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.