2019 Classroom Favorites

It's hard to believe, but I'm getting ready to wrap up my 20th year as an educator this week.  The end of the year is a time to be reflective, and there are three additions to our classroom in recent years that quickly became important parts of our day and community.
Soft start, #classroombookaday, and Secret Stories were some of my favorite newer additions. Reading a book a day and our morning tubs helped build an authentic classroom community, and Secret Stories really helped carry phonics instruction from the lesson to application.
This post contains affiliate links which means Amazon tosses me some change whenever someone makes a purchase through one of these links and allows me feed my book habit!

Soft Start

What's your ideal way to start your school day? What if your principal was waiting at your door with a pile of paperwork that had to be completed and you were expected to complete it in silence? No hello to your team mates, no conversation about your kids or the week or Game of Thrones.  Not very inviting is it?

It's not very inviting to students either.  Soft start is a way to help students transition into their school day. Can you imagine riding to school with 50 other children? As a mom, I know getting my kids out of the house when they were younger wasn't always my time to shine.
Using a soft start with these morning tubs helps students transition into the school day and had a tremendous impact on our classroom community.
When I decided to introduce morning tubs, I wasn't expecting it to have such a huge impact on our classroom community.  Every morning, students are working together, playing together, and building relationship.  When the bell rings, they're ready to get started right away.  It definitely helps with tardies, too.
Using a soft start with these morning tubs helps students transition into the school day and had a tremendous impact on our classroom community.
If you can't play Legos together, you can't learn together.  Our soft start time gives students a chance to practice people skills without the pressure of academics.  There is no beginning of the year activity that will build a stronger community than navigating the world of Play-doh, blocks, or Magnatiles together.

You can read more about Soft Starts here.


While I was a literacy coach, I saw an Instagram post from Teaching 3rd with Mr. G that stopped me in my tracks.
This display seemed like such a powerful visual, and I knew when I went back in the classroom it would be the first thing I started.

What I didn't realize is how great the impact would be instructionally and on my readers' hearts.  While I always read aloud to my students, it was usually a chapter book and a picture books here and there.  I knew because of time, I would most likely have to give up the chapter book read aloud.  It hurt a little.

But what I gained was incredible.  174 experiences, 174 stories, 174 opportunities to experience lives outside of our classroom.  I did very little teaching with the books.  The purpose is to enjoy story.  But it's impossible to not grow as a reader or a writer with so much exposure to story.  I'll usually just notice with them something an author did and have them do a turn and talk and share what they discussed about it.

Theme? No problem. They've experienced so many stories that they independently discuss with each other what the message was.  Inferring? We've noticed hundreds of things not included in the words on the page.  We've read silly stories that made us laugh, books that helped us cope with feelings, looked into the worlds of people we've never met, and learned about naked mole rats (just to name a few.)

Students can typically comprehend two grade levels ahead of their independent reading.  This gives kids an opportunity to experience text and vocabulary that they might not have been able to.  For striving readers, the opportunity to reread quality, high interest texts is invaluable.
Learn more from Jillian Heise about #classroombookaday here and follow the tag on Instagram for great recommendations!  I shared a photo tutorial here and see the top 16 read alouds my students chose for our March Madness Battle of the Books.

The Secret Stories

I had never heard of The Secret Stories until a teacher I though highly of at a previous school swore by it with her first graders.  They sounded interesting, but it was an in one ear out the other kind of thing, and I didn't think about them again.

Fast forward to January of this year, there was a CLEAR phonics divide in my classroom of the haves and the have nots.  Some students were rocking and rolling with their sound knowledge and picking it up from lessons embedded in our literacy block, and some students were still struggling with short a.
Secret Stories helped phonics stick.  The kids LOVED the stories, songs, and motions.

Here's the quick version of The Secret Stories: (not an affiliate link, just love it!)
1. There are stories and posters for different sounds.  Example: er, ir, ur are bad drivers and are always having to put on the breaks and say "-er".  We added motions for most of them to engage the full body.
2. The Better Alphabet song.  We sang this daily.  Instead of singing the name of the letters, you sing, "A says ah ah ah ah ah ah ah ah, but it can also say ay ay ay ay ay ay ay ay." You keep going with all the letters.  (There's a CD, you're not on your own with this.)
3.  You DO NOT introduce one sound a week.  I spent a day or two on each one, slowing down to review as we finished a group of sounds.  The author's point was why should kids wait until February to learn about r controlled vowels? Agreed.
Secret Stories helped phonics stick.  The kids LOVED the stories, songs, and motions.
My intention was to use it specifically with students with significant phonetic weaknesses.  My "small" group got waaaaay bigger than I planned because the majority of students wanted to join in.  Some of my strongest readers were strategically placing themselves around us on the rug while pretending to read a book, so they could listen in.  Eventually, I invited anyone that wanted to join and consistently had 12-15 kids in the group.
We reviewed previously introduced stories, introduced the new story, and practiced orally and then on white boards.  On Fridays, we would "collect" words that followed patterns.  This helped me know what I needed to reinforce.  Incorrect answers are as informative as correct answers!
If we had an extra minute or two during our morning messages, we would play word detectives and look for stories.  Find a word with these two friends who are all about the balls, find a two syllable word with a bad driver in it, etc.
Secret Stories helped phonics stick.  The kids LOVED the stories, songs, and motions.
This was in the book that comes with it.  I ripped it out to make it easier to use.  I'll bind it this summer.  Y'all know I'm #teambind

I absolutely, 100% saw a difference in reading and spelling and will start out with it the first week next year.

There are a few drawbacks-it's not a downloadable resource, so it's more expensive.  But I was in a full on panic over Christmas break and was willing to spend money to make my life easier.  And I did tweak some of the stories.  For -ew -eu the story about two girly girls being afraid of mice and saying ewww was a gender stereotype I chose not to reinforce.  I just changed it to two kids instead.

The Secret Stories is not a systematic phonetic intervention to support students with dyslexia, but it's not meant to be.  The stories did quickly introduce students to a significant number of phonetic patterns and in a way they remember.  It also gave us a common language to use when talking about sounds.  "I'm going to look for a story," became one of the kids' most used print strategies.

This would definitely be worth setting up a Donor's Choose project.  They're not available on Amazon, so you would need to do a special request.  I loved the growth I saw from students and how much they enjoyed the stories.