20 years

I’m back! After this past year and all of the changes that came with it, I decided to take the summer off from everything, just take time to decompress, and get in the right mindset for the 3rd school year of teaching during a pandemic…

Anyways, I’m feeling much more centered and refreshed, so it’s time to pick back up and dive back into sharing my love of literacy and blogging.

20 years.

This September it will have been 20 years since the 9/11 attacks. 20 years since the moment I stood in my high school and heard the news. 20 years since families have gotten to hug their loved ones. 20 years of healing….and continuing to do so.

I thought for a while about what kind of direction I wanted this post to head in; last year I already rounded up some amazing books you could use in your classroom and that list remains the same for me this year, too. Teaching the events and aftermath of 9/11 can be challenging because of the complex emotions it stirs up in both teacher and student and the sheer size of the topic. We’re not sure what kind of personal experiences our students are coming to us with. They could have had personal connections with someone involved in the tragedy or have been affected by the events; having those experiences can make the discussions difficult and uncomfortable.

However, as an educator, we have the privilege of “being on the front line” and making a difference in these kids’ lives, by engaging in conversations and sharing events that make our country, and world, the place it is today. I hope that wherever you are in the world, and whatever position you hold, you take time to honor all the lives lost that day.

If you’re unsure of how to do this, here are a few ideas to get you started:

To everyone and anyone affected by the tragic events that happened 20 years ago, I’m thinking of you and holding you close in my heart. ❤️

1 Year Anniversary!

One year ago we were under a stay-at-home order, and it had been months since I was in my school working with teachers. I was exhausted from having no break from my kids and bored with no school to go into. Blogging had always been at the back of mind; I’ve followed so many incredible blogs over the years and always felt envious that they were doing it.

After an especially long day with my kids….I finally sat down after bedtime and created Windy City Literacy. I had no idea what I was doing. I stayed up way too late creating a logo on Canva, set up what I thought the blog should look like, and overanalyzed every little detail.

Finally, I clicked published and was live for the world to see. I never could’ve imagined what this little literacy blog of mine would turn into. I’ve met some amazing educators from across the world, began a couple collaborations with people on the other side of the country, landed a blog position at We Need Diverse Books, and more!

It’s been one year of me sharing my love of literacy with others, with a little peek into my life along the way. I have so much more that I want to share with you all, so I hope you continue to follow along! In the next coming weeks, I have some more guest bloggers lined up, some vocabulary implementation strategies, and I’ll be airing my opinions on graphic organizers…

My Top 5 Posts

Unpacking the Science of Reading

Tiny Steps to Incorporate the Science of Reading

Amazon Round Up #3

Amazon Finds for Middle School

Is Guided Reading Working?

So from the bottom of my heart…..thank you so much for following along and supporting my little blog. I wish I could buy you all a cup of coffee! In honor of my one year anniversary, I’d like to celebrate you all with a Target gift card giveaway! Enter the Rafflecopter below! Winner will be announced on Friday and extra entries will be given for subscribing to my blog!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Life Lately

It’s been a while since I’ve shared a life update with you all, and even now that I’m finally sitting down to write this, so much has happened, that I’m not even sure where to begin…but here we go!

Big news first….we finally closed on our forever house at the end of April and have spent the last few weeks getting ready to move in! We ordered all new appliances, have been painting all the bedrooms and bathrooms, and hired someone to paint everything else, because we know our limits…. This house is MUCH bigger than our previous house back in Illinois so we had to order more furniture to be able to furnish all the rooms, so our garage is currently filled with boxes of furniture that Steve has to put together….and he’s super excited about it. We had both PODS delivered and had movers unload everything as best as they could…because everything is still covered inside from the painter. Needless to say, it’s been a cluster…but the painter is assuring us he will finally be done in the next couple of days, so our goal is to be fully moved in by this weekend…fingers crossed!

Liz

I’m finishing up the school year next week and am so thankful that I ended up getting hired when I did. It gave me a chance to ease in to a new district, school, and state without being completely overwhelmed. I’m finishing out the year updating 40 IEPs and passing on all my files to the next case manager. Next year, I will be moving back into an instructional coaching position and I’m so excited to get started! Over the summer, I will presenting PDs for the staff around book clubs, Lucy Calkins writing, and co-teaching! I can’t tell you how good it feels to be getting back to what I know and love!

I’ve also finished up my GATE endorsement classes and will be continuing to complete my Educational Leadership degree. If I stay on track with my plan, I should be completely done with it by May 2022 and then will hopefully move into an admin position in my district.

I’m still working on my blog and have had some pretty cool opportunities come from it; the most recent, I got offered a position writing for We Need Diverse Books and will be interviewing some of my favorite authors!

Steve

Steve has still be working from home everyday since no one is really back in the office yet. However, our county has a 65% vaccination rate so he just got an email that everyone will need to report back to the office in July. From there, they will be putting together some type of hybrid work schedule, so he will be able to still work from home part of the week.

He’s really been the champ of the family over the past few months as he’s been shuffling the kids back and forth from school each day, attending soccer practices, running to the new house to meet various deliveries, doing the grocery shopping, and still managing to get his work done. #superdad

Mason

Mason is still his typical self: full of energy and ready to play all the time! He’s finishing up kindergarten and will be attending 15 extra school mornings into June with his same teacher as part of New Mexico’s program to try and gain some of the learning back due to the pandemic. In the afternoons, he’ll be attending Art Camp, and other fun clubs sponsored by various teachers in our district.

We registered him for a Ninja class back in January and he’s been going every week since then! He absolutely looks forward to Saturdays every week so he can go and work on his “ninja skills”. Best part…we can just drop him off and leave for an hour! He’s also wrapping up his first soccer season this week with the Los Alamos soccer league. He’s really enjoyed it and LOVES soccer games. He’s usually out there running around for a full hour and then collapses into the car with bright red cheeks. We’re already looking forward to the next season!

Zoey

Zoey hasn’t changed at all. She’s still the same sassy self that she has been…just with a cute haircut now. She’s finishing up at her daycare next week and then will be home with me this summer. She actually got picked in the random lottery for the pre-kindergarten in our school district, so she won’t be returning to daycare next year; she’ll now get to go to Mason’s elementary school with him everyday (and we won’t be paying daycare tuition anymore!!!)

We enrolled her in dance a couple months ago and she LOVES it! She so looks forward to her dance class with Miss Tara each week and she’ll continue that throughout the summer. Seriously, she loves it. Sometimes we’re just casually just hanging out at home, and she’ll yell out “arabesque!” and then will demonstrate how to do it. So stinkin’ cute!

Zoey’s also developed a love for her scooter. There’s a skate park in town with some pretty big ramps, and she begs us to take her there so she can scoot around. This girl has no fear. She straps on her helmet and flies down those ramps. I love that one minute she’s in a tutu, and the very next, she’s got on elbow pads ready for anything!

So I think those are the highlights….come visit us anytime! We have lots of space in our new house and would love to show you around this little mountain town that’s stole our hearts!

Tackling Long Words Part-by-Part

My son is finishing up his first year in public school. We started the year in Illinois with an incredible kindergarten teacher that ensured all the students had a fun and safe transition into their school career, all while navigating remote learning. Then, in the middle of the year, we moved to New Mexico where he was lucky enough to be placed in yet another incredible teacher’s classroom (kindergarten teachers really are angels in disguise).

I’ve been so fortunate to be able to witness the early reading skills that he is learning and the different strategies that he has started using when he gets to unknown words in a new book.

While reading with him at home, I’ve been pulling from my reading specialist days and teaching him some strategies for when he gets to some of the really long words. It really has been so exciting to watch his little brain working to figure out the multisyllabic words. Sometimes he gets frustrated that I’m not just telling him what it is, but when he finally is able to read it, his face lights up.

With all of the Science of Reading research swirling around out there, I thought it was a good time to put all of these strategies into one post. Hopefully you can use (or you’re probably already using) these strategies with your students to help them decode the words rather than resorting to the three cuing system.

Teaching students to work methodically from the beginning to the end of the word seems like something you wouldn’t need to explicitly teach. However, when students typically come to an unfamiliar word, their eyes dart all over the word looking for anything familiar that they can cling to. When you teach them to start at the beginning, you’re actually giving them one of the best strategies they can use. By starting at the beginning, students can break words down into syllables and work on decoding 1 syllable at a time, using the knowledge of open vs. closed syllables, long vowel patterns, etc.

Another strategy to teach them is to look for double consonants in the word. If the word has double consonants, divide it right in the middle. Since the vowel is now in between 2 consonants, it becomes a closed syllable, which means they will use the short vowel sound. By teaching them closed syllables and r-controlled vowels, they will be able to easily decode the syllables in these words.

Teach your students that digraphs and vowel teams stay together during syllable division. It’s so critical to teach, and reinforce, that digraphs and vowel teams make 1 sound when together, so they NEED to stay together. This should help to make decoding a little easier.

Another strategy to teach your students is that when a word ends with a consonant -le, it gets divided before the consonant. In the examples above, students could then easily decode the beginning syllables by simply understanding the difference between open and closed syllables.

An oldies, but a goodie. If you come across a word with an ending, break the ending off and then work on dividing the base word into syllables. For example, blossoming…take off -ing and then divide blossom into syllables. We know from one of the previous strategies that we divide the word between the double consonants. After that, we work on decoding each syllable. /Blos/ is a closed syllable and therefore makes a short o sound, while the /som/ ends up having the schwa sound. Put it all together to get to the whole word!

Yes, I’m not sharing any new ground breaking decoding strategies. I’m sharing reliable strategies that will ACTUALLY help your students know what to do when they come across multisyllabic words. It’s important to have consistent rules and strategies that you can come back to time and time again to help your students be successful.

Tiny Steps to Incorporate Science of Reading

If you’ve been teaching in a balanced literacy approach for a while, then the idea of switching to Science of Reading strategies may be overwhelming….enough so to stop you from even trying! Don’t feel like you need to do a complete overhaul of everything you’ve been doing in order to make some change! Yes, it feels overwhelming to think about changing your practices, but taking tiny steps at a time makes it feel attainable and productive.

Be open-minded to the science of reading: This is true for everyone, but especially if you’ve only ever worked in a balanced literacy approach. I get it; it’s hard to hear that the way you’ve been teaching isn’t the “right way” anymore. I’m not suggesting you walk into your classroom in August and throw away everything you ever have used. Just take the time to listen to experts and read some of the articles out there. You can start with my simple “Unpacking the Science of Reading” post. Being open to learning new things helps the overall goal: helping our students succeed.

Replace the 3 cueing system with decoding strategies: I’m sure every teacher in the world has at some point, used one of the three “strategies” from the 3 cueing system. If you’re unfamiliar: 1) meaning drawn from context or pictures, 2) syntax, and 3) visual information, meaning letters or parts of words. When a student comes to an unfamiliar word, the prompting questions typically sound like this: “Look at the first letter. Can you guess which word it is? Look at the pictures if you still don’t know. What word makes sense in the sentence?”

Hearing those questions now, it all sounds so ridiculous. We’re not even giving students a chance to look past the first letter to decode the rest of the word. We immediately let them “give up” and just guess a word by looking at context or pictures.

Rather than engage in the three cueing system, teach them different decoding strategies they can try: break between two consonants in the middle, break off the endings, keep digraphs together, break before consonant -le, working methodically from beginning to end.

Use the “heart method” when teaching irregular words (sight words): Teaching students to memorize the “irregular” part of a sight word will be more impactful rather than trying to memorize the whole word. Take the time to teach which parts make the correct sound, which parts don’t follow the typical rule. Draw a heart above the irregular sound to help identify that they need to memorize that part.

Click the picture to be taken to an amazing blog post from A Winter’s Bliss, that explains “heart words” with much more depth. I’ve found it super helpful!!

Turn your word wall into a sound wall: I loved my word wall when I was in the classroom; I remember stapling all 26 letters to my board in a beautiful rainbow order and feeling so excited at the idea of having it all filled up by May. I used it practice all the sight words and content words. Did it always work? No. But I still did it. Looking back, I now know we can just expect our youngest learners to memorize over 200 sight words with nothing to anchor the learning. By making the switch to a sound wall, students are now able to hear the different phonemes and graphemes.

So what is a sound wall?? A sound wall is a place to display the different sounds heard in speech. There are two parts of a sound wall that can be displayed: consonant sounds and vowel sounds. In a sound wall, the focus is on the SOUND and not the letters. There are significantly more phonemes (44-ish) than there are graphemes (26), and it is important for students to learn the phonemes first in order to then develop an understanding of phoneme-grapheme correspondence. 

Supporting Our Upper Level Readers

So often we’re so focused on those sweet students in our class that struggle. They take up so much of our minds and hearts.

We think about them at night, on the weekends, during our own kids’ soccer practices…constantly. We think about what else we can do for them to help them become successful. We think about additional accommodations or modifications we can offer. We think about what areas they really do well in and how we can replicate that. We think about what other strategies we can incorporate in hopes of starting to seeing them thrive.

Enjoy this picture of my son reading the new book he brought home from the school library!

Unfortunately, our higher students don’t always get the same amount of thought that the others do. We know they’re doing fine, and they’ll probably continue to do fine, without us constantly thinking about them. While working in the middle school gifted world for almost four months, I’ve been thinking more and more about how we can support our striving, upper-level readers.

Just like our struggling students, they need our attention too, just in a different way. We want to keep seeing them continue to grow and develop their literacy skills, even if they’re already a high student.

In order to support your higher readers, you need to understand them! Take the time to sit with them and talk about their reading habits, including types of books they enjoy, strategies they use when they’re reading, and what makes them abandon a book. Finding out this information is crucial to supporting them with higher thinking and skills.

Oftentimes when we think about our higher students, we think about how we can make them grow even more. Honestly, these are the type of kids that are going to make growth regardless of how much, or how little, we push them. What we should be doing is thinking about how we can accelerate things for them. Introduce them to a new series; reading a series builds motivation to keep going and to make meaning from an author’s words over a period of time. These students need MORE time on independent reading, not less!

We can’t waste our time with assessments that only fulfill the “check-it-off-the-list” purpose. In order to provide them with quality instruction, we need to spend the time with quality assessments. Think about and consider many different methods for assessment. Maybe one day it’s an oral presentation to the class, and another day it’s a journal entry written from the perspective of the main character in the book they’re reading. Use the information gained from the assessments to allow them to practice skills needed. “Avoid kids being over-taught and under-practiced.”

We all have unit goals that we hope to accomplish throughout the year. With evaluations and state testing hanging over our heads, it’s easy to make those unit goals the priority. However, these kids probably have skill areas that may take precedent in some cases. There will be instances where they already have mastered the unit goals, and could start engaging with the next grade level standards, with individualized instruction from the teacher.

I will forever be a proponent of read alouds in the classroom, regardless of the age of the students. Choosing a picture book that is above grade level, allows these higher level students to practice skills in a challenging book. Additionally, put them in partners or triads where they can work with others working on the same skills. Being able to share ideas and talk through any problems that may arise, are incredible ways to help build autonomy.

Amazon Finds for Middle School

As you all know, Amazon is how I survive as a parent, especially now that I’ve moved to a town where there’s only one store to shop at. Daughter starting dance class…leotard and tights will be here in three days! Son finally joined soccer…shinguards and cleats are on their way!

The same is true as an educator: all your pencils mysteriously disappear?? Don’t worry, 100 more will be here in two days.

So, obviously when I moved into my room at my new school, I turned to Amazon to buy the essentials since all my stuff is still in storage 90 minutes away: colored file folders, my favorite mechanical pencils, anchor chart paper, and of course, Mr. Sketch. I also quickly found some new favorites from Amazon that are essential to a middle school life!

If you missed my other Amazon Favorites posts, check them out here:

Amazon Favorite for Remote Teaching

Amazon Round Up #3

Amazon Round Up #2

Amazon Round Up #1

Rolling Cart

My new school is HUGE and I’m constantly splitting my time between the 3 teams of 7th grade teachers. Don’t laugh, but this cart is amazing! I load all my books, laptop, and supplies and wheel my way across campus, through all the 13 and 14 year olds, to get to the other classrooms!

Mini Fridge

Like I said, our campus is huge. The teacher’s lounge is all the way in the front of the building, and my classroom is upstairs on the opposite side; it’s a long walk! I broke down and got myself this adorable little mini fridge to keep under my desk. It’s fully stocked with coffee, water, and La Croix for when I have a quick second during passing periods!

Golf Pencils

No one comes to class as unprepared as a middle schooler, towards the end of the school year. I bought a box a golf pencils to bring with me to classrooms. I don’t know if it’s because they’re mini, but my students always return them when they’re done. No one is walking off with them! Seriously, get a box of these to keep in your room, plus they’re Ticonderoga!

Table Topics

We all know middle schoolers can be a little awkward at times…especially when trying to start conversations with each other in class. I bought a set of table topics for them to use. They can pick a conversation starter prompt from the pack and read that. Everyone responds and the conversations start flowing. This set comes with three packs and are all school-appropriate!

Rainbow Washi Tape

I have way more washi than anyone would ever need. BUT….I still ended up buying this pack of rainbow colors to organize all the things! I color code all the cords in outlets, student files, novels, and more. I even have put washi on all my expo markers to make sure they don’t get lost!

Gloves in a Bottle

If you follow GoCleanCo on Instagram, then you already know about this magic. Just a little bit of this goes a long way; it creates a pair of “invisible gloves” to protect your hands. I don’t know about you, but being back in school full-time, which all the handwashing , sanitizing, and cleaning, my hands are rough. This stuff protects them for up to 4 hours!!

Gel-ocity Pens

Best. Pens. Ever. Seriously….they write smooth, no smearing, and come in a ton of colors. I have boxes of these stashed in my desk.

To Do Planner

If you know me, even a little bit, chances are you know how much I love paper planners. I consistently use two during the school year and will never go fully digital with a planner. However, I randomly found the sweet little to do planner while scrolling Amazon and LOVE it! There’s no dates or calendars in it; it’s just pages of blank to-do lists. There spots to track water intake, appointments, meals for the day, and more. Each page is perforated so you can easily tear it out!

Retractable Badge Holders

With so many classes to go into, I’m constantly reaching for my keys. I finally broke down and bought a retractable badge holder, and it’s been life changing! The alligator clip on the back spins so you can clip it to your clothes in any direction, plus it comes in 3 pack!

Transparent Sticky Notes

I’ve blogged about my love for these sticky notes before. If you still haven’t gotten them, add them to your cart NOW! I love being able to leave feedback on students’ work without having to actually write on their paper. These are worth every penny!

Note: This blog post contains affiliate links. As an Amazon associate, I may earn a commission (at no cost to you) should you make a purchase using my link.

Decodable Readers Round-Up!

I used to avoid decodable books at all costs. I felt that they were boring, predictable, and would turn off kids from wanting to read for fun.

I turned to leveled readers whenever I had the chance. They pictures were typically richer, and the story had an plot to hold students’ interests. I remember planning my guided reading groups and making sure I taught them multiple ways to solve unfamiliar words. By doing this, I was confident that their fluency and comprehension was going to greatly improve…more so than if they used decodable books.

Then, I started diving into the science of reading research….and now I want to go reteach every student I’ve ever had….

As someone with a Master’s degree in Reading, I know this is going to sound ridiculous, but after pouring over articles, books, and blogs, I’ve finally discovered that our brains must connect the sounds to the letters when solving words. Only relying on pictures or context clues can actually end up teaching some bad reading habits for later on.

While reading with my kindergarten son at home, I stop myself from asking prompts like “Look at the picture for clues. Skip the word and guess a word that makes sense.” None of these cueing systems require him to actually stop and look at the letters and patterns in the word. Now, I have him identifying blends, digraphs, vowels, and more….and his reading has taken off!

Decodable books have now become a staple in our house and I’ve rounded up some amazing decodable texts that are perfect for new readers!

Simple Words Books

Simple Words Books: Offers decodable chapter books. This is a great option for those older students that still struggle with decoding, but want to be reading the same type of books as their classmates. Anything by this company would be my first choice…they are fantastic!!

Half Pint Books

Half-Pint Kids: These are amazing for brand new readers! They’re simple and engaging, all while telling stories with a real problem and solution. The books include simple and high level questions to support comprehension. Very affordable and can purchase multiple sets for your small groups!

Reading for All Learners

Reading for All Learners: I have a few of these for my son and they are great! The pictures are wonderful and support rich discussions. They start out very slowly, but with all 141 books, they will keep you busy for a while! Best yet, because of the pandemic, all the online versions are being offered totally FREE!

Whole Phonics

Whole Phonics: If your kiddos love funny books, these are the ones for you! They have creative stories and some awesome pictures. The books tend to be a little longer, which makes these great for older students that are struggling.

Are you in a Reading Slump??

Reading slumps are totally real. I’ve experienced it firsthand; I do really well for a period of time, consuming book after book. I bring stacks home from school and devour them while watching tv with my kids. Then, on the flipside, life gets too busy sometimes and I can’t even imagine having the time to read. When I get in those “reading slumps” it’s hard for me to start back up again.

I’m a well-educated woman whose career is centered around literacy. If I find it hard to get myself out of a reading slump, I can’t imagine what it must feel like for some students.

Some students have been in a reading slump their whole lives, never finding a book that excited them and gets them hooked; my heart breaks for those kids. They haven’t experienced what it’s like in the Hogwarts world, walked through the wardrobe into Narnia, or nervously followed along on three refugees harrowing journeys.

I’m not overly worried about those kids like me, where life has just gotten too busy. I’m confident they’ll find their way back to books when life eases up for them. I’m more worried about the kids I described above, the ones that haven’t connected with a book yet. Those are the ones we can’t give up on. We need to keep exposing them to different books and sharing our excitement with them. I’m hopeful that one day, they’ll hear about the one book that excites them and eventually, pulls them out of their reading slump.

I’ve put together this infographic with a few strategies that you could use to help get some of your students (or even you!) out of their reading slump! Click on the image to download your own FREE copy!

If you like….

I love sharing book recommendations with students. I get so excited when I find a new book and I think about which particular would connect best with it.

Sometimes they’re not excited as I am, but I do think they appreciate the idea that I thought of them specifically for it. I’ve started putting together these “If you liked” guides to share with my students and I thought I’ll start posting them here in case anyone is looking for more book suggestions!

I would say these books would be great for 4th grade-6th grade, and probably even up to 8th grade!

*Click the links below to purchase your own copy!

Front Desk: Mia Tang has a lot of secrets.Number 1: She lives in a motel, not a big house. Every day, while her immigrant parents clean the rooms, ten-year-old Mia manages the front desk of the Calivista Motel and tends to its guests.Number 2: Her parents hide immigrants. And if the mean motel owner, Mr. Yao, finds out they’ve been letting them stay in the empty rooms for free, the Tangs will be doomed.Number 3: She wants to be a writer. But how can she when her mom thinks she should stick to math because English is not her first language?

Blended: Eleven-year-old Isabella’s parents are divorced, so she has to switch lives every week: One week she’s Isabella with her dad, his girlfriend Anastasia, and her son Darren living in a fancy house where they are one of the only black families in the neighborhood. The next week she’s Izzy with her mom and her boyfriend John-Mark in a small, not-so-fancy house that she loves. Because of this, Isabella has always felt pulled between two worlds.

New Kid: Seventh grader Jordan Banks loves nothing more than drawing cartoons about his life. But instead of sending him to the art school of his dreams, his parents enroll him in a prestigious private school known for its academics, where Jordan is one of the few kids of color in his entire grade.

Amal Unbound: Twelve-year-old Amal’s dream of becoming a teacher one day is dashed in an instant when she accidentally insults a member of her Pakistani village’s ruling family. As punishment for her behavior, she is forced to leave her heartbroken family behind and go work at their estate.

From the Desk of Zoe Washington: Zoe Washington isn’t sure what to write. What does a girl say to the father she’s never met, hadn’t heard from until his letter arrived on her twelfth birthday, and who’s been in prison for a terrible crime? A crime he says he never committed. Could Marcus really be innocent? Zoe is determined to uncover the truth.

Other Words for Home: Jude never thought she’d be leaving her beloved older brother and father behind, all the way across the ocean in Syria. But when things in her hometown start becoming volatile, Jude and her mother are sent to live in Cincinnati with relatives.

Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus: Aven Green loves to tell people that she lost her arms in an alligator wrestling match, or a wildfire in Tanzania, but the truth is she was born without them. And when her parents take a job running Stagecoach Pass, a rundown western theme park in Arizona, Aven moves with them across the country knowing that she’ll have to answer the question over and over again.

Merci Suarez Changes Gears: Merci Suarez knew that sixth grade would be different, but she had no idea just how different. For starters, Merci has never been like the other kids at her private school in Florida, because she and her older brother, Roli, are scholarship students. They don’t have a big house or a fancy boat, and they have to do extra community service to make up for their free tuition.