Archive for September, 2008

Blog Watch: Beyond Leveled Books

The second edition of Beyond Leveled Books made quite an impact on Karen and Bill over at Literate Lives.

“I spent several hours poring over the format of Beyond Leveled Books (Second Edition). The introduction to this book will knock your socks off. It is titled, “My Son Clark Kent”, by Lisa Koch (also a contributing author for the second edition of Beyond Leveled Books)…. I believe this piece about Koch’s son, Alec, is a must read for every reading teacher in the world!! Just as important, it is the perfect introduction for the theme of this book — let’s look at more than just leveled books when we’re trying to match a reader with a book. Let’s get to know our readers as more than just a level number or letter.”

Read their full post about the book

1 comment September 30th, 2008

Getting started with classroom blogs

Gresham Brown, a fourth-grade teacher in Greenville, South Carolina, knows a lot about classroom blogs. His students at the Stone Academy of the Communication Arts produce webcasts and podcasts, and keep parents and the rest of the school up to date on their classroom projects via an active blog.

So we asked Gresham to share his advice on how to get started — and keep going — with classroom blogs.

As a teacher, I am continually looking for ways to connect my classroom to the outside world.  Blogging has created that connection for my class.  Our classroom blog has created a space for students to share their work, a vehicle for parents to actually experience what goes happens in Room 241, and a medium for all participants to collaborate together.  A few years ago, blogs were a mystery to me.  But as I began reading and experiencing blogs on my own, I came to understand the powerful medium that this technology can provide the classroom.

A New Genre
The first step of my blogging journey was to actually sit down and read some blogs.  I was introduced to two educational blogs, A Year of Reading and Two Writing Teachers.   These two sites gave me an understanding of a blog’s features – as well as sharing incredible book reviews and writing ideas.  I was forced to develop new ways of thinking as I navigated my way through this new genre.  I quickly learned that the newest post always appeared at the top of the blog, and older posts are pushed down the page.  Posts are archived by month and can be found on a sidebar of the blog.  I figured out that each post had labels at the bottom, which directed the reader to posts with similar content (if I clicked on a label called “book review” it would show all posts on the blog dealing with book reviews).  Unlike websites, there are no pages.  Blogs are more like an on-line journal.  But the feature that I liked most about blogs was its interactivity.  There is a place at the end of every post where any reader can leave a comment.  I was struck by how easy it was for people to communicate and respond to each other.  I started envisioning the possibilities…

Try It Out
From my perusing of the web, I noticed that most teachers used either blogger or wordpress to create and host their blogs.  I was thrilled to find out that both programs were free (a plus for any teacher).  To create a blog, the only thing required for both programs was my email address.  I followed the step-by-step instructions on the screen, and within minutes I had my own blog up and running.  I began by trying out the multiple templates and backgrounds each program had to offer.  I wanted a blog with clean lines, basic colors, simple format, and easy to read font.  I knew I wanted white background for my text – my eyes always get tired when there is too much background color.  Great blogs aren’t flashy or busy; they’re simple and engaging.  As I experimented with the blog, I found it much easier to use than a typical website.  It was extremely user friendly – even to those with limited technology experience.  If you can type in Microsoft Word, you can create a blog.  A word of caution: All blogger sites have a navigation bar at the top which has a “Next Blog” button.  This could take you to ANY site hosted by blogger.  If you think your blog will be used by young students, wordpress might be a better option for you.

Playing it Safe
The next step for me was to get permission from all my parents to post their children’s work on our classroom blog.  In my letter to parents, I explained that the purpose of the blog was to give parents and friends a better idea of the incredible learning that happens in our classroom each day.  It allowed the outside world to “take a peek” inside our room, and it allowed our students an opportunity to share their learning with the world.  With the commenting feature of all blogs, it allows parents an opportunity to dialogue about their child’s learning – with me, other parents, and their own child.  I assured parents that no last names or personal information would be shared.  After obtaining this permission from each parent, I made sure the settings of my blog were safe.  When a visitor made a comment, a notification would be sent to me – allowing me to preview the comment before it was published.  I also enabled a word verification tool for comments, cutting down on the amount of spam I could possibly receive.

The Possibilities
I then kept my digital camera on top of my desk at all times.  Whenever our class was engaged in an activity, I’d ask myself, “Could I take a picture and write about this on the blog?”  The answer always seemed to be “yes.”  I took pictures of kids building geometric shapes out of straws, having book club discussions, playing math games, and creating electrical circuits in science.  I took pictures of my students’ work – their writing notebooks, response journals, and science experiment reflections.  I imported the pictures onto my computer, and then easily uploaded the pictures to my blog using the blogger software (trust me, it’s easy).  I kept my writing short and to the point, knowing that my parents were busy and didn’t want to read an epic description from me.  They wanted to see their children learning, and I wanted my students to be the stars of the blog.  I was delighted when parents, students, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and fellow teachers began leaving comments to each post.  This was what I had hoped for – the blog was fostering conversations about our classroom learning.

Just the Beginning
All of this lead me to ask new questions and explore new possibilities.  How could I record my students talking, and then post audio files to my blog (it’s called podcasting)?  How could I use video to showcase what my students were learning?  How could I give more ownership to my students?  These questions have lead me to new ways of thinking about blogs and the power they have to connect our classrooms to the outside world.  I knew this was just the beginning to a powerful collaboration between teachers, parents, and students.

Do you have a classroom blog, or would you like to start one? Post your classroom blog’s URL or questions about blogs in the comments section, and Gresham will post his answers in the near future.

13 comments September 24th, 2008

Now Playing: “Dude, Listen to This!”

Spending time with boys in their writing club, I was reminded again that boys like to write…we think of it as something that maybe boys would choose not to do, but here are boys who give up their recess once a week to get together and write.

In his new DVD, “Dude, Listen to This!” Ralph Fletcher thoughtfully examines the exuberance, sly humor, and surprising sensitivity of boy writers. Watch this clip as Ralph works with a group of fourth-grade boys who meet weekly with Jennifer Allen, literacy specialist and author of Becoming a Literacy Leader. Ralph reflects on how the writing club encourages writing for pleasure and helps boys support each other as writers.

Add comment September 17th, 2008

Questions & Authors: Politics in the classroom

Political debates are everywhere these days—at home, at work, on television, and sometimes even in the checkout line at the grocery store or at the dentist’s office. It’s only natural that the elections and other political issues make their way into classrooms. In our latest installment of Questions & Authors, we asked Joan Brodsky Schur, author of Eyewitness to the Past, to share her ideas about how teachers can take advantage of children’s curiosity and the timeliness of the issues, while also respecting all students’ opinions and background:

As teachers we have tremendous potential to shape young minds, and that often gives parents and school boards reason to be wary of what goes on in the classroom. In an election year, teachers are eager to educate their students about the democratic process, but anxious not to arouse suspicions that they are using their classrooms to advance their own political views.  Open debate about the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may be particularly sensitive, especially when students have family members in the armed services.

How can teachers create classrooms that are open forums of rigorous debate about controversial issues, without incurring hurt feelings among classmates or angry reactions among parents? While this dilemma is not easy to solve, I prefer to see it as a positive opportunity. This election season opens up important “teachable moments” in which we can help students learn how to question assumptions, think critically, and form well-reasoned opinions based on facts. Here are some suggestions for making these things happen.

Introduce the Issues Yourself

Do not rely on students to bring up all sides to an argument related to the current election. If you start off the discussion with a question like, “What do you think America should do about XYZ” the discussion is likely to appear lopsided. Many of us live in communities that are predominantly “red” or “blue,” where we often share the same political persuasions as our neighbors. I worry about those students who hold minority viewpoints within the broader school community.  Whatever their opinions, they are often intimidated from expressing them because they expect to be pounced on by their classmates.  The discussion may feel personal rather than objective, and open discussion is stifled from start.

I recommend that you initiate discussion not by asking students what they think, but by presenting two sides to a selected issue right away, preferably using quotations from prominent politicians and commentators.  Should there be a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq?  Should we build a U.S.-Mexico border fence?  Should we have universal healthcare? Many websites provide useful information of this type; I especially recommend the Lehrer Report. Be sure to distribute the quotations in writing, or keep them posted in a visible place, because we often “hear” only what we want to hear.
This tactic immediately takes the discussion out of the realm of the personal.  It also demonstrates that those who have dedicated their lives to public service do not feel that it is “disloyal” to criticize their government; rather they see that as part of their role of being a good citizen.

Even-Handed Discussion Techniques

After the controlled set-up, I like to extend debate by asking students to develop and research more arguments for both sides of an issue.  In class I then ask for a supporting piece of evidence for Position A, then for Position B, and keep alternating. I don’t move on until I elicit something new for both sides. In this phase students understand that I am not asking them what they think about Position A, only what arguments can be made on its behalf. This keeps discussion even-handed, and some students feel more comfortable joining discussion because they do not need to disclose their own opinions.

Once students have mustered a variety of facts and arguments I move into the “What do you think?” phase.  Here again I alternate speakers pro and con.  “Someone made a good point in support of Position B, is there someone who wants to counter that argument in support of Position A?” I will ask. I keep lists on the board of those students who want to speak for one side or the other.  Discussion gets passionate, but the format keeps the class orderly.  If anyone speaks out of turn I erase his or her name and put it on the bottom of the speaker’s list.

By now students understand that we are debating ideas, not our friends or rivals.  I censor all comments that cross that line.  A student cannot call Tanya “dumb,” but she can say that Tanya made a dumb argument because she got her facts wrong.  Since this is not a formal debate, I also let students know that it’s acceptable to abandon an argument if you change your mind and can explain the reasons why.  In fact, when this happens you know that students are learning from the discussion and thinking hard.

Using the Past to Teach about the Present

For those of us who teach American history, this is an opportune moment to help students transfer the intense emotions they feel about today’s election to understand the dilemma’s facing Americans in elections past. The controversial issues we grapple with today are good reminders of what our ancestors went through at different times in history.  No one has a crystal ball to help them make hard choices.  Only after the fact does a historical event seem “inevitable.”

If teachers are worried about tackling certain questions head-on, there are ways to introduce them indirectly as you study the past.  Is it all right to criticize your country during wartime? Abraham Lincoln was a critic of the Mexican War of 1846-48.  The country showed great unity during World War II, yet landmark Supreme Court decisions supporting conscientious objectors were won during that time period.  How were our veterans treated after the Vietnam War, and how can we do better this time?  Presidents have faced re-election campaigns as they waged war.  Were Americans living during those time periods shy about criticizing Lincoln’s conduct of the Civil War, or FDR’s leadership during World War II, and if not how did critics express themselves, and to what effect?

Presidential election years are a wonderful time to role-play elections past, like the elections of Thomas Jefferson VS John Adams in 1800, or Andrew Jackson vs. Henry Clay in 1832. Re-staging an election can electrify students, injecting partisanship and passion into their study of the candidates and the issues they represented, along with all the hoopla of slogans and cartoons.

With careful thought and preparation I believe this is an opportune moment to make the classroom a vital place in the lives of our students, the future electorate of our country.

So, how have you handled political issues in your classroom? Do you think it’s useful or important for students to have these debates and discussions in school? What recommendations would you have for teachers who are new to the profession and are faced with a controversial topic in their classroom?

Add comment September 10th, 2008

Blog Watch: Teaching with Intention

Debbie Miller’s new book, Teaching with Intention, reminded Dayle Timmons, a primary inclusion teacher in Florida and 2004 Florida Teacher of the Year, to “trust myself – to not lose sight of my intentions while I am trying to fit everything in. She reminds me to teach deeply and well and to ‘nix the juggling act.’ This book was like having a cup a coffee with my favorite teacher friend and leaving our conversation with a smile on my face!”

Read her full post about the book!

1 comment September 9th, 2008

Now Online: Beyond Leveled Books

In the first edition of Beyond Leveled Books, Franki Sibberson and Karen Szymusiak, offered a much-needed perspective on moving transitional readers from the basic supports of leveling to independent book selection. In Beyond Leveled Books, Second Edition the authors provide even more resources to help teachers understand and meet the needs of transitional readers.

Now you can read the entire book online!

The second edition features a revised and enlarged section on series books, with charts outlining new series with the challenges they pose and supports readers need. New lessons have been added, and most chapters now include a related article from a literacy expert. Some of the contributors include Kathy Collins, Larry Swartz, and Mary Lee Hahn.

The book also features an entirely new section covering grades K-1, that explores the uses and limitations of leveled texts in primary reading instruction. Among the highlights of this new section are ideas for how to organize your classroom library and a list of great books to use alongside leveled text in supporting new readers.

Add comment September 8th, 2008

Introduction letters and penny loafers

Some of you are just getting to the end of the first week of school, and some of you have been back for a couple of weeks now. We already blogged about some back to school memories and rituals our authors shared with us. As you settle in for a new school year, we just had to share two more reflections from Kimberly Hill Campbell, author of Less Is More, and Max Brand, author of Practical Fluency.

For Kimberly, the beginning of school means writing an introduction letter to her students:

I have just finished writing the one I will distribute to my students during our first day of class next week. In it I briefly share key moments of my journey in teaching and a bit about my family and hobbies. I particularly focus on what I have been reading and writing. In this year’s letter I highlight my reading of David Sedaris’ new essay collection, When You Are Engulfed in Flames; a collection of short stories by Elsa Marston, Santa Claus in Baghdad; and my addiction to mystery novels. I also note my efforts to write my own mystery novel—as well as articles about teaching and the occasional poem.

I then invite students to write back to me:
“Write me a letter (two to three pages). What should I know about you? Tell me more about yourself–as a reader? A writer? A learner?”

Whether it’s the high school students with whom I once worked or the graduate students with whom I now work, these letters are our first written conversation—our first step to building a relationship that nurtures learning. I treasure what students share with me. I note personal connections in a letter I write back and keep a tally of patterns that I share the next class period to illustrate how we link together as a community of learners. And an exchange of letters about reading, writing and learning continues throughout the year.

The first day of school makes Max think about Mrs. Rice, his first grade teacher, and penny loafers:

Growing up in Western New York there are ancient rituals and routines unique to the community. One tradition was the posting of class lists. Keeping to a farm conscious calendar, school did not begin until the Wednesday after Labor Day. Class lists were posted on Tuesday morning, bright and early, 8 AM. School age children and parents wait in line at the school door awaiting your fate for the coming school year. My first taste of this tradition informed me that I would carry on the Brand family tradition and have Mrs. Rice for first grade. YIKES!

I had met Mrs. Rice through my older sister’s stories. Her legacy was sewing up the boy’s blue jean pockets. If you were caught with your hands in them, watch out. My six-year-old mind conjured images of me walking around for the rest of my life with hands sewn into pockets. No sports, games or lunch. How was I going to retrieve my milk money?

Walking away from the school my sisters taunted me with tales about sewn pockets. With a tear in my eye I persuaded my mother to buy me penny loafers instead of my traditional footwear, tennis shoes. Penny loafers would allow me to carry milk money each day. Mrs. Rice would not sew my pockets and I would have two cents to buy milk to wash down lunch. Now, each August as school approaches I think about the class list line, rumors and running around for a year in tight penny loafers that squeezed my feet, but kept my hands free.

How did your first day of school go as a teacher? What strategies do you use to make the transition from summer easier for you and your students?

Add comment September 4th, 2008

Video podcast: Terry Thompson talks about some of the conventions of graphic novels

In Part II of our webcast, Terry Thompson, author of Adventures in Graphica, uses an example from Spiderman to demonstrate how the gutter complements several reading comprehension strategies. He also reassures elementary teachers that there are many graphic texts available that are appropriate for all students.

Watch Part I of our webcast with Terry here

Add comment September 2nd, 2008

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