Making a Masterpiece

make your masterpiece one and only ivan

I spend a lot of time in the summer reading (even more) kid lit. I am always on the hunt for books I can use in my classroom. I have a core group of novels that I teach each year, but I like to rotate one or two out of the line-up and bring in something fresh. This year, I am adding The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. I have spent the past week designing new materials to use with my students. While there are some materials I like to have for all novels I teach (chapter vocabulary lists and a character chart), I pretty much start from scratch every time I design a unit so that the activities are unique to that specific novel. Developing the ideas and wrapping layers of language skills into a unit of study are probably my favorite part of teaching.

  • I read lots of books for pleasure until I find one that catches my interest.
  • Once I choose a book I would like to teach, I read the book a second time and make notes. I circle key words, write notes and questions in the margin, underline important quotes, put stars next to interesting passages, and jot activity ideas at the bottom of the page.
  • Next, I set up my basic handouts that I use in every novel unit. I always add chapter vocabulary, and I always have a character chart of some kind.
  • After that, I often implement an ongoing task. I call this an anchor activity. Students might have to find figurative language in each chapter, write a summary “gist” statement after completing each chapter, or re-tell the chapter from the point of view of one character.
  • I add in activities that are unique to the themes, story, and writing style of the book. For The One and Only Ivan, students recreate the “puzzle” drawing Ivan paints with his message to save Ruby, the baby elephant. Based on evidence from the text, students draw and color their version of Ivan’s masterpiece. They cut their drawing into pieces, and a partner has to reassemble the drawing just like the character, Julia, did in the story. I want to keep the flow of the story going, so I won’t plan for these unique activities at the end of every chapter; I sprinkle them throughout the book.
  • Ivans masterpiece cuttingI also like to incorporate at least one non-fiction reading selection that supplements events in the story. In the Ivan story, students get to compare the book version of Ivan to the real Ivan who lived at Zoo Atlanta after spending 27 years in a glass enclosure at a mall.

One and Only Ivan real v book

Typically, the first year I teach a book, I am creating the items I need the night before I will use them with the students. Thanks to the TpT Seller Challenge, I had motivation to get a head start on my new novel for this school year. I also had a great editing buddy, DocRunning, who offered great suggestions for improvements.


Writing in a Straight Line on Unlined Paper

writing in straight lines on unlined paper

At various times during the year, my students write letters using unlined school stationery. Sometimes we type the letters and run the stationery through the printer for a totally professional product, but sometimes the letters need to be handwritten for a more personal touch. When students try to handwrite lines of text on an unlined piece of paper, the words start to move down the page (or up– or become a random zig zag pattern). By the third line of text, there is no attempt at straight lines any more, and the students are just trying to get all words onto the page before they run out of space.

straight lines paper

I have a simple solution. In order to keep the words straight on the page, I use a trick I learned from the woman who helped me with my wedding invitations. Trace all of the lines on one piece of wide ruled notebook paper with a semi-heavy black marker.

straight lines paper copiesPhotocopy as many pages as you need. When students need to write straight lines on blank paper, place the photocopied lined paper underneath the unlined paper. As you press down to write, the lines are visible, so you have guidelines to keep your writing straight. My students have multiple opportunities to write on unlined paper throughout the year, so I keep the photocopied line pages and reuse them. We have an ongoing Author Letter Project, we write thank you notes to chaperones and hosts after field trips, and we have a project where students create their own letterhead and exchange personal letters with other classes in the school.

straight lines on letterhead

If addressing envelopes, cover the lines on a notecard with black pen and slide the notecard inside the envelope to create guidelines for writing an address neatly and evenly.

straight lines notecard

Sometimes, the envelope paper is thin enough that you do not need to make the notecard lines darker in order to see them through the front of the envelope. Hopefully, you can faintly see the notecard lines in the center of the envelope in the picture below.

straight lines addressing an envelopeThis is one of my favorite teacher hacks that really improve the look of a finished writing assignment without creating too much work for me. And, this tip is not just for students. It is a great trick for anyone needing to write on unlined paper.

Sick Day

missed work page

Just about every kid illness has swept my class this year. Since December, students missed school due to the flu, strep, a throw-up virus, fever virus, that unnamed “yuck” stuff where a child does not run a fever but can barely get his head up off the desk, and lice. I have also had absences for a variety of other reasons.

Student absences fall into two categories. Teachers are tolerant about the first group and get irritated about the other. Make-up work is hard on students and teachers. Students never perform as well completing work days after the rest of the class finished it. Logistically, teachers hate tracking the make-up work, and things get overlooked. Bottom line, if it is at all possible to have your kids at school, get them there.

Excused Absences: An excused absence is typically due to illness where a child is running a fever, and a doctor note can be provided. At my school, excused absences also include a close family member’s wedding (or funeral), religious holidays, and family emergencies.

  1. If parents let the school know about the absence first thing in the morning, most teachers have a MISSED WORK form. They can gather missed assignments and send it home with a sibling, a neighbor, or leave it at the school’s front desk where a parent can pick it up at the end of the day.
  2. Do not expect make-up work before the end of the day. It takes almost the same amount of time I spend teaching a lesson to gather books, make a list of assignments, and provide teacher notes.
  3. If a parent requests make-up work be left at the front office, the parent better PICK IT UP. I have arrived at school the day following a student absence to see the pile of books still sitting on the counter in the office. I’m pissed. Organizing sick assignments usually takes an entire planning period. When parents do not collect the work, it makes me feel like they do not have respect for my limited time during the day.
  4. If we send work home with a sibling or neighbor, ATTEMPT TO DO THE WORK (see #3). I have kids return from an absence all the time telling me they did not even look at the assignment sheet I carefully completed.
    • Sometimes there are situations where students aren’t able to complete any assignments that go home. Contact the teacher and make arrangements to complete any missed work when the child returns. Don’t make the teacher go through the trouble of creating the make-up work packet when you know it is not possible for the child to do any of the work.
  5. Finish missed work as soon as possible. Typically, students have one day for each day absent to complete any work. If a student was sick for two days, he can have two days when he returns to complete all missed work. The longer it takes to catch up, the more opportunity there is to get further behind.

Unexcused Absences: Unexcused absences are things like family vacations, checking out of school early for a long weekend, spending the day having a passport picture taken, or driving 100 miles for a Taylor Swift concert because it is your birthday.

  1. If the absence is planned ahead, and the teacher is notified, the student may have to complete any assignments or take any tests he will miss before leaving (if it is convenient for the teacher). Otherwise, the work will be made up the day the student returns. OR, the work will not be made up at all, and the student may receive a zero.
  2. Do not ask the teacher if a student will be missing anything important. YES, HE WILL. There is no way to replicate instruction when students are not in school. Even if teachers do give the page numbers from a textbook, it will never be the same as participating in the class discussion, listening to the explanation, or completing an activity with the group.
  3. Do not expect a list of assignments before you leave. If you want to take your family to Disney World at a non-peak time (which happens to be when school is in session), I am not responsible for making sure you have school materials before you leave. There is another reason too. I do not plan weeks ahead. I have a general idea of what will happen the next week in my class, but I never know for sure until the day before. I might give work to a student ahead of time, and by the time he returns, our class plans have changed based on student performance and interest. I may have replaced an activity with something different or decided to reorder lessons based on student responses. The classroom adjusts all the time.

Getting Sick at School

  1. In my experience, the students who are really sick and need to be sent home won’t say very much. They get very quiet, stop participating, want to wear a coat or big sweater in the classroom, and don’t move very much. When this happens, my antenna goes up, and I run a mom check for illness.
  2. Kids who complain a lot about not feeling well usually should have eaten more breakfast, need a drink of water, need lunch, have a missing assignment, did not prepare for a test, or want to get out of class and visit the school office.
  3. I am unlikely to let a kid go home unless they are running a fever, have (confirmed) vomiting, or I have a note from a parent about potential illness before they came to school that morning. Be warned– if a parent sends a my-kid-might-be-sick note, but it is a kid who is frequently absent and kind of a hypochondriac, I will employ my best water fountain diversion tactics to keep him at school.

missed work teacher notesWhat is the absence policy at your school, and how do you handle make up work with students at home?

I Believe in Cursive

cursive handwriting

Almost every year, I develop a new learning theory that is not based on research or educational best practices of any kind. It is simply an opinion based on my experiences with students. This year’s theory relates to the deterioration of spelling skills and the de-emphasis of handwriting instruction– cursive handwriting in particular. I partially blame e-mail and texting for the spelling problem, but I think the fact that schools do not demand better penmanship is a larger contributor to the increase in poor spellers I see every year.

I suspect that students spell better when they spend time learning, practicing, and using cursive handwriting in the elementary grades. Cursive connects letters together creating a muscle memory between your hand and brain. Your brain will then remember common letter connections, patterns, and rules and subconsciously guide the hand to order letters correctly more often. Try to spell your own signature with a different letter order. It is difficult to force your hand not to put the letters of your name in the correct order. Your hand is on auto-pilot to write the name correctly. Students can achieve the same success with common words and common spelling patterns if they correctly write them in a connected way on a daily basis.

Here are a few activities I am asking my students to complete this year. They work well at school or at home to reinforce the correct spelling of the words we use most often and the patterns that repeat frequently. If you are looking for a new way to study for that weekly spelling test, have your child practice writing the words in cursive.

cursive handwriting spelling patterns

Make a list of words that a student often misspells. Have the child write the word in his/her best cursive multiple times. Provide a sample to copy, so the letter order and letter formation are correct.

Group words that have similar letter patterns and write the portion of the word that is the same in all words multiple times. For example, if the student has a handful of words in a list that end with the letters le (settle, riddle, struggle), require the student to write the letters le together 5 times or 10 times or 10+ times.

I watch my students’ papers and track the cursive letter connections that are hard to form. M and n are particularly tricky because kids want to add an extra “hump” and don’t see that the hump is actually a connector piece. O is also hard to connect to the next letter because it ends “high.” Letter pairs like os and ol are challenging. Compare the difficult connections with misspelled words and make a list of those letter groups. Practice writing the letter pairs together correctly.

cursive handwriting connections

Always provide a sample with the correctly formed letters. Sometimes, this is the hardest part because my own cursive handwriting is adequate at best. I have tried harder this year because I need my students to be able to use cursive more effortlessly, so I can prove my theory.

I will admit that I completed a mini Google search about handwriting and spelling. There are articles here and there that support my theory (ha, I knew I was right). While I also have my students complete a lot of keyboarding and typed writing assignments, I think there will always be a place for handwritten documents. If you have read any of my letter writing posts, you know how I feel about handwritten thank you notes! Does anyone else have an opinion?

To purchase cursive handwriting practice pages at my TeachersPayTeachers store, CLICK HERE.

Letter Writing

addressing envelopes

I never liked the term, “friendly letter.” When I was in elementary school, we reviewed the parts of a letter EVERY YEAR for like six years straight and then wrote pointless “friendly letters” that went nowhere. Huge snore. I disliked letter writing as a student, and I avoided letter writing activities for a long time as a teacher. Well, times change. I spend a lot of time on letter writing with my students now and here is why.


  • Students have a hard time addressing an envelope (and I teach 4th grade where they have been doing the friendly letter drill for awhile). They are unsure about how to organize the three address lines, don’t know state abbreviations, and have trouble capitalizing correctly. When I ask students to address an envelope, they get to practice these skills. They are reminded how to write a complete name with a title (like Mrs. or Mr. or Dr.). They practice writing street abbreviations as part of the name of the street with capital letters (Center St. or Liberty Blvd.). They review state abbreviations and reinforce the comma between a city and a state.
  • If students add a return address to the envelope, they get a little extra work remembering their own address too.
  • So I am not necessarily referring to anyone I know, but for those of us who become slightly unbalanced when the address lines are all uneven on the envelope, slide a lined index card inside the envelope with the lines facing up. If the envelope is sheer enough (like a basic business envelope), you can see the guidelines when you press down to write. Your address lines will be straight and even making my the world a happy place.


  • We usually type our letters, but I am a fan of handwritten letters too. Either way, students learn to format a letter in a logical order. There is contact information at the top, a date, and a proper salutation. Even if our students in future years are handling all communication with employers, co-workers, or clients electronically, they will still need documents formatted in an order that is easy to read. This is just a good lifeskill.  


  • If students know they will get tangible results from a project they complete, they are more likely to engage at a higher level. I have students write letters to people who reply (most of the time). In order to get a reply, my students have to communicate effectively in their letters and then address and mail it correctly. A formal letter requires full sentences, organized ideas, and a beginning, middle, and end. When we do receive a letter back, students gain experience with cause and effect– they wrote a letter asking for or providing information and received a reply responding to the content in the original  letter. 

Here are a few letter writing activity suggestions.

They are ideas that work at home as well as the classroom.

  • One of my favorite types of letters are thank you notes. The format of this letter does not have to be a full fancy business format. Casual is definitely acceptable. One benefit (among many) of the thank you note is that it requires children to reflect on something nice that has been done for them and then specifically recognize in written words why they appreciate the nice thing. I have a rating system for thank you notes on the post here.

thank you notes

  • An ongoing activity in my room is an author letter project. Students search contact information for a favorite author. The contact information could be an e-mail address, mailing address, or a publisher address. The students prepare a letter that details why they enjoyed a specific book by the author and gives reasons the book may have had an impact on the student. About half the time, we receive personal replies from the authors. You would not believe how an author reply can motivate a student to read! For more author letter tips, click here.

author letters

  • This year, students researched a state and contacted an alum from our school to ask for more information about the state and the history of our school. Again, we had about a 50% return rate. The men and women who wrote back to our students included many stories about their life at school when they were in the 4th grade. The connection to the history of the school made a much bigger impact than the rest of the state research project. I could not have replicated that by sharing something from a history textbook. The students made a personal connection with the alum. I liked that the students participated in an activity that stretched well beyond the classroom, and they created a link that was outside their everyday world. Write to a relatives or friends who live in a different town. Ask about how their life might be different from your own. It is a great way to discover old family stories or compare differences in cities, states, and regions. (Visit my teacher store to purchase the State Postcard Project).

new york reply