Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Keeping the Winter Blues Away

Unlike many school districts around the country we have school through Thursday (a full day, no less!). I realized on Friday that I wasn't up for holding things together that long. So we had a normal day yesterday (Mondays are short for us always so it was doable) but are doing all kinds of wintertime fun for the rest of the week.

Today we read Snip, Snip...Snow! It's a cute book and introduced the idea of making snowflakes. I had circles ready on construction paper for the kids and I modeled cutting one out, folding it into eights, and snipping out some bits. As I slowly unfolded it I had nineteen first graders holding their breaths or saying, "Ohhhh..." When I opened it out they applauded.

They headed off to make their own.

After that we took the thirty high-frequency words we've studied so far this year and made them into holiday lights. Our word wall looks awesome but isn't very user-friendly. I have to come up with a better way to display these before too long.

Tomorrow we're working on some snowman crafts and hopefully doing some writing about them. Thanks to another teacher on my team we're also going to have some hot chocolate with colorful marshmallows. They'll draw what they have a write the addition problem shown by the marshmallows. We might even write the whole fact family! Hopefully all this fun will get me through the week (the kids seem to be doing just fine).

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Thinking About Our Learning

Last year I moved from having separate reading and writing workshops to one larger literacy workshop. I wanted to hand over more of the responsibility and choice in the learning to my students and to help them see the connections between reading and writing. I was mostly pleased with the results last year and am doing the same thing this year.

We began a bit earlier in the year and, I think, I set things up better beforehand. One big goal for me was having my students make choices that would help them become better readers and writers. So as I introduced various literacy activities we had discussions about how each activity was helping them become better readers and writers. As they worked on various things I would walk around and ask them what they were doing to become a better reader or writer in the hopes that they would begin to recognize the purpose in what they were doing. We created a list of things we could do to help us become better readers and writers and I took pictures of them and we made a list of words that described what we were doing.

When we introduced our L.A.B. (language arts block) I gave each student a checklist. We wanted to ensure they would remember each of the things we expected them to do: guided reading, independent writing, and their work station (listening to a book on the computer, buddy reading big books, practicing high frequency words, etc.). We also wanted to be sure they were thinking about why they were doing each piece of L.A.B., wanting them to internalize things. We used these checklists for a couple of weeks but have phased them out now. (I do have a new, more basic but with more activities checklist for a few students who have limited stamina and need help focusing their time.)

I love what my students wrote about their learning. Glimpses into the minds of six-year-olds never ceases to fascinate me.
(I read a book. I wrote a book. I read a different book.)
 (I read and read. I wrote and read all my words.)
 (I had fun my work station was fun very.)
 (I read my book. I read my story. I read words.)
 (I met with Ms. Orr. I writed about my dad. I put the letters.)
I offered them the option of drawing pictures if they writing didn't seem to convey what they wanted and I loved these. The first is a picture of him reading and the second is a picture of him writing.
 This time the top picture is him reading his writing and the bottom picture is him working on high frequency words.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Kids in Charge

We finally did it! It is only the sixty-first day of school but we finally managed to get our routine in shape for the kids to write our class blog posts. I take a lot of pictures throughout our day and week to use in our class blog. So when the kids get the chance to take over I open up the folder of pictures and show them the most recent ones to pick from. The pick one topic (today the choices based on pictures were the book fair, painting in art class, and tumbling in P.E.) and then decide which pictures they want to include. Usually they end up including all of them.

The kids today picked the book fair. They picked all the pictures (each one would have eliminated one or two but the other would want that one so we kept them all). I dump the pictures into a post and the kids decide what they want to write. They dictate to me and I type as they talk. We reread it together, paste it into google translate in order to have it in Spanish as well, and publish the post. Then I show it to them and today we put it up on the projector so the whole class could see it. I'm hoping that will mean lots of kids want to give this a try.

You can't leave comments at the site, sadly, but we'd love to hear your thoughts if you have any about it. Feel free to tweet us @exploreorrs or leave a comment here and I'll share it with the kids.

Monday, December 05, 2011

NCSS Presentation on Thinking

My VSTE presentation was the second conference presentation I did in the past 3 days. The other was at the National Council on the Social Studies conference in Washington D.C. I shared about the patterns of thinking we've been using (thanks to some fabulous folks from Cornell) for a few years now.

The room intimidated because it held about 150. Luckily enough folks are interested in ways to help students become better thinkers rather than simply better test takers and the room was more than half full. We had some great conversations. I was thrilled with everyone's questions and ideas.

I am especially grateful for this experience as I will be leading a conversation on the same topic next month at Educon.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Technology for Tots at VSTE 2011

I shared about the technology tools and projects I and my students use and create this afternoon at the Virginia Society for Technology in Education. I had planned to have a page up about the presentation before it began, instead it is finally complete just 8 hours after the session ended. Oh well, better late than never.

Putting this together was a blast for me because it was such fun to see all the things my students have created in the past couple of years. It's a reminder to me that we often underestimate kids. They are incredibly capable, creative, and brilliant.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Surprising Ways to Make 8

As we work on computation we are getting rolling with just breaking numbers apart. With the goal of keeping things open ended I started today's lesson with just the title here, Ways to Make 8. The students began in unsurprising ways, such as the actual number 8 and using our fingers (that's the odd looking thing right under the title in the picture). They suggested drawing 8 crayons, 8 rocks, 8 legos, 8 flowers, and 8 people. It took a while before we got to the idea of 4 and 4 and then on to other combinations. In the midst of all these ideas a few students suggested using materials, such as blocks, bears, and books. I couldn't understand exactly what they meant as it wasn't clear that they just wanted to get 8 of the item, so off they went to show me. I love what they created!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Butter Making

Every year during the week of Thanksgiving the first grade team does special rotations. Teachers team up to do a specific activity and classes rotate through. This year we all felt too overwhelmed and too spread out around the school for it.

My rotation since moving to first grade has been making butter. I decided on Monday that I couldn't just skip it, I wanted to have my kids make butter. I invited one other teacher and her class to join us and it was wonderful.

It was crowded with about 40 kids in the room but they were fascinated. We talked about where we get butter when we want it and how that is different from the past. Then I poured the heavy whipping cream into the bottle and asked about how it is different from butter. This led us to a discussion about cream being a liquid and butter being a solid (thus including a social studies standard of past/present and a science standard about states of matter in just a few minutes).

We passed the bottle around so that everyone got a chance to shake it. The whole group counted by 5s to 100 as each kid shook the bottle. Thereby including math in our lesson.

There is simply nothing better than the smiles on all these faces. We also worked together to write the instructions for making butter (writing instructions being a type of writing we do in first grade) and created a VoiceThread about our experience.

The kids all said, "Ewwww" when they saw the butter but loved it when they tasted it. They even said, "Ewww" after tasting it when they saw it. They never cease to amaze and amuse me.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving Fun

We've tried to cram a bunch of Thanksgiving fun into the day and a half before the holiday. This in addition to attempting to continue some of our normal routines. (I may be completely insane or an idiot.)

On Tuesday we colored coffee filters for our turkeys. We colored them with markers, folded them up, dipped them in water, and let them dry. Then on Wednesday we used them to make fun turkeys.

We also made fall trees. (I couldn't come up with a way to make this work with turkeys no matter how hard I tried.) Each branch of the tree had ten leaves or none at all. Then some leaves could be added to the ground. Once the trees were dry we counted our groups of tens and ones to determine how many leaves we had. It wasn't perfect, but given that it was a new idea it was a good start. I'll improve on it next year I hope.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Things We Are Thankful For

Many of my students come from another country and their family traditions are tied to that culture. Their understanding of Thanksgiving comes from the media and school. I decided we needed to take at least a bit of time today to focus on the 'thanks' part of Thanksgiving. I modeled my plans, as you can see in the first picture in this movie. The kids created their own with no guidance. I was thrilled with the results.

Next year I'll try to start a little sooner. Somehow the whole idea of thankfulness gets a bit lost when the teacher keeps yelling at kids to hurry up and follow the directions for saving the picture.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanks From Around Our School

In spite of my issues with the historical accuracy of Thanksgiving as it is typically taught in schools, it may be one of my favorite times at school. I love seeing all the displays about the things students are thankful for. Not seeing "I am thankful for my XBox" or some such makes me smile. It's possible teachers didn't allow that, but knowing our students I'm betting these examples are all genuine. These happen to be from kindergarten classrooms that I pass on my way anywhere.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


I asked to have this kid in my class this year because I've known his 3rd grade brother since he was in kindergarten and this one almost as long. How could anyone not love that smile?

I've held off writing about him because I know him so well I struggled to find a good name for him. After lots of thinking and reviewing favorite books I settled on Jamie from The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Jamie is an awesome little guy in the book, totally on top of things and capable far beyond his age. Quite like my little friend here.

He's one of those kids that will take care of anything. If I ask him to remind me of something, make sure he brings something back to school the next day, or help someone out he will take care of it, guaranteed. Tell him something once and it is set. I know he can keep us going with our routines or make sure things are back where they belong.

Plus, he's a blast to have around. He loves to tell jokes, reads great books, and gets excited about learning, books, and friends. He doesn't like to mess up and takes it seriously when he does something wrong. It happens rarely, fortunately. I'm so glad to get to see him each day.

Use of Our Interactive White Board

I have an interactive white board in my classroom. Sometimes I do a better job of using it than others. I would not describe the current time as a great one. However, we've done a couple of things lately that I like.

I write our morning message on our interactive white board every day. For one thing, it saves a lot of paper (at least in some ways). The kids sign in on it every morning, answering a simple question. One students, our meeting manager, leads the kids in reading the message and then calls students up to circle something (word, letter, upper case letter, hanging letter [like y or g]). Every two weeks I print out our morning messages and send them home with kids to read and share with their parents. We also keep a copy in our classroom library for them to read. The morning messages are something we've read together and most of the kids can read independently.

The other thing we've been doing lately is using Animationish. We've used it to animate high frequency words as a fun way to practice writing them. The idea of change is important in our study of past, present, and future. Yesterday we talked about pictures of a tree near our playground. I took one picture at the start of the year and one last week so that we could talk about how it has changed. We brainstormed other things that change and then we animated a couple of changes. I did the one of the tree as a model. The kids worked together to do the one of the frog. It starts as an egg, then becomes a tadpole, then grows legs, and then becomes a frog.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Why We Learn

My 3rd grade daughter was working on her homework tonight. I have to admit that before this year we have not been good about making sure her homework got done. This year we're trying to be better about assisting with this.

She did not get her word study homework done last week (her teacher requires three word study assignments each week from a list of many options). She was working on this tonight while I did dishes. She was illustrating her words and was stuck on one. She asked me for help and I had trouble understanding the word. I told her to spell it for me. She looked down at her paper and I said, "No, YOU spell it for me." She said, "But I already took this test!"

I couldn't decide whether to laugh or cry. How is it that in third grade she is learning something solely for the test? What happened to the joy in learning for the sake of learning? I know she still does plenty of that, at least outside of school. Is it simply (as my husband suggested) that she doesn't understand why learning these words might be important or useful?

Once I finished the dishes we got started on her fractions homework. She had to take mixed numbers and make them improper fractions. For the first few we drew a picture and she could figure it out. That became a bit cumbersome by about the third mixed number because the numbers got too big. She wanted to just use the strategy she learned at school: multiply the whole number by the denominator and add the numerator. I wanted her to be able to figure these out because she understood what she was doing, not because she had memorized an algorithm.

I pushed on this and, I think, by the end she did understand what she was doing and, therefore, how to do it. But, again, I was astounded by how little interest she had in understanding what she was doing. She was working these out to jump through the hoop of homework. She wants to please her teacher, who is an amazingly wonderful, fabulous teacher. That's not a bad thing but I want her to want to understand.

We'll keep doing all the things we do outside of school to learn and grow but I want those things to work hand in hand with school. In previous years I felt like that was happening.

When I taught fourth graders I was often pained to hear the question, "Is this for a grade?" When I moved from the upper grades down to first grade I was thrilled to never hear that question. First graders love learning and doing new things. I wondered where it was that we managed to beat that out of kids. For my daughter at least it appears to be by third grade.

I don't blame her teachers. She has had fantastic teachers. I think this is a much bigger societal issue and goes far beyond our school. The conversations with my daughter tonight simply pushed me down this path.


Fern is such a sweetheart. She's quiet and thoughtful. I know I can rely on her to help someone else and to do so quite happily.

Thinking about her makes me think that Fern in Charlotte's Web doesn't get enough credit. Nothing else in that book can happen without her. I can see that in this little one's future. She will make big things happen.

Fern works hard and not everything comes easily to her. Watching her struggle and then succeed is pretty awesome. I think her chances for success in the future are actually better because of this. A child who has to struggle on occasion is more likely to be able and willing to do so in the future. I don't think she'll give up when the going gets tough. I hope she stays at our school so I can see what her (near) future holds.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Updates on Some Darlings

I always enjoy parent-teacher conferences (at least most of them) but one this year really made my day. Nate's mom came in and I thought she looked close to tears. In fact, she looked that way for most of the conference. I came to realize it stemmed from her fear that I was going to tell her how little progress Nate was making. That had been true in kindergarten (at least at first). Instead, I had nothing but wonderful things to say about this boy. Then she seemed close to tears of joy.

Nate's mom doesn't speak much English but I think she understood everything I said. We did have a translator though. She shared that Nate keeps telling her that she lives in America and she needs to learn to speak English. He has even gone so far as to put labels on things around the house in English to help her learn (including a 'moon' label on a window with an arrow). He calls her and reminds her of meetings (like our parent-teacher conference). She babysits a little girl overnight and Nate sends her videos about the books he's reading at home while she's gone. I love this boy.

Another little one, this time one who tends to drive me a bit nutty, is reminding me to keep an open mind. After we wrote our Knuffle Bunny book as a class she came in one morning having written Knuffle Bunny Nine: A Halloween Special. It started with "Not so long ago" and in the middle she included "Trixie realized something" - both phrases Mo Willems uses. It was brilliantly beautiful and completely independent.

She's also one of the few kids who can already really think and talk about what she is doing during our language arts block to help herself become a better reader and writer. And still I have to remind myself of these powerful examples of her learning and brilliance when she's driving me crazy. I've got to work on that open mind

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Internet Safety, Or Not

Our wonderful tech guy has been spending a lot of time teaching internet safety and introductions to the internet in every classroom in our school. A really great classroom teacher would have talked with him ahead of time to be ready to support and be a part of the lesson. I'm not that teacher. I signed up for my time and just looked forward to half an hour during which someone else would be teaching in my classroom.

I adore our tech guy and think he is a fabulous part of our staff. He has set up structures and supported all of us in endeavors that have changed the world for our students. Plus, he's a friend and I enjoy chatting with him. I say all this because it makes what happened during, or really before, this lesson that much worse.

He came in with his laptop, opened it up and set it on my keyboard. As the kids were getting settled I noticed it was open to Cog Dog Blog. Without thinking I said, "Hey, I had dinner with Cog Dog last weekend." (My husband and I had to be in Fredericksburg on a Saturday evening so we crashed a gathering at the Bava household where Alan, aka Cog Dog, was staying at the time.)

Our tech guy went on to teach a wonderful lesson which included the big idea that one should never meet an internet friend in real life. Oops. I just hope the kids weren't paying attention to our discussion at the start.

Too make the lesson go south in another way, our tech guy made a Venn diagram of online and real life friends. He used me as the example of a real life friend and said that he knows where I live but not where Cog Dog lives. He said that he has been to my house. A students piped up, "I've been to her house too." The other kids immediately jumped in to argue that it couldn't possibly be true. Fortunately our tech guy pulled them back in before I had to say that yes, he has been to my house because his big brother and my daughter are good friends.

Friday, November 18, 2011


Sweet is the word that comes to mind with this little girl. I can't imagine her being mean in any way.

The name Anna comes from Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan. Anna is the narrator and daughter in the story.

Both girls are quietly strong. They are good to the others around them, helpful, kind, and thoughtful.

Anna doesn't smile all the time but she does so frequently, and it is a wonderful smile. It's genuine and her eyes light up.

She's a hard worker, willing to put in serious effort in just about everything. Watching her write a book or play a math game is a delight. Anna is there, actually in the moment with whatever she is doing. Wonderful.