Genius teaching idea

The Context Clue Carousel: A Delightful Vocab Approach

Allie Curtis and Shannon Seigler

Editor's Note: Allie and Shannon, two ELA instructional gurus from Walton County, Florida, use Storyworks in amazing ways. We've been aching for their contribution to the Ideabook, but these ladies are busy. See below for their first installment: a delightful vocabulary approach that will have your students thinking about cotton candy while they learn new vocabulary in context. They've given you all the tools to give it a try in your classrooms—even the cute carousel music!


Materials needed:

Before the lesson: The teacher places each of the Context Clue Carousel Word Meaning Cards around the classroom in separate locations (in order, starting with number 2). 

Step 1

Use the Teacher Model Word Meaning Card to demonstrate finding the bolded word in the text, then reading before, through, and after the sentence containing the vocabulary word. Model by thinking aloud about how to use the context clues to infer the meaning of the unknown word, relying on the text to give the meaning.

Step 2

Divide students into six groups, and assign each group a number between 2 and 7. Give each student the Context Clue Carousel Activity sheet. Each group will begin at the corresponding number Word Meaning Card location they are assigned and rotate clockwise (2 goes to 3, 3 to 4, etc.) At each Word Meaning Card location, groups will work together to use context clues in the play to infer the meaning of each word. Groups will discuss and work together to determine the correct answer on the Context Clue Carousel Activity Sheet.

Step 3

Give each group about 2-3 minutes to determine the meaning of each vocabulary word as it is used in the text.  Explain that each group will listen for the carousel music, which is the signal to rotate to the next Word Meaning Card. *Note: You can find the music we use here.

Step 4

Once all groups have rotated through the six Word Meaning Card locations, the teacher will facilitate discussion about what the students think the text will be about. This is based on their manipulation with vocabulary words within the text.

Step 5

Direct instruction using the Storyworks Vocabulary Slideshow - Teacher will facilitate discussion and direct instruction for each vocabulary word and reveal the correct answer to each word on the “Context Clue Carousel Activity Sheet."

Download a printable version of this post here!


No iPads? No Problem! A Simple Tech Activity

Thomasine Mastrantoni and Deborah Goldstein, the Link Ladies

Editor's Note: Enjoy this 21st-century twist on the old-school "Wanted" poster for a super-fun, easy-to-try approach to help students share their thinking and practice text evidence. The Link Ladies, library media specialists in Harrison, New York, explain how they'll use the paired texts in the February issue of  Storyworks (about unlikely invasive species), offering up a great website and a 5-step lesson for skill-building support. 


Knowing so many districts don’t yet have devices available to students, we want to share with you a fantastic website that can help your students engage with text. Any time we can find ways for kids to express what they understand and use text evidence to “prove it,” we go for it.

The website: Poster My Wall

Why we use it: Poster My Wall is an easy-to-use design website. It allows students to create a response to reading or share their thinking on any topic. Poster My Wall has tons of free templates to choose from. They make responding to text fun and engaging.  

Skill Focus:

  • Citing Text Evidence
  • Comprehension
  • Assessment
  • Fluency


1 class period

What you’ll need:

The set-up:

Go to Create an account for the students to log in to. We have used a simple password for them to access. The site does allow you to create a teacher account for free.


The Lesson:

Read the Storyworks paired text articles "Monster Goldfish" and "Pigs on the Loose."

After reading these two great articles, it is plain to see how even cute animals can sometimes cause trouble. We split up the class into two groups: one focuses on the goldfish and one on the pig. Have students brainstorm and identify evidence from the text that shares how this animal went from being innocuous to a destructive invasive species.
Go to and sign in using the class account you previously set up. Click "Create a Design" and select "New Design" from the dropdown menu.


Click "Blank Canvas" to start from scratch (without using a template), or use the search feature to find a template (and replace text and pictures).


Scroll down and pick any design type. Since we're designing a Wanted poster, we chose "Poster" as our design type. When prompted to choose between landscape and portrait, choose portrait.


We searched in "Browse Backgrounds" for wanted posters.



Use the tool bar along the LEFT side to add features to customize your poster. We added images and text to create the poster. Use the tools on the RIGHT to customize the features (color, font, etc.) that you have added. Students will need to search the internet for an image that depicts the dangerous animal.


When adding text, students should be prompted that the description on the poster should include text evidence that describes the danger these animals pose. They should use descriptive writing and creativity. They can also include text about what people should do to help or prevent the problem.

You can save (blue box in top right) if you made an account, or download (yellow button in top right) for free.  Then you can post to your blogs, websites, or print and display.

This activity takes a simple comprehension activity to the next level. Using a Wanted poster ensures that students can explain why the seemingly harmless "pet" has turned dangerous, how the problem occurred, and how it can be fixed. Finding a “mug shot” for Goldie or Piglet is half the fun, too.

Engage Your Class in the Great Chocolate Milk Debate

Erin Burns

Editor's note: Both Storyworks and Storyworks Jr. feature debates in every issue. We try to tackle topics that kids really care about—and the debate from the December 2016/January 2017 issue of Storyworks about whether schools should ban chocolate milk definitely fits the bill! We love seeing creative ways you teach our debates, and we just had to highlight this amazing, effective strategy from New York teacher Erin Burns. The best part: You can use it with any debate.Without further ado, here's Erin's 4-day debate plan:

Day 1

What you'll need:

  • Storyworks magazine
  • Highlighter
  • Pen

Students read the debate aloud. We look through it to see what facts we can pull out to prove both sides of the argument. We highlight the strongest evidence. Together we fill in the "What Do You Think?" activity at the bottom of the page. Students then choose the side they feel most strongly about. At this point we break into teams to design a poster to inform the public. This month we tackled the debate of whether chocolate milk should be banned from schools.

Days 2-3

What you'll need:

  • Poster board or construction paper
  • Markers, rulers, colored pencils, etc.
  • Storyworks magazine (to reference back)

Students will work together to design a poster to represent their argument. We focus on how to best organize information and grab people’s interest. Students begin discussing their phrasing.

Day 4

Students have the opportunity to show their work and share with their classmates. We then hang their posters in the hallway and keep them on display for the month. Students are in a different reading group who are pulled from the class get to hear the debate and look at the posters. They conference with their group and pick the side of the debate that has persuaded them. They must have at least three reasons why they were persuaded. This gives time for both debate teams to reflect on their work and to get feedback on what worked or what didn’t.


I was so impressed with (and amused by) my students' rationale. These quotes, from children who wanted to ban chocolate milk, cracked me up:

“Chocolate milk may be good for your bones, but it will help rot your teeth.”

“16 tsp. of sugar? Do you know what that really looks like? I mean, it’s like drinking mashed up M&Ms!"

And from my students who want chocolate milk to stick around:

“You may take my chocolate milk, but it will make me drink juice, and that has a lot of sugar too—so what’s the difference?”

“It does have sugar, no argument there, but….it has 30% of my daily dose of calcium, and that is sweet!”

The audience that watched the debate and looked at the posters ultimately sided with the group that advocated keeping chocolate milk in schools. They were convinced by the point that everything seems to have sugar in it these days, and at least the milk provided some good nutrients. The "judges" also agreed that if kids knew about the sugar, they could choose it as a treat instead of as a daily drink. And they decided that this group's posters were more visually appealing.

It's so heartening to see how much effort my students put into these activities. And it's fascinating to see the ways they try to convince their peers of their opinion. This is exactly why the Storyworks debate is one of my favorite stories to teach—and there's no debating that!

Steal This Teacher's Differentiation Tools!

Michele Miner

Michele Miner is a rockstar Storyworks Jr. Adviser and veteran teacher of special education for 24 years, and we hold her very dear to our hearts. She is a longtime Storyworks Adviser too, and has helped to open our eyes to the very specific needs and supports that would most benefit the special population of first- through fourth-grade students she works with each year. We know that lots of innovative teaching takes place in the Pittsford, NY, area school district where she works, because we've seen it firsthand. We also are thrilled to see how many inclusion classrooms she lovingly mentors on how to use Storyworks and Storyworks Jr. to its fullest potential. Here is a sampling of Michele's special sauce for you to try in your classroom.


As a special-education teacher in a 3rd-grade inclusion classroom, we have students with a wide range of reading and writing abilities within one class. We love using Storyworks Jr.'s digital articles and activities in a differentiated way. Here's a brief rundown of some of the tools we use to help differentiate according to students' needs and abilities.

We read the article "The Uninvited Guests" from the October/November issue of Storyworks Jr.  Before we started, I downloaded both the on-level and higher-Lexile story PDFs to our teacher "share" folder online. I also downloaded the Pause and Think and Comprehension activity sheets to the share folder.

Day 1 included a large group pre-reading activity. After some vocabulary discussion we listened as a whole class to the audio version of the article. Then we used a giant graphic organizer on the smartboard to pick out things like key evidence from the text. The use of graphic organizers as a comprehension strategy can’t be beat!      

Day 2 involved a close read of the article in our differentiated groups (because fiction stories do not come in lower-Lexile or Starter levels, my RTI students did this as a “shared reading” activity with me). Later that morning, we used various writing tools based on students' levels (some students have dysgraphia and visual needs). Our entire 3rd-grade class was on laptops and pulled up both the story and the worksheet in PDF for their level story. (When we use all Lexile levels available, we label them Story A, B, C, etc.) Then the task was to use the digital highlighting tool to find key text evidence based on the Pause and Think questions.

A great way to help the students visually was to have them place both PDFs side-by-side so they didn't have to toggle between screens. Finally, they typed in the answers to the Pause and Think questions and printed when complete.

Another tool some of the students use while typing is the WordQ program that gives text-to-speech and word prediction options while typing. This is a wonderful tool for the students who really struggle with spelling or work at a slower pace. The beauty of doing a lesson this way is that everyone appears to be doing the same thing, but everyone's getting what they need.


Do you have students who struggle with fine motor writing needs and work pace weaknesses? I recommend an App called Snap Type Pro. (It is a paid app, $4.99,  but worth every penny!) Here it is in action:

Snap Type allows you to take a picture of a worksheet or any document on the iPad and easily import that into the Snap Type program. Then students simply have to touch the screen where they want to type; a keyboard pops up on the screen (also with word prediction), and they type in your responses. For kids who need to see less on a page, the screen can zoom in and out as needed. Features like Dropbox or Airdrop allow you to send your work to the teacher. It gets even better: There’s an onscreen keyboard microphone for speech-to-text if needed.

Being able to utilize differentiated Lexile levels, video and audio support in Storyworks Jr., as well as accommodations for student's writing needs, allows so many more students become active participants in class.


Do you have some differentiation hacks you'd like to tell us about? Comment below or email us at!

Enhance Opinion Writing With This Free App!

Thomasine Mastrantoni and Deborah Goldstein, the Link Ladies

Editor's note: Our favorite library media specialists, The Link Ladies, are back to share one of their essential “App-Style Learning” ideas for back to school. Any Link Ladies-approved app follows some basic guidelines: It's easy to use, it's fun and effective, and it's free. Your classroom toolkit would not be complete without one of our favorite apps, Chatterpix. This already popular app is an amazing engagement tool that can offer real learning benefits, especially when used with the great ELA content found in Storyworks and Storyworks Jr. If you are not familiar with it, this is a MUST-TRY, especially during your first few weeks back in the classroom. 

The App: Chatterpix

How it works: The Chatterpix App is a fun, free, easy-to-use app that allows the user to take any picture and make it “talk.”  

Why we use it: Chatterpix is one of our favorite ways to help students voice their opinion or take a side on a debate topic. By using this app, you’ll find your classroom discussions come to life. Through the act of debating, students build self-confidence, find their voice, work hard to find solid text evidence, and even open a dialogue with their peers. Plus, recording helps them develop their voice and fluency. Imagine that one quiet kid who has a hard time contributing to class discussions being able to express their opinions, make connections to a text, and shine—Chatterpix can help you make all that happen!

How you can use it: Each Storyworks and Storyworks Jr. issue has a debate article, and our students love them. Using the Chatterpix app is a great way to have students share their opinions and back them up with text evidence. Your students' opinion matters, as does how they sell their ideas. Using these debate articles will also provide you with the opportunity to make direct connections to curriculum-writing units and persuasive writing skills-development lessons.   

Learning objective: to aid comprehension and build fluency by creating reading responses using supporting text evidence. 

What you’ll need:

The Lesson: Students read the debate article and use the fact-collecting graphic organizer in the magazine to gather text evidence for both sides of the debate. They then decide, based on what they think combined with what they have learned from the article, which side of the debate they’d like to take a stand on. The example shown below is using the article “Can Your Lunch Help Save the Planet?” from the April/May 2015 issue of Storyworks

Follow the steps below to learn how to create your own App-Style debate lesson using Chatterpix.


Step 1: 

Open the app.


Step 2: Students choose an image to use in Chatterpix.

This image should provide you with another level of assessment to see how well the student can represent the content with their picture choice. You can choose a primary source, a Google image or even a picture of the text your student is reading. (Expressing a rationale for the image choice provides an opportunity for students to demonstrate their point of view and understanding of the content.)


Step 3: After uploading or taking a photo, students will choose NEXT, which will lead them to the screen where they draw the “mouth” that will talk. (The longer the line, the wider the mouth will open.)


Step 4: After they are happy with where they have drawn the mouth, students will choose NEXT. This will lead them to the recording screen. Students will record their opinions and describe the text evidence that best supports their idea.  

Students can add text and/or stickers to image as well.  


Step 5: The Chatterpix can be saved to the Chatterpix gallery within the app, or it can be exported to the Camera Roll and shared from there like any other video file.


Click here for a peek at what the finished product looks like!


We hope your students will love this awesome app-style learning experience! Let us know how it works in your classroom in the comments below.

Take the Vocab Slideshow One Step Further!

Kriscia Cabral

Editor's note: The Vocabulary Slideshow is a new feature that we're super excited about. These slideshows reinforce the vocabulary from our magazines in a way that is especially helpful for auditory, visual, and English language learners. Top teaching blogger Kriscia Cabral has a really great method for taking this one step further with her own unique twist. This post was originally published on the Top Teaching blog.


Scholastic's Storyworks is way more than a comprehensive collection of articles to engage young readers. There is more to it than just a student magazine that covers fictional text, information text, poetry, vocabulary skills, opinion, creative, and description writing. Not only does it cover the above, it is a Common Core State Standards-aligned student magazine that focuses on language arts skill development, with the added bonus of online resources! If I haven’t sold you on this magazine yet, read on to see how I implement one of the Storyworks tools to help guide my instruction and enhance student learning.


Teacher's Guide

The first place I look when my Storyworks package arrives is in my Teacher’s Guide. This is where the magic for teachers begins. The Teacher’s Guide offers a complete teaching kit for every piece of writing in the magazine. The Teaching Support Package has everything from background information; Lexile, guided reading and DRA levels; learning objectives; content area connections; key skills that can be taught; and correlations to the standards. There are step-by-step lesson plans that begin with preparing to read, close reading, and skill building. There is support to differentiate your teaching and so much more! Storyworksprovides students the opportunity to fall in love with reading in a whole new way.


Vocabulary Slideshow

My new favorite tool that has been added to the online teacher support page is the vocabulary slide show. This feature adds a visual support to the definitions that you are prompted to preview prior to your reading of the article. This tool supports the ELL students in your class and excites everyone when they start to wrap their head around the text they are getting ready to read. Here’s what I’ve tried with the vocabulary slide show tool!


An Idea to Try

One activity that I have done with my students is I take a screen shot of the images given in the slide show of the vocabulary words and create my own slide show without the vocabulary word.

I’ve also created my own slide shows using the Preview Vocabulary section that is given in the Teacher’s Guide, and found images of my own to complete the same activity. Here is an example from the October/November issue.

  • Before starting our reading, I show students my vocabulary images with no word, just an image. 

  • I ask students to share a word that comes to mind when they see the image on the screen. This gives students an opportunity to find a connection to the word prior to learning what the word means. 

  • Students share with peers at their table group what their thoughts are on the word. 

  • After we discuss our thoughts on what they word could be, I click to show the word above the image. 

  • Students then elaborate on their thinking of what the word could mean. After students see all of the images, we use the images as clues to predict what our featured article will be about. 

My prompt at this point for students is, "Based on the words that we’ve learned, look through your Storyworks magazine and turn to what you believe to be the article that matches those words."What I find the most interesting is the evidence that students use to prove what text we will be reading and how it is connected to the vocabulary that was shared.

Storyworks is a win-win. The range of learning experiences stretches far beyond any teacher’s expectations. The amount of support leaves you as a teacher feeling like you can deliver quality reading instruction with a team of skilled professionals to offer all kinds of resources to enhance your lessons by your side.

Do you use Storyworks with your students? What great ideas would you like to share? The Storyworks website also offers an Ideabook site, in case you’re looking for more ways to use magazines in the classroom.

Thank you for reading.



Take a (virtual) field trip to Alcatraz

Beth Orticelli

Editor's note: Leave it to Beth O, our Storyworks Jr. advisor and second-grade teacher, to blow our minds once again with her ultra-creative teaching strategies. This time she takes her students on a virtual field trip to Alcatraz, and delivers yet another jaw-dropping and riveting language-arts lesson. We absolutely love what Beth came up with—and it's so easy for any teacher to try. So, please do, and share your feedback in the Comments area below. 


My second graders were thrilled to watch the Video Read-Aloud that accompanies the nonfiction article about Alcatraz! Normally, if there's a video with an article, I show it later. But with the content of this article being so mature, I thought it would be best for them to see the video first, as an introduction. They're so used to princess-type fairy tales and talking animals, so an article that discusses criminal escapes brought them into another world. They were so excited to discuss a real-life drama and their theories of possible escape success or failure.



After the video, we did some close-reading of the article, and used the Pause and Think questions as discussion topics at their tables. While taking turns, students had to contribute to their discussions with: "I would like to add on", "The text said that..." "I respectfully disagree with _______, because......" or "for example"....

These are all great text discussions "sentence starters" that I like to incorporate into my classroom.


Finally, after they felt like experts on Alcatraz, I projected Google Earth on to my giant whiteboard, and asked the kids if they wanted to "go" to California right now and see Alcatraz for themselves. (We live outside of Chicago.) You would have thought I was taking them to Disneyland! They were literally screaming with excitement. They felt like they were traveling through the sky, with the way that Google Earth starts out with a global view, and then zooms into California. From the incredible close-up pictures we were able to see in 3-D, they were coming up with amazing thoughts. They noticed the giant cliffs surrounding the prison, which would make it even more difficult to escape. Even seeing huge birds in the water reminded them that wildlife does exist at Alcatraz and that the ocean was rough for prisoners trying to break free!



I highly recommend this approach when you want your students to truly understand the setting of a story—and a real field trip is not in the cards!




The Sticky Note Approach: Developing Active Readers

Amy Groesbeck

Editor's note: We discovered third grade teacher Amy Groesbeck of Texas while we were field-testing our sample issue of Storyworks Jr. We skyped with Amy and her teaching colleagues who had been given our sample issue to demo in their third-grade classrooms. We were delighted by a sticky-note activity she used with Storyworks Jr. content to encourage active reading. We begged Amy to share this more developed Genius Teaching Idea with our Ideabook readers. Try her strategy in your classroom and let us know how it works for you!


Critical thinking is an integral component of the learning process, so I wanted to implement a system into my classroom reading routine that would encourage my students to activate their higher-order thinking skills during each of their reading experiences. I also wanted to further improve my students’ comprehension by teaching them how to monitor their reading more efficiently and consistently. I wanted my students to always consider the following:

  • “Does the text make sense?”
  • “I understand what I’m reading because…”

To accomplish this and promote the idea that reading is thinking, I developed a system that incorporated six essential comprehension strategies into our daily reading practice: 1) make connections, 2) ask questions, 3) form inferences, 4) make predictions, 5) monitor comprehension, and 6) form evaluations. I selected six colored sticky notes and assigned each color to a strategy. We refer to this process as “color coding our thinking.” Students associate each of the following comprehension strategies to a particular color: 

  • Make connections = pink
  • Ask questions = orange
  • Make inferences = yellow
  • Make predictions = green
  • Monitor comprehension = blue
  • Make evaluations = purple

During the beginning of the year, I introduced each sticky note as I taught each comprehension strategy. I designed opportunities for my students to practice the skills in isolation since we were focusing on one skill at a time. As my little readers progressed through a text, I taught them to periodically pause and think about what they had read thus far. Depending on the focus skill, we demonstrated our thinking through quick note-taking responses we call “stop-n-jots.” I provided thinking stems for each of the strategies, which students used to form their stop-n-jots. For example, if a student made a connection while reading, he or she used a pink sticky note to record their thought. A student might have written, “This reminds me of my dog. The character in the text has a dog that misbehaves and my dog never listens either.”  

Active Reading Thinking Stems:

1. Make connections

  • This reminds me of…
  • I can relate this to…
  • This makes me think of…

2. Ask questions

  • I’m wondering…
  • Why did…
  • What does…

3. Make inferences

  • From the text, I can infer…
  • My schema helps me know…
  • I’m guessing…because…

4. Make predictions

  • I predict…
  • I think...will happen because…

5. Monitor comprehension

  • I’m thinking…
  • I’m noticing…
  • In this section…

6. Make evaluations

  • In my opinion…
  • I do/do not like…
  • I do/do not agree with…because…

Though I taught students how to form their stop-n-jots in isolation, I’m a firm believer that thoughtful readers combine comprehension strategies. We eventually began incorporating several colored sticky notes while reading a single text. My goal was to allow my students time to achieve a level of confidence so they could begin using these strategies during independent reading, which they did very quickly.

To assist students in becoming active readers, I created anchor charts to reinforce expectations and provide examples. I also created bookmarks students could use during independent reading or small group instruction. Eventually, they were pausing and writing stop-n-jots without being prompted. By the time we received our first issue of Storyworks Jr., we were prepared to dive in!

The sticky-note approach pairs perfectly with Storyworks Jr.’s passages because it can be used with any genre or text. My students and I especially love using Storyworks Jr. because there is always a variety of engaging fiction and nonfiction texts. This week in small group, I selected the paired texts "The History of Minecraft" and "The LEGO Story." We began by previewing the first text and then making predictions. Students recorded a stop-n-jot and shared out. As we read, we stopped after each paragraph to monitor our comprehension. To model their understanding, students wrote a note or paraphrased the main idea of the paragraph. This communicated to me that my little readers comprehended accurately. If students were unable to do so, we reread together or applied other fix-up strategies. As we worked through the text, students continued to pause and record stop-n-jots and placed each sticky note directly onto the text. The collections of sticky notes that eventually emerged served as a visual and reminder of just how much thinking had occurred. Each sticky note equaled one thought!

Another great component of Storyworks Jr. that aligns well with the sticky-note approach are the “Pause and Think” questions provided in the nonfiction and fiction articles. These questions often help my students monitor their comprehension and allow me to check for understanding. Recording sheets can be downloaded online, (click here for an example from a recent article) which is a great way to collect completed sticky notes. When we complete the text, my students transfer their sticky notes from their magazines onto the recording sheet. It’s an effective and efficient way for me to collect their stop-n-jots and provide feedback!

To Sum It Up:

When should you implement this approach into your classroom?

Any time students are reading - small group, cooperative groups, whole group, or independently!

How much prep time should you expect?

There’s very little preparation required! I typically have questions prepared so I can scaffold if necessary. In addition, I organize all of our sticky notes in bins so students are able to retrieve the color they need. Since we use several sticky notes throughout the year, we are able to replenish our bins through parent donations.

What if you can’t get enough sticky notes?

As an alternative, your students could use colored pencils to write stop-n-jots or highlight their notes in the different colors.

Why use the sticky-note approach?

My kids enjoy the self-regulation this approach allows. As they are reading, they have become more engaged with a text, while gaining deeper understandings. For me, it’s an effective formative assessment. At a quick glance, I am able to read students’ notes and provide feedback immediately.

Tell About This: An App for Fluency, Comprehension, and Fun!

Thomasine Mastrantoni and Deborah Goldstein, the Link Ladies

Editor's note: The Link Ladies, two of our favorite library media specialists, have brought us yet another winning app that will make your teaching life easier and make your students excited to learn. This latest app, Tell About This, allows students to record answers to prompts and questions, boosting fluency, comprehension, and confidence. Follow the Link Ladies' simple step-by-step instructions and bring app-based learning into your classroom!


As your students dive into text, it's great to have a way for them to share their thinking. Using this app, students will have an opportunity to independently explain how what they've read so far connects to the text as a whole.


The app

Tell About This, free and paid versions. (The paid version is $2.99)


Why use it?

Tell About This is an easy-to-use app that enables your students to do exactly what it says: tell you about it. They can respond to a reading prompt or a question, write their own, or use a pre-made prompt. It is a great app to practice fluency, independence and comprehension. You can set up the prompts to assess any topic or skill you are working on.  

The free and paid versions work exactly the same. The limitation with the free version is that you can only create and save one custom prompt at a time. You can also only create one Tell About (student-saved response) at a time in the free version. We use the paid version, so we can create and save unlimited Tell Abouts. Once you see this app in action, we bet you'll agree that it is well worth the money.


Skill focus:

  • Citing text evidence
  • Comprehension
  • Assessment
  • Fluency



1 class period


What you'll need:

  • The nonfiction feature "Escape From Alcatraz" from the December 2016/January 2017 issue of Storyworks Jr. (or any article that contains Pause and Think comprehension questions)
  • iPads with Tell About This app


The set-up:

We designed this lesson as stations around the room. We have enough iPads to have multiple iPads at each station. Before you are ready to have the students independently work through the Tell About This stations, you need to set up the Tell About This prompts in the app. (By the way, if you only have a few iPads, that's fine too.)

To set up a Tell About This prompt, open the app and choose Create a Prompt.

Then, follow steps 1, 2, and 3 on that screen. Take a photo of your article (or use any photo you choose), add text (we typed the Pause and Think question here), and record audio (we recorded ourselves reading the Pause and Think question). Then, click on "Save."


The app will ask if you want the prompt to be saved into the “Custom” category. Choose YES.


Do this on each iPad. We divided up the iPads in our Library Media Center and recorded a different Pause and Think question on each so as students move from station to station, they have a different question to think about and respond to. (Pause and Thinks are a great Storyworks Jr. feature: They give students the opportunity to take a moment and think about the specific details they've just read.)


The lesson:

First we watched the video read-aloud for the nonfiction feature article in the December/January issue of Storyworks Jr., Escape From Alcatraz. This gives all of our students an overview of the article and makes it accessible to everyone. 

After watching the video read-aloud, tell your students they are ready to conduct a close read independently. Remind them to answer the Pause and Think questions. 


Students will be responding to these Pause and Thinks by using Tell About This. You've already created the prompts in the app and placed iPads with different prompts at stations throughout the classroom. At each station, students will see a different part of the article. Students should be instructed to re-read that section and then use the Tell About This app to answer the Pause and Think. You can have copies of the magazine at each station.

When the students are ready to record their Tell About This response, they should open the app and choose "Custom."


When they click on Custom they should choose the image that matches the text they are working with.


When they open the Custom prompt they will hear the Pause and Think question that you recorded. When they have their response ready in their minds, they should click on the microphone (bottom right) and then click on Record and speak their answer. They can click on Pause when they are done recording.


The next step is for them to save and choose an author. If they have not saved before, it will prompt them to add a profile. The name is the only part that needs to be there—adding a selfie is just fun.


Once they have saved it, they can find it on the home screen under “My Tell Abouts.”


Their Tell About can be saved to the camera roll as well.


With this idea, you can have all your students tell you about what they are reading, cite text evidence, practice their fluency and become more independent! Yes, tell me about it!

Escape From Alcatraz: Thrilling Content to Revisit Again and Again

Kristen Cruikshank

Part of the magic of  Storyworks (and the delight of  Storyworks editor Lauren Tarshis) is developing amazing content for you and your students to work with. Our aim is to provide stories that thrill and open doors of curiousity. We feel that the article "Escape from Alcatraz" is a perfect example of this. Our newest BFF, fourth-grade teacher Kristen Cruikshank of Houston, Texas, has held tight to her copies of this narrative nonfiction article (which ran in the December 2015/January 2016 issue of Storyworks), and she's created a multi-pronged lesson which she plans to use again this year. BIG BONUS: All Storyworks subscribers have access to our deep archive of past content and can try this lesson out in their classroom whenever they're ready. Kristen has a decidedly TEKS focus for her instruction. You'll see below that she shares her genius ideas and offers takeaway goodies for you to try (like writing prompts and rubrics!)—or you can use the activities and formative asssessments we developed for it.

P.S. So many of you have told us that Alcatraz was a big hit in your classroom, we've adapted the story for Storyworks Jr. It's in the December 2016/January 2017 issue. Now even more teachers can try Kristen's ideas, modified for a younger audience!  

Take it away, Kristen!


Every year, "Escape from Alcatraz" is a huge hit with my students. This excellent piece of nonfiction text is highly engaging, filled with intriguing information, and gets readers to pose burning questions that they still want answered. This is one of those texts that students never want to stop reading.

In Texas, TEK 4.11 asks students to analyze, make inferences, and draw conclusions about expository text and provide evidence from the text to support their understanding. This text lends itself to many types of learning activities in the classroom. Below are some clever ways to use this text in your classroom.

1. Teach with Text Structure in Mind

Beginning in third grade, students need to begin to understand the how authors organize nonfiction text. This can be done through Texas TEK 4.11C, describing explicit and implicit relationships among ideas in texts organized by sequence, compare and contrast, and cause and effect. We also pointed out that the author used description to explain the events in detail. Most nonfiction text is organized in more than one way, so students need to know what to look for to in the text to identify the type of organization the author is using.

In "Escape from Alcatraz, author Deborah Hopkinson uses the text structures of description and sequence. She uses description to describe the prison, what life was like as a prisoner at Alcatraz, and how the infamous men escaped from their cells. She uses sequential order to tell their plan of action to escape and the history of Alcatraz. As we read the text, we highlighted all the text evidence that supported text structure (highlighted in yellow per our handmade key at the top of the article).


Once we found examples of both descriptive and sequence organization in the text, we had two engaging activities to accomplish:

In Texas, TEK 4.18 states that students need to be able to write expository and procedural text to communicate ideas and information to specific audiences for specific purposes. We created a response to the expository text by providing evidence from the text to demonstrate our understanding. First, we wrote a letter from the viewpoint of one prisoner passing a secret note to another prisoner detailing the escape plan they would carry out, from planning stages to final execution of the plan.

Here’s our work with the text that we created before writing the letter.



Then, we downloaded a great app on the iPad called Timeline and used it to either create a timeline of events showing their escape plan using times and dates from the text, or to document the history of Alcatraz.

 2. Persuasive Writing/Debate

Deborah Hopkinson ends this article with the following paragraph:


When we finished reading, the kids are already shouting out what their viewpoints were! “There’s no way those men are still alive!” or “Oh my gosh! These men are still out there somewhere!” You can see below how many kids are “terrified” that the men are still out there.

We decided that if we were going to persuade someone to believe our viewpoint, we needed to look at all the text evidence for each side of the article. We scoured the text and sorted the information into two groups: evidence that supported the men escaped and made it off the island, and evidence that did not support that the men escaped and make it off the island (highlighted in pink and purple per our handmade key at the top of the article). We discussed how the author used language to present information to influence what the reader thinks.


Once we had all the information sorted and we discussed each piece of evidence in detail, you’d be surprised how many kids changed their minds! After some work with our persuasive writing anchor chart, they were ready to begin their persuasive writing piece.

The students were expected to state their claim, use text evidence to support their viewpoint, and support their argument with details and opinions. Texas TEK 4.19A expects students to write a persuasive essay for appropriate audiences that establish a position and use supporting details that influence the attitude or actions of a specific audience on specific issues.

Here are two grading rubrics that I used to evaluate both their writing samples and presentation to the class.


I hope these ideas are helpful to you when you use "Escape from Alcatraz." What’s your opinion? Did the men actually make it off the island? Before, during, and after reading nonfiction text, students naturally ask questions because they want to know more. We generated some burning questions that we would want to pose to the author, Deborah Hopkinson, to see what her thoughts were:

  1. How did the men carry their makeshift raft through their escape? This would have slowed them down and made them a bigger object to be detected by the guards, right?
  2. Maybe the body found floating in the bay was one of the prisoners, but the others made it safely across the bay?
  3. Why couldn’t Allen West get out of his cell?
  4. Why didn’t Allen West tell on the other men when he couldn’t get out?
  5. How would a raft made out of raincoats carry three men a mile across the bay?
  6. In a prison as secure as Alcatraz, how could the men have gotten all of the tools they did? Could they have convinced guards to help them?


Even with the answers to these questions, the mystery continues to live on…


Reading TEKS: 4.11, 4.11C, 4.12A, 4.13A, Fig 19B, Fig 19C, Fig 19D, Fig 19E

Writing TEKS: 4.15A, 4.18A, 4.18C, 4.19A