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.