Saturday, November 28, 2009

Our Brilliant Librarian, Part 2

For background see Part 1.
On our second trip to the library our amazing librarian had things ready for us to explore non-fiction books by looking at their parts. She had a bunch of non-fiction books out on a range of topics and the kids started by looking at the front cover of a book. They described all the parts of the cover they could find.

From there the explorations moved on to the title page and then to the middle of the book. Students noticed the publishing information, the table of contents, page numbers, pictures, and captions. It was fabulous. We moved on to look at the end of the book (index, glossary, more resources) but had to continue the lesson back in our classroom.

For the next week students continued working on their books and conferencing with teachers.

As we returned to reread our finished class book the kids decided we needed to add a table of contents. One girl added a 'Words to Know' section to her book and a bar code, "So other kids can check it out."

Seeing their motivation and engagement in writing these books was really exciting. Both the kids and I are feeling more energized about writing workshop now. I'm so grateful to work with a librarian that does so much to support what happens in our classrooms.

I'm hoping to post some pictures of our class book and some of the kids' books soon. Our next trip to the library will involve a writing celebration as we share all of our books and place them in a special basket in the school library for others to read.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Our Brilliant Librarian, Part 1

Recently my class wrote a pigeon book (Don't Let the Pigeon Eat Candy in the style of Mo Willems) and we put in our school library at the invitation of our librarian. Other classes have been loving it and my kids are super proud of themselves.

Our fabulous librarian decided we should take this a step further and have the kids write some books independently that we can place in the library to share with others. We decided to start with writing about plants. That way their books could be as simple as, "Trees are big. Trees are green. Trees are plants." or such.

The first day in the library the kids looked at lots of books about plants and we made a list of things we learned. This mostly entailed the kids finding pictures that fascinated them and then one of us reading them the caption. We took a bunch of books back to our room and continued our research.

From our research we planned a drafted a class book and the kids began working on their own books. The draft was done on one sheet of paper with about nine boxes. The kids could list the different things about their topic and then choose an order for them. The only requirement was that their book had to be about plants. All of this took place during one week and prepared us for our next trip to the library.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Math Is Hard

I find helping kids understand the concept of place value, specifically of 10s and 1s, to be a significant challenge. Somehow by fourth and fifth grade these kids totally get it, but I have no idea how their primary teachers taught them! Now that I am one of those primary teachers I'm struggling with this.

We often use these blocks to illustrate the equivalency. But I'm not convinced that it makes it really clear unless you are already accepting of the concept. So last week I decided we needed a bit more obvious of a picture to help with seeing this. I pulled out our 100 chart and we put in blocks to illustrate each number starting at one.

As we got closer and closer to 10 the kids started to see it was getting crowded. When we got to 10 we put in 10 little blocks. Then, thankfully, one of the kids suggested we try the orange block instead. From there it was easy to do 11, 12, 13, etc. We jumped to the early 20s and early 30s (I knew this would be tough to pull off even in the upper 20s and 30s much less down into the 60s or higher). I'm not sure this worked completely, but I do think it got us off on the right foot.

Title is taken from the controversial Teen Talk Barbie who actually said, "Math class is tough."

Photo Gallery

I spend an inordinate amount of time at Target. I have all sorts of rationalizations for it, but it is completely excessive. So, I end up buying numerous things on clearance, just because I can't pass up that price! One thing I bought some time last spring was a set of decals to stick on walls. They are clearly designed to decorate a child's room. I thought they would be great in my classroom.

At the beginning of this year I used a few because I don't like to put out a lot of things before the kids arrive. I want them to help create the classroom. So a few of these small things added a bit of color without being too intrusive.

Recently I pulled the package out again as I was reorganizing some things (a constant battle). I realized that there were also picture frames and photo corners there. So I printed out some pictures from this year and created a photo gallery for us. I'll add to it as the year continues. The first day it was up the kids were thrilled. As I add I think they will be excited again and again. Plus, somehow, seeing the gallery makes me smile, even on the worst days.

Agreeing with Dan

Dan Meyer frequently gives me something to think about. A recent post of his stayed in my brain for several days. He is a compelling writer and what he has to say here is fascinating. He is writing about his 'blue students', kids who are struggling.
But graduation, college, and career are all abstractions wrapped in scare quotes to my blue students. So they pummel my flabby pedagogy daily to the point that I'm burger. Lean burger.
Dan is becoming a better teacher on a daily basis because these students need him to be. He can't skate by with these kids.

It took a few days, but I finally realized that his post reminded me of something I had written (and strongly believe).
If you want to see powerful, meaningful instruction taking place, look for schools teaching struggling learners. The students may not be scoring on standardized tests as well as their middle class peers, but I'd bet they're making more progress on a daily basis thanks to their hard work and their teachers' dedication.
One coworker, Mark, agreed with this assessment. He has worked elsewhere and also sees the difference.

Here the teachers keep their eye on the ball, because when they take it off, a kid literally falls through the cracks.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Blogosphere as Window

Reading blogs of other teachers gives me a window into other classrooms. Teaching is a fairly isolated profession and I rarely have the opportunity to see what is happening in classrooms other than my own. (Although I do think that I are more aware of other classroom practices at my school because of how much planning we do as teams or in small groups.)

I've been wondering why I find other teacher blogs so compelling when all I am doing is reading about their days. I finally realized that I am analyzing their teaching in the same way that I analyze my own and trying to learn more about the best way to help my students.

It is possible that I am just rationalizing to make myself feel better about how much time I spend reading these blogs.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Don't Let the Pigeon...

  • go to town
  • play on the computer
  • cook dinner
  • steal your candy
  • drive a car
  • go trick or treating
  • get a girlfriend
  • go outside
  • steal your car
  • take a picture
  • fall in love
  • take your presents
  • fly
  • come to your birthday party
  • kiss a girlfriend
  • steal the plane
  • have a party
  • eat candy
  • have your toys
  • steal your books
  • ride a bike
  • get married
That's the list of ideas my first graders generated after we read many Mo Willems' books and watched his simulcast. We then picked one item from the list to write a pigeon story together. The top choices included all the ones about girlfriends, love, or marriage. I made an executive decision to not write about any of those because the giggling was out of control. We wrote Don't Let the Pigeon Eat Candy instead.

You can view the VoiceThread of our book here.

Don't Let the Pigeon Eat Candy

Friday, November 13, 2009

Getting It

I am a musician. I began studying the piano in late elementary school. Somewhere in early high school I began taking two lessons a week. One lesson was the normal playing and improving technique. The other lesson was theory. I don't remember a whole lot about those theory lessons but I remember really struggling with the circle of fifths (a basic, important concept). I spent years trying to learn it with my piano teacher to no avail. It never seemed to click.

In college I was a music major and took music theory my first semester. Early in that first semester our professor taught us about the circle of fifths. I can vividly remember immediately thinking, "I get it." I don't think he did anything noticeably different than my piano teacher had done (she was an exceptionally talented, well educated musician) but it clicked this time. In fact, it seemed unbelievably simple and I was astounded at how difficult it had previously seemed.

As a first grade teacher I think of this often. I work with many students who are reading 'below grade level'. I wonder if they just aren't ready yet. Will they sit in a reading group one day and just have it click? Am I beating a love of reading out of them because I'm pushing them so hard before they are ready? Is all of our hard work in reading the foundation for that aha moment when reading finally works for them?

I have no idea. However, I have watched my own daughter, a first grader this year, as she has been learning to read. She finished kindergarten right on benchmark. However, I would not say that she was really reading yet. Recently, around the end of the first quarter of first grade, she just seemed to get it. All of a sudden she wasn't just guessing what word it might be or skipping words that were tough, she was reading. A friend says it's like the reading fairy has come to visit kids. It seems like an overnight change.

I had looked at the circle of fifths countless times for several years without understanding. Then, I looked at it and got it. Did those previous years play any role in my understanding? Do my guided reading groups with very beginning books make a difference? Would it be just as good to spend that time reading to the kids and talking about books until they are ready to get it? Is it possible we are telling parents their children are reading below grade level when they are simply getting ready to read at their own pace? I wish I knew.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Teachers Who Teach Me Often

A couple of comments from folks in the last few days have really stuck with me and are filling my brain right now. I was chatting with the best first grade teacher I know recently and sharing with her how impressed I am by how much patience she has with others. Sadly, patience is not a strong suit for me.

She said that when she gets frustrated with people (we're talking about adults, our patience with children is less of an issue) she thinks to herself, "She is some one's daughter." or "He is some one's brother." Looking at irritating people in that light helps her to think more kindly. It's such a simple concept and yet I think it is awe-inspiring.

The other comment came from a blog post by organized chaos. She wrote about the teacher she wasn't. It hit home because it also described me that day. Based on the comments, she and I were far from alone. One reason her post really struck me was because I find myself thinking WWOCD (What Would Organized Chaos Do?) on a regular basis as a guide for good teaching. If I can follow the answer to that question I am often more patient, more caring, more quick to pick up on cues from students: academic, social, and emotional. So, if she has days like that one, somehow it makes it more okay that I do so as well. I will strive against them, but it helps me accept my flaws.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

I'm full of ideas. Sometimes they even get implemented. Every once in a while an idea seems brilliant. Even more rarely, when implemented the idea actually plays out to be brilliant.

Centers during reading workshop go fairly well. Most of the time I feel as though the students know what to do, are doing it, and are actually learning to be better readers as a result. Success.

However, getting started with centers can be tough, especially by Friday since I explained any new centers on Monday. So recently I took a picture of the various places students might need to go for their centers and put the picture up with the center name. Now at least they know where to start! Centers that are used often stay in the same place so the picture is less necessary, but I include it anyway. The visual cue really seems to help some kids get rolling and makes center time smoother, which means I can accomplish a lot more with my guided reading groups.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Same or Different

My first graders sign in every morning. This was a recommendation from my fabulous reading co-teacher and I love it.

The kids:
  • see each other's names everyday
  • practice writing their own name (neatly on lined paper) everyday
  • practice writing with an upper case letter followed by lower case letters
Plus, it makes it easy for me to see who is absent.

Today, I changed it up a little. For those kids who are consistently writing their names correctly , with upper case and lower case letters I added their last name to the sign in sheet. Many of these kids don't know how to spell their last name and some can't even tell you it. So, this is good practice for them. Also, we're hoping those who aren't consistently writing their first name properly will focus more on it in order to add their last name.

I overheard one little girl, as she was signing in, say to a boy, "Hey, we have the same last name!" I thought, "How fabulous that they'll make these connections now."

Later, when looking at this with my amazing co-teacher, she pointed out to me that I put the wrong last name for this little boy. They do not have the same last name. Thank goodness she caught it early so that he doesn't write the wrong name for weeks! He didn't seem to notice that it wasn't right. Ah, first grade.

Update: When I picked my students up from art this afternoon this boy was so proud to show me that he had written his first and last name on his work. It was not the correct last name. Ugh. On Monday he and I will have to look at the new sign in sheet and talk about my mistake.

I can't decide if I should be so impressed with how quickly he has taken on trying to write his last name or depressed that he doesn't realize it isn't his last name. (They do start with the same letter and are similar, in his [and my] defense.)

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Making the Grade

Our school district is trying out a new elementary school report card. I wrote about it last year when it was in early stages. We've tried it for our first quarter and so far I'm quite impressed. They have made changes from last year and the thinking skills are no longer on the report card. In spite of that, I'm excited about the possibilities.

Dean Shareski recently tweeted about his district's grading policies. These dos and don'ts are very impressive. Like our new report card, these guidelines require us to think about grades in a new way.

These guidelines suggest that teachers should ensure that grades reflect the learning rather than the attitude, effort, or timeliness of assignments. For some time now it has been accepted that these things as well as homework and practice should impact grades. As a result, grades have not typically been a clear reflection of a child's learning. It's exciting to see different districts challenging traditional grading practices.

I know many teachers, including plenty at my school, are struggling with these new ideas of grading. I wonder how isolated these innovations are or if districts across the country (and in other countries, like Shareski's district) are pushing these boundaries as well.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Research Shows...Very Little

I'm taking a class, Introduction to Supervision of Instruction. It's actually been a very intriguing course. One of the few assignments has been to choose one skill, competency, or program that you believe has a positive impact on student achievement and look closely at the research on it. (Basically our professor figures we'll find that there is very little valid, reliable research proving positive effects on student achievement for just about anything.)

As a result of this class, Bud the Teacher's recent tweets really struck me.

I am amazed at how often we say that research shows something when there is minimal proof of such things. This is true not just of teachers and administrators in schools and districts but for reporters and politicians. I am finding it shockingly frustrating.