Archive for May, 2011

Quick Tip Tuesday: Reading aloud with songbooks

Despite time limits, mandates, and important tests to give, Debbie Miller believes that learning to read should still be a joyful experience for students. “Give children the luxury of listening to well-written stories with interesting plots, singing songs and playing with their words, and exploring a wide variety of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and rhymes,” she writes in her book Reading with Meaning: Teaching Comprehension in the Primary Grades. In this week’s Quick Tip she shares why she often picks a songbook for a classroom read-aloud.

My first read-aloud is almost always a songbook. I introduce a new songbook each day, I have two or three favorites ready to go, then I ask for requests. Most days we end up singing six or seven—children love the predictable text, rhythm, and rhyme. This continues well into October, and while we might “graduate” from Five Little Ducks by Raffi and Oh, a Hunting We Will Go by John Langstaff, we begin the day with music all year long. Often I’ll type up the words to favorite songs from CDs, tapes, books, and my Girl Scout days. The children follow along, and once they know the words, laminated copies go into the baskets and plain copies are sent home.

In addition to their repetition, rhythm, and rhyme, my reasons for choosing songbooks and singing songs are many:

  • They’re fun!
  • Children are instantly engaged and motivated to learn to read the words. I have multiple copies, and children can’t wait to get their hands on them.
  • The words and tunes are easy to learn; children read along right away and feel part of the “reading club” almost immediately.
  • They build community. Where else would “Little Rabbit Foo Foo” be declared “our song”?
  • Children love to take them home to share with parents, brothers, and sisters. I send a note with the copies, telling parents the purpose of the songbooks, ways to support their early reader, and reassurances that yes, right now, pointing to words and memorizing are good things! Parents appreciate being connected to the classroom so early in the year, and sometimes respond by sending in words to songs they learned as kids
  • Repeated readings increase phonemic awareness and build sight word vocabularies.

Once we’ve warmed up with songbooks, I read aloud one or two other types of books, depending on their length and the children’s mood.

Sometimes I’ll read one of the books out of the baskets at the children’s tables; I try to vary genre, author, format, and style and think about books this particular group of kids can easily connect with or what might pique their interest.

Reading aloud comes into play throughout the day. After lunch and/or at the end of the day, I often read aloud from a chapter book. Perennial favorites include The Trumpet of the Swan by E. B. White, Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater, Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren, Poppy and Poppy and Rye by Avi, and the My Father the Dragon series by Ruth Stiles Gannet.

Reading aloud is one of the most important things I do. I can’t believe I used to feel so guilty about it that I’d shut the classroom door! Now I know reading aloud motivates kids to want to learn to read, extends their oral language, and gives them opportunities to connect new information to what they already know. And reading aloud offers teachers opportunities to

  • share a variety of genres
  • model fluency and reading behaviors
  • construct meaning through think-alouds and offer children the time and tools to do the same
  • build community
  • share with kids our love of reading and learning.

8 comments May 31st, 2011

Poetry Friday: Song of a Soccer Player

We have a student poem this week from Kimberly Hill Campbell’s recent book Less Is More: Teaching Literature with Short Texts, Grades 6-12. In a chapter about poetry, Kim uses Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, Section 1 as a mentor poem. Here is what one of her students, Trish, takes away from the original:

I run and become one with my soul
I run and kick at my ease
Observing your every move.

My moves, every structure
Of my skills, form’d from
this turf, this atmosphere…

I, now, 16 years of age begin,
Hoping to play until I can
No more.

Add comment May 27th, 2011

Join the discussion about Math Work Stations

Join a group of teachers and bloggers who are organizing an extensive discussion of Debbie Diller’s Math Work Stations starting June 1. Each blog below will tackle a different chapter and offer room to exchange ideas. If you have your own blog and would like to post your thoughts there, you can link your post from the host blog that week.

During the discussion — now through July 30 — enjoy FREE SHIPPING on your Stenhouse order if you use the code MATH during checkout. There will also be a chance to win a free copy of Math Work Stations — just follow the discussion to find out how to enter.

June 1: Mrs. Wills @ will host Chapter 1 What is a Math Work Station? and Chapter 2 Organizing and Managing Work Stations

June 6: Mrs. Parker @ will host Chapter 3 Getting Started with Work Stations

June 13: Mrs. Kramer @ will host Chapter 4 Beginning Number Concepts with Work Stations

June 20: Mrs. Saoud @ will host Chapter 5 Addition and Subtraction Work Stations

June 27: Mrs. Arnold @ will host Chapter 6 Place Value Work Stations

July 4: Mrs. Patton @ will host Chapter 7 Geometry Work Stations

July 11: Mrs. Evans @ will host Chapter 8 Measurement Work Stations

3 comments May 26th, 2011

A teacher reviews “Waiting for Superman”

We know many teachers who have avoided watching the documentary Waiting for Superman because of what they’ve heard about the film’s view of public school teachers. We asked teacher educator Maureen Barbieri for her thoughts about the film and the messages it sends. After working as a teacher, principal, and literacy coach for many years, Maureen currently teaches literacy courses at the University of New Hampshire, volunteers at a local elementary school, and takes care of two young grandchildren every week.  This is the first in a series of blog posts by Maureen.

Too many of our inner city students are not thriving in school.  So along comes Waiting for Superman, a compelling documentary produced by Davis Guggenheim, to raise the question: “What is our obligation to other people’s children?” The film is an indictment of the public school system with particular criticism aimed at teachers’ unions, the villains of the piece.  Heralded as “inspiring” and “one of the best films of the year,” it left me heartsick. The movie is slick and manipulative, advocating a school reform agenda that pushes charter schools and “teacher accountability” tied to students’ standardized test scores.

Guggenheim deserves credit for shining a light on education, but his solutions are simplistic and ignore the fact that societal inequities are more powerful than any force teachers can bring to bear in schools.  The pedagogy of rote learning, endorsed in the film, is one that many contemporary educators have abandoned in favor of a more student-centered approach that recognizes that knowledge is a process of coming to understand, connecting new information to previously held concepts.

Waiting for Superman casts a rosy glow on Geoffrey Canada, founding principal of Harlem Success Academy, who narrates a short cartoon in which a teacher walks from student to student, opening heads and pouring something from a pitcher.  “It should be simple,” he says. “A teacher filling her students’ heads with knowledge and sending them on their way.  But we’ve made it complicated.” This feels like a leap back into the past; what we really want is students who are much more active participants in their own learning.

Waiting for Superman accuses teachers’ unions of being the monkey wrench in school reform.  If only we could torpedo teacher tenure and move to merit pay, insists the film’s other star, Michelle Rhee, everything would improve.  Rhee, former chancellor of the Washington, D.C. schools, closed 23 schools in one year and offered teachers huge salary increases, if they would agree to forfeit tenure.  Now she travels around the country advancing the idea that unions are the enemy of school reform, and she has been persuasive.  She is not alone in her disdain for the unions, as we have seen in Wisconsin, Ohio, and New Hampshire, where some people place blame on unions for everything from low test scores to budget deficits.

In New York City today, teachers applying for tenure go through a rigorous process of compiling a portfolio, securing letters of endorsement, and being observed and interviewed.  The vast majority of teachers I’ve known over the past 28 years, twelve spent in New York City as a literacy coach, principal, and university instructor, have been conscientious in their commitment to students, something the film ignores.  Teachers do not seek job security at the expense of students’ welfare, as Rhee asserts; they seek to be treated as professionals.

These issues are complex and it won’t be a “superman” who will address them.  The film’s melodramatic portrayal of moms too poor to pay Catholic school tuition, its blanket condemnation of unions, and its presentation of dubious statistics will do little to help. Other, more constructive, ideas abound.

For every dedicated educator shown in the film who is working at a charter or private schools in New York, there are thousands of equally committed and creative teachers working within the public school system. In addition to being excellent teachers in the classroom, they devote hours of free time to their students beyond the school day. I am thinking about two young teachers from IS 131 in New York’s Chinatown who spent their Saturdays taking immigrant kids on walks around the city, encouraging them to make observations, ask questions, and wonder about the implications of what they had seen.  I’m remembering the year a science teacher and I took a group of eighth grade “feisty females” to art museums, cafes, and bookstores every Friday after school. I’m thinking about a fifth grade teacher at PS 11 in Chelsea who designed and implemented a social justice curriculum requiring children to observe and write about what was unfair in their communities and then develop action plans to make changes.

These days I get emails from former NYU students, telling tales of being compelled to follow scripted reading programs. They’re dismayed at the lack of value placed on the teaching of writing and at the obsession with test scores.  They love working with students, but they are disheartened to have such little voice in what happens in their classrooms.  Several have left in frustration already, pursuing journalism or law careers.  Among my current students at UNH there is a sense of foreboding where there was once a sense of joy.  They lament the lack of respect for teachers in the media and among the general public, and they are uneasy about their futures.  I worry that they will lose heart.

Waiting for Superman shows little respect for teachers’ intelligence, integrity, or creativity. Unless we can counter this mind-set, we can anticipate that talented teachers will leave the profession and smart young college students will make other career choices.  The stakes are too high here to allow the nation’s attention to be hijacked by such a narrow, simplistic agenda as the film advances.  Other voices are sorely needed in this conversation: the voices of thinkers like Diane Ravitch, Alfie Kohn, and Linda Darling Hammond; the voices of families whose children are thriving in many types of schools; and, most of all, the voices of teachers who know better than anyone else what it means to work and learn and think alongside other people’s children.

For more information about the issues raised by Waiting for Superman—and the reality behind them– check out these links:

  • Diane Ravitch looks at the reality behind the schools and reforms profiled in the film in her review in the New York Times Review of Books.
  • The Grassroots Education Movement of New York has just released a documentary challenging the picture of public education portrayed in the Guggenheim film.
  • “Good teaching alone can’t overcome the many obstacles” students face when they are not in school writes Joe Nocera in a recent column in the NY Times.
  • Alfie Kohn takes school reformers to task for advocating what he calls “poor teaching for poor children” in this recent commentary in Education Week.

18 comments May 25th, 2011

Quick Tip Tuesday: Six favorite children’s authors

This week’s Quick Tip comes to you in video form for a change. We asked Ranu Bhattacharyya, author of The Castle in the Classroom, who her favorite children’s authors are. Watch the video for her answer, then head over to the Stenhouse site to preview her book online!

1 comment May 24th, 2011

How to encourage reluctant math learners

“Building a mathematical community of learners is essential…setting up an environment where mistakes are OK, where students feel free to debate and discuss ideas, where math talk is really a big part of the routine.”

Jessica Shumway sat down with us at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics conference last month to discuss her new book, Number Sense Routines. Watch this short video where Jessica explains how the routines in her book help teachers learn about students’ mathematical thinking over time, and how math talk with peers can encourage reluctant math learners:

Add comment May 23rd, 2011

Poetry Friday: Books Discover Children

This week’s poetry selection is by newly-named Children’s Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis. You can read a great interview with him on the Poetry Foundation website.

Books Discover Children
J. Patrick Lewis

Yes, children do discover books,
But books find children on their own,
And then can’t wait to get their hooks
In kids who think they’re all alone.

For instance, GOODNIGHT MOON knows why
That girl is thinking to herself,
How can I ever say good-bye….
When Rabbit pulls her to the shelf.

And FROG AND TOAD hops to the child
Who almost lost his closest friend:
The only way pain’s reconciled
Is by the letter that you send.

When CHARLOTTE’S WEB bumps into you-
A girl who’s fastened to a farm-
The simple life you thought you knew
Is spelled out in a spider’s charm.

As children hurry to the page,
The picture page talks back by turns,
Capturing kids of every age
For whom imagination burns.

2 comments May 20th, 2011

Speak, like, proper English

A+ Advice columnist Leanna Landsman turned to Stenhouse author Erik Palmer’s book Well Spoken recently to answer a question from an anxious parent. Read her column and advice below.

Question of the Week:

To listen to my 16-year-old daughter, Alicia, you’d think she had a vocabulary of three words. She says “like” constantly in a valley-girl voice. She has a summer job as a receptionist and should speak more maturely. She’s a good student who sounds like a sitcom character. How do we change this? Help!


Mom, I hear you! I always ask teens I meet where they go to school and what they are studying. Do they plan on college? What inspires them? What is their dream career? I’m often shocked at how inarticulate they are. Shyness? Probably not. Those same kids in a high school hallway talk up a storm.

Denver, Colo., educator Erik Palmer, says students’ communication skills are weak because we’ve not made speaking a curriculum priority. “Oral communication is an essential 21st century skill but we don’t teach it,” says Palmer. That may change now that Common Core State Standards include “Speaking and Listening.”

Start by making Alicia aware of her job’s importance. A receptionist is often the first contact people have with a company and part of her job is to project professionalism, competence and maturity. Have her practice by making some calls (such as scheduling appointments, gathering information, purchasing or returning products, troubleshooting a technical problem). Have her rate her experiences for quality of service, clarity, ease of completing the transaction. Give her additional practice by role-playing callers she might encounter.

Palmer, author of “Well Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students” (Stenhouse, 2011), a terrific book for teachers and adaptable for parents, says good speakers have mastered six traits. Introduce these to Alicia:

  • Poise: Good speakers appear calm, confident and avoid distracting behaviors such as tugging on hair, or repeatedly saying, “um” or “like,” says Palmer. Videotaping can help develop poise.
  • Voice: They speak every word clearly with appropriate volume. “Compare different voices we are exposed to every day, from jazz radio announcers to infomercial hustlers to from PBS’s ‘The News Hour’ to ‘Top Chef,'” suggests Palmer.
  • Life: “I use this term, rather than ‘inflection’ because it resonates with students and gets them to put passion and emotion in their voices,” notes Palmer.
  • Eye Contact: This engages the listener. Good receptionists make eye contact with each person they greet. “If speaking to a group, make eye contact with each person in the audience,” advises Palmer.
  • Gestures: This means matching words to motions. Hand, face, and body movements can add to the message.
  • Speed: A compelling speaker paces well; not too fast or two slow and uses pauses for effect. Alicia will want to speak slowly when giving out a phone number but more quickly when inviting someone to have a waiting room seat.

For more practice, try demonstrations: Ask Alicia to show and describe the steps in making a recipe (a Food Channel skill!). Make a podcast about something she’s interested in. Skype an adult relative or friend regularly with family news.

When school restarts, encourage her to join a debate, forensics, or theater club, or other activity that will increase her confidence and skill as a speaker. Some schools have radio and TV stations that students run; still others have students do the morning announcements.

Do you have a question about your child’s education? E-mail it to Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.

Copyright 2011, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.

Add comment May 18th, 2011

Quick Tip Tuesday: The process behind writing digital stories

While digital stories rely heavily on technology, at their core they are still stories that have to be planned, researched, and written. In this week’s Quick Tip, Lisa Miller, author of Make Me a Story, outlines the writing process her students go through as they plan their digital stories.

Surprises pop up all the way through the process of creating digital stories. Students are surprised by what they write, by how their art and text work together, by how their voices sound reciting their own words.

Students love putting the stories together with images and music on the computer, but before they get there, they must do the writing. Writing is thinking, so through writing they find out what they want to say and how they want to say it in the scripts. Even though the visuals are an important part of digital stories, this thinking/writing is what digital stories are built on. You’ll want to take students through at least some parts of the writing process, the different steps writers go through to create stories. The process will help them see themselves as writers. It will help them get the writing done. And it will make the stories stronger than if students concentrated mostly on the images instead of on the writing.

There is no one process, no one way of talking about the steps writers follow. My friend and mentor Don Murray, who pioneered the writing process, revised his own models through eight editions of his book Write to Learn. In the seventh edition (2002), he listed the steps as these: focus, research, draft, revise, and edit; in the eighth edition (2005), he listed them this way: write before writing, research for writing, begin writing, keep writing, and finish writing. You can tailor the process to your students, whatever grade they’re in, to help them be successful.

Although the texts for digital stories are short, students can still follow the steps of the writing process to create good scripts. In fact, the brevity of the scripts can be helpful; students may find such texts easier to work with and revise than longer ones. As we grow as writers, we develop our own processes that work for us. But for young writers, a model such as Murray’s provides a coherent way to talk about how students can get from an idea to a finished draft, and a way for thinking about writing in general that can serve these students well all through school and beyond. The writing process models show students that great writing isn’t created by magic—that published writers’ pieces don’t suddenly appear perfect and whole on the page. Students learn there are steps they can follow, practice, and improve upon. If they run into roadblocks while writing, they can go back to one step and work on that step to solve the problems. The process also offers students ways to experiment and find out what writing techniques work best for them—and they can apply this experimentation to other writing projects they do. If they practice a process again and again, they’ll always be able to get the writing done. And they’ll make discoveries about what they have to say and about themselves as writers along the way. I’ve encountered students who, through the process, discovered what was most important to them about families or friendships or places they’d lived, or what most interested them about a subject they’d researched, like the child who wrote fiction about a polar bear but did factual research and then decided to focus on the polar bear’s search for food.

Here are the writing process steps and the associated tasks I’ll discuss in this chapter and the next:
Write before writing. Finding a subject; brainstorming, mapping, and other prewriting activities; asking questions about the subject.
Research for writing. Recollecting details about an experience; asking questions about a research subject; conducting research in the library and/or on the Internet; interviewing others; and collecting images.
Begin writing. Finding a focus; beginning a draft; considering point of view and audience; and planning the story, which includes thinking about images that might go with the story.
Keep writing. Developing a whole draft with a strong beginning and ending, transitions, concrete language, and interesting details; putting together the images; storyboarding to figure out what images will go with what text; and splitting the written script into pieces to go with the images.
Finish writing. Putting the story together in the computer, with images, transitions, voice-over narration, and music; revising as needed; and showing the stories to an audience.

This model implies that the process is linear, and of course it’s not. A writer may focus and research, then go back and refocus, then move to drafting, then decide more research is necessary, and so on; students will revise through the drafting of scripts and up until they finish the stories. The model is simply an effective way to talk about writing and sets out ways for students to work through writing projects. It also offers students ways to experiment and find out what writing techniques work best for them.

Much of this—the collecting, focusing, and drafting—can be done (or at least started) in the classroom without computers, unless you want students to conduct research or find images on the World Wide Web, use computer clip art, or type up their scripts on computers. Once they’ve completed a draft of their text, collected their images, and created a plan for matching images with text, they’ll be ready to work on the computers with a program such as Microsoft Photo Story 3 and begin putting all the elements together.

I’ve known first and second graders who, with some one-on-one help, have gone through part of the writing process and put their stories together on a computer, using Photo Story 3. I know that some of the youngest students won’t be ready to go through all of these steps in depth or answer all of the questions I’m going to pose to help students through the writing process. You can pare down the model to the basics: find a subject, get the information and images you need, write the script, figure out what images go with what text, and put the text together with images using a computer. You can add any of the exercises, strategies, or questions I suggest if you think they will help your students through the process.

With first- and second-grade students you may want to concentrate mostly on finding a subject and on making the pictures and words go together. In fact, the first time you have students do digital stories, whatever the grade level, you may want to concentrate on focus—what main thing each student wants or needs to say—and making the pictures work with the words. When students do additional digital stories, you can have them consider other concerns, such as writing great beginnings and endings, or showing and telling.

You may decide to have students work together in pairs or groups on digital stories rather than having them do individual stories. For an online story about holidays (Digital Storytelling in the Scott County Schools Web site), first and second graders were split into teams. Each team dealt with one aspect of the story: images, music, scanning, cropping, or story. The digital story featured a different narrator for each holiday. Other examples of collaborative stories on the Web include one about the life cycle of the Granny Smith apple by a third-grade class (Granny Smith, Digitales Web site) and one about the battle of Antietam written and illustrated by three young authors (A Young Man’s First Battle, Digitales Web site).

Sometimes teachers work with a class to create a group story: Students paint or draw one picture each, write a short poem or a paragraph to go with the picture, then turn it over to the teacher, who uses the material to create one digital story.

A couple of teachers I worked with did this with their students’ poems and drawings about nature. They still recorded each student reading his or her poem so that all of the students’ voices were heard. Even if students are doing individual stories, you might want them to work in pairs so they can help and support each other as they go through the writing process and work on the computers. The important thing is to make the projects workable for you and your students.

Before you have students create digital stories, you may want to do one of your own so you’re comfortable with how the story and images go together. Teachers in digital storytelling classes I’ve taught have done personal narratives, introductions to books their students are going to read, and introductory lessons on subjects including clouds (to introduce students to the different kinds) and the making of a peanut butter and banana sandwich (to introduce students to the writing of how-to pieces).

1 comment May 17th, 2011

We are back…

…from IRA, that is! We hope you had a chance to stop by our booth and meet some of our authors. In case you missed the action, here are some snapshots:

Debbie Diller signs books on the first day of the conference

Kelly Gallagher (right) hangs out with Stenhouse editor Bill Varner during a lull in action

Here is Bill again with authors Lynne Dorfman (left) and Rose Cappelli

Katie Keier (left) and Pat Johnson chat with teachers

Gail Boushey and Joan Moser (The Sisters) were also on hand to sign their books

Add comment May 16th, 2011

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