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.