Main Character’s To-Do List

One of my favorite things to do as an instructional coach is to create, and provide, teachers with easy-to-implement ideas for their classrooms. This one I was inspired to make after seeing something similar as I was scrolling through Instagram a couple nights ago.

My example is Mia Tang’s to-do list, the main character from the incredible novel Front Desk by Kelly Yang.

I’m the queen of lists; I have lists for my lists. If you were to open my bottom desk drawer, you would be probably be appalled at the amount of notepads I own (that doesn’t stop me from buying more). I thought it would be fun to incorporate my crazy list-making skills into a reading activity.

After reading a book, or even just a chapter, students could create what they think would be on the main character’s to-do list. This simple, but fun task will help deepen your student’s character analysis skills. Students need to have a strong understanding of the character, including outside and inside traits, desires, challenges, and needs.

In addition to creating an anchor chart and creating a to-do list as a whole class, I’ve also created a digital version to accommodate our current “normal”. Click here or the picture below, to get your own editable copy that you can share with your own students!

If you liked Wonder…

Wonder is an incredible book for any grade level; the conversations that start happening while reading the book are so rich and engaging. Plus, the movie also happens to have an all-star cast and would be a great way to celebrate the end of the read aloud!

Oftentimes teacher use Wonder as a read aloud at the beginning of the year and then look for other similar books that they can read throughout the rest of the year. I’ve put together some of my favorite middle grade novels that have similar themes and would be excellent read alouds!!

Out of My Mind


El Deafo

White Bird

Fish in a Tree

The Bridge Home


Life Lately.

We have some HUGE changes happening in our house in the next couple of weeks. If you are reading this, then you probably already know what’s going on, but if you don’t here it is….in 2.5 weeks, we are packing up our entire lives and moving across the country to New Mexico.

Long story short, my husband received an incredible job offer back in September and it was just too good for us to pass up. Even though we know absolutely no one out there, we’ve decided to uproot our entire family and start over in the southwest. I’ve basically gone through every emotion that a person is capable of experiencing: panic, fear, sadness, anger, and I’ve made it where I’m at now: excitement.

In the past two months I’ve quit my dream job as an instructional coach, put grad school on hold, sold our family house, and disenrolled my kids from their schools. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster every day (every hour), but at the core of it is an overwhelming sense of peace. In just 20 days, my little family, including the dog, will be piling in our car and taking 3 days to drive to a town I’ve only seen through Google Maps. It’s enough to send anyone over the edge, but honestly as cheesy as it sounds, as long as the four of us are together, that’s all that matters.

Everyone keeps asking me what my plans are when we get there: settle in and breathe. I’ll be taking the rest of the school year to stay home and get my family settled in. My son will be starting school after winter break, and they are full remote so I’ll be reliving my kindergarten days. My daughter will also be home everyday with me. It’ll be the same circus it typically is, but just in New Mexico. My husband’s new office is a quarter of a mile from our rental, so this new job equals a lot more family time before and after his work day, which we’re excited for.

Eventually, my plan is to hopefully find a job in the school district that we’ll be living in and then start grad school again at a local university. I really want to finish my admin degree and get into some sort of curriculum development position in the future. My blog will continue to be my outlet and I’ll hopefully be getting more posts out now that I won’t be working full-time.

Until then, you can find me packing our entire lives into PODS, soaking up the next 20 days of Illinois life, and seeing as many friends and family as I can before we leave.

Please continue to follow along on our journey through subscribing to my blog, on my Facebook page (Windy City Literacy), or on Twitter at @mrs_janusz.

Elf on the Shelf Classroom Alternative

Ahhh…December 1st…when it’s finally acceptable to blast Christmas music, decorate with as many twinkly lights as possible, and eat your weight in decorated cookies (even though, my Christmas music has been blasting since November 1st)! It’s such a magical time…with one exception…that damn elf.

You all know which elf I’m talking about.

Now, I am totally on board and am in awe of people that have the elf in their house. The creative things you all come up with and where you put him is genius. In some houses he gets his own little outfits or even brings extravagant little gifts for the kids. It’s fun to watch other people do it. I’m definitely not creative enough to do that, and more realistically, I’d consistently forget to move him each night…resulting in tears in the morning. And honestly….our mornings are chaotic enough, I don’t need to add to it.

However, I do think there is one place that the elf doesn’t belong: the classroom. I know, I know…I’m sure that’s an unpopular opinion, but I’m ok with that. Now that December is here, my instagram feed is filled with teachers introducing the elf to their class in some elaborate way letting them know that he’s reporting back to Santa each night. And yes, I’m sure the majority of the students in the class celebrate Christmas and are totally loving it. But as I see the pictures of the elf, I can’t help but think about all the kids that don’t celebrate Christmas or all the families that have their own special traditions at home with the elf.

In a world where we are working so hard to unite different cultures and backgrounds, it seems so divisive to bring in such a strong Christmas tradition, especially for the entire month of December, when there are other holidays that deserve equal celebration. Yes, I’m sure that teachers have also dedicated a couple of read alouds in honor of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, but the majority of the month will focus on Christmas and the elf.

If you’re someone that typically brings an elf into the classroom, I challenge you to reflect on the reason why you feel you need it. Is it so you have an additional “behavior management” tactic for the month? Is it for you to celebrate Christmas? Is it because you have one at home with your own kids?

If you’re still feeling like you want to bring in a little “holiday magic” to your classroom, try incorporating a “kindness penguin” or “kindness polar bear”. Each day he could hide and suggest random acts of kindness that your class could participate in. For example, coloring pictures for a nursing home, thank you notes to the custodians, etc. Keep in mind, the holiday magic doesn’t come from a little elf; it comes from the excitement and joy that YOU bring into your classroom!!

5 Books I’m Thankful For…

Every once in a while I read a book that stays with me long after I finish it. The characters’ journeys stay with me and I feel thankful to that author for writing such an incredibly powerful story.

As we’re all giving thanks this season, I’m especially thankful for these 5 books. They’ve all stayed with me and I continue recommending to students and staff. Each book offers thought-provoking events that will allow for rich and engaging discussions year after year.

Refugee by Alan Gratz

In this book three different children are seeking refuge from different periods in history: the Nazi invasion, the riots in Cuba, and the war in Syria. There are no words as you read through the harrowing journeys they all go through throughout the book. Gratz does an unbelievable job of weaving their stories together, even though they all take place in very different decades. It’s hard to imagine children going through these events; which makes it my number one book I’m thankful for.

Resistance by Jennifer A. Nielsen

This was a incredibly well-written story about the work of Jewish resistance fighters during the Holocaust. There was no sugar-coating any of the horrible events that happened, but it also had some uplifting messages of hope and friendship. The story follows Chaya as she hides her Jewish background in order to smuggle food and information through the ghettos of Poland to help save as many people as she can. I’m thankful everyday for the heroes throughout history that stood up during the worst times….people like Chaya.

Front Desk by Kelly Yang

Don’t let the light-hearted cover fool you. Kelly Yang tackles some big issues as we follow 10 year old Mia, a Chinese immigrant and her parents as they run a motel in Cali in the 90’s. All the characters are so well-written and present such deep stories that reveal what life in America in the 1990s for persons of color was like. The sequel, Three Keys, was recently released and picks up Mia’s story. I’m so thankful that Yang was brave enough to use her own life story to write this book; many adults and children are now able to get a glimpse into the life of an immigrant.

Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

Amal is a 12 year old girl who dreams of being a teacher. Her dream is cut short when she accidentally insults a member of her Pakistani village’s ruling family. As punishment, she is forced to leave her family behind and go work at their estate as a servant. As she’s in the house, she realizes just how terrifying things get in order for the Khan family to stay in control. I’m thankful for this book and the light it sheds on some of the terrible things that happen in countries most of us never experience.

All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg

This is the first book I’ve ever read that’s written in verse. Matt is a boy who is saved and airlifted out of Vietnam during the war, then adopted by a caring family in America. He’s now is forced to face the memories of what happened: his war-torn country, dropping bombs, and a secret. I’m thankful for this book, and all of the families out there that have adopted or fostering kids just like Matt. This book proves just how powerful a family’s love can be, even if not related by blood.

Remote Learning Tools

I am so excited to share with you all about a new collaboration that I’ve been a part of!

Introducing a new collaborative series….

Literacy Chattin’ with Liz!! I’ve paired up with an INCREDIBLE educator from Vermont and founder of Vocabulicious blog, Liz Siracusa!

Liz Siracusa currently coaches teachers how to integrate technology into their curriculum. Previous to working in the world of ed tech, she taught 4th and 5th grade for 7 years. Her passion is creating, sharing and teaching lessons themed around vocabulary instruction. Liz is the founder of the blog Vocabulicious, a teacher’s guide to creating a word conscious classroom. You can follow Liz on her blog, on Twitter at @vocabLiz and on Instagram at @vocabulicious.readalouds . She shares weekly read aloud recommendations and easy ways to engage students in word learning.

We plan on joining forces to bring relevant, and useful, literacy resources to educators across the country! For our first collaboration, we’ve put together a Remote Learning Tools guide to help navigate this pivotal time in the educational world!

With so many incredible learning platforms out there, it can get overwhelming to decide which ones would best fit your needs, and the needs of your students. We’ve rounded up our favorite platforms and included descriptions to help you plan for successful and engaging lessons. Click the image below for the full 3 page, FREE printable download!

Teachers are the most incredible people in the world, and if we can create something that will make their jobs a little bit easier, we’re here for it!

Stay tuned for our next collaboration!

Liz & Liz

Top Amazon Finds for Remote Teaching

Amazon finds are always my most popular posts…and lucky for you all…I’m back with my top 10 items to help make remote teaching a little easier!!!

Fair warning…none of these are like “couldn’t teach without” type of finds; however, they all bring a smile to my face and make the time sitting in front of my screen a little better. And some are just fun…..and pink!

What makes your remote teaching days a little brighter?? Let me know so I can add it to my cart!

Adjustable Desk Shelf

We’re in the process of getting ready to move across the country (more on that later) and I have been eyeing this desk shelf FOREVER!! My current desk is too small, so I’m waiting and hoping to finally have a home office in our new house so I can buy this beauty to decorate with all my planner supplies! The best part?! It’s totally adjustable and you can reposition it into different ways! And less than $25!!

Mildliner Markers/Highlighters

My very favorite markers/highlighters!!

Wireless Earbuds

I don’t have an iPhone, so AirPods aren’t an option for me. I would be so jealous when I would see people on my Zoom calls, using their AirPods and drinking their coffee without getting tangled up in a cord…after my 9,000,000th time knocking something down with my headphone cord, I hopped on Amazon and found these for only $30! Worth every penny!!

Wireless Mouse

I always use a mouse with my Macbook and I bring it everywhere with me. Seriously, I would try to go without using one and my wrist would hurt at the end of the day! Yeah, I hear that sentence….I sound like I’m about 97 years old. Anyways, I found this beauty and it comes in other colors like gold, white, silver…love!

Computer Ring Light

I bought this for when I’m online at home for my grad school classes. My desk doesn’t have a lot of light around it and I thought this would help. It’s so easy…just pop it right on top of my screen and makes everything seem brighter, especially after a looong day at school.

Insulated Tumblers

These are cheaper than their name brand alternatives and hold your coffee just as well. It also holds wine after school hours. Just saying.

Coffee Warmer

For those of you that know me, know I love iced coffee…even during a below zero day. Hot coffee just isn’t my jam. However, I do like to have a cup of hot chocolate every once in a while during the winter. I also happen to be the slowest drinker in the world, resulting in my hot chocolate turning cold quickly. This thing just plugs right in and I can set it to a temperature I want and keep my drink warm while I take forever to finish it!

Laptop Stand

My macbook sits low on my desk, which leads to more hunching and unfortunate camera angles during zoom meetings. This stand brings my laptop to eye level. Plus, it’s portable, so I can easily work comfortably anywhere. Plus it’s got a little holder for your phone that flips out.

Desk Fan

I’ve mentioned multiple times how hot I get throughout the day…no joke. I’ve had this fan blowing on me all day, everyday for the past three years. It’s one my top Amazon finds ever. It’s still works great and more importantly, it comes in a ton of colors to choose from!

Oil Diffuser

I don’t have this in my office at school, but I have one at home and I love it!! I was lured into the oil life through another blog and I haven’t looked back. I love this diffuser; it’s inexpensive and can either diffuse in 30 second intervals or continually.

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.

Has leveling gone too far?

I recently came across this article from the School Library Journal and to hear Fountas and Pinnell themselves confirm some of the thoughts I’ve had about leveling recently, was reaffirming to me.

If any of you know me in real life, you know how big a proponent I am of Fountas and Pinnell and their benchmark assessment system. I still am. I think it’s an incredible assessment tool that can give teachers detailed and authentic information about their students as readers. Paired with their Literacy Continuum, I think teachers are armed with powerful tools that will help them deliver targeted instruction for their students.

On the other hand, I do believe that the “leveling” has gotten out of control. Fountas and Pinnell go on to say that the goal was never for children to become “labeled” with their reading levels. The goal was to teach about the characteristics of each level to help guide teachers to make informed decisions about their instruction – how to discuss a book, how to help students problem-solve as they process books, etc.

Classroom libraries should NOT be centered around leveled buckets. Try organizing your library in a different way. Group books by genre instead, or simply place them in alphabetical order and allow students to browse through like they would in a real bookstore. Students shouldn’t feel like they can’t explore books at a higher or lower level, just because they’re only at a certain level.

When the creators of the maybe the most influential leveling system even admit that the leveling of students has become out of hand, we as educators need to listen to that and shift our thinking.

Easy Reading Formatives?!

Giving and/or creating formative assessments should be a painless task for teachers; however, that’s not always the case. As teachers, we have a tendency to overanalyze things….at least, I do.

I was reading Jennifer Serravallo’s book Understanding Texts and Readers and I was inspired with how easy it can be to administer a formative assessment to your entire class at once, all while gaining insightful data that we can use immediately after for further instruction.

For this specific type of formative, the only thing that needs to be prepped ahead of time, is the piece of text that will be used. You will just have to find which text you would want to give to your class. You could choose to do it in a whole group scenario where everyone gets the same text, or you could pick different texts for each of your small groups. Whatever method you choose, the questions don’t change.

I’ve come up with 8 questions that can be used for any text you pick (4 for fiction and 4 for non-fiction). These questions were created with the purpose of being able to determine different areas of need for your students. They will be assessing all the core components of comprehension: characters, theme, plot, and author’s craft. (Click on the picture to download your FREE copy!)

Click on the picture to download your own FREE copy!
Click on the picture to download your own FREE copy!

After they read the text, have them answer the 4 questions and turn it in. Then, while you’re binging the latest Netflix show, read through their responses and start grouping them based off of how they answered. Maybe you’ll have three piles: students that nailed it, students who are on their way, and students that missed it completely. I would also suggest just focusing on one question at a time when you’re sorting them.

The data you gathered from reading your student’s responses helps you easily form small groups that you can then provide targeted, intentional instruction with. I would suggest using Serravallo’s Reading Strategies book to find ideas and anchor charts that will help provide the scaffolding, or enrichment, your students need.

Hopefully, this will provide some direction and clarity to reading formatives for you. Remember what the purpose of a formative assessment is: to check-in on your students progress with the content. Don’t overthink it!!

Keep Those Books Out!

The other day we celebrated Indigenous People Day, formally Columbus Day. I think rebranding that day is a small step in the direction we need to be heading: honoring and respecting people from all backgrounds.

Back when I was in the classroom, I was one of those teachers that has bins and bins of picture books all neatly labeled and organized by different themes and holidays (if you know me, that shouldn’t surprise you). I was also fortunate enough to have a large closet in my classroom where I housed all of those seasonal and holiday books. They would live in my closet until the specific holiday rolled around. Then, I would pull my bucket of themed books out and proudly display them for my students to read.

As soon as the specific holiday or remembrance day ended, I neatly packed my books up and put them right back into the closet for the next 365 days. I felt like such a great teacher. I was exposing my students to different holidays and cultures, all while recognizing the many great leaders that paved the way for others. There was no way I was ever going to stop sharing my different themed books with students….

However, looking back at that practice now, I find myself cringing with embarrassment. Walking into classrooms, or seeing teachers online that have buckets they pull out for certain days, makes my heart ache. Over the past few months, I’ve done some deep reflecting on myself as an educator and one of my biggest realizations has been why are we only displaying these books for a couple days, or at most, a month?” What a disservice we’re doing to our students, especially the ones that identify with these holidays. What do they think when they see their teachers putting the “black history books” away? That they only get to celebrate their background during February?? That was my privilege before; I had never stopped and thought about what the message was to our students, both black and white.

Indigenous People Day

Black History Month


Civil Rights Day

Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Women’s History Month

Students deserve to be able to read and learn about people from different cultures and races all year long. Why should black history books only be displayed for the month of February? Why should only LGBTQ books be out in June? Why can’t we read books about indigenous people, or written by indigenous authors, on days other than October 12th? These books should be a permanent part of classroom libraries where students can read them anytime and they help foster a sense of inclusion within the classroom.

If I ever end up back in the classroom, I’ve already thought about how I’m arranging my books. I will have all of my books, featuring characters from all different races, mixed together. Each day, I’ll pick new ones to display that feature great people in history or different cultures around the world. And, this time when black history month rolls around, I won’t have to pull a tub from the closet…they’ll already be out and part of our classroom culture.