Monday, October 24, 2011

Nagging or Nurturing?

I came home from school today thinking that it was a bit of a 'nag' day. All day long it was:
Listen carefully...
Head your paper correctly...
Follow directions quickly...
Go back and redo...
Is this your best handwriting?
This work is not acceptable.
All books live in book boxes.
Yes, what? (yes, ma'am). 

In my head I imagined Charlie Brown's teacher.
...until I read this post by one of my students written just a few minutes ago:  


Yes, I know that there are a few errors and that she is shouting. We're working on that, too, along with all of those other things I posted above.

The point is...I thought of today as a nagging day. She had a great day. How is that possible? Here's what I think may go on (or at least hope it does) in some of their precious, little heads:

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Creative Chaos

It started out as an ordinary writing lesson..."Take out your writing notebooks, blah, blah, blah..." Until I realized that the lesson I'd left for them to try out while I was absent the past two days was a little bit of a flop. We're reading a play in our basal reader this week, so they were supposed to write a play scene. After questioning the kids, I realized that a large majority just weren't comfortable or familiar with this genre, so I changed the lesson on the fly and we began to compose a play scene together as a group. It went something like this...

A class full of excited children rush down to the carpet and begin eagerly raising their hands, wondering to themselves what had come over their teacher...
Teacher: Who are the characters?
Student 1: (shouting excitedly) Bob and Larry!
Teacher: Okay, great! What's the setting?
Student 2: World War 2, in a bomb shelter!
Teacher: Okayyyyy (She nervously types the student's response on the board, hoping it is okay to reference violence in the class-created play scene) So, what are Larry and Bob saying to one another?

The children and teacher develop a short play scene which involves Bob and Larry in a vegetable verses fruit war, and ends with everyone living happily, although painfully ever after. After the play scene has been written and revised a chorus of excited voices begin to inquire one thing from the teacher.

All Students: Can we act it out now?!
Teacher: (checking her clock to see that she hasn't completely ruined the day's schedule) Definitely!

This, my friends, was when the "chaos" part of our creation began to ensue. You would've thought I'd just given them all a $100 bill! They were so excited. The first three people on the classroom "turn cards" got to choose their parts, while the rest of the class became the fruit and vegetables in our "war." A mad dash to find shields (beanbags), swords (rulers), and tactical positions within the room became the focus for a few minutes until the play started.

Somewhere in the middle of this my control-freak alarm was blaring insistently to quiet the children or to at least try to calm them...but then I looked at them. I mean, REALLY looked at them. I don't know if I'll ever forget what I saw during this impromptu lesson. Every child excited. Every child smiling. Every child having fun. Every child engaged in what we were doing. All I could think was, "This chaos is a little scary, but WOW!" What an awesome experience.

It's something that can't easily be replicated unless the teacher is willing to step outside his/her comfort zone, throw out the lesson plan when needed, and just grab those teachable moments when they come along. I'm so glad I did it today.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Rainbow Brains


Throughout the school day, how often are your students fully engaged? I mean really, truly focused and on task? Are your students' brains the rainbow brains?

We all want our students to participate, think, take responsibility for their own learning, and be engaged. We want the RAINBOW BRAIN. The question is, "How do we get it?"

I believe incorporating more writing and written response into each lesson is one key to achieving the rainbow brain. (See this post: Writing and the Brain, by neurologist and teacher, Judy Willis) One of my favorite quotes from the article is this: "

When writing is incorporated in learning and assessment, there is increased opportunity to produce the ideal situation for active, attentive learning."

We use lots of great active participation strategies such as "Turn and Talk" (partner talk), thumbs up/thumbs down, call and response activities, etc...But writing is the key to fully engaged, active learning. So here are a few ways I'm using writing (these are aside from my traditional Writing Workshop that takes place each day).

  • After a lesson in Social Studies: "Would you want to live during this time period? Jot down your response..."
  • Before a math lesson: "How do you know when you should regroup in subtraction?"
  • During a science lesson: "List as many vertebrates as you can in the next 42 seconds." 
  • During vocabulary instruction: "What things make you feel melancholy? Jot them down."
  • Grammar: "List as many adjectives that describe yourself as you can think of..."
  • After a science lesson: "What are some similarities and differences between endangered and extinct species?" 
None of these are especially new or innovative...they're basically questions that you would probably ask orally. But what makes them powerful is that students are engaged in writing--short and long writing that helps build writing fluency, and at the same time really gets students working and thinking...rainbow brains.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Engage Their Brains

I was shown a very interesting piece of brain research today during a professional development training. It confirmed what we all know about how important writing is, but was startling nonetheless. We were shown brain scans indicating the part of the brain that works during different activities:

--Listening to a word: a small part of brain
--Seeing a word: a different small part of the brain
--Talking about a word: a little more of the brain
--Writing about a word: almost the entire brain was engaged!

How powerful is that??! Confirmation and encouragement to keep incorporating writing in all subject areas!

Monday, October 10, 2011

I Submarined Today

Today started off fantastically with a lively discussion about pioneer life (kids loved learning about out houses). but when we started reading after PE things began to take a turn for the worse. You've been there, I'm are less than enthusiastic, not participating even when I try to use active participation strategies.  They're half listening, unfocused, and uninvolved. It's like pulling teeth to get them to talk with me or with their partners. I had just about had enough, so when I noticed that only 2 children were on the page I asked to them look at, I had a choice. I could have redirected them. I could have changed tactics. I could have done numerous other things. Instead, I chose to reprimand them. They had chosen to not be involved in the activity, so I assigned them an activity in which they HAD to be involved to complete: read the text and answer questions. I gave them a stern talking to about listening, paying attention, doing your best, working hard, etc...I took the "we can do this YOUR way (lots of hard work) or MY way (collaboration, group work, talking, projects) approach with them.

Now, don't get me wrong...I believe children should be corrected when they misbehave or disobey. And sometimes there are consequences or punishments that go along with correction. But the reason I feel like I submarined is because I know there are better ways to motivate children. Thinking back on my response today, I know I could have made a different choice and still maintained a positive atmosphere in our classroom.

I think that's what bothers me most of all. The negativity. I could have responded in so many different ways. Next time I can:

  • Change activities: have students move somewhere different, work with someone else, or respond in a different way.
  • Move on to something else, then come back to it later
  • Take a brain break (maybe that's what they needed)
  • Tell a joke
  • Have students do a quick, physical activity such as a few jumping jacks
  • Have a class meeting
All of these things will give the students a chance to refocus, while maintaining the positive atmosphere that I strive to keep going in the classroom. 

And while I DID submarine today, I hope to make a better choice the next time I am in a similar situation.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Grading AR? Just Curious...

At my school Accelerated Reader is a grade on the report card. In case you're not familiar with the program, AR is a reward-based system in which students read books, take tests, earn points, and thereby receive awards based on the number of points they accumulate. Just as with any other "program" there are pros and cons. It is highly motivating for some students, but has the capability to turn reading into a chore for others. I've seen students on both ends of the spectrum, and everywhere in between. My questions are this:

What is your opinion about using AR for a grade? Do you do it? Is it a report card grade or a small part of your reading grade?

I'm just curious as to your opinions. Our report card grade is comprised of two grades averaged together: The average percent correct grade from all AR tests and the percentage of AR points toward the student's goal that they've earned. For example, if a student's goal is 8 points and they earn 8 points, that is a 100% averaged in. If a student took 5 tests and had an average percent correct score of 80%, then an 80 is averaged with a 100. The final report card grade would be 90.

Surviving Saxon Math

For years now I've struggled with some of the aspects of our adopted math program, Saxon Math. I've blogged about it (Marriage of Saxon and Guided Math), discussed it with other teachers and administrators, searched on-line for help and tried many numerous ways to improve the program's deficits. I love the constant review that the program is based on, but come on....27 problems or more every day of independent practice?  All of this AFTER the fact practice, warm-up, lesson, and practice problems. ONE day of instruction with a scant few practice problems on difficult skills? All of this when students in the grade before are only subjected to 10-12 problems on a worksheet each day? This year, I think I've finally found the answer:

  • Students do either evens or odds on the lesson set. (I worried that this would not be enough practice to gain proficiency, but it is working well so far.)
  • I add practice problems from other sources so students are able to learn and practice the day's skill to a deeper level.
  • We spend more than one day on harder lessons (such as subtraction across zeros). 
Before this year I struggled to fit in enough time for students to finish their work at school. I also had many students who struggled with their math self-concepts. They just didn't think they were good at math, got bogged down in all of the problems, and it affected their performance.I've seen a dramatic change this year---students look forward to math! They are successful. They are able to complete the work at school. The additional practice on the day's lesson helps build their confidence in the skills they're learning. I think I may have finally figured out how to survive this Saxon Math!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Voki in the Classroom

I'm always in search of ways to successfully integrate technology into the curriculum. I work closely with one of my dear friends, Cara Whitehead, (see her awesome blog) to plan and implement different tech tools into our 4th grade classrooms. Recently, we struck gold on

To go with a story about a girl who plays basketball, we had students research a famous athlete of their choice, blog about it, then create a Voki about that person. Check out some of the results:

This was not only an easy, high-interest activity, but also a fabulous way to incorporate literacy, research, and computer skills.

Weather Crazy

I'm really starting to believe what my older and wiser teaching companions have stated as fact for years: the weather effects children and their behavior...especially their volume.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

She Used It!

Yesterday I was reminded yet again of one the many reasons why teaching is so rewarding. A week or so ago I taught a lesson in whole group as well as small group involving the "I Remember..." strategy. I think I learned of it first in Make it Real! by Linda Hoyt. Basically, you read a little, then stop and think about what you remember and jot that down. I modeled, guided, directed, questioned, and of course, hung up the anchor chart from our whole group lesson. "If you have trouble remembering the entire story when you read a chapter book or a nonfiction text, this is the strategy for you..." I explained.

Sometimes I wonder how much of what I say actually sticks inside those precious little minds. I found out yesterday.

As I stopped by a child's desk for a reading conference, I noticed her reading notebook open, as well as her chapter book---she was using the strategy! All by herself, without any prompting! Did I mention that this is one of those children who really needed the strategy? Needless to say, I was pleased, proud, and impressed.

I love those moments.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Are small groups always the answer?

I am a "queen" of small groups. I believe in them---been using them for reading and math, and have been doing some form of small group teaching for many years now. But this year, I'm at a crossroads. We have a new schedule, which is fabulous for math and my other subjects. I have a dedicated time for tier 2 reading and tier 2 math every day and no longer have to worry about teaching science OR social studies--I can do BOTH! (see this post from last January: The Content Conundrum) However, my Language Arts block has been decreased, which means I no longer have an enormous block of time for reading, language, spelling, and writing. Whereas I used to have about 2 1/2 hours for LA, this year I have less than 2 hours (including my dedicated tier 2 time). That's about 50 minutes less than I had before, giving me about 60 minutes for Reading and the rest of the time for everything else, which presents quite a problem...How in the world do I fit in whole group instruction, and meet with 3 small groups in reading every day in about 60 minutes?

Oh, believe me, I gave it the old college try: 15 minute whole group reading lesson, then 3 15 minute small group rotations, but let's get real--by the time everyone is settled from the transition and actually on task we're dealing with about 10-12 minutes in a small group or doing an independent "choice". (We do daily 5 in my room). And my kids are very good workers. They really try to transition quickly and get started right away and stay on task, but 10 minutes? Is that really enough time to get things accomplished? To get into a good book? To add something valuable to a written piece? To discuss reading with a partner or dig into an extension project?

I've really struggled with this and its caused me to question my whole reading organization. Are small groups every "15" minutes really the answer? In my room this year and with my time constraints I think the answer is "Not for every child." 

So, I've decided to start something new: It may actually sound a little old school, but old school doesn't necessarily equal antiquated or bad. Whole group will stay the same, but I won't be so strict about finishing in 10 or 15 minutes. I'll schedule some time in there for the kids to actually practice what I'm teaching them independently or with partners, so we're realistically looking at about 20 or 25 minutes. Then we'll have ONE small group/choice time. I'll give students one or two things that they must do before their choice (respond in writing or something similar), then I will meet with one group, maybe two if I have time, (or maybe even individuals) but I won't stress over it. After all, if the research is correct, only a small percentage of my students actually need to be retaught the whole group lesson in small groups. So why am I trying so hard to meet with everyone every day? Hopefully, we'll also have a little time at the end of our reading block to come back together and share learning.

Sounds a lot like Readers Workshop, huh? I'm really excited about doing it. I've used this method before, but its been a while. I think it will be better for everyone: students will have time to apply and practice what they've been taught, I will have enough time to meet with the kids who really need me, and the instructional time won't be chopped up into such tiny little pieces. 

Test run next week...Hopefully all will go well!

Design by Custom Blog Designs