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.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Where do I begin?

Ten days from now I will greet a classroom full of my very own first graders. I'm excited for sure, but I'd be lying if I denied that there was a bit of anxiety in the corner of my mind.

I've done this before, but it's been a while, so it is like starting fresh. Lucky for me my recent role as district literacy coach had me spending much of my time  new teachers. We spent our time together studying literacy instruction and learning and working together in their classrooms. One thing I learned is that if we don't understand why something works, we're likely to abandon it or modify the effectiveness right out of it.

I'll consider what I know about effective literacy instruction, focusing first on how the environment supports and encourages learning. It will be important to create a literacy-rich space and to think carefully about what materials we'll need in the first days and weeks of school. In order for learning to take place, I'll need a well-organized space that can grow with us over the year.

It is also important to me that my classroom be a place for joyful learning. Both parts are important, and while I do spend a lot of time thinking deliberately about the learning part, it can be easy to forget that creating an environment that is also full of joy can be a deliberate act.

Later today I will get the key to my new room. I will stand in the doorway and begin to think about my first steps in creating a place full of joy and rigorous learning. I'll imagine how it will feel to stand in that doorway 10 days from now, greeting each child, and I will consider what they will first see and hear and experience as they step into our room. I will walk around the empty space imagining how we'll work together in whole groups and small groups and as individuals. Before I can create the kind of environment I want, I need to envision how it will look and sound and feel.

I can't wait.