Archive for May, 2010

Poetry Friday: Your World

This week we take a poem from Debbie Miller’s recent book, Teaching with Intention: Defining Beliefs, Aligning Practice, Taking Action, K-5. Debbie uses the poem Your World by Georgia Douglas Johnson to help 11-year-old Emilio think about and understand bigger ideas. She confers with him to guide him to learn something more about himself as a reader of poetry.

So, what does this poem mean to you? Leave your response in the comments section and we’ll select two commenters at random to receive Debbie’s book.

Your World
by Georgia Douglas Johnson

Your world is as big as you make it.
I know, for I used to abide
in the narrowest nest in a corner.
My wings pressing close to the side.

But I sighted the distant horizon
Where the sky line encircled the sea
And I throbbed with a burning desire
to travel this immensity.

I battered the cordon around me
And cradled my wings on the breeze
Then soared to the uttermost reaches
With rapture, with power, with ease!

Add comment May 28th, 2010

Book study group: Pyrotechnics on the Page

Join our book study group on the Stenhouse Ning Network to share your thoughts about Ralph Fletcher’s latest book, Pyrotechnics on the Page: Playful Craft That Sparks Writing.

The discussion will begin July 12 and will be moderated by Amanda Villagomez, a middle-school language arts teacher. Amanda already posted a schedule for the discussion on the Ning page. Ralph will check in every week to comment on the discussion and answer questions.

To join Ning:

1) Go to the Stenhouse Publishers network on Ning

2) Click Sign Up at the top of the page (or Sign In if you have already joined one of our Ning groups in the past)

3) Once you’ve signed up, click the Pyrotechnics on the Page Group and then click to Join the Group in the top right corner

Order your copy of Pyrotechnics on the Page by June 15 and get free shipping with the code SPARK.

4 comments May 26th, 2010

Quick Tip Tuesday: Room arrangement

This week’s Quick Tip comes from A Sense of Belonging: Sustaining and Retaining New Teachers, a book by literacy specialist Jennifer Allen. Jennifer shares how she works with a first-year teacher to arrange her classroom in a way that supports instruction and shows how room arrangement can help or hinder behavior management.

Behavior management and room arrangement tend to go hand in hand. I find that the room arrangement of a new teacher often reflects the challenges that they face with classroom management.

One of the first things that I noticed when I started working in Christine’s room was that her desks were arranged in rows. I personally love student desks arranged in groups and like to be able to move freely around the room and easily reach students. I tend to gravitate toward learning environments where students are physically grouped together and have opportunities for ongoing conversations during writing workshop.

But, with that said, I am respectful of whatever room arrangement a teacher has implemented. I also understand the physical restraints of working in an old building with small classrooms and twenty-five growing bodies. In buildings like ours, it is sometimes hard to create that Debbie Miller learning environment that you dream of creating! I usually hold back from sharing how I would set up the room.

I gained insight into Christine’s row arrangement the first day that I spent in her classroom. Her students were talkers. I don’t mean talkers in a good way. They talked constantly—talking to each other, shouting out to Christine, and just plain yelling out for attention. I felt like I was at a basketball game, trying to follow the ball around the court. Except in this case I was trying to figure out all this talking. I had not seen anything quite like it in a while. Debbie Miller points out that “classroom environments are most effective when they are literate and purposeful, organized and accessible, and, most of all, authentic” (2008, 23). That may be true, but one of the things I notice is that many new teachers start off the year with a sense of purpose in their room arrangement, such as having their desks in groups to foster collaboration, but quickly abandon their idea and put the desks in rows as a coping strategy for behavior management. And as in Christine’s case, even though her desks were in rows, it didn’t solve the issues surrounding behavior management.

Management isn’t just about relationships with kids—it’s about arrangements that inspire and calm them, helping them produce their best work. And as a coach, I have learned you have to be gentle in getting teachers to think about and change room arrangements. I too want new teachers to be purposeful in the design of their classroom environment but have learned that it takes time and much tweaking before they find the arrangement that works for them. Implementing effective room arrangement can be a process.

After a few weeks of school, I asked Christine to reflect on her room arrangement. I asked if the layout of her room was working out as she had hoped and, even more specifically, if the arrangement reflected her beliefs about student learning. Christine shared that her students talked out all the time and she didn’t know what to do. She would love to have her students in groups but didn’t think they—or she—could handle it. After spending time in her room and observing the talk pattern, I understood her issue. We discussed the placement of a few of her key students, including Trez. She had placed Trez in the front row so that he would pay attention, but she noticed that it wasn’t working because he wouldn’t stop turning around. He spent the whole class turned toward the back of the room interrupting classmates. I shared my wondering of what would happen if he was placed in the back of the room so he could watch everyone.

The thinking was that if he turned around in the back row, he would be facing all of the coats and backpacks. The next day when I went in, Christine had moved Trez. She shared that turning around was no longer an issue for him. He now sat facing forward, able to see all of his peers in action.

Christine kept the rows but continued focusing in on individual student needs and moving students around to achieve different combinations. She did want a learning environment where students worked together in groups but wasn’t quite ready to put them into groups yet. Time went on. After several classroom observations Christine was inspired to rearrange her room again. She spent hours after school staying well into the evening with a colleague making the transformation. When I went into her room on the next day, she was proud to show me the changes. She had created a whole new classroom library, class meeting area, and desk setup—instead of all rows, only a few of the desks were left in rows; the rest were in groups.

Well, the story of room arrangement doesn’t end there. The arrangement didn’t exactly solve all of the talking issues that were directly interfering with instruction. As the weeks went on and Christine continued to work on classroom management, I slowly watched as the groups disappeared and the rows returned.

Did Christine’s desk arrangement reflect her beliefs about teaching? No. But, for the time being, the arrangement helped her with behavior management. The students had responded to the arrangement. My prediction is that Christine will not have her students in rows next year. But for now, this is the least of her obstacles.

I see room arrangement as a process that evolves as new teachers begin “living” in their classrooms with students. It is important not to judge the effectiveness of new teachers based on their classroom arrangement—room design is all part of the learning process. I find that asking clarifying questions is an effective strategy to get them to reflect on their room arrangement.

Questions That Prompt Reflection on Room Arrangement

  • Are you feeling comfortable with your room arrangement?
  • Do you feel that the room arrangement lends itself to group work and collaboration?
  • Is the setup of the classroom working for the students?
  • Are you and the students able to get around the room and work freely?
  • What are you thinking about the placement of materials for students? Are they accessible? Are you having any issues in this area?
  • How is your class meeting area working? Is there enough room for all the bodies? Where else might you make space for a meeting area?

Add comment May 25th, 2010

Poetry Friday: Tumbling Thunder

This week’s poem comes from Mark Overmeyer’s recent book, What Student Writing Teaches Us: Formative Assessment in the Writing Workshop. In this chapter on feedback as formative assessment, Mark discusses the use of rubrics in poetry study and uses student examples from a sixth-grade class. Here is Renee’s poem about “Tumbling Thunder:”

Tumbling Thunder
by Renee

thunder can be strong
a warning
a sign
tumbling around all hope

inviting a great flash
of astounding light
it starts a melody of echo
all around

splitting trees
cry out in fear
of the fury that
will soon strike

when the entire world is calm
and all lamenting stops
you will know
that thunder has shuffled on

the thunder’s ramble will
always cease
but the trance
will carry on

2 comments May 21st, 2010

Podcast: No more misconceptions!

We recently sat down with Linda Dacey and Anne Collins to talk about their new series of four flipcharts, Zeroing in on Number and Operations. Listen as Linda and Anne discuss how the series helps align the teaching of mathematics across grades 1-8, and why it’s important to intercede when students show the first signs of misconception.

Add comment May 19th, 2010

Quick Tip Tuesday: Taking notes

In Ladybugs, Tornadoes, and Swirling Galaxies, authors Anne Upczak Garcia and Brad Buhrow show how they move their students through the independent inquiry process. Taking notes that show the children’s own thinking and moves beyond copying text is an important part of that process. In this week’s Quick Tip, Brad and Anne share how they model note taking.

Our next step toward more sophisticated informational writing is to take our knowledge of how to ask and write questions and begin the note-taking process.

It is important to remember that note taking is the process in which the students read or make observations from a text or image and transfer their thinking onto paper. We say this because note taking can look like a lot of different things. It can be writing down questions developed from reading or observing, it can be writing down new information, it can be summarizing a text, and it can even be drawing a pictorial representation of a child’s interpretation of a text or picture. This wide range of ways of thinking about note taking helps guide the children as they learn to determine importance and interpret information.

During a mini-lesson for gathering information or taking notes, we begin with posting objectives, to make it clear to everyone what we are focusing on, and to ensure there is a little ambiguity about what we will be doing. During the note-taking lesson the objective might be “We are writing our thinking down as notes.” We are putting our writing and our thinking down for all to see, learn from, and respond to. Also posted is a language frame: “I noticed you ______ and I also saw you ______.” The kids can use this frame when we ask them to tell us what they saw us doing.

We start simply by holding a large picture of an image of the coral reef and begin to think aloud. “If you listen and watch, you will know what to do, because you’re going to do what we do.” Step by step we pull out observations about the image and use the language frame “I wonder ______.” “I wonder what kinds of fish live in the coral reef.” We quickly draw a picture of the fish in the coral reef. Beginning with a two-column note-taking sheet makes the task less daunting. We post the note-taking sheet beneath the objective for everyone to see. Each column of the note-taking sheet is labeled with the language frames we are practicing, such as “I wonder ______.” and “I learned ______.” As the kids gain more experience, different columns can be added. We have experimented with a column on “Connections,” another titled “My Schema,” one called “Wow!” for really exciting information, another for “My New Schema,” and one for “More Questions” to show that note taking is a ongoing process. We continue the mini-lesson by pointing to our heads. “Ready?” we ask.

The kids are all sitting on the floor close to the easel where we’re doing our thinking. They find it difficult not to say anything, and if people were watching, they might think, “Why not let them chime in?” Having the kids listen and notice while we think aloud means they tend to watch more closely and are later able to share with each other, then with the group as a whole. It gives them time to think and formulate how they want to express themselves. It is a short mini-lesson, taking only a few minutes, but that goes a long way.

We sometimes model note taking by consolidating a long caption into notes. For instance, “Hot lava exploding from Hawaii’s Kilauea reaches high into the night sky and flows quickly down the mountain to the sea, where the cool water hardens the molten lava to rock” might be written as something like “Lava from Kilauea is hot. When it touches water, it hardens,” and then we draw an arrow pointing to the picture. We help the students look for important information and summarize or synthesize it.

Our hope is to show them that they can write down their own thinking and not just copy the text. This takes time. It is a skill that will help them throughout the inquiry process and beyond. We aim for all of this modeling within five to ten minutes. Although it may seem like a lot of modeling in a short period of time, remember that this same activity will be repeated throughout the process of gradually releasing students to do nonfiction inquiry. Thus, they will have multiple opportunities to practice. Additionally, the short segments of focused practice simplify the process and make it more accessible to ELLs. When the kids know that they are going to be able to do this same activity, their anticipation builds. It is important to honor this eagerness quickly and let them work instead of keeping them trapped in group for what to them seems like an eternity.

The kids like to make their thinking big and visible. We can accommodate that easily. Once we’ve modeled what to do and the kids have shared their thinking, they are ready to get to work. We use large sheets of heavier paper and make our same columns on that. The students grab note-taking sheets and at least four sticky notes, clipboards, and pens, and go to work independently on texts of their choice. As the kids work, we walk around the room, conferring with them one-on-one. After about fifteen or twenty minutes the group reconvenes and the students share their new learning.

The sharing of their thinking is similar to the session in which they talked about what they saw the teacher doing in terms of language structure and format. Again we provide a language structure that we post above where we are working and that the ELL students can follow. For example, “I learned ______,” or “I wonder ______.” After the children have shared, we go back and review all the new information they have learned to synthesize the activity and bring it full circle. We like to emphasize the amount of information they were able to find about any given topic. It is a good idea to pull samples from the kids’ work to share as examples. This will happen repeatedly, so it gives us the opportunity to share each and every child’s work eventually. Kids comment on what they know about the subject, and sometimes the allure is so strong they want to work together in pairs or small groups for a while. When this happens, we let them.

Using the giant note taking charts is an extension of the mini-lessons on determining importance from text and of the images on how to take notes. We do all the modeling to show how to write down important words, writing our “I wonders” and showing our thinking with comments and connections. We demonstrate what strategic thinking looks like; they see us doing it and are eager to try it on their own topics. The kids add an image to each piece of text on the note-taking chart. With a highlighter in hand we read the text and talk about what’s important, highlighting some of the important words. We are interacting with the text to pull out important or interesting information. The kids see us highlighting, drawing arrows, and underlining words. For instance, Mabel reads the sentence “Insects crawl in the arctic snow and scamper in the desert.” We simply highlight part of the sentence and she adds it to her new schema.

Next to “I Learned” and “I Wonder” the kids draw small images of what they have written and color them. Sometimes after the kids have written what they’ve learned and wondered about and drawn images to represent their words, they have a masterpiece of thinking made visible. They can easily explain what they explored and discovered.

Add comment May 18th, 2010

Interview with Ralph Fletcher

“I want to hear laughter. Humor is essential! I want to see writing displayed on the walls that reflects what kids do at that age. Instead of typing up correct (standard) first grade stories, put stories on the walls written in their own handwriting, in their own zany spellings.”

Patrick Allen recently interviewed Ralph Fletcher on his blog, All-en-A Day’s Work. The two discuss Ralph’s latest book, Pyrotechnics on the Page, what makes for playful writing, and how to promote playful language in the classroom. Patrick is the author of Conferring: The Keystone of Reader’s Workshop.

Add comment May 17th, 2010

Poetry Friday: Books

This week’s poem comes from Natan, a second-grader in Ann Marie Corgill’s classroom. Natan wrote this poem as part of a “poetry writing journey reflection” exercise Ann Marie uses to assess what children’s have learned during poetry study. She writes about poetry study in her recent book, Of Primary Importance: What’s Essential in Teaching Young Writers.

by Natan

books are open oh
they talk.
When books
are closed
But when they’re open
they’re alive.
Can you please
read me
I’ll bring you
far away.
So open me.
Go anywhere.
On the shore
across the sea.
Go anywhere.
Go in the
middle of an
apple tree.
Go anywhere.
Swing to poetry
you might find
Go anywhere.
Climb to nonfiction.
You’ll find facts.
Go anywhere.
Walk to fiction.
You’ll get ideas.
Go anywhere.
I told you.
Go anywhere.
Go anywhere.
To places you’ve
never heard of.
Go anywhere.
Say yes to books.
Go anywhere.
You’ll find a friend.
Go anywhere.
In books.

Add comment May 14th, 2010

We knew her way back when!

If the young, blond teacher on the cover of the first edition of Mentoring Beginning Teachers looks familiar, there is a good reason for it. That’s Sarah Brown Wessling, this year’s National Teacher of the Year. On this old cover she is pictured with one of the book’s authors, Donna Niday, who was also Sarah’s English Education professor and mentor. Sarah coauthored a chapter in one of Donna’s later books, Mentoring Across Boundaries.

The picture below was taken the evening before Sarah (center) received the honor from President Obama, as she celebrated at a gala with Donna (left), and colleague Rachel Mullen; Michelle Tremmel (featured on the cover of Mentoring Across Boundaries), and Bob Tremmel, who also teaches English Education at Iowa State University along with with Donna.

Watch this space for an upcoming podcast with Sarah and Donna as they discuss Sarah’s career and the role mentoring played in her success. Coming soon!

1 comment May 12th, 2010

Quick Tip Tuesday: Instant messaging and boy writers

Instant messaging, or to use the proper lingo, IM, may not seem like serious classroom writing. But according to Ralph Fletcher, author of Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices, teachers can use some aspects of IM-ing to help reluctant boy writers become more engaged in classroom writing projects. In this week’s Quick Tip, Ralph talks about some of the characteristics of IM writing and then details how to borrow from instant messaging and adapt it for classroom use.

Some notable characteristics of IM writing include:

  • Ferocious fluency. Kids write fast; I’ve watched my boys’ keyboarding skills increase steadily. Fluency allows their writing to keep abreast of their thinking.
  • Quantity. Twenty years ago research showed that British kids wrote about one hundred words per day, whereas American kids were writing only about one hundred words per week. A writer is someone who writes a lot. I still believe that kids need quantity–frequent, sustained, writing occasions–as well as quality. How can you get better at a skill like skiing, cooking, or yoga if you don’t put in the time and do it on a regular basis? When kids are IM-ing they are churning out a high volume of words, plus sustained time on task, without which they cannot become strong writers.
  • Strong social component. Ann Haas Dyson (1993), among others, has convincingly demonstrated the inherent social component to writing. When boys send off an IM they get an almost immediate reaction from the other person. It’s like playing catch; one boy tosses a verbal ball to his friend, confident that his friend will throw it back. This social dynamic keeps the energy high, the conversation moving, and the writing flowing.
  • Self-directed topic selection. Choice rules. If someone else brings up a topic that holds little interest for a kid, he can simply sign off, or try to redirect the conversation back to a more interesting issue.
  • Experimentation. Many kids use IM to try on new versions of themselves. It’s common for kids to have several screen names, each of them slightly different people, allowing kids to write from various points of view, and try out new writing voices.

Other noteworthy aspects of IM are that it allows kids to:

  • Get immediate response (not wait a day or two for a writing conference).
  • Incorporate new vocabulary into their writing.
  • Express a range of emotions (anger, hurt, concern, boredom).
  • Discover through actual experience that words have the power to express an idea but also to mislead, hurt, and accidentally make another person angry.
  • Write at home where they can be comfortable.
  • Multitask. It’s not uncommon for my sons to be IM-ing to a dozen different people all over the country while at the same time working on a homework essay and downloading a song.
  • Write about high-interest topics.
  • Have their content/meaning valued over their mechanics.

What Can I Do in My Classroom?
Clearly the “IM gods” must be doing something right in terms of how to get boys engaged in writing. You can’t help but improve your skills at anything if you spend an hour or two practicing it every night.

Legions of boys (and girls) are becoming more fluent, more confident, more alive, and more aware of the power of written words. Of course, IM is not allowed in most schools. I’m not suggesting we turn our classrooms into stations where boys do no more than feverishly IM each other, but perhaps we can borrow aspects of the IM world and adapt these conditions to our classrooms. Consider these suggestions:

  • A boy writer must be engaged. This is a nonnegotiable. He must feel invested in the writing he is working on. We ignore this basic truth at our peril!
  • Make sure the boys have real and varied audiences for their writing. Sharing and celebrating should not be a rare occurrence but a regular event in the classroom.
  • Create the kind of classroom where boys feel “at home” when they write. For instance, let them write on the floor, or in a corner of the room, if that helps them concentrate.
  • Signal to boy writers that daily, private failure is a necessary ingredient for them to become strong writers. We can do this by showing examples of professional writers (E. B. White did nine drafts of Charlotte’s Web before it got published), and by sharing our own failed drafts. Take a long-term perspective on what they write. When responding to their writing, our message should not be “You did that wrong,” but “I know you learned some things on this piece that will help you on your next piece of writing.”
  • Consider setting up “out of bounds” spaces where kids can do writing that’s not for public consumption. For instance, you might allow them to fold over pages in their writer’s notebook where the content is personal.
  • Consider out-of-school writing experiences. Find out what kinds of writing your boys do at home. See if you can tap into the energy of that writing and bring it into the classroom.

My sons Robert and Joseph have participated in the Oyster River Players, a local theater group. They have had semi-major roles in plays like South Pacific, As You Like It, Annie, and The Match Maker. They have done soliloquies, danced, and sung solos. Watching them perform on the stage I often thought: This is a side of my boys that teachers never see. Wouldn’t their teachers see them differently if they could see Robert dancing as Bert Healy in Annie, or Joseph singing “Consider Yourself” as The Artful Dodger in Oliver?

In the same way it’s important to remember that we see only a fraction of our boys’ lives as readers and writers. IM, emailing, writing on blogs, creating websites, scribbling for fun in notebooks, creating comics with friends–all of these represent an important part of boys’ lives as writers. True, some of these arenas are private, but we can inquire and show an interest. Even knowing a little bit about boys’ out-of-school writing lives will give us a richer understanding of what engages them as writers.

1 comment May 11th, 2010

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