Sunday, December 26, 2010

Holiday Traditions

The days leading to Christmas Break were full of excitement in my room, and in writing workshop, we turned our attention to writing to give a gift to others. Our focus was on family preparations and traditions during the holidays. As a parent and a teacher, I love hearing from kids what they look forward to and find significant during this time of year.

We all loved hearing the stories of holiday preparations and traditions--some that were common to most of us and some that were new to many of us. The kids took great pride in their work, and I know that a lot of families have specially wrapped treasures under their trees...a way to remember what was important to their first grader during Christmas 2010. Yes, there was a lot of learning going on, but I just want to share some of the images from some of the kids' work. I wish I could share all of them--stories of Las Posadas, family gatherings, and more--but am choosing to share a few that show how seriously the kids took this chance to use writing to let their families know how much they value their special traditions. Enjoy!
Singing Christmas songs [is] important to us because Christmas is Jesus' birthday.

Because I want to and I love to and because I know that Christmas is coming soon.

To my family: [they]are special because they are the best thing in my life. To my favorite family.
I love this day because it is my brother and I will always have a good day because you are there. The end.
I love this tradition because my mom has been doing it since she was a little girl.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

An Interesting Thing About Monitoring

One of the things that I've noticed about struggling readers over the past few years is that most of them do not seem to monitor--to notice whether or not they are understanding as they read or if what they say matches the print. Of course, it's pretty easy to observe this when the reader is making errors or has no idea what he or she has read, but I find it particularly interesting that these readers often do not realize when they have made successful attempts either.

I was struck by this again this week while doing end-of-semester assessments. While I observe my kids constantly during the school day, I was observing especially closely as my at-risk readers read and talked about the texts. As I did, I filtered my observations through the goals we had as readers and the teaching that had taken place not only during small group reading, but across our days. One of the biggies has been making sure that everything makes sense and matches when we read--that we are monitoring and notice when it doesn't match or we don't understand. And then we do something about it.

I would love to say that we've licked the problem...but I'd be lying. Not that it was all bad news--all the kids have grown as readers, and all do monitor for at least some things at least some of the time.
My readers are talking about the texts they read, and almost all of them seemed to understand most of what had happened in the text. They all stayed on topic while talking about the books.
My readers stopped and tried something almost every time when they were unsure. They recognized that they were encountering something they did not already know, and at least tried 1 thing before giving up or appealing to me for help. Some made multiple attempts.
My readers frequently monitored themselves by making sure that what they said matched at least some of the information in the text--a sight word, an initial sound, something in the picture. 
My readers occasionally smiled or made a comment while reading, which indicates they understand. One little guy even realized he did not understand and commented, "wait...that doesn't make sense."
This is all good stuff, and all stuff we've been working on. We celebrated these things, because they are important and observing this and naming if for the kids helped us all realize that progress has been made.

But I noticed some other stuff too--and I found my interest drawn to it. What was going on? Why? And what do I do about it?
My readers almost always made attempts that sounded like questions--when their attempts were wrong, but also when they were right.
My readers almost always stopped, even after successful attempts--they did not automatically go on without prompting.
My readers often looked at me immediately following an attempt--this after weeks and weeks of my just looking back at them asking, "were you right?", "does it match what's happening?", and "does it match the sounds?"
My readers sometimes made correct attempts at word solving or correctly read a passage, then went back and changed it so it was incorrect. In fact, that happened a lot.
My readers, when answering questions, seemed very unsure of themselves, even when they were correct. Even when they could respond without having to stop and think about it.

Intriguing--that's what I kept thinking. How far we've come...and yet...

First and foremost, I think that my at-risk readers doubt themselves and their ability to know something for sure and to problem solve successfully. Whether it's because they've experienced failure so many times or have learned that they always need help or that they are just unlucky doesn't really matter. What matters is that I find a way to help them overcome it--to position them so that they experience success over and over and learn what it feels like. To teach them how to know when they are right and that if they are not, they can try again and that this is what successful readers do. They need to re-imagine themselves as see themselves as members of the capable readers club.

I know this isn't everything my observations tell me we need to work at, but I think it's the one I find the most troubling. Somehow I have the feeling that if I cannot find a way to help my readers monitor themselves--not just to know when they have made a mistake, but when they are reading successfully, they will continue to struggle.

Sunday, December 12, 2010



It's a small word. Small, but powerful. I first became aware of how important this word is while training as a literacy coach. We read about why certain things were effective and why things might be done in different ways. We talked and wrote about why we did things the way we did--and then why we changed or modified some of what we do. Why became the center of my thinking about teaching and learning.

I've also learned the value of telling my students why we do things--why it's important to know how to learn sight words and why we need to use kind words and why we need to notice and wonder and think. Often we guide kids through lessons and activities without taking a moment to tell them why we're doing it. Or if we do, we fall back on things like "so you'll be ready for (insert next level or skill)" or "so you can be smarter". But that's not what I'm going for. I'm not sure that's what will help increase learning or engagement or independence.

I recently overheard one of my kids saying that we read the morning message "cause it's first [in the morning meeting]". Another was asked why he was learning math vocabulary. His response? "So I can be smart like my teacher." Now, while I am honored that my student considers me to be smart, I was less than enthused by his answer.

What I want is for my kids to know why something will help them or how they can use it. And I try to get that into my teaching language...but it's obviously something I need to keep thinking about and working on. I do make sure to let kids know what they are learning to do, but it's that next step that seems a little hard sometimes. Telling them why.

So during our morning meeting the next day, I took a couple minutes and reminded the kids why we do the morning message thing every day:
  • It lets us know about what we are going to be learning/doing that day or asks us to think more about what we've been learning,
  • We can practice making sure we know what an author is telling us,
  • It is a way we can use what we know about problem solving and checking and fixing up when reading,
  • We can notice/use things we're learning about letters/sounds/words--put that learning to work, and
  • We can do all of this together--helping each other see how it's done.
And in math? Well, after we talked about how we use those important math words all the time when learning to do new things like measuring (our current study), and how people use measuring all the time, I think they're getting it. Little E. summed it up by saying, "you will have inches and rulers with you the rest of your life and if you know what those are you can use them."

I'm going to keep working at helping my kids know why. It's not easy, but I do know why I think it's important. I think it's important because it gives them a reason to put in the effort of learning and practicing. It helps them understand how they can use what we are learning to figure things out for themselves and keep on learning. I do it because why has been such a powerful word in my own work, and I want that kind of power in theirs.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Remembering to Reflect on What's Going Well

I have been feeling somewhat less than adequate lately. Maybe it's because we're nearing the end of a semester and I'm thinking a lot about where I thought the kids and I would be by this time of the year. Maybe it's because the professional reading I've been doing has me rethinking how I do some things or opening my eyes to others or has me wishing I was more like the authors. Maybe it's because I've stepped over a line in reflecting...the one where instead of using reflection as a tool to refine our practice, we slip into making a long list of should-haves, why-didn't-Is, and coming-up-shorts.

I do believe that we have to be willing to take an honest look at our practices and identify those places where we need to grow, change, or let go of some of our practices; however, I also believe it's critical to reflect on what's going well. The stuff that's working...those days or lessons or small moments when things are humming along so smoothly that you totally understand what athletes mean about being "in the zone". Or those little things that make you feel like you're about to burst because this is why you became a teacher.

So in the interest of reminding myself to look at what's working well--so I can build on it, so I can keep doing it, and so that I am forced to find the joyful moments in my teaching life--here's a short list of things from the past week that have me thinking that I may not be as inadequate as I've been feeling--that what I've been teaching and modeling and trying to be as a professional is having an impact.
  • Teaching kids to help each other: I looked up from a reading group and was able to see one of my stronger, quiet students helping another student learn a couple new sight words at the ABC center--the student being helped is not always easy to work with, and struggles with visual memory tasks. The next day, that student was not only able to remember which words they had worked on, but was able to quickly locate them in the morning message.
  • Helping my lowest kids feel that they are capable: My high-need reading group highjacked a lesson--in a good way! They took over and huddled around a single copy of the book, using everything we've been working and working on learning to do while reading. Problem solving using more than one source of information, talking about the story, monitoring, fixing up errors--it was beautiful...and I got it on tape.
  • Encouraging professional reflection and growth not just in myself, but alongside others: I had a spur of the moment conversation with two colleagues after school one day that not only left us feeling affirmed in some things about teaching in response to student need during writing workshop, but also generated some much-needed energy and enthusiasm.
  • Learning to work around or within barriers to what I know are effective practices: I realized that even though my writing workshop is well short on time, the kids have learned to work within it and so have I. Even though it still feels too short, the kids are engaged in their writing projects, they are making progress, and I do know more about them as writers than I thought, even though my conferring notes are woefully thin.
  • Remembering why I do this: I had to take 2 afternoons off to be home with one of my own kids, who was sick (don't worry, that's not the good thing!). While I was walking the kids to lunch before leaving, one of them said, "we can tell you love S.--that's why you are going home to take care of him." Another chimed in, "like how you love us. You take care of us and teach us stuff."
Ok, so that last one, that's the one. The one that made me feel like maybe there are some things I'm doing well. That I am making a difference for these kids. That what I do not only matters, but isn't falling as short as I thought. It gives me the energy and strength I need to keep going. 

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thankful To Be Back

In the past week, I've spent lots of time thinking about the things in my life for which I am thankful. The list is pretty long, but when I considered the things in my professional life that I would include, I kept coming back to one thought.

I am so thankful to be back in the classroom this year.

At first, it was just that, but when I kept coming back to it--just that one thought--I took the time to ask myself why. And what I realized is that it goes deeper than the joy of being with my own class full of little learners, though that would be reason enough.  Yes, I am so happy to have my own classroom again, to be greeted by 23 little smiles each morning, to be there when a kid gets that "oh--I get it!" look on his face. But there is something even more professionally satisfying and energizing that makes me thankful for this year.

During my time out of the classroom, I learned a lot--a tremendously huge bunch of stuff--about teaching and learning and literacy and teachers and kids. I'm thankful for all the experiences I had and for all I was lucky enough to learn. But in returning to the classroom, I am reminded that, for me, the real learning comes when I am applying and trying and adjusting what I've learned while I'm engaged in the real work of my classroom.

What I've found is that real learning--understanding, deepening, extending, modifying, even innovating--comes when I am engaged most closely with a school, a grade level team, and mostly when I am immersed in work with kids day after day across time. To join in classroom work for short blocks of time is powerful; to do it as all teachers do, across whole days with multiple contents areas and other duties to juggle, is to really begin to understand the work teaching and learning more deeply.

When I think of professional leaders whose work I study and admire, I find there is a balance--those whose work is done mostly at the university/research level or in the capacity of coaching/consulting and those who still spend most of their time working in the classroom with their own students. I am thankful to have had the opportunity to do both, but after a time in the world of coaching and consulting, it feels good to take the things I've learned and helped others learn and put it all to work with my very own group of kids.

I'm learning a lot, and for that, I am very thankful.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

When Saying Nothing Works

I still have a lot to learn about conferring. I've been conferring with kids for a long time--and I still feel like there's so much to learn about doing it well day after day. I've been lucky to have great teachers. My trainers, the work of Carl Anderson, Lucy Caulkins, Katie Wood Ray, Peter Johnston, my colleagues--all have helped me become better. Sitting beside me right now is my new copy of Day by day: refining writing workshop through 180 days of reflective practice by Ruth Ayres and Stacey Shubitz--chapter 5 is on conferring, and I can't wait to read it.

But what I learned from one of my students recently is that sometimes what's most important and powerful in conferring isn't what I say or how I say it. Sometimes the the most powerful stuff happens when I force myself to stay quiet, wait, watch and listen.

I sat down next to C., and I will admit that I took a deep breath first (or maybe 2). His folder is stuffed with loose writing papers and writing books, most of which have a barely representational drawing--outlines only--and either no writing or a single sentence which neither of us can make heads or tails of despite the fact that he wrote it and I have quite a bit of experience deciphering early attempts at writing.

As soon as I sat down next to him, C. pulled a paper from the heap and bent his head over it. There were 2 things that sort of looked like rectangles on the page. I've been working and working with C. to help him learn to draw his story and to be able to begin to tell it in words--verbally and in writing. I didn't know what else to say that would help him. So I didn't say anything. And while I was waiting for inspiration to strike or the conferring fairy to bestow wisdom on me, something happened.

As he picked up his pencil, C. started talking.
"See--these are 2 trucks...semi trucks." He added a kind of cab shape and wheels to each rectangle.
"And they have to get gas but in a spot only they go to and the red one goes here [drew a box on the edge of the paper] and the green here [another box goes onto the page] and they have things here where they load it up." C. drew a hose-like thing coming from the back of each semi truck.

A little voice in my head told me to keep quiet and keep watching--conferring fairy? And C. continued. He kept talking and drawing and even started to add labels and a sentence all on his own. I realized that his story was coming into his mind as was drawing it--like both were happening at once. C. didn't have a story in mind that he could tell or draw until he started drawing. But as he drew, he continued talking and suddenly there was a picture with recognizable objects, some labels, and a definite story.

I never spoke during that conference. But I learned an awful lot. C. did more with that story than with any other up to that point in the year. He even added another page to show and tell about the trucks driving off down the highway. And when I got up to move to the next kid, C. looked up and thanked me for helping him. Really? I had done nothing more that sit down, wait and watch.

Later, as I thought about it, I realized that maybe what I did--or didn't do--was helpful. I did learn more about C. and his process as a writer. As for him perceiving my lack of conferring action as a helpful thing, maybe he just needed someone there. Not someone teaching him at that moment, or helping him do something he knows he needs help with, but someone just to be there while he gave it a go.

I still believe that most conferences should involve the teacher teaching or supporting the writer. After all, conferring is a teaching context geared toward the specific strengths and needs of the individual. But I never would have learned so much about C.'s process, his strengths and his needs if I had tried to come up with something to say during that conference, and now I have a much clearer idea of how I can support him in future conferences.

So whether it was the conferring fairy or sudden insight or a happy accident, I'm glad I didn't know what to say. What I learned is that if I'm willing to wait and watch carefully, sometimes the most powerful thing for me to say is nothing.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Abandoning Projects...Sort Of

This week in our class we abandoned a project...sort of.  We had been using interactive writing to write about a field trip we had taken near the end of October. The day we let the project go, 2 student teachers from other schools were in our room observing, and they were curious about that decision.

They had seen our class meet on the carpet and heard me remind the kids that we had a decision to make--keep going with our writing about the trip, or let it go and move on to a new project. The kids all wanted to move on. We had printed pictures from the trip, mounted them and had written captions for all but 2 of the events from that day. Most of the pictures and captions were already hanging in the hallway, and the energy created by the trip and our remembering it had been slowly waning over the past week. While the kids still remembered the trip and wanted others to know about the trip, they were not all that interested in writing about it any more.

As soon as the kids went to recess, the questions came. "Why did you abandon the project--and what really does that mean? Does it happen a lot?"
"No," I replied, "not often. But it does happen sometimes and it's hard as a teacher to let it go. Especially if in my mind it's a great project. In this case, the energy from the trip has sort of died down and the kids just weren't engaged in the project any more--even though it was their idea."  I went on to explain that abandoning the project just means that we aren't going to work on it as an interactive writing project any more. I took about 1 minute to have the kids tell me again what was happening in the 2 remaining pictures and I quickly wrote it down without any further comment or teaching. The project will remain displayed in the hallway outside our room.

The other student teacher piped up, "But why didn't you have the kids go ahead and finish it? I thought that interactive writing means the kids help write down things."  She's right--that is a large part of it. But not all.

Interactive writing is a powerful instructional piece in which the teacher and kids share the task of choosing a writing project based on some common experience or learning, negotiate what kind of text will be created and what it will say and then work together to write the actual message. It's a place where the teacher supports kids in using all they know and are learning about writing and about how letters, sounds and words work.   But the key to the power of interactive writing is in the engagement of the kids. If they are not engaged in the work--if they don't feel a strong sense of ownership and control over it--then they really don't gain anything from the experience.

"That's what was happening here," I explained. "The kids had lost interest, probably because it's been a while since the trip and we've been studying some other things that they are really into right now. I was working my rear end off trying to keep them focused and they weren't really getting anything out of it.If I'm the only one really working and still interested in the project, that's a problem."

What I had realized was that I was plowing ahead just to get the thing finished. Then I stopped to think about why I use interactive writing. The goal isn't to get really cool looking projects hung in the hall outside my room (though I have to admit, I do love that part!)--it's to support the kids as writers. To help them think about what they want to share with the world and how they want to share it and then how to do it.

In the real world, writers often have multiple projects going and regularly set aside or abandon projects that no longer seem to hold their attention. Interactive writing should work the same way.  I wasn't abandoning the important things. I was just letting go of that particular project, and in the process was showing my young writers that sometimes that's what writers do. Calling it done so we can keep working on the same things but within a new project--something the kids are excited about and genuinely want to share with others.

I'll admit it's not easy for me to walk away from a project or to end it before it gets to be what I had envisioned. But if I'm honest with myself, it's better this way--knowing when to abandon a project and then being willing to do it is not easy, but I also have to admit that I can't wait to see what the kids have in mind for our next project. So in thinking back, I'm glad those student teachers were there that particular day, and I'm glad they asked the questions they did. It made me think over my decision and realize that it was the right one for now--and that while I was abandoning that project, I was not abandoning the powerful learning and teaching that happens during interactive writing.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Informational Text Writing--Teaching Leading Learning Leading Teaching...

My last post was about how my colleague Mr. A. and I were working on plans designed to raise the awareness and interest of our young writers in writing informational text. Since both of us had noticed how much our kids seemed drawn to informational text as readers, we were puzzled by the fact that the kids just didn't seem interested in writing it.

I have good news--not only is it working, but I was able to follow the lead of one of my writers and add to our original plans. I love when teaching and learning becomes teaching and learning and teaching and learning and teaching and learning....the teaching following and leading the learners who follow and lead the teaching. I'm pretty sure there's a cool graphic in that somewhere...

So here's the proof.

I'll start with the chart based on the original plan Mr. A. and I devised--remember that this was done over a period of a few days, not all once. You'll also have to forgive me for my lack of foresight, as I did not take a picture of the chart before what happened this week...but you'll get to see that part in a minute.

And here's what H. did in response. She remembered what we had read about ladybugs earlier this year, and she also carefully put each kind of information on its own page.
Ladybugs have spots on their wings.

Ladybugs can fly.

So far so good, right? Now, look what she did on the last page!

Ladybugs have two set of wings.
She used a diagram! Not only that, but it actually is purposeful--it helps the reader understand what she's trying to teach. In case you can't read her labels, the ones on the top and bottom say thin and the one in the middle says hard. And yes, that is something we read in a book about ladybugs (all the way back in August, so way to go on the long-term memory H.!) H. took what she was learning about informational text during writing minilessons and then went further. I can't be certain, but I'm guessing that after the minilesson where we used informational text to see how authors put one kind of information on a page, H. started to notice some other things those authors were doing.

And here's where the teaching follows the learning--I asked H. to share what she had done with the rest of our class, and we added to our chart on writing information books.

I could see the rest of the kids really thinking over what H. was showing them. We made sure to talk about how her diagram actually helps the reader--it's there for a reason, and not every illustration in an information book will use diagrams. S. piped up, "yeah, it might not help so that's not a reason to just do it."

I have a feeling this may lead somewhere...

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Creating Interest in Writing Informational Text

One day after school this past week, two teacher-friends stopped by my room. they commented on the display along the counter under the windows. Information books about changing leaves, Ziploc bags of multi-colored leaves and handheld microscopes line a long section of the workspace. Nearby, an easel holds a chart reading, "What do we know about leaves changing colors?". The kids' observation notebooks, colored pencils, and blank books sit in baskets near the lamp that gives that corner of the room a soft glow.

We talked a little about how excited the kids are to be observing and researching and learning about things like this. Before the leaves fell into our classroom lives, we spent time learning a little about bees and other insects. And spiders--I can't forget the spiders.

After this visit, it occurred to me that while I have been reading aloud lots more informational text this year and have provided a space and time for the kids to observe and research things they find interesting, I haven't had kids writing informational texts. Mr. A. is on my grade level team, and we often plan together. I told him what I had noticed and that one goal I had for the year was to make sure I was having the kids learn about and write informational text throughout the year, not just during one grading period or unit of study. He agreed and mentioned that he had noticed the same thing with his kids. Early in the year, we had both spent lots of time teaching our kids that writers get ideas in many ways, including things the writer knows a lot about. I think that we were hoping that this would be enough to propel some of our young writers into writing some informational text of their own--after all, the kids seem to be drawn naturally to the informational texts we've made available in our classroom libraries.

"I guess I expected they'd be more excited," I said. "I have all this stuff here, we read information texts--it's what they talk about and are excited about. But they just don't show an interest in writing any of it themselves."

"I've noticed the same thing. I was thinking about doing something,"commented Mr. A., "but what?"

We decided to start small--after all, our kids are pretty small. Besides, we aren't really looking for research reports here. We just want our young writers to become more aware that if they have an interest in something and know some things about it, they can use that as an idea for writing. We also wanted to keep the plan simple enough that we would not get overwhelmed, and we reminded ourselves that this is not the only time this year we'll address informational writing in writing workshop.

Within a few minutes, we had come up with a plan. We thought the key would be to link to things we had already studied with the kids and things that were happening  in our classrooms.
  1. We both had done mini lessons on writing for different purposes and have been adding to it. We decided we needed to add something to that list that would help the kids develop an awareness they can write to tell others what they know. In my class, the kids called it writing "to teach others".
  2. We agreed that a mini-unit was needed to help the kids get started. Our unit will only last about a week, and will focus on 2 main learnings:
  • how to decide on a topic--we thought having the kids talk about things they know a lot about would be the way to go. During mini lessons on this, we would the kids to think of something they knew at least 4 or 5 things (a "handful" of facts) about. We planned to share examples (kids and teachers) over the course of 2 days.
  • how to put one kind of information on each page--The plan is to use information text written at the level of most of the kids. These texts would either have 1-2 sentences on each page, with each page containing a different kind of information or would be patterned text that carries one concept across several contexts. This would allow kids to see how
In my room,  we are on step two of the plan and have talked about how to decide on a topic. The first day nothing new happened. But on the second day, during sharing, T. showed us her work.

"I'm just starting an information book--it's about dragons. I only have the page where they breath fire. But I know some other things about them too and I'm not done."  (Don't worry--I know dragons aren't real. The important thing here is that they kids are starting to try something other than narrative writing, and that they are thinking to themselves, "what do I know about? What am I interested in?")  A couple others have started books about leaves and one is writing about insects. C. told me he's going to talk to his grandpa to learn more about semi trucks because he wants to "make a book of them".

This may not be a huge step, but I think that we are succeeding in developing awareness and opening up some possibilities for our writers. I can't wait to see what happens next.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


"Um...are your kids still studying spiders? Or still interested in them?"  Mrs. H. was half in, half out the door to the teachers' lounge, and she looked a bit nervous. Heads around the table swung my direction, forks paused midair. "It's just that there's a really big one out here in the hallway, and I was going to squash it but I remembered your class likes them. Do you want to try to catch it?"

Normally, my lunch time does not include chasing spiders around the hallway with a small cup and a piece of paper (insert mental image here), and I'm sure the others at the lunch table thought I was out of my mind. But one of my goals this year is to not only incorporate more informational text reading and writing into my classroom, but to also encourage my kids to hang on to that innate sense of wonder they have and use it as a pathway to learning.

Telling myself this was a chance to take action related to that goal, I pulled myself way from the table and into the hallway. A short time later, the spider--and yes, he was a big one--was safely (and securely!)settled in a large plastic jug on the table in the back of our room and I had cemented my reputation as someone to keep an eye on.

The kids loved it. The crowded around the spider, trying to figure out what kind of spider it was and whether or not  it could find what it needed to eat inside the jug or if they could catch enough bugs to keep it fed. I did nothing except suggest that we move the spider to the counter and maybe poke a few holes in the top of the jug. They begged me to keep our spider at least until morning--and told me they understood it might not make it through the night. One of my colleagues stopped by my room after school and suggested it was more likely the spider would squeeze out the air holes by then and take up residence in our room (isn't he helpful?).

This morning, the spider was alive and still in the jug. The kids were not surprised at all. As they entered the room, almost every child made his or her way over to look at the spider again. "Hey Mrs. M--we're observing him!" they cried. Many of them talked spiders or got out spider books to read until time for announcements.

As I watched them from across the room, it was obvious that my willingness to drop my lunch and go catch a spider did encourage kids to use some oral language related to a topic we've studied. And they did use words like observing to talk about what they were doing and they did go back into some texts to find specific information. But that was not what struck me most. What struck me was that we were having fun. One thing I worry about as a teacher in these times of high stakes and accountability is that we've lost the sense of joy that should be present. I work with 6 and 7 year olds. I love what I do. There should be joy in this.

And if that means tracking down spiders in the hallway during lunch time, count me in.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Watching Their Eyes

In the first two days of school, I noticed something interesting about C.'s eyes. They didn't land anywhere for more than a few seconds at a time--not on the faces of people speaking to him, objects in the classroom, or even things outside our huge windows. I started timing him. Ten seconds. That was the longest he seemed to visually focus on anything...and what he focused on seemed pretty random, as if he wasn't in control.

C. wasn't alone--there were several other kids whose eyes moved like dancing bees. It probably won't surprise you to hear that these kids made up the majority of kids in our room who were struggling. The important thing is that it caught my attention and made me think about why it was happening and what to do about it.

I started watching more closely, trying to notice when their eyes did land on something for longer times and where the eyes went when they were engaged in tasks that they perceived as difficult. Patterns emerged pretty quickly.
  • The kids's eyes stuck with things that they found interesting--and when I was doing most of the work of the task. Read alouds. That's when their eyes stuck with the task and they were engaged and thinking.
  • Their eyes rarely stayed focused on tasks where the kids were doing more of the work--instead they were almost continually looking to another student, more likely, to me. Often this occurred before they even gave a first glance to the work they were doing.
  • It was almost like they didn't know they could choose to look at something or to look with purpose. It seemed like it was up to chance whether or not they looked to something that might help them figure something out or recognize something they know.
 In professional reading, learning at conferences and training sessions, and in conversations with colleagues, I had heard over and over that many children who struggle have to learn to look at print. I agree. But in watching my students, I think there is another piece that we have to consider. The children I was observing did look at print when someone else was doing most of the work. But when it was up to them, most of the time their eyes wandered before they even attempted to figure something out. It was almost as if they didn't know they could figure it out or that to do so required looking at what they were doing. This was happening even when the kids appeared to be interested in the topic or task.

So now what? The most direct thing seems to be to tell them. Teach them to look and most importantly, start sending the message that they can figure it out.
"You can figure this out. I'll show you. First, keep your eyes here [point]."
"Let's look here [point]. We can figure this out."
"Put your eyes here [point]--what do you see that can help you figure that out?"
"Where can you look to figure that out?"

It's not going to stop there, but it's a start. What I had noticed was that instead of making attempts or engaging in work themselves, it was almost like these kids had a default setting that caused them to first look to others--their seemingly more capable peers, me, their parents. More than teaching them to look, I need to teach them that they can do something when presented with a task. Peter Johnston calls this having a sense of agency--having a sense that one can do things to affect outcomes or figure things out or complete tasks.

I think that it's important to teach kids things like how to look at print, but I think that we also have to pay attention to whether or not kid see themselves as capable of not only doing that, but using it to figure things out for themselves.

So what about C.? He still has a long way to go, but in reading group the other day, he eagerly reached for the new book and began reading. On the very first page, he came to something he wasn't sure of. I watched closely--his eyes paused and he started to glance up at me...but before he made eye contact, he pulled his eyes back to the page, looking at the picture, then back to where his finger lay under the print. He leaned in closer to the book, looking again at the words, then the picture.
A grin broke across his face as he correctly read the rest of the sentence, turned the page, and kept on reading.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Good For You!

I am always caught off guard when I hear my words coming from the mouths of my students. It makes me stop and think. What messages am I sending? How do my words sound in the ears of 6 year olds?

Last week I was working with a guided reading group. After reading together, we were getting ready to do a little word work. As my hands moved over the sections of the storage box, fingers dipping in to scoop out the needed letters, I was thinking aloud.

"Hmm...let's see, we want to build the word here, so we'll need h."  I plopped a letter h in front of each child at the table. "Oh, and r; we'll need that too." Hands reached out to take the letter. My finger tapped my chin as I thought. "Now let me see...what else? Oh yes--e! We are going to need some of those! Here you are--we have all the letters we need."

A. looked up, his bright eyes beaming right into mine as he cried, "good for you!"

His face was alight with enthusiasm and sincere pride in my accomplishment and he laughed along with me. It still makes me laugh. But it also makes me think.

I am pretty sure I have used that phrase (or some variation of it) every day this year. It is almost without exception accompanied by some sort of specific description of what I noticed.
"You figured that out all by yourself--good for you!"
"I see that you are making your illustrations show what happened--good for you!"
"Good for you--you noticed it didn't match so you went back to fix it."
"I heard you say sorry even though it was an accident--good for you!"

Each day I try to encourage the kids to try, to figure things out, to do the right thing. We talk a lot about how being smart isn't mostly about knowing stuff--it's about noticing and thinking and working hard and learning more. And I try to make sure that I catch them in the act. I think there is power in letting kids know that I notice when they do these things. It's important they get that encouragement--a "good for you!" for not only successful actions, but also for effort or improvement. Not random praise, but specific acknowledgment.

During that reading group, my thinking aloud about what letters were needed was intended to get the kids thinking about the letters in a particular word, but what A. heard was someone thinking through something and figuring it out. And in his mind, that deserved a heartfelt "good for you!"

Hearing my words come from A. tells me that it matters to them that I do this. It tells me that they are starting to notice when someone is thinking and that they recognize it as something important not only for others, but for themselves. And that's a message I'm glad to send. Good for us!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

These Rainbows Are Making Me Crazy

At the start of this year, there was an epidemic of rainbows in my room--I'm not sure how else to describe it. I have nothing against rainbows. I get excited when I see them in real life, but I will admit to being somewhat less than thrilled to see rainbows on page after page after page of student writing. Not because I'm against rainbows, but because the rainbows didn't really belong there.

The kids have been writing since day one, and for the most part, they are writing stories and drawing pictures about things they have done or things they know a lot about...and in many of those drawings, there is a rainbow lurking somewhere. Sometimes the rainbow is front and center, arcing gracefully over the illustration showing when M. got her dog. Or maybe it's up in the corner, a spot of color to liven up W.'s writing about how to roller skate. In story after story and book after book, there were rainbows. Sometimes on every page. Sometimes in stories that take place completely inside. And the text? No mention of a rainbow anywhere.

I was going crazy trying to figure out why the rainbows were everywhere. These are kids that seem to know that the illustrations they create should match what they are trying to tell the reader, and in fact, when they are talking about or reading their writing, they never mention the rainbows. I was beginning to think maybe the rainbows weren't there at all and that I had developed some strange vision problem that superimposes rainbows on things.

Apparently there was a simpler explanation. It occurred to me that maybe I should ask the kids. When I did, I realized that maybe the answers shouldn't have surprised me as much as they did. Several kids said they like using all the colors when they make illustrations...and the illustration for the story didn't need them all so they added a rainbow. 
Oh dear. The crayons are new. Many of them do not have things like crayons and paper at home. They want to use all the colors. I should have seen that one coming, and the fix is easy. I simply planned to provide another time and place in our day where they can create rainbows or other drawings that use each and every color crayola has.

But most of the kids looked a little confused when I asked, almost like they were as surprised as I was by the rainbows' appearances in their stories. Kid after kid had no idea why he or she had included a rainbow. S. even said, "I just always put one in." 
After reflecting on it a bit, I realized that maybe I don't spend enough time at the start of the year talking about illustrations and how we can use them in our writing. After a week spent learning how to deliberately think about what to put in the illustration and how it helps show the reader what's happening and where it's happening and who was there, the rainbows started to fade. By the end of the week, they were gone, quietly and without a fight.

I'm pretty sure that the key was to focus on what does belong in illustrations--learning why we use them and how to think about it deliberately didn't really leave much room for random elements like rainbows. Though I don't know for sure, it is possible that if I had tried a no rainbow mandate things would not have gone so smoothly. Instead of the focus for kids being on what didn't belong, I chose to focus on what did belong--giving them something to include other than those mysteriously aggravating rainbows. I think it's that way with most things; if we want something to change, we probably should pour our energy into what we want to have happen so that kids know what is expected. Much more effective than putting the spotlight on what we hope goes away.

And when hearts begin randomly appearing in stories, I'll be ready.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Buzz in My Room

It's all about the bees. Yep, bees--my kids are buzzing about bees.

In an earlier blog, I talked a bit about my goal of including more informational text in classroom this year. One purpose was to take advantage of kids' natural curiosity--to keep that sense of wonder about the world going strong...and maybe entice them to read and write a bit along the way. So when the kids kept returning to the books on insects and spiders and asking if I had more, I fell into the (Venus fly) trap.

I was certain the fact that my friend Miss M. has a tarantula in her classroom would completely grab their attention--and they were impressed. At the research center they recorded some questions for Miss M.'s class and we sent them off. But that was that--they are content to hear from her kids on this one.

Then little M. handed me a book about bees and  asked if I'd read it. I will admit that inside, I heaved a little sigh--insects are not my favorite topic. Outwardly, I smiled and told him of course I would. We spent a little time each morning last week reading that book--just 2-4 pages a day. We talked. We looked at the photos and drawings and diagrams. We reread parts. They begged for more, and every day as they entered the room, I'd have to reassure each and every one of them that yes, I would be reading more of the bee book today. On the day we got a new student, the kids caught her up before we continued. They LOVED that book--and the bees. There was an almost palpable disappointment when we came the end. One little sweetie moaned, "isn't there any more?"

Not only are they still talking about that book, but it has a place of honor on the counter in the research center--right next to the large plain paper and blank booklets they requested I provide so those who wish to can make books or posters about bees. Or just write and draw what they remember or thought was really cool. They are noticing and sharing photos of bees and sections about bees in other books. It's almost as if they've developed a little crush on bees.

The really cool thing is that it's working--my master plan, that is. I trusted that if I deliberately created the environment and intentionally provided the opportunity, the kids' sense of curiosity would guide them to engaged reading and writing. I also noted an increased level of oral language--both in terms of the vocabulary (general and specific) they were using, and in the complexity of their asking and telling. The day one of my ELLs (English Language Learners) brought me a picture of a bee in a magazine saying, "look--you can see his proboscis sucking the nectar from the flower" I almost couldn't respond. She's six. She does not speak English at home.

Now, is every child in my room a total bee expert? No. But all of them have learned some stuff that they will likely remember and all of them spent a little more time purposefully talking about and reading informational text and many of them are writing as a direct result of our little study.

And you know what? I've decided that I'm pretty hooked on the bees too...they really are fascinating little things.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Tricky Teacher? Or Thinking Kids?

"You're trying to trick us!"
"I'm going to try to trick you--watch me closely."
"Be careful, they are trying to trick you here."

All things we've said or heard in our own classrooms and in the classrooms of others, right? I know I used to say things like this all the time in an effort to get kids to notice when I made a mistake or to get them to attend more closely to what we were doing. And they loved it--the idea of catching me as I tried to slip one by them.

But I've been rethinking this. Over the past few years, I've been invited by many teachers to come listen to and watch a struggling reader or group of readers to help figure out where things were getting muddled and help them sort it out. And you know what? Over and over I heard kids say things about the teacher trying to trick them or the author trying to trick them. I even had one boy look up at me once he was utterly mixed up and misreading and comment, "these things [books] are so hard...they never make any sense!"


So I began to think about it and realized that maybe I should rethink how I was trying to get kids to notice and attend closely. Of course, kids do get confused and mixed up all on their own, but maybe, just maybe I had been unintentionally causing them to think that I (or their books) was out to get them. I knew that was not the message I wanted to send--but what was?

What I really want is to have kids notice things, to monitor what they are doing (whether it's reading or math or whatever), and to figure things out. I need them to be engaged thinkers. That means a change in my language so that what I say matches what I am really trying to get.

So at the start of this year, when I first heard a gleeful, "you're trying to trick us!", I stopped the group immediately.
"No," I replied, taking time to make eye contact with each child, "no, I am not." Confused, somber silence. I went on. "My job is to help you learn to think--to notice things and to think. I am not trying to trick you. I am trying to make you think about it."

I was met with skeptical looks. They needed some time to mull that over. "Let's try again," I suggested, "and I bet this time, you'll notice something here we need to figure out." And they did.

Now I don't hear about teachers trying to trick kids, but I hear at least a couple times a day that I'm trying to make them think. I love it. Imagine hearing excited voices saying, "you are making us think!" and then settling in to do just that. Beautiful...and exactly what I had in mind.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Being Bold in Our Teaching

A writer friend of mine recently shared a quote about having the guts to write. When I read it, I immediately flashed back to a small group discussion during a training session I had with some teachers a couple of years ago. The training was on effective minilessons, and her group had read a couple of excerpts from Lucy Caulkins and Carl Anderson about the part of the lesson where we tell students what we're going to teach them in that lesson.

"Wow--that's huge," she commented. "I don't think I've ever been that bold--bold enough to say, today I'm going to teach you to do something. I have the feeling I should though." There was silence around the table as the others considered this.

We are teachers after all. We know that it's our job to teach the kids. But somehow this idea that we'd actually state for them that we are going to teach them to ________ felt pretty big. And it is significant.

Some other colleagues were recently discussing a district initiative that included making sure students know what the current learning goals are and what they are learning to do during lessons. To many in our district, this seems to be a little much for our youngest students. Others had already done this in some areas of their teaching but weren't really sure why they weren't doing it in all areas.

So why the big push to tell kids up front what we are going to teach them?

“When we are explicit with our students about the purpose behind our teaching and give them a window into our thinking about how this will support their reading development, it helps set them up for learning. Students do not need to spend the first five minutes (which may exceed their attention span!) trying to figure out what a lesson is about. They need to be explicitly told so they can set their mind to the topic at hand, activate their schema on that topic, and ready themselves to accept new knowledge.” Landrigan and Mulligan, 2008

When you read that, it seems pretty clear, right? It makes sense that when we are bold enough to tell students this is what I'm going to teach you, they know what to listen for--and maybe something in their brains will trigger them to call up any knowledge they already have about that topic. I'm not sure, but it seems like maybe that would make those mental hooks a little stickier too.

If that's not enough, consider what Robert Marzano has to say:“When students know what they are learning, their performance, on average, has been show to be 27 percentile points
Higher than students who do not know what they are learning.”

Wow. It's a startling enough finding to make me think it's more than worth the few seconds it takes in a lesson to state for kids exactly what they are learning. In this age of high stakes accountability, can we afford not to do this?

In our district, we have a fairly high percentage of English Language Learners (ELLs). In the SIOP (Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol) training provided for our teachers, we are taught that lesson objectives should not only be posted in kid-friendly language, but that the purpose of doing so is to both allow students to know the direction of the lesson and to remind us of the lesson focus.

Ah...for those teachers who sometimes end a lesson thinking, "hm, that's not really where I intended to go with that" or who follow the kids' comments off into unrelated content, this could be a very effective and very simple way to stay focused on the lesson.

But I also think that last part is what causes some teachers--who up until now are thinking this all sounds right on--to pause for a minute. Wait. If we are going to tell the students what we are going to teach them, then we have to know what we are teaching. And be able to state it. In a way the kids understand. But consider this: if we don't know and can't say it in a way kids understand, how can we expect them to learn it?

So be bold in your teaching. Tell the kids what you are going to teach them. And then do it. After all, we are teachers.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Rockin' the Morning Message

My friend Mrs. S. works her morning message like no one I have seen. Sitting at the edge of her large group area along with her kindergartners, I was every bit as engaged as they were--but inside my head a little voice was asking, "and where have you been with this all these years?!"

Don't get me wrong--I've used morning messages for a long time. Every day. Posted right by the door. Read together as part of the morning meeting. But Mrs. S. does not stop there. What she does with a morning message is some of the most deliberate, engaging, powerful kind of teaching I have had the pleasure of observing. Watching her caused me to stop and really think about how I was using my morning message and where I was letting opportunities slip by me.

Lots of what she does is the stuff we do in shared reading--tracking left to right and top to bottom, 1-to-1 matching, and locating known words, letters or phonics patterns. And yes, I had done that with my morning messages. However, it's also important to consider our kids beyond this kind of learning. Stick with me on this--some of it will have you saying, "I know already!" but some of it just may help you think a little more deeply about some possibilities for your own morning messages.

Have you ever had your kids count letters? Words? Capital &/or lowercase letters? Ok, now consider having them count the spaces? At Mrs. S.'s school, spacing was an issue that kept cropping up in kids writing and we were trying to figure out how to get kids to use spaces. It occurred to us that maybe we should see if they noticed spaces in print....and they really struggled. All this can also help as kids learn the difference between things like words and letters, spaces and words, upper- and lowercase letters, or words and sentences (yes, you can count those too).

Now, how about if you have kids talk about which is more/less--the words or the letters? More/less (or greater than/less than) is a key math concept for my kids this grading period, so we've been comparing quantities of everything--even in our morning message. We record the numbers at the bottom of the message (writing numbers to 100 is a math goal for us) and practice saying something about the quantities using our math vocabulary, such as, "the number of words is less than the number of letters" or, "72 is more than 20".

And now there are kids who enter every morning and begin counting every possible category of letter/word/space in the message and report to me about which is more or less. The cool thing is that most of the kids doing this are the ones who need more practice counting, and they are doing it without my prodding. AND one day...a great day in my teaching life...we had counted the words and a little girl announced that if we counted letters there would be more letters than words, "because a letter is just a letter, but a word is a bunch of them together." Ta-da!

I also need to add that we don't just focus on print features and letters and high frequency words. I also stick stuff in that is intended to get them thinking about meaning. Sometimes I ask a question (related to a classroom event, something we are studying, etc) that requires them to understand what I am asking and then consider a response or that asks them to do something. We consider whether the message is all telling or if there is some asking. They love days with asking, because first graders thing that question marks are very cool. Even cooler than exclamation marks. My goal isn't just to have the kids notice the letters--I want them to notice what the message is about. If fact, if we are not doing that, there isn't much point in the rest.  

The morning message can also be a place to teach and practice early reading strategies. For example, Mrs. S. sometimes started her message with "Dear Kindergartners", but other days would use "Dear Friends" or something similar. Her kids were quick to realize the difference by using not only the first letter, but also the length of the word. My kids have learned to monitor their reading of the message because I may use "boys and girls" or "girls and boys" or even borrow from my friend and use "Dear friends".

The message is also a part of linking learning and thinking across our curriculum and putting it into a fairly authentic context. In our morning message, kids may use vocabulary, strategies, skills from math or language arts. They may be given or asked to consider information from science or social studies topics being studied. We talk about the message contents each day, which is an opportunity for oral language development.

Here is the really important stuff that Mrs. S. caused me to stop and consider:
The key to really using a morning message as teaching is to know your kids and deliberately think about opportunities for teaching and learning during this part of the day. Be purposeful in what you write and how you write it. Be alert to how you might include not only certain words or letters, but how you might link to other parts of your curriculum. Remember that this is reading material for your kids, so this is a chance to teach and guide the use of early reading strategies.

I knew that I had joined Mrs. S. in rockin' the morning message when I stood in the doorway and observed my kids entering and hurrying to huddle around the message--reading, counting, pointing things out, and talking to each other about it. They were using the math vocabulary, helped each other monitor and correct their reading, and reread to think about the content of the message...all part of recent teaching & learning in our room. And when we gathered on the carpet to read the message together, every single kid was engaged and interested and thinking.

Thank you Mrs. S.--I owe you one!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Why Centers Are Worth It

Centers (or workstations or managed independent learning or whatever you call it in your room). Just saying the word at the start of the year causes most teachers to take a slow, controlled breath. Or groan a little. It's difficult to get centers up and going in the classroom in a way that sets the stage for kids to engage independently in purposeful activities for the rest of the year. Difficult, but not impossible.

So why even bother?
  •  Kids need a time and place to try out what they've been learning. A time after we've done the modeling and the shared practice and the guided practice to just do it on their own; to see for themselves what works and also to make a few mistakes, discover them and try again until they fix it up. Centers provide a time when kids can be mostly successful but still have a few problems to solve--on their own or with their peers. We want them to know they can do it without our help. Many experts would say this falls under the idea of gradual release of responsibility--helping kids move from a new idea or concept or strategy that they see someone else demonstrate to doing it alongside that person to doing it themselves with a little guided support to doing it on their own.
  • Kids need time to learn with others. The social nature of learning is something we all talk about, but in many classrooms, kids don't get many chances to work with their peers--talking about what they are doing. The opportunities for oral language development abound during center time, when kids are talking to each other about what they are doing--using the language of the content and giving them a chance to explain to each other how to go about something. Teachers generally acknowledge that developing oral language is a huge need for many (or most!) of our kids, but often the structure of the school day does not allow for much oral language development. While recess and lunch times can offer chances for kids to talk to each other, they also need time to develop language skills related to the content and procedures of academic learning. Center time is a chance for kids to do most of the talking, and to do it without being prompted or guided by the teacher.
  • Kids need to be actively engaged. Hands-on learning is not a new idea, and we've been hearing for years that we learn by doing. Centers require kids to be "doing". Engagement is a critical factor in learning and center time provides an opportunity for kids to engage in several types of activity. Center time is a chance for kids to experience several types of activity that engage several areas of the brain. We can also structure centers so that kids have choices in which activity they may do at each center, offering a couple of different ways to interact with the same content. Having choices gives kids a chance to have some control in their learning and usually results in higher levels of engagement.
  • Kids need chances to engage in work at their own level. During center time, activities can be organized to provide varying levels of difficulty around the same content. Just as small group work allows teachers to provide differentiated instruction, centers can provide differentiated independent and peer-supported practice. We often use the term open-ended when referring to classroom activities, but most often this is in reference to kids having a choice of topic or accepted response. While this is certainly important, we could also consider it in terms of kids working at differing levels of difficulty or complexity. Center time can also allow kids who need more time practicing a skill or working with a concept to have that time, and provide a chance for kids ready to go beyond what was done in whole group instruction to do so.
  • Teachers need to observe what kids can do without our help. We need to see what happens when we back off and let the kids do the things we've been teaching in large and small groups and what we've been doing together in shared settings. We need to know if kids are still successful when we take ourselves out of the interaction, whether or not they notice when they encounter difficulty (think self-monitoring!) and how they go about solving problems. Center time not only allows us to notice these things, but also to note when kids go beyond what we taught--helping us realize when more challenge is appropriate and for which students. Knowing what our kids can do on their own and recognizing where the edge of their learning is should guide our instructional decision-making. If we never have a chance to observe kids working independently, that becomes much more difficult.
  • Teachers need an opportunity to work with small groups while the other kids are purposefully engaged. I saved this for last on purpose. Most teachers mention it first, and it is important; however, giving teachers time to call groups shouldn't be the most important reason for doing centers. The most important reasons need to be centered firmly on student learning--what the kids are getting out of it. And this one is too, if you think about it a little more. Kids need a chance to receive differentiated small group instruction from the teacher. There. That's what this bullet is really about--the kids. And since kids need this instruction and teachers need to give it, there has to be a way to engaged the others in purposeful, meaningful work that will help them grow as learners.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Some Days

Some days are harder than others.

Some days, even though every part of the day is well-planned, the materials are all at hand, and you eagerly greet each and every smiling child at the door, things can go awry. At the start of the year, it is common to have days when you wonder where it went wrong or how they could have already forgotten all that you carefully modeled, practiced and had under control. You wonder if maybe you should never wear the pink T-shirt again. Or that the colleague down the hall who has been warning that it was "only a matter of time before they show their true colors" may have been right.

Do not under any circumstance believe it. First because if you never wear the pink shirt again, you and little T. will never match, and that really made her day. But mostly because the colleague down the hall--and maybe a little voice way in the back of your head--are leading you down the path to negativity and cynicism. Kids are not inherently bad, and they do not come to school for the sole purpose of making teachers crazy (even C. who says he can tell I love him even when he's bad).

Remember that they are kids. They get tired. They like to play. And besides, it's only been 12 days. Twelve days filled with tons of new names to learn and lots more rules and procedures and routines and reminders that most adults would be able to handle in such a short time.When I think about it, I guess I'm lucky there hasn't been some sort of full-blown mutiny!

That does not mean we excuse inappropriate or disrespectful behavior. When A. looks me in the eye and deliberately grabs the unifix cubes I had just told him to give M., I cannot pretend I don't see it.  This is for sure the time to reteach and above all remain consistent in our expectations. Kids do need to know that if we said that we are going to expect certain things that we will follow through...every time...even if we're tired and hot. I would be lying if I said I didn't consider just letting things slide a little today--or maybe even a lot. It would certainly have been easier for all of us if I had pretended I didn't see S. deliberately disobey another teacher or anything that happened in the lunch line(what happens in the cafeteria...). But I know better. This was exactly the time to keep my cool, maintain my expectations, and to consistently remind, reteach and practice again. As we ease into the 3rd week of school, the rhythms of the daily schedule should provide a sense of stability and even comfort. Knowing what to expect and when helps, and that goes not just for our schedule but also for our expectations. Someone wise once told me that "the least you accept is the most you can expect". Think about that for a will come to you.

And while I'm reminding the kids that I will be consistent, I must remind them that I care. I care about the big and little things that they are carrying with in their hearts and minds. I care about them as individuals and as a group. I should remember that at day 12, the sense of community we have been trying to establish is still pretty new and needs to be nourished. I should remember that they need to know I care about each of them even when what I want more than anything else is some sort of calming mist to be sprayed from the ceiling every 20 minutes or so. It would mostly be for me.

So take a couple slow, quiet, controlled breaths together. Reach slowly to the sky and then sink back to the floor. Smile--a real one, not a fake one or one that hides a thinly disguised warning. Use the one that lets them know that you really are glad to be there, even today.
Today was one of the hard days.
What are the odds tomorrow will be another?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Spinning Plates, or How Do I Get All the Instructional Blocks Going at Once?

I admit it--I've been avoiding this one. It feels so big (because it is!) and I am having trouble wrapping my mind around how to explain succinctly how I get everything started all at once in my classroom. Aside from the procedures and getting to know you stuff lies the task of getting the instructional pieces up and going. And these days there is lots of pressure to do so quickly in order to get to "real instruction". I think the trick is not to rush things too much, but to carefully put into place things that will be the basis for what you'll do over the course of the year.

This year I was handed a schedule that was pretty much set, but most years I have had to create my own. When doing that, I always start by blocking of the stuff over which I have no control--like lunch, specials (music, etc), and arrival/dismissal. Then I look for large chunks of time that become reading, writing and math workshops. Things from my language block, such as word study, shared reading, and interactive writing, can be broken up to fit into some of the smaller time slots in the schedule. If I'm really lucky, I get a separate time for science and social studies, though I often integrate those subjects into reading/writing/math workshop time.  I work really hard to make the schedule the same each day--it provides a consistent frame into which everything fits and in which there can be a lot of variety. What I have read and heard and experienced first hand tells me that having a consistent schedule frees up kids' minds so they can focus on the content instead of wondering when they are going to get to right or when there might be a read aloud.

On paper, it always looks good...or at least doable. Then the kids come.

The first few days, it seems really hard to get things done in the shorter blocks, and the longer ones go on forever.  A unexpected new student threw our morning into a huge delay the 3rd day of school. And I could never seem to remember what came next. It was hard not to give up and join the teacher down the hall in showing a movie just so I could catch my breath...don't worry; I didn't do it.

It has taken me a number of years, but I finally realized how helpful it is to start with the schedule blocks from the first day. I know--we actually spend a lot of time on things like learning names and practicing fire drills and lots and lots of teaching of routines and procedures. But you know, I've found that if I sit down with my schedule and begin thinking, I can more easily identify which procedures we're going to need right away. For example, first up after announcements is morning meeting and the read aloud/shared reading parts of my language block. To do that means that we have to have the stuff like attendance and lunch count done. We also need to learn how to get from our desks to the carpet. So once I get everyone in the room (this is probably a post all its own!) I teach those things. Then we have our first meeting and read aloud. This also allows me to start reading aloud to the kids right away. I pick something I know they can't resist and something I love. It's almost like magic how this routine begins pulling us together within the first 30 minutes of a new year.

From there it grows. Within each instructional block, I teach the necessary routines--like how writing workshop looks in our room and where the supplies are--and just...well, start. I know that the kids probably won't be able to remain engaged the whole time, especially in reading workshop, but we stick to the format of the workshop as long as they are able. We gather on the rug and talk about what writers will do during the workshop in our room or where they can find what they need. The kids write and I confer. Then, as soon as I see that engagement is starting to lesson, we stop and we share. Then I slip in an extra read aloud or shared reading and if there is time, we do another cycle of that workshop. The key is to stick to the format of the instructional block so the routines become, well, routine.

Let me see if I can explain this better. In first grade reading workshop, I start with a read aloud and usually have a brief minilesson. This is followed by managed independent learning (aka centers, stations) and small group instruction. We end with a debriefing time much like the end of writing workshop. Because I know that I will need to be able to pull small guided reading groups during this time, I know that I must teach the kids routines and expectations for engaged, meaningful, independent work that will support them in literacy learning. So for now, my read alouds are heavy on repetitive texts and information books on hot topics so that they will have lots and lots of books they want to read during independent reading center or buddy reading center. I follow with a minilesson teaching the procedures for a center. Then we all have work time to practice. I do not call groups. I do not check email. I circulate, reteaching as needed, acknowledging specific actions often, and watching very carefully. As soon as more than 2 kids seem to be off-task or if things are not going the way I want them to, I give the signal to clean up and come together--remember to teach this one too! We debrief--what went well? Did we remember to _____? Is there something we need to practice some more? I also let them know exactly what I'm looking and listening for.  Whew--first reading workshop--done! Of course, it only lasted 15 of the 75 minutes I have set aside for this part of the day. So after the debrief, I started over. Read aloud (stick in one you already read and one new one), teach a routine or center (or reteach the first one!), practice it, debrief.

Doing this is way more effective than coming up with "filler" activities or using a temporary schedule. My kids were familiar with the rhythms of our days by the end of the 4th day. On day 5, they were commenting that "it's time for writing next" or "after this, it's lunch, right?".  And yes, much of what we do takes longer than it should. For example, my word study time is still going longer than I have scheduled. We are beginning to put words on the word wall, building words with magnetic letters and are also learning routines for sorting. The routines the kids are learning for this are ones we will use the rest of the year and are also things I will want them to do while at the ABC center. While I only teach (and then reteach) one of these things each day, we also spend a few minutes practicing the routines for the others. Today we revisited how to practice word wall words using magnetic letters. Getting the materials out to everyone, building 2 or 3 words and then putting everything away is not yet fast for my 6 year olds. But it will be. Then we came together and sorted some pictures by initial sounds before moving on to reading workshop time. Even though I borrowed some extra time for word study,  I keep the order of the instructional blocks intact, and am gradually getting us to follow the times set in my actual schedule.

For right now, I am letting some things go in order to create the kind of environment I need for instruction to take place. That means that I am holding as tightly as possible to the scheduled instructional blocks and am working to fit procedural lessons, getting to know you activities, and everything else in where they seem to make the most sense. I am also reteaching, practicing, and debriefing alongside my kids to create in them the habits I know they will need as learners this year. The key is to keep firmly in mind how you want it to look and sound and make sure that you teach kids that as many times as it takes. Also important is the careful noticing of levels of engagement. As soon as engagement starts to fall during workshop time, pull back together. It is very important that the kids learn how it feels to work in an engaged manner and not become habituated to unproductive behaviors or time off task. And yes, this is as hard as it sounds.

And guess what? There is actually quite a lot of "real instruction" going on too--doing things this way forces me to really consider carefully which activities I do or do not do and why. I did not take an extra recess the first week of school. That would have been math time. Yes, the kids were tired, and so was I.  But I stuck to the math block and used that time to pull out some of the math tools we'll use this year and teach some simple math games that are the basis for our unit on greater than/less than. The oral language we used set us up beautifully for those first lessons, and since we were up and moving, we managed to stay pretty engaged. 

So now it's the end of the second week, and we haven't even missed that extra recess. All my instructional blocks have been up and going since day one (some are certainly going better than others). I am not "waiting" to introduce any part of our instructional day until another part is "learned". My kids know the frame for the day and are settling into the routine enough that they are beginning to spend much more mental energy on the content than the procedures.

It feels pretty good...and I know I need to keep the plates spinning so that nothing falls off.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Intentionally Including Informational Text

A couple of my teacher friends stopped by this week to talk about the first days of school and what we were all putting into place for the year. Part of our conversation centered on using more informational text and how I was incorporating some things I've learned through reading and attending conferences into my classroom environment and practices. One of the teachers, Mrs. S., emailed me later the next day. She'd been thinking about our conversation and said that she really thought her kids would be excited to have more informational text used in her room. She asked if I had any thoughts to help her get started...of course I do!

In their book Reading & writing informational text in the primary grades: research-based practices, Nell Duke and V.Susan Bennett-Armistead say that  many early elementary kids naturally gravitate toward informational text. I will admit to being a little surprised about how many of my kids do indeed do this. This year I deliberately set up my classroom library to have more  informational texts organized more effectively. I've also been reading aloud more informational texts and have been careful to highlight baskets of texts from this part of my library. Remember that Duke suggests that we think about read alouds and classroom libraries in thirds--one third narrative fiction, one third information, and one third other stuff like poetry, repetitive texts, etc. Already this year, there are some days I have more kids reading information books than anything else! 

Duke also differentiates between nonfiction and information. Essentially she says informational text is a type of nonfiction, but since nonfiction includes things like biography and memoir and how to, she wanted to be specific. In terms of thinking about the benefits for building general background knowledge, this makes sense to me.

In considering Duke's work and the what I know about organizing classroom libraries, one thing I did was to consider how I organized informational text. First, I quit putting everything into one big tub called nonfiction (do not underestimate the importance of this!).  I tried to organize my information books into categories that made sense. After putting them all out, I did have quite a few that were animals, so I put them together. I almost have enough about birds to do that. Insects and spiders went together since I had a few of each. One basket is tools, machines, and buildings--only had a couple of each, but they seemed they could go together. I do have one tub of miscellaneous--these are the ones that are really interesting, well-done texts that did not fit any other category but I wanted to have out. My filter was essentially to consider how to put texts together so that kids who are really into mechanical type stuff could find things, kids who love weather could find things, etc.

I also tried to have at least a couple baskets of informational text authors, mirroring what I do with fiction. A couple good ones for early elementary are Melvin and Gilda Berger and Gail Gibbons. Seymore Simon has a few that would be good for younger kids, though many of his are more appropriate for older kids.

Another thing we often overlook is magazines. For informational text in engaging formats, this can be a good way to go. Of course, access can be tough. Luckily, my parents had given my youngest son a subscription to Your Big Backyard, which is the precursor to Ranger Rick. Since he's moved on to Ranger Rick, I took the issues of Your Big Backyard to school and made a basket of them. As they fall apart, I plan to cut out some of the pictures with captions and some of the articles and either display them in my library's information section or laminate them and return them to the basket.

Now for the most challenging part of getting started: where do we get the texts? Especially high quality, engaging ones? Mrs. S. had already hit on the easiest source--the school (or public) library. Using that also allows you to have rotating collections that hit different topics and can be responsive to what your kids are finding interesting over the course of the year. Book orders have also started offering more and more informational text the past few years, and some of these are pretty nice. They are also more likely to be pretty accessible, though the text may be somewhat controlled in some of them. Look for stuff with beautiful photographs and topics that kids find interesting. I got a set several years ago that tells about a day in the life of different workers like police officers and veterinarians. Book orders also have regular picture books that are informational too. Another plus in using book orders is that you earn bonus points and can get more books!

Another source might be library book sales and garage sales, but be careful--some of these books may be out of date. You might also consider partnering with another teacher--if you each have some baskets on different topics, you could trade them at the end of a grading period or semester, bringing new life to each of your libraries. Of course, you'll want some baskets to stay year round. Also check the rest of your classroom library--remember that literary nonfiction looks like and reads like fiction, but is actually be informational text. I found quite a few books "hidden" among my fiction collection.

Remember this is just a start. It seems like the first step is to begin to think deliberately about using informational text and start gathering texts together. Then once we've started reading aloud more of these books (and magazine articles!) with kids, we can start to think about our interactions with kids during that time. There is a lot we can consider with teacher language during read alouds and shared reading, with including information writing during interactive writing and writing workshop, and with inquiry or exploration during center time.
I'm off to find more books about frogs--as requested by my kids.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Unpacking teaching

I've spent a lot of time in my classroom the past 4 days. Lots of time opening boxes and figuring out where things will go. I'm the kind of person who has to have the furniture moved into place before I can do much other organizing, so I had to start by considering where I'd put my large group space and the classroom library. Teacher desk was easy--it has to go near the data ports, and I shoved it against the wall so it doesn't take up too much space. One of my kids asked why I didn't have it facing the students' desks, and he seemed surprised to hear that I wouldn't be spending time there when the students were in the room. Made me realize again how much our environment can say about the teaching and learning that goes on in a classroom.

A teacher I trained 2 years ago called and wanted to meet last week to talk about changing how she does some things in her classroom. I was feeling pretty swamped and asked if she minded coming to talk while I unpacked boxes--not very good active listening, I know. But I did apologize to her and made sure that even though there wasn't lots of eye contact, I still was actively engaged in the conversation. It actually worked quite well, and I was struck how my body was physically unpacking the stuff of the classroom, while my mind was unpacking the teaching/learning that would happen there.

As we talked, Mrs. D. and I spent a lot of time discussing why we try to avoid things like packets of paper for kids and what it is the designers of the packets are trying to provide. Again, this is one of those things that can say a lot about what kind of teaching and learning is happening in a classroom. The research on paper packets or workbooks is not favorable--so why might a teacher decide to use them? One reason for the packets we were discussing was to provide practice for high frequency words and spelling words containing phonics patterns. Mrs. D. knows this is important, but also knows that there are other ways to engage kids more actively in this practice.

In training teachers, I use a handout from my training that I think came from Marie Clay via the Reading Recovery guidebook. It talks about 3 ways of remembering and integrating the visual, kinestetic and auditory parts of the brain. Mrs. D. and I talked about how she might have kids practice words in a center where yes, they would write words, but would also use magnetic letters to build them and would be taught to say the words and also say each letter while writing/building. By using laminated papers or white boards, she could even eliminate the need to copy quite so many papers. Her students may also be using cards from the word wall to practice alphabetizing words instead of completing a worksheet. They may look in their writing folders to locate words with a particular pattern or find high frequency words and make sure they are spelled correctly--one way to link the word learning to writing. And because they won't each be working on individual packets, Mrs. D.'s kids will be able to work together, taking advantage of the social aspects of learning and increasing opportunities for oral language centered on learning.

Talking with Mrs. D. got me thinking about what my students will be doing in the classroom and what spaces and routines we'd need for our work together--and what that will say about the teaching and learning going on in our room. After several years of thinking this through with new teachers as they go off to create their own classroom environments, I found it so energizing to be creating a classroom for my own students. Instead of discussing what and why and how and then considering several options for teachers who all have different grade levels, different blank spaces, and different styles, I get to consider this all for myself this year.

I loved having the change this week to not only physically unpack my classroom, but also mentally unpack my teaching decisions. How we organize our space and routines says a lot about our knowledge, beliefs and values about teaching and learning. And yes, I knew that, but having a chance to think and talk about it while actually in the act of creating my own classroom environment really helped me make some purposeful decisions.

I know there is a lot more unpacking to come.