Quick Tip Tuesday: A climate that promotes inquiry

In Nonfiction Matters, Stephanie Harvey offers teachers the tools to help students explore nonfiction and dig deep to reach a more complete understanding of the real world. In this week’s Quick Tip, Steph shares some ideas on creating a classroom environment that promotes and encourages students’ natural curiosity.

Denver kindergarten teacher Sue Kempton maintains a classroom that looks like the Denver Zoo, complete with a working beehive. The bees fly in and out of a tube through the window to the outdoors, where they collect pollen and bring it back to the hive to produce honey. Sue’s kindergartners keep a daily log of hive activity. Intermediate students who wander in for announcements or buddy readings can hardly drag themselves away.

First-grade teacher Debbie Miller teaches science and social studies through a jobs curriculum: students are assigned real jobs such as geologist, archaeologist, mathematician, historian, reporter, comedian, poet, surveyor, zoologist. They learn to view the world through a different lens and begin to make important new discoveries.

It’s not fair to restrict these wonderful activities to five- and six-year-olds. Adolescents would revel in these explorations. Stimulating classrooms like Debbie’s and Sue’s spark enthusiasm and curiosity at all levels. Engagement follows naturally.

Comfortable classrooms foster inquiry. Teachers need only hearken to the libraries of their youth. Rooms lit by soft lamps, containing overstuffed couches, area rugs, bulging bookshelves, framed pictures, fresh flowers, promote reading, thinking, and discussion. Clusters of small tables lend themselves to the easy exchange of ideas. When kids engage in inquiry, busy conversation is the norm. I search far and wide for inexpensive furnishings to soften the classroom and frequently hit the jackpot at garage sales.

Conveniently placed resources and equipment keep unnecessary teacher interruptions to a minimum. Baskets of nonfiction books placed on each table assure that kids always have something to read; no unnecessary scrambling around in a harried search for text. A relaxed environment eases daily tension and contributes to thorough inquiry.

Don’t Forget the Halls and Walls
Walls can teach. In classrooms that value inquiry, teacher- and student created charts summarizing research reminders and strategy guidelines hang throughout the room. Topics, questions, sign-up sheets, and kids’ work cover the walls. The information is topical and useful. Teachers no longer need worry about coming up with cute bulletin boards.

Halls offer the open space environmentalists dream of. Use the halls to your advantage. Shelley Harwayne considers corridors rich with life an essential ingredient of inquiry-based education. Halls can house student-led classes, club sign-up sheets, announcements, presentations, kids’ work, popular Web sites. Halls come alive when we see the tracks of the students who inhabit them. Hospitals are sterile; schools are not. Let’s not confuse the two.

Classroom Correspondents
Classroom correspondents who keep everyone informed about goings on in the community are central to inquiry-based classrooms. Literary correspondents stay in touch with the bookstores and libraries through newsletters or occasional phone calls and report upcoming author signings and storytelling sessions. Broadcast correspondents follow radio and TV schedules and enter the day and time of important programs on a weekly chart. Film and drama correspondents report on films and theatrical productions of interest. Everyone tells everyone else about good books, magazine articles, films, plays, and TV programs read or seen, either through oral announcements or
written reviews.

Take Note of Real Events
Classrooms engaged in nonfiction inquiry celebrate real events, real issues, real people, and real stories. They invite a veteran in to share experiences on Veterans Day. They study the electoral process during a national election They follow a breaking news story. Replicating real situations fosters inquiry and enhances understanding. To help students get a sense of their place in history, some teachers encourage kids to chronicle public and personal events in a scrapbook or on a time line. Birdie, a seventh grader, highlighted sixteen events, half public and half personal, from her birth in 1983 through the fall of 1994. Taking a scrapbook, she headed to the library and copied old newspaper headlines and magazine covers that marked important public events during her young life, including the space shuttle Challenger disaster, the Gulf War, and the arrival of the Colorado Rockies in baseball-starved Denver. Personal artifacts included her first lost tooth, a blue ribbon for diving, and a picture of her first day of kindergarten. Exploring public events alongside personal milestones helped her understand the relationship between her life and world affairs in the eighties and nineties.

Add comment November 23rd, 2010

Quick Tip Tuesday: Learning landscapes

“I don’t have a degree in architecture or interior design, and I’m certainly no Ty Pennington,” writes Ann Marie Corgill in her recent book Of Primary Importance: What’s Essential in Teaching Young Writers,  “but I am a teacher who has the opportunity and pleasure every year of creating the learning landscape for a group of children where the living and learning and writing inside those four walls will be wonderful.” In this week’s Quick Tip, Ann Marie shares how she creates seating arrangements and a classroom library that support her students’ writing work.

As a writer myself, I get my best work done in an environment that’s open, organized, and comfortable. Sometimes I spread my work, papers, and supplies out over the table or on the floor beside me, so that I can see my process and what’s already been accomplished. I need easy access to the printer for making multiple drafts to pore over. I need pencils for marking up the text, sticky notes for flagging parts that sound awful, and fresh stacks of bright white printer paper. I need a lamp when the sun outside my window won’t suffice, and I need my tiny desk clock to remind me that I need work and play time in my life.

I have learned over the years that I can indirectly educate my students by means of classroom environment. The minute a student, a parent, a colleague, an administrator, or a visitor walks into our classroom, my beliefs about what children deserve should speak loudly. As I plan for the children that will inhabit the space, I think about the following classroom components:

Seating arrangements
Storage space
Bulletin boards and wall space
Teacher area and pathways for room navigation
Room colors, lighting, and decorative touches
Writing materials and supplies

Seating Arrangements

Students deserve

  • Seating arrangements that facilitate conversations about writing and support the work of writers
  • Opportunities to sit alongside the teacher and listen in as the teacher confers with a student about his or her writing
  • Comfortable areas to gather when it’s time to read a draft, share a published piece, or study the craft of a beloved author
  • An environment that values community and the exchange of ideas rather than isolation and self-promotion
  • A room that isn’t dominated by filing cabinets, large teacher desks, and improperly sized chairs and furniture

 I’ve chosen to fill my classroom with tables and rugs instead of desks. Some tables are round, while others are rectangular. Some are lower to the ground with rugs for seating surrounding them and others include chairs with straight backs. Some are in a quiet nook in the room while others are set up in the middle of the classroom. These tables, chairs, and rugs facilitate the kind of talk, the kind of writing discourse I will teach and encourage.

They give the child who likes to work on or near the floor the opportunity to do so. The arrangement also supports the child who needs a straight chair and fl at workspace, a quiet area by the books, or the middle-of-the-room energy. It gently sends a message that thinking and learning and working differently together are valued over the mentality that one size fits all or “it’s all about me.” Our classroom should be all about us, and the simple choice of tables and rugs over individual desks is the fi rst step in that direction. But don’t panic if you don’t have tables and want them. It’s very cool how lots of desks pushed together can quickly create that table space that you’re looking for. Don’t be afraid to make your furniture work for you and your students (or to ask your principal to buy you tables next year and ditch the desks).


Students Deserve

  • A rich and varied library with multiple authors, multiple copies, and multiple genres
  • A library that’s organized with the child’s interests, the curriculum, and the teaching in mind
  • A library that has the feel of a bookstore, showcasing featured books and authors periodically throughout the year
  • A library that meets the reading and writing abilities and needs of all students

Lots of my friends who aren’t in education don’t quite understand the need to spend hours on the floor of the children’s section in Barnes & Noble, Borders, or Bank Street Bookstore. I know. I’ll admit it’s a sickness, and I do often wonder if I’ll ever need the twelve-step program for children’s book lovers. Fortunately, it’s a very rewarding and productive sickness to have. Because I care deeply about the literature children are exposed to in their years of schooling and because I believe that great books have an incomprehensible impact on students’ lives as writers, readers, and people, I stock my classroom year after year with these treasures. But just having the books isn’t enough. Doing important work with them is what counts. Reading aloud, rereading favorites, finding new authors to study, investigating the writing lives of the authors—and then writing our own texts like the ones we’ve read.

That’s what these books are for. They’re for the children and me to read, enjoy, and study how these texts are written and created. Since I’m a children’s book addict, in the upcoming chapters, I will share some of my most recent (and not so recent) favorites and how we use these in our writing workshop. If you happen to spend your money wisely and aren’t magnetically led to the children’s section every time you pass a bookstore, there are plenty of other ways to stock your classroom library. Book-club orders, your neighborhood or school library, parent donations, attic visits to find your own children’s lost treasures, school funds or grants, class book parties instead of birthday parties, holiday gift wish lists, school book fairs, yard sales—the list goes on and on.

Add comment December 22nd, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Creating a classroom that reflects your beliefs

Katy Slocum was just in her first year of teaching fifth grade, but she already understood the difficulty of working in an environment that doesn’t support her beliefs about teaching and learning. So when Debbie Miller visited her classroom, the two set out to transform her messy classroom into an inspiring space, proving during the process that decluttering the classroom also helps to declutter the mind.

This week’s Quick Tip shows the beginning of this process with Katy and Debbie from Debbie’s recent book, Teaching with Intention: Defining Beliefs, Aligning Practice, Taking Action, K-5.

Before we can begin to rearrange furniture, organize books and materials, create literate environments, or even think about lamps, rugs, and pretty tablecloths, we’ve got to get rid of the things we don’t need so we can make room for the things that we do. For Katy and I, that means making three piles:
1. things to keep
2. things someone else might want—maybe other teachers, kids, or Goodwill
3. things to throw away

We begin early one morning, tossing or organizing all those piles of paper, figuring out what to do with that tall tilting stack of National Geographic magazines and those cardboard boxes labeled so carefully by teachers who have come before. When the kids arrive, we scrunch ourselves into the meeting area, share our thinking, invite input, and ask for volunteers to help organize and put together all the books and materials for writing, science, social studies, and math. The rest agree to tackle their cubbies, desks, backpacks, and the floor.

Once the major surfaces are cleared—or at least ordered in some way—we move on, working after school to sort through closets, drawers, and all that was behind those closed cupboard doors. We send three bright yellow Judy Clocks, two boxes of teddy-bear counters, and an extra box of 500 Unifix cubes to kindergarten and first grade. The bulk of the magnifying glasses, microscopes, magnets, test tubes, and potting soil go to the science lab. Twenty-five boxes of paper clips (what’s that about?) go back to the office, along with bags of rubber bands, brads, thumbtacks, and six one-gallon jars of paste.

An amazing assortment of clothing items left behind by teachers goes into the Goodwill pile—cardigan sweaters, see-through plastic raincoats, scarves, umbrellas, shoes, and one never-worn pair of sequined St. Paddy’s Day socks.

Outdated maps and globes go into the never-see-the-light-of-day pile. Ditto the ancient jigsaw puzzles of cats and puppies, the six dried-out Twirl-a-Paint kits, and the once-white Lite-Brites, minus their pegs. We toss out what seem like hundreds of old workbooks in every subject imaginable, reams and reams of yellowed and brittle handwriting paper, shoe boxes overflowing with broken crayons, used-up pencils and congealed bottles of glue, fuzzy-tipped markers, and twenty almost-empty tubes of glitter. Not to mention the packs and packs of faded construction paper and box after box of empty (and thankfully clean) baby-food jars.

And the two huge gray filing cabinets, filled to the top with teaching units, worksheets, lesson plans, and month-by-month themes and activities? I leave their fate and what’s inside to Katy, but encourage her to be ruthless, and to consider getting rid of at least one of those metal giants entirely. With all that stuff out of the way, no one could believe how much larger the classroom had become! And now, Katy could do some real thinking about her beliefs, the physical space and room arrangement, organizing all those books and materials, and creating a working, literate environment. And, as you just might know, clearing the decks isn’t always about getting rid of someone else’s stuff. I was excellent at squirreling away all kinds of things, in all kinds of places, entirely on my own! Think bags (and bags) of pinecones for Thanksgiving turkey-making (it looked like fun in Family Circle a few years ago), stacks of find-a-word puzzles and coloring sheets (dropped off by a well-meaning parent), and that red folder filled with
important papers I’ve stashed away (somewhere) for safekeeping.

I’d pledge to clean and organize a drawer or shelf a day on many a Monday morning, but I could never seem to keep that going much beyond Wednesday. My best strategy was to come to school on an occasional Saturday morning armed with a box of trash bags, a full-to-the-top bottle of Formula 409, a brand-new roll of paper towels, a sugar-free vanilla latte, and a Van Morrison CD. Cleaning, sipping, and singing “On the Bright Side of the Road” with Van—does it get any better than this?

We’d better hope so! But when I walk outside two or three hours later with a smile on my lips and a skip in my step, I’m not so sure. And now I’m thinking the smile and the skip were about more than having a clean and uncluttered classroom. Could it be that clearing the physical clutter of my room also cleared the mental clutter in my mind?

Something to Try
Step outside your classroom door and look back in, as if for the first time. What do you see? Do you want to go back inside? Or do you want to run and hide? If you’re inclined to run, force yourself back. Grab your notebook and divide a page into thirds. In the first column, draw or write about what you like about your classroom environment. What seems to be working?

In the next column, do the same with what bothers you most. What’s getting in the way of teaching and learning? What doesn’t make sense? And in the last column, write or draw what you’d like to see when you step inside. Do the same from a child’s point of view. Get at their eye level and see things as they see them. Now what do you see?

First impressions count. Classroom environments vary, but they always need to be welcoming places; interesting, joyful places that beckon kids and teachers to actively participate in the pursuit of knowledge. Places that invite curiosity, exploration, collaboration, and conversation. Places that make us want to come in and stay, day after day after day.

Next, consider asking a colleague—someone you trust in the field, but probably not a close friend—to step inside your room. Ask this person to take a few minutes to look around and then ask them the following kinds of questions:
■ What do you know I value?
■ What do you know about what I believe about teaching and learning?
What’s the evidence?
■ What do you know about the kids in this room?

Any thoughtful person who spends even a small amount of time in our classrooms should be able to respond to these questions. If they can’t, or if they say something that seems to us totally off the mark, it should give us pause. We have to wonder what it is about the environment that’s sending mixed signals or no signals at all. Just as it’s important to define our beliefs and align our practices, it’s important to create classroom environments that reflect our beliefs.

2 comments December 15th, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Making wall charts work

The walls in Jeff Anderson’s classroom are covered in wall charts – organic, growing, changing charts that address what kids need to know to survive in the world of writing. In this week’s Quick Tip from Jeff’s book Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style Into Writer’s Workshop, Jeff gives some practical pointers for making these wall charts work in all classrooms.

What makes a wall chart work? Content? Size? Placement? All these things and more. Over the years, I have experimented with many variables and have found what works best. To ensure an optimal experience with wall charts, I have honed a few guidelines:

Write big. Write in letters large enough to be read easily from anywhere in the classroom.
Include examples. Examples from literature and student writing put rules in a meaningful context and serve as models.
Use color. Highlight crucial information or draw attention to a particular place with bright colors or highlighters.
Use light backgrounds. As a general rule, use butcher paper or posters with light backgrounds. This creates enough contrast so that the words can be read.
Place carefully. It all depends on your room, but place similar rules together. I always have a comma corner and a consistent place for my editor’s checklist. If I am going to need to write on this poster, I consider: Can I reach it? Can they see it? Can I write on it?
Have students use sentence strips. Even though their motor skills have grown, I have found that kids do better when I hand them a sentence strip to use for adding materials to wall charts with more text. Students can stabilize the strip and write on a flat surface, using the unlined side. If they need more space, they can tape two sentence strips together.

Middle school students have trouble writing on the wall, and the sentence strip has the added benefit of containing students’ writing in a specified space. Using a sentence strip also allows more than one kid to write a contribution for a chart at the same time. Plus, it is easier to correct a sentence strip than a mistake on a huge chart.

If you can’t write in a way that others can read, find a student or colleague who can. You can always type up the rules and put them through a poster maker at Kinko’s or some other printing service. It’s a tax write-off! The following lists contain a few general teacher guidelines and student rules for using wall charts.

Working the Walls

1. At first you will need to remind students of the wall-chart rules.
2. You must move your body to the spot where the wall chart hangs.
3. Students should watch you write on the wall chart.
4. If you marked a chart in a previous class, it is important that you point to it and explain how you added to it today.
5. It’s best to have a specific reason to introduce or to add to a wall chart.
6. Students should add to wall charts to keep them growing.
7. Revisit the rules often. When you see an example in readings or in student writing, highlight it. Encourage students to do the same.
8. Over the year, use those odd moments at the end of class or while waiting for the assembly to start to review posted items in the classroom.

Student Rules for Wall Charts and Posters

• Use wall charts and posters while you write.
• Know that if it’s on the wall, it’s important.
• Know it’s not cheating to look at the wall charts; that’s why they’re there.
• Attempt to make the walls a part of your mind.

Wall charts and posters should go up not all at once, but one at a time over the first months of school and anytime you find a new need. These posters and wall charts should be revisited often while reading, while correcting sentences, while drafting, while editing. I continually highlight them by pointing at them, tapping on them, having students chorally read them, asking what effect the writer’s choices have. My job is to make using these mechanics like breathing for students: Exposure is the key.

My classroom walls are a gigantic scaffold, a place to hang and categorize new knowledge, to see connections, to form patterns. From Sentence Patterns to Capitalization Rules to a high-frequency word wall, my wall charts and posters help ensure that students have the scaffolding they need to become adept users of the English language. This multidimensional, visual strategy, anchored in brain-based learning, has revolutionized my grammar and mechanics teaching. Grounding students in visual print, marinating them in the context of examples, and highlighting what is important in the multitude of grammar and mechanics rules—these strategies have revolutionized my students’ learning as well.

2 comments November 24th, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Create a snazzy bulletin board

Rick Wormeli’s book, Day One and Beyond, is a sort of survival guide for middle-level teachers. He tackles all the nitty-gritty practical issues that all teachers face: how set up a grade book, what to do if there is only one computer in a classroom, and how to get students’ attention. In this week’s Quick Tip, Rick offers some advice on creating bulletin boards that not only decorate the classroom, but also engage students.

The Disney Company has two requirements for all rides at its amusement parks: they must be a good show and tell a good story. People will come if you have both. It’s the same for our classroom walls. The “good show” part refers to the attractiveness of the bulletin board. Is our bulletin board enticing? Do folks want to be near it? Does the bulletin board draw their eyes? Does it create uriosity? Those of you blessed with a gene for graphic art design will find this sort of thing easy to achieve. The rest of us mild-mannered, Clark-Kent, stick-figure artists have to work at it.

A few suggestions: Have more than one color as your background. I often run out of fadeless or mural paper and have left only scraps. Arranging these in a patchwork mosaic, cutting edges so there are soft curves or harsh, jagged edges, makes for a great background. So does a whole background of wrapping paper—as long as it’s not too “busy.” Consider going 3-D with your bulletin boards—have objects, labels, or important concepts jut out from the bulletin board. Velcro works well for this. You can also hang items from the ceiling just in front of the board, or build mini shelves into the bulletin board to hold display items. Attach small tape or CD players to bulletin boards to offer an auditory component to the visual experience. I’ve used recordings of famous speeches, sections of text, poetry, radio dramas, definitions, debates, music, stories, and “What to Notice” scripts over the years.

The “good story” aspect is expressed in many different ways. This is your bulletin board’s content. One of the most compelling elements for young adolescents is seeing their own names, their classmates’ names, or their own culture on the bulletin board. If possible, create interest by using the students’ names, their work, and/or their community in whatever’s being presented—you’ll get crowds. For example, when presenting grammatical concepts, use sample sentences about students or the local sports team. When presenting the proper diet and exercise program for good health, display the typical daily menu of one of your students (with permission, of course) along with his or her picture and magazine cutouts of sample foods from the menu. When presenting math concepts, incorporate elements from a currently hot movie: “Check Out the Endeavour’s Trajectory and Rate of Descent in Ben Affleck’s Armageddon III.” When presenting something about the Great Depression, grab students’ attention with phrases from television commercials or cultural icons: “Wuzzup?! I’ll tell you wuzzup: Fear and Financial Ruin!” or “Scrounging for ketchup and handouts at McDonald’s?”

The best bulletin boards cause observers to think about the topics presented: “How did Pythagoras get his hypotenuse?” “What would happen if you traveled back in time and caused the death of your grandfather before he ever met your grandmother?” “Is that any way to treat a maggot?” “Do warriors cry?” (This was a topic question for our study of the novel Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals.) According to Socrates, we have to create a sense of wonder before any thinking occurs. We can create wonder and offer substance with bulletin boards.

Beth Huddleston offers advice for new middle school teachers: Instructional bulletin boards should emphasize only one to three points. Color, simplicity, and something that connects to the world
of the middle schooler are also important for getting their attention. I have used pictures of students in our classroom or a three dimensional of Harry Potter on a broom. I find that students love to create the bulletin boards themselves. They also like to see their work displayed. Two rules for myself: (1) When students are creating a board, let them present a plan first and offer guidance in a positive way; (2) Always receive permission from a student to display her or his work or picture. Self-concept is a major point with this age.

As much fun and substance as these bulletin boards might offer, it’s important to take them down and replace them with fresh ones periodically. Bulletin boards that are up for more than a month lose their impact—they blend into the general clutter of a room and no one references them.

Their staleness permeates the room, too, making everything a bit less compelling, even your dynamic instruction. Don’t waste something so powerful; keep those boards changing. If you’re too busy to design and change them, ask your students to take responsibility for them. What they do to
create an interesting and accurate bulletin board on a given topic will teach them more about that topic than a lot of other activities would. An added benefit—they have ownership. They’ll give the bulletin board more attention while it’s on display.

One last idea: Bulletin boards don’t have to be on your classroom walls. How about on your ceiling? I’m serious—we’re talking total immersion into our subjects. When students get bored, lean back, and look away from you and to the ceiling, they’ll find themselves surrounded by the concepts.
How about having them taped out on the classroom floor? How about bulletin boards in hallways, in the library, and in the cafeteria? We’re limited only by our imaginations.

Add comment March 10th, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Creating a learning space

In Responsive Literacy Coaching, Cheryl Dozier offers thoughtful and purposeful coaching to help teachers learn multiple ways to improve literacy instruction and student achievement.  In this week’s tip, Cheryl talks about how she designs a learning environment for teachers that promotes collaboration and sharing.

When designing a meeting space, the choices I make are based on community building. If I’m meeting one on one, I want to create a private, invitational space. I look for comfortable chairs. Where can we sit together so there is no power differential? I look for places where we can easily sit side by side to talk together and to look at documents, artifacts, student writing, and work samples.

For larger groups, I look to see where I can most easily create a comfortable learning space. The first thing I do for group meetings is organize the environment so that we can all see one another and have enough room to write comfortably and share student work samples. I consider the following to ensure that everyone can be part of the conversation: Round tables invite collaboration. Long tables have to be placed to keep the space invitational so that distance is not created. What spaces do we need to share our artifacts? Mentor texts? What about our environment invites writing, collaboration, and learning?

Transfer to Classroom

Just as I work to create a learning space when working with teachers, I ask teachers to consider physical learning spaces when they are creating their classrooms. Do they prefer desks? Round tables? Long tables? How are learning centers organized and placed within the classroom? Is there an area for gathering together to look at the easel, the overhead projector, or the classroom library? Where are the areas that encourage sustained opportunities for collaboration? Where to students get to put their materials?


I believe it is important that we all address each other by name. If some of the teachers are new to the building or district, I make sure to provide name cards and markers. It is interesting to see how people choose to represent themselves as they decorate their cards. For some, color matters. I’ve had teachers wait several minutes to get the color they wanted.

I also make a seating chart for myself for each session and am mindful to quickly learn the name of each teacher. Students notice when we learn their names as well. When I wander through the halls, I feel better when I address the children by name.


Good things happen around food. Food invites sharing, collaboration, and a bringing together of community. From the chocolate on my desk at work, to the treats we organize for our time together, food matters.

Add comment February 24th, 2009

Questions & Authors: Setting up an ELL classroom – Part II

“Classroom space impacts everything: Instruction, behavior, and our sense of well-being,” writes Debbie Diller in her new book, Spaces & Places. Creating a classroom environment that supports instruction and allows students to be comfortable and take risks without stress, is not an easy task. Mix in even just a few ELL students into that classroom, and the task becomes even more difficult.

To support ELL students in their learning, Debbie suggests including specific literacy stations in the classroom, adding books that especially support ELL students to your library, and finding a quiet place where second language learners can take a break from the commotion of a busy classroom.

Read more of Debbie’s ideas in Part II of our Questions & Authors installment focused on ELL classrooms.

  • “Be sure to plan for a comfortable, well-organized whole group instruction area where the whole class can gather for meetings and instruction. I often invite ELL students to sit near the front and have native English speakers all around them. I’ve found this creates a “surround sound” type of setting. Sometimes I’ve noticed ELL students choosing to sit near the outside of the group, but bringing them in helps them be more included in the group. Place the whole group teaching area near a bulletin board/wall/dry erase or chalkboard, so you can post anchor charts and refer to them while teaching. Use cooperative learning and group goals to increase interaction across students of different cultures.
  • Have music materials (CD player or tape recorder and music) readily accessible in the whole group teaching area, especially if you work with young children. Use these for transition times and to allow students to move and use their bodies. ELL students can use their bodies to interpret stories and songs even if they don’t know all the English words yet.
  • Create anchor charts with students, being sure to elicit ideas from your ELL students. Use their language, so they understand what you’re teaching. Pay close attention to language complexity. Use concise and deliberate vocabulary. Remember to include pictures on your anchor charts. This helps all students remember, and can be especially helpful for ELL students.
  • Create charts that show connections between English and students’ native languages. For example, make connections to cognates, grammar, punctuation, expressions, and word order.
  • Make “I Can” lists with your class, too. Again, get ideas for what kids can practice at literacy work stations and use their language on these lists. Be clear and concise. Don’t be too wordy. Add digital photos to the list that illustrate students doing these activities at the station. A picture is worth a thousand words and will help all children understand what to do for independent practice.
  • When teaching new vocabulary words related to literature or content areas, include a digital photo whenever possible to help illustrate the word and anchor it in students’ memory. I like to use Google images to find these pictures. Post a chart with this week’s words on it, and include kid-friendly definitions (as suggested by Isabel Beck in Bringing Words to Life as she writes about Tier II words) as well as a picture beside each new word. Refer to the chart constantly as you teach with it. Teach related words from ELL children’s first language to help them make connections.
  • I always include the following literacy stations in an ELL classroom, and sometimes even have multiples of these to give students more opportunities to hear and use English as they practice: listening station; computer station; drama or retelling station; science or nonfiction reading station; creation station. Have a space for each, so students know where to find and work with the materials. Include students in showing the rest of the class how to use each station as you introduce them to the whole class.
  • In the classroom library, have a few special baskets that will especially support ELL students. Include the following kinds of baskets: books by student authors; wordless books (for telling stories); books we love (from read aloud that are familiar); books written in two languages; as well as other categories of fiction and nonfiction books and magazines. Always label the baskets and have students help you sort the books to put into these. Fasten a label on the front of each basket that includes the type of book along with a picture representing this genre or group of books to help students find and return books. Also, be sure to include books representing the cultures and heritage of all students in your classroom.
  • Be sure to include a small group teaching area. All students will grow when provided with differentiated small group instruction that meets their needs. ELL students will benefit from this type of teaching and sitting around a table together will help to facilitate discussion which builds oral language and vocabulary.
  • Have a space in the classroom (perhaps the classroom library) where students new to U.S. can take a short break during the day. It can be tiring trying to listen most of the day to a language you don’t understand. Let them sit quietly and look at books.
  • For classrooms with limited space, use wall space outside of the classroom (or in the school lobby) to communicate to parents what students are learning. Use pictures and text (perhaps in English and multiple languages for parents) created by students in displays. Include an accordion folder with take-home sheets for parents explaining what students are studying with suggestions of things to try at home related to the learning displayed.)”

How do you accommodate ELL students in your classroom?

3 comments November 3rd, 2008

Questions & Authors: Setting up an ELL classroom – Part I

In Part I of our Questions & Authors installment focusing on classroom spaces for ELL students, Mary Cappellini, author of Balancing Reading and Language Learning, talks about the use of environmental print to help second language learners. Mary believes that the words, labels, and images students see around the classroom help them make connections, see patterns, and encourage them to navigate the classroom on their own. She encourages teachers to look at their classroom spaces with new eyes and ask some important questions to determine whether what’s on the walls reflects the learning that takes place within the walls.

“English Language Learners need to see the new language that they are learning up on the walls of their classrooms. This helps them make the connection between listening, speaking, reading and writing. What they hear and what they (or others) say can be written down, and then read and then copied or used in their own writing. By having a room environment rich with print, ELLs are better able to validate their predictions of how to use certain words in which contexts by checking it with the print they see on the walls. This doesn’t mean just word walls, but rather graphic organizers with words used in complete sentences or language patterns, and charts of their learning.

Every time a teacher does a shared reading lesson or a strategy lesson in read aloud time, she should use a chart paper to record the information. ELLs need to see reminders on charts of which strategies to use while reading, and how to use them, but also how to ‘say’ it and spell that strategy correctly. They need to see their predictions of what they ‘know’ on KWL charts before, during and after readings. They need to see graphs of content learning, with adjectives, nouns, verbs and other parts of speech used to ‘tell’ about what they are learning, whether about the ocean, space or the artic circle. They can then use that new language in different contexts or within the same theme they are learning or as they come across the same words again in their independent reading. They start to make connections between the language that they are hearing and starting to say orally, as they are reading and writing.

Most people are visual learners, and while learning a second or often a third language, it is important to visually see that language in use, especially if the new language is spelled so differently than their own. Many children may be fluent in their own language, and if their alphabet is close to English, they can often figure out how to say certain words that they see on the walls or the pages of their books. And yet still others that are not fluent in their own language or who have alphabets that are totally different than ours, need as much help visually seeing the letters, the words, and the language patterns used by native speakers in order to start to learn this new difficult language of English. By slowing down and writing down the essential elements in a lesson, the teacher is not only able to help highlight important information, but she can also help ELLs who are struggling to make sense of the main ideas being spoken.

Using the morning message and the Daily News [a daily oral language strategy that builds language skills and community by asking students to share their ‘news’ with the class] is a wonderful way to record language and teach how sentences are constructed in a natural way. Teachers compose their own morning message, which they can then use to teach a letter/sound relationship, a punctuation point or a verb or adjective placement. The Daily News can be used to do the same thing, but in a more powerful way, since the teacher uses the language of the children to write and compose correct sentences, encouraging all levels of English speakers to participate at their own levels. The Daily News and the morning message are written on chart paper in a ‘big book’ format for each month, and they are left in the classroom to illustrate and to reread.

Of course for kindergarten classrooms, letter knowledge is critical and by placing pictures (either drawings or photographs) of common words that start with certain letters, they can make connections to the sounds of the letters they hear with actually images of real words that start with them — like a picture of a ‘dog’ and a ‘dad’ for the letter ‘d’. Photographs of real people in the class or the school that also start with that letter in their name is another powerful tool to help them make connections to those letters. They learn to read names of people no matter how long, like Esperanza, before they learn how to read even the shortest high frequency words, because the names have meaning to them and they can make connections to a real tangible being.

Teaching of word families and highlighting onsets and rhymes, one at a time, can really help ELLs see patterns in words and add to their reading vocabulary. 25 basic rhymes make up 500 of the most used primary words in reading, so it is critical to be able to teach the children, in a natural way, how to read them and how to see patterns in a word. If they can read cat, they can read sat.

Labeling the classroom and organizing your book collection or library is also very helpful for ELLs. Signs with directions, labeling corners of the room and especially labeling thematic collections of books can only help ELLs on track while they try to navigate the room independently. Book boxes by favorite authors or common themes (Revolutionary War, Immigration, Global Warming) can also help ELLs find the books that they want to read in a faster and more orderly manner.

There are so many ways we can organize our classrooms, but if we try to ‘look’ at it with new eyes, as if we are coming into the room for the first time, what could we learn from just reading our walls? Could we see what we were studying? Could we navigate the huge book collection? Could we find the information that we were looking for? Hopefully we can ‘rewrite’ our classrooms so that all children, especially ELLs, can learn more from reading them.”

Do you have a question about creating an ELL student-friendly classroom, or do you have ideas to share with other readers? Post your comments and Mary might stop by as well to answer questions.

4 comments October 23rd, 2008

How would Debbie Diller redesign your classroom?

“Classroom space impacts everything: instruction, behavior, and our (children’s and teachers’) sense of well-being,” writes Debbie Diller in her new book, Spaces & Places. But small classrooms, antiquated furniture, limited supplies and time, make it hard for most teachers to create the classroom of their dreams.

A whole-group area from Debbie's book

If you love to see those interior design experts on TV transform dull or messy living spaces into beautiful showcases, then this new feature is for you. We have set up an online Flickr gallery where you can upload photos of your classroom, as well as post questions and comments on others’ photos. Debbie will select three photos of whole group areas that have been submitted to the gallery and will provide her own advice on how the area could be redesigned to provide a more comfortable or productive space for children. If you are among the first ten to upload a classroom photo, we will send you a free copy of any Debbie Diller book published by Stenhouse.

Instruction for using Flickr:

(If you’re already a member of Flickr, sign in to your account and join us at Spaces & Places)

To submit pictures and join in discussions, you’ll need to join Flickr and then join the  Spaces & Places group.  There is no charge to join.

How to join:

Go to www.Flickr.com:

If you already have a Yahoo! ID (an email address ending in yahoo.com, ymail.com, or rocketmail.com), you have everything you need to sign up at Flickr.  Head over to www.Flickr.com and click on “Create Your Account” to get started.  If you don’t have a Yahoo! ID, sign up at the bottom of the page, get your free Yahoo! ID and create your Flickr account. It will only take a  minute.

Once you’ve signed into Flickr, visit Spaces & Places and click “Join this Group”.

Using Flickr:

To post a photo to the group, you’ll first need to upload it to your personal space at Flickr.  Click “Upload Photos” (which is under the You menu at the top of the page) and follow the instructions that appear.

Once you’ve uploaded your photo to your personal space, click on the “Send to group” tab at the top of the photo- a dropdown box containing a list of all your groups will appear.  Select Spaces and Places, and your photo will be added to the group pool.   But don’t leave that “Description” field empty!  Tell us why you’ve chosen to put the photo in the group pool—is there something about your room that could use some input?  Do you have a great example of putting Debbie’s advice into practice?

Adding comments: We encourage you to comment on photos uploaded by other group members. Just click on the photo and enter your comments in the “Add Your Comment” box below the photo.

Adding notes:  Notes are a great feature of Flickr.  They’re different from comments in that you can add a note about a specific area of a photo.  By adding a note, you can highlight the area in question and add your comment.  When you click “Add Note” just above a photo, a small square and a green rectangle appear on the photo.  Drag the square to the area you want and resize it as needed.  Type your note in the green rectangle and press “save” when you’re done.  The note will appear when a user mouses over the photo.

6 comments August 25th, 2008

Video podcast: Debbie Diller on thoughtful classroom design

All teachers dream of a classroom where they can walk in and find all the materials where they are needed, where they don’t have to dig through stacks of supplies or books, where the teacher’s desk isn’t a dumping ground, and where teachers can spend valuable time with children, instead of looking for stuff.

In her new book, Spaces & Places, Debbie Diller shows you exactly how you can achieve the classroom of your dreams. Debbie believes that if teachers begin the year with a thoughtful plan for classroom design, they can spend their time examining their teaching, rather than their surroundings.

Take a three-minute video tour with Debbie as she describes how the book will help you plan and arrange your elementary classroom step-by-step, make the best use of your walls, and organize and store your stuff.

Add comment July 18th, 2008

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