Archive for September, 2009

Part II of our video podcast with Johanna Riddle

A few weeks ago we posted a video podcast with Johanna Riddle, author of Engaging the Eye Generation, who encouraged tech-fearing teachers to just “be brave and jump in.” In the second part of the podcast, Johanna talks about the ways children learn and encourages veteran teachers to learn from their tech-savvy younger colleagues.

Watch both parts here!

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1 comment September 30th, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: What is an independent reading workshop?

In this week’s Quick Tip Kathy Collins, author of Growing Readers and Reading for Real, takes you on a “tour” of several classrooms during independent reading time.

In many classrooms around the country, teachers have given careful consideration to ways and methods of providing their students with time to read independently, and of course, their conceptions differ. Imagine that right now, you and I are going on a professional journey together (paid for in full by our districts, of course). Our quest is to step inside classrooms and observe what’s happening in the name of independent reading so that our vision of the independent reading workshop becomes clear. Okay, grab your notebooks and let’s go.

Our first stop is at my school, P.S. 321 in Brooklyn, where I’ll show you the independent reading workshop in my classroom. My students are gathered in the meeting area, looking at and listening to me as I teach a mini-lesson on a comprehension strategy that proficient readers use. Each day I begin independent reading time with a mini-lesson like this one in which I offer whole-class, direct, explicit reading instruction. I wrap up the mini-lesson (which typically takes less than 10 minutes) by sending the students back to their reading spots for private reading time. It takes a minute or so for the room to settle. The children have their own plastic file holders with several books inside. They are reading a range of texts, from easy books with one line of text on a page to chapter books, because each child is reading a book at his or her independent reading level. I assess the children often so that I can guide them toward the books that match them as readers. As the children read independently, I offer individualized direct instruction during one-on-one conferences with readers. I take notes about each child during these reading conferences.

After 20 minutes I tell the children it’s partner reading time. I briefly remind them of one of the ways we’ve learned to talk well about books. The children quickly move around to meet with their reading partners. The noise level in the classroom has risen slightly as the children begin reading together and talking about their books with their partners. During partner reading time, I confer with some partners and then I gather four children for small-group direct instruction. Today, I’m supporting a small group of readers in a guided reading session because, based on my assessments, they are ready to move to the next level of text.

After about 10 minutes of partner reading time, I stand up and again get the children’s attention. “First graders, I hate to say it, but reading time is over.” There is an audible group sigh, and a couple of children plead, “Just another minute, we have to finish talking about this page!” I smile and tell them to use a sticky note to save their spot so they can continue their conversation tomorrow. Then I say, “Please put the book you’re going to read at home tonight in your take-home bag, and bring your bag and your body to the meeting area for share time.” For the next few minutes the children gather again in the meeting area, and I share some of the great work I observed during reading time today.

During this visit to my classroom, you witnessed instruction throughout the independent reading workshop. The instruction began when I modeled and demonstrated a reading strategy in the whole-class mini-lesson. Then, as children worked independently and with partners, I coached and instructed them during reading conferences. I pulled a small group of children together to offer more assessment-based instruction. Finally, during the teaching share, you saw that I reinforced the day’s lesson by sharing some of the ways children were successful with the strategy I taught.

The next stop on our journey is my old elementary school, where independent reading is known as silent sustained reading or SSR. As we go into a classroom, we listen as the teacher instructs the children to take their SSR books out of their desks. “Remember that this is a quiet time,” she reminds them. As we look around, we notice that the children are reading a huge variety of books, and the room is very quiet. I used to look forward to SSR time when I was a student. We only had it twice a week: on Wednesdays after library time, and on Friday afternoons, and it was exciting because our teacher would let us read any book that we brought in or borrowed from the library.

Let me be honest here: what excited me most about SSR wasn’t necessarily having time to read my own book. What I really looked forward to was the possibility of “getting the call.” My teacher randomly picked children who would get to be her helpers during SSR time. Oh, how I hoped my name would be chosen! I loved to be a helper and do things like use the staple remover to take down the construction paper jack-o’-lanterns with accordion legs in order to make way for cornucopias and five-finger turkeys. I longed to be the one to collate and staple homework packets for the following week.

Unfortunately, during those many SSR times when my name wasn’t picked, I had trouble concentrating on reading my book. I was distracted as I watched my lucky classmates hand masking-tape loops up to our teacher as she stood precariously on bookshelves putting up the maps of the continents we had colored during social studies. During SSR time, the teacher may or may not be teaching reading. My teacher spent SSR time catching up on the other work she needed to do with the help of some eager children. It seems that often SSR time is less an instructional opportunity and more of a management structure that enables teachers to get some other things done while children are quietly looking at books.

Our next stop is a first-grade classroom during literacy center time. The teacher is meeting with a small group of children for guided reading at a cashew-shaped table. The rest of the children are working in small groups around the room. Some are plugged into the tape recorder at the listening center, and others have Big Books and shared reading texts spread out on the floor. A group of children are practicing spelling and making words with magnetic letters. Almost everyone seems busy and engaged. As we continue looking around, we see a group of children sitting at a table with a basket of books in the middle, all reading books from the basket and debating about who has the scariest Halloween costume. This conversation about costumes began when two of the children were looking together at the book Rattlebone Rock.

I ask the children what they are doing at this center. One child looks up and says, “It’s the independent reading center. We’re reading Rattlebone Rock. This is the browsing basket.” Again, like SSR time in the previous classroom, the independent reading time in this classroom is a management structure that enables the teacher to do something else, in this case, to meet with guided reading groups. The teacher is not teaching directly into the children’s independent reading because she is working with one guided reading group after another. When she finishes the second of the three guided reading groups, she transitions the students into another center.

The next school we visit is in a district where independent reading is called DEAR time, or “Drop Everything And Read.” During DEAR time everybody in the school, including the principal, the custodian, and the guidance counselor, stops what they are doing to read something, anything. As we walk around the school, we see adults reading catalogs, professional literature, district memos, magazines, novels, and newspapers. We see children sitting in their seats reading a variety of texts as well. The building is relatively quiet as everyone focuses for a while on his or her own reading.

The obvious power of DEAR time is that a school becomes a community of readers. It’s exciting for children to see grown-ups around them reading, in much the same way as it can be thrilling for children when a teacher joins a game of tag at recess or the principal sits beside them in the cafeteria and eats her lunch. During DEAR time, however, if everyone is dropping everything to read, no explicit reading instruction is going on. Of course, the power of modeling reading is important, but we have to ask, “Is that enough?”

Now, as our journey nears its end, let’s talk about what we observed. In each of the classrooms I’ve described, the children were, in fact, reading self-chosen books independently. One of the main differences, however, between the independent reading workshop in my classroom and independent reading time in the next three examples (SSR, independent reading during literacy centers, and DEAR time) is the absence or presence of direct, explicit instruction. In some classrooms the only instruction children receive during independent reading time is on management and procedures, because the teacher is engaged with other tasks (e.g., her own reading, her to-do list, or guided reading groups). By contrast, during the independent reading workshop, the teacher provides whole-class, individual, and small-group direct, explicit reading instruction to her students. In addition, when children read independently during independent reading workshop, they read just-right books, which are books that match their independent reading levels. Children can read their just-right books with fluency, comprehension, and at least 90–95 percent accuracy (Calkins 2001).

1 comment September 29th, 2009

Poetry Friday: The Light of September

This week’s selection is from our editor Bill Varner.

“September is a wonderful month I believe. Harvests, football, good sleeping weather, and my son’s birthday. As for Merwin, he needs no introduction.”

To the Light of September

by W. S. Merwin

When you are already here
You appear to be only
a name that tells of you
whether you are present or not

Read the rest of the poem here

1 comment September 25th, 2009

Blog tour with Georgia Heard and Jennifer McDonough

Georgia Heard and Jennifer McDonough, authors of A Place for Wonder: Reading and Writing Nonfiction in the Primary Grades, will embark on a three-stop blog tour starting October 19.

In their book, Georgia and Jennifer discuss how to create a “landscape of wonder,” a primary classroom where curiosity, creativity, and exploration are encouraged, and where intelligent, inquiring, lifelong learners are developed. They provide teachers with practical ways – setting up “wonder centers,” gathering data through senses, teaching nonfiction craft – to create a classroom environment where students’ questions and observations are part of daily work.

Join Georgia and Jennifer as they visit the following blogs and answer your questions:

October 19: A Year of Reading
October 21: Miss Rumphius Effect
October 23: Carol’s Corner

As a special treat, we’ll wrap up the blog tour with a live webcast with Georgia and Jennifer on Oct. 26th at 8 p.m. EST. This will be a great opportunity to join a small group discussion with the two authors. Participants in the live session will be chosen from those who have posted comments or questions at one of the stops on the blog tour. (Seats are limited. No special software or equipment needed – just a phone and your computer!)

From now until the beginning of the tour you can also receive free shipping when you order A Place for Wonder. Just use code “blog” at the checkout when you order from or by phone at 800-988-9812. The book will start to ship Sept. 25, so reserve your copy now!

Add comment September 24th, 2009

Now online: A Place for Wonder

A Place for WonderFaced with increasing pressure from standardized tests, demanding curriculums, and curtailed recesses, how can primary teachers create opportunities for curiosity, creativity, and exploration? Noted professional and children’s book author Georgia Heard and primary teacher Jennifer McDonough worked together to create classrooms of thinking, questioning, and discovery, and they share their learning in A Place for Wonder: Reading and Writing Nonfiction in the Primary Grades.

Georgia and Jen offer a menu of centers, projects, and ideas that teachers can weave into existing routines to create a “wonder environment,” tapping young children’s inherent curiosity and yearning for exploration. You’ll see how to set a foundation for nonfiction writing and then embark on a nonfiction unit of study where students explore text structures, choose a topic, learn craft, edit, and publish their work.

Filled with classroom vignettes, photos, student samples, and recommended children’s books, A Place for Wonder will give you a vision for transforming your classroom into a place where students constantly ask questions, research answers, write with voice, and use a variety of nonfiction structures and conventions.

Preview the entire book online now!

Add comment September 23rd, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Talking and Reading Aloud

This week’s Quick Tip comes from Talking, Writing & Thinking About Books: 101 Ready-to-Use Classroom Activities That Build Reading Comprehension by Jo Phenix. The set of activities in this downloadable and printable PDF focus on using oral reading to enhance students’ understanding and to generate ideas for their own writing.

Some of the activities include creating a radio advertisement, writing a song, giving a speech, and “chalk talk.” Download this chapter from Jo’s book right here!

Add comment September 22nd, 2009

Poetry Friday: To Myself

As I was looking for a poem to include in today’s Poetry Friday roundup, I came across this collection on the Poetry Foundation’s website: Ten Poems to Read When You Get Stuffed into Your Locker. I picked this one by Franz Wright, but it’s worth reading the others as well. You just never know when you might find yourself in a locker!

To Myself
by Franz Wright
You are riding the bus again
burrowing into the blackness of Interstate 80,
the sole passenger

with an overhead light on.
And I am with you.
I’m the interminable fields you can’t see,

the little lights off in the distance
(in one of those rooms we are
living) and I am the rain

Read the rest of the poem here…

1 comment September 18th, 2009

Questions & Authors: What does a good fact look like, anyway?

In this edition of Questions & Authors, a bright student struggling with his history papers and tests reminds Sarah Cooper, author of Making History Mine, that sometimes the basic concepts that are obvious to teachers, are not quite as obvious to students. Sarah teaches eighth-grade English and ninth-grade world history at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, California.

As I was planning for the upcoming school year, I found myself thinking a lot about a student I’ll call Andrew, a ninth grader I had last year in my world history class. It was obvious he was bright and engaged with the world—he could identify state and federal politicians when they came up in current events discussions, and he loved nothing more than to argue about something intense, such as national health care policy or the arrogance of Roman emperors. On days when he was absent, the discussions were not as fiery, not as fun.

Yet Andrew’s essays on in-class tests and his paragraph responses on reading quizzes did not show his passion for ideas. His history writing was consistently vague and sounded as if he was not doing the textbook reading, even when I knew he was from the notes he took. His thesis statements and topic sentences were spot-on for ninth grade, with sentences such as, “Greek democracy lasted only a brief time because its leaders became power-hungry and greedy.” However, the essays didn’t follow up on their promise, and I kept writing the same comments: “Your ideas are great, but the essay needs more facts.” “More specifics.” “More evidence needed.” In our one-on-one conversations, he was earnest about trying to include more facts in his papers.

Yet it wasn’t until the beginning of fourth quarter—an appropriate in-the-clutch time for Andrew, who loved the school’s JV football team he had joined in the fall—that it became clear what I was not teaching, and thus what he was not learning. After yet another test on which Andrew scored a B-, he made an appointment to see me after school, spurred on by his mother’s urging and by his desire to take honors European history in sophomore year. We looked at some recent essays, and he asked the golden question:

“Ms. Cooper, you say I need more facts. But I have facts. They’re just not the facts you want. What does a good fact look like, anyway?

I had been teaching history for nearly a decade without ever having been asked that question. I was dumbfounded that I had never addressed this, and I wanted to make it right.

I started by saying, “A good fact in a history paper is something you can picture in your head, like in a movie. Here, let’s look at some examples:”

Too general: “The Minoans were good in art.”
“No, I can’t really picture that,” Andrew said.

A little better: “The Minoans did a lot of paintings on the walls of their palace.”
“Okay, but then I don’t know what the paintings looked like,” Andrew said.

Right on: “The Minoans painted frescoes with bright colors and natural scenes.”
“Oh, now I really get it. You have to be able to see it,” Andrew said.

“So maybe I’m taking notes the wrong way,” he thought out loud. “I tend to write down the main ideas of each paragraph or section. Are you saying I should write down more specifics?”

Yes, I said, but warned him to be careful not to write down everything in the book: “What I would do is to think about main ideas in the section and then pick two or three specific facts you could use on any essay or reading quiz to back them up. For instance, if you want to say that the Minoans had an independent mindset, you could refer to their living on the island of Crete and to their acceptance of women in the priesthood.”

I wasn’t sure Andrew was taking away everything we were discussing, so I asked him to check his reading notes with me for the next several days. The change was astonishing—he now included a sprinkling of facts relevant to the main ideas he highlighted instead of a general overview of the entire chapter.

Before the final exam, Andrew came in to discuss what score he would need to achieve to get a B+ in the class, which would qualify him for  honors history in the fall. It turned out he needed a high B+ because his homework grade had been strong. “I can do that!” he said.

On his final exam he earned a solid A, pushing his overall grade into the high B+ range. It was as if a light had turned on for him—and it certainly had for me.

Sometimes we as teachers assume that the most basic concepts—What is a fact? What does analysis look like? Why should we ask questions about the world?—are as obvious to our students as they are to us. My meetings with Andrew reminded me that every student can improve, especially if I don’t assume understanding—and if I take the time to figure out what is really going on in his head, and in mine.

Add comment September 16th, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Creating writing opportunities

This week’s Quick Tip comes from David Booth and Jennifer Rowsell, authors of the Literacy Principal: Leading, Supporting, and Assessing Reading and Writing Initiatives. Their book provides tried and true frameworks for principals to create schools where literacy thrives. In this Quick Tip they address how principals and teachers can work together to create school environments where opportunities for writing abound.

Writing activities in classrooms can essentially be divided into three major categories:
1. Independent writing projects — regular opportunities for students to work independently on topics they usually select for themselves
2. Research inquiry — drawn from the curriculum, although at times teachers may assign a topic from a theme or genre the class is exploring as a community
3. Guided writing instruction — done with a group of writers gathered together temporarily to work on target areas of writing techniques and strategies, such as conventions, genre study, or technological skills.

Whatever the activity, there are a couple of significant strategies that teachers can use to help students improve their writing skills. First, connecting writing activities to the reading process where possible helps strengthen overall literacy development. When writing and reading are combined, children have the opportunity to put into practice their awareness of how print works. Second, allowing students to write about topics and issues that matter to them as much as possible provides motivation for acquiring new writing skills.

An open and accepting writing environment in a classroom is essential and should offer a range of writing experiences and products. These might include such forms as diaries, journals, letters, surveys, how-to-do books, games, resumés, bibliographies, autobiographies, lyrics, poems, articles, editorials, essays, memos, advertisements, commercials, brochures, questionnaires, petitions, dialogues, screenplays, and legends, to name a few.

Consider the Writing Process
Students need to realize that writing by definition is recursive: writers consider ideas, write drafts, revise, find more information, edit what has been written, share drafts, reorganize what has been written, edit again, consider published models that interest them, and sometimes even give up and start on another project.

Much of writing is personal, meant only for a writer’s eyes. This writing is seldom edited. Other writing is meant to be communicated, and students need to understand that these pieces require further consideration before publishing. By rereading their own writing both silently and out loud, as well as conferencing with peers and the teacher, students can develop the ability to see changes they want and need to make in their writing as they refine their first drafts. It is essential to help teachers understand that revising and editing are important and essential processes for students to undertake when preparing pieces of writing for publication. Many students realize the need for editing, but have difficulty revising their ideas and changing the structure of their writing.

When examining early drafts, teachers need to look beyond spelling and grammar errors in their initial conversations with young writers and help them look at the bigger picture. In assisting your teachers to effectively implement the writing process in their classrooms, you may wish to consider some of the following strategies:
• Plan ways with the staff for them to model the writing process for their students. By sharing their own writing and reasons for writing, students can learn about the different aspects of the writing process from teachers. For example, a teacher could demonstrate strategies for revision by writing in draft form on the blackboard or on an overhead transparency.
• Decide as a staff what parts of speech or aspects of syntax teachers could focus on over the course of a year at each grade level, and brainstorm games or explorations that could help children discover how language works.
• Encourage staff to follow up on activities in various curriculum areas with collaborative group writing. For example, a group could write a summary of a science experiment, prepare a chart illustrating a concept learned in social studies, or write a poem in response to a drama lesson.
• Promote the use of journals as a means for students to reflect on significant events from their lives, the books they have read, and ideas for future writing. Although they may choose to keep parts of their journals private, they can be encouraged to select pieces for response from their teacher.
• Write a letter to parents encouraging them to respond to content and ideas in their children’s writing and to help them with the revision process where appropriate. You may wish to hold an evening meeting to share techniques for helping students in different stages of the writing process.

1 comment September 15th, 2009

Join our book discussion group today!

Don’t forget to join our book discussion group on the social networking site Ning to share your thoughts and ideas about Jennifer Allen’s new book, A Sense of Belonging: Sustaining and Retaining New Teachers.

The discussion will begin this Thursday, September 17, and will be moderated by middle school principal Janice Driscoll. You can preview the entire book online now and then join your fellow teachers and administrators to talk about the book.

Add comment September 14th, 2009

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