Thursday, December 29, 2011

Go Notebooking!

As a Dinah Zike advanced trainer, I do my best to keep up with Dinah-Might Adventures' growing product line. Yesterday I was thrilled to receive a package from the Dinah Zike Academy. Enclosed were six titles of their new Notebooking Central books, with a letter asking me (and all other advanced trainers) to create at least one model notebook based on a selected Notebooking Central title.

What a gift! This has jump-started me into my teaching gear after 5 days of not thinking about school. I just searched the web, looking for the best deal for 4 oz bottles of Elmer's School glue. I found the lowest price at Discount School Supply , .74 cents each, and ordered enough bottles for my class. Now on to planning how I will utilize these incredible teaching resources in the classroom!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Can Student Made Videos Help Store Information into Long-Term Memory?

Last year I starting making movies with my class. My students created movies about idioms, social skills, rocks, and the water cycle. I posted those on the class wiki. They loved to watch those movies over and over again. They viewed those movies so much they had the lines memorized. Not just their lines, everyone's lines! Now, if I ask one of my students from last year what an idiom is, they remember, because they remember those movies. So, when I overheard an upper grade teacher grumbling in the staff lounge about the 7th graders still not knowing certain grammar skills, I started to wonder. If you want to have certain skills, facts, and vocabulary stored in students' minds, are student made movies one of the most effective ways to do that? Thus, my experiment.

An assessment taken after our geometry unit revealed the concepts and vocabulary that my students had not yet mastered. Some students still couldn't describe a parallelogram or a rhombus or the difference between a rhombus and a square. I could tell that some were still confused about right angles or pairs of parallel lines. I used the assessment data to determine which concept each student would be responsible for teaching others about in a skit that would be a part of our class geometry movie. I put students into pairs and wrote their assigned topic on an index card.

I introduced the idea of a geometry movie through the movies found on the Student Made Math Movies wiki. I gave the pairs this assignment and this scoring guide and they went to work. My students had already had experience writing scripts, so they were ready to write these without instruction. But if your student have not written scripts, you will want to teach them the genre by reading examples of scripts and using other scripts as models for their writing.

Students will be finishing up the movies this week. After the holiday break, my goal is to have the movie done and posted for them to view over and over again. After an extended period of time, I will give them the geometry assessment again. That will help me determine if my hypothesis has some truth, that student made movies DO help students keep facts, concepts and vocabulary in their long-term memory.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Using Technology with Caution

I hate to admit it, but it may be true. Adding technology may not be producing the results I was hoping for. Although my students last year were engaged and involved in their learning most of the time, their scores on the standardized tests did not show growth. In some cases, the scores went down. Even though they learned how to collaborate, communicate and create, other academic skills needed for the tests were not developed.

This year, as I integrate technology into my curriculum, I am asking myself these questions.

How rigorous is the activity? I am going to use Karen Hess' Cognitive Rigor Matrix to evaluate the learning activities that I am designing, striving for a range of Depth of Knowledge levels. The higher the Depth of Knowledge level, the more deeply students must understand the content to complete the task.

Are the learning outcomes serving a standard? I will begin with the standards. I will ask myself, how will the use of technology help students master those standards? Common Core Standards has been adopted in my state. Using those as well as the Cognitive Rigor Matrix will ensure that the activities will achieve results.

Are my expectations for the process and product high enough? I will use scoring guides with most of my technology activities to help communicate the expectations clearly. When students know what the expectations are, they will strive to reach them.

How will I evaluate the impact of the technology on the learning? I will use data to help me see the impact the use of the technology is having on student learning.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Preparing Students for Quality Online Discussions

I believe that it is my responsibility to spend time preparing students before they participate in an online discussion. Just like literature discussion groups in the classroom, I can't assume that just because I put them together in a group to talk about a book, my students will know how to have a meaningful discussion that helps build their understanding.

My goal for my students is that they communicate their ideas through their posts, by elaborating their writing, supporting their thinking with evidence, building on other students' ideas, acknowledging other students' opinions by agreeing or disagreeing,  and displaying courteous online behavior. I want them to understand the difference between online social chatting and discussing online for learning purposes. I want them to write to get their messages across and seek to understand what others are saying. And I want them to see how listening to and responding to others ideas impacts their own thinking.

Ranking Discussion Responses
I begin with a lesson called "What Makes a Good Online Discussion Response?' I have my students analyze actual threaded discussions with the goal of selecting the posts that they think are the best. For my 4th grade students, I choose 3 questions along with the threaded responses to the question. I divide my class into groups of 3. Their task is to choose 3 responses to each question that they believe are the best and rank them, with #1 being the best. Then, they are to take all of the #1 responses and decide which one was the best of all. I give them this team task sheet, which outlines the steps to take, including choosing someone to be the writer, the reader, and the task manager. We first do one together and they complete the other two in their teams.

After they finish that task, they  turn in their top responses to me. I conclude this lesson by asking my students do a self-reflection on an index card. 1. What did your group do well? 2. How could your group improve? 3. What did you do well? 3. What could you improve? I also ask for volunteers to share if they would like to acknowledge anyone in their group who they felt was a good team mate and why.

Determining the Criteria
The second day I post the selected #1 responses on the SMARTboard. I asked my students to explain why they thought the winning responses deserved #1. What made them so good? As they share, I list their ideas around the responses. Then, together we create a list entitled "Quality Responses". They copy those into their technology books (little essay books where they keep technology related directions and passwords). Here is the list that they came up with this year:

The Online Discussion Challenge!
Next, I present The Online Discussion Challenge! I tell students that they have 3 challenges that they need to pass before they can actually discuss online with other classrooms. First, I walk them through how to sign up and use Edmodo.  They write down directions in their Technology books. Then, I explain their first Online Discussion Challenge.  Their job is to write quality responses to 2 or more of the 4 questions that I had posted about a book that we are reading.

After students log into Edmodo, they begin the first challenge. After they completed 2 or more posts, they bring their technology book to me and read a book while I check their responses. If they pass the challenge, I put a little sticker next to You Passed the Challenge! If they do not pass the challenge, that is if their responses are lacking all the needed criteria to make the posts Quality, I call them over and give feedback about what they can do to revise or edit the posts, making them quality responses.

The second challenge is to respond to 2 other people's responses. I model how to agree or disagree with another person, explaining why you feel that way. We look at some posts and think about questions that they we might ask the author of the post, seeking clarification or elaboration of ideas. My students move onto challenge 2 and again bring their technology books to me as I check their responses before they move on to the final challenge.

The final challenge is to show emotion in a post using word or symbols. We compare real time discussion with online discussion and how in real time you show your emotions through body language as well as words. We look at the ways our message could come across with the wrong emotion if we use capitals, meaning we are shouting, or if we use certain language.

Once my students pass all 3 challenges, they are ready to discuss online. In this case, we have been reading the Global Read Aloud and we have a Skype partner classroom that has been getting ready to discuss on Edmodo, too. Although we've been practicing by discussing the book with our classmates, the real thing happens this Thursday when both classrooms get on Edmodo the same time. I can't wait!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Instead of Class Rewards: 10 Steps to Take

Are you nervous about getting rid of your class rewards? Scared that without the external motivators, students won't behave? So was I. Here are 10 things to try in place of a class reward system. It has worked for me!

1. Begin the year in awe of your students. Let them know daily how amazing they are.  Notice and and comment on the specific things that they say and do that impresses you. My students knew that I loved them and that I thought they were awesome by the third day of school.

2. Find out everything you can about your students early on. I asked parents to write me a letter about their child, I did student interest inventories, and I had letters from the students before school began. Be sure to connect with each student every day with a short personal comment. "How's Jasmine?" "Any new legos?" "How is your headache today?" "Love the nails!"

3. Celebrate with a "special" activity within the first week. For example, our day routinely begins with AM work and an AM checklist. I told them frequently how impressed I was with how quickly they learned the morning routine and showed independence. I noticed how they helped each other and how they worked together to get things done. I told them that I usually waited a few weeks before I did a special technology project, but because of their incredible independent behavior, I felt that it was time for the project now. Show them the connection between their behavior and use of time and your behavior and choices of activities. Help them see that managing their time well and making smart choices reaps fun benefits. Continue to have celebrations, no matter how small. We had an extra five minutes of recess last week because we got everything done that I had planned for math that day with five minutes to spare!

4. Have students discuss what kind of place they want to come to every day. Read Bad Case of Stripes and talk about the message in the story. Then discuss these kinds of questions: "What kind of place do you want this room to be? How do you want to feel here? Do you want to feel like you can be yourself? How can we help everyone feel comfortable being who they are?"

5. Have students write a class constitution. Show the video, Creating a Class Constitution, on Discovery Streaming. Then have the students do the same activity. It is wonderful and I will do it every year. I know there are people who are going to disagree with me but when you write the constitution, be careful about changing all of your "don't" statements to "do" statements. I had more than one person comment about my students' rules "Don't Bully" and "Don't Tip in Your Chairs", saying "You are supposed to write all your rules in positive language". But if I had changed it to positive statements like "Be Nice" and "Keep all four legs of the chair on the ground", I would be changing their words and probably their meaning to some extent. Let them own it. They said don't bully because they mean don't bully!

6. Discuss Logical Consequences. After everyone signs the class constitution, talk about the consequences of breaking the rules. Tell them that you respect their rules and your job is to enforce them. Ask "Do you think that just because we all just agreed, no one will ever break these rules?" I tell them about the 3 consequences, Take a Break, You Break It, You Fix It, and Lose Privileges. I also talk about mistakes vs. habit. We all break rules from time to time. However, doing the same thing over and over again is becoming a habit and I will work with the individual to come up with solutions that will help.

7. Tell students that you don't reward good behavior. I simply said that I don't reward good behavior, I expect it. I don't give out prizes or stickers for good behavior. However, I tell them, we will still do fun things like pajamas and a movie or beach day. Those kinds of days will be celebrations of all of their hard work.

7. Help students manage their time through Fun Friday. I got this idea from The Cornerstone by Angela Watson. Every Friday I plan a "fun" activity that I was planning to do anyway. This first week we decorated our reading journals. The second week my students used the laptops to play Cool Math games. This week we will be creating a video to put onto our blog. Here is the catch. All AM work and other independent work must be done before participating in Fun Friday. I give my students plenty of time to get their AM work and other work done. I make sure I tell them how long they will have to do it and I announce when there is so much time left. Refrain from nagging students to get their work done. After 2 weeks of Fun Friday, you will see most of your students managing their time better and staying on task.

8. Use brain based teaching strategies. Make sure kids have choices and voices, build movement, hands-on, novelty and play into the day, provide challenges and opportunities to inquire and solve problems, let them talk and collaborate, balance between consistent grounding rituals and routines and open-ended activities, and build on their interests and background knowledge.

9. Learn about the connections between human needs and motivation. When unexpected behaviors crop up, follow-through with your consequences but also ask yourself what is motivating the student to behave this way? Is there a need that is not being met? What can you do or change that will help him/her get his/her needs met? (Choice Theory, Circle of Courage, Motivation Breakthrough)

10. Involve students in shared decision making and planning as soon as you can. Listen carefully to your students. Jump off of their ideas and use them as community building activities. A simple way to do this is with class jobs. I don't start the year with jobs. I tell students that we will begin in after a week or so and I need them to be thinking about what jobs our class needs. I use their ideas along with some of my tried and true jobs when I introduce jobs. If you know what your goals are for your students it is easier to use their ideas without feeling like it is a waste of time. For example, this year my goal is for my students to have ownership of our class blog. That means they will design it and decide how it is used. So when one of my students drew me a picture of our class as the 4th Grade Superheroes, I took advantage of his idea. I introduced the concept of blogs by showing my students examples of blogs and then we looked at our empty blog with its generic heading. I told them that they needed to personalize it so it was their blog. After sharing Thomas' drawing, the class agreed to call it 4P Superheroes. After lots of brainstorming, I helped them combine their ideas and we ended with a plan for a blog header and introduction video starring them, the 4P Superheroes.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Reaching Boys Who Struggle: Giving Effective Directions

Although this sequence may appear time-consuming, investment in learning and using these steps can pay major dividends, both for us and our students. Kathleen Palmer Cleveland

Effective Directions in Sequence                                       Examples
Step 1:  Change state. "If you can hear my voice, clap once."
"If you can hear my voice, clap twice."
Soften your voice and say, "If you can hear my voice, look this way."
Step 2: Explain relevance. "Thank you for coming to attention so quickly. We have some important work to do today! I am confident that you will do well."

"In the last lesson we did ___________ s a way of getting better at _________________. Today we will continue that process by doing ______________. This is going to help you become more skilled at _______________. So to review, the goal for this lesson is _________________. Let's get started!"
Step 3:  Be crystal clear. "There are three steps to complete in order.
Step 1:  First, we will__________
Step 2:  Second, we will_____________
Step 3:  Third, we will________________"
Step 4: Engage in multiple modalities. "As you read the directions along with me, I will highlight the important words on the SMARTboard."
Step 5:  Check for understanding. "Turn to your neighbor and make sure you understand each step."

Step 6:  Announce duration. "I have set aside about _________(minutes, hours, days)for you to complete this work. You will have plenty of time to finish."
Step 7:  Pair verbal commands with auditory start/stop signals. "When I give the signal, you will __________. "(state first step of task).
Step 8:  Provide backup. Leave the written directions visible on board.
Step 9:  Give fair warning. "You have two minutes to finish your work."
Step 10:  Acknowledge effort. "Thank you for completing your task and coming to attention."

From Teaching Boys Who Struggle in School:  Strategies that Turn Underachievers into Successful Learners P.90-100

10 Strategies for Reaching Boys Who Struggle

  1. Build Trusting Relationships
  2. Follow These Guidelines for Classroom Policies 
  3. Understand Boys' Basic Requests for Communicating
  4. Give Effective Directions
  5. Give Informational Feedback
  6. Use Affirming Statements
  7. Teach Pragmatic Communication Skills
  8. Increase Physical Comfort
  9. Apply the Principles of Active Learning
  10. Build Literacy Through Engaging Activities

Monday, August 15, 2011

Reaching Boys Who Struggle: Understand Boys' Basic Requests for Communicating

1. Give me a way out. Sometimes I screw up, but that doesn't mean I'll always act that way. I need a way to move on without being too embarrassed about how stupidly I just behaved. Tell me how I can be better. I want to know.
2. Help me know my strengths. Help me understand what skills I have or am improving in, both academically and socially. I don't always know what they are or how to make the most of them.
3. Help me relax into learning. Laugh sometimes, even at yourself. If I know you make mistakes, it makes it easier to accept when I do.
4. Help me "save face." Don't humiliate or make fun of me in front of others. It does not make me want to work harder. I will hate you for it and be forced to get back at you.
5. Inspire me. Share your passion about what you are teaching with me. Help me to feel excited about what I'm learning. Your enthusiasm rubs off.
6. Keep it private. If I make a mistake, be a matter-of-fact in telling me why, and do it as privately as possible.
7. Let me know I matter. Greet me as though you care and are glad I'm there.
8. Make it real. Help me understand why things are important in the real world. It helps me want to learn more.
9. Notice when I try. Let me know somehow when I do things well. I like to hear that. It's OK if you tell  my parents.
10. Speak to me with respect. Treat me with respect and show me what that looks like. Sometimes I don't know, and if I mess up, a kind response speaks loudest to me.

From Teaching Boys Who Struggle in School:  Strategies that Turn Underachievers into Successful Learners P.90-100

10 Strategies for Reaching Boys Who Struggle

  1. Build Trusting Relationships
  2. Follow These Guidelines for Classroom Policies 
  3. Understand Boys' Basic Requests for Communicating
  4. Give Effective Directions
  5. Give Informational Feedback
  6. Use Affirming Statements
  7. Teach Pragmatic Communication Skills
  8. Increase Physical Comfort
  9. Apply the Principles of Active Learning
  10. Build Literacy Through Engaging Activities

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Reaching Boys Who Struggle: Guidelines for Classroom Policies

"Abiding by the policies when one has helped develop them becomes a choice rather than a restriction against which to rebel, and this, in turn, reduces defensiveness...For an underachieving boy, being consulted about the policies not only feels respectful, but it also levels the playing field, so to speak, removing the power structure from the process and making all students views equally valuable and relevant." Kathleen Palmer Cleveland

Guidelines for Classroom Policies
  1. Involve boys in creating the policies.
  2. Limit the number of policies to five or fewer, for younger students one to three. Less than five policies are easier to remember and easier to enforce.
  3. State policies positively. The brain does not read the word "not" in a declarative statement. So a rule "Don't push." emphasizes the word push. Pushing may actually get worse. Better to state what it is that students should do.
  4. Make sure policies are fully understood before enforcing them. Avoid creating policies that are too vague (Be nice. Be respectful) If an underachieving boy is prone to defensiveness and insecurity, the enforcement of a policy he doesn't yet understand may further diminish his sense of self-confidence and belonging.
  5. Be consistent. Be consistent. Be consistent. Consistency helps create the feeling of safety in the classroom.Boys need clear, firm boundaries. If they push on those boundaries, the boundaries have to be even stronger. Some boys push on a boundary because they want to check to see if it is still there, it is actually a way for them to feel safe. Consistency also builds trust. Boys who push the boundaries may see inconsistent reinforcement as a weakness in the teacher. To be consistent, once a policy is set, it needs to stay that way and applied the same to everyone. A sense of security develops when there is no guessing about what will happen when the boundary is pushed.
  6. Enforce policies in a matter-of-fact way. Keep emotions out of it. Appear calm at all times even if you don't feel calm.
  7. Forgive and forget. No grudges allowed.
  8. Acknowledge effort. Notice when boys are trying to make better choices and improve.

From Teaching Boys Who Struggle in School:  Strategies that Turn Underachievers into Successful Learners P.90-100

10 Strategies for Reaching Boys Who Struggle

  1. Build Trusting Relationships
  2. Follow These Guidelines for Classroom Policies 
  3. Understand Boys' Basic Requests for Communicating
  4. Give Effective Directions
  5. Give Informational Feedback
  6. Use Affirming Statements
  7. Teach Pragmatic Communication Skills
  8. Increase Physical Comfort
  9. Apply the Principles of Active Learning
  10. Build Literacy Through Engaging Activities

Reaching Boys Who Struggle: Build Trusting Relationships

"Our first task is to help the underachieving boy - who is often highly sensitized to failure - feel safe enough in our classrooms to willingly reengage in learning." Kathleen Palmer Cleveland

Teacher Actions that Build Trust

Teacher-to-Boy Interactions
  • Attends to my interests in some way
  • Cares about me individually
  • Easy to talk to
  • Helps me feel OK about myself
  • Knows how I learn
  • Knows me personally
  • Knows what I'm feeling
  • Listens to me, is understanding
  • Listens when I have a problem
  • Respects me
Responses to Misbehavior
  • Doesn't hold a grudge
  • Fair
  • Gives me a second chance
  • Has no negative expectations
  • Likes me even if I mess up
  • Shows no favoritism
Support During Learning
  • Encourages me to try again
  • Explains work carefully
  • Helps me learn from my mistakes
  • Makes work interesting
  • Passionate about and committed to what is being taught
Fear Reduction
  • Doesn't humiliate me in front of the class
  • Explains policies and why they are being enforced
  • Relaxed and can laugh at own mistakes

From Teaching Boys Who Struggle in School:  Strategies that Turn Underachievers into Successful Learners p. 70

10 Strategies for Reaching Boys Who Struggle

10 Strategies for Reaching Boys Who Struggle

  1. Build Trusting Relationships
  2. Follow These Guidelines for Classroom Policies 
  3. Understand Boys' Basic Requests for Communicating
  4. Give Effective Directions
  5. Give Informational Feedback
  6. Use Affirming Statements
  7. Teach Pragmatic Communication Skills
  8. Increase Physical Comfort
  9. Apply the Principles of Active Learning
  10. Build Literacy Through Engaging Activities
  1. Build Literacy Through Engaging Activities

10 Strategies for Reaching Boys Who Struggle

My goal this year is that I don't have a single boy on an individual behavior plan. "Strange goal", you might be thinking. "Are individual behavior checklists the norm in your class?"

Well, no, last year I did not have any students on individual behavior checklists. The year before, I did have one student who used one as my last resort. However, as I read over the notes about my new students' that I took during conferences with their former third grade teachers, behavior plans could become a norm if something does not change. One third of the boys were on individual behavior plans last year. That fact and the comment,"We spent the year disciplining the boys." left me wondering what was causing the behaviors and what could be done differently that might allow them to experience more success this year.

The book, Teaching Boys Who Struggle in School: Strategies That Turn Underachievers into Successful Learners by Kathleen Palmer Cleveland, provides a lot of  strategies that specifically target the needs of boys. As I prepare for school to start in two weeks, I am going to summarize some of the tools in the book that I find particularly helpful. If you want to know the rationale behind these tools, I highly recommend purchasing the book. There is so much more in it than I can share here.

10 Strategies for Reaching Boys Who Struggle

  1. Build Trusting Relationships
  2. Follow These Guidelines for Classroom Policies 
  3. Understand Boys' Basic Requests for Communicating
  4. Give Effective Directions
  5. Give Informational Feedback
  6. Use Affirming Statements
  7. Teach Pragmatic Communication Skills
  8. Increase Physical Comfort
  9. Apply the Principles of Active Learning
  10. Build Literacy Through Engaging Activities

These tools are ways teachers can help meet the needs of struggling boys in the contexts of school, classroom, relationships and learning experiences. They are meant to support a boy who struggles as a learner, building on his strengths and moving him toward his potential:

  • Replace his negative attitudes about learning with productive perspectives about the role of risk (and even failure) as a necessary and valued part of the learning process.
  • Reconnect him with school, with learning, and with a belief in himself as a competent learner who is capable, valued, and respected.
  • Rebuild life skills and learning skills that lead to academic success and also lay the groundwork for success in life; and
  • Reduce the need to use unproductive and distracting behaviors as a means of self-protection.

From Teaching Boys Who Struggle in School:  Strategies that Turn Underachievers into Successful Learners p.14

Monday, August 8, 2011

Why Does This Web2.0 Activity Matter?

 "Calder Pillay was all ears. He had never heard a teacher admit that she didn't know what she was doing. Even better, she was excited about it." From Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliet

Reading the book, Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett, has reminded me of the magic of essential questions in the classroom. In the book, the cool sixth grade teacher, Ms. Hussey, announced to her students on the first day of school that what they were going to work on this year "all depends on what we get interested in - or what interests us". Ms. Hussey is an expert at asking questions that spark her students interests. When she asks her class, "Is writing the the most effective way to communicate?", students who love writing respond, "Yes of course it is" and those students who hate writing argue, "What about numbers? What about pictures? What about plain old talking?" The question, and disagreement the question provoked, lead the class into an in-depth investigation; and in the process they learned about cave art in France, papyrus scrolls in Egypt, Mayan petroglyphs in Mexico and stone tablets from the Middle East. They tried making stamps out of raw potatoes and covered the classroom walls with symbols. They invented a sign language for hands and feet and they communicated for one whole day using nothing but drawing.

Why essential questions?

Essential questions lead to inquiry learning. Inquiry learning not only motivates and engages students in learning, but it has been shown to be one of the most effective ways to help students achieve deeper understanding AND better test scores. And schools that use them have better attendance and lower drop-out rates. Listen to Jeffrey Wilhelm talk about the benefits of inquiry learning and essential questions.

Essential questions make connections across the curriculum for kids. Essential questions lead to big ideas and understandings. If you organize around good essential questions, kids naturally start to make lots of brain compatible connections as they transfer the big ideas to new situations and subjects.

Where do essential questions fit into my use of Web2.0 tools?

Jeffrey Wilhelm says, that when thinking about a book or topic you are going to teach, you need to ask, "Why does this matter? Why should the kids care about it? What deep understandings will it develop?"

I've planned many Web2.0 learning activities that are engaging AND help students learn content area skills and concepts. But, have I really challenged myself to ask the questions that Jeffrey Wilhelm suggests? For example, I am thinking about trying the Mystery State Skype Call this year. As a learning activity, it already sparks kids interests. There are a lot of great purposes for doing it. Besides the fact that it is fun, it connects kids to kids around the country, it teaches cooperation and collaboration in the classroom as kids try to solve the mystery together, it teaches kids facts about other states, it teaches how to use clues and resources to solve problems, it teaches map skills and geography, it teaches technology skills and more.

But, does a Mystery Skype call really matter? Why? What deep understandings does it have the potential to develop? Where does it fit in with big ideas across other subjects and situations in my classroom?

Some possible essential questions that would connect the Mystery State Skype Calls to my curriculum might be: Our focus on community "What is a community?" Our study of Connecticut "What makes a place unique? How does the geography and location of a place influence the people who live there?" The focus on communication: "Is writing the most effective way to communicate?"

How do I create questions that matter?

Creating these questions does not come nearly as easy to me as it does for Ms. Hussey. In fact, it is almost painful at times. I am never one hundred percent happy with my questions and find myself going back and revising them over and over.

I use the following guiding questions to help me reflect on the quality of the question I've created:

Will it pass the Jeremy test? Jeremy was one of my students that was easily disengaged and unmotivated. Would he care about this question?

Is it a question that recurs through other subjects and situations, allowing for wonderful connections to occur?

Is it a question that is relevant to the age group I teach?
In my case, is it connected to the world of 9 and 10 year olds?

Is it genuine? Is it a question that  I don't know the answer to?

Is a question that recurs throughout one's life? For example the questions, "How does one person's actions impact others?" In the classroom this year, we will explore this question through the study of people, characters and ourselves.  I hope exploration of this question helps my students think about the impact of their actions later in life.

Is it a question that has no right answer? I find this is hard to decide. But sometimes I may think I know the answer, but in fact it is really an opinion based on facts or experience, or it is only piece of the answer.

It is non-judgmental and free of hidden agendas? Like "What lessons about life can stories reveal?" instead of "Why is reading important"?

When you ask it, will kids have a lot to say about it? Will it spark their interest? Might it create some differences in opinions? Will they be able to connect their prior experiences to it?

Does it have the potential to provoke deep thought, unpredictable outcomes, new understandings, and new questions?

Some questions I plan to ask this year are:
  • Is telling the truth always the right thing to do?
  • What influences people's choices?
  • What influences people to change?
  • What impact can one person's actions have?
  • What lessons about life can stories reveal?
  • What are an individual's responsibilities to the community?
  • What is a community?
  • Is writing the most effective way to communicate?

What essential questions will you be asking this year?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

How Do You Get to Know Your Students Before School Starts?

What is the number one common characteristic of great teachers? They know their students.

Good teachers spend time at the beginning of the year learning as much as they can about their students in order to develop positive relationships and create an inclusive environment.

How do you get to know your students before they come to school the first day, so when they walk in your door you greet them with something like, "Hi Hannah, how is your dog Jasmine?" "So Sam, can you believe the home run that the Red Sox made during the last game?"

This is what I do. Very simple but very informative.

  1. Letters:  The third grade teachers take time at the end of the year to have their students write letters to their new 4th grade teachers. They ask them to include information about their favorite things, favorite subjects, what they hope 4th grade will be like and other tidbits about themselves, like how many siblings they have, what kind of person they are and what they like to do. Thank you 3rd grade teachers! I then reference the things that the students shared or asked when I write my summer Welcome to 4th Grade! letters.
  2. Student Pictures:  We use Power School for our student data. I create a student information table that includes the names of my new students and information about their interests, favorite books, abilities, school and social behaviors, any special needs they might have and their work habits. Next to their names, I paste their pictures, copied from Power School. I use this to memorize their names, faces, and tidbits about them.
  3. Anecdotal Notes from Last Year's Teachers:  At the end of the year, we meet with each 3rd grade teacher. They share the students' assessment data and talk about each student. I jot down notes in Word about each student. I then put that information in my student information table. I am cautious not to form preconceived ideas about the children, but to look at the notes holistically and objectively.
  4. Students Folders and Assessment Data:  I like the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) because not only does it show me the level of reading that a child is reading at,, but I also like to use the interest survey to note favorite topics and books. Other assessment data, like the Blue Ribbon assessment, writing prompts, and Dibels help me begin to identify strengths and weaknesses.
  5. Parent Letter to Me:  I enclose an assignment for the parents in the students' welcome letter. I ask them to tell me about their child in a million words or less. They can email it to me or send it in with their child the first weeks of school.
  6. Web2.0. I was thinking that I would like to have students share favorite things or write what they hope they learn on maybe a VoiceThread before school starts. I will set up accounts for them and send a postcard explaining how to share their ideas on the Voicethread.

What are some ways you get to know your students before the first day of school?

How have you used Web2.0 tools before school starts as a way for students to begin sharing and asking questions?

What other ideas do you have?

I Don't Decorate My Classroom

I don't decorate my classroom before school starts.

I stopped making elaborate bulletin boards for the first day of school. I stopped spending hours creating cute spaceships or race cars, each personalized with a student name and picture. I don't buy pre-made education posters to adorn my walls. I've even stopped making job charts, weather charts, calendar charts, behavior charts, editing checklist charts, how to write a paragraph charts, you name it charts. Yes, my students walk into a classroom where the walls are bare, the bulletin boards cry out, "Cover me!" and the absence of pictures and print in the room would leave enriched classroom environment enthusiasts shuddering.


  • I spend time getting to know my students before I even meet them.
  • I set up my class and student accounts in VoiceThread, KidsBlog, Voki, Animoto, Wikispaces, and Glogster
  • I go through my books and pull out the ones that I think my students will be interested in. I display those books with the covers showing and I put many of the other books away to be revealed as the year goes on.
  • I organize and add to my collection of classroom and online math games.
  • I compose my welcome back blog entry.
  • I clean up my class wiki, archiving last year's contributions, and making room for the new.
  • I collect pictures of all the parts of my life so that my students can get to know me.
  • I fold and glue together lots of blank Foldables; empty bound books for our beginning of the year class books, top pockets to hold our learning during our science units, 2-tabs and 8-tabs for side by side word study books, and pocket books for our life timelines.
  • I plan and prepare for a fun science lesson, a math game, and a team challenge on the first day of school.
  • I make bubble letter name tags for each student to personalize on the very first day.
  • I carefully choose the books I'll use for my beginning of the year book hooks and read alouds.
  • I work on my Writer's Notebook.

My room will get decorated.

I have no idea what it will look like, but I do know that over time the walls and spaces will be filled with things that matter to my students. Over time, my room will be a celebration of the personalities, talents, and gifts of the group of unique individuals that inhabit it.

Do you decorate your classroom? 
What do you do instead?
How does what you do or don't do reflect what you believe about kids and learning?

Sunday, July 31, 2011

May I Have Your Attention Please?

Sometimes I can’t believe the amount of energy that I put into worrying about the littlest things. Each year, as I plan for the start of school, I go back and forth about what type of signal I am going to use to get my students’ attention. The common sense part of me tells me that it really IS NOT important what type of signal I use, as long as I use it consistently and hold students accountable for responding to it. The intuitive side of me says that choosing a signal carefully IS important. That everything we say, don't say, do and don't do sends a message about what we value. And of course, my intuitive side wins the battle. So here I am again, the beginning of August, sweating the small stuff, trying to reach a decision about my signal for attention. Here is what I am thinking:

What I Won’t Do

Use Signals that Have No Meaning for Students
My first year back in the classroom (2 years ago), I used the school wide signal. It goes like this. The teacher calls out Ah-go! The students respond Ah-Me! In some language, ah-go means "I am ready to talk" and ah-me means I am ready to listen. I am pretty sure that students are not translating the phrases, thinking in their heads, "The teacher just said that she is ready to talk so I am going to now tell her that I am ready to listen."

Use The Same Call and Response Signal All Year
Call and response signals tend to lose their effectiveness in my classroom after awhile. The response starts to become just a rote thing the students say mindlessly while they continue to do what they are doing. Now, I understand that holding my students accountable for stopping to listen is the teacher’s responsibility. I realize that I need to train them to stop and turn to listen to me when they respond and if they don’t, I need to re-teach them. But the truth is, I think the signals just get a little boring as the year goes on, Changing it throughout the year adds some novelty and gives a purpose for modeling and practicing again.

Use The Same Signal for Every Situation
If my class is spread out all over the place, working in teams, or if we are outside doing something, I might use one type of louder signal. But if they are pretty much gathered in one area, working independently during something like writing workshop, I’ll probably use a quieter signal.

Use a Chime or Bell
 I need a signal that uses what I have with me on me, like my voice or hands. We are a traveling class, sometimes we are learning outside, sometimes in the media center, sometimes we are on a trip, sometimes around the school, and of course often times in our classroom.  Also, if my students use the chime or bell to get their classmate’s attention, I find that they don’t just hit it once, they hit it several times which becomes an annoyance.

Use A Signal that Creates Anxiety
I tried counting down last year from 5, expecting students to be ready to listen by the time I got to 1. Although it usually worked, I realized as I was doing it that my counting down sounded like a threat. 
I remember my very first year of teaching, I would turn out the lights. I stopped that after being in a workshop and the presenter used the lights to get our attention. How annoying  not to be able to see what I was reading or writing as we waited for everyone to stop what they were doing and turn their attention to the presenter. 
I've seen call and responses like Ah-Go, Ah-Me become a shouting match, with the teacher shouting Ah-Go! and students shouting back Ah-Me! but still talking, so the teacher shouts Ah-Go even louder and students shout back even louder Ah-Me! I don’t need unessesary shouting in my class.

What I Will Do

Use a Real-life Signal
What do we usually do when we need someone’s attention. We ask, May I have your attention please?” This is a respectful signal for attention. Sometimes I might say, "I apologize for interrupting you, but I need your attention for a minute please." 

Explain What I Will Do When I Say the Signal and Why
Instead of saying, "When I say 'May I have your attention please?' you need to stop and give me your attention", I will say "When I say may I have your attention please? I will not talk until I have everyone’s attention. I will wait and make sure that I have everyone’s attention so that no one misses anything"

Involve my Students in Signal Creation
Last year, around ¾ of the year, I pulled my students together and said, "You know what, I think we need to choose a new signal. The purpose of a signal is to get everyone’s attention and I don’t think this one is working so well anymore. I don’t really like Ah-go, Ah-may, what do you think?" One of my students responded that they did not like it either because it did not make sense! He said, "We should have a signal that makes sense, like ice cream sundae, or chocolate chip!" So we had fun brainstorming ideas and voted on a new signal. There was a tie between fainting goats and banana split and I used those the rest of the year. They were the most effective signals I have ever used. When the students choose it, you know it will be meaningful to them.

Make the Signals a Class-attention-getting Signal, not Just a Teacher-getting-attention Signal
By this I mean that students will understand that this is our method for getting attention before we speak. If a student comes to me and says "May I make an announcement/"  I will say, "Yes, ask the class for their attention. or say banana."  My expectation will be that all students respect the speaker in the same manner that they respect me.

Use More Than One Signal
I referred to this in What I Won’t Do. I will use a signal that is appropriate for the situation. If my class is deep into their work and I need to tell them something, I probably don’t have to do a call and response. Simply saying, "Excuse me class, could I please have your attention?" would work fine. I will use the call and response signal, first Banana/Split and then the one my class comes up with, during group work and active activities. In very large group situations that involve other classes, I like to use the "If you can hear me, clap 3 times." signal.

Model, Practice, and Provide Feedback
I will still spend time having students practice when new signals are introduced. I will remain calm and reteach, asking them to reflect on how they did and try it again if they did not get it right, I will be sure to model giving attention quickly when other teachers or students ask for it. I will provide feedback by thanking my students for their speed at  turning their attention to the speaker or for helping each other get ready to listen.

What signals do you plan to use this year?
Do you use the same signal all year?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Adding Technology to a Writing Lesson

This technology extension of the Writing Fix lesson, Unlikely Diary Keepers, was absolutely one of the most successful writing projects that my students did this year. The amount of engagement and collaboration during this project was incredibly high as students learned how to create custom animations and record their voices in PowerPoint. I got the idea from Pernille Ripp and used her students' work to inspire my students.

I followed the lesson as it is written on Writing Fix except that I used this template created in Word for the students to type their diary entries and used this storyboard for students to plan the diary slides. Students published their animal diaries using the Custom Animation and the Record Narration features in Powerpoint. Also, I had students do this pre-research activity for homework and the computer teacher spent time teaching my students how to search for information using search engines as they took notes in this Top Tab Foldable. This is the scoring guide for their product.

You can view more of my students' animal diaries here. I uploaded them to Authorstream so that they could be shown on our class wiki. The students had spent time making the backgrounds around their clip art transparent, but for some reason the backgrounds appeared on Authorstream.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Descriptive Dragons

I love organic teaching. Its path grows from student interests and classroom happenings. It is free of packaged activities, isolated skill worksheets and sequenced programs. Instead, it listens to and follows rhythms of natural, connected, purposeful learning.

My class is currently reading, discussing and loving the book Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin. The book weaves ancient Chinese folktales into the story about a girl named Minli. Minli leaves her dry, gray home to embark on a journey to the Man of the Moon whom she hopes will change her fortune. She meets up with a dragon, who joins her on her journey with hopes that the Man of the Moon will help him learn how to fly. (sound familiar?)

My students' excitement about the delightful dragon as well as the folktales in the story led me to the library in search of Chinese folktales about dragons. I did find some great Chinese folktales but also found the book Dragons:  Fearsome Monsters from Myth and Fiction. This book not only draws the reader in with its beautiful illustrations, but happens to be a FANTASTIC model of nonfiction writing. The descriptions and legends written about each dragon are full of descriptive writing with good adjectives, similes, and varied sentence structures.

The Lessons:

1. Using a Mentor Text to Inspire Our Own Ideas

I selected some of the dragons from the book to scan and put onto this Powerpoint. I introduced the project by telling students that they would be creating their own dragons and in order to do that, we'd use this book about dragons from all over the world as our inspiration. As we went through the Powerpont, I read the background stories about each dragon and the detailed descriptions of its body parts.

2. Art and Talk as a Pre-writing Activity

Students were given large white paper on which to draw a pencil sketch of their dragon. They were asked to draw the dragon in the center of the white space, keeping space around the dragon for descriptions of body parts. Before we began,  I told them they needed to think carefully about the details of their dragons, specifically their body parts. They should be thinking about what their dragon does, what kind of personality it has and how it uses its body. Then they went over the pencil with a black Sharpie. The final step was paint. They carefully picked out their colors and I arranged their paint into a paper plate palette.Talk played an important role in this art activity, as students discussed their dragon's origins, body parts, and roles with each other.

3. Creating a Class Word Bank with Wordle

To prepare for the writing, I looked back to original dragon book as a model. I thought about the vivid adjectives that the author used to describe the dragon's body parts. I noticed that each body part was described using rich language; adjectives, similes, and varied sentence structure.  I wanted to figure out a way to help my students focus on using rich language in their writing. So, I used Wordle for a lesson in using the Thesaurus as well as a way to broaden my students' vocabulary. I generated a list of words that I thought my students might use in their dragon descriptions. This list was based on both the ideas in the books as well as what I was hearing my students share about their dragons. I selected common adjectives such as big, mean, small, soft, good, and shiny. I wrote one word on the top of a piece of lined paper so that I had enough words for each student in the class. We revisited the dragon book, noticing the wonderful adjectives. I asked them where could authors find synonyms, or words that mean almost the same thing as words like good, big, and evil. They knew the Thesaurus was good for this purpose. I explained to them that we would be creating our own word wall of wonderful words for us to use in our writing by using a tool called Wordle. I  modeled how to first look up words that mean the same thing as the word good using the print thesaurus and then how to look up words that mean the same thing using the online Thesaurus. They concluded that the online one was easier to use AND had more words. As we did this, I showed how to list the words underneath the word good. After that, I modeled how to use Wordle. I typed the synonyms of the original word and the original into Wordle and demonstrated how writing the word more than once would make it bigger. Students were then given their own words and did the same, creating these word clouds.

3. More Pre-writing with a Planning Sheet
I knew that some of my students already had a pretty complete story about their dragon in their heads, but others needed some guidance to develop their story. I looked at the elements that the author used in his descriptions and created this planning sheet for students to fill out. Before we began, I used it to "interview" a few students in the class about their dragon, knowing that listening to their classmates  would help spark more ideas. So I just went down the list asking, "What is your dragon's name? Where is it from? Where does it live? What kind of personality does it have? What is its job? Is it ancient, mythological, or media? What are its special abilities?" and so on. Students were then ready to fill it out on their own.

4. Using Our Wordle Word Bank and a List of Adjectives to Write
We looked back at the dragon descriptions once again, this time focusing on the body part descriptions. I asked students what they noticed about the author's writing. They noticed the word choice and how it made them feel. As we read through this list of adjectives together, students highlighted any words that would describe their dragon and its body parts. Then we looked at our beautiful Wordles, noticing words up on the wall that we might use. They were then ready to write about at least 3 body parts, using this organizer.

5. Word Templates to Create Professional Looking Pieces
I taught the students how to open up this Word template and save it as their own in their folders. They typed their body part descriptions onto the template, which would be printed, cut out and glued onto their dragon pictures.

6. Back to the Mentor Text
Once again we revisited the mentor text. We looked at the background information the author wrote about the dragons. I printed out three examples to give to my students. Armed with highlighters, we read each one, highlighting and discussing pieces of the writing that we liked and might apply in our own writing. This is not a new process in my classroom, but before we do this I always ask, why do we look at other people's writing? We talk about how we can get ideas and learn from other writers.

7. Getting the First Lines Down
Most of my students were ready to write, but some were having trouble with that first sentence. So I asked students to share how they were planning to begin, and I wrote those ideas up on the board. That helped inspire anyone who was stuck.

8. Putting it All Together
After publishing their dragon pieces, they each inserted a map of the dragon's origin. Some students created a comparison diagram to show the dragon's actual size. The students cut out and glued their labels to their dragon paintings. They created a fancy title and we hung the entire display up in our hallway for others to enjoy.

9. Publishing for a Wider Audience
I am in the process of taking pictures of the finished dragons. Students are going to read the accompanying story they wrote on our iPods. They will be published on a wiki. Students love to get their work published onto the Internet because, as one student put it, "It will be up there forever!"

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Authentic technology integration? But how?

Here is my Top Ten Unit from start to finish. Technology, language arts, science, and 21st century skills are integrated seamlessly. The entire unit with lessons can be found here. The Top Ten wiki is at

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What Does a Green Screen Video Production Teach?

This is the second green screen video that my students created with my assistance. The first they had really no concept about what the green screen was going to do. The video was to be of interviews with rocks in which they would play specific types of rocks while reporters interviewed them. The students made rock costumes out of cardboard complete with glitter for obsidian and sand for sandstone. After video taping each interview, I put the movie together with background images.

So, when the second video opportunity came along, the Water Cycle, they already had a concrete experience with the green screen. We discussed the effects that happened with the first video such as how the glitter on Clark's rock looked super shiny or how Carter's gold rock faded into the background. Or how Xandra's green shirt made her disappear into the background. Then after reading the script and picking out parts, the students brainstormed ideas for costumes that would create the effects they wanted. I facilitated the discussion as students shared possibilities for water vapor and the sun. Then, students were given a planning sheet. Working with partners,their task was to draw and label their costumes and write down the materials they would need.

After they made their costumes, they performed costume tests. We put up the green screen and took short clips of them in front of it. I used a random background and as a class we watched the tests. As they watched the clips, the students talked amongst themselves about ideas to make the costumes better achieve the effects they were striving for. Students then made changes to their costumes or started from scratch or kept them the same.

Three of my students chose not play a part in the video. I gave them the job of photos. As the rest of the class worked on costumes, they had conferences with their classmates about what types of photos they would like for their backgrounds. Then, the photo committee searched for and saved photos from the Internet. They kept them organized and gave them names that would help me as I later put the movie together.

The video taping itself involved a tremendous amount of teamwork. Students worked together to practice their parts, set up the props and stage, direct the scenes, do makeup and costume fix ups, and video tape.

Once the video was taped, I did the final editing, cutting and piecing the clips together, putting in the photos, and adding music clips.

Students have watched the video enough times that they have it memorized. I gave them a little assessment, asking them to write about real life examples of 3-4 parts of the water cycle. They all scored 100 percent.

So, what does a green screen video production teach?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Do I HAVE to write a response?

Do you EVER hear moans and groans when it is time for students to respond in writing to something they've read? I do. But do you, like me, HAVE to teach your students how to write good open-ended responses to text in order to prepare for the standardized test? Looking for alternatives to isolated test practice?

I have found that a wiki can help provide an authentic context for students to practice writing about what they've read in an online environment. Students need to focus on two things; first how to compose a well-written, supported response AND how to discuss online using elaboration and good punctuation and grammar (i.e. not texting language).  I have created a wiki called WikiTalks where my students discuss short stories or novels that we are reading with another 4th grade class in our school.

Getting Started:  What Makes a Good Online Discussion Post?
I first introduced the concept of online discussions to my 4th grade students by using this What Makes a Good Discussion Response? lesson. They compared online vs. real-time discussions. They then tried out online discussing on the Nutmeg book award wiki as they responded to questions about our read-aloud, The Thing About Georgie. I was not very impressed with their posts.

Students Learn How to Evaluate Quality Discussion Posts
I thought about how I could help my students become more self evaluative as they wrote their own posts. I decided that they needed to take a step out of the shoes of the writer and get into the shoes of an evaluator. So my students were informed that they have been chosen to be Official Discussion Post Judges for the Nutmeg book award wiki. This is a wiki that I have co-created for Connecticut's student book award program. Students, grades 4-8, from schools across Connecticut discuss the books. I told my that students that each month, they would determine the winner of the Wiki Post of the Month based on criteria. With that purpose in mind, students then read many examples of posts, sorting them into 3 piles, not so good, good, great! They used the great posts to create a list of criteria that they would use to judge future posts. This is what they came up with:

_It answers the question.
_It uses details from the book.
_It explains why. (I think....because....)
_It uses good spelling and punctuation.
_The person reading the answer understands something about the story.

They take this job seriously and each month we select a winner. As you can see, we are a bit behind! Snow days have taken a toll here in Connecticut.

Applying Criteria to Own Discussion Posts
Simultaneously, students were introduced to WikiTalks. Here they were going to discuss with the other 4th grade class in our school. I modeled posting a good response and then they tried it. The first time we used it, the students discussed a short story from Jr. Great Books.  I treated the wiki like math manipulatives in that I did not focus so much on the content. I realized that they had a lot to think about procedurally, for example, they needed to learn how to log in, how to reply, how to post, how to navigate through the discussion, and of course how to get a customized icon! They also needed to get over the excitement of seeing their friend's immediate responses and get through a little social chat time.

Not Seeing Quality Posts Yet!
After the initial introduction, students were then expected to focus on the quality of their posts and discussions as they discussed our new read-aloud, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. At first, I did not see much quality in the posts. Even though we (the other 4th grade teacher and I) emphasized that students needed to write complete responses and use good grammar and punctuation, most students were not working to their potential. It wasn't until my brilliant co-worker came up with the self-assessment system that we started to see improvement.

Student Self-Assessment System
I don't have the actual document, but here is a picture.

The students receive a score for the work they do on the wiki. For a score of 3, they must post two quality responses that meet ALL the listed criteria. The criteria we are using is school-wide scoring checklist for open-ended responses, called RACES. For a score of 4, the student must post three quality responses AND post a question. Anything less than two quality posts receive a score of 2 or 1.

But can students really self-assess accurately? I found that most could not. So even though this was a good exercise in evaluating own work, they still needed feedback to really understand the quality of their work.

The Kicker! Individual Conferences and Immediate Feedback
The quality of the responses went up once again when I actually printed out the responses that students went over and scored them myself. I stapled their responses onto their self-assessment sheets, I put my score next to theirs and wrote a couple of short feedback comments. Before the next WikiTalks, I quickly went over with the whole group what I was noticing and tips for how students could bring their scores up. Then, as students started to discuss, I went around and individually showed them their scores and gave them individual feedback. This made a HUGE difference. After the discussions, I printed out the posts again, stapling them to the self-assessments, and scored them myself. I saw improvement in all students' posts and most students scored either a 3 or a 4.

You can read the most recent posts here.