Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Benefiting From a Mistake

At the age of six or seven your birthday is a huge deal. Huge. 
(Of course, that tends to be true for some folks no matter how old they are. But it's true for all folks at six or seven.)
Now for the confession. I have done nothing for kids' birthdays this year. Nothing. I'm sure I've told them happy birthday but there has been no crown, no singing, nothing. This is practically criminal as a first grade teacher.
I decided recently that it is never too late to fix this problem. I can't start making a big deal out of birthdays as that would be terribly unfair to all the birthdays we've passed by so far. Instead, two or three days each week we take the last bit of the day to celebrate a student. We're working our way through, so far we done all the birthdays in November and December. (No one in our classroom had birthdays in September or October.)
We're making a construction paper sized poster for each child with all the ways they are special. Their name and the school year are there and then we add words as phrases about that child. Favorites are 'good friend', 'nice', 'gentle', 'helpful', and oddly enough, 'handsome'. 
By doing this we're celebrating birthdays but, hopefully, we're also looking at each other through a new lens. We needed to notice all the fabulousness about each other and this seemed like a good option. (Of course, we're seeing the same traits again and again but based on kids' facial expressions as their poster is being created, they aren't noticing or aren't bothered.)
The final thing I do before presenting the poster to the 'birthday' girl or boy is add my own word or phrase. It's a chance for me to share something I've noticed that is special about each child. For one boy I wrote about his encyclopedic knowledge of animals. The girl we celebrated today was gone for a month of school not long ago. I wrote about her determination when she returned to keep up with everyone. It's good for me to think this way about my students. I need this push just as much as they do.
This may have started as a desperate way to catch up and to build community, but it is something I plan to continue in the future. I just plan to actually do it ON a child's birthday.

Cross-posted from

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

First Grade Writers Rock

True or False Writing
Dragons was the meanest flying bird. True or false?
First grade writing is fabulous. Our most recent nonfiction unit involved the series of True or False books. If you haven't seen these, they are worth checking out. You can see many of the ones my first graders wrote at our class blog. We created those in Pixie but some students wanted to continue writing them. This boy wrote one in class about dragons. The book is great but these two pages were my favorite. Somehow the addition of the solar system to the sentence just raises it to a higher level.
True or False Writing 2
True. Dragons are the meanest fly bird in the solar system.

We've also been working on some narrative writing. We've used a story mountain (beginning with an opening that typically introduces the characters and setting, followed by events climbing up the mountain about the complication, leading to a turning point at which things change, followed by the resolution heading back down a bit). The most challenging part for most of my first graders is the events leading up. They usually begin the story, explain the problem or complication, and then solve it.
One I conferenced with today had written something along the lines of, "We couldn't ever get to sleep." Then, on the next page, "We finally falled asleep." Complication. Resolution.
We've been using fiction for our narrative study, but yesterday I suggested that they might want to tell a personal story that fits with the story mountain. My goal was to allow them a venue for sharing some stories from spring break. I shared one from our spring break to get us started. Then they told stories with a partner before going off to write. 
This friend had a story about roller skating. Although there was a problem I didn't think the story was really building on it as he read it to me. Then we got to this page.
Turning Point Writing
The turning point was when I stopped falling down.
I couldn't say anything. This was the turning point in the story. Yup.

Cross-posted from

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Productivity Tool

I'm far from the most organized person. One of my favorite things to do is to buy organizational containers and things. Sometimes I actually use them.
I have found two online tools that have made a huge difference for me. One of them now costs money (it didn't when I started using it) but has been so useful to me that it's worth it. It's teux-deux, an online to do list. Anything I don't do on a given day automatically gets bumped to the next day. I can put things on any day in the future, which means I don't forget something that I need to do in a few weeks. I can also put on recurring to dos, things that I need to do every week or every other week or once a month.

The other tool is called Chains. It is designed to help you do something that you don't really want to do. Each time you do it the event gets added to the chain. If you miss one the chain is broken and you have to start over. I use it for my evening routine (I often would rather just go to bed than brush my teeth or wash my face at night) and for working out. Things can be every day or at whatever interval you want. The downside, in my mind, is that I don't want to get too long of a chain because after it's broken it'll take too long to beat it!

I have no idea if these would be helpful to others but they have been immensely useful to me.
Cross-posted from

Friday, April 11, 2014

Totally Worth It

Since early February I've been arriving at school half an hour early three days each week to work with a few of my students. Our school has dedicated some funding toward extra before (or after) school remediation. I've never done it before because it isn't a lot of money and I couldn't see us (me and my daughters) managing to get to school half an hour early. Half an hour isn't much but it's big in the morning.
I did it this year because I have some students I thought would really benefit. It seemed worth a try. It should be noted that between school closings and delays for weather, both of which meant we didn't meet, and my conference travels, we've missed a lot of those days. Unfortunately.
Yesterday was our last day. It's the week before spring break so I was exhausted. I decided I needed some way to know if this time and energy had really helped. Over our mornings together we've worked on reading and math. In reading our focus has mostly, but not exclusively, been high frequency words. We have a list of one hundred high frequency words we want our first graders to be able to read and write by the end of the year.
As a team we assess these words every January. Yesterday I assess my kiddos again to see how many of these words they can read now. 
In January these four kiddos could read 49, 25, 64, and 31 words. Yesterday, those same kiddos read 72, 51, 91, and 87 words. Huge improvement. But I still wondered. I had one more kiddo I had invited to our morning times but who never came. I decided to assess her as well, as a control. In January she read 61 words. Today she read 70 words. I was convinced. Our mornings together were totally worth it.
Cross-posted from

Update to What Am I Doing Wrong

I woke up this morning with my heart racing. I dreamed that I took a few of my first graders on an overnight field trip (something I can't imagine doing! more power to those of you who do). On that trip, two of my students died. Just before I woke up I was explaining to my principal what happened. Except I could only remember what happened to one of them. I was going crazy trying to remember what happened to the other. Even in my dream I remember thinking, "Someone will know what happened to him. I'm sure someone can explain this." I woke up and kept trying to remember what happened. (I'm not sure I ever actually knew. Ah, dreams.)
I mentioned this to a couple of my teammates this morning and they were quite concerned for me. Later, when they learned about my little one who had the allergic reaction yesterday, one of them said to me, "That's why you had that dream. You sent home field trip forms yesterday and a kid left in an ambulance. No wonder you dreamed that." Thank goodness for her! I felt so much better.
I don't typically think too much about my dreams. But something like this is hard to ignore or just sluff off. Whew.

Cross-posted from

Thursday, April 10, 2014

What Am I Doing Wrong?

Back in the fall one of my little ones fell off the monkey bars and broke his arm at recess. It was highly traumatic because it was still pretty early in the year and this little guy was still learning English (still is, of course). In the midst of the pain and shock he refused to talk to his folks on the phone and refused to talk to the EMTs. The fabulous folks in the office got me in the hopes that I could calm him down. I don't know if I did but luckily dad showed up shortly after me and that helped a lot. Dad went with him in the ambulance. Way better than a random adult from school.
This wasn't the first time I've sent a kid away in an ambulance. Several years ago one of my little girls broke her arm at recess in quite a similar manner. Last year another darling girl had a serious asthma attack and had to go to the hospital.
Today I sent another child off in an ambulance. This was a new one for me though. Yesterday she pointed out to me that her lower lip was red. I thought it was chapped. In fact, another teacher gave her some balm for it. This morning she showed me again. We talked about how it can take a while to heal. She said, "Yeah. The last time this happened it took about ten days." Made sense to me.
After lunch, during math, she was working with one of the most amazing instructional assistants. I was busy with a small group of kiddos but when I got up this fabulous woman pointed at the girl's face. The red, chapped-looking bit was spreading up onto her cheeks. The IA thought it might be an allergic reaction. I agreed with her so she took the little sweetheart down to the clinic. 
To my understanding, by the time they got to the clinic or briefly thereafter, this little girl's lips and face were swelling up. We have a policy in place for this so an epi-pen was grabbed and administered. It sounds like her swelling and redness decreased significantly after that. I am exceptionally grateful to the woman in our office who administered the epi-pen. I can't imagine that was an easy task for many reasons. 
Again, when the EMTs arrive my little one was not exceptionally cooperative. This one didn't clam up but instead, according to another staff member, "gave them what for." She clearly did not want to be stabbed with something again and did not trust them.
Her older brother, high school age, arrived before the ambulance left and scooped her up and carried her out to it. He was fabulous from all accounts.
Four kids leaving school in an ambulance in four years. That seems an overly high number. 

Cross-posted from

Monday, April 07, 2014

Not The Teacher I Want To Be

Today was an odd day for us. It was originally scheduled to be a teacher workday but that disappeared thanks to the insane winter we had. So kids were in school today. Not like a regular Monday though. For our elementary schools, the kids go home about two and a half hours early on Mondays. It's our districts way of ensuring elementary teachers get equal planning time to middle and high school teachers. However, we were making up a missed Wednesday, so we had a Wednesday schedule today, keeping kids in school the entire day.
A teacher down the hall was out today and her class is challenging, to say the least. The same special education teacher who works in my classroom also works in that classroom. In fact, she spends the great majority of her day in there. Today, she spent her entire day there.
I chatted with her in the middle of they day (I think she stopped by to apologize for not making it down to my room). She was pretty wiped already. Nothing like a substitute teacher, a completely different schedule from the norm, and a rainy day. Quite the trifecta.
At the end of the day when I saw her I congratulated her on surviving. Her comment to me was, "I did. I made it. I wasn't the teacher I wanted to be today, but I made it."
My response, "There are at least parts of every day when I'm not the teacher I want to be. Every day."
Today was, for me, a pretty darn good day. And yet. I have one student with whom I am never the teacher I want to be. That was true today. I can name several times when I lost patience with my students when it not only was unjustified, but also unproductive. 
I'm not proud of the fact that these moments happen everyday. But I also try not to dwell on them. I need to look at our days, with their ups and downs, reflect on them, and figure out the best path for us in the future. This includes the best path for me to be more and more of the teacher I want to be.
Cross-posted from

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Teaching Readers

Thanks to Jose Vilson and Zac Chase I'm in the midst of reading Lisa Delpit's Other People's Children. If you've never read it*, I highly recommend it. The book is highly readable and will turn your world upside down. Just the original introduction did so for me.
Last week I was reading the essay, Language Diversity and Learning, in the book. One small piece of this essay has been constantly in my mind since I read it. Delpit writes about the types of things teachers correct as they are helping students learn to read.
Cunningham found that teachers across the United States were more likely to correct reading miscues that were dialect related ("Here go a table" for "Here is a table") than those that were nondialect related ("Here is the dog" for "There is the dog").
She goes on to give a detailed example and then writes,
The lesson continues in such a fashion, the teacher proceeding to correct the student's dialect-influenced pronunciations and grammar while ignoring the fact that the student had to have comprehended the sentence in order to translate it into her own dialect.
As one who teaches first graders, this resonated with me. One of the things teachers do as they help students who are just beginning to read is to look at errors. We put errors into three different categories: meaning, visual, and structure. When students err in meaning, the word they said does not make sense in the text. Errors in visual means that the word the child said does not look like the word in the text. And structural errors are ones that don't sound correct. (This is a really simplistic description.)
The errors in Delpit's example are not errors in meaning. (In the example the child says 'wash' instead of 'washed' and 'bruvver' instead of 'brother'.) I am much more concerned about meaning errors than the others. If a child is not using meaning when reading I worry that they don't truly understand what it means to read. I worry they are simply word calling and not gaining any understanding of the text as a whole.
So far this all seems pretty straightforward. But here's the snag, that first error Delpit cites is one I likely would correct. The second one, the pronunciation of bruvver, would not bother me in reading. It is obvious the child read the word. However, reading the wrong verb tense concerns me. I want my students (most of whom are learning English after one or more other languages) to learn to speak and read correctly. Correct verb tense is an exceptionally challenging thing. Especially in English because so many of our verb conjugations are exceptions to rules. We hear native speakers say runned for ran or growed for grew as they are growing up.
So looking at those errors matters to me both for their reading and for their speaking. In reading I want to be sure students are looking at the entire word rather than just the first letter. In speaking I want them to learn 'correct' ways. I don't want them to be held back in life because they sound uneducated in any way.
My question then is, where is that line? When should I be correcting and when should I be letting it go? I know that if I stop their reading too often I'm doing them no help because I'm interrupting the flow and focusing the attention solely on word calling. How do I balance their fluency and understanding with learning the formal language they will see in books and need to be able to speak?

*This book was published the year I graduated from college. The fact that I didn't read it in graduate school nearly ten years later makes me question my grad program. 
Cross-posted from