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Kathy's Favorite Things - 10 VIRTUAL Classroom Essentials

Happy Summer everyone!  I truly hope that you were able to escape the craziness just a little bit this summer.  After a very stressful spring, a summer that has gone by in the blink of an eye, and a fall full of unknowns looming...I thought a fun blog post might be in order.  
Let's face the facts:  Remote learning is likely to be part of our future in the coming months (and, dare I say, years).  There are so many things to consider as we settle into this new reality, and it can be super overwhelming.  I am hoping that today's post takes some of that stress away and helps you to start thinking about setting up your virtual learning environment, as well as some of the essential tools that you may want/need to make things go smoothly.

So, if this post stresses you out it for another time!  Otherwise, keep reading for a list of my favorite VIRTUAL Classroom Essentials.


If you are working from home, a headset can be a very useful tool.  It can help in several ways including:  blocking out background noise, better audio quality to be able to hear your students more clearly, and sparing your entire household from hearing your classroom banter.  As you are selecting your headset, consider whether you want one earphone or two.  I found that two is great for hearing students, but makes it difficult to hear yourself and what's going on around you in real-time (which bothers me).  I use a headset with one ear piece so that I don't feel blocked out from the rest of the world and can hear myself talking.  I like the MPow brand (I have both of these headsets).


Either a virtual background or a vinyl background that you can hang is great for teaching.  It helps students to focus on you rather than on what is going on behind you.  You can actually find awesome virtual backgrounds on Teachers Pay Teachers, and many that are free on Google.  If you use Zoom, you can upload these right into the platform (and I believe Google is working on adding this feature soon as well).  If you have Manycam (will discuss this further below), you can use a virtual background no matter which conferencing platform you use.

I have also used a vinyl background that you just hang up behind you.  I designed it myself (you can purchase designs on TPT), and sent it to "Banners on the Cheap" to print on a vinyl banner.  It cost about $25 and turned out great!  I was able to hang it from the ceiling in my office so it looks like my real background (you could also hang on the wall).


I have a stand for my tablet and for my phone.  I use both of these when I teach remotely and needed an organized way to keep them nearby.  The one I use for my tablet is adjustable, making it possible for me to use my tablet as a document camera...which is awesome!!


This needs no explanation!!  I use them to remind me of everything!


This simple tool can come in really handy when teaching student remotely.  Sure, you can use a virtual whiteboard, but a real one works just as well and you don't have to "share screen" to use it which puts YOU as the focus of students' attention, which is what they really want.


Good lighting is super important in a virtual learning environment.  Students want and need to be able to see you really well.  Especially with the dark day of winter approaching, do yourself a favor and invest in some cheap studio lighting.  


This is also self-explanatory.  I love cute file folders because I have them out everywhere, so they might as well be part of the decor!   I keep a file folders for small group instruction, current/hot projects, and student contact information...anything you need in a snap and don't want to go digging around your Google drive to find.


Manycam basically acts as a "virtual" webcam.  It uses your actual webcam, but then you set Zoom or Google Meet to use MANYCAM as your camera.  It's a little confusing if you've never used it...but look into it (loads of Youtube videos are available).  It enables you to do cool things like use a virtual background without a green screen, share your screen without having to actually share your screen, use picture in picture during live meetings (so students can still see you while you are sharing texts and other things), insert images and special effects into your screen (picture a parrot gif sitting on your shoulder as you teach), and you can even put virtual masks and other accessories on yourself (kooky glasses, a pink wig, or a cat mask are my favorites).  Manycam is free to use if you don't mind having a watermark on the screen with you.


I have not invested in one yet, but I am seriously considering it.  This teacher/coach is not used to sitting down this much!


If you have a document camera, yes, you can put your picture books and other texts under there to read aloud to kiddos.  However, there are so many perks to using digital texts!  My favorite resources for digital texts include Newsela (free), Readworks (free), Literacy Footprints Digital Reader (pricey), Raz-Kids (pricey), and Oxford Owl (free), Get Epic (free for teachers, but students need a subscription to access from home).  I use ALL of these for different things (future blog post alert).  

So, there you have it...some of my favorite tools for remote teaching.  I know our budgets are very tight, especially now, so hopefully you won't be spending a ton of your own money on these things.  If we really value education in our country, we need to be properly funded and teachers need to stop spending their own money on EVERYTHING!  But if you are on you own to get the things you need, I've seen teachers have huge success in raising funds through Donor's Choose, Facebook Fundraisers, and GoFundMe. 

I hope you enjoyed this post and it gave you a moment of happiness, thinking about setting up your virtual classroom.   I have posted some digital resources that I created in a pinch last spring...they are perfect for uploading into Google Clasroom or any other learning management system.

Be well, stay safe and know that you are heroes!!  Reach out in the comments with your favorite essentials!

Digital Graphic Organizers for Google Classroom (Distance Learning)
Digital Reading Response for Google Classroom -  Distance Learning Bundle

Distance Learning: Remote Guided Reading Lessons Made Easy!

This post may be coming to you a bit late, but hopefully I can provide some tips and resources to support your efforts to bring small group reading instruction to your students in a way that is manageable for both you and them!  IT CAN BE DONE!

School ended (as we know it) here in Michigan on March 13 (yes, it was Friday the 13th).  After the shock wore off, panic began to set in.  My thoughts were spinning:  "How will we support our striving readers, who are already so far behind their peers?  They receive so much support at school...single dips, double dips, triple dips!  They can't afford this time away from school."  I immediately began to think about how we could continue to provide the reading support that they need remotely.  Enter Google Meet...(or Zoom, if that's your "classroom" of choice).   Using a virtual meeting platform, and a few key tech tools, I was able to get small group reading instruction rolling with my students in a way that is almost as good as "the real thing."


You will need to use either Google Meet or Zoom to connect with your students virtually, and your students will need access to the same platform.  In our district, we were able provide devices to those students that don't have them, and a system was set up for them to receive free wifi with the help of local internet providers.

In a Google Meet, you are able to see your students, talk with them, and present visual aids to use in your lessons.  One issue with Google Meet, is that when you present your screen, you can no longer see your students, which is a huge problem in a guided reading lesson.  There are several ways to remedy this situation.  Eric Curts from Contral Alt Achieve has a great video to help you navigate that.

My favorite set up is to use my phone as a second monitor.  I simply log in to the Google Meet app on my phone and on my PC.  I use the PC to present visuals, and I use my phone to see my student.  I work with students one on one, so I can actually "pin" their face on my phone's Google Meet so I only see them and not what I'm presenting.  With a small group of students, you would be able to use the sidebar or tile display mode and it would work just as well (as long as you have 4 or fewer students at a time).

I also needed a white board.  I tried using an actual white board with real markers and holding it up to the camera, but the glare was so bad that students had a difficult time seeing what I was showing them.  So I set up a virtual white board via my Ipad mini tablet.  I mirror my table to my PC monitor using the free version of an app called ApowerMirror.  I had to load that onto my tablet and my PC.  It was easy and worked flawlessly.  I then loaded another free app on my tablet called "Whiteboard".  Voila!  Now when I am in present mode, my students can see what I write on the whiteboard app of my tablet.  I can toggle between this whiteboard and other visuals that I am using, such as digital texts, and Google Slides.

Here is what my set up looks like:


You will need access to leveled digital text for your guided reading lessons.  At school, we have well-stocked classroom libraries and bookrooms, with REAL books!  That luxury is gone, gone, gone!  So, digital text is the only way to go for remote guided reading lessons.  You will need to be able to display text in present mode, so that all students can see the book.  It is also nice if they are able to access the same digital text after your lesson so they can re-read for fluency practice.

The great news is that there are several sources of FREE digital text available during "these unprecedented times."  Here are my favorites:

  • Literacy Footprints - This is brand new!  LP responded very quickly to the need to have leveled digital text, and they created an AMAZING platform for teachers and students, with a healthy collection of leveled texts.  They also put together Read at Home kits of real books that are fairly inexpensive, so that if you have the funding, you can ship the books to your students so they have a hard copy of the texts that you are using with them virtually
  • Reading A-Z - Most of you are probably familiar with this platform.  They have a very extensive collection of digital text resources.  The wonderful thing about RAZ is that they include lesson ideas and worksheets to go with each book.  RAZ has extended their free trial through the end of June.  RAZ also has some simple annotation tools that can be used when projecting a text (highlighting, masking, etc).
  • Readworks and Newsela - These do not use F&P levels, but do provide lexile levels.  If you are looking for shorter reading passages and articles, this is the way to go.
  • Get Epic - Get Epic has a huge collection of digital trade books.  They do provide levels, but they are not as great for guided reading as digital texts that were created for the purpose of guided reading (i.e., Reading A-Z, Literacy Footprints).  However, they have a VERY LARGE collection of text.  I like to use this to add a little variety to my lessons.
Following is how my remote guided reading lessons tend to go.  CLICK HERE to download my lesson plan template.


1.  Sight Word Review/Introduce New Sight Word

If possible, work with parents to make sure that students have access to a small dry erase board and marker (paper and a marker are a good substitute).  We practice sight words during the lesson.  Students use their whiteboard, and I will dictate three sight words for review that they will write on their boards.  I will then use my digital whiteboard to teach a new sight word.  If they have magnetic letters available, I will have them play "mix and fix" by making their new sight word several times and mixing up the letters each time.

2.  Re-read Book from Previous Lesson

This reading serves two purposes:  to practice fluency, and to work on comprehension skills.  I expect to hear some smooth, fluent reading since the student has read the book multiple times at this point.  I will choose a comprehension strategy to focus on, such as retelling using main idea and key details.

3.  Phonics/Word Study

If you wish to include word study in your guided reading lessons, you will need to have some digital flashcards with words for students to sound and blend, and for sight word practice.  I use the phonics flashcards to practice sounding and blending words with students.  I have preassessed each of my students (using the Core Phonics Inventory) to determine where they are in our phonics scope and sequence so I know which set of words to use (CVC, CCVC, R-Controlled, etc).  I use the following process during this part of my lesson:
  1. Model how to sound and blend each word using "I do, You do".  For example, if the word is cat, I say "c-a-t, cat!  Now you do it."  The student then says, "c-a-t, cat!"  We will do this for all words in the set.
  2. Then the student or students go back and read each word independently.  My direction to them is, "If you know it, just read it.  But if you're not sure, sound and blend."  
  3. Next, students will read a few short sentences that contain the phonics pattern we have been practicing.
  4. Sometimes I will add dictation at the end of the lesson by having students write a few words or a short sentence using the phonics skill we have been practicing.

If students have access to magnetic letters (which many do not), I will practice the phonics skill by making words (sometimes called make and break).  This can be a little time consuming because students have to make the words, then hold up their magnet board to show you after each word.  Some parents are great about doing this as part of homework.  It takes about five minutes after your lesson to show parents what to do and give them a list of make and break words to do with their child at home.  

4.  New Book

I usually end my lesson with a new book.  I usually give a brief book introduction, or I may do a picture walk (depending on the student).  I will also talk about new vocabulary.  Then they read and I prompt as needed.  If working with a small group, you could have students take turns reading.  In normal times, this type of "round-robin" reading is a big no-no.  But "in these unprecedented times" it may be a necessary evil, especially if your students are still working on decoding skills.  Another option could be to have your students turn down their sound and mute themselves until it is their turn to read to you.  If your groups are primarily working on comprehension, you could have them read sections of the book silently, and then have talk about what was read.  If there is time left, we will have a discussion about the book.  For my striving readers this usually involves retelling or summarizing what they've read. If we run out of time, we will discuss the book at the start of our next session.

That is really it!!  My lessons usually take 20-30 minutes.  I was so intimidated by the thought of doing guided reading from home, but now I get excited when I know I have a lesson coming up.  One important thing to remember is that you will never be able to match the effectiveness of real, in-person reading instruction.  Also, create a weekly schedule that is manageable for you and should not expect to meet with every group every day, especially if you are already trying to manage your whole class lessons (either live or recorded).   If you can meet with your lowest readers once or twice per week, you are doing GREAT, and they will benefit in the long run.

Here is a video that shows how I use some of the digital tools described in this post (forgive my quarantine uniform...pony tail and sweats).

I have created some digital tools that may help you as you navigate this process (listed below).  I hope you find them helpful.  If you have any questions, or would like some help in getting started with remote guided reading, please reach out!  I am also VERY interested in all of the ways you are supporting your students in "these unprecedented times."  Please share your thoughts, ideas, questions, worries, etc in the comments below!!  

Hang tough teacher peeps!  Summer is coming've got this!!  

Phonics Lessons Digital Flashcards for Distance Learning - CVC Words  Phonics Lessons Digital Flashcards for Distance Learning - Digraphs & Blends

Phonics Lessons Digital Flashcards for Distance Learning - R-Controlled Vowels  Digital Reading Response for Google Classroom -  Distance Learning Bundle

Digital Graphic Organizers for Google Classroom (Distance Learning) 

Kathy's Favorite Things - 10 Classroom Essentials

This post is just for fun!  I shop A LOT!  Too much in fact.  I try not to, but I just can't pass up a good deal when I see one.   This year, I will post a monthly list of some great finds...just for teachers!

This month I thought I would start with a list of ten essential things that every elementary classroom MUST HAVE.  When I created this list, I kept in mind those things that I absolutely could not live without in my classroom.  I've included tried and true brands to save you time time shopping around.  Trust me...these items are THE BEST!

1.  {Visual} Classroom Timer

This visual timer is essential, especially for primary grade students.  It is just good teaching to set time expectations for students and they appreciate being able to see how much time they have "at a glance."  When time is up, there is a simple, "no-nonsense" beep.  There are several good online timers, but you can't beat this one for ease of won't need to use your Smartboard, and it works even when the internet is down!  It comes in two sizes...I recommend the largest one.

2.  Chimes

These chimes are the perfect tool to get your students' attention.  A soothing sound, easily adjusted to loud or soft, is just what you need to gently direct their attention your way.

3.  Ruggable

Have you seen these WASHABLE rugs?  I have two...and they wash up beautifully....perfect for keeping your classroom clean!  Lot's of different patterns to choose from too!

4.  Stackable Paper Trays

I like to keep papers organized in my classroom, and I could not live without these classroom mailbox trays.  You can use them in a multitude of ways, and they will really help you to avoid creating "teacher piles."

5.  Pencil sharpener

After 28 years in the classroom, I am a connoisseur of pencil sharpeners.  I've had them all, and I can confidently say that this one from School Smart is the very best one!!  No need to shop around any further.  This one will last you several years before needing to be replaced, and when it does die, you can't beat the price point.

6.  Walmart Shelves

Every elementary classroom needs an epic classroom library!  Unfortunately, not all schools provide great shelving for this purpose.  My hubby made me some custom shelving for my classroom that has lasted me all 28 years!  If you're not that lucky, these shelves from Walmart are sturdy and affordable!  You don't need to feel guilty buying multiples as this price!

7.  Plastic Book Bins

I use these bins for so many things, including individual student book bins, extra storage space in a flexible seating classroom, and even to keep myself organized!  You can find extra fancy ones on Really Good Stuff, but if you are on a budget, these ones from Amazon will get the job done for a lot less.  They come in a pack of 30 and are available in lots of fun colors!

8.  Wireless Keyboard

Most classroom smart boards are hooked up to your desktop PC.  It can be less than convenient to walk all the way back to your desk when you need to access your board.  These wireless keyboards are super cheap and so convenient.  The kiddos can even use them!  I love to use them for interactive writing lessons!  This one even comes with a wireless mouse!

9.  Hole Punch

If you are a "binder queen" like me, you punch a lot of holes!!  I like to keep my students and myself organized by keeping things in binders and folders!  This would be absolute drudgery if not for my heavy duty hole punch!  I've had this thing forever and has probably punched at least a million papers!  I have one at home too!  It is such a time-saver.

10.  The "Cadillac" of Staplers

A good stapler is such an essential classroom tool.  It seems like such a simple thing, but choosing the wrong stapler can lead to endless frustration (and even injury)!  I love my shiny red swingline!  I have one at home and at school...don't overthink this one...just buy it!

Well, there you have it...the ten things I could not live without in my classroom.  I am sure that are other things that I could add to this list (we teachers do need so very many things), but I promised to keep this list list to ten!  What are your favorite classroom essentials?  I'd love to hear from you in the comments!

Thanks for stopping by...check out my TOP TEN BEST SELLERS BELOW!  Happy Shopping!

Kathy O.

Phonics Instruction Simplified - PLUS A FREEBIE!!

The phonics debate is in full-swing.  I think they are calling it "the science of reading" now, and the idea of "balanced literacy" is taking a beating.  I taught first grade for 17 years using what I would call a balanced literacy approach, and yes, PHONICS was a critical element of my daily reading program.  I am rather shocked at the assumption that primary teachers are not teaching phonics, because that is not what I witness in my role as an early literacy coach.  I also do not believe a phonics program is the magical silver bullet that is going to fix the literacy crisis in our country.   I really think the problem is much bigger than that.  But I digress....

The point of this post is to help you to see that phonics instruction, although really important to the success of our early readers, is not rocket science.  It involves a few important success factors that can be easily incorporated into your daily literacy routines.  Let me be clear:

This post is based on the latest research-based practices in literacy instruction, and the brilliant work of Wiley Blevins, who has spent his entire career helping to clarify best practice in phonics instruction.  I highly recommend his latest book, A Fresh Look at Phonics, which outlines critical success factors for phonics instruction, as well as common causes of phonics instruction failure.


As I've mentioned, you don't need an expensive phonics program to teach foundational skills, but you do need a scope and sequence that is consistently followed in your school.   There is fairly consistent agreement in the literacy world about the correct scope and sequence to follow when teaching phonics.  It looks something like this:

Literacy researchers Sharon Walpole and Michael McKenna published the following proficiency targets in How to Plan Differentiated Reading Instruction (2017).

As you can see, students should master these critical phonics skills by the end of first grade so that they can begin to focus on the more rigorous work on comprehension and fluency in early second grade.  Beyond first grade, phonics instruction becomes much more difficult to address due to the cognitive demands of higher text complexity.  That is, students need to spend the majority of their time learning comprehension strategies and refining their reading fluency, rather than laboring over the decoding of words.  They also work on comprehension and fluency in first grade through read-alouds and shared reading, but during guided and independent reading the focus is on decoding until this is mastered.


Once your school has outlined a scope and sequence that everyone will follow, a common assessment needs to be given to all K-2 students to determine the specific phonics skills that they need to develop.  This same common assessment needs to be used to progress monitor all students regularly throughout the school year to make sure that instruction is matching exactly what each student needs.  At our school, we use the CORE Phonics Survey, but there are many very similar phonics assessments available that will tell you which skills students will need to develop.

If the assessment shows that 70% or more of your students need the same skill, then you can address these through whole-class lessons.  For example, if you are a kindergarten teacher and 95% of your students do not know most of the consonant sounds yet, then its okay to teach whole-class lessons on letter sounds.  Most of the time, however, you will discover that your students need differentiated instruction in small groups.  For example, kindergartners who know all of their letters sounds are ready to move on to CVC blending, and will not need to sit through a whole class lesson on letter sounds.  It's very important to make the most of your class time by differentiating instruction to meet the needs of individual students.  Whole class lessons may not be the best avenue for phonics instruction in late kindergarten and first grade. Small group instruction will give you a bigger bang for your buck!  Your best bet is to integrate phonics/word study instruction with your guided reading or strategy group lessons.  For example during a 15 minute guided reading session, you could spend 5 minutes on a phonics concept.  Some students may need an additional "dip" with just these skills, which can be done during your Tier 2 or 3 instruction time.

The most important thing to remember is to monitor the progress of students on a consistent basis (every 2-3 weeks if possible), so that you can make necessary adjustments to instruction to ensure that students stay on track and meet the end of year proficiency targets for phonics.


Kindergarten and first grade students need to be directly taught how to blend words, and need DAILY practice with blending.  Teachers should follow a gradual release model when teaching blending routines (I DO, WE DO, YOU DO).  Begin with FINAL BLENDING (one letter sound at at time) and then move quickly to SUCCESSIVE BLENDING (melting words together quickly).  Once students know how blending works, successive blending should be the main mode of practice.

Elkonin sound boxes are a well-known way to help students learn to blend short words.  You would first use them to develop phonemic awareness by pushing a coin into the boxes for each sound.  Later you would have students place (or write) the corresponding letter into each sound box.  

Wiley Blevins describes a very simple approach to daily blending with students called BLENDING LINES.  Simply write out five or six lines of words on a chart that align with the skill students are working on and students can read them chorally and independently.  Do this daily as a whole class or in small groups.  Use the gradual release model (I do, we do, you do) and provide corrective feedback (modeling the correct way) when students make errors.  When creating these blending lines and activities, use high-utility words that students are likely to encounter in text.  

SUBSCRIBE {on the right} to receive FREE Print and Go Blending Lines for CVC Words!


Dictation is such a simple way to practice phonics skills.  It will only take about five minutes, 2-3 times per week to really see a difference in students' application in their writing.  Give students a personal dry erase board and call out words that follow the phonics skill you are teaching.   It is a great time to model blending as you say the words aloud and then students write them on their boards.  Be sure to check each student's spelling and provide corrective feedback as needed.

I am a huge advocate of providing students with lots and lots of opportunities to write each day....even kindergartners!  It is the best way for them to apply and practice their knowledge of phonics skills (not to mention the MANY other benefits of daily writing practice).


Word building and words sorts help students to understand the patterns in words.  Their knowledge of one spelling pattern can help them to read dozens of other words.  Word building can also help students to discern beginning, middle and ending sounds as they manipulate each to make new words (e.g., change one letter in cat to make can; change one letter in cat to make cut, etc).  Word sorts can also help students to learn spelling patterns and exceptions to spelling rules.   They can be especially helpful for students learning to differentiate between sounds (e.g., picture sorts used to differentiate beginning consonant sounds or different vowel patterns).   Making and breaking words and word sorting should be a daily practice in every kindergarten and first grade classroom.


There are about 100 high frequency words that account for about 50% of the words found in print.  Early readers need to learn these words before second grade in order to read grade-level text.  Some of these words have irregular phonics patterns, but many do not and can be first learned by decoding just like other words (for example, the word "and" can be sounded-out easily).  For the most part, these words should be taught the same way that other words are taught, through sound/symbol analysis.  I highly recommend that you read and save the article Teach Sight Words As You Would Other Words by Nell Duke.  Ditch the rings of sight words and simply provide students with a few minutes each day to practice the words by spelling and writing the words.  You can jazz it up by having them chant, sing, clap, jump (etc.) the words (a-n-d....and!; t-h-e.....the!).  You will be amazed at how quickly they internalize the spellings with daily clap and chant practice, which can be done with the whole class...five minutes is all it takes!  HERE are some really fun ways to practice high-frequency words with your whole class or in your small groups.


Phonics should not be taught ONLY in isolation.  Students will need regular opportunities to practice the phonics skills they have been taught IN CONTEXT.  Decodable books (also called connected text) are books that have a large percentage of decodable words, ideally words that align with the particular phonics skills that students have learned (i.e., if students are working on blending CVC words, then they should have access to decodable text that has plenty of CVC words).  I am a fan of BOB books because they follow the common scope and sequence mentioned above and are CHEAP!  But you can also find decodable books on Reading A-Z (you need a subscription).  Keep in mind that decodable text should NOT make up the majority of your students' reading diet. They are not complex reading and do not provide lots of opportunities for comprehension conversations, but they do provide students with necessary decoding practice on the specific skills they are learning.  I commonly find that teachers forget about the importance of using decodable text.  They are not exciting or particularly fun to read, but they are a necessary part of effective phonics instruction.


I predict that the phonics debate will continue long after I've retired.  My hope is that teachers can see through all of the drama and confusion and realize that PHONICS INSTRUCTION IS NOT ROCKET SCIENCE.  It's really pretty simple.  I hope that this post has helped you to see the forest through the trees, and you walk away with some clarity on how to address phonics instruction with your young readers.

Thanks for stopping by!  Before you go don't forget to...

SUBSCRIBE {on the right} to receive FREE Print and Go Blending Lines for CVC Words!

Some products that you might find useful: