Monday, September 12, 2011

Just Tell Them

"Sometimes I feel like the kids don't have any idea why they're here. It's like they have no idea that they are supposed to be learning something."
Sound familiar? It's something I don't hear often, but occasionally. I wonder if it's thought more often than uttered aloud.

So...what if they don't? I mean, what if some of our kids really don't know why they are in our classrooms or don't realize they are to be learning something. That may be the case--or maybe not. Either way, it's not like there's nothing we can do about it.

This week the teachers in my school have been thinking a lot about posting and stating lesson objectives. In plain talk, they are thinking about telling students what it is they are to learn during each lesson. Yep--just tell them. That simple step may make a big difference.

It may sound simplistic, but it's sound. People like educational researcher Dr. Robert Marzano say that when students know what it is they are to be learning, their achievement tends to be 20-27 percentile points higher than those who don't. Pretty big payoff for a relatively simple statement at the start of a lesson.

Landrigan and Mulligan (contributers to Choice Literacy) remind us that kids should not have to spend the first 5 minutes--or longer--of a lesson trying to figure out what we're trying to teach. If we tell them up front, it frees up the brain to put attention (and energy) into learning what we need them to know.

This isn't new thinking. Some of you probably know of Susan Kovalik's work on effective teaching. One of the many things I learned teachers could to do make their teaching more effective was to include on the daily agenda what it was we'd be learning during each part of our day.

One of my mentors and dear friends once asked me a career-changing question after watching me teach a lesson. "If you can't say to the kids what it is you are trying to teach them, what makes you think they are going to be able to learn it?"  That was years ago, and I still remember it like it was yesterday.

The other thing that we notice about some of our learners is that they don't seem to know how to focus--or more accurately for most, they don't know what to focus on. When we start a lesson by telling the kids what they are going to learn, they know what to pay attention to, resulting in a much more focused learning experience. It's the same for us.

When I started writing down what it was I was going to teach kids in my lessons, and then posting it where we all could see it during the lesson, I became more focused too. I didn't ramble on or become distracted and pulled off-task by the meandering learning conversations I was having with my students--an occupational hazard when you work with young kids! I was clearer and my teaching was more specific. The kids knew why we were there and not only did they know they were supposed to be learning, they knew what they were to be learning.

The important part for us to take away is that we can do something. We can impact what or how much or to what degree our kids learn stuff by telling them at the start of the lesson what it is we're about to teach them. Posting it will help keep us focused during lessons and will help kids remember what they are learning and what they have learned. When they see these learning statements, it'll most likely trigger at least some spark of recognition in their minds and it gives us something to physically point to when referring to past or present teaching and learning.

So if maybe there's a chance our kids don't know that they are to be learning something or don't know what to focus on...we should just tell them.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Assessment On My Mind


I've been thinking a lot about assessment the past few days. Not the high-stakes tests that come once a year or the benchmark tests that come a little more often or even the assessments that come at the end of a unit of study or the end of a chapter. 

It's the day to day assessment that's on my mind. 

We talk a lot about using formative assessment and observational assessment and performance assessment and standbys like checklists and more recent things like exit slips. Teachers at my school use all sorts of tools to assess kids on a frequent basis, and this week we're thinking about how we do that on a daily basis. 

You did NOT hear me say we test our kids every day (do I need to repeat that?). You did, however, hear me say that we are assessing daily. In fact, most teachers do it almost constantly. We're watching, listening, noticing--who can do what and to what degree or in what way. Who is struggling. Who almost has it. Who had it already. 

What gets hard sometimes is articulating that and communicating to others how we're assessing. What evidence do we have? Are we taking notes in the plan book or in a conferring notebook? Do we have a checklist on which we note which kids can do what we're teaching for and which need more support? Do we often look at student work--analyze it? Not analyze like spend a long time picking apart every tiny detail, but looking at the work to see if kids are getting it and if not, which parts they do get and which parts they don't yet.

But what it really boils down to is not what kind of assessment tool we'll use, but what it is we're looking and listening for. There are lots of ways to do the assessing and record the evidence. The thing is, if we don't know what it is we'll see or hear if the kids get what it is we're teaching each day, the tool we use to check doesn't really matter. For example, we often say we're using observation as an assessment (and I think it's probably the most powerful one we can use); however, teachers sometimes struggle when asked to say what it is they are looking for when observing. That's the important part.

This week, I've been talking and thinking and working with teachers on this aspect of assessing. Can we say what it is we'll see/hear to know whether or not kids are learning what we are teaching. If we can't, how do we know our teaching is working? Most of already are assessing almost continually--as we walk around, work with kids, look at their work....doing the teacher stuff we do during lessons. It's just that we don't usually pause to say exactly what it is we need to notice. 

What about you? When you think about assessing, do you think first about the tool? Or what it is you're looking/listening for? Think about it this week--see if you can name what it is you'll see/hear if kids are taking on the things you are teaching. 

Yep, I threw down a challenge. :) 

Friday, July 15, 2011

Reading Like a Boy

I'm a girl. A girl who has always preferred reading fiction--a variety of fiction, but I'll admit that I'm mostly drawn to literary narrative, historical fiction, and a good mystery/suspense novel. Don't get me wrong; I do enjoy memoirs and I read a lot professionally. My husband even convinced me to read a fantasy series years ago that I have since reread at least 3 times.

As a teacher, I've always worked hard to stock my classroom library with a wide variety of reading material, and in the past few years, have made an effort to balance my read aloud selections. I have deliberately included more informational text and have helped my students get to know authors from a wider variety of genres. I have found resources and created lists of books that might appeal to students with different interests and abilities. This past year I finally admitted that what I hadn't done was spend more time reading these books myself unless they also matched my own interests.

While my taste in and experiences reading picture books is pretty varied, I could not say the same about reading middle grade texts. This is especially true when it comes to books that tend to be geared toward boys. Like a said, I'm a girl. I have to admit that Captain Underpants just doesn't do it for me, though I greatly admire his ability to ensnare hoards of boy readers, including my own sons.

What I have realized is that even if I'm familiar with titles and authors and summaries and reviews, truly connecting with readers is hard when you don't ever read the same kinds of things they do. Besides, my selections for read alouds, book clubs, reading groups and even independent reading suggestions may make it hard for student readers who are not drawn to the same type of reading I am. The other problem is that I end up with very limited experience to draw upon when supporting these readers. I may not understand as a reader how these texts are set up, how the plots tend to work, or what strategies may really help readers navigate and understand and enjoy and share with others what they are reading.

But I'm a girl. So this summer, I've not only been scouring blogs and booklists and journals for reading suggestions to widen my experience, I went right to the source. I asked my 10 year old son. He made me a stack, and even told me which ones to read first. No, I haven't yet read Captain Underpants. But slipped in among my other reading the past couple weeks, I have read:

The Toilet Paper Tigers (G. Korman)
Oggie Cooder (S. Weeks)
A Whole Nother Story (Dr. C. Soup)
The Spiderwick Chronicles, Book 1 (H. Black, T. DiTerlizzi)
100 Cupboards (N.D. Wilson)
Fablehaven, Book 1 (B. Mull)

Can you tell I started with things I thought I'd most like? My son has promised to keep adding to my stack, and I'm asking him to make sure to pull out some graphic novels and information books. He told me he would, but that he was trying to start with books that boys like that I would also like. I thanked him, but explained that I was also counting on him to stretch me a little, so he promised to vary the list a little more. Meanwhile, the upcoming titles include:

The Unusual Mind of Vincent Shadow (T. Kehoe)
Powerless (M. Cody)
Stink-o-pedia (M. McDonald)
NERDS: National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society (M. Buckley)

Still heavy on narrative fiction, but because I am aware of this, I am deliberately planning some other reading, especially information texts (maybe even the ones about gross topics like why we have snot) and graphic novels. Reading things outside my own interests isn't always easy; sometimes it's a little uncomfortable and I have to make myself do it. But that's what I ask my readers to do sometimes. And I know that doing it will make me a better teacher of reading for all my students, especially those with whom I can not relate to reader to reader.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Going Deeper: rereading more than one at a time

Last week I wrote making plans to include professional reading as part of my summer reading frenzy. Though I do plan to read new things--a new professional book or two (or three) and backlogged journal articles--I also reread a lot over the summer.

I like to think about how what I learn from one source links to other sources and then how it all plays out in the classroom or when working with adults. It's important to be able to see how things fit together or what we do ends up feeling like a disjointed, chaotic mess.

Sometimes I like to take a new resource and read it along with a familiar one--sort of like wearing a new pair of shoes with an outfit you know works. This does a couple of things for me. It helps me hook the new learning to something I already know and also forces me to consider that stuff I already knew in different ways. Other times I take two or more familiar resources and read them together to help me deepen my thinking about something in particular.

Right now, I'm rereading Mindset by Carol Dweck and Teacher leadership that strengthens professional practice by Charlotte Danielson because I wanted to think about how mindset impacts what I do as I work with teachers. The big thing that jumped out at me the other day was on reflection. Here are short excerpts that got me thinking:
Teacher leaders...recognize that nothing is ever finished; everything is subject to revision and improvement...Teacher leaders engage in critical reflection on the consequences of actions, on the impact of an approach on student learning. The power of reflection on the practice of teaching has been well documented (Kolb, 1984), and teacher leaders engage in critical reflection on their own teaching. They extend this habit of mind to other projects with which they are involved...
When interpreting others' actions or statements, they tend to ascribe positive motives. 
Furthermore, as more teachers are engaged in the pursuit of improved practice, the school itself becomes increasingly defined as an organization that learns. 
Danielson, C. (2006). Teacher leadership that strengthens professional practice. Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD. 
 ...aren't they [people with the growth mindset] more likely to have inflated views of their abilities and try for things they are not capable of? In fact, studies show that people are terrible at estimating their abilities....but it was those with the fixed mindset who accounted for almost all the inaccuracy. 
If, like those with the growth mindset, you believe you can develop yourself, then you're open to accurate information about your current abilities...if you're oriented toward learning, as they are, you need accurate information...with fixed-mindset people...some outcomes are magnified, others are explained away, and before you know it you don't know yourself at all. 
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: the new psychology of success. New York, New York: Ballentine Books.
I started thinking about what this might mean when working with other teachers and alongside other teacher leaders--those who may have fixed mindsets or growth mindsets. When I think about teachers who are highly reflective in terms of their mindset, I realize that they are not afraid to talk about when things do not go well in the classroom and view these experiences as chances to learn and to enhance their classroom practices. They are not afraid to share their experiences with colleagues so that everyone can learn.

One the other hand, those with a fixed mindset may feel very threatened when engaged in reflective thinking. For them, realizing or admitting that something didn't go well leads to the self-perception that they have failed. This situation is tough for teacher leaders to approach, in part because the relationship with the teacher must be strong enough to balance the insecurity. Teacher leaders are also often in the position to help others become aware of and shift their mindsets. Hard work, to say the least.

But the most challenging thing may be our own mindsets in terms of how we think of others. We have to be careful--we must remember not to have fixed perceptions of those with whom we work. We have to be open to possibilities, to see strengths in spite of limitations and not become stuck with one view of a colleague. Even when working with fixed-mindet colleagues, we must believe that their mindsets can be changed, that they can engage in accurate reflection than enables them to continually refine their practice. We have to be willing to let go of past perceptions and keep an open mind as we work more closely with colleagues, being wary of allowing fixed perceptions to color our interactions.

Last week, a couple of you commented that you'd like to know what titles I plan to read--an ever-changing list! If you leave contact information in the comments, I'll be happy to respond. 

Monday, June 13, 2011

Planning for Summer Reading--remember professional reading too!

Last Friday, I got to do a guest post for Two Writing Teachers. On Fridays during the summer, Ruth and Stacey invite others who blog about about their lives as writers or educators to do guest posts. I was excited about doing it and decided to reflect on how changing some things in my writing life changed some things in my classroom. I invite you to check it out on their site, and while you're there, make sure to check out the other posts!

Thinking about my writing life while writing my guest post also got me thinking again about my summer reading life. I generally read a lot of fiction in the summer--actually, more than a lot. Most of my summer reading is just for my own fun and I love nothing more than to sink into a good story. I do plan what I'm going to read for fun--I make lists, create stacks of books, visit Barnes and Noble, and trade books with my friends. Planning this reading for summer comes easily, but I also plan deliberately to read things that will help me continue to grow professionally.

Some of the fiction I'm enjoying also serves a professional purpose. It's like hitting a double jackpot! In order to be able to help connect readers with books, I need to know a lot of books written for kids of all ages and interests. This is something I strongly believe, and I try to read a lot of children's books. I don't have to try very hard--I love reading books written for kids. This summer I'm trying to become more familiar with novels I put off reading while working with my first graders this year, and have been especially trying to read more books that appeal to upper elementary aged boys. Being a girl and a fiction lover, I sometimes unintentionally (and sometimes intentionally) overlook books that may draw boys in the 9-12 year old range. Luckily, I have a 10 year old boy at my house! I mentioned my goal to my son, also a voracious reader, and he's got a big stack pulled aside for me. He checks about every other day to see how I'm coming with it.

I'm also planning to reread some professional books related to topics of focus for my school in the upcoming year. Since we'll likely be focusing on accelerating progress for struggling readers, much of my rereading will focus on that. My role will also be changing for next year, so I'm going back through some of my books on teacher leadership and instructional coaching. Choosing to focus my rereading is deliberate. I like to go back and reread from time to time because it takes my thinking deeper. It forces me to continue to refine my knowledge and consider again how what I read might look when applied in the classroom. I also know that every time I reread something, I notice or think about something that I didn't before.

I also have a stack of journal articles that I didn't get to this spring. My goal is to catch up before starting a new pile in the fall. I may not make it. They started piling up earlier than usual this spring, so the stack is pretty big! I'll also read a couple professional books that are new to me. Often these are recently published books that I see in fliers or are by experts whose names I recognize. I read reviews and book descriptions and love when I can peek at the table of contents or even a chapter or two before committing to purchase. I keep a running list of professional books I hear about at conferences and workshops or that are recommended by colleagues. Reading new stuff helps me stay up to date professionally and helps me extend my learning in areas where I have set goals for myself or that come about as a result of a professional development experience. I haven't yet placed an Amazon order for new professional books this summer--I'm still narrowing my list to something manageable for my budget!

What about you? Do you plan to do some professional reading along with lots of reading for the fun of it over the summer? How do you decide what to read?

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Documenting Past Learning for Future Planning

The school year is over for us, and as I began taking down, packing up and putting away, I took time to take a few pictures of the charts on the walls. I wanted to document some of the learning we had done together. I also took lots of pictures of student work, especially in writing. I wanted to have a record of what students did in response to minilessons and how it looked when done by first grade authors and illustrators. I don't do this so that I can simply recreate charts from year to year--in fact, I avoid that. Pulling out old charts and reusing them or copying them from a photo without thinking about what my current students already know and can do and what they need is not thoughtful, deliberate, or responsive instruction.

However, keeping a record of old charts helps me remember things that were powerful for my students, and I've learned that it helps to have pictures of student work to go with the charts. That way I can see how students were able to use what I was teaching.  I don't have easy access to a color scanner, so I've started taking pictures as a way to collect full color examples of charts and student work. The bonus is that I have a collection of student work to use as mentor text--whether I'm working directly with students or collaborating with colleagues.

I save the pictures in folders with charts, articles, and notes about units of study. I am trying to remember to include digital copies of any paper planning forms I use and have learned to wait to scan or photograph these until after a unit of study, when my planning forms include observation notes, changes I made and things I want to remember for the future. When colleagues do a similar study with their students, I sometimes ask to take pictures of their charts and student work as well.

As I took pictures, I was thrilled to see how the kids had used what we were studying as they created books and poems. Some of their work made me laugh--working with first graders is fun! Here are some charts from recent studies and some examples of student work. Notice how the kids tried out what we were learning.

See the question in the heading?
These questions served as the heading for a new section
in  book about plants.

Sometimes the diagram contains much more information
than the text.


The author of this piece not only used a heading,
but also made sure the diagram helps the reader
understand the process he describes in the text
(which continues on to another page). 

My favorite example of zooming in--check
 out the cat's eye peeking around the corner
of the cage! And the hamster has no idea. 

Used a heading--and see the fun fact in the top right corner?
It says, "boys can pee on you". The baby in the picture is
 also wiggling during a diaper change (this author got a
new baby brother this spring).
I've got lots more--but these are a few that I know I'll pull out again. I like having several different options to show kids so that they can begin to imagine possibilities for their work instead of copying one pattern of use. Having pictures of the charts and student work and my notes will help me consider possibilities when planning in the future, and I know I'll be glad to have mentor texts from real first grade writers. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Ending with Little Things

The end of last week marked the end of our school year. I always have a hard time letting the year go. Don't get me wrong--I am overjoyed that summer vacation has arrived and am more than ready for relaxing and re-energizing. It's just that I am never ready to say goodbye to the kids, to put away all the traces of our learning, to let go of plans for things we ran out of time to do, and know that this particular learning community won't be together in this way again.

The kids know these things too. They are also excited about summer vacation--as 6-8 year olds, they are experts on the subject of summer vacation. But they are also sad to say goodbye, and some are nervous about a summer without the routines and people of school to count on.

So how do we close out the school year? In lots of little ways and a few big ones. The big ones are fun--the school-wide picnic, field day, and annual visit from the public library people. We also celebrate with things like a publishing party and a last day party. But I think it's the little things that really matter most in our classroom.

We indulge ourselves by using any read aloud time the last two weeks to reread our favorite books from the year. The kids dig through book baskets and desks, pulling out well-loved, well-worn favorites and stack them precariously on my chair in the meeting area. They settle more quickly than usual so we have time for more. I want the kids to know and remember these books and their authors so that they don't feel lost or overwhelmed when visiting libraries in the summer. I want them to know their book friends are waiting.

We make use of every pencil, box of extra crayons, and booklet or loose piece of paper. Everyone goes home with something to write on and something to write with. I send home books so they are sure to have something to read. Our grade level was lucky this year--we were able to free up funds to buy at least 1 book per month for every child. We talk about these books and where they keep their "libraries" at home. The kids ask for " 2 or 3 really, really big" ziploc bags to carry home their supplies so nothing gets lost.

We pull out writing notebooks and the file folders that hold the stacks of writing that leaked out of the too-small-for-a-whole-year folders. The room is quiet at first as they begin to sort through and read their work. The the sound swells as they begin to show their friends forgotten pieces or explain how they are going to organize the work to take it home. We talk together about what they learned and how they grew as writers. Then we talk about how writers make a place for their writing at home and plan to write, even when it's not a school day.

We look at the goals and charts posted on our walls and talk about what we've learned to do and how we've learned to think this year--as mathematicians, readers, writers, word studiers, and scientists. We remind ourselves that smart is about lots of hard work and thinking and trying something.  The kids remember the kind of learners they are now and think about the things they want to keep learning and studying. They make plans. Plans for where they'll keep flashcards and books, paper and crayons. Plans for what kind of books they hope to check out from the library and what things they want to look up on the computer. Plans for how they can keep learning even if the library and computers are beyond their reach when school is not in session.

We make lists. Lists of books and authors and math games and science topics and websites. Lists of unfinished writing projects and lists of things to know about first grade to give the kindergartners next door. We make lists of things we'll remember about this year and about each other. Lists of where we might see each other next year, even though we won't be all together again.

It's the little bits of talking that happen here and there across the day during the last couple weeks of school that matter. I take time too. I sit in the classroom and take time to think about each child individually. Sometimes my thoughts find their way into end-of-year progress reports or onto special certificates. This year I wrote a short poem for each child and we read it like a book on the last day. After each poem, we talked a little. Smiled and talked and remembered.

My students would tell you that they may be little, but they can still do important things and they are significant. I think that the little things we do do close out the school year are the same. Simple, little moments are the ones that helped most once we realized our time together  was growing shorter with each X on the classroom calendar. These seemed to be the ones that mattered most to us as a learning community--our school family--as we saw this year come to an end. Little things.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

When They Hear Your Voice Outside of School

One morning this week, E. rushed toward me as I stood in the doorway greeting the kids. "Mrs. M.! I can't wait to tell you--you won't believe it!"

I smiled, accepted her harder-than-usual hug and waited.

"Yesterday at the doctor I was waiting and there was a book and I did it all by myself and I got stuck on a word--it was 'pulled over'--and I heard you and Mrs. H. [our interventionist] in my head saying if I don't try I'll never figure it out. And I want to be a reader and I tried and I did it!"
E. beamed and hugged me again. The kids around us looked surprised, then started grinning, and as E. moved off to put away her backpack, they followed her, asking her to tell it again and congratulating her.

First let me say that Mrs. H. and I would never tell a child he/she will never figure something out or never be a reader--but how E. said it isn't nearly as important as what she said. Or what she did.

Learning to read hasn't been easy for E. and she wasn't very confident early in the year. She has tended to be pretty dependent on teacher support and is hesitant to take action on her own. One of the big thing we try to teach our learners is that they know things they can try when they encounter something difficult or unknown, and can do it independently. Our students only have 9 more days of school left this year, and over the past few weeks, we've talked more and more about how all the things we've learned can and should stick with us forever.  One thing I'd really been trying to help them remember is that our focus this year has been on trying and figuring out--and doing so by ourselves.

One day I tried telling them a different way. "When you come to something you aren't sure of, you can remember what we've learned to try--we've learned lots and lots of ways to figure stuff out this year."

"Like strategies and stuff?" asked W.

"Yep," I nodded, "and you know, you don't need me to follow you around reminding you what to try--can you imagine? I just can't follow you for the rest of your life just in case! But you can tell yourself. Inside your head you can ask yourself what to try and then tell yourself."

They laughed a bit at the thought of me tagging along for the rest of their lives, but they were also a little worried. M. spoke up. "Um, what if we forget? Like forget what to tell our brains to do?"

"Well....I guess you could listen really close inside your head and maybe you can hear my voice in there reminding you."

 Twenty-three sets of thoughtful eyes considered this, and we went on with our day. But over the next week or so, kids began telling me that they were hearing me in their heads helping them remember what to try during reading or writing or math. And then E. shared her story--from away from school! For E. and the other kids, this was a very big deal (and it felt pretty big on my end too!). They were realizing that the stuff we've learned about how to go about learning and problem solving extends outside not only our classroom walls, but also outside the walls of school.

For learners of any age, this is a pretty significant realization, and it seems particularly huge coming from such small learners. So maybe my kids are hearing voices....but so far, it's a good thing!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

How This is Like That (My Master Plan is Working)

One of the great joys of being a teacher is when you catch your kids using things you've taught not only independently, but in new contexts (and it's easy to catch first graders--they often come running up to tell you all about it).

Kids seeing how this is like that; what is the same, what is different. Noticing something learned in one context in another context at another time. Realizing that you can use things you already know to help you know something new. This is the stuff that I live for as a teacher. It means that it's working ("it" being my grand master plan, of course).

It takes a lot of work to teach kids to notice stuff and then think about what it is and how to use it. It takes even more work to get them to do these things independently, but that's our job. Yep, if we've done our job, they don't really need us so much anymore--at least not to remind them or help them to use the things they have learned to do.

In a couple of my reading groups, this has been our big challenge. To notice how what we do across our day can help them when they are reading on their own--that the stuff of interactive read alouds and shared reading and word study is also the stuff of readers reading on their own. That this work is like that work and that they can do it themselves, without me prompting them to.

This isn't a new phenomenon. In fact, in my years working with teachers across grades K-5, this same pattern emerged. Kids who were struggling often were not apt to notice links across classroom contexts on their own. It's hard to teach this to kids, but we can start by doing a few things--the stuff that teaches them how this is like that.

  • make the links visible by physically pointing them out--get the books they are reading independently or in reading groups and actually show them how the work is the same during your read aloud or shared reading
  • for word study, make sure that you do the same thing--get the books they are using on their own and use examples from those
  • tell them how it all fits together--not just how to do something, but when and how it looks in different contexts
  • when they are reading with you in group (or a reading conference), point out the links to word study lessons or read aloud thinking as the kids come to places in the text where they need to use these things
The next part is really hard. You have to teach them to start doing this on their own. At first, you'll teach (just come out and say it!) that they know how to _____ and that you'll be watching closely for them to do it. Go ahead and tell them you expect them to remember to try _______ all by themselves--without needing you to remind them. 

And then watch and listen very, very closely....for any chance to catch them at it. Acknowledge it specifically. That's important. "Good job" really isn't that helpful. "I saw you slide through the whole word and then go back and put it together smooth and easy, just like when we do the morning message" is.
At first, you may acknowledge this soon after the reader does it. Then you'll wait and mention it at the end. Remember, we want them to do this for themselves.

Now, imagine my joy when the kids in those reading groups started calling out during word study, "hey, that's like how I figured out shout in my book yesterday!" or when J. pointed out that something in our reading group book was just like the books we had been using as mentor texts in writing. I did a little happy dance in my head (and maybe just a little actual happy dance right there in the classroom).

My master plan is working.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Thin Line Between Chaos and Genius

Disclaimer: I would never lay claim to the title of genius; however, sometimes thoughtful, deliberate, hard work looks something like genius.

Sometimes trying to pull together lessons that address standards and curriculum mandates while also addressing students' needs and interests often leaves me feeling like I am walking a thin line between barely controlled chaos and carefully orchestrated genius. Sometimes it takes a while to see the connections among seemingly different contexts and goals. Sometimes it all works.

When my colleague Mr. A. stopped by my room recently, he caught me in the midst of planning for writing workshop. I gestured to the piles of professional books, student writing samples, and notes scribbled on sticky notes. "What I have," I sighed, "is either a mess or something that is going to be very cool."
"Oh, it'll be genius," he replied. One of the things I appreciate about Mr. A. is his unwavering confidence.

Usually I think about the most pressing needs in planning, but right now, it feels like there are several things that qualify. It's April, so of course we want to spend some time studying and writing poetry. We've recently returned our attention in reading to informational text and want to try out some techniques we noticed in what we're reading to write some new kinds of informational text ourselves. After looking at the kids' writing, I realized that we needed to learn how to get more detail into our text and illustrations to help readers understand our work. And the research center--how could I forget that after a peek into their observation notebooks, it was glaringly obvious that I needed to reteach what kinds of writing and drawing researchers do.

After a small, private panic attack, I started looking for how all these things might be related. I kept coming back to informational text. There are a lot of poems that are actually informative--quite a lot once you start looking for it. That could tie into noticing and writing and illustrating with detail--essential in poetry. Poetry could be one of the forms we studied as options for ourselves as informational text writers--why not? As for the research center--it seemed that noticing and learning how to draw and take notes would support our work as writers, not just our research work. Hmmm....maybe there is a little spark of genius here. Or at least a clever way to link seemingly unrelated things in to one study.

Here's the planning sheet we used (since he was there anyway, I made Mr. A. help plan). Mr. A. had already begun studying poetry with his kids, so he started with the lessons related specifically to poetry. I had already talked to my kids a little about illustration work, so I started with that. The benefit is that we are tweaking as we go, so each of us gets the benefit of using parts of the unit that have already been field tested.
This is the plan that captured my thinking before I started--some things
have been adjusted as we work our way through this learning.
As I'm writing this, we are about halfway through our study, and I have to say that while I'm hesitant to lay claim to the genius title, this is definitely not chaos. Instead, because I took the time to lay it out and deliberately searched for how these things overlapped, my kids and I (along with Mr. A. and his kids) have been engaged in some very joyful and purposeful learning.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Finding Faith That What We Believe In Will Work

Recently I posted about following the kids' lead but with a plan in mind. In that post I described a study we were doing with maps and how the kids really wanted to work in groups to create something to share what they had learned. At that point, the kids were ready to start their group work. Here a couple of the completed projects (since this past week was spring break, the hall lights were off--if I can get pictures of the rest, I'll edit this post to include them).





















As I observed the kids at work in their groups, I realized something. Believing in something isn't necessarily the same as having faith that it will work.

I absolutely believe that I can create an environment where kids share in decision making and are actively engaged and still ensure that we meet the curriculum standards, build on students' strengths, and address their needs. This project is a great example of that. The kids wanted to share their learning about maps, suggested how they could do it, organized groups, and were set to work. I became the lady who was to ensure they had "lots of paper--the big kind" and "those sentence things...and also we need you to get us bigger maps."

And on the morning they were to start work, I realized that while I believe in this kind of environment and learning--that it is powerful and effective--I wasn't sure I had faith that it would all work. That shook me a bit. I was soon to turn 23 first graders loose. In groups they made without my input. To share what they felt was important without my guidance.

I wonder...was it really shaky faith on my part, or a fear of giving up control? After all, faith does require a certain amount of giving-up-control-ness.

I knew that I needed to stay the course, to have faith that the kids not only could work together but that they would. And that they'd figure out what to share and how to share it. After all, this kind of work reflects a lot about what I believe about effective classroom practices.

As I watched them work over the next few days, my faith was rewarded. There were a couple minor disagreements, but the kids figured it out for themselves. They all worked; every child contributed. Groups were discussing and planning and deciding what they felt was important to share about maps in general or what to point out on their maps. They designed their own layouts for their projects and shared the completed work with the rest of the class. I was needed only as a final spell-checker and as the person tall enough to hold up the charts while the groups shared.

This project was not only a great learning experience for my kids, it reaffirmed my belief in certain practices. It also caused me to stop and consider that even when teachers believe something is effective, it may still be difficult to have real faith that it's going to work in our classrooms with our kids. But I also believe that we have to find the faith to try--and to keep trying. If it's what we say we believe, then our classroom practices have to reflect it.


Sunday, April 3, 2011

Teaching for Independence

"The object of teaching a child is to enable him to get along without a teacher."   
                                                                                                                            --Elbert Hubbard

"Ok guys, I've been watching you really closely when you read the past few days. I've noticed that when you try something that doesn't match or make sense, you keep right on going. If I stop you or ask you if it made sense or matched, you go right back and fix it up. As readers, it's your job to notice mistakes and fix them by yourselves."

This was not the first time I'd said this to these readers. And a little voice in my head warned me as we worked through another lesson together that it would not be the last. J. in particular puzzled me. She seemed to have all the tools and strategies she needed to read accurately with understanding. Yet day after day, she made mistake after mistake without slowing down. When I'd slide in to draw her attention to the fact that what she read didn't make sense or match, she'd immediately go back, fix it up with very little effort and move on. On the next page, the same thing would happen. The others in her group would do the same. 

I knew these kids could do it. They were capable of monitoring their reading themselves, but they just were not doing it. A. even commented one day, "yeah, I really gotta work on that!" 

No kidding, I thought, so do I.

When I was being trained as a literacy coach, one of the things that came up time and time again was the idea of teaching for independence. Over and over in training sessions, in readings, and during classroom observations, we were told not to do for the child what he could do for himself (thanks go to Marie Clay for that powerful bit of wisdom). In addition, we grappled with the idea that our teaching should enable our kids to do things themselves--we were to teach them to be independent, not to depend on us. 

Easier said than done. There are a lot of things we teachers do that unintentionally may encourage kids to depend on us, and this is something I've had to learn to watch for in my teaching. Maybe that was part of the problem. Another thing I've noticed over time is that struggling readers often assume they can't do things without help. 

So now what, I wondered. They seem quite able to fix things up once they know they've made a mistake. The problem is getting them to notice that in the first place. I decided that the words I hadn't said to the kids were, "I know you can do this, so I am not going to do it for you. I'll be watching, but you'll have to do the noticing." I also realized that I would need to make sure I was not pointing out errors for the kids--with words or with facial expressions. I had to be willing to let them flounder a bit more so they would know that it was their job, not mine to monitor their reading.

I'd love to say that things changed overnight and that J. and A. and the others nodded their heads, opened their books and monitored for themselves. It wasn't that easy. But over a few days, things did change.

During our reading group Friday, I watched as J. read a sentence, then another....and made a mistake. I held my breath but didn't say a word. As she neared the end of the sentence, she paused and her eyes flicked back to the start. She frowned and then glanced at the picture. Then she went back and reread the sentence, fixing up the error and continued on. I struggled to keep a straight face--after all, I had told the kids that I not only believed they could do this, I expected they would. And she did. All the way through the book. 

As she finished, the book, she looked up triumphantly. "You did it," I crowed, "I just knew you could!" She grinned and looked the others.
"I did it that time by myself," she announced, "I didn't need Mrs. M. to help."

Exactly.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Learning from the SOL Challenge

I'm behind posting this week. It bothers me--not only because I hate to miss deadlines, even when they are self-imposed, but because I have come to depend on it professionally. Making myself sit down and purposefully, deliberately reflect on some aspect of my teaching life has become an important part of my professional growth.

Part of why I'm behind this week is that most of my energy and time for writing has been diverted this month. I have been participating in the Slice of Life Challenge hosted byTwo Writing Teachers. I started "slicing" at the urging of my friend Ruth Ayres and continued with encouragement of our writing group and the larger community of slicers that comes together for this challenge each March. I even talked a couple of colleagues into joining me. As the month draws to a close, I've been thinking about how participating in the challenge to write ever day for a month has impacted me professionally. There are lots of things that come to mind, but 2 seem especially important to me.

I have always believed that being part of a learning community is important--that having others to push and encourage us is important. Now I realize that supportive communities can spring up quickly when everyone in the group commits to the same focus and also commits to acknowledging not only the successes but also the attempts of others. Part of the challenge is to comment on at least 3 other writers' posts each day. In doing so, we've encouraged each other, celebrated breakthroughs and bits of great writing, and also lifted each other past the inevitable rough patches. Now I am imaging professional learning communities at school in which we are not only expected to share our experiences around our learning, but are also required to respond to each other about what is shared.

The other big realization that has come through participating in the challenge is that living like a writer is hard. Really, really hard. As a teacher of writers, I have regularly expected my kids to write something every day--to be like writers. I have taught lessons about where writers get their ideas and how ideas are all around us; we just have to learn to notice them. While I still think I believe that, what I've learned is that when I make myself do that very thing...I get stuck. I sit in front of my computer, looking at the blank screen thinking, "I have nothing to write." I have learned that sometimes that happens to writers, and that living like a writer really means to know that and to learn how to work past it. To accept it and know that it's normal. I've learned that sometimes writers may have something they really want to share or express or teach with their writing, but often daily writing consists of little "bits of nothing". In fact, that's where our writing group got its name--Bits of Nothing (of Something). I've learned that there may be blank pages some days, and there may be lots of little nothings before a writer hits on "something". This will impact how I teach writers and how I respond to them. My teaching will change because I spent a month doing exactly what I have asked my students to do.

So I'm glad I am doing this challenge. I won't lie--it has been really hard at times. But it has also been fun. I feel stronger and more confident as a writer. I learned a lot about myself and about living like a writer and about teaching writers. I will continue to participate in slicing on Tuesdays on the Two Writing Teachers site, and I will do the challenge again next year. If you find yourself thinking about joining in, check out the site. If you are nervous about sharing, I'll even go first--my slices for the month are at slicesfromthesofa.blogspot.com (Slices from the Sofa).

Monday, March 21, 2011

Following Their Lead--with a Plan in Mind

Some resources currently available in our research center

We've been exploring maps and globes in my room lately. We've looked at maps, acquired a globe and began studying it, and asked our librarian for help finding books about maps.  One thing I try to do is find ways that we can link our learning across instructional contexts, so when we were ready to begin a new interactive writing project, I asked the kids if they thought we might want to do something to remember what we've been learning during our map study.

They jumped at the chance, and eagerly began calling out suggestions for what we might do. "Hey, we need some stuff to make something," shouted C. above the others.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Well, like lots and lots of paper," he replied.
"Yeah, and maps--you can get us maps," added H.
Others chimed in, calling out what maps they thought we'd need.
"Wait," I laughed, "let's start a list--I can't remember all this!"

So we started our list. As we wrote, we put to use things we'd been learning about word parts during our word study time. Part way through our work on the list, the one of the kids suggested that maybe they could make groups and each work on one of the maps. Then we could put it all together to hang up for other people to see what we know about maps. While not exactly the direction I had in my head, I followed along. We could still do a lot of the learning I knew we needed while following their interests and plans for the project (after all, it is their project).

They proceeded to direct me to make sign up sheets so they could choose groups.  We used part of our math time to figure out how many kids each group would have--I put the question to them as a research question, and they had it figured out in about 10 minutes. When we started to talk about the work they'd do in groups, J. and E. had thoughts about what information the groups should include. One was that they should use our "important words"--our academic vocabulary that relates to our map study.

The kids are ready to begin their group work tomorrow. I'm not sure exactly how it will go, but I do know that we'll be revisiting and solidifying our knowledge of the academic vocabulary for this topic. I know that we'll integrate our phonics learning into what we do. I know that we'll use the table of contents to find the information we need in books, and we will study captions so that we know how to make our own.

I am able to follow the kids' lead in terms of their interests or their ideas for projects because I know some things. I know our learning goals. I know the strengths and needs of my kids. And knowing those things well allows me to teach the kids what they need even if I'm following their lead. No matter what project they'd have come up with--even if they had gone with another topic--I would have been ready to connect our work to the teaching and learning in other parts of our day. It's all part of following their lead, but with a plan in mind.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Writing Challenge in the Classroom

This month I am participating in the Slice of Life Challenge hosted by twowritingteachers.wordpress.com. I have never done it before, but am loving it. The goal is to write a "slice"--a small snippet of your day or something you've been thinking about--each day during the month of March. I have not missed a day yet. I've been astounded by how much fun it is and how I've developed the habit of writing a bit each day. Actually, it has become more of a need. I need to write a bit each day. The other really interesting thing happens as participants comment on each others' slices. Each slicer is to comment on at least 3 other slices each day. Many of us do more and have found an improbably strong sense of community among complete strangers.

As March 1st approached, I had a thought--what if I could modify the challenge and do it with my kids at school? And if I did, why? And how?  My friend Ruth Ayres at TWT posted about my plan at the start of the challenge, and I also talked my colleague Mr. A. into having his class join the challenge. Check out her post to see my note, charts, and the books we made for the kids to use.

Now that we're a couple weeks in, it's time to reflect on how it's going. The kids love it--and I love reading their slices each day. Some are expected and even predictable, like "I saw the bus today" or "I love my family". But those are not the norm. The kids are starting to notice things as they go about their daily lives and they slice about those. Things like "E. is not here again. I think she is sick." or "I have a hole in my shoe but it is not even cold." Several have sliced about the small green tomato growing in our room or the blossoms on the pepper plant. One girl gave an update on her new baby brother.

But other than enjoyment, what are they getting out of this? One of our goals was to help ourselves develop a writing habit, and I can honestly say that participating in the challenge is helping. The kids come in expecting to write their slice before doing something else. It only takes most of them about 2 or 3 minutes. Even my kids who often need redirecting during writing workshop enter the room ready to slice. J. even announced (loudly) as he came down the hall one day that he already knew his slice and was wanting to write it. A. mentioned that he had 2 "saved up" in his head for a couple days. That tells me that another goal is being met--the kids are starting to notice things in their lives the way writers do. They are tucking away thoughts and images to save them for writing.

Most importantly, the kids are having fun. They love the challenge. They talk about it, they tell others about it, and they look forward to it each morning. They ask about my "grown-up slices on the computer" and we talk about our classroom slices on paper. These things are important because it means they are having meaningful, enjoyable experiences as a writers. They don't see it as extra work. For the kids who struggle as writers, this is a very short form of writing. It is not overwhelming. There is only a small space for each day in our SOL books, so they get the experience of "filling up space" every day--something that many of them find daunting when looking at a full-size sheet of paper. And when they do face those big papers in workshop, many of them simply pull something from their SOL books, tell a little more, and add an illustration.

This has been such a positive experience for me and my kids as writers that I'm already planning to do it again next year. Want to join us?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

No Voice, But It's the Eyes that Matter

I was sick this past week--and I hate to admit that. I haven't been sick for so long that I cannot remember when the last time was. After all, I've been a mom and a teacher for a long time and that gives one an iron-clad immunity. But...I had no voice and no energy and felt generally miserable.

But I did go to work (I know, I know--should stay home and take care of myself, blah, blah. I've given that speech to others hundreds of times). The kids were stunned and a little worried. They provided me with constant updates on the status of my forced whispers and squeaks. "We can almost hear you now!" "Good thing that's a quiet book--your voice works on that one." "I feel bad for you--but mostly for your voice."

The interesting thing that I noticed was that we still functioned. And actually, we did pretty well despite the fact that I wasn't at my best. The kids watched my face a little more closely, and I realized that I already use so many non-verbal signals in my room that giving directions and getting the kids attention wasn't really a big deal. It made me realize that I do this every day in less than ideal circumstances.

Our cafeteria does not tend to be very quiet (hello? couple hundred kids all in one room?) and it's a pretty big space. When my colleagues and I go down to get the kids after lunch, they wait by their tables, sometimes in line, and sometimes still seated. For several weeks now, I don't even go all the way over to the tables where my kids eat. I walk a few feet into the cafeteria and look toward my kids. I almost always catch at least a couple by the eye immediately. Looking directly at them, I smile, nod and put a finger to my lips. They nod back and keep looking at me. I turn my eyes to the others, and it's almost like magic--one or two or several at at time turn, make eye contact and get quiet. As soon as I have almost all of them, I lift my hand, palm up. Any that are not already looking at me do so as the group stands and begins to form a line. The stand as I hold one finger up--our class signal for 1 straight line. Then I motion them to come with me and they do...in one line and maintaining eye contact. It's great and it's fast.

So how does it work? Well, early in the year I worked hard at making eye contact with the kids. Not staring contests (but I'm pretty good at those!) and not a threatening "look at me" kind of thing. Nope, just the kind of eye contact that says "I see you and I care about you and I respect you". My eyes can also ask questions like "do you really want to do that?". They acknowledge kids as they make good choices too, usually accompanied by a short nod. I held their eyes during lessons and when teaching and reteaching procedures and when they had done well and when they had done not so well. And I did it in the cafeteria every time I walked over to their tables to pick them up after lunch.

It's powerful. Although I knew that, seeing it in action is amazing. I can catch their eyes pretty quickly now--almost like they hear me looking at them. Now when I need a child's attention or the whole group's attention in the classroom or the cafeteria or anywhere, I have one more tool.  And you don't need a voice for this one. We just see each other.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

I Got To Be There

I watched closely, holding my breath. She hesitated; then her eyes opened wider and she leaned closer to the page. Her lips moved and I could just make out the sounds as she voiced the first part of the word, then the rest in one big part. She repeated the whole thing--blending it together a bit--just like we've been working on in word study and in reading group and during writing workshop. H. looked surprised. She glanced at the pictures and then back at the word. A slow smile started at the corners of her mouth as she repeated the word. She went back to the start of the sentence and reread, this time grouping words together in phrases and reading right through the word she had just solved. The smile widened and a slow blush spread over her cheeks as I hooted and slapped the table--that a girl!

H. peeked up for a split second and then kept going. To the end of that page and then the next, reading more quickly and phrasing more naturally. I watched excitedly, clapping my hands and laughing aloud. The other kids at the reading table paused to watch, one whispering, "keep going H!". Her confidence was visible in her voice, her smile and the excited way she turned page after page, more and more quickly. As she finished, H. looked up and grinned. "I really, REALLY love this book! That was fun!" It was--it was more than fun. It was a pivotal moment in her reading life.

You know, H. loves school and has been making progress--just barely meeting benchmarks and feels generally successful. However, she has not been an enthusiastic reader. Until Thursday. That day changed things for H. Thursday she felt for the first time what it's like when everything she needs to do and know and be as a reader comes together and it not only feels comfortable, but fun! On Thursday, this young reader felt "it". She couldn't wait to get home to tell her family about this very important day in her reading life. On Friday she was the first one at the reading table, eagerly waiting for a new book. She looked at me with a gleam in her eye and announced, "I can't wait--this is going to be great!"

It was. And I got to be there for it.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Session That Got Me Thinking

I recently attended the National Reading Recovery and Classroom Literacy Conference--I've been going for several years, and always learn so much. This year was no different. I'm still rereading notes from the sessions I attended and am thinking about how my conference experiences will impact my classroom practices.

Tony Stead (author of Is That a Fact? and others) did a session that has me thinking. As he talked about doing investigations with kids, he stressed doing one together before having the kids engage in the work of research and writing.

I've done a lot of work with kids that starts with studying mentor texts and I've guided kids through research and planning and writing. We've worked together on whole class projects with interactive writing. But you know what? I don't know that I've ever worked alongside kids to write something together after studying mentor texts but before asking them to have a go on their own.

What I'm envisioning is beginning a unit of study as usual--by exploring and studying mentor texts. Then, as we talk about how to go about writing in this genre, we'd all try it out together--a group writing project in which we'd all talk about what to write and how to go about writing it using what we learned when exploring the mentor texts. We could chose and try out structure and craft moves together and discuss how and why we were doing it.

After that, the kids would move into their independent writing projects. What I'm wondering is if this will help the kids be more confident and deliberate in how they go about their writing when learning to write in a new genre. Doing it this way certainly fits what I believe about gradual release of responsibility--and it sort of just makes sense.

While I know I've done bits and pieces of this when using interactive writing, what occurred to me during this conference session is that it might be a good idea to try to use this technique much more deliberately. Besides, the kid work Tony shared with us  spoke for him about how well it worked in those classrooms.

That's one of the reasons I love attending conferences. Not only do I learn new things or deepen my knowledge, but the sessions I attend always get me thinking about how I might tweak what I'm doing in my classroom to be a little more purposeful.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Making Time to Celebrate

I realized this weekend that I have been missing something in my classroom--well, more like I had forgotten about it for a good long while. I was reading my friend Ruth's post on Friday at Two Writing Teachers and realized that it has been a long, long time since we've celebrated finished writing projects in my room.

Celebrations are important. They are a way of acknowledging not only accomplishment or achievement, but hard work and improvement. We do have celebrations in our room--often small, private ones. Like when A. looks up and exclaims, "hey--I figured that out!" and we exchange a fist bump or high 5. Or larger ones, like when the whole class broke into spontaneous applause when E. passed a math test and was so excited she jumped up and down.

But what I realized as I read Ruth's post was that for writers, it really feels like time to celebrate when you are holding a published project in your hands. Or even better, when you get to share it with others. As someone who has written publicly and privately, I have learned that having the chance to share and celebrate my writing is motivating and energizing. It makes me want to write more. Which is sort of the idea.

I don't think that we need to throw a huge elaborate celebration at the end of each project a child completes; in fact, we'd be partying every day if we did! What I'm thinking though is that I should make sure to take time once in a while--at the end of a major unit or study or at the end of each month--and teach the kids that celebrating hard work is important. Important enough to stop what we're doing for one workshop time and share our work with each other--and maybe with parents or other school personnel.

In my work as a classroom teacher and as a literacy coach, I've participated in a lot of celebrations. I've been to poetry book signings in kindergarten, research sharing in third grade, and memory book readings in several grades. I've seen celebrations with dressed-up kids and teachers, microphones, and yummy goodies after. I've been to celebrations with nothing more that construction paper covers and a group of kids sitting on the rug around a low stool. And during every one of those celebrations, there was more than just the excitement of a party in the air. There was a sense of pride. There was appreciation of time and effort spent. There was energy for new projects yet to be started.

So it's time. Time to make time for celebrating our work and learning as writers. Somehow, I feel more energized already.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Believing They Can and Expecting They Will

An amazing thing happened in our room over the past week--and it happened when I decided to step back and wait.  I'll tell the story, but as I do, keep the following thoughts in mind:

When a teacher waits for a child to figure something out or self-correct, it conveys the message that she expects the child to be able to accomplish it."
Pat Johnson, One Child at a Time
…they decide not only who they are in a given context, but also between agentive characters who are active and assume responsibility, and more passive characters who do not.
  Peter Johnston, Choice Words


I have a little girl named E. who draws the most beautifully detailed pictures. E. is an ELL (English Language Learner) who attended kindergarten in Mexico. During writing workshop this year, she has illustrated story after story, mostly about events in her family. Her illustrations tell her stories, and so does she, but not in written words, even though she'll tell the story orally.
This is the first page of one of E.'s stories--it has 4 pages all together

Since the start of the year, E. has been getting support learning everything she needs to write her stories. And yet, despite much teaching and prompting and reminding, E. would not write any words unless someone helped her. Her writing folder was filled with wonderfully drawn stories that had no words.

E. always asked for help writing the words even though she knows sound/symbol relationships, many sight words, and is able to say words carefully and record the sounds she hears. She participates confidently during interactive writing. And so recently, as she came to me again to ask if I would help her write the words on some of her stories, I thought for a moment and then replied.
"You know E., I know that you can do it by yourself. You know all the things you need to put your words with your stories. I know that you don't need me for that." She nodded, but kept looking at me, waiting for me to follow her to her desk to stand beside her. I didn't follow. Instead, I turned to confer with another student. "E., it's time for you to be on your own with this, " I said over my shoulder. She waited a minute more, then went back to her desk.

Look what happened:
This is the first of 4 pages--all written in 1 day!
Yep--she went back and wrote the words for the whole story in that one workshop time! By Friday, E. had put words to every single story in her folder. She sat at her desk, bent over her stories, pencil moving confidently across the page. Every so often she'd look up and think, then lean back into her work. On Friday, she came to me. 
"Mrs. M., I'm so so proud and you know why? I got the words for my stories. I got all the words--all the stories!"

Proud? Absolutely! Surprised? Not at all. I knew she could do it. But the key was for E. to believe she could--that she could take action and succeed on her own. By not stepping in to provide help, I sent the message that I expected she would be able to do it. Now E. sees herself in a new way--she feels like a successful writer. And she is.


Sunday, January 30, 2011

Thinking About Classroom Intervention

I've been thinking a lot recently about intervention--classroom intervention specifically. My friend Miss M. asked me to define what I meant when I said "classroom intervention" and it got me thinking about what it really is.

Usually when we think of intervention, we think about specific programs or series of lessons or pull out groups or things like Reading Recovery. But what I was talking about was not those things...so what was it? All those things are critically important to our kids who are struggling, but the majority of their day is not spent in one-on-one interventions or groups; it is spent with us, in the classroom.

Take a look at this:

Consider our struggling learners--much of what we do in the classroom (those orange stars in the diagram) is not only likely to be outside what they can do on their own, but may be on the far edge of what they can do with help or is outside their learning zone completely.  Yikes!

So consider this. When I looked up intervention or intervene, the following things popped up:
  • to mediate
  • to come between to alter results or the course of events
  • to be situated between
  • deliberate action taken to improve a situation
In the classroom, it's our job to mediate--to be situated between the tasks and teaching and the kids. To find ways to take deliberate actions across the day to create bridges between our struggling kids and what happens in the classroom. Some of it's easier--guided reading groups, conferring one-on-one--those contexts make it easy to intervene in the classroom. But what about during whole group times? As kids enter the classroom each day? During work times when you're not conferring with these kids?

It's not easy, and I wish I had answers for how to make this happen every day for every kid. I don't. But what I do have is a commitment to try. I find ways to sneak in bits and pieces. 

Like with my morning message--it's just inside the doorway, and as kids enter, they read it alone or in pairs or small groups. And I am right there in the doorway, sneaking moments to support my struggling readers as they read that message--while also greeting others and giving out morning hugs. When we meet as a whole group to read the message a little bit later, my struggling kids come to that task already having successfully read the message. Often I have taken those tiny doorway moments to point out something in the message that we'll be coming back to in the large group meeting--kind of like pre-teaching.

It's not perfect. It's not easy. But it is critical. We have to think about how we can mediate any classroom experiences that are outside the zones of our struggling learners. So what I told Miss M. is that I think classroom intervention is bigger than small groups or one-on-one conferring. It's something we ought to be considering across the whole day, in moments large and small.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Too Fast?

"Mrs. M, why is this day so fast? All week is too fast." A's brown eyes searched mine, his brow furrowed. He went on, "It's better if we go slow. All the days this week--too fast."

I was startled. Did he mean that the pace of first grade was too much? I know that we move along at a pretty good clip sometimes and that there is an awful lot that we are supposed to get in, but...too fast? I nodded and patted his back. "Tell me more." (by the way, this little phrase is one of the most powerful ones I know--for working with kids or adults!)

What he told me surprised me. He reminded me that there was no school Monday, then Tuesday morning Miss F. was there (she's the sub who comes and does science things while my grade level meets for reflection/planning once a month). "There isn't a lot of time in this week," he explained, quite seriously. "We need more time to do our stuff and now it's the weekend days."

I smiled and gave him a hug. "Don't worry," I said, "there will be plenty of time next week." He smiled, but shook his head and commented, "it's still too fast for the days on this week."

As he walked away it occurred to me that there was something pretty cool to consider here. A. is one of my kids who struggles...with just about everything at school. At the start of the year, he couldn't wait for the end of the day, for the days off, for anything other than school. And now? Now he's bothered by the fact that the school week was too short and the weekend was already here. Cool, right?

When we can create the kind of classroom communities and relationships that manage to convince kids like A. that school is not only worth it, but a good place to spend time and effort, we've done a lot. Not only that, but in doing this, we also impact achievement. A.'s not only been making good progress--he's catching up to where he should be this time of year. It's all woven together--increase good feelings and relationships at school and achievement goes up; achievement goes up and good feelings and relationships at school improve.

Lester Laminak and Reba Wadworth tell us, “Through our voices, students may come to believe that there is something between the covers of a book that is worth the effort.” I think the same thing is true of school and learning in general. If we can be intentional in forming relationships and creating environments that help kids come to believe that our classrooms are where they want to spend time, they come to believe that learning is worth the effort.

So tomorrow morning, I'll be waiting for A. at our classroom door. I know that I'll be greeted with a smile and a hug before he marches into the room and starts his day. Hopefully this week won't be too fast.