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!

** Get your own copy of my "Math Steps" on TpT!

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!

September 21, 2014

Teaching is Hard

We are 4 weeks into the school year.  It hasn't been the easiest four weeks of my teaching career.  In fact, I've been feeling a little like I'm back in my first year when it seemed like a couple of kiddos were running the show.  It didn't seem to matter how much I planned, or how exciting our monthly theme was, or how I set up the classroom, these little guys had other ideas.  During that first year, I didn't have many tools in my toolbox for teaching an ordinary class of 4-year-olds, and even fewer skills to manage the extreme behaviors of a few students.

I hadn't yet read Gartrell's Power of Guidance, or Positive Discipline, or Teach Like a Champion.  I hadn't learned how to practice procedures until we got them right, or how to call kiddos back to the carpet when things go out of hand.  I hadn't figured out that a "teacher look" or a silent signal could refocus students during a lesson.  As a result, I spent most of that year in tears, feeling pretty hopeless about how each day would go.

But it's not my first year -- far from it -- and the difference is tangible as I look around my classroom.  I've set up clear expectations for entering the classroom, transitioning, working with partners, and reading independently.   I've taught the silent signals for "SHINE," "track the speaker," and "wait your turn," so I rarely need to interrupt my instruction for minor misbehavior.  I've created charts to show how I expect the kiddos to keep their seat pockets, book bins, and writing folders neat.

I now have a much larger arsenal of teaching tools, including the experience to know that some years are just like this.  During my first year, when it felt like nothing was going right, my roommate would insist that I find out at least 3 positive things that had happened each day.  I learned to focus on them, articulate them to myself, and try to foster more of them.  I know now that I won't always have to search for the good things, but I also know that there will always be at least a few good things even in the worst days.  The majority of my kiddos are falling into the procedures easily and getting used to the routines of the day, even though I am constantly on my toes to ensure that that the distracting and disruptive behavior of a couple of kiddos doesn't throw off an entire day.  I now know that, beyond a point, another hour of lesson planning at 11pm, or spending another weekend rearranging the classroom yet again, or reading another article on behavior management techniques, won't  "solve everything."

Because teaching is hard. It just is. It's like no other job in the world, and also a little like every job.  As a teacher, I often feel like part doctor, part lawyer, part parent, part police officer, part minister, part manager.  I don't think teaching ever gets "easier," but we become more comfortable with not knowing everything, not doing everything, and not being everything.

Sometimes on my worst days, I still get notes like this: "The Best Day of School" 

Rules in School

"Rule Creation" is one of the primary Classroom Practices within the Responsive Classroom Approach.  I've created class rules with almost all of my classes, but this year I took a slightly different approach.  Instead of jumping right into "what rules do we need?" I began by asking the kiddos to think about why we come to school and what we want to accomplish together.  We went through this process as adult learners at the Responsive Classroom Course this summer, and I found that it gave more purpose to the rule creation routine that I had had before.

I started on Day 2 by asking the firsties, "Why do we come to School?"  Their answers cracked me up; things like "to become a good adult," "to do plusses," and "to teach kids." After we had established our purpose for being at school in general, we thought about what types of school work we might do in First Grade. We made a list (I forgot to take a picture) of things like subtraction, art, field trips, and writing stories.  The kiddos created individual "hopes and dreams" for their first grade year based off of this list.

Then we got to the step of thinking about rules.  I reminded the kiddos about all of their goals and all the things that we hoped we would get to do together in first grade.  I asked them to think about how we would need to work together to reach those goals -- what rules would we need to be successful?  They came up with a very comprehensive list ;)

After we had a complete list we went through my favorite task of grouping the possible rules together.  I circled each of the topics in a different color and we came up with an all-encompassing rule to describe the topic.  For instance, "never hit," "tie your shoe laces," and "don't run" became "Keep Yourself and Others Safe."  "Don't lie," "don't bully" and "talk nicely" became "Use Kind Words."

During this process, I always guide the kiddos toward the rules that I want our class to use. For the last 3 years, I have ended up with the same 5 rules.  This year, we decided to make our 5th rule "Work Hard."  I'm still not sure if I'm thrilled with the switch because the "take care of your classroom and school" rule was so helpful in the past; however I like that now we have a rule that directs our cognitive work.  By now, the kiddos are getting comfortable with the language of the rules and I just love hearing them remind each other to "use kind words" and "follow directions." 

Charting the Course

Over the summer, I attended the Teachers College Reading Workshop Institute at Columbia University in NYC.  This week-long training was packed with book suggestions, sample lessons, planning resources, and encouraging discussions.  I walked away with tons of great ideas to improve the reading instruction in my classroom this year.

One idea I am trying to implement right away is making my reading charts more purposeful -- creating charts "with and for" my students.  Our first unit is all about how Readers Build Good Habits.  In other words, teaching children to choose appropriate books, read for a sustained amount of time, read the words carefully, and pay attentions to the plot and details.

In the past, I've relied on one "anchor chart" -- the Readers are Like Runner Chart (below) -- to structure my lessons in those first few weeks.  We have discussed how readers warm-up, set goals, and focus on reading.  However, this year, I pushed myself to create more charts that students could rely on to really understand each objective.

We started by creating a chart for HOW Readers Warm-up (above).   I added each of the large sticky-notes after I introduced the skill and had the kiddos practice during Workshop.  Our Warm-up includes looking at the cover (reading the title and determining possible main characters), looking at the back (reading the blurb), and taking a picture walk (making predictions).   We spent at least one lesson during the first two weeks on each of these skills.  We also timed our reading stamina (how long the class could read quietly) each day and kept track of our progress. 

Then we created a chart for things to do when we finish reading. My goal is for the kiddos to be able to hold on to a book in their head, and often that means that they need to re-read or retell.  Especially when young readers are spending most of their first read-through focusing on decoding or sounding-out the words, they miss essential plot pieces.  I encourage them to go back and find their favorite parts or try to read again using the character's voices to improve their fluency before moving on to another book.

Finally, I created this "We Are Readers Who" chart to capture all of the reading habits that we've put in place.  Although this chart has a lot going on, it is really just a condensed version of the other charts we've been using so the kiddos have been able to refer to it independently.  I'm so excited about the strong foundation we have laid in just the first 4 weeks!

August 24, 2014

Ready Or Not

School starts tomorrow!

Eight years ago, I celebrated the fact that I would never have to have another first First Day of School again as a teacher.  Well, this is now my eighth "first day of school," and it has gotten easier.  I know the routines I want to teach, I know the books I want to read, and I know that I will never really feel ready.

My classroom is ready -- charts are hanging, read-aloud books are set out, copies are made, shelves are covered.  I know most of my students -- some are siblings of previous students, some I remember from last year, and some I met at Open House last week.  I am prepared -- possibly more prepared that I have been for any other first day.  It just doesn't matter how ready the classroom is, or how many of my students I already know, or how prepared I am, it's still hard to feel actually "ready."

In 24 hours the first day will be behind us and we will be into the busiest week of the year.  By the end of the week, we will know names, routines, procedures, songs, books, rules, and will, hopefully, have the beginnings of a strong classroom community.

Ready or not...

August 15, 2014

Getting Back to the Firsties

This week I attended a Responsive Classroom (RC) training.  Although I have been using the RC approach since I started teaching and have attended a few mini-trainings, I've never participated in the official Responsive Classroom Course.  This week, the training was being offered 30 minutes from my apartment so I couldn't pass up the opportunity to get the professional development credits and experience the full 4-day course.

An important part of implementing RC practices (find out more here) is understanding children's development.  This has gotten me thinking about why I love 6-year-olds and teaching first grade.

For instance, they read in the funniest positions:

(Notice that a marble, a coin, a plastic dinosaur, and a lego have fallen out of this little guy's pocket)

(I just noticed that this little one is reading the same book!)

They also write the sweetest notes.

Next week, we have staff PD and then our kiddos come back the following week. Making the transition from summer to school is never easy, but it helps to know I've got a whole new group of these earnest, eager, adorable kiddos coming my way. I'm taking this weekend to relax, prepare, and ... get excited to get back to the firsties.

April 18, 2014

Character Riddles

At the end of each unit I try to have a culminating celebration where the kiddos can share their learning. For reading units though, it's often hard to find something that wraps up our learning in a shareable way.  Fortunately, at the end of our character unit, we had the perfect way to display our learning -- the kiddos used everything they had discovered about their characters to create riddles. 

{For our bulletin board, I drew the Lilly and Owen mice.}

The kiddos were so excited to write riddle clues! They kept hiding their papers and giggling to themselves.  They had to use their character's appearance, actions, and traits to develop the questions so this was also an informal assessments to see if they could determine defining characteristics.  The kiddos' riddles turned out great!  They've been having a lot of fun flipping up the questions every time they walk through the hallway.  I'll probably keep the bulletin board up for another couple of weeks until they finally get tired of reading the same riddles again and again. :)

Lilly the Mouse

This year, our character/series reading unit corresponded with our "Authors as Mentors" writing unit, so we were able to use Kevin Henkes books as mentor texts for both!  In reading, I relied heavily on the Lilly books, including Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse, Lilly's Big Day, Julius, the Baby of the World, Chester's Way, and Lilly's Chocolate Heart.  Lilly is a complex character so she is great to consider across texts.
As I read each book aloud, the kiddos worked to identify Lilly's likes and dislikes, emotions, and traits. We noticed how many of her traits carried across multiple books.  For instance, Lilly demonstrates loyalty when she defends Chester and Wilson in Chester's Way, and when she stands up for Julius in Julius, Baby of the World.  Lilly is jealous of Julius in Baby of the World, and she's jealous of Ginger in Lilly's Big Day.  The kiddos recorded their own observations on this cute worksheet and then practiced identifying other characters' emotions and traits in their own books. 

The kiddos really loved the Lilly books!  Toward the end of the unit, after we had read each of the Lilly books, we took a vote on our favorite Lilly book. Lilly's Big Day was the big winner, but Chester's Way was the 2nd most popular among my avid readers.  I'm hoping to incorporate more graphing in to our thematic reading/writing units in the future!

April 16, 2014

If at first you don't succeed..

Our last reading unit focused on character series books. As part of this unit, the kiddos got to read together in "book clubs" on a particular series.  On the first day of the unit, I thought I was prepared -- I'd picked out guided reading books with series characters for each small groups and planned to have them add their new books to their individual book bins.  As I began handing out the books, however, I was met with a lot of, "I've read that," "I don't like that character," and "How many other books can I get?"

I didn't want to continue like this: I knew the kiddos had to be invested in this unit in order to make the growth I hoped they would. I wanted them to be excited about spending time with these characters because they would be working with one series for at least a week.  I also needed things to run smoothly so that I could focus on conferencing with my struggling readers.  I halted the whole process and decided to reconsider my next steps.

My next step was, of course, to consult my fabulous colleagues.  I gathered more books, empty bins, and some helpful advice.  I learned that each kid in the book club should have a bookmark to claim their copy of a book within the bin (I color coded the bookmarks to make it easy to assign roles to one partner in the group.)  I also labeled the bins and printed out a list of the kiddos assigned to each club.

The next day, we started fresh.  To build the excitement back up, I covered the bookshelf and added a sign: "Reading Series Book Clubs COMING SOON."  By the time reading began, the kiddos couldn't wait to jump in to their new books.

I revealed the new shelf, complete with mentor texts displayed on top.  The kiddos "oohed" and "ahhed."  I handed out their bookmarks and assigned them to their bins.  This time, I had really worked to select series that were not only at the correct reading level but also had characters that would appeal to individual kiddos.  The kiddos were thrilled!  They immediately began reading, looking for characters across the books in their series and noticing character traits.

Unfortunately, my classroom doesn't have much space for our library, so this is our main reading spot.  In order to add just a little bit more excitement and make sure the kiddos are comfortable reading here, I also added a rug and bean bag in front of the bookshelf.  Finally, this unit got off to a great start after all :) 

March 17, 2014

Shape Graphing

During our unit on graphing, I wanted to focus on having the kiddos create representations of their survey data (Read more about "Survey Day"!). I really wanted to make sure that my kiddos got practice with making different types of graphs to support the Common Core Standard 1.MD.4 ... so I created graphing anchor charts, a packet of graphing questions, and also a graphing game that kiddos could play during Math Workshop time!
The shape graphing game was a big hit!   I created small bags of shape manipulatives and the kiddos got to practice counting and graphing completely independently.  I used sheet protectors and dry-erase markers to make the game completely re-useable.  

{Grab this Shape Graphing Game FREEBIE!}

In addition to worksheets and games, I also added more whole-class survey questions to give my firsties authentic, relevant experience with graphs.  The kiddos always love getting to come up to the SMART board, so they were eager to answer questions.  We used many ways to represent our data and different types of graphs.

It's important for young children to actually see graphs as meaningful to their lives, so I've started a list of theme-related graphs to continue incorporating graphing skills throughout the year.  We've already started by graphing our favorite "Lilly" book, by Kevin Henkes!

Exploring Our World

 Back in January, we had a our annual Museum Exhibit Night (Read about previous Museum Nights here and here).  This year, the theme of our first grade exhibit was "Exploring Our World."  Through this theme, we incorporated our geography standards, field studies, and nonfiction reading unit.

Similar to last year, we created a map of the world on our shared bulletin board.  (Although this year I learned that I could use my SMART board projector to trace on to paper, making the continents much more to scale).  The kiddos labeled important geographical features, including oceans and mountain ranges.  Our sweet Art Teacher worked with each class to create 3D landmarks and topographies.

Unfortunately I forgot to take a picture of the whole exhibit so these close-ups will have to do!

On the night of the exhibit, the kiddos got their "docent tags."  They loved hosting their friends and families around the exhibit, pointing out their details on the map and their book club posters. We managed to pull in a number of standards and skills with this project and it was obvious with all of the connections that the kiddos made as they talked about what they'd learned!