Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Questions I Ask

I recently asked our new (phenomenal) instructional coach to help me out with the questions I am asking students. She came in three different times, during a language arts focus lesson, a math focus lesson, and our calendar time.
I have thought a lot about questioning during calendar and expected to find that I asked much better questions during that time than I did at other times. What she noted and our discussion was highly enlightening. (This was about a month ago and I'm still mulling it on a daily basis.)
First of all, I can't say how helpful this was. I could have videotaped my lessons and watched them to explore my questioning, but I think I would have been distracted by so many other things, even if I managed to stay just focused on me in the videos! Our instructional coach wrote down all the questions I asked. Having that list to review was perfect.
I was thrilled to see that I encourage my students to explain their thinking. When a student shares their thinking I ask for others to agree or disagree. We've established a routine so students do so and explain why. I spent a lot of time early in the year working on this during calendar. Looking at the lists, I found that it has spread out through our day. Good news.
On the downside, I ask a lot of really basic questions. Not yes or no questions, which had been my fear, but questions which don't dig too deep. I have some concerns about Bloom's taxonomy but I have been reviewing some resources based on it in the hopes of pushing my students' thinking more. The prompts and sample questions are helping me do a deeper analysis and plan questions accordingly.
One thing I've learned over a decade and a half of teaching is that I'm never going to reach my bar. I'm really proud of the strategies I've taught that result in my students explaining their thinking independently. But now I need to make that thinking more complex. The benefit of these years is that over time I build skills and routines. In a couple of years I expect my students will be explaining their more complex thinking!
Cross-posted at

Monday, April 28, 2014

Pausing for Breath

It's a time of year when I have trouble keeping perspective. We still have eight weeks left but I doubt any of them will be normal weeks. We've got concerts, testing, field days, end of year picnics, more testing, class pictures, final field trips, even more testing, and who knows what else. We've got to be flexible, patient, and muddle through. And, ideally, stay focused on what matters.
As a result I feel a need to pause a bit to celebrate some things I've done well this year. It's easy for me to focus on all the things I haven't done this year or didn't do well, all the things I wish I had done better. 
For a number of years now I have been sending postcards to my students. I figure everyone loves to get mail and chances are good parents will see the postcard as well. Here are three I wrote this afternoon.
Postcard 2
Many of the postcards I send are focused on academic successes. When a student does something awesome during the day I try to grab a postcard that day and write to them.
Postcard 3
Other postcards are about different kinds of successes. Anything that is hard for a student is worth celebrating when they do it well. (I also put the bit in here about being tired as a hint to these parents too - here's hoping!).
Every once in a while the postcard might be about something important to that kiddo. 
My goal every year has been to send each kiddo four postcards - one each quarter or so. I've never once made that goal. At this point all but a handful of my students have received three postcards. I might just make it this year.
On a side note, one of my darlings wrote this today:
Dear Class Letter
"Dear class this has been the Best skoll year of my life thanks to a few" - then it said, "special friends and" listed kids in our class. As a first grader this is only her third year of school (Head Start, kindergarten, and now) so the whole 'best school year of my life' thing isn't quite as meaningful as it might be in a few years, but I'll take it!
Cross-posted at

Saturday, April 26, 2014

A Friday in First Grade

Bowling Truck FJ
Thursday and Friday we got to go to the Bowling Truck. (This is the back of an 18-wheeler which has been converted into one bowling lane.) There is nothing quite like a full class of first graders taking turns bowling, cheering each other on (chanting names), and dancing to the blaring music. Normally I wouldn't spend two days of my planning time with my kiddos but I couldn't pass up the chance to watch this and take my turn bowling.
Lion Writing
One of my boys wrote this. He is fascinated with animals and knows a lot about them. I think he also knows a lot about gender.
Santa Hat

Yes, this was yesterday, a day in April. I have no idea why this little guy wore a Christmas hat on April 25th (although it is the 25th so...). He wore it when he came in, then put it away for the morning and got it back out for recess and lunch. He then put it back away until the end of the day. I never said a word about it. Because this is just normal in first grade.
Cross-posted at

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

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Proud Beyond Words

My daughters drive me insane with their ability to lose library books, annoy me with their bickering, irritate me with the clothes covering their bedroom floor, and infuriate me with their complete lack of awareness of other people sometimes.
But mostly, they make me incredibly proud. The first grader is a model kid at school. Her teachers (classroom, art, etc.) believe she could run the classroom and practically let her do it. She’s kind to other kids and loves learning. In preschool I worried she couldn’t accept when her friends couldn’t do things she could do. She’s grown past that now and encourages and supports classmates who are working hard to read or do their math. She’s amazingly able to help without doing for them, a skill that is incredibly useful.
The fifth grader is brave and tenacious. I watched her try ice skating tonight for the first time. Before she got on the ice she was nervous and excited. She was the oldest in her class and she struggled. She fell, she moved slowly, she felt awkward. But she stuck with it. She’ll feel the bruises tomorrow but she still wants to go again Friday night so she can practice. She got up on stage at the talent show when she was a second grader and read a picture book. After watching for more than an hour as kids sang, danced, and played musical instruments. It didn’t slow her down at all that what she wanted to do was unusual at best.
The things that drive me crazy about my girls are things they will outgrow, things that are typical for kids. The things I’m proud of are things I believe they’ll be forever. I am so lucky to be in their orbits.
For months now my older daughter has been wanting to start a blog. She had the title picked out long ago: How WE Feel. It was critical to her that the we be in all caps. I put her off for a while because she, like me, tends to have lots of ideas but not nearly as much follow through.
She felt this site is needed because, as she told me, “There are lots of books and things about teaching and school but they’re always from the teacher’s perspective. Kids need a place to share their thoughts about it.” (I didn’t get into the fact that I’d be thrilled if all those books about teaching and school were actually from teachers. But it did reinforce her point for me.)
Eventually she not only had the title, she had an organization plan and guiding questions for the site. So on a snow day (one of many) we created her site. If you look at the About page you’ll see her rationale, in her words. I was just tech support.
For kids who want to share their thoughts but don’t know where to start, she created some question prompts for different school subjects. Finally, we made a contact form so kids can send their thoughts and we’ll post them.
If you teach or if you are a parent, please share this with the kids in your life. I can’t tell you how excited my daughter would be to find kids sharing their thoughts. Her goal is to give kids a voice.

Cross-posted from


#EvaluateThat is a meme (because I can’t come up with a better word) that’s been going around Twitter and Facebook lately. I noticed it both places but really thought about it when Valerie Strauss highlighted it for The Washington Post.
On the whole, I like Strauss’s piece. Most of what she’s highlighting goes beyond what is typically expected of teachers without being absurd. I believe these stories should be told and told often. Not only because people outside of education need to understand our realities, but more importantly because these stories are about kids.
Too often everything we talk about when it comes to education is about the content. That may be about teacher qualifications – how well teachers are prepared for the content – or standards (be that CCSS or some others) and standardized tests. Our conversations about education show what we value. It isn’t pretty. These stories are all about the students. These conversations put our values where they belong.
On the downside, #EvaluateThat seems to be almost a competition for some teachers. A chance to show off how much more than do than anyone else. That part of it saddens me a bit. But the positives outweigh the problems. So I’ll keep checking it out!

Cross-posted from