Genius teacher ideas

High Interest Nonfiction for Test Prep

Sarah DeWit

Editor's note: We've been thrilled to see how teachers are using Storyworks Jr. for test prep! This is how Sarah DeWit, a 3rd-grade teacher at Jane Long Elementary in Richmond, Texas, approaches the nonfiction and paired texts in every issue of  Storyworks Jr. Steal her strategy!


I use the nonfiction text and paired texts most often because they always grab the kids’ interest. Here's my five-step plan for teaching "Blood, Smoke, and Freedom" from the March/April issue.


  1. We start by using the Vocabulary Slideshows to predict the topic and explain words readers might struggle with.
  2. Then the kids’ favorite: videos. Those are great hooks and lead to engaging classroom discussions. By the time my students are ready to read, they have found purpose.
  3. After our first read, we use the “Think About It” activity sheets with close-reading questions in small groups. 
  4. Each group answers a question and presents it to the class. Students agree or disagree with answers, helping iron out misconceptions or take conversations to a deeper level.
  5. We also use the skill-based activities to review skills. 


The articles in Storyworks Jr., fiction or nonfiction, push kids to read above level. They are able to do so, and feel successful, because of the high-interest topics. I hope my strategy works in your classroom!


Digging Deeper Into Vocab With Word Power

Leslie Smothers

Editor's note: We found 4th grade teacher Leslie Smothers on Twitter, and we couldn't be happier to be in touch with her! Leslie uses Storyworks in super-creative ways, and we love her strategy for digging deeper with our short nonfiction feature Word Power, on the first pages of every issue of Storyworks and Storyworks Jr. The best part: She's provided you with step-by-step instructions and her printable activity sheets!


Teachers are always searching for ways to increase student vocabulary and enhance student writing. Word Power in each issue of Storyworks can do just that! With this text, my students enjoy the word hunt and, with a "shades of meaning" activity, they dig deeper into vocabulary. Shades of meaning is a vocabulary strategy that shows students the subtle differences in words that are viewed as synonyms. For example, would you rather your principal was furious or mad at you? See what I mean?


My students LOVED “Death by...Chili Pepper?” in the March/April 2018 issue of Storyworks. Here's how I used this strategy with that story:


  • After reading the text, they went on a word hunt to find four synonyms for spicy.



  • Once they discovered the words in the text, students evaluated which word had the strongest and weakest meaning. They had to not only justify answers, but also draw a picture of each word. The justification is simply putting their rationale for each choice on paper, while the pictures help with both vocabulary retention and understanding. 
  • To take it one step deeper, students searched for an antonym for spicy in the Word Power text. There is only one. 



  • Once located, they determined four synonyms for this word on their own. Per my students, this was much more challenging because they had to reply on their own vocabulary knowledge compared to searching the text for synonyms.  Similar to the previous activity, students evaluate the synonyms for strongest and weakest meanings. This included justification and pictures of words selected. 



Here is a printable PDF of my Shades of Meaning Vocabulary Strategy activity that correlates with the Word Power in the March/April 2018 issue of Storyworks.

Want to use it with future Storyworks Word Power text?  Here is a Universal Shades of Meaning Vocabulary Strategy activity that has the word box blank!


I hope your students love this vocabulary building activity as much as mine!

Student Choice Drives STAAR Test Prep

Editor's note: We love Storyworks Jr. 3rd-grade advisor and bilingual educator Alejandro Sifuentes from Round Rock, Texas. Just like all Lone Star teachers, he takes STAAR prep very seriously, and finds a way to make his ELAR skills review impactful by using student interest to drive extra practice. 
To help me prepare for the joyous season of STAAR, I rely on Storyworks Jr. 
First, I plan a brief meeting with my students' parents and discuss with them the importance of comprehension in the STAAR, and a few key ways they can support and be involved in extra practice at home. I want to be sure I don't create test prep burnout with my bilingual students, so I encourage families to have their kids read Storyworks Jr. and pick a favorite article. They can take their print magazine home or they can sign into the student view of the website and read digitally. It's very flexible and students always want to read more articles than we have time to cover as part of our classroom instruction. This way, we are getting more out of our subscription and we are building reading stamina driven by choice. 
Then I give parents short activities that they can do with their kids. These activities allow students to pick and choose how they want to respond to a text. Having this level of choice provides students with the motivation to complete both the reading and the response to reading. And of course all of this will benefit their stamina, comprehension, and confidence when it comes to benchmarks or STAAR in the weeks to come. These activities include:
  • Illustrate your favorite part of the story
  • Retell your favorite part
  • Summarize the article
  • Initiate a specific conversation to talk about connections you've made within the article
  • Create a different ending to the article
I am open to any activity or task that allows students to use what they read to demonstrate their understanding.
Storyworks Jr. works well with my bilingual families because articles and story topics are always interesting and come in a variety of lengths. And the different formats, like read-aloud plays and debates, are really fun for parents to experience with their children. And again, letting students choose how they'd like to respond to the article allows it to feel much less like test prep. Good luck to my fellow teachers!

Five Ways to Use Storyworks for Test Prep

Kristen Cruikshank

We've wrangled some of our favorite Texas teachers to share creative and effective ways they are using Storyworks to help students review and prepare for STAAR tests. Fourth-grade teacher extraordinaire Kristen Cruikshank, from Richmond, Texas shares her top 5 test-prep ideas, including links to app activities she's thoughtfully developed.   


Three things that are always on teacher’s minds are:

  • How can I prepare my students for the state test without the same drill-and-kill questions and answers routine?
  • How can I teach them when they are tired of reading passage after passage and answering questions?
  • Where can I find texts in all genres that are engaging enough to keep them interested and on task?

Teachers, look no further than your current March/April issue of Storyworks. In this post, you’ll find five ways to use this issue of Storyworks to prepare your students for the state test. 


1. Write STAAR stem questions

Use the Storyworks texts to write your own STAAR-style questions! It will greatly benefit your students to expose them to the format of questions they'll see on test day. If you haven’t already, go through the past years' tests and cut up the questions and answer choices. Bind them together by genre so you have easy access to test-question styles when you’re writing your own!

Here are some examples of STAAR stem questions written for the Word Power feature, "Death by Chili Pepper."


1. The reader can conclude that

a. Eating chili peppers is not as dangerous as people may think.

b. People should use caution when eating chili peppers.

c. Eating a small amount of a chili pepper will not be spicy.

d. Caution should not be used with capsaicin.


2. Read the dictionary definition for the word milder.

1. not sharp, pungent, or strong

2. showing gentleness

3. not cold or extreme weather

4. not serious

Which definition best matches the way milder is used in the sentence “They are thousands of times spicier than their milder cousins"?

a. Definition 1

b. Definition 2

c. Definition 3

d. Definition 4


2. Teach students to deconstruct

One huge component of the STAAR test is making sure students know how to answer the questions by understanding the question vocabulary. Make sure your students can “take apart” the questions and understand what they really mean, so they’re able to understand how to answer them. Use the STAAR stem questions you write for each text for practice! Create a Quizlet kids can play to review these difficult words and their meanings! Here’s an example using the vocabulary words from “Two Miles for a Drink of Water.” This would be easy to create with STAAR question vocabulary!






3. Annotate

Readers naturally think in their heads while they read. What isn’t natural for them is to write down their thinking as they are reading. With STAAR, we want kids to “annotate,” or write down what’s happening to them while they read. Are they making connections to the text, making inferences, defining a difficult vocabulary word as they read, or feeling an emotion? Teaching your students to annotate allows them to jot down their thinking though codes in the text. This will help them comprehend the text and quickly locate points in the text to refer back to when they’re answering test questions. Plus you’ll get a great visual of how they read the text, since we can’t read their minds like we so often wish we could! Padlet is a free and fun way to connect to kids thinking while they are reading. Here’s an example using “History of Teeth" from the December 2017/January 2018 issue.



4. Build stamina

For the STAAR Reading test, students need to be prepared to read passages with questions in all genres within a 4-hour time limit. Storyworks provides these genres for you by exposing students to rich and engaging texts to read, with additional activities for students to practice comprehension skills. Give students the gift of time and allow them to simply read while practicing staying focused on a text for an extended period of time.


5. Master genre knowledge

Test out their knowledge on each genre with this STAAR Genre Review Kahoot.



You’ll really see what your kids know and which areas still need refining. While you explore each Storyworks text, create a genre gallery walk. Divide students up into small groups and assign each group a genre of text. Have them comb through the text and determine what identifies the genre, important vocabulary they need to know in each genre, and what types of question stems could be asked in each genre, as well as common misconceptions.



I wish you and your students success on test day. Good luck!


A Fun STAAR Prep Game

Editor's note: Texas teachers, we know you've got STAAR test prep on your minds, so we want to remind you that Storyworks can be the secret sauce for targeted skills practice during this review period. We're thrilled to spotlight Rebecca Rodriguez, 5th-grade teacher from the Cypress-Fairbanks district, who's determined to keep her STAAR prep engaging. She reminds her kiddos that "it's a love of reading that matters most, and STAAR testing is just one day." We love her thinking AND the amazing Super Mario game she designed with colleague Stephanie Balderas.

The idea behind this 3-week unit is to get students ready for the STAAR test with engaging short texts. Storyworks is a great tool for this since it's a one-stop shop for a variety of genres. Week one is nonfiction, week two is fiction, and week three is paired texts.

We've noticed that half the battle for students is understanding what the question is asking them. We aim to help them suss that out by breaking down the questions over several days. To prepare, we hang questions around the room. These questions came from the Storyworks Teacher's Guide, STAAR sentence stems, and our own ideas. Each student gets an activity sheet:

We take it slow and work on these sheets all week, breaking down the process as follows:

  • Day 1: In pairs, students read the question with no answer choices and discuss what they think it's asking. They write the question in their own words on their activity sheet.
  • Day 2: Student pairs answer the question in their own words.
  • Day 3: The answer choices are revealed and students fill out the last column of their sheet.
  • Day 4: They do basically the same thing as days 1-3, but independently and in one day rather than 3.

This process repeats for each genre each week.

How the game works:

  • Each sheet has three "lives" (the Marios in the upper right corner). Every time students seek teacher help, they lose a life—this encourages independent thinking. However, they can ask other students for help or input anytime without losing a life.
  • Students get a coin for every right answer. So if there are 15 questions and 3 columns, they can earn 45 coins for that one activity.
  • If they get all questions right the first time, they get full points. They don't earn coins for the ones they miss. This encourages them to slow down and use their strategies, including checking for text evidence.
  • Students keep track of their coins in their coin account paper.
  • At the end of the unit, they can trade in their coins for prizes. These can be candy, pencils, extra recess time, whatever you want!


For all the details and printables needed for this lesson, download and print this handy PDF!

A STAAR Prep Egg Hunt

Kyndra Hartzler

Editor's note: We know you've got STAAR test prep on your minds, so we want to remind you that Storyworks Jr. can be the secret sauce for targeted skills practice during this important review period. We're thrilled to spotlight Kyndra Hartzler, 3rd grade teacher from Texas, who's determined to keep her test prep engaging. This past week Kyndra began her STAAR prep with an EGG-cellent, spring-themed activity (you know we couldn't resist the pun!).


I love that Storyworks Jr. has so many genres to use as review for our reading benchmark, and as a tool to help students prepare for STAAR. Here's how I used Storyworks Jr. in a fun, spring-themed test prep game!


  • First, I grouped texts by genre from various issues. 
  • Then, I paired genres with a specific skill that my students were struggling with, like summarizing, sequencing, inference, main idea, or vocabulary.
  • About two weeks prior to the benchmark, during blended learning rotations, pairs of students were given a strategy to try as they read the article together. Each article had a certain color egg associated with it and questions based on student needs.



  • After reading, the kids found eggs hidden around the classroom (or outside!) that corresponded to their article. Each egg contained one question. Students worked together to identify the question type, use their strategies, and prove their answers. Collaboration and discussion between partners was key!
  • Students also wrote their own questions and answer choices for their friends, to really enforce those tricky skills.



This activity was very effective practice because students knew the article and saw the benefit of reading and rereading the passage. The questions hit the strategies that needed review, and students loved running around searching for eggs. They didn't even know they were prepping for Benchmark or STAAR! They were having fun while learning and showing strategy competence. We love Storyworks Jr. because engagement is high, the stories build empathy and character, and it offers so many ways to extend learning. Wishing you all good luck with testing!






4th Grade STAAR Writing Practice With Storyworks

Kristen Cruikshank

Editor's Note: One of our favorite Texas teachers, Kristen Cruikshank, is forever using every nugget of Storyworks to help her 4th graders practice writing, editing and honing grammar skills. With the 4th-grade STAAR Writing test coming up in a little more than a week, she has whipped up three great activities to use with the March/April 2018 issue. 



After reading “Finders Keepers,” your kids can use the conversation to develop their own ideas about a time when they’ve had to make a tough decision and explain why they made the choice that they did. Here’s a prompt page to get them started!



Also, you can kill two birds with one stone (idiom!) by using Grammar Cop’s “Amazing Facts About Eyes” to practicing reading nonfiction text and work on editing and fixing mistakes by practicing the use of their/there/they’re, which we know we’ll see on STAAR!



Storyworks Vocab Lab and Word Nerd are also excellent to refine grammar and spelling skills by practicing the correct use of homophones in kids' writing and knowing how to use a dictionary to find the meaning of a word.


STAAR is one huge hurdle. Without a doubt, using Storyworks will prepare your kids in numerous ways for absolute success on test day! Good luck!

A Lesson on Communication

Jen Saul

Editor's note: We are big fans of New York 5th-grade teacher and reading specialist Jen Saul. She has great success using Storyworks Jr. with her fourth- and fifth-grade striving readers in guided reading, partner reading, and independent choice. She wows us yet again with this lesson on communication.


Students often think that communication is only about words. They know the difference between tone through our voice and how that impacts our communication, but the paired texts in the March/April 2018 issue of Storyworks Jr., "Say Hello to Julio" and "Meet Alice Cogswell," teach students that communication can take on other forms.  


Big Idea: How does communication differ and why is it essential to all species?


Day 1: Say Hello to Julio 



  • Step 1: In a small reading group, have students read "Say Hello to Julio." Teach students to chunk the text by reading the introduction, stopping and thinking. Ask: What is the main idea so far? What does the author really want me to understand? Do the same after each heading. As students continue reading, they add onto their existing schema and begin to synthesize information.  



  • Step 2: As students read sections independently, sit next to students to either conduct a running record or to confer about either the chunking reading strategy or a strategy that you have noticed they need to boost in order to support their skills.
  • Step 3: At the end of the text, discuss the big idea. Then ask the students to think about the impact of American Sign Language (ASL) on our society. The article states that some fear that ASL will die out. Ask: Can you think of other languages or ways of communication that have died out? What would happen if your language died out? Have students begin exploring how what they read fits into the larger picture of the world.


Day 2: Meet Alice Cogswell



  • Step 1: In a small reading group, read "Meet Alice Cogswell." Note that this text does not have headings for students to use to help them chunk the text. See that as a positive: Remind students that chunking is about taking in as much as you can take as a reader to stop, analyze and think. Ask the students to chunk the text before beginning (bracket the chunks). Some might chunk paragraph by paragraph and others might take two paragraphs at a time.  



  • Step 2: As students read, chunk, and write big ideas, questions, and thoughts in the margins, confer with students about their chunking choices and how that strategy supports their comprehension of the text.
  • Step 3: At the end of the text, discuss the big idea. How do the two texts connect to one another? 
  • Quick Stop and jot: Because of Alice, how did her work with her father affect Julio’s life?  


Day 3: The Big Idea


Return to thinking about communication and how important it is that we all communicate. Discuss how people in some tribal villages with their own language communicate, how humans can create a language to communicate, and how various animals communicate. Find some videos and photos demonstrating these examples. After viewing them, ask students to use a camera at home to snap pictures of ways they see species communicate in the world around them. Discuss the significance of communication and the various forms. The idea is that we read articles and always bring it back to the bigger picture. This is essential for students to grow as learners and critical thinkers.

Short Nonfiction Leads to Rich SEL

Anna Starecheski

For the September issue of Storyworks Jr., I had the honor of writing about an amazing young girl named Jesselyn Silva. Jesselyn is 11 years old, and she loves to box. I was bowled over and inspired by Jesselyn's passion and dedication, and I hoped Storyworks Jr. readers would be too. But I never could have imagined the lesson one class got after reading her story.



Upstate NY teacher Teresa Weinmann saw that Jesselyn's story could open the door to an important social-emotional learning lesson on the importance of being yourself. And she had the perfect person to help her deliver this lesson: her friend Karen. Karen is a mother, an insurance agent, a singer, and a boxer. Teresa invited her into her classroom, and what followed was an experience her students will never forget.


Karen started by showing some photos of a boxer from behind. She asked the students what they saw, if they could tell if it was a man or a woman. The kids' minds were blown when Karen declared "Well, it's me." She talked about gender stereotypes and was thrilled when she asked the kids what kinds of jobs girls should have. "Any job," one boy said. And what kind of jobs should boys have? "Whatever they want." These kids had the right idea already!

Karen spoke about her journey to finding her passion in boxing and how it makes her feel strong and confident. 

She told the students that they can be anything they want to be, and that it's important to do what you love and be true to yourself. They discussed positive words they could say to themselves when they feel down or defeated by themselves or others. 

The conversation went in many directions, from bullying to being a male ballet dancer to not judging someone by how they look. And then came some fun!



Karen showed the kids her boxing equipment and even taught them some moves! But the learning wasn't over then: Teresa gave the kids paper boxing gloves and had them write positive words to describe themselves on one glove, and on the other glove they wrote phrases that might encourage them when they are faced with a challenge.



A short nonfiction story about an incredible young girl led to a learning experience these kids will never forget. We are always thrilled when teachers take a story from our magazines and turn it into something we never could have imagined. Do you have a story like Teresa's? We want to hear about it

Boost Skills and Fluency With Flipgrid

Thomasine Mastrantoni and Deborah Goldstein, the Link Ladies

Editor's note: The Link Ladies are back with yet another fabulous app tutorial that will help you create a collaborative learning community in your classroom—this time about a topic kids can't resist: toilets! Try out Flipgrid and let us know how it goes.


Every kid loves a little potty talk, right? In the February issue of Storyworks Jr., the paired texts are about toilets—but that's really a way in to some very important subjects: the history of the flush toilet, and a new disposable toilet for people without access to flush toilets. We thought it was the perfect opportunity to try out an awesome app that's catching on in schools all over the country. 


The app



Why we use it 


We're always looking for easy ways to use technology to create a collaborative learning environment. And we're constantly asking students to share their thinking. We want them to reflect on what they are learning. With the Flipgrid app, students can use video to share their responses. What kid in elementary school doesn’t want to see themselves on screen? Knowing that their peers will be viewing their videos virtually guarantees quality responses. 



Skill focus

These are the skills we focused on, but you can focus on any skill you’d like:

  • Citing Text Evidence
  • Comprehension
  • Fluency development



1 class period


What you’ll need

  • Storyworks Jr. paired texts "The Greatest Invention Ever" and "A New Kind of Toilet" in the February 2018 issue
  • iPads OR Chromebooks (camera needed) with Flipgrid app
  • Note: Flipgrid has both a free and a paid version for $65/year. Both versions work the same. The limitation with the free version is that you can only create one grid (sone classroom)—but within that classroom, you can create unlimited prompts (topics). Honestly, the free version is all you need. 


The setup

To create a Flipgrid response topic, simply follow the steps to create a new topic on your grid.

Fill in the details:



  • Topic title
  • Video response time (up to 5 minutes)
  • Topic description and question: Enter your instructions or question for students to respond to.
  • Topic Resources: Add a link to a website, video, or document for your students to access, or simply add an image that matches your topic. Choose your topic and privacy settings here as well.


The lesson

In this example we will focus on the paired texts in the February issue of Storyworks Jr. We read each of the paired texts as a whole class, then had students do a close read independently. We asked the students to focus on the big question of the texts: How do toilets save lives?



We want the students to be able to use evidence from both articles when they share their thinking. Since vocabulary comprehension is critical in understanding the main idea of articles, challenge your students to use the content vocabulary (bolded words) in their responses.
When students are done reading the texts, they are ready to share their responses using Flipgrid. To access your grid, students open the app and either enter in a grid code (given on your grid homepage) or opt to scan the QR code that leads directly to the topic you’ve created.
The steps to record their responses are simple:

1. Press the green plus sign. Press the video camera button and record your response. (You can pause and then continue to record.) Press the pause button to stop recording.



2. Press the green arrow to preview your video response. If you're satisfied, press the green arrow again to take a selfie.



3. Press the camera button to take a selfie. This is the image that your audience will see for your video response. This helps identify whose response they want to view.



4. Press the green arrow again to enter your student's name. (We only enter the first name and first initial of the last name—all other boxes can remain empty). Then press Submit and return to the topic.



Flipgrid allows your students (or you) to view and then respond to one another via video.


You can share your topic, your grid, or an individual response. Choose the Share button for whichever option you want.



The "grid" you create becomes an active and continuous place to learn: Once you sign up, creating a prompt for your students takes only a few minutes. What an amazing opportunity to develop a collaborative community! Win/Win: Kids love it and they work hard at it!


Follow this link to our topic page to view some of our student responses to this reading prompt.

Try it—you will catch #Flipgrid Fever! And check out the hashtag on Twitter for many more ideas from teachers!