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.