Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Book Making Tip

Since my kids love our classroom books as much as they do, I have to make them as durable as I can without draining my time and the school's money by laminating them.  Here's one way I do that.  

Sometimes when I use photos for class books, I print and cut them, and then glue them to both sides of construction paper.  It saves paper and creates books that are less bulky.  Then I use packing tape down the edge that will be bound.  I fold it over the edge to cover both sides at once.  

(Obviously this book isn't bound yet.)

I try to mix up the look of my books in size, shape, color, and the way they're made.  For example, the book above is actually quite small.  If you'd like to see another way I make books, look here.  I hope this inspires you to make a classroom book or two (or several).  

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Saturday, October 25, 2014

Saturday Sayings: One Size Doesn't Fit All

If someone during my first year of teaching had asked me, "What's the hardest thing about teaching?" my answer would have had something to do with the wide spectrum of abilities represented in my classroom and how to meet all those needs.  Ask me again 21 years later and my answer would have something to do with the wide spectrum of abilities represented in my classroom and how to meet all those needs.  A lot of things have changed over the years.  That challenge is not one of them.  I'm guessing not every teacher would agree that this is the hardest aspect of being a teacher, but I would bet it's towards the top of the list for most.  While one little person is trying to learn their letters and sounds or simply count to 20, another is reading chapter books and doing double-digit addition.  One size certainly does not fit all.  

You'd think after doing this teaching thing 21 times over, I'd have conquered this challenge a long time ago.  That's far from the truth though.  I've made significant gains, and there are parts of my day that feel individualized and differentiated, but I still feel like my system is in a constant flux as I continue to seek out better methods and practices for reaching the varied needs in my room.

I found myself thinking about what's required in order to provide each child with a plan that's tailored to his or her needs.  Here's what I came up with:

  • I must know where each child is at.
  • I must know where each child needs to go.
  • I must know how to get each child there.
  • I must have time to conference with each child.
  • Each child must have quality time to practice.
  • I must have time to assess how each child is progressing.
  • I must be organized.

Oh, is that all?  (And I probably left out a few other important bullets.)  Plus, as an elementary teacher, I need to do these things several times over with each subject area: reading, writing, math, etc.   Okay, so it all sounds a bit overwhelming, but with the right systems in place and the willingness to pursue better methods, I believe I can inch closer to what Boushey and Moser are talking about for every child, for every subject area.  In 21 years someone might ask me, "What's the hardest thing about teaching?" I probably won't be teaching anymore, but for the fun of it, let's say I stick to my tried and true answer.  I'm guessing there will never come a day when one size fits all.

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Beautiful Things

Before the school year began, I had a plan to look for the beautiful in each day.  My cousin Laurie challenged our Sunday school class to be watchful for the beautiful, and immediately I knew I wanted this for my classroom too.  I didn't have all the logistics figured out, but my basic plan was to share three beautiful things with parents on my class website each day.  So on day one of school, I did just that.  I took pictures of three beautiful things from the day, wrote about them, and posted it on my class site.  I have yet to miss a day.  

The majority of the beautiful things I find are somehow linked to their character and the wonderful ways it's displayed toward others.  Sometimes I also find beautiful things related to someone who is applying a skill or strategy that was recently talked about.  It's been so good for me to go through the day with a mindset of looking for beautiful moments like these.  It's been good for the kids too.  I'm able to highlight the positive things they do, which I believe creates a contagious kind of atmosphere.  

It hasn't felt like a chore to update my website on a daily basis.  Instead it's been rewarding to share the beautiful and kind things my students are doing every day.  My website views are much higher this year than last too.  I think I've created a hook for both kids and parents that keeps them looking and wanting more.  

Because I want to make sure everyone in my class is being fairly represented, I keep track on a spreadsheet of who is included every day in my beautiful things.  This also helps heighten my awareness of the quiet, shy ones who can sometimes be overlooked.  

Even before school started I knew I wanted to include the kids in the process of identifying the beautiful.  I just didn't know how.  I didn't want to totally turn it over to them, because I still want to make sure everyone is equally mentioned.  Just this weekend I came up with a solution that I think will work.  Each day, someone new will be in charge of writing down their own three beautiful things from the day.  I'll include their list with my own.  (If you visit my class site, you'll see our first student's list from today, but below is a sneak peek.  He did such a great job.)

I invite you to check out the beautiful things on my website.  Maybe it will inspire you to find your own. 

(Click on the words above to visit the site.)

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Saturday, October 18, 2014

Saturday Sayings: It Takes Guts

My cousin Laurie teaches AP Senior Lit.  If I had a senior, I'd want them in her class.  I say she teaches like a pirate.  Imagine a class full of high schoolers in the midst of a Socratic Seminar discussion.  While the inner circle of students is responsible for conversing out loud, the outer circle has out their phones or other electronic devices.  They're responsible for tweeting about the discussion in the circle.  Yes, you heard that right - phones and Twitter in the classroom.  As we all know, high schoolers are all about phones, devices, and social media.  Can you imagine the buzz amongst her students around the school the day of this lesson?  

Inviting this new venue of engagement into her class is brilliant but took some guts.  Consider those who might not understand or find themselves comfortable with such a bold move.  Understandably, it takes a shift in thinking to go where she's gone with this lesson.  Then there's the question of whether it would all turn out like she had imagined it in her head.  She knew she likely wouldn't get it 100% right the first time.  In spite of all this, I've no doubt having guts paid off.

(Laurie explains her lesson here.  You should definitely read it.  You'll find it enlightening and inspiring regardless of your grade level.  Plus, she shares her sound thoughts about technology in the classroom.)  

I've personally and repeatedly found that it does take guts to be a teacher.  After independently pursuing a passionate topic or reading a professional book, my classroom becomes an experiment to discover how the ideas I pursued could translate into my practice.  I've often designated myself as the guinea pig.  It can get a bit messy and sometimes somewhat scary, yet the pursuit of best practices and the guts to try them on for size has much to do with where I am today.  

And I haven't been intimidated to go it alone if need be.  If my cousin Laurie had waited for others to find themselves mentally and physically ready to integrate Twitter into their lessons, she'd likely never experiment with such innovative techniques.  That doesn't mean she doesn't share and collaborate, but taking risks means she's willing to make the leap even if she's the only one.  

Countless times I've done my own searching for best practices and then threw myself into a possible lion's den regardless of what anyone else was doing.  I don't mean this to sound harsh, but in those moments there's no waiting for others.  Plus, I've never felt comfortable pushing anyone into my own version of a deep end.  My passionate topic or practice might not be theirs, yet.  I do believe it's important to share and collaborate, but I also believe in having the guts to blaze the trail.  Sometimes that's all others need in order to make a similar leap of their own. 

When it comes to our students and what engages them, we might not always get it right the first or even the second time and we might be alone in the experimentation process, but having the guts to try what we feel is best for kids can create a buzz amongst our students that will bring them back for more.  That makes having guts all worthwhile.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Name Game

Patricia Cunningham has exceptional authentic ideas for the classroom, especially concerning phonics.  For several years I've put to use a modified version of her name activity from Phonics They Use.

I call it the name game.  It occurs each day, beginning about day four of school and continues daily until each child's name has had a chance to play.  Here's how it works.

It all starts with a hat.  Each child's name is on an index card inside.

The name that comes out is our name for the day.  I start off with a quick modeled writing as we ask the child four questions.  (Four is simply a quick and easy number.)  While the child learns how to use complete sentences, or as I say, "Use all your words" to answer the questions, I write a short newspaper article about them on chart paper.  What I choose to highlight depends on what I feel needs reinforced: spacing, punctuation, capitals, complete sentences, writing words in a snap, pulling words out of the mouth, etc.  After school, the child's newspaper article goes up the wall.

Then we analyze the person's name:
How many capital letters does it have?
We count the letters.
We spell it and at the same time touch our heads when we say a tall letter, hips for small letters, and toes for descending letters.  (This is a useful connection to handwriting.)
We look for and highlight any chunks.
We clap the syllables.
We rhyme with it.  (I let the child choose three rhymers.  "Good rhymers are good readers.")

Then I grab a larger version of the persons name.  The extra space between each letter allows me to cut between them.

The child uses the megaphone (if they'd like) to lead us in a cheer as I cut each letter.  

As I cut the L, Lawrence says, "Give me an L."  The kids respond, "You got your L.  You got your L."  Lawrence places the L in the pocket chart.  As I cut the a, Lawrence says, "Give me an a."  The kids respond, "You got your a.  You got your a."  He places it in the pocket chart and so on until the whole name as been cut.

While I hum a little tune, I scramble his name and ask if it looks right.  

Then the kids chew up his name and pull his name slowly out of their mouths one sound at a time.  They pull and say /l/.  The child chooses someone from the crowd to come to the pocket chart, find that letter, and place on the pocket underneath.  Then the kids pull again, repeating the first sound and pulling out the next.  The child chooses another child to come up.  We continue doing this until the name looks right once again.

Lastly, the name from the hat goes into this song that we then sing.  I borrowed the song from Dr. Jean.  It's sung to the tune "Hello Ladies."

With 23 kids, this obviously takes me 23 days but I feel like the 15 minutes a day is well worth the time.  There are so many skills that I can teach in a very authentic and meaningful way.

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Saturday, October 11, 2014

Saturday Sayings: Why?

I've been helping my best friend clean the house her family is moving into.  (And how is it homeowners don't know that leaving a disgustingly dirty house to a new owner is completely inconsiderate?)  Anyway, I've been up to my teeth in Mr. Clean.  My friend swears by the product and asked me if I'd ever used it before.  I grew up with Comet.  It's what I'm accustomed to.  I've never entertained the idea of giving up a product I've always used.  

I believe we teachers think or maybe don't think about certain practices like I view Comet.  Sometimes we inherit the practices of those who taught us, those we work with, or the teaching culture as a whole, without asking the right question.  Why?

For example, I almost didn't teach an apple unit this year simply because I stopped to ask myself, "Why?"  Why am I teaching an apple unit?  If it's because first grade teachers across the planet do so, that's not good enough.  Neither is it enough that I've been teaching the unit for years.  I better know why I'm doing everything I do.

One of the common classroom practices that makes me scratch my chin is morning work.  Dare I ask, "Why?"  What is the purpose of morning work?  From what I can tell, it's typically some kind of worksheet or glorified version of one.  I get the sense it might keep the kids busy for a bit and free up the teacher.  Again, "Why?"  What is the teacher doing that requires the kids to be busy?  Attendance?  It takes me less than a minute to take attendance on the computer.  Plus, it gives the kids a chance to communicate with each other.  "Take out a small moment from your pocket and share with your neighbor what you did last night."  Is it about lunch count?  It takes us less than a minute to do this whole group right now.  It's a mini math lesson in the making.   

As much as possible, I'd like my classroom to mirror the real world.  I'll be the first to admit I'm not there yet, but it forces me to think about real-world adult applications.  How would I feel about coming to school every morning and finding some kind of busy work left on my desk by the principal?  I think I might dread that part of the day.  Maybe our kids do too.  Even if they don't, is it the best use of their time?  Let's ask the right question, even if others haven't.  Why?

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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Art For Sale

My school has a small but wonderful PTA who organized a fun Art Night for us this evening.  Each classroom displayed art projects, and we invited parents to drop by and buy their child's art for a donation to the PTA.  Here are just a few pictures of some of the displayed art.  My mustached kids are first. 

The PTA also invited staff members to donate their own artsy or creative creations for a silent auction.  I made these three pieces.

The final numbers aren't in, but it looks like we raised over $1,200.00.  :)

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Saturday, October 4, 2014

Saturday Sayings: Failure or Feedback?

I had one of those moments this week of thinking, "Nope, won't do that again."  I thought I had a creative art lesson on my hands, integrating their names with a Pinterest project I found.  There were simply a few pivotal aspects of the morphed product I envisioned in my head that I hadn't taken into consideration before putting it into the hands of first graders.  It was a classic moment of "This is what it looks like on Pinterest," and "This is what it looks like in real life."  I'm happy to say the kiddos were very much engaged and proud of their finished products though.  They reviewed letters, specifically vowels, as well as syllables.  They learned how to properly use glue bottles too, which is a coveted skill in a first grade teacher's life.  It wasn't a complete waste of time.

Failure viewed as feedback comes my way on a fairly consistent basis, but I know how to give myself a break.  This is one of the gifts I've learned to generously grant myself over the years.  Without it, I would have considered myself a failure years ago.  It's a must-have in the classroom.  

I've heard of the teacher who wouldn't have easily recovered from a lesson like the one I described above.  They would have been so engrossed in frustration that they couldn't reflect on what went well or the changes they might make.  Self-critisism is a tough place to grow from though.  It's paralyzing.  

Instead of stopping me in my tracks, feedback has the potential to propel me towards better practices.  In fact, my students and I are continually benefiting from my failed moments of years gone by.  Those experiences have left a positive stamp on my practice.  Honestly, I can think of a few that do make me cringe, and for a second I'm tempted to stop and hover in the moment, but mostly, I try to embrace the thankful thoughts of knowing I've grown from the feedback.  I'm expecting many more nope-won't-do-that-again moments, but knowing they don't equal failure but instead equal movement forward makes them much more bearable.

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