I think most language arts teachers have a few go-to books that they use to integrate subjects.  When  get to the post-Revolutionary War period and need a historical fiction novel, I reach for Fever, 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson.   The story takes place in Philadelphia during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793.

Fever, 1793 is a Hidden Gem of a book for using in a novel study or as a read aloud.  It is a terrific historical fiction book to incorporate into a study of Colonial America or American Revolution.  Post discusses how to use the book in your middle school classroom.Summary of Fever, 1793

Readers are introduced to Mattie Cook, a very typical teenager dreaming of her future, thinking about boys, - and fighting with her mother.  Mattie's mother runs a tavern, and like many families, Mother and Mattie rarely see eye to eye.  Grandpa lives with them and helps run the tavern.  Polly is a girl that works for them.  When Polly doesn't show up for work, Mattie assumes she is off flirting with the boys.  Shockingly, Mother discovers that Polly is dead - taken by a quick fever.  Soon, many people are passing along rumors of a fever running through the city.

Mattie is a very engaging character, and students quickly get swept up into her life.  As the yellow fever outbreak becomes more evident in the story, students begin to ask for more reading time - they want to know what happens to her!  Things get pretty dire for Mattie as she attempts to escape the city for the countryside.  Eventually, Mattie finds her way back to the city.  Will her family survive?  Will they be able to keep the tavern?

Teaching Fever, 1793

Anderson does an amazing job weaving in facts from the time period throughout the story.  It is a very accurate portrayal of life at this time.  Although the Cook family is fictional, the events discussed in the story are real.

The story does get a bit dark - after all, a lot of people died in the yellow fever epidemic.  It is a bit graphic in parts, but most kids really just want to know what happens next.  However, if you have a student that struggles with loss or handling death, the story may be too much.  I have used this book with 5th graders toward the end of the year and 6th graders.  This is not an easy read, so I do not recommend using it with below grade level readers.

Aside from a terrific plot and engaging main character, the book also has quotations from the time period at the beginning of each chapter.  These quotes come from a variety of sources, but all are taken from historical documents.  Many students had a difficult time understanding the quotes. However, teachers should spend time analyzing their meanings as the quotes often foreshadow events in the story.

I also recommend finding an audiobook version of the story.  Students love to hear it being read in a colonial accent!

If you are interested in using Fever, 1793 in a literature circle, I do have a novel unit available in my TPT store.

novel unit

What are your favorite books for integrating American history?
Okay, so we have talked a lot about struggling readers.  Do you know what struggling readers also hate to do?  Yep, WRITING.

I had been making Google journal prompts for my team to use in a writing center.  As they are slides, I made them really colorful.  My son did a double take and asked me what I was making.  At first, he laughed, "No way would I do that."  Then I discovered a powerful word, a word that actually made him say he wanted to use the prompts.  "Online.  You type your responses on the computer."
digital learning
He literally did a 180 degree turn in five seconds flat.  "Oh I get to use the COMPUTER?"

This short conversation got me started thinking about online writing prompts.  I mean, if all it takes to get my son to write is allow him type his responses, then I am so allowing him to use a computer. However, not every child will write just because you put them on a computer.  It always makes me sad when a student only wants to write one sentence.  Every class has a few kids that just love to write, but there are always a few that spend the entire period sharpening a pencil.

So why are some students reluctant to write?

5 Ways to Engage Student Writers - Post discusses five simple ways to boost student engagement during writing in any elementary or middle school classroom.

1.  Brainstorm First

A big problem for many students is having something to say.  If they do not have an interest or experience with a topic, they just give up.  As a class, students could brainstorm some ideas for the writing topic before they begin.  That way, all students have a list of ideas to use.

After the conversation with my son, I brainstormed a list of topics that I thought would be more engaging for students.  I had my kids and their friends look at my ideas.  I was surprised at the ones that were rejected - and often the kids gave me other topics.  Ask your students to suggest topics and use them as prompts.  You don't have to use them every time, but once in a while it could bring a boost to your period.

2.  Focus on One or Two Skills

A struggling reader is often a struggling writer.  No one enjoys failing over and over again.  I had a college professor who corrected papers in colored ink, and frequently my papers looked like they had been killed with a felt-tipped pen.  Wow.  Now, not surprisingly I was a highly motivated Type A student, but for most students that would be an automatic shutdown.  Decide what you will focus on in that writing piece.  Does the student need to focus on sentences?  Capital letters? Spelling?  By only focusing on a specific goal, students can feel more successful.

For example, my son is a terrible speller.  In his summer writing journal, I am not focusing on spelling.  I know in a few short weeks he will not learn to spell.  Heck, we have been working on this for a few years.  He can improve adding details to his responses.  Instead of returning his slides to him covered with spelling rewrites, now he can focus on what he did well - introduce his topic - and what he needs to improve - adding details.

5 Ways to Engage Student Writers - Post discusses five simple ways to boost student engagement during writing in any elementary or middle school classroom.

3.  Use Google Classroom (or other Digital Program)

Don't discount poor handwriting as a hurdle.  When I taught middle school, I wondered why writing down a sentence took students so long.  After a while, I realized that the slow note-takers did not know how to correctly hold a pencil.  Seriously.  An entire generation of kids is wasting time holding their paper down because they start at the bottom of the letter.  There is a reason why letter should be written a certain way - the paper doesn't move around!  And don't forget the poor left-handed kids (my son).  It takes so much longer to write left-handed, and you smear up everything you write.  All of these kids with poor handwriting skills end up with cramped hands.  Who wants to write then?

Typing is a great equalizer.  Granted, some students learn to type better than others.  However, most kids have a lot of keyboarding experience on their phones, gaming systems, computers, etc.  Plus, they enjoy being on a computer!

4.  Shake It Up

Do you have a writing prompt every week?  Is it always the same format?  Perhaps it is time to shake it up.  Consider losing weight.  One tip they have is to always have the same breakfast or lunch so that you don't overeat or splurge on something.  Why?  Because you would eat the same thing without even thinking about it.  Do you really want your writing block on autopilot?  Try a different style of prompt.  Have students study poetry this week.  Do a group write, where each students writes a sentence and passes it on!

5.  Change the Audience

"Who cares what I put?  Only my teacher will see it anyway."  Change the audience from the teacher to their peers, their parents, etc. and you will see a big difference in their writing.  When we did Florida industry projects, my students held an Open House for parents.  Students were so nervous and excited to have REAL people see their work.  (No, teachers apparently do not count.)  In Google, students could share their journals with the class and get feedback from their peers.  Some teachers send home writing journals for parents to read or put them out at Open House.  Think about how you could change the audience in your writing block or, frankly, in any subject in order to increase student engagement.

What do you use to engage student writers?

My son and I have been reading a chapter a day to improve his reading.  Our "tutoring" has really reinforced to me how many signs I missed that he had a reading problem. Even with all my teacher training and reading professional development, I didn't know that he showed nearly every sign of a struggling reader!  He didn't need glasses, so I figured his vision was fine.  With this post, my goal is to help teachers recognize signs of an underlying problem - something the student won't "just outgrow."  Without help, some struggling readers will just fall farther and farther behind - no matter how many times they are retained or given the "gift of time."

5 Signs of a Struggling Reader - Post discusses five often missed red flags that could be a sign that a student is struggling with reading. Teachers and parents of struggling readers will find this post helpful.

As a teacher, I really thought I knew all about reading problems and how to spot them.  I mean, we talked about dyslexia and other issues in my master's program.  However, I was never really taught to identify signs of other possible problem.  In general, I don't believe many training programs adequately prepare teachers for this aspect of our job.  Every year I talked with his teachers and mentioned these struggles - all signs of a problem - and none of us picked up on it.  And my son has had AMAZING teachers!

Red Flags

As teachers, how can we tell when there may be a hidden problem with our students?

1.  Resisting Homework

     Don't laugh.  Until you have your own child scream for 4 hours (not exaggerating) because he or she doesn't want to read for 10 minutes, you really can't believe that the parents are telling the truth about the homework struggle.  I continually brought this up with my son's teachers.  Math homework wasn't a problem.  Reading, however... I just can't even explain the torture.  Now, if I was reading to him, he was thrilled to read.  If I asked him to read, all bets were off.  HOURS.  I am not joking.  I tried to explain that his screaming was taking far more time than just doing the reading, but he didn't care.  Yes, friends, I often just gave up.  It was so exhausting to struggle with him that by bedtime I just couldn't do any more.
    Now when parents tell me that their child is refusing to do the work for hours, I no longer just chalk it up to a power struggle.  If the child has a pretty good relationship with the parent and doesn't seem to have other issues that stand out, pay attention to this refusal to do homework.  It may not be a vision problem, but I truly believe this is often a big red flag that there is a problem.  I had a student last year that was diagnosed with ADD - and the homework struggle was one of the things the parent discussed with me.  The family felt a lot of relief at finally discovering why she struggled so much when it didn't seem like she should be.

2.  Lack of Phonemic Awareness

     I know many primary teachers are tuned into this, and I noticed my son struggled with letter-sound matching, but it didn't occur to me that it may be a sign of a larger problem.  Now, emerging readers may not know all of their phonemes, but I am talking about a third grade student that could not tell you what sound a letter made.  Blends?  Let's not go there.  My son is going into sixth grade next year and I still review these with him.
     This struggle with phonemic awareness is another red flag that there may be a deeper problem.

5 Signs of a Struggling Reader - Post discusses five often missed red flags that could be a sign that a student is struggling with reading. Teachers and parents of struggling readers will find this post helpful.

3.  Sight Word Struggles

     As a student's reading level increases, his or her ability to recognize words should also increase.  Students with an underlying vision problem really rely on sight words to get them through a passage.   Once it becomes harder to have all of the words memorized,  the student struggles more and more with reading comprehension.
  My son was always able to squeak on grade level by the end of the year - which we all know means he was basically a year behind.  However, throughout the primary grades, he was always on grade level - or higher - in everything but reading.  I never could understand how he could be above grade level in every other subject but have such a struggle in reading.  I know now that he basically tried to memorize everything and learned through the teacher's instruction.  He did well when you explained it to him, but he couldn't figure it out on his own.
  As students transition to reading to learning, vision issues will cause more and more problems.  If a student seems to understand the material but fails reading and written work, that may be another red flag.

4. Spelling, or He Who Cannot Spell

 I have almost given up on spelling.  I mean completely.  My son cannot spell.  It is a nightmare.  I have tried every spelling trick I can think of - as well as all my teacher friends' ideas - and he still at best gets a C on a spelling test.  And when a C comes home, it is party time.  Seriously.

  Now, there are many people that just struggle with spelling.  This is that times a million.  For example, I tried having him pretest and then only focus on the words he didn't know.  Yea, that bombed.  Every day he spelled different words correctly and missed other words.  We tried doing them orally.  Same thing.  Tried writing them, nope.  Tried grouping words in word chunk or CVC families.  Bombed.  He is just at the point where he has decided it doesn't matter, because even if he studies he will get the same grade.  And honestly, he is right.

Last year his teacher tried giving him tests where he had to identify which word was spelled correctly.  For example, misspell, mispell, missspall.  Surprisingly, he can do well on that type of assignment.  So, somewhere along the lines he just cannot recall spelling although he can recognize it.  (See how this ties into trying to memorize all the words and lack of phonemic awareness?)

Again, poor spelling by itself may just be poor spelling.  However, poor spelling combined with other red flags may be a sign.

5.  Wacky Errors

Okay, I know that title is really specific, but it honestly is how I think of it.  If you have a student that seems to do strange things and also has other red flags, there may be something going on.  Let me explain some of the things that I started to piece together for my own child.

- He would copy most things wrong.  How can you spell words that you copied incorrectly from the board?
- He still struggles with words that are very similar.  ex.  Were, we're, where;  though, through, thought, thorough.  Every time he hits words like this, his reading stops while he figures out the word.  What happens in the meantime?  His comprehension plummets because he spent all his brainpower on figuring out the word.
- He passed vision exams yet appeared to not see correctly.  Yep.  He once failed a test and I was so excited because I thought we finally had solved our problems.  His prescription was so low, and when we finally got with a therapist, we discovered that the glasses actually just made his vision worse.
- Incredible lack of coordination.  I am NOT exaggerating.  I mean coordination where you have to laugh so you don't cry,  Jump rope? No way.  Skip?  Lord help me.  Ride a bike?  Get the Band-Aids..  Toss the ball back and forth?  Be prepared to do a lot of running as the ball will be thrown but NOT in your direction.  Walk next to each other?  You will be walked into and probably pushed into something.  (Thankfully, therapy has helped these issues A LOT.)
- The ability to read larger print books, but not smaller text.  My son could read texts that were larger font and double spaced, but struggled as fonts got smaller and spacing got tighter.  This was a big light bulb for me, because if he were really such a poor reader this didn't make sense to me.

I hope these tips help you.  I know I was really surprised to find out many of these are common signs of a problem.  Do you know of any other red flags?

To learn more about vision problems, please read my blog series.
I also have learned some strategies for helping your struggling reader.

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