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All teachers know that back to school is one of the most hectic, exciting times of the year. We're buying new supplies, decorating our rooms, and planning for the best school year yet. Buying all of those new things for our classrooms can get expensive, which is why I've put together this list of my five favorite back to school freebies!
This post may contain some affiliate links, which means if you click on one of the links and make a purchase, I'll receive a small commission. You will never incur a fee or charge for this.

1. Back to School Name Tent {from The Science Duo}: Instead of making name tags for desks, I started using this name tent a couple years ago. It works well because students have something to work on when they come into the classroom for the first time. I encourage my students to write whatever they want me to call them (in case they go by a nickname or middle name), plus fill out the ice breakers so we can use them to learn about each other. Each year, my students especially love the two truths and a lie part. 
2. Community Building Question of the Day: Back to School Edition {from yours truly, Cait's Cool School}: If you follow me on Instagram @caitscoolschool, you know I love using whiteboard questions daily. This free back to school set is perfect for the first week of school. Start off the year building a classroom community and getting to know your students (in addition to sharing a little bit about yourself!). I love putting a question on the board even the very first day to get my students excited and in the habit of answering our daily question.

3. All About My Selfie {from Student Savvy}: This was a fun writing & creative assignment for my students the first week of school. I used it for my ELA sections to have students write a little for me about themselves, and they could also show me their creativity by creating their own "apps" to tell about themselves.

4. Classroom Posters {from Light Bulbs & Laughter}: Buying decor packs can get expensive, which is why I'm in love with these new posters! I love the colors and how bright they are. Perfect easy decorations- they're offered in color & black/white- I just am a *little* obsessed with my Astrobrights Color Paper

5. Back to School Project Based Learning {from Performing in Education}: If you know anything about April from Performing in Education, you know she is the queen of PBLs. I LOVE using this PBL during the first week of school. It's designed as a math activity, but I think it can be used in any classroom. While I allow my students to think of different furniture than what we already have in our classroom, I try to get them to think about what's already there. It's fun to see what their ideas for a classroom design are. Sometimes I even use their suggestions and do a little rearranging. 😃

What are your favorite free back to school activities? Share in the comments! 

Ever since I was a kid, I loved mysteries. I devoured as many as I could get my hands on- Boxcar Children, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Babysitters' Club mysteries, and more. I still love reading mysteries as an adult. 

This past school year, I decided I finally needed to do what I'd been dreaming of- the ultimate mystery unit, brought to life in my classroom. Each of my fourth grade ELA sections is hetereogenous, with students of varying levels. My goal was to be able to differentiate with novels, but be able to assess my students on the same skills. The great thing about mysteries is that they cover so many standards- plot structure, character traits, inferences, etc.

So what did we actually do? First, I needed to set the stage to engage! I wanted to see what my students knew about mysteries and let them start to take on the role of being detectives. Time for a Detective Book Mission!
This post may contain some affiliate links, which means if you click on one of the links and make a purchase, I'll receive a small commission. You will never incur a fee or charge for this.
The goals of this mission: read two picture book mysteries- one to model identifying parts of a mystery and one to have students work in groups to identify parts of a mystery, all while getting students excited to read our next novel.

First I asked my kiddos what they knew about mysteries. I got a variety of answers- everything from "Nothing!" to "Detectives and clues are important!" Then, as a whole group, we read Detective LaRue: Letters from the Investigation by Mark Teague (I chose this partially because I'm obsessed with Ike LaRue and Teague's pictures are AMAZING). 

While reading, we discussed different mystery terms as we came across examples like detective, clues, suspect, and red herring. The book became our model for mysteries.

After we finished reading, I showed my students a mysterious package that had been delivered to our room. We had a book mission envelope and an envelope written to fourth grade detectives. I, of course, had no idea where these came from. 😉 The best thing about the book mission is that my students had to take over. They were given an introductory letter, magnifying glasses (which I picked up from Amazon), copies of  Grandpa's Teeth (one for each of my 6 teams), directions, and Official Detective Notebook Paper (see pics). 

The envelope is from Really Good Stuff, & the papers were inside.
Each team received a copy of the book & everyone had magnifying glasses.
For the next 45 minutes, my students were completely, 100% engaged in reading and finding the clues to solve who stole Grandpa's teeth. (The ending of the book is hilarious, by the way.) After we were finished, my kiddos were not only hooked on being detectives, but they also showed me through their exit tickets and Detective Notebook Paper that they were starting to really understand mysteries. Plus, they liked the term "red herring" as much as I do! 

Red herring is what will lead me to our next activity...and how I introduced a little bit of my childhood to my students! To read all about it...check back for the next part of my mystery blog post.

Want to try this mission with your students, with the full lesson plan, Detective Notebook Paper, exit tickets, & more included? Check it out in my TpT store here.  

What do you do to start off a mystery genre unit? Share in the comments below!

If you're here, it's because you have the same question that I've seen so many teachers ask- what books should I use for read alouds? There are so many amazing books that it can be hard to decide. 

Here are my top six picks, including how they can be used as examples reading standards (besides just being amazing books 😜):

This post may contain some affiliate links, which means if you click on one of the links and make a purchase, I'll receive a small commission. You will never incur a fee or charge for this.

1. The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary School by Candace Fleming: It's always great to have a book that has "fourth grade" in the title. My students love to read a book that seems like it's written just for them. 

Beyond the grade level aspect, this book is great for a few reasons- it has quirky and memorable characters (great for character traits and text to text comparisons) plus each story has one of the morals from Aesop's Fables, which make great themes. With the first couple chapters, I usually have to guide my students to pick out the theme, but once they get the hang of it, it's always fun to end each chapter by guessing the moral.

2. Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo: Who doesn't love Kate DiCamillo? This book barely needs an introduction (but I'm going to tell you why it's amazing anyway!). The hook for my students is the dog, of course. Not that I blame them, because I'm kinda, sorta obsessed with my dog, so I LOVE dog stories. 

Why is it a great story for your classroom? It's realistic fiction that provides touching characters for your students to connect with. I especially like using this novel to make inferences. Opal learns a lot about friendship and relationships throughout the story. I have also found that my students who have either moved around a lot or only have one parent really connect to Opal's story. 

3. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (The Chronicles of Narnia) by C. S. Lewis: This book was read to me in fourth grade and I never forgot it. It's that kind of book. Plus it made me want to devour the rest of the Narnia series. And that's what it brings to your students too. Using a book from a series is a great way to get them hooked. 

What are the other reasons? This is a historical fantasy featuring the four Pevensie children. In addition to switching up the genre from the previous books, this book is full of symbolism (winter and the animals) and a variety of themes (friendship, good vs. evil, family).

4. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson: "The Herdmans were the worst kids in the history of the world." <-- that sentence gets my students (and me) every time! I love this book because it's short (perfect for December) and it touches on how Christmas is different for many kids. The narrator is Christian and grew up hearing the story of Jesus, but the Herdman kids weren't raised in a church and are new to the idea of Jesus. This opens up a conversation about how different people celebrate holidays and families come from different backgrounds. I like to bring in additional picture books and investigate holidays around the world. Besides holidays, this book is also a great example of round characters. The Herdmans change over the course of the book and show how one experience can change a person. 

5. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J. K. Rowling: I'm just a *little* Harry Potter obsessed. What's so great about Harry Potter? Um, everything. This is another fantasy book, and again, is part of a series. If you choose to use this book in your classroom, I HIGHLY recommend getting the illustrated edition. The illustrations are fabulous and really draw in even the most reluctant readers. Some of my students even get the illustrated version from the public library to follow along and stare at the pictures even longer. 

Parts of this book to use in your classroom? As Harry is learning about the wizard world, he also is faced with a mystery. I use this novel as a read aloud during my mystery genre unit. We collect the clues as Harry does. This book also has great characters to explore.

6. Love That Dog by Sharon Creech: This book is a great addition to any poetry unit. This is the story of Jack, who hates poetry, and doesn't want to talk about his dog, Sky. He slowly reveals what happened to Sky and learns about poetry from Miss Stretchberry, his teacher. This book is an excellent way to introduce your students to poetry, while giving them a character they can connect with. To read more about how I use this in the classroom, check out this blog post

Those are my top picks...and I'm always looking for new and different books to share with my students. What are some of your favorites? Share in the comments below!

Ask a roomful of teachers if they like teaching poetry and you won't always see that many hands. Ask students if they like LEARNING about poetry and you'll see even less hands. Poetry is one of those tricky types of reading and writing because it's so different from prose. Lucky for me, I've always LOVED reading and writing poetry, so I want to spread that love to you.

This post may contain some affiliate links, which means if you click on one of the links and make a purchase, I'll receive a small commission. You will never incur a fee or charge for this.
One of my first writing projects that I knew I HAD to do as a teacher was to create a poetry writing unit to make my students fall in love with poetry the way I am. Over the years, I've twisted and tweaked how I teach poetry to really make it an enjoyable experience for my students. Here are some of my tried and true tips for poetry writing:

1. Make poetry accessible. Have a poetry collection of books for students to read and look through. Poetry has a different sound and feel than most other types of material that students read. Students need models for writing and My go-to book to listen to is Love That Dog by Sharon Creech (read all about that here), and here are some of the others that I put out in my library:

2. Use topics students are familiar with to engage them. On the day I introduce poetry writing, I use a brainstorming organizer to let students write down any topic. They write for two minutes, and then each person shares one idea. After sharing, students take another minute to write down any ideas they heard to "piggy-back" off of their classmate. Now, every time we attack a new kind of poem, there's a go-to list of ideas...just in case someone has a case of writer's block. Grab the organizer in my post about pre-writing here.

3. Incorporate a variety of poetry. Use poetry forms that allow kids some creative license. Try not to overuse one form of poetry. For example, a diamonte has a specific format, requiring students to use different parts of speech to portray opposites. After working on this type of poem, I like to switch up our writing focus, and we work on a creature alliteration poem. Students have a new focus on alliteration, in addition to having creative license with the types of words they use.

Some of the different poems I use in my poetry writing unit include: acrostic, cinquain, color poem (using similes and metaphors), concrete (shape), creature alliteration, diamante, free verse, haiku, and limerick. I also always have my students pick their favorite type of poem and write a second version of it. I'm always amazed at their creativity! This project has become a favorite for me and it's one that my students remember year after year. I have middle schoolers bringing me their projects to show off to my fourth graders as examples of what we're going to create. 

4. BONUS: Have a poet visit. Okay, so this is a little bit trickier because generally it costs money to have an author come visit. But there are lots of ways you can finance author visits, or look into Skype visits, to really bring the idea of writing poetry to life for your students. My school is very lucky this year and we are welcoming Kenn Nesbitt as a visitor to our school. (See his website for info on how to set up a visit- I highly recommend him!)

When you're finished writing poetry, don't forget to celebrate! Check out some of my ideas for celebrating writing here.

Are you a poetry lover or hater? Any ideas to share for teaching poetry writing? Share in the comments below!

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