Scaling the Mountain of Independent Work Time – Planning Activities

As teachers, we know that keeping the rest of the class engaged during small group instruction can be a challenge.  Planning independent work time options (i.e. centers, workstations) can feel like a mountain to climb. This does not need to be the case.

We should not expect (nor desire) to scale Mount Everest on day one (or two or three).  Instead, we can view this mountain as a series of individual steps to be carefully orchestrated in advance. Follow these easy steps to get you started in your own classroom.  With patience and planning, you will reach the summit in no time!

The Plan: What should my students do while I pull groups?

Step One: Make a list of all the independent options for your own class. A great place to start is with independent reading.  Other options include independent writing, word work, buddy reading and listening center. Click here to see a more comprehensive list that you can adapt to your students:

  Step Two: Once you have decided on options for your class, it’s time to plan out all the materials. For example, if you are introducing independent reading, you will need leveled books, book baggies and/or bins, pencils, reading logs, sticky notes, etc.  Write this out for each center that you plan to introduce.

    Step Three: Now decide on the procedures that you need to teach for each workstation/activity.  When deciding on procedures, don’t assume anything!  Sometimes it’s helpful to think of your students as visitors from another planet.  Don’t assume that they know to push in their chair and throw trash in the wastebasket. Take time to teach exactly what’s expected. To continue with the independent reading example, you will need to teach routines such as: how to choose books, how to know if a book is “Just Right,” how to return books in the library, where to sit during this activity, etc.

Step Four: The final planning step is to decide when to introduce each center. Plan to allow for at least one week between each activity, so the students have time to practice and build stamina. Then be flexible and adjust as needed.

So you’ve made a list of ideas, procedures to teach, materials needed and due dates.  (Click here for a chart that you can use with your colleagues: Independent Work Time Planning Sheet). What now?  Where to go next?

Start by introducing one thing, such as independent reading or another item on your list.  Take it slow and give your students time to practice.


Other resources to support meaningful independent work activities include Literacy Workstations, The Daily Five  and Words Their Way

Happy Climbing,



P.S. This is a great video on the subject of establishing procedures for independent work                                                                                     time during guided                                                                                   reading:

Classroom Management with Jenna

Planting the Seeds now with Independent Reading

One of my favorite children’s books is the classic story by Ruth Krauss – The Carrot Seed.  If you’re not familiar with it, it’s the story of a boy who plants a seed in the ground.

“Every day the little boy pulled up the weeds around the seed and sprinkled the ground with water.”

And every day, his mother, father and brother tell him that the seed won’t come up.  But still, he keeps on watering, pulling and sprinkling, day after day.


Let’s think about our students for a moment, in respect to independent reading. Independent reading is the “seed” getting ready to grow.

Will it happen overnight?  Will they read successfully (and with independence) for 15 minutes on day two?

Of course not.

When we introduce independent reading on the first day, this is just the seed, burrowing in the soil, forming roots, finding a home.

What next? We model the behaviors that we want, create an anchor chart and give our students a chance. Maybe they only read with success for 2 minutes that first day, possibly even less.  That’s okay.  We know that the seed is there, forming roots, ready to grow, AS LONG AS WE KEEP TENDING TO IT.

How do we do that? By revisiting our routine the next day, giving the students a chance to continue to build stamina over time.

Some days, the plants might look wilted, so adjust as necessary.

Maybe you put them by the window for some sun or add some water.  Prune off dead leaves and watch them spring back to life.

In the classroom, our water, sun and food can come in many forms.  Maybe it’s revisiting and/or revising an anchor chart or share successes/challenges at the end of independent reading time.  Or, it might be sitting down one on one with a student to give specific praise and feedback.  Just the burst of sun that he/she might need.  It also might be letting a student sit in a different spot that day.  Sometimes getting comfy and cozy can work wonders…

You know best what your own students need so be patient and keep at it: watering, sprinkling, pulling, watering again, until one day…

They come up.

Happy Reading,


P.S. Please leave a comment about the “water, sun and food” that you leave in your own classroom so we can share ideas.  Let’s work together to help all of our students “come up!”

Also, if you haven’t read this story, grab a copy today.  It’s a fast read and has such a powerful message, not only about independent reading but anything that requires hard work and effort.

Paving the Way with Poetry

It’s the first few days of school and everything is a blur of new faces, forms to complete, and procedures to teach.  The days fly by and as teachers, we often don’t finish half of what we had planned to do each day.

Sound familiar?

Here’s a great idea to fill those spare moments when you don’t have enough time to start something new, yet need to bridge the gap before the students transition to the next part of the day.

Read some poems!

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Don’t wait for National Poetry month in September. Poetry is great for the beginning of the year in so many ways – it builds community, adds humor and introduces students to a genre that they can return to again and again.  This is especially important for struggling students.  With its short format and lower word count, poetry is often less intimidating to those students and more inviting.  So why not introduce it to them now, help them get “hooked” and also keep them engaged?

When I taught third grade, I would keep a one or two poetry books on the ledge below the whiteboard, or on a shelf near the front door.  That way, whenever I had two or three minutes to spare, I could grab a book, read a poem or two and move on.  This resulted in less distractions, more focused students and an increase in interest for this genre and reading overall.

Humor is always a good way to draw kids in, especially in September.  It’s also helpful to find poems that connect to actual parts of the school day, like the cafeteria, recess, etc.   Once you start reading on a regular basis, your students will want to find their own poems to share.  If possible, let them copy over the poems and display them in different areas of the room.  You can even have them sign up for poetry readings or create hand gestures to act them out.

Ready to get started? Here are a few of my personal favorite books for the beginning of the year.

Lunch money and other Poems about School by Carol Diggory Shields

Honey, I Love by Eloise Greenfield

A Pizza the Size of the Sun and anything else by Jack Prelutsky

Unbeelievables and anything else by Douglas Florian

Falling Up and anything else by Shel Silverstein

The Way I Feel by Jana Cain

The Dog Ate My Homework by Bruce Lansky

If I Were in Charge of the World and Other Worries by Judith Viorst

Have some of your own favorites? Post them here so we can share ideas!  Thanks and happy reading!

Launching a Love of Reading from Day One

The first day of school is fast approaching and you’re doing all the usual things that teachers do:  setting up reading corners, hanging curtains and other decorative items, clearing out the cobwebs in corners.  You’re climbing on top of desks to tack up number lines, stapling paper to bulletin boards, fastening letters onto the word wall.  Photocopying your introductory parent letter, an “All About Me” packet and the supply list. You leave at the end of the day exhausted, sweaty and…excited.

Excited for the new faces that will enter your classroom in just a few short days.  Excited for their stories, their enthusiasm and their own unique sense of excitement.

You’ve made a list of procedures to teach the first week, ice-breaker games, math lessons.  Everything’s ready or as ready as it will be.

But what about read alouds?  Sometimes we feel like we have so much to squeeze in those first few days (and beyond) that the read aloud is often the first thing to go.

Don’t let that happen.

There is so much to be gained from reading to students: fluency, comprehension, vocabulary and even phonics/phonemic awareness.  And perhaps most importantly, developing a love of reading and a community of readers in the classroom.

I’ve listed a few of my personal favorites here, along with a possible classroom connection for each:

Book Title                                Author                            Classroom Connection

A Chair for My Mother            Vera B. Williams             Helping others

The Carrot Seed                    Ruth Krauss                    Hard work and persistence

Something Beautiful               Sharon Wyeth                Caring for our classroom and community

The Important Book               Margaret Wise Brown     We are all unique and important

Chrysanthemum                    Kevin Henkes                  Diversity

Today I feel silly…                 Jamie Lee Curtis              Understanding feelings

A Bad Case of Stripes           David Shannon                Being comfortable with who we are

Bad Kitty                               Nick Bruel                         Following directions

The Relatives Came             Cynthia Rylant                  Summer vacation writing

Knuffle Bunny Too                Mo Willems                       Getting along and sharing

Lunch Money and                 Carol Diggerty Shields      Poems about the school day

other poems about School

Have any of your own “go to” books to share?  Please leave a comment so we can add to our list.

Then sprinkle in a few extra read alouds to your schedule those first few days.  You’ll be glad that you did.

Happy Reading!


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