Effective Communication and Conflict Resolution in the Classroom

The last couple of months of the school year can be a tricky time in 5th grade. With state testing behind us and graduation looming, nerves about the transition to middle school sky rocket. This is the time of year when I find myself engaged in conversations with my colleagues about classroom community. There is such a strong emphasis on building community the first couple of months of the school year, but as the school year progresses this inevitably falls by the wayside. As the school year winds down, I realize that what my fifth graders really need to ensure the cohesiveness of our community is effective conflict resolution strategies.

A friend of mine recommended reading How to Talk So Kids Can Learn by Adele Faber, Elaine Mazlish, Lisa Nyberg, and Rosalyn Anstine Templeton. 

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This book is a great resource for student teachers or new teachers. It addresses the most common situations teachers encounter in their classrooms, including challenging behaviors, effective communication with students and their parents, and conflicts. 

The part of the text that I found the most interesting was the chapter about conflict resolution. It includes a series of simple steps to navigating conflict:

  1. Listen the the feelings and needs of the person/people
  2. Summarize their point(s) of view
  3. Express your own feelings and needs
  4. Brainstorm possible solutions (without evaluating)
  5. Make a plan, including a time to follow up

This process is so straightforward that in addition to utilizing it myself in the coming school year, I’m considering ways to adapt it for student use. 

In the coming weeks I am going to continue exploring conflict resolution and I will be sure to share what strategies I decide to implement this school year.

Historical Fiction Books about War

When, as a first year teacher, I learned that the first chapter book read aloud in 5th grade is Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate, I was skeptical. This is a level W book, whereas the reading level for early fifth grade is level S! I glanced at the book summary on the back cover and learned that this is a story about a boy named Kek who immigrates to Minnesota, yes Minnesota, from Africa. Though the book sounded interesting, I questioned whether an incoming group of thirty-something 10-year-olds would be engaged by it. (In my mind, first year teacher + a lot of students + super advanced book = chaos in Room 415!… I shuddered at the thought.) 

In reality, Home of the Brave is the perfect book with which to start the school year.

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Written in free verse, it follows the story of Kek, a Sudanese refugee, as he tries to balance his new life in the United States with the homesickness and nostalgia he feels for his old life. He experiences tremendous guilt and sadness from losing his father and brother and not knowing whether his mother is alive. 

Applegate skillfully crafted Kek as a curious, compassionate boy who the reader can’t help but fall in love with. He is a smart and motivated and finds small bits and pieces of home in Minnesota. There is a scene where Kek loads his aunt’s dirty dishes into the washing machine in the laundry room. Readers can see it coming from a mile away. My room filled with shouts of warnings to Kek: “Stop!,” “Oh no!,” and “Don’t do it!” This simple misunderstanding represents how difficult it can be to move to a foreign place and be immersed in a language you hardly speak. 

Both years that I read Home of the Brave, students held on to the story all year. As we moved on to other books, for example Because of Winn Dixie or Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo, they made strong text-to-text connections, recalling that Kek was the type of character who had to learn not to hold all of his feelings and worries in. 

Last summer, when we were planning our read alouds for the school year, the other 5th grade teachers and I gushed about shared love for Home of the Brave. Our literacy coach recommended, Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai. (Guided Reading Level: W)

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This is another incredible historical fiction book, also written in free verse! It is about a ten year old girl named Ha who flees Saigon with her family during the Vietnam War. Ha and her family move to Alabama, yes Alabama, and begin their lives anew in this unfamiliar place. Inside Out & Back Again is beautifully written and inspired by the author’s own experiences as a child.

Ha and her family face considerable alienation in the community and at school. Once they are baptized, members of their community become more welcoming. However, Ha and her brother continue to face discrimination and bullying at school. Lai brings to life the struggle of adjusting to a new life in a new place. Sadly, and perhaps realistically for so many, the tone for the majority of the book is somber and hopeless. 

Both books, Home of the Brave and Inside Out & Back Again demonstrate how powerful historical fiction books can be. They provide young readers opportunities to learn about different historical world events through the eyes of children their own age. The experiences of characters like Ha and Kek teach readers important life lessons about empathy and how destructive war can truly be. 

A Sibling Relationship Brought to Life

The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies reminded me of my own relationship with my sister growing up. The main characters, Evan and Jessie live with their mother. Evan is a charismatic fourth grader, who has strong interpersonal skills. Jessie is academically strong, yet she lacks her brother’s social graces. The problem in the story is that Jessie will be skipping third grade and has been assigned to Evan’s fourth grade class in the fall.

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Evan worries that his genius sister will make him look dumb in front of his peers, meanwhile Jessie worries about fitting in. Each character’s insecurities build and result in the declaration of a lemonade stand war. 

The Lemonade War (Guided Reading Level: S) is great for readers in grades 3-5. The characters’ actions and reactions are very realistic. The real-life problems will engage readers, and they will want to keep reading to find what happens. Since teaching conflict resolution has been on my mind lately, I really liked that Evan and Jessie demonstrated ways to communicate effectively and to problem solve together. Each character is accountable for his/her actions and apologizes when appropriate.

One other aspect of the book that I found impressive was the tips for increasing sales. Real-life math problems were woven into the story along with business-aligned vocabulary (i.e. value added and gross sales).  

The Lemonade War ends with a cliffhanger, which sets up the sequel The Lemonade Crime. There are a total of five books in the series to date.

Strategies for Tackling Unfamiliar Vocabulary

Last summer as I reflected on my first year of teaching 5th grade, I considered the many skills and strategies that I wanted to weave into learning experiences throughout the year. Tackling unfamiliar vocabulary was something I knew would be helpful to all readers regardless of reading level, genre or unit of study. 

There are many reasons why I selected The BFG by Roald Dahl as the read aloud to teach into and provide opportunities for this type of work. (Guided Reading Level: U)

First of all, the plot is amazing. This is a story about the unlikely friendship between the Big Friendly Giant (BFG) and a clever young girl named Sophie. The BFG is an easily confused character, so the reader has to pay close attention to the text to make sense of what he is saying. Luckily, Sophie asks many questions to help clarify what is being said. Since our Fantasy reading unit was not until May, I thought this would be a great way to preview the genre. 

Secondly, Dahl takes the opportunity to invent a lot of vocabulary for this story. For example as a vegetarian giant, the only thing the BFG eats is a disgusting vegetable called the snozzcumber. 

Third, and most important for the purpose of the read aloud, the book contains an abundance of rich vocabulary. I reread the BFG through the lens of tricky vocabulary, and I was not disappointed. I collected these words and created a series of word banks, which I distributed to students to reference during read alouds. Each time we encountered a word in the text, we would stop to determine its meaning. (I was careful not to pick too many vocabulary words.)

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As I prepared to launch the read aloud of The BFG, it occurred to me to access the class’ previous knowledge of word solving strategies. So I opened it up to them. I asked, “What are some strategies that we already know to help us figure out the meaning of unfamiliar words?” Their answers were so strong and impressive that I charted them.

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If they were able to name so many different strategies, why did they have a hard time using them? It turned out that they simply needed opportunities to practice using them. Each time we read The BFG, I made sure the chart was in our meeting area. By the time we reached the end of the book, these young learners had become much more confident word solvers. The chart remained up in our class for the rest of the school year, and students easily transferred these skills across genres and content areas.

An Unusually Creative Picture Book

Arnie the Doughnut by Laurie Keller is easily one of the strangest picture books that I have read. But, the more I think about it, the more I like it. I was SO excited to read it to my class. I couldn’t wait to hear what they thought of it. When they described it as “funny but weird,” “cool but I don’t know” and “awesome,” I realized that this picture book was one that they would be thinking about for a long time. Following the read aloud, many of my students wanted to reread it independently. This also allowed them the chance to take a closer look at the detailed illustrations and captions that fill each page. 

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The main character, Arnie, is a living, breathing doughnut. He is created in one best bakeries in town and is very proud of his 135 candy-colored sprinkles. It becomes clear right away that Arnie is not like the other doughnuts. When Mr. Bing picks him from the bakery case, Arnie is ecstatic. He can’t wait to meet his new owner. What Arnie does not realize is that doughnuts are meant to be eaten! 

When Mr. Bing tries to eat Arnie, he becomes outraged! Arnie “tricks” Mr. Bing into allowing him to call the bakery to alert all the other doughnuts. It turns out that they already know this and are okay with their destiny. (Pictured Below) Ultimately, Arnie refuses to accept that being eaten should be his purpose in life. 

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Arnie the Doughnut (Guided Reading Level: R) is a book that I can read over and over again and notice different details each time. I’d recommend this book for students in grades 3-5, however younger readers will also be entertained by it. 

In addition to the picture book, there is an Arnie the Doughnut chapter book series (Guided Reading Level: Q & R) available, which would be great for 3rd and 4th graders.

There are Two Sides to Every Story, and Then There is the Truth

Everybody knows the story of the three little pigs. Each little pig builds its house out of a material sturdier than the last. One chooses straw. One chooses sticks. One chooses bricks. The big bad wolf blows down the houses of the first two pigs and is unable to destroy the home of the third.

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The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! by Jon Scieszka presents the wolf’s side of the story. It provides a hilarious, new twist on a childhood classic. 

According to A. Wolf, he was baking a birthday cake for his dear old grandma when he ran out of sugar. He visited his neighbors, the three pigs, looking to borrow a cup of sugar. It just so happens that A. Wolf had a cold, which caused him to sneeze. He claims, blowing down the houses of the first two pigs was an accident.

The True Story… (Guided Reading Level: Q) is great for readers of all ages, from kindergarten to 5th grade. I’ve used this picture book with upper elementary students to encourage them to consider different perspectives in the texts they read, whether they are reading fiction or non-fiction. Near the end of the school year, we have a unit on Independent Writing Projects. Each year, inspired by this book, at least one student will try his/her hand at rewriting a classic fairy tale from a different point of view.

High-Interest Non-Fiction

During the school year, students are expected to shop for both “just right” fiction and non-fiction books to read during Reading Workshop and at home. As students level up in reading, different fiction books become available to them. A challenge I face is how to keep students engaged in non-fiction reading when they have access to the same non-fiction library all year. 

I am constantly on the lookout for new, exciting non-fiction texts that I think my students will find interesting. This year, I subscribed to Sports Illustrated Kids and National Geographic Kids magazines, which were a huge hit. When we were in research units, I supplemented the classroom library with books from our school’s library media center as well as the local public library.

Our literacy coach recommended No Monkeys, No Chocolate by Melissa Steward and Allen Young.

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The title alone captures the reader’s attention. Without monkeys there wouldn’t be chocolate?!? You simply must read on to find out the connection between monkeys and chocolate. This deeply scientific text with fabulous, detailed illustrations describes the interdependence of animals and plants in nature. At the same time, the book is infused with puns, humor and some disgusting facts that keep the reader engaged. 

No Monkeys, No Chocolate is great as an independent read for students in grades 4-6. I selected this text as a whole-class read aloud through which we analyzed how the authors’ craft moves brought out the deeper meaning of a non-fiction text. For example, how the book uses the much-loved topics of monkeys and chocolate to bring attention to the preservation of rain forests. 

Another high-interest non-fiction book is Mistakes that Worked by Charlotte Jones. 

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Like The Kid Who Invented the Popsicle, Mistakes That Worked features 40 popular inventions that were the result of mistakes. This book includes the invention of donut holes, piggy banks, and even VELCRO. Descriptions of the inventions are accompanied by comical sketches and interesting facts. It teaches the reader that taking risks can result in amazing, never thought of before creations. 

Unlike No Monkeys, No Chocolate, Mistakes That Worked is the type of non-fiction text that does not have to be read from cover to cover. It encourages the reader to use the table of contents to identify the parts of the books that would be of most interest. 

What high-interest non-fiction texts do you have available in your home or classroom libraries?

Series and Sequels

You know that feeling you get when you’ve just finished an amazing book? You loved the plot and grew attached to the characters. The central problem has been resolved, though smaller ones may remain up in the air. Then you learn that the author has released a sequel or that the book you just read is in fact part of a series, and the fun does not have to end just yet!

Books in a series or sequels to books are a great way to engage readers at all levels, particularly reluctant readers or struggling readers. The familiarity of characters, setting, plot line, and the type of problems the characters face allow the reader to feel like they have already done some of the hard work and can pick up where they left off. 

In a post earlier this week, I wrote about Because of Mr. Terupt. I recently read the sequel Mr. Terupt Falls Again by Rob Buyea.

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After a challenging fifth grade year, the students in Mr. Terupt’s class have the opportunity to loop up to sixth grade together. The book follows the same lovable characters as they navigate another action-packed school year.  

As a sequel, this book did not disappoint. Same great, complex and realistic characters. Peer pressure is front and center. Overall the same important themes emerge, the importance of sticking together, standing up for what you believe in, taking time to understand the point of view of others, etc. However, it is important to note that this sequel features a lot of mature topics, including substance use, smoking. Also physical development in girls is also a topic that keeps coming up, as the characters in the story are in sixth grade.Based on the content of the book I’d recommend it for middle school students rather than those in elementary school.  

The third book in the series, Saving Mr. Terupt, was just released, and I am looking forward to reading it. Stay tuned!

Books to Give (Part Two)

In an older post, I admitted to being that person who enjoys giving children books as presents. There is nothing more special, in my opinion, than passing on a great book. By giving a book as a gift you are telling the recipient, this book made me think of you.

One of my all-time favorite books to give as a gift is The Monster at the End of This Book by Jen Stone. In the beginning of the book, Grover will tell you that there is a monster and the end of the book. He will then beg and plead with you not to turn the page. As you turn the pages, Grover comes up with more and more creative ways to try to prevent you from continuing, for example building a brick wall on the page. When you reach the end of the book with Grover, you learn that Grover is in fact the monster at the end of the book. Great for kids ages 3-6. 

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Another fantastic book for kids ages 6-9, is The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka. (Although I really wish the word stupid was not in the title…)

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The Stinky Cheese Man… (Guided Reading Level: P) deconstructs traditional fairy tales in a very absurd way. It pokes fun at the characters and the morals associated with the classic versions. Even the title page and the ISBN number are part of the story. This is a great book that promises to be engaging to all young readers. 

One more recommendation for a book that makes a great gift is The Kid Who Invented the Popsicle by Don Wulffson.

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This book, for children in grades 3-5, features descriptions of many exciting inventions organized in alphabetical order. It will interest the reader to learn that many important inventions were, in fact, the result of accidents. The format is a bit boring, lacking interesting organization or images that would greatly enhance the content. The good news is that it features a table of contents that allows the reader to select what sections to read. This is a great book for a curious kid who likes to learn facts and details about many different topics. 

A Bi-Cultural Read Aloud

Throughout the school year, my fellow 5th grade teachers and I select read alouds that closely align to our units of study in reading and in writing. Our fiction read alouds are always rich texts that are slightly above what is considered “on grade level” at that time of year. They present opportunities to do some pretty sophisticated work as readers. For example in our work with developing character theories, we constantly collect text evidence to help revise or add to our ideas. We consider how characters interact and change across a text. We even analyze author’s craft moves and use our understandings to identify larger lessons or themes in a text.

As we prepared for the state tests this year, I had the flexibility to select any read aloud. I knew that I wanted to read a book that integrated different cultures and languages. I’d seen this type of work on past year’s ELA tests. Over the course of the school year, I surveyed that books my students were reading and noticed that very few of them gravitated toward these books in our classroom library. During conferences with those students who did, I noticed that they weren’t paying attention to the important role this different culture or language played in their stories. 

As soon as I read Becoming Naomi Leon (Guided Reading Level: V) by Pam Munoz Ryan, I knew I had found our read aloud. 

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The main character Naomi Soledad Leon Outlaw lives with her brother Owen and Gram in a trailer park in California. Naomi is a quiet fifth grader who prefers to keep to herself. In addition, she is highly anxious and carves soap sculptures to help ease her nerves. Owen is a fun-loving kid who gets bullied because of his physical differences. 

One day Naomi and Owen’s mother, Skyla, shows up following a seven year absence. Skyla is seeking custody of the kids, which leads Gram, Naomi and Owen on an expedition to find their father in Mexico. The characters take the reader on their journey as they learn about the culture, traditions and the language of the paternal side of their family. 

My fifth graders were absolutely riveted by this book. Each time I had to stop reading, I was met with protests and requests for “Just one more chapter!” (This is probably one of my favorite parts of teaching, when students are so deeply immersed in a book that even though it’s the end of the school day, they want to be late so that we can read one more chapter.) 

Though the book addresses some mature topics, including substance abuse, it does so in a subtle and thoughtful way that allows the reader to understand the severity of the issue within a meaningful context. 

Becoming Naomi Leon is a beautiful story about finding one’s true identity.