Thursday, December 8, 2011

Sploder Crazy

Have you tried Sploder? I introduced it to my tech club kiddos this afternoon and it was a huge hit! Simple to use, lots of options, and best of all---FREE. You can create your own video games, then play them instantly. Very cool.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Reverse: Not just a direction...

I'll bet you think you know the meaning of reverse. So did I. That is until a student raced up to me the Monday after the Alabama-LSU game.

"Mrs. Kilgo! Alabama's gonna reverse LSU!"
 "What?" I replied while trying to picture what he was talking about...In my mind reverse is the gear you put your car into to back up.
"Alabama's gonna reverse LSU!"

It soon became obvious to said child that his teacher hadn't a clue as to what he was trying to say..."Alabama might get to play against LSU again!"
"Ooooohhhhhhh......Re-Verse. Got it."

Even being the grammar cop that I am, I couldn't  bring myself to correct the little darling. :)

Monday, November 7, 2011

Laugh With Your Kids

 Today while working on a handwriting page, students had to finish these sentences: I like: _____. I do not like: _____. The entire page had been about food, specifically vegtables. Most children wrote things like, "I like broccoli. I do not like brussel sprouts."

One child's reponse:
I like pigs in a blanket. I do not like pigs.

Love it!

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!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Is a 70 Good?

It's the question I get every year...Kids coming into 4th grade are really just starting to grasp the concept of the letter grade. They know they're supposed to make A's and B's, but they dont' fully understand what those letters mean or how the grades are calculated. So each year I struggle with the same question posed by a new student who has just recently made a C: Is this is a good grade?

What's the answer to that question? If I say "A C is average." they don't understand. Good or Bad...those are the choices. Its one of the questions I dread because after all these years, I still don't know the right answer! Too bad we have to have grades at all...

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

I've heard that phrase all my life, usually in cases where a loved one and I had to be apart for some amount of time. But I think it applies in other situations as well...teaching, for instance. While I'm enjoying my "off" time (as some would call it), I find myself continually thinking about the upcoming school year. It is the same every Summer. Although I've been extremely busy teaching numerous professional development sessions, attending conferences, and vacationing with family, I truly miss my classroom and the kids. I've even found myself buying classroom items such as picture books on my vacations! Its truly a blessing to be able to do the what I truly love.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

What Did You Do to Brandon?!

In my early days of teaching I was scared to death that I would encounter a "Brandon." You've probably met him. He's the one you sit beside during assemblies, the one who requires constant redirection; the one whose name you say at least 200 times a day. In those days I didn't know what to do with him. What if I told him to do something and he didn't do it? What if he has a temper tantrum that I can't stop? WHAT IF I CAN'T CONTROL HIM?

Then one day I realized that I don't have to control him. I've learned that classroom management is less about "managing behavior" and more about establishing a sense of community and trust, and providing each student with what he/she needs.

That's the knowledge that came in to play this week as I've been blessed to teach the Kindergarten-age students during VBS at church. I have a "Brandon." He is a loving, sweet child, but he tends to overreact when things don't go his way. Once he gets worked up its almost impossible for him to control his emotions. We were in the middle of one of these episodes (not sure what brought it on), when without very much thought at all, I walked over to Brandon took him outside and just stood with him in the corner for a few minutes. I talked softly, yet firmly to him about calming down. I then showed him how to take deep breaths. In a few minutes we walked back into the classroom, Brandon rejoined the group, and my co-teacher asked in amazement, "What did you do to Brandon?!"

It was really only at that point that I actually thought about what I had done. Nothing earth-shattering or novel. I simply gave him what he needed. Adult one-on-one attention. Time away from the situation. Time to cool down. Tools to help calm himself.

I'm not sure how or when it happened, but along the way I've learned that behavior management doesn't necessarily mean doling out punishments and rewards. Instead of doing something TO Brandon, I did something FOR Brandon. Huge difference from the teacher I was in 2000. It's nice to be on this side of the behavior management fence. No longer do I fear children like "Brandon." I cherish them!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Could Your Classroom Run Itself?

Mine can. Not only can it run without me, but  yesterday for about 40 minutes it did! Picture the scene: I had previously (or so I thought) arranged for an aide to monitor my students while I work on our school's inventory. I'm in the office working. A colleague comes in and comments, "Your kids are amazing! I walked in there and they were all busy doing exactly what they're supposed to be doing!" Confused at first, I ask about the aide. "No, she wasn't in there...No one was in there, but they were quiet and working hard!" After a brief moment of panic passed, I must say I was overcome with pride. (Side note: Readers, please do not worry. There was a miscommunication with the aide, and the class was covered for the rest of the day).

When I walked down to my room and stepped in, I saw a student leading the Morning Meeting. She proudly exclaimed that they had completed their morning routines, finished (and checked) grammar, worked on writing, and were well into Morning Meeting. Seriously??!! It was 8:40 by this time, and they were right on schedule, about to begin math. Keep in mind that I teach elementary school (4th grade). 

In college we're taught that we should teach students routines and procedures to help them be more independent, but how many classes actually manage to get there? HOW do you get your kids there? What works for me is a combination of the advice and tools from the 4 following websites:

 When I stumbled upon this gem early in my career, it was known as Ms. Powell's Management Ideas for Teachers. She has since changed her site to The Cornerstone for Teachers. Much of the same amazing content, plus blog postings and more!

 Although I've had no formal training in the Responsive Classroom approach, I've read many of their books and whole-heartedly agree with this way of interacting with children. RC encourages careful, respectful interactions that focus on developing students' awareness of appropriate behaviors and social interactions. My journey down the RC road began about 4 1/2 years ago when I first implemented Morning Meeting.

 The 2 Sisters have a wonderful literacy model that they call "The Daily Five." It is highly adaptable across grade levels, and fosters independence, choice, and responsibility. I have used this system for 5 years now in both 3rd and 4th grade. I LOVE their 10 steps to independence!

 What a life saver this was! I found these FREE PDF books the year I had "that" class. (You all know the one I'm referring to). Whole Brain Teaching is a super common sense approach to classroom management. It encourages community, teamwork, active engagement, and accountability---all in a fun, up-beat manner. And if the documents aren't enough, Chris Biffle even has a Youtube Channel!

How about you? Have you used any of these resources? What do you think?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Swing the Other Way Already!

Before I begin, let me preface this post by saying that I LOVE reading and I truly love to teach reading. Reading is of paramount importance. I am a Nationally Board Certified Teacher in the area of-----you guessed it: Literacy. I structure my day so that students have multiple opportunities to read, write, and talk about their reading. I incorporate the Daily Five and CAFE and try to teach the required basal reader to the best of my ability.

With all of that said, I am  left wondering: When is the education pendulum going to swing back the other way? More senior teachers than I say that it eventually will, but I'm starting to wonder...

Maybe it is just my state, but we are in a "teach the reading program to fidelity, don't worry about science and social studies" system. Now, again, let me stress that I AGREE that reading is extremely important. But I'm about to say something somewhat controversial:

----------------Reading is not the ONLY important subject---------------

I am a fourth grade teacher. My students need science and social studies, if for no other basic reason than they need the background for middle and high school classes. I'm getting students at the beginning of fourth grade that don't realize that they live on a CONTINENT called NORTH AMERICA! I could go on and on about the lack of background knowledge my poor students have, through no fault of their own, but I won't.

Please don't think that I am criticizing the teachers of the lower grades. They are doing exactly as they are told to do, and doing a fine job with what they are allowed to teach. (I was told that our state superintendent said to focus on reading and not worry about science or social studies.) Hmmm....Am I the only one who is worried by this? 

Friday, March 25, 2011

Earwigs, Saguaro, and Polar Bears, Oh My!

Today in my class we took a free day. A day free from test prep. A day free of state testing. A day free of time restraints, schedules, and programs. Today we were free to learn what interested us, and what a day it was!

I planned to conduct a theme day with one of our science standards at the forefront: Discuss how living and nonliving things interact in an ecosystem. We started by reading Once There was a Tree, which led to quite an interesting debate/conversation about earwigs! It was spontaneous and one of those precious teachable moments that we crave. Without the time restraints of our usual schedule, we were able to research the earwig, find out what it looks like, where it lives, and that it DOESN'T enter a person's brain through the ear--although some students still aren't convinced. (Gotta love 4th graders).

Here in Alabama we're having gorgeous weather which was perfect for our next activity from Science Netlinks: Investigating Local Ecosystems Can you even imagine how excited students get to simply observe and record what they see in the schoolyard? Exclamations of "Look what I found!" and "Can you believe this?!" and "Mrs. Kilgo, come look at this!" echoed throughout the playground. Those precious children were SO excited to learn (and hunt for earwigs).

Soon thereafter, we settled into a reading of Cactus Hotel. Many of my students didn't realize that a pack rat is an actual animal. "Is this book true? Is there really a cactus that can grow that tall?" Of course this led to an exploration of the Saguaro National Park website. (Are there earwigs there?)

The mention of polar bears in a Brainpop video led me to ask, "Did y'all know that a polar bear can catch and eat a whale?" (This is amazing to me---I had to go into the story of how I learned this fact after reading a book to third graders). Guess what? There's a Youtube video for that! (I made sure to play it full screen so the kiddos didn't see the comments below the video).

Finally, came the best part of all: the making of terrariums. Back outside we went (3rd time so far) to gather pea gravel, plant our 2-liter bottle terrariums, and gather worms. Kids were everywhere! They found worms, crickets, and---you guessed it: earwigs! (Or maybe insects that look like them). Every group shared with the class about their terrarium, then we went out again for a long recess. What do you think my kids spent their recess doing? Checking out rocks, dirt, and other things outside!

It took a lot of planning on my part, which I really enjoy, but the freedom of being able to veer from the lesson plan and take little "bird walks" when the occasion arises is what made it really work. What a fantastic day of learning!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

From a Newbie's Perspective

Every time I change schools I am amazed anew at the vast differences that each school climate has. The differences in schools' "personalities" never cease to amaze me! Perhaps my inner Sociologist takes over sometimes, because I find it fascinating to analyze the inner workings of social groups: What's acceptable? Unacceptable? Expected? Respected? Understood?

Here's what I've been pleasantly surprised to find at my current (and hopefully, LAST) school:

When the Principal talks, people listen: no biting "under the breath" comments, no sarcastic side remarks, no eye rolls or "Well, ____ just doesn't remember what it's like."

Teachers pay attention and are actively engaged in faculty meetings and trainings.

The faculty as a whole is unified: LOTS of vertical planning . Lower grades teachers even ask of upper grades teachers, "What can we do to better prepare our students for _______ when they come to you?"

Teachers aren't threatened by one another (at least not that I've seen). None of us know it all yet. None of us have "arrived." Teachers are eager to share and learn from one another.

This list could go on and on...So, what seems to be the personality of my new faculty? RESPECTFUL and DEDICATED.

Respect for authority, respect for the teaching/learning process, respect of parents, students, and the community, respect for the profession, and respect for individual faculty members, Dedicated to doing whatever it takes for however long to reach our students. How blessed I am to be a part of it!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Stop the Madness!

It was just one of those days today:

  • Spring pictures first thing this morning
  • Practice SAT (which couldn't start until 9 because of said pictures)
  • Just as answer documents are distributed, office buzzes a student from my room
  • Missing a "Testing Do Not Disturb" sign, so my door is opened during test
  • Last minute picture all call includes teachers (Huh? Do I HAVE to?)
  • Mad dash to cover any and everything that has print written on it in my room
  • Date change to our very big field trip, so I had to type out a quick note to parents
  • Test Prep---need I say more?
  • SAT Testing Pep Rally
  • State Tests start tomorrow!
I do not know how I made it home sane. Hopefully things will be a little calmer after testing is over.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Straddling the Reward Fence

I must admit I'm a little on the fence about Accelerated Reader rewards. I just don't know. I believe what Alfie Kohn says about rewards and punishments being two sides of the same coin, etc... But, it is really hard to put into practice, and I'm not so sure it applies to "surprise" rewards.

So, we had an AR party today for the students who made their goals (all but 4 students). No one knew in advance that there would be a reward (including myself), so it wasn't a carrot/stick scenario. When a child asked today, "Are we having an AR party?" I replied that I didn't think we could, since the ones who can't participate may feel they are being punished. Almost unanimously, the students said, "That's a head start for next 9 weeks. It's not a punishment. Reading is fun." Now if you don't know my kids you might think they're saying what I want to hear, but here's the thing: Those kids were sincere. They truly do see it that way. It is part of our class culture this year. They have very positive attitudes and for the most part are pretty mature in their thinking.

So, we did it. And we enjoyed it. The ones who were reading in the hallway had the opportunity to join us if they got their points before the party ended--they didn't. Right or wrong? I don't know...but I do know we had a great afternoon! Maybe one day I'll pick a side and stay on it. For now, I'm still searching and straddling.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Community Counts!

It's pretty amazing to me how schools that are less than 15 miles apart geographically can be worlds apart in student achievement, parent/teacher/student attitudes, expectations, and even available resources. 

The school where I teach now is the 3rd public school of my career (and hopefully my last-I LOVE IT). Before that I taught a year at a private school, and a year in a church 4K program. That's quite a bit of change for an 11 year career. And with all the change, I have learned that there is one constant. The community plays a HUGE role in the success and atmosphere of the school. It's one of those things that I was told, but didn't really GET until I witnessed it first hand. 

I've been at schools where I simply say to the students, "We need (fill in the blank)." and have it on my desk the next day and one where I provide the many of the basics. I've taught at schools where homework was expected by parents, and some where it was frowned upon, especially during sporting seasons. The list of differences could go on and on...

So why does it matter? Well, to me it matters because it gives me just one more perspective on reaching my students. If I'm familiar with my school's community and its expectations, I have a better idea of what type of activities I can do with and for my children. Is it worth my time to put study guides on my website? If I send home facts practice sheets for independent practice will they get done? If I need a parent to come help me with a project at the last minute, do I have one who is willing and available? Will I be able to send home the actual graded test with a student and know that it won't be saved for the little brother/sister? Can I count on parental support with behavioral issues or do I need to 'kill my own snakes' so to speak? Are Mom and Dad able to read the notes I send home? It matters more than I ever knew it could. 

I am very fortunate to teach within a super-supportive community that values education and the hard work that goes into it. Parent volunteers are in and out of the school constantly. If I send a note home, I'm pretty confident that the parents will receive it and read it. Parents generally support the teacher and students are respectful. This is due to parental influence at home. It makes a difference. 

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Difference Between Punishment and Consequences

After much reading and thought on this issue, I've finally come to the conclusion that punishments and negative consequences are not necessarily synonymous. While punishment might be a consequence of an undesired behavior, a consequence isn't always a punishment. For example, if my child doesn't study for an important test, a possible consequence is that he will make a failing grade. I can take it a step further and decide to punish him by taking away privileges such as games or television.

After reading this article (and quite a few others) about the difference between punishment and consequences, I concluded that a lot of it really is determined by the intent of the teacher and the way the consequence is doled out. I loved the table that showed precisely what the differences between the two are. Consequences teach, are given with empathy, relate directly to the actual behavior, and teach students to take responsibility for their own choices. Isn't this what we all want?! That's what I'm striving for daily, although I must confess that I often miss the mark. Hopefully, I'm not the only one :) Punishments are about controlling behavior and are often arbitrary. They leave students feeling helpless and focus on the actual punishment rather than the student's choices.

The same result could be either a punishment or a consequence depending on how it is delivered. So, in real-life, practical classroom application it would like like this:

Infraction: Child avoids doing work
Punishment: "You're not doing your work again! No break today!"
Consequence: "Are you using your time wisely? You have a choice. It is very important that you finish your work during the allotted class time or it will have to be finished during break."

Infraction: Child blurts out or talks over others
Punishment: "Stop shouting out! That's a conduct mark for you."
Consequence: "It isn't your turn to talk right now. Everyone has the right to learn, and when you shout out answers it disrupts other people's thinking. That shows disrespect to your classmates. Please work on being more respectful." (in this case the consequence is actually a talk from the teacher, but it directs the student to think about others, focusing on his/her behavior.)

While both the punishments and the consequences in the above examples might be considered "negative" depending on the personality of the child, there is a HUGE difference in the thought process behind them and the results of each one.

So, Consequences or Punishment? That depends on what the teacher is trying to teach the child--to have self-control and make good decisions, or to do as he's told or else. I know what I'm striving for.

Punishment or Consequences?

Can rewards exist without punishment? Are punishments synonymous with natural consequences?

I recently commented on a post by Mrs. Pripp (Put Your Name on the Board) that I don't really do a lot of punishment/reward type activities because I haven't seen a significant change in student behavior and it is exhausting to keep up with it all. I do, however, think that sometimes students need to be rewarded (see Mrs. Watson's post, "The Day 'Reward' Became a Bad Word.") and that there should be consequences, whether negative or positive, that directly relate to students' actions.

A recent email from my principal regarding the use of rewards and punishments for Accelerated Reader goals has prompted me to re-evaluate rewards altogether. He maintains that we should reward students who achieve their goals, which is "above the line" behavior. He also stated that we shouldn't punish students who don't achieve their goals (below the line). So as not to take his comments out of context let me say that he was talking about the practice of having students who had not achieved weekly AR goals sit at the silent lunch table and read. But, the comment made me think...does the same concept apply to other situations? It sounded good to me at first, but then I tried to see it from a child's perspective, and wondered what's the difference between not receiving a reward and being punished?

Take the following situation for example:
Each 9 weeks students have AR goals that they are expected to meet with 85% accuracy. In my room there is an abundance of books and ample time to read. Reading is encouraged and expected during the day. At the end of the grading period, those who achieved their goals are rewarded by participating in the AR party. The ones who do not are sent to another teacher's room to read and get a head start on their goal for the next 9 weeks. Seems logical to me...They didn't meet the goal this time, so I'm allowing them extra time to get ahead for the next grading period. That's the way I look at it, but to a child, isn't it the same as being punished? Is there a way to reward the ones who do as they should WITHOUT punishing (in their minds) the ones who didn't?

Another example:
In my area students all have at least 30 minutes of Physical Education every day, so recess is not a common practice within most schools. However, in  my classroom I instituted a "reward break" for 10 minutes at the end of the day for students who behave appropriately, finish class assignments, and move speedily through transitions. It is a well-deserved reward for those who work hard, but an additional work time for those who do not. Everyone would be working during this time anyway, but instituting a reward break allows most students to be recognized each day for doing their best. How do you do this without some students some of the time not participating? Some may consider this "punishment." I consider it a common sense consequence to specific behaviors.

In real life there are positive and negative consequences for our actions depending on the choices we make. If one of the main goals of schooling is to prepare students for the real world, I think the concept of common-sense consequences is just a natural way to do that. Which leads me to ponder this---are consequences the same thing as punishment? Does it really all depend on how one looks at the situation? Is there any real way to reward one group without the appearance of "punishing" the others?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

When "Helping" Hurts

Can helping kids too much actually hurt them? This idea has been rolling around in my head for a few years now. I'm speaking of science and social studies instruction/assessment in elementary school in particular. Here's the situation that prompted this particular post:

Alabama History, Chapter 6 (Reconstruction) is taught by my wonderful student teacher, who covers everything that is on the test quite well. Lessons are interactive, engaging, and meaningful. Students are given a study guide that is already completed. There are 21 items, but as I CUT THE TEST IN HALF, I circled the items that would be tested. Students played a review game the day before the test. Right before the test they had about five minutes to review the study guide. Although the study guide and test were not worded identically, they were pretty close. The test had 11 questions and was OPEN BOOK. The students had 40 minutes to take the test. (Even as I write this I'm thinking, "You did all of that?!"). And of course, the test was read aloud to those students who have that specified as part of their educational plan. The results? A class average of less than 70%.

When I spoke to the children about it and asked them why they struggled on the test, they responded that they just need to study more and pay more attention. It was when I was telling them "I can't think of anything else I can do to make this easier for you..." that I realized maybe that is the problem. Maybe they think they don't have to work hard because it is too easy. Maybe they're not challenged enough so there's no real need to work. Maybe they've been given so many "helps" that they've come to rely (and dare I say, expect?) them.

Of course you must understand that I didn't start out giving students all of these "helps." It has evolved over the years for various reasons. The biggest reason currently is that students have so much less exposure to the content areas before 4th grade than they used to have. They are not nearly as prepared for science and social studies as they were in past years. This is not the fault of their lower grades teachers. The push to teach reading and math for the majority of the day has simply shoved other subjects onto the back burner. I'm even struggling with teaching both subjects in a day myself!

Which brings me back to my issue---am I helping my students so much that in fact I am hurting them? I believe so, but I'm afraid to remove some of the scaffolds I've set up for them. After all, I put them there for a reason! Is anyone else noticing this in their classrooms? What have you done to "fix" the problem?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Above the Line

My principal has started an attitude initiative in our school based on Top 20 Teens, which I think is a fabulous idea! It amazes me that so much of what he has spoken to us about goes right along with the Responsive Classroom approach that I'm currently studying and trying to implement. He has already met with the teachers, explaining the initiative and letting us in on some of the lessons and shared vocabulary.

His first installment with the students was a talk the other day during PE about how important attitude is, and how there is a line between behaviors that the people in the top 20% do verses the people in the bottom 80%. He discussed with them that people who have attitudes that are in the top 20 are more successful because they are positive and they work hard at doing their best.

I LOVE this initiative because now my students and I have a shared language for speaking about attitude and positive behavior! Throughout the day we can discuss if something was above or below the line. Students are starting to see where some of their behaviors and thoughts fall within the 80/20 example. They're even starting to discuss how to bring attitudes and behavior into the top 20. This has been (and I believe will continue to be) a very positive experience for me and my students.

And I must say that my principal did a very "Above the Line" thing by getting this ball rolling. I can't wait for future installments!

One Step Away from Frustration

It almost happened to me today. Today was one of those days where everything was just a little bit were just a little bit inattentive. They were just a little bit off-task. There was a little too much talking during transitions. They were a little too slow moving from one subject to another. I was just a little less patient than usual. It was as if the class (and myself) as a whole kept tiptoeing across the "acceptable" line. Add up all of those little tiptoes and then picture the last part of my day:

It is about 20 minutes until dismissal time: students cleaning, a vacuum going, two students working on school store items, three students rearranging the carpet squares, two students organizing books, two students lifting the carpet in the back of the room to get rid of the hidden dirt, three students preparing tomorrow's coffee, and me saying "Remember to study for your history test!!!"  Meanwhile we have only a short time left and we still need to do the read aloud! I decided we needed to finish up the cleaning so we could do the read aloud, but the students just couldn't be redirected. The work they were doing was important, and none of us could switch gears and focus. I felt like I was literally one step away from  going crazy!

But this is where the great part comes in. (In years past I would have handled this situation in a total different way and everyone would have left frustrated.) Today, however, I took a deep breath and called everyone to the carpet for an afternoon meeting. It went something like this:

"I know we are all having a difficult time focusing because there are several distractions, and there is nothing wrong with that." (I could tell they thought they were in trouble, so I wanted to reassure them). "Let's all take a minute to breath and focus our minds on one thing: how our day went." We then went on to discuss below the line and above the line attitudes and behaviors and everyone discussed some above the line behaviors that they had participated in or witnessed today. After that we talked about some below the line behaviors (volunteered by students). It was a very non-threatening type of discussion about each person's behavior, including myself. Everyone was responsible for evaluating him or herself. We finished the conversation by stating one thing each one of us could do to make tomorrow a better day. It was so interesting to hear some of their responses! A few said attitude (including yours truly), but several said they wanted to stay on task, make better choices, do better during math, and show more respect to others.

Presto! In that short 10 or so minutes I was able to refocus the students, have a valuable discussion about self-assessment and acceptable behaviors, and have everyone leave on a positive note! I'm so glad I didn't take that last step over to frustration. What a difference the teacher's response and actions can make! 

Monday, January 31, 2011

The Test Game

As in many other classrooms across the country, there is a teach/test cycle in my classroom. I like to call it the test game. Kids know how it works. Parents know how it works. Even most teachers know how it works. It goes something like this:

  1. Look over the test before preparing lessons.
  2. Teach the lessons, paying special attention to items that will be tested.
  3. Prepare a study guide for students to have/use either before, during, or after instruction.
  4. Spend class time each day or the day before the test reviewing the test items.
  5. Give the test.
  6. Start all over again.
What's the problem with this, you may ask? The number one problem is that I don't agree with teaching to the test. Should we preview the test? OF COURSE! Should students know what they are expected to learn in advance? DEFINITELY! Should we focus the main part of our instruction on test items? Not really. This is the part that boxes me in as a teacher. I know that I must "cover" what students will be tested on, but worry that focusing too much on such things will stifle their learning.

Year after year, unit after unit, it is the same, predictable pattern: Students who have good memories "learn" what they need to pass the test, then may forget the information when it is no longer needed. Students with less help, less background experience, or who struggle to remember have trouble with the tests.

I'm left wondering: How do I make the assessment match the learning? How do I make learning about LEARNING and not so much about the test at the end of the unit? How do I make sure that students really learn the material, and not just memorize for the test? How do I accurately assess student learning, rather than their reading ability or memory? Can their learning be accurately assessed? Does everything HAVE to have a number or letter attached to it?  I'm going on an assessment adventure. Hopefully, some of my questions will be answered along the way.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Can We Do This Everyday?

Don't you love it when you hear this? It's a magic little 5-word phrase that says to me, "Yep, you pulled it off today!" For someone whose goal is to inspire students to learn for the sake of learning, and to teach them that LEARNING is FUN, this magic phrase is music to my ears. 

In a world of high stakes testing, report cards, and higher standards (accountability), I sometimes worry that my instruction tends to lean toward the "preparing for the test" end of the spectrum. To counteract this, I strive daily to incorporate "fun" activities, keep students engaged using multi-sensory, interactive lessons, and provide choice within their independent work. 

So, what brought about the magic phrase? A science lesson about vertebrates and invertebrates. My student teacher and I front-loaded some of the content information during small group reading this morning, using our science leveled readers, so during science today I set up rotating stations: 

1. Streaming online Bill Nye Invertebrate video
2. Cute flipchart on Promethean board about vertebrates/invertebrates that students went through without my help.
3.  With me: Students were given play-dough and told to build a person as tall as possible and see if it would stand on its own (of course it wouldn't). Then they were given toothpicks to be used as backbones and they repeated the activity. We discussed the differences between vertebrates and invertebrates. 

And the best part of all, is that after it was over and we met as a whole group to discuss what they learned, the students mentioned ideas that I probably wouldn't have even covered if I had lead the lesson in a "traditional" way. I really feel like today I met the needs of my diverse learners, leaving me with the question,

Can we do this everyday?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Step in the Right Direction

A few days ago I decided to embark upon a journey to cut out homework. I had this great conviction that I needed to teach the kids what they need to know and provide enough time for practice IN CLASS while I'm there to give assistance. I had made the necessary schedule changes, curriculum adjustments (slight reduction in work load), and carved out a few additional minutes here and there to help the "strugglers", and I was ready! I couldn't wait to go to school and talk to my kiddos about it!

The reaction I got from them was not quite what I expected.

When asking students how they felt about homework, I got the following:

"Homework makes us smart."      "Doing homework gives me something to do."    "Homework is important."

(If I could raise just one eyebrow, at that point it would have been up to my hairline). And then it hit me: They're playing the SCHOOL GAME! They're saying exactly what they think I want them to say. What an eye-opener! (Perhaps I have a little more to learn about making a truly child-centered classroom, if they think they have to feed me lines like that).

Little by little, though, they began to open up. They were hesitant at first because this kind of conversation about school with a teacher was just new to them. By the end of the day, pretty much everyone in the class was excited about the change, and many have even blogged about it, asking "Will it stay or will it go?"

I think I've learned that I've got quite a distance to go and much to learn, but at least I'm making a few steps in the right direction.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Hanging Up the Homework

This idea  has been marinating for a while, but really has gotten a kick-start lately for a few reasons:

  1. My son's recent experience in middle school. Let's just say he didn't get much sleep those two years because of the hours (not exaggerating) of homework. High School has been a completely different experience.
  2. My concern that the students who could really benefit from the extra practice are seldom the ones who are capable of completing it without support.
  3. A parent who asked at orientation this year, "You're not one of those teachers who gives a lot of homework are you?"
  4. Most of my students' days start around 6:30 and we dismiss at 2:40. Many bus riders don't get home until 3:30 or later. 
  5. Kids need time to be kids--they need to have unstructured time at home to just play and spend time with family. 
  6. I worry that it causes problems at home and can diminish a child's enjoyment of school.
  7. I've been reading blog posts like this one: by Mrs. Pripp: So What's My Problem With Homework? and this one by J. Steven Carr: Should Homework Be Banned?
  8. I've been reading online research that suggests homework is not beneficial: The Truth About Homework
Before I go any further, let me interject that I DO NOT simply send home busy work pages just for the sake of sending work home. Our daily homework consists of 3 things:
Read for 30 minutes (school-wide). I think that is reasonable. I don't require reading logs or parent signatures that are checked daily, so there isn't the dreaded "homework check/punishment. I just remind students and encourage them by having book talks and discussing what books I'm currently reading at home. 
Study for Tests: Perhaps 5 minutes of reviewing a study guide if needed. Students have a science or social studies study guide at the beginning of a unit. Social Studies tests are open-book, and many students don't really need to study the science as long as they are present at school during the lessons. (We currently alternate units of science and social studies). 
Finish Math Classwork: Here's where I have a bit of a problem. Math lessons at this point in the year have 30 problems. These are in addition to the whole group lesson, practice set problems, fact practice, or any review we may need to do. (In my post The Marriage of Saxon and Guided Math I talk about how I teach the lesson and arrange independent/group work.) I totally "get" that in Saxon Math, problems are practiced over and over in different lessons so that students don't forget how to do them from year to year. But here's the thing--why so many? I just think it is too much. What happens is that I help them as much as possible at school, but those struggling students still can't finish (which means more homework for the ones who really can't do it independently). 

So, I'm going to try something radical: I'm going to reduce the number of problems on the lesson set to between 20 and 23 and check the lesson set in class at the end of guided math time. Students who haven't finished will have to finish during recess, (where I can be there to give guidance), rather than taking it home. 

I've been warned that students who don't do the entire lesson set won't be able to pass the assessments. I don't know if this is the case or not, as I've never talked to anyone who has actually admitted to doing this in 4th grade, but I'm about to try. Well, we'll see...

Climbing Multiplication Mountain

My coworker and I recently had a conversation with my principal (who happens to be a fabulous administrator) about multiplication that went something like this: 

Us: We need to buy some multiplication wrap-ups
Princ: Why?
Us: So students will practice their math facts at home...
Princ: How's that piece of plastic going to help them learn math facts?
Us: It's fun! They'll WANT to use them and learn math facts.
Princ: You can motivate them without the shiny, new toy.
Us: (a little deflated, but seeing his point): Okay.

Alright, so this was a very shortened version of the actual conversation, but you get the idea. The funny thing is, before the talk was even over, I was already thinking of ideas to motivate my students. The problem in my room is that about 1/3 of my students just haven't learned their multiplication facts yet, despite all of my efforts: games, skip-counting, daily drills, partner drills, videos, music, computer practice...So it must be a motivation issue. Armed with this knowledge and with information from my current read, The Power of Our Words, I've decided to approach the issue as a team-building opportunity. I'm calling it Multiplication Mountain.

I'll start with an envisioning question such as, "What would it be like in our class if everyone knew their multiplication facts? How would it help you as a mathematician? What would it take to make sure that everyone learned their multiplication facts?" As a class, we'll discuss these items, then I'll make an envisioning statement such as, "By the end of this year, mathematicians, I hope that you will work together so that everyone will know their multiplication facts like the back of their hands." Then we'll discuss how members of a community help one another and work together, sort of like mountain climbing. (We recently watched a video about a man with cerebral palsey who climbed El Capitan). 

We'll talk about how climbers depend on one another to reach the top of the mountain. One may be in the lead but teamwork gets everyone to the top. It may be easy in the beginning (0's, 1's, 2's) but the work gets harder the higher we climb. 

I even spent a little while Saturday night (I know--I'm a nerd) drawing a poster-sized mountain and printing stick people to represent each student in my class. From now on when we do daily drills, everyone will do the number that he/she is currently working on. Sounds confusing, but really it's not that difficult to keep up with. Once a student passes the quiz with a 90% three times in a row he can move his stick person up to the next level on Multiplication Mountain. The following day, he will practice the next level of facts. During math choices every day students are able to chose "Expanding Facts" as an option. I will encourage the students who need the most help with math facts to choose this activity more often. We'll celebrate one another's successes as each person climbs the mountain, and also encourage students to work together to "pull up" the ones lagging behind. I'm also planning to find a separate "fact practice" time during the day for the 5-6 students who need the extra help. (Not sure where that time's going to come from, but I have a few ideas. I'm hoping that this exercise will make the classroom community even stronger, while motivating ALL students to learn work together and learn their facts. 

I'll let you know how it goes. How about you? Have you done something similar? Please share.

The Multiplication Monster

Have you seen this monster anywhere?
He is wanted for the following crimes: 
Convincing 4th graders that they don't really need to learn their multiplication facts
Making some facts difficult to remember
Creating endless activities that steal time away from facts practice

Beware! If spotted, use extreme caution. He is not a respecter of classroom teachers, parents, or students. He likes to lurk in most any home or classroom and no one is immune to his subtle tactics. Be advised that there have been spottings in other places as well: Little League fields, gymnastics practices, video games, and even near classroom windows that look out to the playground!

There is a reward for eliminating the Multiplication Monster (or submitting ideas for his elimination), if you're innovative enough to tackle the job: pride, relief, successful students, and that great "teacher" feeling you get when you know your kids are learning.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Marriage of Saxon and Guided Math

As you  may have guessed from the title, we use Saxon Math in our district. For anyone not familiar with this series, it is basically a spiral math program. Every day there is a different lesson and the problem set that students work has many different types of problems, providing repeated practice during the school year. For example, Monday's lesson might be long division, Tuesday-stories about a fraction of a group, Wednesday-subtraction across zeros, etc. (You get the picture). Students aren't expected to master each day's content on that day, but rather continue practicing the skills in subsequent lesson sets. I won't go into the pros and cons of the program in this article, but I will say that trying to "marry" this program with my idea of guided math has been a bit of a struggle.

So, just what is Guided Math, anyway? Well, my idea of guided math is similar to a guided reading lesson--start with a short mini-lesson on the skill of the day, move to independent/small group work, wrap up at the end of the lesson with whole group share time. I really believe in this approach because students are given opportunities for instruction in whole and small group, on their levels, and in short, focused lessons. It also provides the time for independent practice that is so vital. 

With Saxon, the minilesson is the easy part---whatever the lesson is for the day is the minilesson. Although, I must admit it can be difficult to keep the lesson "mini" sometimes.  But for me, the real struggle involved two main issues: 

1. How do I pull math groups, and what do I teach in those groups?
2. What are the other kids doing while I work with small groups (besides their daily lesson set).

Here are some of the answers I've come up with. As with anything else, they're still a work in progress and will likely change as I learn and grow.

How do I pull math groups, and what do I teach in those groups?
  • My ideal situation: Do an item analysis from students' math tests and pull skill groups based on which students demonstrated a need for that skill. Groups would be flexible, based on reteaching a particular skill, and focused on one outcome.
  • My actual situation: Because the lesson sets are so long and it takes my students sssooooo long to complete them, I pull groups (high-middle-low), and we work through as much of the lesson set as possible together. *I'd rather do groups the other way, but I just can't because my students need a great deal of help on the actual problems on each day's set.
What are the other kids doing while I work with small groups?
  • This is the fun part. I've taken what I know about Daily 5 Reading and applied it to Math, offering students choices each day: Games on Computer, All by Myself (lesson set and eventually math journal), Math games (with partners), Expanding facts (facts practice). 
  • We have 3 choice rounds. Every student must choose All by Myself once (but can choose it more than once if desired). Our rounds go for about 15 minutes. The choices weren't hard to set up: I already had several different partner games, computer games, and fact practice items such as wrap-ups and hotdots. 
"How long does all of this take?" you may be asking yourself. Honestly, it takes quite a while to do well. Usually we spend between 70 to 90 minutes on math. It is well worth it, however, as my students LOVE doing math this way. Almost daily they excitedly ask "Do we get to do math groups today?" That question is enough of a reason in my eyes to keep pushing forward with this math marriage of sorts. 

Thursday, January 13, 2011

They're Copying Me Again!

This is such a great time of the school year. It's right about this time that I start to hear some of my favorite sayings around the classroom. The only difference is, I'm not the one saying them--my students are: "Make smart choices, Y'all! Follow directions quickly! Cheaters only cheat themselves...Let's get started right away! I'm ready for math because I have my....Hey, where's my coffee cup?" (Okay, maybe not that last one).

But the point remains that year after year, eventually students will internalize the language they hear over and over and begin to incorporate it into their own speaking. This fact is both inspiring and scary!

At this time of the year I start to really analyze my language patterns even more than usual. Did my body language match what I said? How was my tone of voice? Could I have phrased _____ in a more positive way? Is there something I said today that I shouldn't have?

This realization, coupled with my desire to run a more student-centered, responsive classroom has prompted my latest read:

Might I say, it was very eye-opening!! This book is bringing out elements of teacher language that I never even considered could be counter-productive. It outlines some general guidelines for teacher language (listed below) and then goes into more detail by given specific examples of language that promote learning.

General Guidelines:
  • Be direct and authentic: Use direct language--don't phrase commands as questions (Ex: Will you put your markers away? Put your markers away). Stay away from sarcasm. Watch the tone of voice and body language. Avoid over-generalizations, such as "This is going to be hard." (That last one was an eye-opener for me). 
  • Show faith in children's abilities and intentions: Notice positives, avoid baby talk, and be aware of language that treats boys and girls differently.
  • Keep it action oriented: Connect abstract terms with concrete behaviors. (Example: What will it look and sound like in the lunchroom if we are being responsible?) Describe behavior, not character or attitude. Keep the wording non-judgemental.
  • Keep it brief: Children can get lost in long, wordy explanations. Short, concise words work better.
  • Know when to be silent: Provide wait time, listen to what students have to say, refrain from repeating directions, avoid voice-overs (repeating what students have just said for the rest of the class). That last one was an eye-opener for me. I thought teachers were SUPPOSED to repeat things students said, but apparently "...the unintended message is that children's words are important only if I repeat them and the rest of the group needs only to listen to me since I'll repeat everything that is important." 
Some of these general guidelines are affirmations for language I'm already using, but I know there are a few aspects I need to work on---especially since little ears are listening, remembering, and eventually repeating the things I say.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


As I sit here thinking about my lesson plans for the upcoming week (written and re-written thanks to 4 snow days in a row), I'm struck by the sheer amount of collaboration it takes to be the kind of educator I dream of being. Just on the aforementioned lesson plans I consulted my 4th grade coworker through texts, my student teacher through email and text, my dear friend at another school via twitter, and numerous sources on the Internet. A few of my favorite collaborators don't really even know me--people like Beth Newingham, Mrs. Powell, Mrs. Bunyi, and Mrs. Renz have been inspirations on the web. And of course I can't leave out my twitter PLN. So many links and great ideas!

Because of the nature of our profession, teachers are often isolated throughout the school day, and many of us spend at least a portion of our evenings preparing for the next day. Still, it is imperative that we carve out some time to collaborate with peers. It's energizing, thoughtful, and brings out the creativity that can get pushed to the side amid the daily pressures of our jobs. So, with that said, I thought I'd list my favorite online (and off-line) collaborators:

Mrs. Whiteheadsclass (aka @whiteheadsclass) Dear friend and fellow 4th grade teacher in my district, but at a different school. Mrs. Whitehead has fabulous ideas and is always willing to share her expertise.
Proteacher Community Loads of different question boards. People are always willing to contribute ideas.
Beth Newingham 3rd grade teacher that details how she teaches reading and math. Lots of great organization and teaching ideas.
Mrs. Bunyi Class videos, explanations of daily procedures and schedules. Great ideas for teaching science, reading, and technology.
Mrs. Renz 4th grade teacher willing to share many, many ideas she uses in her classroom.
The CornerStone for Teachers (formerly I've been reading her information for YEARS. So many insightful views and ideas! 

Who would you add?

Why I love the Daily 5

What is it about Daily 5 that I like? Well, in a word: Choice. In this system (and it is a system, not a program), students are offered structured choices for independent work time during reading. The organization system, created by The 2 Sisters, discusses a practical way to structure small and whole group reading instruction. It allows the teacher to work with small groups while the rest of the class does authentic, real-world reading and writing tasks that they choose. In addition, they have developed a no-fail strategy for teaching students to be independent. (Click here for their 10 Steps to Independence).

In my class I have tweaked it, of course, to fit our needs. First of all, we only have 3 rounds, or "choices" as we call them. Each choice lasts about 20 minutes. Students may only choose an activity once each day, except for Read to Self. They may choose it as many times as they like.

The choices in my class are Read to Self, Read to Someone, Listen to Reading, Work on Words, and Write about Reading. (The original model calls for work on writing, but since I already have a separate Writer's Workshop and I wanted students to respond to their reading, I changed this choice to Write about Reading).

I love this approach because children get to be responsible for their own learning. The power of choice is HUGE. When students have the opportunity to make decisions, it allows them to take ownership of their learning and it is a definite motivator. They want to do well because they chose their task. Their is intrinsic motivation built in.

Does it always work? Well, honestly, no. Does anything work 100% of the time?  Sometimes we have our days when there are interruptions or lessons run long, or a million other things impose themselves on us. Some days attitudes need adjusting because of (who knows?) But generally, it does work. The students value their work because they have a say in what work they're doing.

The Content Conundrum

Just as education at large seems to be on a pendulum swinging back and forth, I am on my own personal pendulum when it comes to teaching science and social studies. Back and forth I swing, wondering all the while, "Will I ever find the perfect balance?" Time constraints, daily demands, delays and time killers, mixed with the continued push to spend more time teaching reading and math (which I DO love to do), all put the squeeze on content area teaching and learning.

And so I swing...teach them both in one day or alternate between the two every so often? I can't figure out what the right answer is! Or even IF there is a right answer. Back and forth I argue with myself. It goes something like this:

On teaching them both:
I should do them both every day because students need to be exposed to the content area at this age. For many of them, science or social studies is the most exciting part of the day. When they get to fifth grade they will have them both, so I am helping to prepare the students. If I leave one out, what about the History Buffs? What about the emerging Scientists? Is it really fair to NOT cover them every day?

On alternating:
You know, if I only teach one or the other, we can really 'dig in' to the content and go deeper. We'll have more time to spend on the content and be able to do more hands-on activities. I can prepare for lessons and teach better when only preparing for one content area because my focus and time will not be divided. Students are used to this format. It's what they've done in the primary grades. I can always try to integrate the "other" subject into reading or writing. 

So it goes--back and forth---one or the other. I'm currently on the "Alternating" side of the issue. I like that I don't have to rush through one subject to get to the other one, and that students can dig deeper into the content.

Perhaps one day I'll find the balance, or maybe I'll simply chose the side that works best for me and my class. 

Seeking Readatopia

Over the years I have read about and embraced many different methods for teaching reading: Four Blocks, Reading Workshop, Daily 5, CAFE, Centers, Literature Circles, and more (although not necessarily in that order). And truthfully, I love a lot about what each of these approaches have to offer, but the issue I'm faced with is this:
How do I take what I like from each idea and incorporate it into an effective, efficient, child-centered learning program that I can actually manage?
I think many of us are on this same journey, trying to balance what we know works best for our students with time constraints and other curricular demands. And it may change from year to year depending on the children in our classes and what they need. 

So, with all of the fabulous ideas out there, what's a teacher to do? Because I truly believe in making our classroom a community and a place that is child-centered, I've been incorporating my version of the Daily 5 with a separate time for Literature Circles. Like many of you, I have a basal reader (Scott Foresman) that my district provides and expects me to use. It provides me with multiple shared texts for each week and a set of skills to teach. 

What does a reading day look like?
  • 8:05-8:25: Students doing literature circles while I meet with my Intervention group (students choose books, groups, and roles---I taught and modeled what the roles would be). 
  • 8:25-8:35: Minilesson 1: Question of the Day, Listening/Viewing/Speaking skills, Phonics/Spelling. Yes, I realize this is a lot to cover in 10 minutes, but each things is relatively short, and I like to keep the lessons "mini" because of the brain-based research I've read.
  • 8:35-8:55: Choice 1: Students may choose between Read to Self, Read with Someone, Work on Words, Write about Reading, or Listen to Reading, while I meet with my first small group.
  • 8:55-9:10: Minilesson 2: Vocabulary and/or Comprehension: Short, focused lesson based on Scott Foresman skill or strategy
  • 9:10-9:30: Choice 2: Same as above
  • 9:30-9:40: Minilesson 3: Comprehension lesson (from Scott Forsman)
  • 9:40-10:00: Choice 3: Same as above
  • 10:00-10:20: Read to Self/Conferences: All students read to self while I meet with individuals for conferences. I like having a separate Read to Self time because there are fewer distractions when the whole group is reading at the same time.
So far, it is working beautifully! Students get to have a choice in their learning that involves "real" reading and writing activities. I get to teach all of the required skills in a way that works for my 4th graders. I have a specified time to meet with individuals, my intervention group, and three small groups a day. I don't know if I'd call it "Readatopia" but it's definitely a start. What about you? Have you found it yet? 


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