July 19, 2016

What are we teaching?

I love to find cute pins on Pinterest and pictures on Instagram, but I admit I get antsy when I see endless crafts and clipart on teacher blogs and Pinterest boards. I cringe when I see writing lessons that involve cutting and pasting text boxes or reading lessons that are mostly tracing and coloring.  As a former Pre-K teacher, I know how tempting it is to want every lesson to include a Pinterest-worthy product.  Yet activities that involve perfectly painted handprints, marks inside the lines, and carefully-cut collages often lack genuine instruction or real content.  I have to question "lessons" that are essentially cutting, pasting, and coloring -- what are they really teaching?

This goes back to one of the Guiding Principles of the Responsive Classroom approach: How children learn is as important as what they learn.  I'm critical of how I have my kiddos practice skills and demonstrate their understanding because I want to ensure that they are always learning and creating in authentic ways. While I incorporate art in my classroom, I try to avoid "craftivities" that don't actually allow students to be creative, use teamwork, or demonstrate genuine learning.

My kiddos share their thinking through jotting in the margins of books (or on post-its), journaling, debating, or discussing.  They learn how to write short stories, articles, and letters to share their individual ideas and interests.  They sketch and draw to visualize concepts and capture observations. Sure, they also cut and paste into their notebooks, but I try to make sure they are also thinking and writing independently.

Readers make notes and discuss their books.
Scientists record observations of what they find in nature (after a field trip).
Mathematicians understand fractions by creating visual representations.
Authors share favorites sections from their books.

July 8, 2016

If ... Then... Journalism.

When I started teach fourth grade in the middle of the year, my class was in the middle of a nonfiction writing unit. As I observed my students' writing, I noticed that many of them were not using complex sentences or correct grammar, or even explaining themselves clearly through their writing.  In order to give them more practice developing an idea and writing with a formal tone, I decided to plan a new unit on Journalism using the Lucy Calkins "If... Then Guide."

The "If...Then Guide" is one of my favorite parts of the Writing Units of Study!  The guide offers ideas for conferring with individual or small groups of students, but also provides suggestions for additional units to supplement the four primary units of study.  The Journalism Unit is intended to give students an extra opinion writing unit for classes that need more work with this genre.  For my class, I also saw this unit as an opportunity for practice writing concisely, incorporating facts, and selecting relevant details.

I launched the unit by having the kiddos watch a short clip of a {mock} purse-snatching.  After watching the 15-second video, my "reporters" were assigned to write a 50-word summary of what happened.  Right away, they recognized the need to be critical of the words they chose and to revise in the moment (two important goals of mine).  It also got everyone invested, using language like "victim", "thief", and "incident"!

As the unit progressed, I taught specific ways to be include facts, create complexity, and write in 3rd person.  The kiddos really got into the grammar lessons, especially when we compared sample articles with and without clarifying phrases and essential commas. I also used a number of articles from Time for Kids, and other sources, to show how real journalists use these grammatical tools to inform and persuade their readers.

Not surprisingly, the kiddos loved finding and reporting on news stories from around the school -- they researched everything from the Spelling Bee to the School Play to the Stomach Bug!  I created interview templates and requisition forms that they could use to gather quotes and source materials for their articles.  Throughout the drafting process, I incorporated discussions about journalistic integrity and source credibility.  I encouraged the kiddos to reach out to staff members, parent organizers, and even community officials to get information for their stories, rather than relying on their friends to offer quotes.  I also invited in a parent who was a journalist to talk about the importance of correctly citing sources, getting facts straight, and proofreading.

I think this unit succeeded in investing my kiddos in drafting thoughtfully, using proper grammar, and editing carefully through authentic writing.  When it came time to publish the class newspaper, a few kiddos even volunteered to come in during lunch, before school, and after school for a few days to help with the final editing and page layout.  (Everyone had already typed up his or her own story in our library/computer lab and done the initial editing.)  The final product turned out great and I can't wait to do this unit again next year!