Sunday, October 30, 2011

Serious about Mo Willems

My students are obsessed with Mo Willems and his books, most especially Piggie and Elephant, the Pigeon, and everyone in the Knuffle Bunny books. In fact, my students love the Knuffle Bunny books so much that they have written, as a class, a new one. I will be sharing it in the next day or so when we can record it.

Thanks to our amazing librarian, I have a number of pictures from Mo Willems' books. When the books have been so loved that they are falling apart, she removes them from the library and replaces them with new copies. She has given some to me to cut up. I am using them around my room as encouragement to my students.

Their response has been, not surprisingly, positive. My favorite reaction, however, was to the pigeon. As they always look for him in any other book by Willems they were thrilled to find him in our classroom. Many said something along the lines of, "That sneaky Pigeon snuck into our classroom!"

Now the question will be whether or not I can manage to update what these little friends are saying regularly. I think they will lose their power if I don't change their speech bubbles pretty often.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Losing...time, my mind, who knows what else

I am not the teacher I want to be, or genuinely believe I can be, right now. I have had either meetings or duty four mornings this week. That means that from the time my contract day begins until lunch three and a half hours later I am either in a meeting or with my first graders. Lunch translates to about fifteen minutes of time for myself most days (once I get the kids mostly through the line and do any other essentials like copying or handling an issue with another teacher or administrator). Of the four days that my students have specials (P.E., music, art) I have had meetings during two of those times and missed that time completely today because P.E. was canceled for upper grade field day.

I don't mean to sound whiny, although I know I do. I just realized this afternoon that one result of this is that I do not give as much to my students as I should. I don't pull small groups or meet individually or check in with them as they work the way I should. I spend some time holding back and just surveying the room rather than digging in. I just don't have the energy to do it.

Something has to give and right now my students are the ones losing out. That's not right and I have to figure out how to fix it.


I'm never sure what will happen next with this little one, hence the name Alice. Alice in Wonderland is a sweet girl who stumbles through craziness. I think my little Alice may encourage, albeit unconsciously, some of that craziness.

She's very social and genuinely likes everyone. After an assembly today the performers were walking through the crowd slapping high fives. Alice managed to connect with every single performer. She was in the midst of things the entire time, at least until I dragged my class out of there.

In some ways this little one seems much older than six. Her eyes often have a wisdom that is at odds with her little-kid grin. She's one I am enjoying getting to know better and better everyday.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Highs and Lows of Reading

My wonderful co-teacher and I were working on progress reports today. As a clear sign of my exhaustion or lack of brain power or etc. I had to ask her a couple of times if she had a kid in a reading group or if I did. Typically she did but there was at least one time I had the child. As soon as she said it I realized and could handle my role in the conversation.

We got to one (of my favorite) kid(s) and I was sure she must have him in a reading group because there is no way I would forget meeting with him. She said no. I looked skeptically at her. She repeated her refusal. I looked questioningly. She pulled out the list of our reading groups.

He was in one of my groups. I have never once met with this student.

I have a student who has never met in a reading group, not once in the month we've been meeting with the kiddos. He has not mentioned to us that he has never been called for a meeting. We have never realized he wasn't getting that instruction time. #majorfail

On the silver lining side of this saga, he is reading above where we expect him to be. I have to admit I would feel a lot worse if he were struggling more as a reader. But still...

Then tonight my daughters gave me a new story to tell (thank goodness). I lost all patience with them - that's not the good part - and told them we would not be reading any Harry Potter tonight. That worked out well when the 3rd grader realized she had some serious word study homework to do. The four-year-old kept bugging her until I sent her off to find a book to look at.

She brought over Dora's Sleepover. It has pictures within some sentences to help an early reader. But I would not describe her as an early reader yet. She started reading it and pointed at words for me to tell her. I gave her the first couple and then there was a picture. Then she kept going on her own for a couple of words. She was getting her mouth ready beautifully at each word and if she thought of a word that made sense that started that way she would say it. This got her pretty darn far. She needed help with about every third or fourth word, on average. But she was reading quite a bit on her own and feeling really, really good about it.

I'm grateful to end the day on a high note.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


The smile you see here never stops. Between those curls and that smile this child makes my day regularly. In fact, yesterday he totally pulled me out of a funk. One of our assistant principals came in just to hang out with our class for a bit and he walked up to her as soon as she entered the room and asked her, "Are you a spy?"

I have no idea what prompted the question but it was awesome. This AP is lovely but I think she was a bit thrown by the question. She loved it too but seemed unsure how to answer.

My students love the Froggy books. Froggy is excited about everything, often over zealous in his excitement, and often unaware of the challenges and problems he may be causing. That's this friend. And, just like Froggy, it is wonderfully fun for him and everyone around him.

He can be sensitive and feel awful when things don't work or he makes a mistake. I have to watch myself about that. I need to be gentle when working with him in areas that are challenging for him.

My hope for this year with Froggy is to encourage his excitement and not stomp it down in my carelessness.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Meaningful Results are Worth Our Time and Energy

Our school is in the midst of a transition. We're moving to more structured, rigid PLCs (professional learning communities). It's causing some tension and stress.

After lots of discussion with others and some serious reflection of my own I've identified my biggest concern. Everything about the way a traditional PLC is designed, in many ways, is focused on test results. The wording is about results in a vague way but those results boil down to standardized tests of some sort.

I tweeted my frustration about this yesterday and have continued to think a lot about it. Interestingly enough I just skyped in with a school in Florida to share my thinking about what matters. Andrea invited me to give the Encienda I gave at Educon last year to the staff at her school. They are planning to use this format for future staff meetings.

If you're a fan of Chris Lehmann you'll find the main gist here really familiar. This recording happened before I really got my brain wrapped around my personal frustrations with PLCs and the focus of educational reform in general and as it very specifically pertains to me. Looking at the video now I am pleased with my beliefs.

I care about results. But that doesn't translate to standardized test scores. Results in the lives of children are so much bigger than that.

Jump to 1:50 to watch the actual Encienda talk. The first bit is me chatting with Andrea and others at her school.

Monday, October 24, 2011


Madeline may be the smallest child in our class. But her personality and smile far outstretch her size. She comes in every morning with a great grin and gets excited about anything we do.

Other kids love to follow her because she is full of good ideas. Watching her on the playground is a joy. She brings a lot of that into the classroom as well. During discussions or while at work stations her enthusiasm, excitement, and energy spread pretty quickly to those around her.

She may be pint-sized but she fills our classroom.

Friday, October 21, 2011


I chose the name David for this little friend because of his love for David Shannon's David books. Plus, he is a lot like David. He is wonderful kid who is always getting himself into trouble. He's never malicious but he can't sit still, talks all the time, and has trouble following directions. In short, he's a six-year-old boy.

I had David's older brother in my class a couple of years ago. These two boys couldn't be more different. The older one is a total rule-follower. He would get so upset when other students weren't doing what they should be doing. It's hard for me to remember that these boys are brothers.

I'm thrilled to have this little guy in my class. I got to know him a bit in kindergarten and was hoping to have him this year. He has a wonderful smile and we get to see it a lot. When he figures something out for the first time, it is exciting beyond words. He wants to share it with me, with other teachers, with anyone who will listen. It's great during our share time!

By the end of the day David usually has me worn out, but all he has to do is smile on his way out the door and I'm on my way again.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Cult of Personality

One of my favorite people to follow on twitter, Jason Buell, had a series of tweets lately that got me thinking.

Read from the bottom up.

I've had subs twice this week (jury duty on Monday and out for a meeting for a couple of hours today) and it has not gone the way I would have liked.

I've come to the realization that I have a similar problem to Jason. My students are pretty fabulous with me. They mostly work hard, get along, and do what they should. I give them a lot of independence and choice and it works. But when I'm not there, it falls apart.

I'm clearly missing something in the development of our classroom community. I want them to be the way they are with me because it helps them learn and because they are thinking about treating each other well. I'm not sure what I'm doing wrong but it's something I'll be thinking about a lot.

Friday, October 14, 2011


This little guy seemed so shy at Open House the week before school began. He practically hid behind his mom and sister. Mom said that he wouldn't be so timid when school started. She was mostly right.

I would not describe him as shy. He loves to be with the other kids, talking, playing, running around. But he's still seems a bit shy when it comes to academics and school conversations.

I picked Corduroy for his name because friends are so important to him and because he often seems to be living in his own little world. It's not rude behavior in any way. It strikes me as being like the behavior I often saw in gifted students in the upper grades. He's in his own head and quite engaged there. He seems totally unaware of all that is going on around him.

My job is to figure out how to make our classroom as engaging for him as whatever he's got in his mind. I think he'll have a lot to offer our discussions once I can manage that.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


Teachers shouldn't have favorites. I deal with that issue by having my favorite munchkin change every day. Lately, this little guy has been topping that list quite frequently though.

Last week he was telling me a story (I don't remember the gist of it). It started with, "My family is from Spanish..." At the end, I asked about this. He repeated that they are from Spanish. I pushed a bit more, asking what country they are from. "Spanish," he said again, with a hint of annoyance and sense that I might not be that smart. So I dropped it.*

His smile is almost constant and he has questions and interest in everything. Nate is unfailingly polite, kind, and generous to everyone.

He's been struggling a bit in his reading group (they're reading far beyond where we expect first graders to be at the moment) so my wonderful co-teacher mentioned this to me. I immediately said that he should join my guided reading group because it will be a better fit for him**. I think it will be but I have to admit that I mostly said it because it will be such fun to meet with him everyday.

Our astoundingly brilliant librarian noted to me the other day that Nate wears skinny jeans everyday. She was wondering where one might find skinny jeans for a six-year-old boy. I have no idea but she's totally right. I hadn't even noticed it. I'm too busy look at this kid's smile and sparkling eyes.

*His family is from Argentina. I learned that from his kindergarten teacher because he will either say Spanish or that he can't remember.

**Nate comes from both the Nate the Great books by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat and the comic strip Big Nate.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Who is Being Cheated?

I did a short race Sunday morning (300 meter swim, 3.7 mile bike, 1.2 mile run). It was a wonderful race, just a small group of people and pretty nice weather. It was held at my alma mater, a college I love. However, the area is hillier than I had noticed as a student - biking and running will make that pretty clear. As I hit about the halfway mark on the run, knowing that ahead of me I had a pretty steep hill that I had already biked, it occurred to me that I could cut through a part of campus and shorten things. Basically, cheat. It occurred to me, but I had no interest in doing it. I do these races for myself, for the exercise and for the accomplishment. Cheating in a race would only cheat myself.

I thought about that as I rounded the corner and headed up that ridiculous hill for the second time that morning. As a student there, cheating had occurred to me at various points but was always rejected. Back then I rejected cheating because I didn't want to get in trouble and because I felt very strongly about the honor code. Never because it felt like cheating would be cheating myself.

I haven't really figured out what this means. My sense is that somehow learning and the assessment that goes along with it needs to be so meaningful to students that cheating would be cheating themselves. When the only reason not to cheat is fear of getting caught there will be many who cheat.

When the focus is on grades rather than learning, cheating seems like an intriguing option. When students are working for someone else rather than for their own interests and by their own motivation the urge to cheat can be strong. We spend a lot of time thinking of ways to keep students from cheating and not enough time looking at why they cheat.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Math Exchanges by Kassia Omohundro Wedekind

It has been such fun to talk with Kassia Omohundro Wedekind about, and to read, her new book, Math Exchanges, over the past month or so. The book has clearly been a labor of love and I have such respect for teachers in the classroom who manage to write books. Math workshop is something that has interested me for some time but I have never really been able to wrap my head around. Thanks to Kassia I think this year will be quite different. My students and I are beginning a wonderful exploration of math through math exchanges.

So, here is a brief interview with Kassia to wrap up her blog tour.

You write quite a bit about the importance of the mathematical foundation students are getting in the early grades. Do you have any thoughts on common misconceptions or common areas of weakness in our instruction that need to be addressed?

As a math coach, one of the most interesting parts of my job was the wide perspective I got as a result of working with many more students than I saw in a single class. I really got the chance to delve into why kids were struggling. And the most interesting realization that came out of this unraveling of understandings and misunderstandings was, that in almost all cases, when I really analyzed what students understood, partially understood, and did not understand at all, most of their misconceptions were very similar to each other. The good news of what I learned though is that I think that we can fix, or rather prevent, these misconceptions from occurring—which is really a lot easier to do than trying to fix them after the fact.

One common misconception that I talk a lot about in my book is the long and complicated journey to the understanding of place value. (See Chapter 7: Building Number Sense through an Understanding of Ten) I think we’re not giving kids enough time and opportunities to truly construct an understanding of place value. In some senses we talk a lot about place value—we talk about the tens place and the ones place, we build numbers with base ten blocks, we make groups and regroup). And yet, the time we give to really consider why we group, why ten is so important in our number system and really think about how numbers are composed and decomposed is really very limited.

So, here’s where the good news comes in. I think there are some very simple ways we can prevent misconceptions and build stronger place value. I think we can change some of the tools we use and the kinds of problems we give to students. In the research I did for this book, these small changes had a significant impact on children’s understanding of the number system and their construction of place value concepts.

It is clear throughout your book that you work in a wonderful, supportive, collaborative atmosphere. Do you have any advice for teachers attempting to begin a math workshop on their own, without such support in their building?

That’s a great question. Math workshop is a much newer, less well-established practice than reading and writing workshop. Here are a couple of ideas:

1) Find at least one other person who is interested in teaching math through a workshop model. It’s so important to have a partner (even if it’s someone at another school you’re emailing with) to discuss what is working and what is not.

2) Think about what you value in reading and writing workshop. How can you translate that to a math workshop? Play on your strengths. If you know how to get rich conversation going in your reading workshop, think about how you could establish this in math workshop.

3) Start small. Start simply. Math workshop does not have to be complex or a complete change from what you are already doing. Perhaps you’re just adding one small group math exchange to your structure during the time your kids are playing a game or working on a problem you've taught them from your current math program. Perhaps you’re adding a short counting routine at the beginning of your math time. Use the resources you already have and then add new components.

Creating an environment in which children can and will talk about their thinking, in mathematics and other areas, is an important piece of math workshop. Can you share what you think are the most important things for a teacher to remember in working towards this goal?

Whenever you can make math meaningful and relevant to your community of learners, you’re going to change how your students think about what math is. You help students make a shift from thinking that math is something that is static, to something that is very much alive and evolving. That’s powerful! So, when my class worked on problems about how many potatoes we could grow in a raised bed at our school, how much cat food my mom needs to buy for her six cats, or how many more stops we’d go on the metro to get into Washington, D.C., these problems mattered. It mattered if the answer was six or sixty. They were acting as real mathematicians solving real problems.

No matter what structure you use for your math instruction, you can include these kinds of problems. Here’s one way I have found to be powerful: Have students work in pairs and solve problems on chart paper. Have them use markers to write (for ease in seeing what they wrote and also because then you can see all the steps they took with no erasing.) Talk about the strategies. Compare them. Talk about the strategies and the math. Also talk about how they worked with their partner. How did they negotiate the solving of the problem? What did their partner teach them? What happened when they disagreed?

Just as in reading and writing, a critical shift occurs when students take ownership over their mathematical lives.

Establishing routines in the primary grades is a huge piece of the start of the year. What sort of a timeline did you have for getting math workshop started? What did you introduce first? How did you add pieces? How long did it take to get the full workshop up and rolling?

It is always tempting to move too fast at the beginning of the year! Every year I have to remind myself to slow down and really make sure routines and structures are strong before taking the next step forward. In September I focus on three aspects of the workshop: 1) the warm-up routines, 2) the independent practice part of the workshop, and 3) the reflection at the end of the workshop.

Our warm up routines (counting around the circle, dot cards, math read aloud) are a short, but powerful number-sense focused part of our math workshop. (See Jessica Shumway’s new book, Number Sense Routines, which is all about this topic). In September we focus on a different routine each week and we really delve into the expectations for the routine.

I also focus on making sure the structure of the independent practice is in place (be it centers or partner tasks). I teach them how to take care of materials, how to talk to their partners when playing a game, how to switch centers, etc. I want to make sure that there is meaningful talk and play going on during the independent practice portion of the workshop. Only then can I feel comfortable removing myself from this part of the workshop and working with small groups.

I also focus on the reflection at the end of the workshop because this is a place where we share our strategies, discoveries, investigations. I teach children how to talk to each other, agree and disagree respectfully with one another, add on to each other’s thoughts and connect to each other’s ideas. We learn how to look out to the group when we’re talking and not just at the teacher. I teach them to value this part of the workshop as a place where we learn from one another, and not just from me, the teacher.

In mid to late October I start thinking about how I want to work with small groups. I start by working with just one group per day. I get my kids up and going in the independent practice, work with one group, and then return to check in on the independent practice. When this is going well, I’ll start working with two groups per day.

Think about what you most value in your workshop. Take the time to teach the expectations for this. It’s ok to go slow (I’m writing this to remind myself too! This is hard to do!). Start simple. Take on one part of the workshop at a time, if that works for you.

Leave a question for Kassia or for me or just leave a comment and one lucky person will receive a copy of Math Exchanges from Stenhouse. (If you already own Math Exchanges you can choose another title from Stenhouse.)

Monday, October 03, 2011


This little friend takes his name, Riley, from the character in the Boondocks comic strip. It may not be obvious from this picture, but he's striking a thug pose. He has all the signature moves of a thug. Until, of course, it's recess and he runs around like any other six-year-old boy.

That may be my favorite thing about this kid. For whatever reason, he has taken on the persona of a thug. But he doesn't let that interfere with his fun.

He and I had a bit of a stand-off this morning. During our morning meeting we were doing a lightening share (everybody shares quickly and briefly) and he chose to pass, as did many others. When I got back to him, because I go back so that everyone does share eventually, he still didn't know what he wanted to say. We spent more than five full minutes waiting for him. He did finally share something, thankfully. That's a really long time to expect the rest of the class to just sit and wait! He seemed to be trying to figure out how long I'd hold out.

I want to figure out where this thug stance comes from. I don't mind it but I wish I understood it better. At the moment it feels like a glove he's trying on, checking to see if it's a good fit.

He's very quiet, rarely talking with the class if he doesn't have to. During free choice, recess, or lunch however he's the star. The kids gather around him and follow his lead. He's practically overflowing with leadership potential.

He participates in all our activities, literacy and math work stations, singing songs, reading together. But he does so, typically, in a somewhat isolated manner. My goal is to pull him in and, ideally, right in front. I want him to see how much he can be a leader in the classroom and not just on the playground.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Don't Miss the Blog Tour

All four of the blogs on Kassia Omohundro Wedekind's blog tour this week will be giving away a copy of Math Exchanges. Stop by each one and leave a comment.

Tomorrow, Monday, October 3rd - Catching Readers Before They Fall
Tuesday, October 4th - Our Camp Read-A-Lot
Wednesday, October 5th - Reflect and Refine
Thursday, October 6th - here

See you there!