Twisted Games: Pameroy Mystery Series Book 5 Review

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I tend to have a love/hate relationship with social media. Currently, I’m all about the love! Through Facebook, I was able to connect with an amazing author, Brenda Felber, and she is going to do an author visit with my virtual students tomorrow using Zoom!

In preparation for our author visit, I read one of the books in the Pameroy Mystery series. I chose to read the fifth book, Twisted Games, because there was just something about the description that said “read me”.

In the book, Lillia and her Grandaunt Nora take a trip to the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, and get involved in a 100 year old cold case. Along the way our main character makes new friends (real and imagined).

One of my favorite aspects about the book, and the series, is that it is unlike anything else that I have read. I’ve always been a reader, and I can usually make text to text connections, but for the life of me I can’t think of any other series or novel that is similar to this one. Felber combines mystery, fantasy, and history all into one text that engages all different types of readers. The dialogue between the characters is realistic and captures kid language perfectly. I also LOVE how each book takes place in a different state. I can’t wait to read the Jersey one :).

I was also a huge fan of the way the mystery unfolded. Usually I do a pretty good job at predicting what is going to happen. I tend to sense when a twist is coming. However, the writing of Twisted Games made it so my mind wasn’t focusing on just the mystery. This welcome distraction actually allowed me to go on the adventure with Lillia. The shifting back and forth from Lillia’s imaginings to the mystery held my engagement and prevented me from jumping ahead in the mystery, which was a first for me as a reader.

This is a fabulous book for readers in grades 4-6. I’m so excited for my author visit with Brenda Felber!

For more information about this fabulous author check out her website: https://brendafelber.com/

 

 

Building the Bond in a Virtual Classroom

One of my favorite aspects of teaching is being able to create amazing relationships with my students. That feeling when you walk into the room and you feel like a rockstar can’t be compared to anything else.

When I first started as a virtual teacher I had no idea how I would be able to achieve a bond with students I was not going to meet face to face. I learned very quickly that it’s impossible to develop a strong relationship with virtual students via email. They need human contact.

Over the last year, I have tried various modes of communication with my students in grades 6-12. Here is how I personally create a strong bond with my students.

Being myself. I’m a dork. I tell my kids all the time I’m a nerd. I’m loud, I’m dramatic and I know it. And when I show this side of myself my kids LOVE it. I use Zoom on a weekly basis for my read aloud (check out that post here) and while it was a little intimidating to be myself on video at first, now I embrace it. My kids have seen me drink Snapple during my read alouds, they have seen me recovering from a cold, they have heard the construction on my neighbor’s deck, and they love it. We have had conversations about our favorite Snapple flavors and what the weather is like. They are able to see me as a real person and we can connect in some capacity.

Listen to parents. I will admit that I was not a fan of parent teacher conferences in brick and mortar classrooms. I have had parents yell at me and make me feel uncomfortable, but I have also cried with parents as we discuss the fears they have for their child. I do not have parent teacher conferences in the virtual world, but we do make monthly progress calls/texts. I have had some students in four courses, so I’ve gotten to know the families very well.

A good chunk of my students take online courses because of health problems, physical and mental. When I call parents of these types of students I know I may spend 20 minutes talking to a mom about her other children and struggles she is dealing with. I listen every time. Even if she tells me the same story every month, I listen. Why? Because she’s trying to help her child to the best of her ability and at the end of the day my goal is to help children be successful.

When I let parents talk (sometimes vent) I always get more information about what I can do to help their child. One mom told me her son is just so overwhelmed by his assignments that he shuts down and has fallen behind pace. I made her son an individual calendar of what assignments to do on what day. He is able to focus on just one task to get him going, and sometimes that’s all a student needs. By listening to parents, I can individualize my approach, create resources and build trust with the family so we are all on the same page.

Consistency. My kids know they can always call/text/Zoom or email me. How? Because I do it ALL THE TIME. I send out my weekly newsletter with my office hours and read aloud schedule, I text or call to check in once a month, I have my read aloud every week and remind students. I put my contact information on every email that goes out to students. I tell kids I’m calling on my cell phone and they can call/text/or email me, whatever works best for them. I offer to meet with kids one-on-one in Zoom if they need help, even if it’s for every unit activity. It’s important to remind students you are there to help them.

Listen to the students. One of the perks about teaching virtually is that I don’t live by a bell. I make my schedule and have the flexibility to meet with students at all times (yes, even weekends). Some of my students are working and can only do homework at night. Some of my students are incredible athletes and train/practice for multiple hours a day.

Students today have crazy lives. They each have a story and sometimes they just need someone to listen to them. When I first started teaching students in Michigan, I called a student to do my welcome call. I have no idea how, but we started talking about life in general. She works part time at Burger King. Homeschooling was her best option because she has to pay for her college education and needs to work all different shifts to make that a happen. I was on the phone with her for an hour. We discussed how to manage time, how hard it is to adult (according to her I have adulting down), how to get the motivation to wake up an hour early to get an extra assignment done, etc.

After our phone call, she would check in with me regularly. If she had a question, she would shoot me a text. If she needed help with a course activity, she called me to walk her through it so she didn’t waste her time trying to figure it out herself. She passed my class. Halfway through last semester she randomly texted me to say hi and to let me know she was getting better at not procrastinating.

We’re a team. Whether I’m talking/texting/emailing/Zooming with a parent or student, I always reinforce that we are a team. We all need to work together in the virtual world to be successful. This looks different depending on my student.

I had a mom I called every week on Friday mornings so I could give her a progress report on her son. She told me in the beginning that she was not tech savy and preferred I spoke to her on the phone since she never read my emails.

I had a middle school student who was struggling to stay on pace. I was in constant communication with his guidance counselor, and we decided to meet in Zoom once a week as a team to check in. The student would ask me questions, we would review assignments and create a plan for the week. The student would also email me any questions/concerns during the week as well.

When I text with parents, they often tell me how frustrated they are. I always tell them we will get through it together as a team. It’s amazing how just saying that provides comfort to parents because they know they have a go-to person.

The virtual classroom has no judgement. Every student comes to me with a specific situation. A lot of them aren’t straight A students. For some of them, this is their only option to get an education. I feel closer to my students virtually than I ever did in a brick and mortar classroom because of the environment.

 

Effective Read Alouds in the Virtual Classroom

For over a year and a half I have been an virtual English teacher with EdOptions Academy. There is definitely some transition from being in a brick and mortar school to working with kids digitally, but the rewards are still the same.

One of my favorite activities to do with my students when I taught in a brick and mortar was my daily read aloud. I would choose a high interest text for my students, read it aloud to them every day and then have a quick class discussion about the reading. I was ecstatic when EdOptions Academy started using Zoom to conduct live weekly lessons because I would be allowed to continue my read alouds in the virtual setting.

For the last six months I have held weekly read alouds for my students in secondary English. It was slow going in the beginning, but I now have students waiting for me in our weekly meetings.

Below are some ways that I have created a successful virtual read aloud for students in grades 6-12.

Picking the right book. EdOptions Academy has a set curriculum, so I wanted to choose a novel based on assignments students are required to complete. For fall semester I did three separate read alouds (The Hunger Games, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Giver). While I loved reading these novels with my students, it was a lot to manage with 250 students. For spring semester, I am reading Divergent because it has similar themes to the texts from last semester and it’s an AMAZING book.

Student participation. Zoom allows students to participate via video chat or instant message using a chat box. I never gave students direct instructions on how to share their ideas during our sessions because I didn’t know what they would be comfortable using. My goal is always to have students be comfortable during our time together. Students started utilizing the chat box while I was reading to ask questions or express their thoughts. I monitor the chat box periodically while I read each chapter, and go through it at the end of each chunk to address any questions or ideas students have.

This is has been the most powerful aspect of my read aloud. Students are able to socialize with other students in the chat box while discussing the text. I notice that students make a TON of text-to-text connections (my favorite are the Harry Potter connections) and really love to discuss characterization. Students even came up with a hashtag ,#pusheric, when discussing the youngest Dauntless leader and it was one of my favorite discussions I’ve ever had. Having the freedom to type their ideas at any point during our hour together encourages students to participate when they feel comfortable and not worry about getting in trouble for interrupting.

Talk about being readers. Just as in a brick and mortar environment, it’s important to discuss reading habits in and out of the classroom. During my read alouds, I often find myself saying things such as, “As readers, we can infer…”. Using language like this helps create a stronger community feeling that we are all readers, regardless if we struggle or not. We also spend time talking about other texts the students are currently reading. Some are reading the Divergent series and others are enjoying Percy Jackson. By engaging in conversations like this with my students on a consistent basis we are not only bonding in the virtual classroom, but sharing books and characters we love.

Recorded sessions. I am required to record all of my live lessons with my students, which has turned out to be an incredible concept. Since my read aloud changes every week depending on meetings and office hours, some of my students are unable to attend the live session. I send the recorded link to my students each week so they can watch it at their convenience and still feel included. I also keep a Word document of all my recording links so I can share them with other teachers, parents, and schools. Students have told me they have “watched” me in the car traveling to tournaments and at night with their families. I love that parents get just as excited for the next chapter as my students.

All are welcome. During the fall semester, I was talking to another English teacher who was on a different team. She expressed her concern for a student because he was struggling in her class. I told the teacher the student should come to my read aloud to help practice reading skills in addition to the amazing work that she was already doing with him. The student participated in my read alouds and made significant progress in his English class. His success story is one of my favorites because it shows the power of collaboration in the virtual environment. I will never turn a student away from a read aloud because he or she is not “mine”. Any student is welcome to attend my read alouds and engage in amazing conversations with us.

The virtual learning environment is still a very new concept, but it is possible to create a community of readers from the comforts of home or on the road. My students now wait for me to start our meetings and I have a steady core group of readers. My read aloud is easily the highlight of my week and I love that I get to share it with my students from all over the US.