November 30, 2014

Close Reading

The Common Core Standards demand that students, even little firsties, read closely to understand character development, setting, and central messages in texts.  We often talk about "close reading" as a whole group lesson that has kids reading and rereading a complex text with scaffolded questions.  However, the other day I had a discussion with one of my strongest readers that I think exemplified close reading.  This kiddo has been assessed on a third-grade reading level and his accuracy and overall comprehension were strong, but I've noticed that he still struggles with longer books.  We have been working on stopping at the end of each chapter to check in and make predictions.

Kiddo: "I'm finally on Chapter 6! It's called "Lawbreakers" so I think someone is going to break the law." (He was reading The Drinking Gourd.)
Me: "Hmm, breaking the law seems like something big to happen in Chapter 6, are you sure that no one has broken the law yet?"

I pulled him over to my table and flipped through the book with him, asking a few basic comprehension questions.  It was clear that he understood the big idea: an African American family is trying to escape from slavery with the help of a white father and his son.

Me: "There is another character too!  "The Marshall": who is he?"
Kiddo: "I'm not sure exactly. He might be the African American dad."
Me: "This seems important.  Let's confirm who the Marshall is before you move on."

I took a big Post-it and stuck it in the book on Chapter 6.  I wrote "Who is the Marshall? What is he doing?".  Then I asked the kiddo to go back to the story and find evidence in the text to help him answer the questions.  As he looked back through the book, he developed a few other theories about the Marshall.  Eventually he determined that the U.S. Marshall was trying to bring the African American family back to slavey.

Me: "What do you know about the setting of this book?"
Kiddo: "Well, it's in the past. When there was slavery."
Me: "How can that help you understand what's going on? What is the white family doing by helping the slaves?"
Kiddo: "Oh! Even though they were doing a good thing, it was actually breaking the law to help slaves get free! Tommy and his dad are the lawbreakers!"

Yes!  This insight was essential to really understanding the text, and this first grader was completely capable of understanding it.  He just needed a little support along the way to get there.  Although this wasn't a planned activity, or a whole class lesson, this is what I think of when I think of close reading.  The challenge is finding the time to check in with all of my readers during their independent reading to ensure they are really pausing, questioning, predicting, and making connections.  It's wonderful when it happens!


November 20, 2014

Next Gen Science Unit

We just finished our first science unit based on the Next Generation Science Standards!  I first looked  through these new standards last spring when my school decided to adopt them, and I admit I was totally overwhelmed.  These standards are much more in depth than our previous science standards.  Instead of basic statements about what students should be able to do and understand, they include performance expectations, science and engineering practices, and disciplinary core ideas which map specific skills in a progression from Kindergarten through high school.

It took me awhile to get familiar with their organization and expectations.   In addition, because the Next Gen Standards are still very new, there are few resources to support their implementation.  Nevertheless, I decided to try planning our first unit based on the Structure, Function, and Processing standards which focus on plants and animals.

One of the "crosscutting concepts" for these foundational standards is that "Patterns in the natural world can be observed, used to describe phenomena, and used as evidence."  It took me a few reads to figure out that, basically, my kiddos should be able to recognize the patterns in life cycles and offspring-parent relationships and create some generalizations about why these patterns exist. I gathered a number of resources to expose my students to the life cycles of plants and animals -- including pictures, books, and real live plants. We began to make charts and take notes about how plants and animals are "like, but not exactly like, their parents."

The kiddos caught on very quickly!  They were able to connect seeds to their flowers or fruits by looking at their color, shape, or size.  (I used these great cards from the Montessori Print Shop for a few activities!)  They noticed the similarities and acknowledged the differences between baby animals and their parents in books like BIG & Little by Marilyn Easton.  (I incorporated these Adult and Baby Animal Pictures from TeachersPayTeachers for some hands-on practice.)

Then we began to consider what behaviors in baby animals helped them to survive. Although the kiddos quickly recognized how parents help their babies, it took some time to realize what the babies were doing to initiate these behaviors.  We read more books and made more observations to see how the babies signaled their parents that they were hungry or needed help.  I was able to integrate both fiction and nonfiction books into this unit which was great.  Books like Owl Babies and Is Your Mama a Llama? were actually perfect for highlighting how baby animals and their parents communicate.


I wouldn't say this was a perfect unit by any means, but the kiddos seemed to enjoy it and get some new knowledge out of it.  I created an assessment to check their understanding and they all did quite well.  In the Spring, I'm going to tackle the other Structure, Function and Processing Performance Expectation: 

Use materials to design a solution to a human problem by mimicking how plants and/or animals use their external parts to help them survive, grow, and meet their needs. 

I'm looking forward to building on the foundation we built through this first unit!

November 18, 2014

Words Their Way Vocabulary

One of the things I love about the Words Their Way program is that while my kiddos are working on CVC words, vowel patterns, and word families, they are also getting to practice vocabulary!  One of the challenges with the program, though, is that there are so many words and so many options for practicing them!


This summer I spent a lot of time thinking about how to make my Word Study time more effective for all of my spellers.  I typically have quite a range in my classroom -- from kiddos struggling to differentiate short vowels (like bed vs. bid) to those working on r-inflected words (like "harm" or "turn").  I wanted to ensure that everyone got sufficient practice with spelling their words and also learning their meanings.  I looked at a number of different resources and finally developed a plan for Word Study Centers.


I decided that we needed two weeks with each sort, and currently I have three different groups working on different sorts.  On the first day with a new sort, all of the kiddos cut out their sorts, write their initials on the back (so they don't lose their pieces), and try to sort.  I will often pull a small group of kiddos to discuss the "rule" or system for sorting their words.  The next day, the kiddos do speed sorts and write the rule; I check in with each of them to see that they are reading and sorting the words correctly.  Then they work with a partner: they sort together and do "blind sorts" where one partners says a word and the other partner writes it down.  


During the second week, the kiddos get to choose from a variety of centers that reinforce and extend their learning.  Some of the more popular choices include letter magnets, letter cubes, and illustrating their words.  Illustrating is particularly great for words with multiple meanings, like "shed" or "tag"!  They keep all of the papers in a binder along with a mesh pencil case where they store their scissors, glue, and active sort pieces, so they have all of the materials they need for any center.


{Get this FREEBIE: Writing Mat, Illustrate Mat, and Sorting/Gluing Mat!}

I assess all of the students at the end of each two week period and determine whether they are ready to move on to the next sort. So far, this method is working well -- it gives me enough time to check in with each group and also seems to give the kiddos enough time to really become familiar with their words. I also encourage the kiddos to refer back to previous sorts when they get stuck on a word in their reading or writing.  They get so excited when they come across a word that they have had in a sort and I can actually see them become stronger readers and writers!



November 16, 2014

Math Steps

Along with addition, subtraction, geometry, and measurement, the Common Core Standards include Mathematical Practice skills which students are expected to integrate into their mathematical understanding.  Fortunately, the Investigations math curriculum that my school uses incorporates a number of these mathematical practices into daily lessons.  Students are regularly encouraged to make sense of of problems, reason abstractly, construct arguments and critique the reasoning of others, and use tools appropriately.

Another component of the Common Core Math Standards (in K-2) are the "Common Addition and Subtraction Situations."  These story problem types require students to think critically and demonstrate deep understanding around operations and the equal sign.  Given that most of the math that we encounter in real life is in the form of a "story problem" (not straight adding or subtracting), it's important for young mathematicians to get experience reasoning and solving different problem situations.

A few years ago, I created a tool to assess students' mastery of the common addition and subtraction situations. I discovered that the format I used also provided me with valuable information about students' ability to employ many of the mathematical practice standards as well. For the past two years, I've given this assessment two or three times throughout the year, and they are always my favorite days in math class!

The assessment is a series of "steps" which each include two story problems; the steps gradually increase in complexity and number size.  I set the assessment up as a challenge, as a game -- I start each kiddo at Step 1 and give them the opportunity to move up the ladder to Step 2, Step 3, etc..  I explain that they can use whatever materials they need to help them solve the problems.

As the kiddos work, I observe how they select and use tools, reason logically, and persevere through each step.  It's amazing to see how the kiddos push themselves to take on more challenging problems.  (It's also interesting to note which students give up quickly, get frustrated, or struggle to make sense of the problems.)  Even if they do not get the previous problems correct, I allow them to keep going if they want to attempt the next step. They are so proud of themselves for tackling each step!

I use the information I gather to differentiate story problem sets and math games, and also to plan small groups to work on specific problem types. It's great to give an assessment that kiddos love to take and truly informs my instruction!

November 15, 2014

Eleven Weeks

Eleven weeks. It took eleven weeks for my class this year to start feeling like my class. Eleven weeks to feel like I was finally really teaching, not just managing, handling, urging, or corralling.

A couple of weeks into the school year, I had seen a post on the Responsive Classroom website about the difference that the first Twelve Days can make with a new class.  I remember thinking, "we are so far from there! Will we ever get there?"  Week after week, I'd try to confer with my readers during Reading Workshop but would get distracted or interrupted by other kiddos.  At six weeks, I'd tried to open all of the activities that I'd planned for Word Study but found that my kiddos could not handle making choices. At the end of our second writing unit, I still had a number of writers who were struggling to produce complete stories. My kiddos were still regularly tattling, pushing, complaining, and teasing.

I kept hoping we'd get to a point when I could relax just a little during transitions or make it through a day without feeling like I'd lost control. So I scaled back, modified plans, did more modeling, had more discussions. I added tools to my readers' book bins to help them stay focused.  I limited the manipulative options during math to ensure the kiddos were able to use them appropriately.  I reviewed how to "Fill a Bucket" to encourage cooperation, patience, flexibility, and responsibility.

Finally, after eleven weeks, I was able to sit down next to one kiddo and talk about her reading while the others read quietly.  I was able to open all of the Word Study centers and the kiddos actually practiced their spelling words and worked together without the crying, whining, confusion, and throwing from a few weeks earlier.  I allowed the kiddos to select their own manipulatives during math and no one made them into weapons.

It finally feels like this class is my class and I'm no longer constantly reminiscing about previous classes.  My kiddos are doing more listening and helping than tattling and teasing.  I know that I will still have difficult mornings, afternoons, maybe even a whole day or week, but at least I've been able to experience some successes, which gives me hope for more. Phew!