Friday, December 28, 2007

Writers as Writing Teachers

I have always thought that teachers who were writers would make better writing teachers. As writers teachers would understand the difference between writing to a prompt - something that they had to think about on the spot - and writing from their heart about something they feel or remember or know lots about. As writers they would know, as author Jodi Picoult says, that you can edit something that is bad, but you can't edit a blank page. As writers, they would understand that if you just get started, the words do begin to flow. As writers, they would understand the sheer joy in editing something and making it sound like music. The problem has always been how to get teachers to write, if they were not already writers. As a literacy coach, I've done all the normal things, like giving teachers journals, or reading something that I knew would emit emotion and then having them write their responses or having them respond in a journal to a question and then asking them to read their response to a partner and sharing so that they would understand how it felt to their students. Teachers that already enjoyed writing loved these sessions and were usually proud of what they could write on the spur of the moment. Teachers who didn't really write hated them. Oh sure, sometimes they surprised themselves and wrote something that they liked, but mostly they just dreaded the professional development days when they were required to write. I never really turned a non-writer into a writer with those well-thought out professional development sessions...

Finally, I think I have found the vehicle that makes teachers really WANT to be writers, a way for them to get feedback, and a way for them to write for a real audience - blogging! Take Maria Mallon, for example. Maria is an exceptional Kindergarten teacher in every way. This year she decided to blog and she writes an entry several times a week - usually a single picture and an explanation of why the activity is important or the fun the children had. It's an on-line journal of the community life in her classroom. Her kids read it every day. Her kids' parents read it every day. The kids' extended families all over the world read it every day. Her peers read it every day. I read it every day! I can't wait to see what's going on in Maria's room. It's a benchmark for me to make sure I'm moving along with her. Of course, I drop by her room all the time, but the blog entries tell me even more - things I might not have seen when I drop in. But more than that, Maria's own writing gets better and better. She may have already been a good writer before she started blogging, but now she knows she has a limited space to get an important message across. Her entries are thoughtful and entertaining. They teach. Through blogging she has really found her voice. Over this holiday break she wrote our Florida Congressmen because there has been talk of eliminating National Board money, and she believes going through the National Board process made her a better teacher. Would she have written that letter if she had not had so much success with writing on her blog? Would she have had the same confidence? I don't know, but I know that as I read her letter, I could clearly hear her remarkable voice. She is doing all that I would ever hope that a writing teacher would do - she writes. Blogging may not be for every teacher but it certainly is a way for teachers of writing to enter the international conversation...

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Literate Kindergarten

Have you ever read that a new book is coming out and you just can't wait to read it? That's the way I felt when I read the quote below about The Literate Kindergarten by Susan L. Kempton.

"This very important book reaffirms the beauty and uniqueness of children’s developing minds and the power that is unleashed when their imaginations are nurtured. —Susan Zimmermann

If Susan Zimmermann - one of the coauthors of Mosaic of Thought -recommended this book, then it just had to be something special - a way to take the Mosaic comprehension strategies into kindergarten. WOW! I just couldn't wait. I ordered the book even before it was published! When it came in the mail I opened it excitedly and started reading it that very night. I was so-o-o-o disappointed. As she opened talking about the importance of song and language, I saw lots of familiar rituals and routines, but nothing really new or profound. Then as she went into keeping play alive and described ways to put writing into Blocks and turning Housekeeping into a Pizza Restaurant, I was reminded of a book I wrote twelve years ago. Her ideas of centers contained so many of the things that I had put into my Pre-K class years ago. I felt like I had come so far from those days when I was satisfied if a child could write a single phonetic sentence as they left Kindergarten. I was now teaching four genres of writing and teaching children comprehension strategies. Was Susan Kempton really suggesting that I take ten steps backwards? And why was anyone promoting this book? I put the book down...

As I have been reprioritizing the stack of books by my bedside over the holiday, I decided to finish the book. If I were going to say that I didn't like this book, then I needed to at least finish reading it. Beginning with Chapter 6: Write to Read, I began to see the structure of mini-lesson/ work period/ share that is familiar to me now. I saw children's writing that looked like what I am seeing in my own classroom. My engagement with this book began to change. I found ideas that I loved and could use, such as the ones below:
  • Make a word card for each child for the writing folder of sight words from the DRA 2. When the child identifies the word, punch a hole beside the word on the card and hold the child responsible for spelling it correctly. How easy is that!

  • Four strategies from Mosaic of Thought can be taught in kindergarten - activating schema, creating mental images, questioning, and inferring... and why... and how. (Loved this!)

  • Dr. Seuss's ABC book can be sung to the tune of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." The strategy that she explains with this book is one that I will be trying as we return from the Winter holiday with that very small group of my students who still don't have the letters and sounds. 

  • I loved her explanation of the difference between steady beat and rhythm and how they relate to reading. I guess I knew this at some level but her explanation made it so clear.

  • When lining up use snapping and counting backwards as a calming segue. Great technique that actually reinforces a math skill.
So, now that I have finished the book, I guess I can say that it was really worth reading. I think the beginning that was a turn-off for me was really just a reminder that these are 5 year olds. Most of the children that come to me have had good, strong pre-kindergarten experiences. Some even come in knowing their letters and sounds and how to write their names, but for those other students who do not have the opportunity of a rich literacy background, Susan Kempton's words are a warning- do not skimp on the foundation. As I reflect on that, I have been thinking about ways to build working with play dough, cutting with scissors, and building with leggos for those students that do seem to still need more fine motor development or ways to build reading and writing into our afternoon "choice" centers...

The holiday break really gives us time to think about our students and to reflect on our practice. Professional reading stimulates those thoughts. Thank you, Susan Kempton, for helping me think about my teaching...

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Just for Fun!

Early in the school year Deb Cothern and Michelle Ellis suggested that we start two "Tinkerbell" books. The idea was that there is so much we want to know from each other, but we don't always take the time to ask, so... They suggested that we start the books by asking a question of a colleague. Each week, the colleague would answer the question in the book and then would pass the book with a new question to a different colleague. Along with being "Tinkerbell-ed" and given the book (which is called "Pixie Pointers") to write an answer to the question you were asked, the person answering the question also wears a silver Tinkerbell necklace for the week (the guys really loved this part!!) We are now half way through the year and each book is full of advice and suggestions. The only problem is that the rest of the faculty doesn't get a chance to read the questions and answers each week so this week we have introduced all of the questions and answers in a new blog that we will update each week of the new year. Take a peek and see what is on the minds of Chets Creek Imagineers!

Just for fun and enjoyment, take a look at the Principal's blog this week which is a weekly message to the faculty where she "elfed herself!" You'll love it! Happy, happy holidays!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Happy Holidays

As we close 2007 and look toward the holidays, Kindergarten classes are filled with all the trappings of holiday cheer.

One of my new favorite holiday activities this year was found in Cheryl Dillard's classroom. On the last 12 days before the holiday, she hangs a holiday bag for each child with his/her name on it. If the child has a "white" day (which means they don't loose any clips for poor choices) then she adds a small treat to the bag (a piece of candy such as a candy Kiss or miniature candy cane, a small trinket such as a rubber ball, holiday sticker, etc). On the last day each child gets to take home their holiday treat bag!

Finally, school is out for 2007. Children are sent home with visions of sugerplums dancing in the head and teachers are home for a rest! Of course, it is also a time of reflection and planning for the new year... 2008 - here we come!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

"All About..." Reports

Kindergartners at Chets Creek have been writing nonfiction pieces for the last month. Some of the classes started with Procedural pieces (also called Instructions or "How to...") and some with Informational pieces or Reports. When introducing Informational non-fiction most of the classes start with a report on something that the children know lots about - themelves. They write "All About Me" Reports. As these reports are finished the children then choose something that they know a lot about to write a report. Some write "All About Tee-Ball or Soccer or Ballet." Others write "All About My Pet Dog or My Best Friend or My Family." Below is one such report on the "Inuits," one of the tribes that was studied during the Kindergartners units about Native Americans. Notice the rich vocabulary that was learned during this unit. Most of the reports follow this same format with a Title, Table of Contents, 3-5 "Chapters," and then some closing such as "fun facts," or a simple closing statement or even a "how to..." tucked in.

All About Inuits

Table of Contents

Inuits Look Like.........1

Where Inuits Live......2

What Inuits Do...........3

Inuits Look Like P. 1

They have mukluks.
They have snow goggles.
They have parkas.
They had clothes.

Where Inuits Live P. 2

Inuit igloos are made out of ice.
The Artic is where they live.
Snow falls.
Snow is on the ground.

What Inuits Do P. 3

Inuits fish.
They ride on umiaks
They throw harpoons.
They hunt for animals.

Fun Facts

They hunt for food.
They have harpoons.
They play games.
They live in igloos.
They hunt for animals.

This report is a good example of a kindergartner reporting information on a particular topic. It meets the kindergarten standard for Reports. It begins by naming the topic (Inuits) in the title. It includes an organizational structure with a Table of Contents and then writing for each of the three "chapters" (What Inuits wear, Where they live, and What they do) related to the Chapter Titles and a closing of Fun Facts. The report includes facts and specific information with content appropriate vocabulary. It maintains a focus and stays on topic without any extraneous information. The writing is accompanied by illustrations that even include labels. The author closes the paper with "fun facts" that include most of the information that has been previously stated.

This report also meets the Language and Conventions Standard for Kindergarten. The author uses a variety of sentences. The vocabulary is outstanding and demonstrates much of the vocabulary that was presented during this unit. Many of these words with pictures were available on a Word Wall for this unit. The author also spells many sight words correctly. Other words are spelled phonetically. The piece demonstrates beginning knowledge of spacing. It also demonstrates directionality and is readable by adults.

Shared Reading

Today the Schultz Center's Literacy 101 visited Randi Timmons and Elizabeth Conte's classroom. Now I have to admit that it's pretty brave to invite a classroom of teachers into your class the week before you have Winter Break (with visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads!) but the Timmonte Team did just that and showed just why they have such an outstanding reputation. Randi and Elizabeth invited their children to perform several of the shared readings they have been practicing this week for the teachers who dropped in through live video stream.

The first was a song, He'll be Drivin' 8 Big Reindeer sung to the tune of She'll be Comin' 'Round the Mountain.  Songs are a wonderful way of having kindergartners learn to match the words they say to the words they see, to learn that text runs left to right and top to bottom, or to learn where to start reading a piece of text.

The next was a holiday poem that stressed color words. This poem was introduced to teach the students to use intonation with punctuation which is a part of fluency. We comprehend text better when we use intonation with punctuation so we know how the author intended for the text to sound. Randi and Elizabeth used "echo reading" (I read a line, then you read a line) to teach the poem, but will move to choral reading (we all read together) and then to students reading parts as the week continues.

The final piece was a story that the students wrote as a language experience together with the teachers. The purpose of this piece of interactive writing was to encourage the students to use the vocabulary words that they have been learning as part of their Vocabulary Unit  in their writing. This too was taught by "echo" reading to provide the most support since the text is challenging reading for most of the kindergartners.

After the shared reading, Randi and Elizabeth joined Haley Alvarado and Meredy Mackiewicz who were teaching at the Schultz Center today for a debrief via live video stream. The Timmonte Team shared other poems, songs, a morning message, a class promise, big books, and chants that they have used and will be using when they return from the holiday. Shared reading can be used for Readers' or Writers' mini-lessons, Skills Block or to teach and reinforce content in Science and Social Studies. The only requirement is that you enlarge a piece of text so that all the students can see it together. This is a differentiated technique as it allows your highest readers to actually read the text but provides support for your most challenged readers to read along. 

Thursday, December 6, 2007

December Book of the Month 2007

Yesterday, the Principal presented this month's Book of the Month. Each month the Principal selects a book and then teaches the faculty something new. Why is this important? Because it sets the Principal up as the Instructional Leader of the school. Of course, it also means that she has to have something new to present to this high-performing and diverse faculty, but as the Instructional Leader, she embraces that challenge each month! This month she introduced the very touching book, Great Joy, a new holiday picture book by Kate DiCamillo. The gorgeous pictures are drawn by Bagram Ibatoulline. The strategy that she taught the faculty was the use of digital storytelling by sharing a voice thread.

Not only will each teacher have this voice thread to present to her class in the Principal's voice, but so will families, as the voice thread goes on the web site. It becomes a communication tool for all of our stake holders so that they begin to understand some of our instructional emphasis. The other thing that it does is present something new and interesting to the faculty to lift the level of our work. Before the day was over, at least one teacher had two of her students prepare voice threads to stories they had written and had sent it on to the principal. The school is a-buzz with ideas of how this new piece of technology can be used in instruction. I have thought of a number of ways it can be used with kindergartners... so just stay tuned...

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Kindergarten PLC, 2007

This is the second Kindergarten WOW day of this year, a day where the Resource teachers take the entire grade level of children so that the Kindergarten teachers can get away for a full day of Professional Development. The day began with a demonstration lesson by Haley Alvarado. Haley demonstrated our first Social Studies lesson! While we have had many demonstrations of Writers' Workshop, Readers' Workshop, Skills Block, Science and Math over the years, we have never concentrated on Social Studies.

Haley's lesson began with a review of the chart that the students had made the day before as they had studied "Families." After she reviewed and connected today's lesson with the work the class had been doing together, she explained to the students how to make a family "glyph." After demonstrating the project and checking for comprehension, the children were assigned partners. Each child had to interview his partner and draw a glyph of the partner's family. This twist on the activity provided for practice in speaking and listening.

1.Draw a window for each brother or sister that you have. If you do not have any brothers or sisters, do not draw any windows.
2.If you live with your mom and dad, draw a red door. If you live with just your mom, draw a blue door or just your dad, draw a green door.
3.If your whole family lives in Jacksonville, draw a tree right next to your house. If anyone in your family lives in another state, draw a tree far away from your house.
4.If your family speaks another language, write a 2 on the front door. If your family speaks English only, write a 1 on the front door.

Maria Mallon jumps right in and works with a small group.
As the children dispersed to work on their glyphs, Kindergarten teachers joined the children at their tables to discuss the project with them. As children finished, partners were invited to use the document camera to display and explain their work to the class. At this point Haley helped the class interpret the data of each partnership. "Now if John has the number 2 on his door, what does that mean?" "It means that his family speaks two languages." "That's right, because we know that John's family speaks English and Spanish."

Students explain their work to the group
After the lesson, children joined their Resource while teachers joined together in the Conference Room to debrief the lesson. Teachers discussed many of the things they noticed and liked about Haley's lessons ("warm" comments) and there were MANY things to rave about. Then they moved to "cool" comments where they asked questions, got clarifications and discussed wonderings. One of the many things that the teachers discussed was just how you find time in such a crowded day for Social Studies. The consensus was that you have to be intentional about the lessons that you teach and you slip the Social Studies content into Readers', Writers' and Math - sometimes substituting a Social Studies lesson and sometimes just wrapping the content into the Workshop standards.

After the lesson, Kindergarten teachers organized their Pow Wow notebooks with a conversation around professional behavior and responsibility.

The teacher did a "board walk." Each teacher reviewed a bulletin board of another teacher with a partner and brought their compliments and questions to the table. The consensus was that we appreciate the opportunity to take risks with our bulletin boards, because we believe that being valued as risk-takers has moved our work forward.

Finally teachers brought procedural student work to the table. Using the Instructions Rubric, they divided into partners to discuss and score the work.

All in all, it was a very productive day including lunch off the school grounds - a little time for fellowship! This is a talented, focused group of teachers who knows no limits!

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Leadership Begins at the Top

Leadership really starts at the top and at Chets Creek "leadership" means the diversified Leadership "Dream" Team. Made up of thirteen members representing every grade and discipline and chosen for their ability to lead, this group meets weekly. Today the Team left school to meet in the home of one of its members. Not only is it fun and festive to get away but it keeps interruptions to a minimum. The Principal treated the Team to a catered lunch and gave each member a new web cam as a holiday surprise to encourage them in their pursuits of podcasting, videoconferencing, etc.

The meeting began with a personality inventory to find out we are made up of equal parts buffaloes and eagles, with a couple of mice and a single beaver. We have done different types of personality profiles in the past but we have some new members and it helps us to understand each other and to celebrate our talents and diversity when we discuss our differing styles. Be are better as a group because of the individual styles that we bring to the table. The afternoon also included a hefty agenda of tying up loose ends as the year begins to come to a close.

Why is all this important? Because the caring, the fun, and the rigor of the agenda are all models for the way each coach will conduct her/his own Teacher Meetings. It feels professional. There is a feeling of group cohesiveness and accountability. You just can't imagine letting the Team down. This is the foundation for our culture that frees us to be all that we can be, that encourages us to expand creative thoughts and to try new things, and that puts a smile on our face as we walk into the building every day! It is this environment that is the greatest of holiday gifts! It doesn't get any better than this!