Teaching The Phantom Tollbooth

After my foray into authentic texts with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, I decided that The Phantom Tollbooth was up next. We did a month long unit on Black History in between that allowed us to delve into some biographies and other nonfiction, so I felt okay getting back on the fiction train. I chose The Phantom Tollbooth because it's a fantasy with tons of interesting characters and places that I knew my students would appreciate. But it also allows for teaching almost any literary element you can think of. You can't read the book without discussing idioms, hyperbole, and just about every other kind of figurative language. I will readily admit that this book was too challenging for my students, even as a read aloud. If I did it again, I would do it with fifth or sixth graders rather than third graders. That being said, I think they still got a lot out of it.  

As we did for Harry Potter, each student had a binder devoted to the book. For each chapter they had a packet that included five vocabulary words, a section for "before, during, after" questions, a section to answer who (characters), what (events), where, and why, a section for a prediction, and a section to retell and illustrate an event. Occasionally I would combine chapters or skip the packet entirely if we were doing a different activity. We kept character charts on sticky chart paper as we went that listed each characters' name, traits, and a picture. These were invaluable, as there are SO many characters in this book, many of whom have hard-to-remember names, especially if you don't get the pun (Faintly Macabre, Officer Short Shrift, The Whether Man). A look at the number of charts we had to make (above) reveals just how many.

A couple of activities we did throughout the book:
  • We created the word orchard from Dictionopolis (see below), and added our new vocabulary words from each chapter
  • We made dodecahedrons with 12 "faces" (which got brought out again during a geometry unit!) to better understand the character the Dodecahedron form Digitopolis (see above)
  • We colored the kind of sunrise we would conduct after Milo took over for Chroma the Great and made the sunrise all different crazy colors
  • We practiced visualizing by drawing the story that Faintly Macabre tells Milo when they're in jail, and then saw how someone else visualized it by watching that section of the movie (on YouTube for free here)
  • As a cumulative project, each student chose a place in The Phantom Tollbooth and wrote a persuasive paragraph on why you should visit there along with creating a travel brochure-style poster. 

After we finished the book the students watched the whole movie (which doubled as a prize for learning all of their Dolch sight words), which provided the great pleasure of hearing them debate the virtues of the book vs. the movie. 

Using the Daily 5 During Summer School

I started reading The Daily 5 a few weeks before school ended, and really liked the ideas behind it.  The premise, described as a framework rather than a curriculum, is a daily structure of students choosing between five authentic reading activities, rotating between these choices in "rounds" with "focus lessons" in between. The choices are "Read to Self," "Read with Someone," "Listen to Reading," "Work on Writing," and "Word Work."  The emphasis is on students reading and writing rather than doing inauthentic busywork.  The rounds of independent work are designed to allow the teacher to work with students strategically in small groups. The authors (known as the 2 Sisters) purport that you will spend less time "managing" your class and more really engaging with your students, which of course sounds wonderful.

In retrospect, it was overly ambitious to try to implement the Daily 5 in a 3 1/2 week summer school course.  According to the authors, it takes several weeks to get the program up and running, so it likely would have gone better if I could have rolled it out more slowly.  We started with Read to Self, and a few days later started Work on Writing.  The next week, we started Word Work.  We never got to Listen to Reading or Read to Someone.  The authors recommend waiting until your students have 10 minutes of stamina during Read to Self (reading quietly the entire time, staying in one spot) before launching Read to Someone.  Our stamina only got to 8 minutes, so it seemed unwise to try Read to Someone.  As far as Listen to Reading goes, I just never got around to setting up the technology.  

  • Students built their reading stamina from 2 minutes (on the first day) to 8 minutes, including students with traits of ADHD
  • Students had the opportunity to read authentic books of their choosing
  • Students were able to write on topics of their choosing on a daily basis
  • Focus lessons were short, which was crucial to keeping my 5- and 6-year-old's engaged
  • We never got to the point where I could work with students in small groups during rounds
  • Because I wasn't able to work with small groups, students did not get truly differentiated/individualized reading instruction
  • While students appeared to be reading, I'm not entirely sure that all of them were

My Daily 5 Set Up
As a caveat, I wasn't in my own classroom this summer, so my set up was strictly functional.  I used IKEA magazine files ($1.49 for 5, alleluia!) for students' individual book boxes so they could just grab their box and start reading.  I used the CAFE menu (which is sort of part of Daily 5, but provides more content-- you can check out the book here) a little bit, but as you can see, we didn't get very far with our strategies! The giant 3 shows the three ways to read a book (read the pictures, read the words, retell the story), which my students frequently referred to. I kept our stamina chart directly on our Read to Self I-chart (a chart that shows student and teacher expectations for a given time), and the students were definitely eager to fill in our stamina for the day ("how many staminas did we get??").  I kept our word work options (dry erase boards, magnetic letters, letter cubes, phonics puzzles, letter stamps) underneath the book boxes. For work on writing, I found the students really could not get started right away unless they were at their desks, so for the sake of efficiency we all did it at once and at their normal seats.

If you decide to pursue using The Daily 5 in your classroom, there a TON of resources online.  A quick search on Pinterest or TeachersPayTeachers will give you a lot of ideas and free resources.  I found this post from Kinderworld particularly useful in planning my first days of instruction.  There are a million different themed Daily 5 printables (monsters, owls, you name it) available on TPT, many of them for free.  

Resource Review: GoNoodle.com

During the school year I work with students for pretty short amounts of time (20-60 minutes), so I didn't really find breaks necessary beyond getting up to switch stations or getting a drink of water.  3-hour summer school with 18 kindergarteners and first graders proved an entirely different animal.  The website GoNoodle seriously saved my life.  It has 50+ free "brain breaks" that your students can dance or sing along to.  When you create a class on GoNoodle, you can choose a "champ" that will earn points as your students rack up brain break minutes.  When you reach a certain amount of minutes, your champ makes it to the next level.  Then you can send him to the "transmogrifier" where he transforms into a bigger, stronger champ.  My students went CRAZY every time their champ went to the transmogrifier.  They were blissfully unaware that their points were solely determined by the length of the brain breaks, and instead thought that their participation directly affected the points earned by the champ.  I did not disillusion them. 

As far as implementation goes, there are a couple of things you might want to consider.  If you don't want students lobbying you all day, you can work the brain breaks into the schedule so that they know when to expect them.  I don't make the brain breaks a reward, because when students aren't following behavior expectations might be the time they need it most! Taking away a brain break as a punishment is just going to make antsy students antsier and surly students surlier. Choosing the brain break also requires a procedure to avoid chaos.  Students will quickly develop favorites, and you will find yourself watching Despicable Me minions dancing to "Happy" three times a day if you aren't careful.  You can either make it clear that you will be the one choosing the brain break every day, or else you can rotate letting students choose.  Another thing to watch out for is brain breaks your boys may decide are "for girls." Anything with a pop song in the background or from the movie Frozen may qualify.  To avoid my boys covering their ears and moaning the whole time, I would select a "leader" to go to the front of the room and lead the dance or song.  Their eagerness to be chosen as the leader generally reduced the moaning/ear covering. 

How Teaching Harry Potter Transformed My Classroom

I started the 2013-2014 school year with very few concrete ideas about what I should be doing in my classroom. I was lucky enough to have my own classroom for my students with "pull out" minutes (special education services administered in a separate classroom), but was also spending several blocks of time a day doing "push in" minutes (services administered within the general education classroom). I had students from kindergarten to third grade, with a very wide range of needs and levels. I found myself wildly trying different techniques with my third grade "pull out" students, who had very low reading levels, but were quite bright and perceptive kids (though I hadn't yet realized how much so!) 

I'm not sure what clicked, but around October, I decided to start reading Harry Potter to them and doing comprehension activities along with it. My school has adopted the Common Core standards, and I was finding it impossible to follow the rigorous third grade standards with students at kindergarten and first grade reading levels. So without a curriculum or really any idea how my students would react, I began reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. I was genuinely excited to begin-- I was am one of those Harry Potter nerds who dressed up for the movie premieres and devoured each new book in one day. They didn't show much interest in the first few chapters-- the books were a higher reading level than I realized, and it was sometimes hard for them to understand, even though I was reading the book aloud. I started pre-reading the chapters and crossing out words or sections that didn't contribute to the plot. I created graphic organizers for my students so they could keep track of the characters and Harry's different classes. Their interest started to build once Harry got into the magical world. I drew outlines of the different shops in Diagon Alley and as he visited each one we wrote what happened in each shop and colored them in. By the time Harry got to Hogwarts, they were hooked. 

I'll never forget the first time I saw one of my students ever show a real interest in reading. Harry had just realized that Malfoy never intended to show up to the midnight duel he had challenged Harry to, and really just wanted to get Harry in trouble. "Draco TRICKED him? That's BOGUS!" my student said admiringly. I started getting reports that he was calling his general education classmates "muggles" (non-magic folk). I was delighted when they started using their own ways of speaking to describe the characters. Snape was "stingy" and Malfoy was a "crybaby." When I needed to motivate my students to complete other work, all I had to do was mention that we couldn't start Harry Potter until they had finished.  

I started incorporating it into my other subjects. Every word problem I did for the rest of the year was Harry Potter themed, from five groups of three snitches each, to Hermione getting six books from the library and returning two. Working on phonics, I had a student observe that the name Snape has a long a and a "bossy e" (the silent e at the end of long vowel words). Most importantly, we were really getting to dig into the literature standards, from describing characters to considering points of view. Observers in my classroom (and as a first year teacher, I had a lot) were surprised at the high level of observations my students were making and questions they were answering, and so was I. I'll admit that I didn't know they were capable of truly understanding and engaging with the text. Teaching Harry Potter has made me passionate about using authentic texts in a classroom, particularly with students reading below grade level.  Students aren't going to be engaged in leveled readers or books designed around a certain phonics skill. These books are useful to build specific skills, but not in encouraging a genuine love for reading.   

Looking to incorporate Harry Potter into your own classroom? Check out these 11 Magical Harry Potter Ideas for the Classroom!

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