Posts filed under 'Quick Tip Tuesday'

Quick Tip Tuesday: Data collection tips and ideas

We wrap up our four weeks of math quick tips with Jessica Shumway today with tips and ideas for data collection routines in the classroom. You can still preview Jessica’s book Number Sense Routines on the Stenhouse website. Read Chapter 6 for more ideas on collecting data over a long period of time with your students.

Data Routine Tips, Ideas, and Questions
Assigning Data Collection Jobs
It is important to allow students some element of choice for their data collection jobs. However, for management purposes, in the beginning of the year I choose their jobs for them based on skill level and needs (they indicate first, second, and third choices, and I take their requests into account). This allows for differentiated instruction through pairings. Students who are comfortable reading the thermometer, sunrise/sunset data, and moon phases data and recording that information hold these jobs in the beginning of the year in order to get the routines going. During this time, the student I assign to be Data Assistant is often not as comfortable with these skills, but the job of Data Assistant gives him or her time to observe and learn how to do the other jobs and pushes his or her learning to an independent zone.

During the second quarter of the school year, I often flip-flop the roles. I often assign the role of Data Assistant to someone who is strong in collecting and recording the data, and that person can assist the others in learning their jobs. This pushes the thinking of all the students involved. This pairing challenges those who are not yet proficient with collecting and recording data and it challenges the Data Assistant to explain his or her thinking; the Data Assistant is not allowed to do the other jobs for his or her classmates; he or she must use words to describe what to do.

Questions for Differentiation
• What do you notice about the data? (Use an open-ended question like this to spark discussion and give you a sense of where students are in their thinking.)
• Why do you think that? (Use a question like this in response to statements such as “It’s getting colder”; you are asking
students to talk about the data and cite evidence; you are asking them to “prove it.”)
• What was the temperature on October 10th?
• What days during this month were the warmest? The coldest? The most mild?
• What was the lowest temperature this month? The highest temperature?
• What has been the range of temperatures this month? (Emphasize the strategies for figuring it out by asking How do you know?)
• What days so far this year have been warmer than today?
• How many days so far this year have been warmer than today? (Again, emphasize the strategies for figuring this out by asking, How do you know? Some students might count one by one, some might group and skip-count, some might use the number of days in school and subtract, and so on.)
• What do you think the graph will look like next month?

Summarizing the Data Each Month with Mode, Average, and Range
• What is the most common temperature this month? (Mode)
• What is the mean temperature for March? (This arithmetic average/mean question would be appropriate for some third-grade students and many fourth-grade students.)
• What was the range of temperatures this month? (This question asks about the difference between the highest and lowest temperatures.)

Add comment October 4th, 2011

Quick Tip Tuesday: Using Algebra and Arithmetic Routines to Improve Number Sense

Our math quick tips continue on this sunny Tuesday with another number sense routine by Jessica Shumway, exclusive to the Stenhouse blog. Her new book, Number Sense Routines, is still available for full preview on the Stenhouse website!

Using Algebra and Arithmetic Routines to Improve Number Sense

What goes in the blank?


Pose this problem to your students.  Many of them will write 14 in the blank.  Some will add 7+7+8 and put 22 in the blank.  Others say that the equation is impossible.  Some might answer 6.

During a Cognitively Guided Instruction training, my math coach Debbie Gates challenged me to present this problem to some fifth grade students.  I was surprised that many of them wrote 14 or 22 in the blank.  Some of them wrote 7+7= 14+8=22.  Through their elementary school years many of these fifth grade students had developed misconceptions about the equal sign and what equality means.

A couple of years later I was part of a study group that read Thinking Mathematically: Integrating Arithmetic and Algebra in Elementary School by Carpenter, Franke, and Levi.  It really got me thinking deeply about students’ misconceptions about the equal sign as well as the critical importance of encouraging students to think relationally.  I saw these factors as critical to my students’ number sense development, so of course, we made it a Number Sense Routine in our classroom.

At the beginning of the school year, I simply started with a series of True/False Statements that Carpenter el al. suggested in their book (see page 16 of Thinking Mathematically):







I wrote these equations on the board (one at a time), and the students discussed whether each statement is true or false and, of course, explained how they know.  This was the beginning of our conversation about equality and what the equal sign means.  Many students believed that the second and third equations were false!  I recorded students’ ideas about equality during the course of our discussion:

We did similar series of equations like these over the next two weeks.  Other examples include:

True or False?







True or False?








True or False?






As we worked through these daily routines, we continued our discussions about equality and the meaning of the equal sign, but students also began to dive into important ideas like the commutative property of addition and multiplication, how to compose and decompose amounts, and relationships among each side of the equal sign (relational thinking).  This was exciting!

At this point, I began using equations like these:




My students agreed that the first equation is false.  Some solved for both sides and said that 20 does not equal 19.  One student said, “I knew right away that it was false because there is a three on both sides, but 16 is one less than 17.”  This student was thinking relationally—this is a critical component to algebraic reasoning!  Additionally, the student was using her number sense and looking at relationships among the numbers.  She actually did not need to solve for both sides, rather understanding the relationships on each side of the equation helped her figure out that the statement is false.  Her explanation of her reasoning helped other students look at the other two problems in the same manner.

Later, after changing the routine from True/False Statements to Open Number Sentences, I had students come up with their own Open Number Sentences that I could use for future Number Sense Routines:

Luis’s Open Number Sentence encourages his peers to use relational thinking rather than solve for both sides.  Students who use relational thinking will likely use a compensation strategy, which is a strong mental math strategy.

These routines helped my students negotiate meaning around the equal sign, dispel misconceptions about the equal sign, learn to think relationally, and use important arithmetic and mental math strategies.  Through our various conversations each day for several weeks, I watched my students’ number sense flourish.  I found these algebra routines to be extremely effective!  The students immediately get sucked into the discussions and lose themselves (and find algebraic thinking!) in debate and negotiations about the mathematics.  Additionally, a focus on the symbolic  (the equations) was a nice addition to our visually focused dot cards and ten-frames routines.  At many points in our discussions, I found it helpful to students to link the dot cards with our True/False Statements.  This routine is extremely rich and can be adapted and enriched in a number of ways!

1 comment September 27th, 2011

Quick Tip Tuesday: Counting the days in school

We continue our math quick tip series with another  idea from Jessica Shumway’s recent book Number Sense Routines. Counting the days in school is a routine that Jessica uses at the end of the day to help separate it from the calendar routine, after she and fellow teachers realized that students were confused about counting the days of the month and the days spent in school at the same time. Read more about this routine here and then head over to the Stenhouse site where you can still preview Jessica’s book in its entirety!

Counting and keeping track of the days in school is an especially beneficial routine for kindergarten and first-grade students. This routine lends itself to talking about numbers, thinking about patterns, and seeing amounts. It provides an opportunity for these young students to count every day, see and experience an increasing amount, and think about numbers beyond 100. For second and third graders, there are a variety of reasons and ways to keep track of the days in school, from organizing a growing amount to developing sophisticated strategies for comparing two sets of numbers (days in school versus days on the calendar).

As a mathematics coach at Bailey’s Elementary, I worked with a team of kindergarten teachers who described a problem they came across with keeping track of the days in school. They realized that students were getting very confused between how many days are in a month and how many dayswe had been in school during that month. “What are we counting?” became a common question. Teachers were not asking students to compare the days in a month versus the number of days students had been in school. The problem was that there were too many different numbers (day of the month and the number of days in school) for them to keep track of, especially early on in the year.

One of the kindergarten teachers and I decided to use this routine of Counting the Days in School at the end of the school day as a way to remedy the confusion. That way, the calendar routines, which students worked on during morning meeting or at the beginning of the math lesson, were separate from the Counting the Days in School routine. We used Counting the Days in School as a check-off system: “We are finishing the ninth day of school. Let’s add 9 to our counting tape and move our circle on the number grid from 8 to 9. Wow, you’ve just finished up another day of kindergarten. You are nine days smarter!”

I have seen many different ways to keep track of the days of school. Many teachers use a place-value pocket chart, with each pocket labeled from left to right as Hundreds, Tens, and Ones. They add a straw to the Ones pocket for each day they are in school. Every tenth day of school, students bundle the straws into a ten and place the bundle in the Tens pocket on the chart.

Although this routine is effective in third-grade classrooms, it does not seem to be very effective for kindergarten and first grade. Students at this age are in the process of constructing early ideas of number sense and are not yet near understanding why you bundle straws every tenth day of school. This routine requires students to have an understanding of unitizing—counting ten straws as one bundle of straws or one ten. Students in kindergarten and first grade are grappling with early ideas of how we count objects and represent the count with symbols. Counting ten objects as “one” is difficult when you are still constructing the early ideas of counting, one-to-one correspondence, cardinality, and hierarchical inclusion. Understanding unitizing is a huge leap.

Many teachers believe that the straws routine for keeping track of the days in school is planting the seed for strong place-value understanding as students move into second and third grade. I used to believe that, too; however, I have seen time and again that these young kindergarten and firstgrade students are more focused on what that quantity means and what it looks like. Using cubes instead of bundling straws seems to be an easier way for students to construct early ideas of unitizing and of the importance and efficiency of ten. Opportunities to see ten ones being connected to one ten (without the exchange that takes place with bundles of straws or base ten blocks) will help these younger students construct the ideas of “ten-ness.”

The idea of ten as a group is at the core of unitizing. Early on, though, many children are learning that 1 means one item. It is too confusing to bring in the idea that 1 can also mean one group of ten. That will come later. It is more important for very young children (kindergarten and first grade) to build visual images of the amounts rather than focus on unitizing. Collecting items (like rocks or cubes) for each day of school and counting by ones seems to be a more authentic and age-appropriate task for students who are still figuring out what twenty looks like, how to count twenty efficiently, and how to represent that number. The place-value chart does not yet make sense. Let’s shift the focus for these young learners and instead create routines that will help them see amounts, learn the counting sequence, construct a sense of quantities, and recognize patterns.

Add comment September 20th, 2011

Quick Tip Tuesday: Using quick images with dot cards to build a strong community of learners

In her new book Number Sense Routines, author Jessica Shumway shares a series of routines designed to help young students internalize and deepen their facility with numbers. For the next four weeks, we are going to share four routines that will help build students’ number sense. Today’s routine — an exclusive not included in the book — is about using quick images with dot cards to build a community of learners in your classroom at the beginning of the year. Check back next Tuesday for more ideas!

Summer… a time to recharge and a wonderful time for reflection on the past school year as well as planning for the fresh start in the fall.  During the summer I plan out the core classroom routines that will build a strong community of learners with my new group of students at the beginning of the school year.  I hope these suggestions in the Math Quick Tips will help you do the same!

Teaching students to share ideas, listen to each other, support one another, and learn to value a variety of ideas are critical components to successful discussions in my classroom.  One way to begin negotiating our norms for classroom discussions is using the Quick Images with dot cards.  I love the Quick Images with dot cards because children naturally see the amounts in different ways.  Using these will help you establish the norm that “we value various ideas and strategies.”  For example, showing this dot card:

and then asking “how many dots did you see? How did you see the total?” will elicit responses such as “5 and 3 is 8” or “I saw 3 on top and 3 on the bottom, which is 6 then two more—in the middle—is 8 total.” Some students might count by twos to 8.

A student might say “I saw 4 and 4 which makes 8.”  To encourage listening to one another, discussion, and flexibility with amounts, ask “Can someone explain what Julia saw? Show us on the dot card.”  After someone restates her thinking, then ask Julia, “Is that how you saw the 4 and 4?”  Emphasize all the different ways of thinking about the amount by recording equations that students describe:


3+3=6 and 2 more is 8   or  3+3+2=8

2+2+2+2=8 or 2×4=8


Then say, “look at all those different ways we made 8.  Your brains think differently and we saw the amount in so many ways.  How cool is that?!”

Another possible format to teach students to have math discussions is to show, then hide a dot card followed by “turn and talk” with a partner.  Show and hide the following combination of dot cards…

then, ask students to turn and talk to their partner (knee-to-knee, eye-to-eye).  Challenge your students and say, “see if you can figure out how your partner figured out how many dots on the card!”  The colors on this dot card combination may encourage certain strategies, such as counting by threes and/or combining groups of threes.  However, other students will focus on the arrangement (rather than the colors) of the groups of fours.  After students discuss their process for figuring out 12 dots on the cards, ask a few students to explain what their partner did to figure it out.  This teacher move encourages students to listen to one another as well as learn new ways of seeing an amount.

Students turning and talking knee-to-knee and eye-to-eye

The beauty of Quick Images with dot cards is that it is a useful routine for setting up classroom norms and building a strong community of learners while doing important mathematics at the same time.   You can use this routine to teach students to listen to each other, guide students with how to hold a respectful discussion, and value multiple ideas in one classroom.  Simultaneously, students are building their number sense as they utilize their abilities to subitize, build visual sense of quantities, compare quantities, combine and separate amounts, and discuss part-part-whole relationships.  During the discussions, you will likely write equations based on the children’s descriptions, so they are also seeing pictorial representations of amounts (the dot cards) connected with the symbolic representations (the equations).   Students become more flexible in thinking about amounts like 8 and 12 which will help them become more efficient with composing and decomposing numbers (as well as computations and mental math!).

This routine is extremely rich and students love it!  It is amazing that such a mathematically rich Number Sense Routine only takes 5 or 10 minutes at the beginning of each math lesson!!!

Add comment September 13th, 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

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

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

Quick Tip Tuesday: Poetry in nature

This week’s Quick Tip comes from Herbert Broda’s 2007 book Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning: Using the Outdoors as an Instructional Tool, K-8. The book just received the Environmental Education Council of Ohio’s Publication Award. The award was presented to Herb at the organization’s annual meeting and is given to a publication that has made a significant contribution to the public understanding of an environmental issue.

The outdoors can serve as both venue and content as students use spoken, written, and visual language. Because the outdoors pulls at the senses, the schoolyard can provide fantastic raw material for description!

The outdoors can provide great inspiration for writing poetry. Because the outdoors stimulates thinking in so many directions, students don’t have a problem fi nding substance for poetry writing. A very effective introduction to poetry is the “See What I Found” formula poem. This is one of those activities that has been around for many years, but I have no idea who may have “invented” it. Although this may not fit a technical description of poetry, it certainly emphasizes the aesthetic qualities of language and coaxes the use of descriptive words. The structure of this five-line poem is very simple:

First line: See what I found?
Second line: (name of object)
Third line: (adjectives and/or descriptive phrase)
Fourth line: (tell where you found it)
Fifth line: (make a comment or question about it)

See what I found?
A butterfly
Flitting and glowing in the sunlight.
It’s resting on a flower.
I wonder how long it will stay?

There are many ways to do this poetry activity. Sometimes I will have students find an object in nature that is no larger than a thumbnail. They bring the object to the outdoor teaching area and write the “See What I Found” poem. They always, then, return the natural items back to the original locations.

Another variation is to have kids take their clipboards or lapboards and find something interesting without removing it from its setting. This can be another one of those activities that can focus on either the macro or micro aspects of the schoolyard. You can have students find a special spot and then write about something no more than 3 feet away from them. Or you can have them sit on the grass and write about something they see in the distance. I really like this option since it does not disturb the environment, and makes it possible to utilize an animal or large object in the poem. It’s also great to see kids enjoying the outdoors, observing and writing.

The previously described Tale of the Tape activity (Chapter 4), in which students generate a listing of adjectives and descriptive phrases for a natural object, makes a wonderful precursor to the “See What I Found” poem. One teacher includes Tale of the Tape as an introduction to the use of the thesaurus.

The schoolyard can provide a magnificent setting for many traditional language arts activities. For example, Pam Tempest takes advantage of the Florida sunshine by frequently taking her students outside for reading. Sometimes she reads a story aloud to students outside and other times the schoolyard is used for sustained silent reading. Sometimes Pam has a small group of students who borrow a quilt and sit outside of her classroom windows on the lawn and read.

An Ohio teacher achieves a change of pace and place by taking students outside to write poetry on the sidewalk with colorful chalk. The novel setting and unconventional writing tools spur the creative juices, with nature often providing a creative writing prompt.

Since the outdoors is so conducive to reading or writing, it is well worth the effort to create an outdoor seating area. As a bonus, an outdoor courtyard or other type of outdoor seating area can also serve as a location for performance. Language arts standards emphasize that students should be able to use spoken, written, and visual language to communicate for different purposes. In the outdoors, those purposes might include describing evidence of an environmental problem found on the school site and then researching the problem, gathering data, and proposing solutions. Or it might include describing one’s own feelings and responses to the outdoors.

Add comment April 26th, 2011

Quick Tip Tuesday: Why is public speaking important?

“What percentage of communication is oral and what percentage is written?” asks Erik Palmer in the beginning of his new book Well Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students. In the first chapter of his book he outlines why public speaking skills are so important in school and in life beyond school. We took a snippet from Chapter 1 for this week’s Quick Tip and you can still preview the entire book on the Stenhouse website.

Now, let me make a radical statement: the mission of education should not be to make students better at school but rather to prepare them for life. As schools focus on high-stakes testing, there is a tendency to forget that mission and to see the test as the ultimate outcome of our instruction. As a result, many important parts of a well-rounded education that do not directly contribute to the test score can end up on the cutting room floor, including art, music, physical education, home economics, health, and civics. Another skill commonly sacrificed is speaking.

There is some evidence that the atmosphere is changing. Colorado, my home state, revised its state standards in 2010. The 1995 standard “Reading and Writing” became “Reading, Writing, and Communicating,” and “Oral Expression” is the first thing mentioned under the standard. The Common Core State Standards Initiative suggests adopting the standard “Speaking and Listening.” More than forty states had adopted the Common Core Standards by the end of 2010. Some school districts have added formal speaking assessments to the curriculum, though such districts are still the exception, not the rule. I believe that, to a large extent, these changes are driven by a new concern for workplace readiness and a desire to think beyond the classroom and beyond the high-stakes test.

While speaking skills may have been somewhat underemphasized in schools, they have not been underemphasized in the real world. Look at the business section of your local bookstore. There are many, many books on the shelves about public speaking. Some focus on general presentation skills, some on specific skills like closing the deal, some on overcoming fear, and some on speaking in social settings. All of them recognize the importance of being well spoken.

Speaking well enables us to communicate clearly with coworkers and avoid misunderstandings on the job. Speaking well enables us to feel more confident and become more respectable. (I recall a conversation with our school psychologist, who told me that she felt my opinions had more power than those of my colleagues because I spoke so well. She didn’t say my opinions were better. They just seemed better, which I suppose is still a compliment.) Speaking well enables us to be more impressive over the telephone and in video conferences. Speaking well is crucial to professional promotion. No CEO of a corporation can lead without strong oral communication. No attorney can persuade a jury, no politician can be elected, and no coach can motivate a team without strong speaking skills. Even in professions that we don’t think of as highly verbal, oral communication matters. Wouldn’t you prefer to do business with an electrician who speaks well? A landscaper? A hairdresser?

Why not make clear to students how important speaking is to professional success? Students often believe that what we teach in school has no relevance to their lives in the “real world,” and to a large extent, they may be right. I’m willing to bet that people who speak well have more professional and social success in life than people who don’t. That’s relevance.

Every year, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) surveys employers to see what qualities they want most from college students they are considering for employment. Employers responding to NACE’s Job Outlook 2011 survey suggest that “New college graduates looking to crack the still-tight job market need to hone their verbal communication skills . . . verbal communication skills topped the list of ‘soft’ skills they seek in new college graduates looking to join their organizations” (National Association of Colleges and Employers 2010). Strong work ethic, teamwork skills, analytical skills, and initiative, while all critical skills, followed verbal communication in importance. If students master speaking, their chances of success increase dramatically.

Further support for the value of speaking skills comes from a study of 104 Silicon Valley employers. Silicon Valley is the home of many of America’s high-tech firms, and you might expect that they would place a high value on math and engineering skills, right? Company representatives were asked several questions about desired qualities in prospective employees. The question “What additional business communication skills would you like to see in your recent college graduate new hires?” produced interesting results: Employers sought improved oral presentation skills more frequently than they did written skills. Their comments expressed a need for stronger skills in public speaking, enhanced interpersonal skills, increased confidence, and improved interviewing skills. Several wrote that students needed more presentation skills, highlighting the ability to use software tools like PowerPoint. This was surprising, because the popular press talks more about a lack of writing skills among college graduates than about insufficient oral skills. (Stevens 2005,7; emphasis added)

On a personal note, my former student Kelly affirmed my belief in the value of teaching speaking. She looked me up twenty-one years after being in my middle school English class. She wanted to tell me about her marriage and her master’s degree, and she wanted to let me know that I had influenced her more than any other teacher. Kelly took me out to dinner and told me that she believed that what I taught her in my English class was more responsible for her success than anything else she had learned. Of course, I was curious. Was it alliteration? The plot line diagram? Identifying main characters? Writing topic sentences? No, Kelly said the most vital skill she had learned from me was how to speak well and be comfortable in front of people. Let me be clear: I am not saying that we should forget about all those other critical language skills. But while those are all essential, Kelly picked speaking skills as the most important.

1 comment April 5th, 2011

Quick Tip Tuesday: Introduction to the Parent Project

In this week’s Quick Tip Jim Vopat, author of The Parent Project, introduces us to the origins of the project and how it helps parents become more involved in their children’s learning.

Welcome to the Parent Project. The Project is a workshop approach to increasing parent involvement in their children’s education. The Parent Project began in three of Milwaukee’s inner-city elementary schools in response to a specific practical need. As Director of the Milwaukee Writing Project, I was at the time working with Milwaukee teachers in an effort to revitalize classroom instruction through the use of journals, portfolios, and workshop structures.

Concerns regarding parent understanding and support for the kinds of instructional changes teachers were making arose with such regularity that I began to search for a means for involving parents in the process. Fortuitously, The Joyce Foundation of Chicago was, during thissame period, determined to support a variety of efforts to increaseparent involvement in their children’s education. Since there didn’t seem to be any available model for the kind of parent involvement I envisioned, The Joyce Foundation encouraged me to work with Milwaukee teachers and parents in order to develop such a program.

What emerged was a workshop approach that focused on what children were learning in the classroom, and how this learning could be supported at home. What emerged was a means to strengthen the relationship between home and school—teacher, parent, and child.

School has changed dramatically since many parents were there and, if the goal of parent involvement is to strengthen the link between home and school, parents need to be introduced to the revitalized school classroom. Many classroom learning strategies experienced by children every day—keeping journals, interviewing, booksharing, cooperative learning, response groups, publishing—are unfamiliar to these same children’s parents. We can’t really expect parents to nurture and support such learning strategies if they don’t understand what those strategies are or how they can be supported.

For example, in one of our initial parent workshops, I invited everyone to write or draw for five minutes in their journals. After we were finished, I asked for comments. Wayne said he knew he had misspelled many words and that he never could spell and it bothered him. We talked about how journal writing didn’t need to be correct and that the freedom simply to express one’s self was one of the advantages of keeping a journal. Wayne’s two daughters (in grades one and three) were keeping journals in school, and Wayne said that when they brought their journals home, the first thing on his mind when he read them was how they were doing on their spelling.

When Wayne was in elementary school, there was no journal writing and good writing meant spelling correctly and nothing more. For Wayne’s two daughters, writing in school had come to be defined so differently that, for them, the messages of school and home were contradictory. As I listened to Wayne joke about his spelling and admit his relief at not having to worry about it when using his journal, I thought about how absurd it is to reform education but then to keep it a secret from parents.

The counterargument often heard is not that school reform is a kept secret but that parents just won’t show up to hear about it. I havea few observations about this. First of all, I am curious as to what happens when the parent does show up and what kind of support structureis in place for follow-up. In Milwaukee, for instance, it has been popular to bring busloads of parents into large auditoriums for infomotivational seminars where they are blamed, tantalized, and talked at. At the end of the day, these parents are bussed home where they have to deal with the everyday problems that have accumulated. And that’s it. There is no follow-up support, only a slightly bitter tomorrow. Instead of this lack of support, what would happen if we called upon the most powerful aspects of school reform to accomplish the goal of increased parent involvement: workshops, journals, cooperativegroups, shared reading, agenda building, interviewing, goal setting, and critical thinking? What would happen?

Through our workshops, we have spent years exploring the answers to this question, working with thousands of parents and teachers in a wide range of settings, including inner-city schools, community centers, affluent and not-so affluent suburban schools, as well as Chapter 1 programs. So what did happen? When I meet with parents and teachers in order to discuss parent involvement and define the advantages of a workshop approach, I usually begin by conducting a workshop itself as a means of coming to understand by doing rather than talking about doing. After a brief introduction of all participants and an explanation of why we are together, I distribute journals. I explain that the journals should be used in ways participants find comfortable—writing, drawing, doodling—whatever will help them remember what they feel is important.

I then ask everyone to pause a moment, relax, and think back to when they were growing up. What influence did their parents or guardians have on their attitudes and feelings about school and learning? Did your parents or caregiver actively encourage you to learn, were they neutral, or did they discourage learning? Does one particular incident from the past come to mind? Can you place yourself back in this memory? Can you close your eyes for a few minutes and try to reexperience this memory, this time and place? Can you close your eyes and go back, into this time and place? [long pause] Journey back into this memory, Where are you? How old are you? Who’s with you? How do you feel? What’s happening? Have your feelings about this memory changed over time? Why do you think this memory has stayed with you? What are the dimensions of its meaning? [long pause]Now, if you will open your eyes and take a few minutes to jot down some reactions to this visualization of your memory. Any words or pictures or part of  images that come to mind. Anything that will help you remember it.What does your memory have to say about the connection between parents, schools, and learning? What can we do to increase parents’ involvement in their children’s education?

After there has been sufficient time for reflection, I divide participants into small groups of four or five people and ask them to share their individual memory with the other members of their group by reading from their journal or verbally recounting what they have been thinking about. When everyone has had an opportunity to share, I ask each group to formulate some observations about what constitutes a positive home environment for learning and to arrive at these observations based on the memories of their group. When the small groups report back to the reformed large group, they usually do so with a combination of moving family history and reasonable, clear educational philosophy.

As we hear these family stories and the resulting observations about how learning can be fostered and nurtured, the significance of parent involvement becomes all the more real. As we listen to the family stories of sacrifice foreducation; of persistence in school in spite of daunting obstacles; ofparents reading to their children, writing with their children, encouraging learning as a sign of self-worth, it becomes obvious that the issue is not whether parent involvement is necessary, but rather how we can all work together to make it more intentional.

Add comment March 29th, 2011

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