonder if they eat more than females as well.

* I think the baby polar bears are more white than the Moms and really cute.

* I know that polar bears are as fast as a snowmobile. Bears eat seals. They use their sharp claws and kill the seals quickly.

* A female polar bear can have 1 to 3 baby cubs at a time

*I found out that when there is zero seals, polar bears will eat grass, dead birds and fish.

The Lion & The Mouse

The Lion & The Mouse by Caldecott medal winner Jerry Pinkney is another book we have shared together as we continue to explore a theme of kindness through picture books.

Pinkney’s story is an adaptation of the Aesop fable of the lion and the mouse who exchange an important gift – that of setting one another free. This gorgeously illustrated book is basically wordless, the only text are a few sound effects. Each page is so detailed, we found ourselves studying each image closely for clues as to what was happening in the story. We see a humongous lion being disturbed in sleep by the tiny mouse. Despite his irritation, he lets the tiny mouse go free. The mouse races back to her nest and her young. When the lion is trapped in ropes set by poachers, the tiny little mouse repays the kindness offered to her by the lion and gnaws through the ropes, setting the  king of beasts free.

Pinkney sets his version in the African Serengeti of Tanzania and Kenya. Students were fascinated by all of the animals depicted in the background as much as the close up pictures of our two heroes – the lion and the mouse.

Setting the little mouse free

How does this book continue to teach us about kindness? Students are clearly understanding that kindness is a choice, articulating that each main character had to decide what to do and chose to be kind to the other. We also spoke about how such a small decision to be kind can have far reaching effects. Students pointed out that not only did the lion save the mouse by setting her free, he also saved her family who was dependent on her. Students connected this story to other stories about the “golden rule” – treat others the way you want to be treated and spoke about karma (that all good done comes back to you.) What a powerful discussion this beautiful wordless story inspired.

Ermines? Huh? What are they?

Our reading group has continued to work on interacting with non-fiction text, making meaning together and determining importance. What this means? Talking, listening, sharing ideas, extending a thought, making and defending a position, and did we mention talking and listening? Because those things turn out to be the most important and most challenging skills we are working on!

Reading about Ermines

Today our task looked like this:

Step 1: List what we can predict about an ermine (Huh? A what? We had no idea what an ermine was!!) based on the limited information Ms. Gelson gave us: 1. Their fur is different colours depending on the time of year 2. They have very sharp claws 3. They live in the northern parts of the world.

One groups' predictions

The interesting thing about the discussion from the group that produced this chart above was their debate on whether or not questions could be predictions. In the end, it was decided that yes they could because they were linked to what information we were going to find out and made us want to read more. We were going to verify both predictions and answers to questions. Great thinking!

Predictions about ermines from another group

Step 2: Read the article in Chickadee Magazine about Ermines together

A chart we made together to help us determine what might be important when learning about a living thing

A chart we made together to help us determine what might be important when learning about a living thing

Step 3: Keeping in mind the chart we created (see above) decide on what are the 5 most important facts about ermines your group wants to include on your chart.

Important facts about Ermines

Important facts about Ermines

Not all groups included the same facts but all groups used the chart we made to help them make decisions.

Another list of 5 important facts

Another list of 5 important facts

Final Group list

At this point, this task does require some guidance from adults (Thanks to my patient and encouraging volunteers Miles and Nicole!) but our role is always listening, reflecting back what we hear and refocussing the group. Students are making excellent progress on developing these skills! We just started on activities like this in late December. We are well on our way!

As a teacher, what I love about these sessions, is that it is students interacting with text and each other to determine what is important.

Little Black Crow

We were very inspired by the gentle repetitive text and muted art in Chris Raschka‘s book Little Black Crow. This book begins with the question Little Black Crow, Where do you Go? and goes on to ask 26 more questions all inspired by the wondering of a little boy who spies a crow up in the sky. Simple, engaging, lovely to read again and again.

We took pencil to paper and practiced making crows in Raschka’s style and went on to create art pieces and added our own “mini poems” also borrowed from Rashka’s style of wondering verse. Finished pieces look gorgeous.

Below is Sergio‘s poem.


Some students, like Khai, chose to use bright colours as a background.


Others were inspired by the paler colour scheme Raschka used in his book.


Truman really captured the loose lines that come together to create a charming crow in Raschka’s style.


Slowly learning about sloths (And how to work together!)

Group work. It’s an important skill. One that we need a lot of practice with – it is much harder than it first appears. There is listening to others, negotiating, turn taking, asserting an opinion, making a point, explaining your thinking, staying on task, having patience, agreeing, disagreeing, remaining polite . . . Wow! Not easy to do!

But on the last day before winter break, our Reading Group got brave and tried a new task that involved working together in a small group. Yes, there was a lot of encouragement needed to work productively and politely within our group (“No, you can’t be in a group by yourself,” “No you can’t change groups part way through the activity,” “Yes, you all have to talk together and agree.”) But, in the end, we made it and there was lots of  learning along the way – learning about the topic and about working together. 🙂

The task:

Step 1. The topic is sloths. In your small group, write down everything you know or think you know about sloths.

Compiling a list of what we know

Step 2: Read the article in Chickadee Magazine about sloths.

Step 3: In your small group, decide what are the 5 most important things you learned and list them.

One group's list

Another group added detailed pictures when they completed their list

Working together

Step 4: Post your lists and look for common (on at least 2 out of 3 lists) facts deemed important

Another list

Step 5: Discuss what we learned.

Students noticed that some things were on many of the lists: where the sloths lived, how long they slept each day and that they hung upside down. Other facts were different. We decided that we needed to come up with criteria about what is important to know about an animal so that we could figure out what are the most important facts. This will be for next time! We are off along the road to learn how to determine importance!

I was pleased that students got into the rhythm of sharing and listening and that after an initial bumpy start, all groups met with success. The really wonderful thing – so much emphasis on students talking and leading. Each group naturally took turns reading sections out loud. Everyone did a little writing. Everyone talked and listened. Other than setting the task and helping the transition into a small group activity, my role was in the background. I asked a few questions, encouraged successful collaboration and watched students take charge of their learning. Well done reading group!

The Wild Christmas Reindeer

Today we read Jan Brett‘s The Wild Christmas Reindeer in our reading group.

Jan Brett is a favourite author for beautiful winter books. My home collection has many of her books and it was lovely to share this book with a small group today. In this story, Teeka is given the big responsibility of preparing the wild reindeer to pull Santa’s sleigh Christmas Eve. She approaches this task seriously and sternly and quickly learns that she needs to change her style to be able to work with the reindeer. A gentler, kinder approach is what makes a difference!

We are working on making observations about the story and asking questions about what we are still wondering.

Some observations:

  • Teeka wasn’t very good at her job at first
  • The reindeer didn’t like it when Teeka used a mean tone of voice
  • Teeka felt embarrassed about how hard she found her job
  • The reindeer forgave Teeka when she was kinder and more gentle
  • The reindeer were ready for Santa and Teeka was proud

Some questions:

  • Will Teeka do this job again next year?
  • Does a different elf take on this job every year?
  • Will Teeka train another elf to do it?
  • Were her jobs difficult? Carrying water? Brushing the reindeer?

Deborah Hodge visits Division 5!

On November 15th, 2011, local author Deborah Hodge visited Division 5 to share her books, her process and her knowledge with us.

Author Deborah Hodge

Deborah Hodge has a fantastic blog to check out and even wrote about her visit with us at Seymour! Students were very excited when I let them know that we had an author coming to visit. When Deborah came to the door just before the recess bell, she was greeted by a huge hug from Sergio who looked up at her and said: “Hi Deborah. I really like to read books.” During recess, Deborah set up all of her books around the classroom and when students returned, Shae-Lynn exclaimed, “Did you really write all of those books?” It was a very impressive display!

Deborah explained that when she had been a teacher, many of her students wanted to read non-fiction books but the text and language was just not at their level. She was motivated to create non-fiction titles that were much more accessible – full of fabulous non-fiction features like labelled diagrams, a glossary, fact boxes and interesting facts! Each book contains something life sized in a drawing at the back of each book.

Deborah’s first book was Bears, a popular title in our classroom.

Deborah began sharing the steps in making a non-fiction book like doing the research, writing the text, revising and editing, working with an illustrator, etc. She shared examples of each step as she described it. At one point about mid-way through the series of steps, one student let out a big sigh. “Wow! There really are a lot of steps in making a non-fiction book!

Deborah also shared some cool facts she learned as she researched her various books. A few favourites of ours:

  • An anaconda is as long as a bus and as heavy as two big men
  • When a polar bear cub is born, it is as small as the palm of your hand
  • A mother deer leaves the fawn alone when it is first born so that her scent won’t attract predators.

Deborah also brought in animal fur and animal skulls to show us. Very interesting and fun to interact with!



Deborah left us with more than a great learning experience – about how non-fiction books are made, about animals, and about furs and skulls. She left us with some lovely gifts.

First she signed our classroom copy of  Lily and the Mixed up Letters. This wonderful book about a little girl who struggles learning to read is of course written by Deborah and illustrated by France Brassard. It is a favourite of both Ms. Gelson and Ms. Hibbert.

Then Deborah gifted our classroom with two of her latest and greatest books! We plan to delve into these books in the Spring when we can learn more about growing food in different places.

Then, last but not least, Deborah gave each student a copy of one of her non-fiction titles.

I am a big believer of children owning their own books and having their own book collections – the power of “books in hand and in home.” Deborah signed each book for each child and in the last week I have heard students making comments like, “Did you read about . . . . in our book?” Thank you Deborah for such an amazing morning and such generosity!

How to Teach a Slug to Read (and maybe improve your own skills in the process)

Do you know this book? How to Teach a Slug to Read by Susan Pearson and illustrated by David Slonim.

How to Teach a Slug to Read

Find a copy and appreciate. Ms. Sheperd-Dynes, Seymour’s Teacher-Librarian passed it on to me. I was delighted and knew it had to be shared and quick!

My reading group had been busy brainstorming a list about what good readers do. It is important to reflect on things we might not even be aware of but also, a good time to check in – are there things on the list I could be doing?

IMG_1072What do good readers do?

We certainly had some great ideas. I love that daily, enthusiastic reading made it on there.

Good readers love to read after all and the more they read, the better they get at it!!

We also knew that we needed to use a variety of strategies: sounding words out, visualizing, and paying attention to context clues. Good readers also read from a variety of levels and a variety of genres.

A balanced diet of books.

My daughter saw this list and had something to add: “Good readers feel the emotions of the characters so they can feel what the author wants them to feel.”

Yes, she’s brilliant.

I then asked them to think about how they learned to read. I gave them strips of paper and felts and 10 minutes. Go write down everything you remember!


Some more great ideas

 I then read them the very clever and delightfully simple How To Teach a Slug to ReadYes, it is all about how Mama Slug teaches her little slug to read, but it is not much of a stretch to apply it to early readers and developing readers everywhere. When we finished the story, I gave the students 10 more minutes to write any more “How to learn to read tips,” that they might have thought of after hearing this story. Here is what happened second time around:


Some specifics

Be careful when you read.

Make it sound fun.

Have expression.

Be really into the book.

Make it sound interesting.


Another great idea

Other great ideas included: repeat favourite words, point out words in the text, label words in your world, learn from your mistakes, read poems, make it interesting, choose fun books, etc.

All in all some great learning and some careful summarizing of  important reading advice. We’re going to have great a year of reading.

“Why did we do this today?” I asked my students. “Well Ms. Gelson,” said Catriona, “It’s not like we know everything. There is still room for improvement! We have to keep thinking of ways to get better.”

They also told me that I should give this book to the Kindergarten teacher so she could use these ideas with her students.