Archive for the ‘Newsletters’ Category

How to Plan a Unit Opener

Monday, October 15th, 2007

by Mathew Needleman

Let’s begin our week of unit opener planning by making sure we’re all on the same page and share a common rationale and understanding of what an effective unit opener is.

What is a Unit Opener?

A unit opener is the Open Court Reading name for what is commonly known as an anticipatory set.

An effective unit opener should:

  • Engage students and raise interest in the coming unit.
  • Activate prior knowledge by building a bridge from previous knowledge to new information…the teacher shows how it’s relevant.
  • Provide necessary background knowledge for students of limited experience and English language levels.
  • Provide an experience that students of multiple learning modalities can draw from as they proceed through the unit.
  • Unit Opener Diagram

    Make Your Unit About Something

    When you are using a basal reader, like Open Court, you need to make sure that your unit is about something and not just a collection of stories. It is not necessarily about what it says it’s about in the teacher’s manual (although the investigation and inquiry goals are a good place to start). If the unit is not meaningful to the teacher, it will not be meaningful for your students. So think creatively and find a way to connect meaningfully to your unit before you ask students to.

    If your unit is Astronomy, then your purpose is probably more obvious than if your unit is a universal theme like Kindness. With Kindness, you probably want to have some examples of real life kindness (like service learning projects or connections with people outside of your classroom) to illustrate the unit in a real way.

    I might take the Cooperation and Competition unit and use it as an excuse to teach the rules of games and sports. I might use Sharing Stories as a chance to teach about family histories. I use Let’s Read to raise students’ awareness of environmental print. More about our current units will follow this week.

    Have an objective

    Now that you have a reason for teaching the unit (and don’t copy mine, remember the point is for you to connect to your units in a way that’s meaningful to you), you need to have an objective for student learning. If you have a mandated assessment which follows the unit, then you also have to work backwards from that assessment and align it with your objective. If you’re teaching about astronomy and your objective is for students to name the planets and describe each of them, you would teach the stories from a different angle than you would if your goal was to teach about the determination of scientists in exploring the solar system. The unit is a loose theme which gives you an excuse to teach something that is meaningful to you. Again, make sure your objective aligns well with your assessment that’s coming at the end of the unit.

    Don’t Talk So Much

    Start by asking yourself how am I going to get to higher level thinking with this unit opener?

    Next, ask yourself how am I going to appeal to students of different learning modalities who may or may not understand the vocabulary I am using?

    If your unit opener involves you talking to your students the whole time or asking them questions that you already know the answer to, you’re not getting to higher level thinking and you’re not appealing to anyone but auditory learners who are fluent in English.

    Cue Tape or Enter Stage Left!

    I strongly recommend having a short film, powerpoint, photos, children’s literature, or a guest speaker, or realia available to help open your unit.

    Lead with your multimedia/realia.

    If your unit is Risks and Consequences, for example, instead of starting a conversation about risks and consequences when students may not know what risks or consequences are, show the movie first. Then discuss the risk taken in the story. Then connect this to students’ lives and ask them to discuss their examples of risks in small groups.

    Even with a unit like Fossils where students have lots of background knowledge, if you begin by showing a clip from Walking with Dinosaurs rather than simply droning on about dinosaurs you will surely have more complex, richer conversation and higher level questions for your concept/question board. If you can bring in a guest speaker about astronomy who brings some photos your students will have an experience to draw on throughout the unit.

    Link this to a Graphic Organizer

    For Open Court Reading teachers, we use a Concept/Question Board (close cousin to the KWL Chart). The C/Q board is a living, breathing graphic organizer which helps students to construct their knowledge about the unit. You may also wish to use other graphic organizers to begin to record knowledge of the unit theme.

    Other Strategies to Employ

    Pair sharing, quick writing, journaling, drawing pictures, skits, play-doh models, interpretive dances, etc…Participating in any of these will make your unit more meaningful than you lecturing students about the theme and it will involve more students on task for more of the time.

    You’re already an expert on the theme so give the students a chance to begin to construct their own knowledge even if their knowledge may contain some misinformation about the unit. If you want to model asking good questions ask questions that you really want to know the answer to rather than questions that have a specific answer you’re looking for.

    We’ll continue to talk about Unit Openers as we go through the week.

    Also see: Unit Opener Planning Sheet

    © 2007 by Mathew Needleman. All rights reserved.

    Newsletter #6: Back to School

    Wednesday, September 5th, 2007

    The Open Court Newsletter

    The Open Court Monthly Newsletter

    Monthly Newsletter #6—August 28, 2007:
    The Back to School Issue

    Dear Friends and Colleagues,

    I hope you have enjoyed a restful and relaxing summer.

    This has been a busy summer for Open Court Resources.

    Many pages have been redesigned to make it easier to quickly locate activities. Additional resources such as third grade powerpoints have been added and the blog has come into its own as the place to find frequent tips and post questions about teaching the Open Court Reading program.

    I hope you enjoy the new resources and have a great and productive start to your school year. -Mathew

    Mathew Needleman
    literacy coach
    teacher – webmaster
    Open Court

    Activities for the First Day of School

    Ice breakers, procedures, recommended literature, and things to do to prepare to teach the Open Court Reading program:

    First Day of School Activities

    Literacy Coaches, Unite!

    Coaches, content experts, and others who provide professional development for the Open Court reading program are invited to join the new global literacy coach network, a professional networking site for literacy coaches.

    With members from across the country, this new feature allows coaches to share best practices as well as professional challenges in a fun and easy to use format.

    Integrating Technology

    Participants at the Los Angeles County Office of Education’s technology integration in the Open Court Reading class showed the potential for integrating technology into the Open Court Reading Program.

    Recent Blog Posts

    Hundreds of new resources at Open Court


    The Concept Question Board Part 2: Questions

    Saturday, May 26th, 2007

    While the first step, Part One: Soliciting Artifacts may not be easy at first, it can be a piece of cake compared to soliciting meaningful questions from students about the unit theme. This month I hope to provide some assistance on how to elicit meaningful higher level thinking questions from your students.

    1. Activate Prior Knowledge (and add a little new knowledge)

    You can’t go in to class and ask a question like, “So does anyone have any good questions about Machines in Our Garden today?” and expect to get many meaningful responses. I know, I’ve tried it.

    You need to collect visuals, realia, and multimedia for each of your unit openers. I check the web site before starting each new unit to find what I can use from there. I like showing short films or powerpoints whenever possible. By providing something for students to see or touch they can more easily generate authentic questions.

    This is true for units that have more challenging themes like “Mystery to Medicine” but equally true for seemingly simple units like “Animals.” Even though students know a lot about dinosaurs, before the “Fossils” unit I showed students a clip of Walking with Dinosaurs and asked them to write down questions as they watched. The quality of their questions was far better because they had had a virtual experience with dinosaurs from which to draw from.

    3. Adding questions to the board

    Questions about the unit will arise naturally through your discussions of unit selections and concepts. I used to have a hard time getting students to write down these questions because I felt it would interrupt the flow of our conversation. What I do now is record questions that come up on post-its if I feel it’s going to interrupt our conversation or if the questioner is not able to write it himself (as in the lower grades).

    Immediately following handing off discussions is a good time to have students write questions, as well as during Independent Work Time. If you are able to show a short film or provide additional realia at an inquiry center for students, this will help them to write additional questions without much prompting from you.

    3. Keep It Real

    You want questions to be authentic, that is about things students really want to know about. So if a students asks a question that they really don’t care about or they already know the answer to, you don’t have to accept it, particularly later on in the course of a unit.

    I hate questions like “What is Sharing Stories?” “Who tells stories?” and I try to refocus these questions by thinking aloud and asking a student if he’s ever wondered who wrote the story of Little Red? Why there are so many wolves in folktales? Why the good guys usually win? etc….

    If all your questions are simplistic and meaningless (and they might be at the beginning of your unit) this is a good assessment tool for you; if students are connecting to and learning about a theme in some meaningful way then there questions should reflect that. If students are not understanding your theme, this may be painful but then your challenge is to find a way to make the unit more meaningful.

    4. Questions should be about the unit, not a particular story or artifact (plan ahead)

    This is a difficult hurdle for some teachers to get over. The way around this is through planning. You need to decide what each theme means to you and what you want to teach related to it. The teacher’s manual makes several suggestions, choose one of those or decide on your own.

    For our Courage unit my focus has been that heroes are not people who don’t get scared but people who get past their fear to accomplish great things. So when students ask why Molly is scared in Molly the Brave and Me when she is supposedly so brave, I refocus the question by saying, “Hmm, I wonder if people who seem really brave might get scared sometimes? Is that what you’re wondering?” Our study of famous Americans then lends itself as an answer to the question when students thing about Jackie Robinson or John F. Kennedy and whether or not they were ever scared in their lives.

    Planning out your unit concepts helps you seize upon it for the concept question board when it comes up as well as facilitate handing off discussions. You also need to allow students to add to or change the theme.

    5. IWT and the CQ Board

    Many teachers complain that it’s difficult to get students to use the Concept Question Board during IWT. I have certainly experienced this myself. My best advice is to stop IWT five minutes early and take a look at the CQ Board as a class. If you make a big deal about new additions and clarify confusing questions/questions, it helps to stimulate new material. When I forget to do this, I do find that because of the lack of accountability, students do not often make their best contributions. I also use this review time to remind students to add question marks when necessary and fix no excuse word mistakes.

    6. Answering Questions (and Concepts)

    You want students to answer some of the questions on the board and not just leave them there until the next unit. If someone happens to answer a question that I know is on the CQ Board in the middle of one of our discussions I might have them go over and answer it but most of this work is done during IWT. Not all of the questions will get answered and that’s okay but if none of them are answered, what are students learning? When students answer a question, I have them attach their answer and then move both the question and answer to the concept side. But we don’t stop there.

    I teach students to review not only questions for answers but concepts as well. Similar to community edited encyclopedias (wikipedias) on the internet, inaccurate information on the concept side should be spotted and weeded out by clever concept question board hunters. Even if questions are already answered, students can add additional comments to them or correct incorrect information. The board is more of a living and breathing entity if all parts of it are being examined and reexamined at all times. For research based units, students can cite sources on answers to questions.

    This is our Concept Question Board

    Please use this blog as our online concept question board and post your questions and concepts below on your use of the CQ Board.


    Open Court powerpoints, films, and unit opener ideas

    Concept Question Board Page

    © 2007 by Mathew Needleman, Open Court Resources

    The Concept Question Board: Part 1

    Sunday, April 15th, 2007

    The Open Court Newsletter

    The Concept Question Board Introduction

    Many teachers, myself included, have struggled with integrating the Concept Question Board meaningfully into the Open Court Curriculum. Even those who have beautiful looking Concept Question Boards often put it up on the first day of the unit and leave it there as the best wallpaper you have ever seen.

    Here are some tips I have discovered in making the Concept Question Board a living breathing entity to compliment my teaching of the Open Court units.

    1. Involve parents. Solicit artifacts.

    Simply asking students to bring in artifacts is not enough. You need to communicate information to parents in writing about your unit and asking for students to bring in artifacts. There are parent letters in the OCR Home-School Connection manual but I have found these to be too wordy for my parents many of whom are learning English themselves. Make your letter visual so it stands out; include a picture related to the unit.

    For second grade I wrote parent letters for almost all of the units explaining briefly:

    • what the unit is
    • what the unit is about (do not assume parents know)
    • suggestions of artifacts to bring in

    Here’s a sample letter for Fossils unit.

    Allow students to think outside the box. Students may bring in things that do not seem to relate to the unit but with your assistance can find ways of relating those items to the theme. If students have nothing I allow them to draw a picture of an artifact they’d like to bring in so it is expected that everyone brings in something.

    2. Use the Concept Question Board for Oral Language Development

    If you just put it on the wall without talking about it you are missing terrific opportunities for oral language development. I have my students share what they have brought with the class, relating it to the theme, then allowing the class to ask two questions of the person sharing, again giving students an opportunity to practice questioning. A template on the wall for how to speak about your artifact helps English Language Learners to speak successfully about their artifacts (see photo above).

    3. Write About It

    Using the same linguistic frame (seen above) all students can write about their item with success. For some students, I assign a partner to assist them with their writing. I have students write about their objects first thing in the morning, while we are wrapping up morning business and other students are sharing. If they do not finish in those five or so minutes they finish their writing during Independent Work Time.

    4. Contribute your own artifacts.

    If you expect students to come up with artifacts to fit the theme you need to have some of your own. Sometimes this is harder than you think. Don’t just stick it up on the wall, model for your students how you share the artifact and write about it in the way you want students to.

    Go to Part Two: Questions

    Don’t miss a thing. Sign up for the monthly newsletter.

    Sample Concept Question Boards:

    above sample from Mr. Needleman’s 2nd Grade Classroom

    above sample from Mrs. Kirk’s 5th Grade Classroom


    See hundreds of new resources at Open Court

    Or jump to Concept Question Board Search Results

    Integrating Technology Part 1: Powerpoint

    Sunday, March 11th, 2007


    Open Court features literally hundreds of powerpoints for every unit and nearly every story of the Open Court Reading Program. These are all available free for download though they may not redistributed on the internet without permission.

    What innovative ways can teachers use these powerpoints with OCR?

    Teachers can use powerpoints to assist in unit openers. Students are often more engaged when provided with multimedia than when staring at a teacher talking. Placing focus questions for the unit in the powerpoint and providing pictures of unit concepts and ideas can help facilitate class discussion about a new unit, activating and creating prior knowledge.

    Vocabulary instruction can also be greatly enhanced by giving students visuals to illustrate new words, appealing to visual learners and English Language Learners.

    When and how do you show your class powerpoints?

    I am frequently asked if I have a digital projector in my classroom. I do not. Projectors are too expensive for many schools to purchase. If you have an Apple Laptop you can purchase a $20 Apple Video Adapter which allows you to connect your laptop to a television screen to show powerpoints to your whole class.

    In addition to showing powerpoints to the whole class when starting a new unit or teaching new vocabulary, I also allow students to revisit the powerpoints on the web site during Independent Work Time. This is an instant center which changes weekly with little to no prep. Even young students can be taught to navigate the web site to find their unit and story to view powerpoints. Reviewing the powerpoints independently in collaborative groups allows students to practice reading fluency and reinforce concepts you’ve taught at their own pace.

    Next month: Tips for Using the Concept Question Board

    Find Powerpoints at Open Court

    © 2007 by Mathew Needleman, Open Court Resources