Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The First Days of First Grade

How exactly do first graders begin the year? After the first day when the goal is to "wow" the students so they want to come back for more, teachers quickly settle into the rituals and routines that will frame their year. The poster to the left is posted outside one of the first grade classrooms to remind the students that when they come to school in the mornings, they are to: 1. Put their snack in the baskets. 2. Put lunch money in a Ziploc with their name on the bag or put their lunch box on the shelf. 3. Put their take-home folder in the slot with their number (which refers to their table number) and finally, 4. Choose a book from the wagon and sit quietly until it is time for school to start.

Just like the early morning, each part of the day has it's own ritual and routine - coming to the carpet as a group, sitting on the carpet during mini-lessons, where and how to sit during independent reading, how to get writing supplies, when to go to the bathroom, how to line up - the list goes on and on, but this attention to the details of the day early in the year will more that pay for itself. When children know exactly what to do and how to do it, they can spend their energy thinking about the deep content as it is presented and teachers do not lose valuable time dealing with behavior.

As the day unfolds teachers begin immediately to keep their schedule as pure as they can. They begin with a Skills Block and then usually move into a Writers' Workshop and Readers' Workshop before lunch. After lunch and recess, teachers return for Math Workshop and Science Workshop along with a daily Resource (PE, Art, Music, Science, Character Education, Media) at the end of the day. To help with the routines, every Workshop has the same format with a mini-lesson, work period, and then a closing.  On the left is an artifact from these early lessons in Readers' Workshop, charting how independent readers look and sound.

After the first two weeks of rituals and routines, the first grade classes at Chets Creek will dive into an Author Study of Mem Fox. This is a favorite study early in the year. This is an Author Study not to be missed!

In these early weeks, it is also the time of year when teachers are assessing their new students. These assessments are interspersed throughout the day during the work sessions of each Workshop. Some of the assessments are done individually such as the running records associated with the DRA2 or in groups and are required by the district. Other assessments, most of which have been developed over time by the teachers in the grade level are also done individually or in groups. Each student in the class to the right has his "office" up so that he can work without distraction on an assessment of antonyms and synonyms written by the first grade teachers. This same assessment will be given at the mid-term and at the end of the year to monitor progress. This will be the benchmark that teachers will use to evaluate their own teaching and to differentiate instruction, using the information to divide the students into small group.

These early days are busy as a new group of first graders learn the workings of their new classroom, but a strong beginning means a happier classroom that assures academic achievement throughout the year. Stay tuned as an exciting new year unfolds.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The First Day of School

Children came with their mothers and fathers, their younger and older brothers and sisters, their grandparents, their aunts and uncles - they came with all their family as live music played in the lobby and families were met by Indiana Jones-type tour guides. They had their pictures taken before they waved good-by to enter their new classroom for the new year. Just like each year, we began the day with a short welcome from the Principal over WCCE, our in-house television station. Next first graders in each classroom practiced the "entering the room" routines - where to put their lunchbox or lunch money, where to put their take-home folder, where to put their backpack and what to do when they were unpacked before the day starts. After practicing, it was off to an assembly.

Each year the children have a "wow" about the theme with the intention of giving them something wonderful to talk to mom and dad about at the end of the day. Parents always ask, "How was your first day?" and we want children to have an excited list of things that they saw and did. This year the students heard Bruce Junek talk about his trip around the world on a bicycle for two years. His breathtaking pictures took us through Hawaii with its breathtaking coasts and volcanoes; Fuji where we saw penguins; New Zealand and beautiful Australia where we saw pictures of kangaroos, koalas, kookaburras, wild parrots, the outback, gorgeous butterflies, drawings by the Aborigines inside caves and a single rock miles high and wide; to the rain forest of Bali and exotic Indonesia; to Java where we saw orangutans, bats, and an albino peacock; to Malaysia and Thailand (have you ever eaten fried grasshoppers?) to the mountaintop of Mt. Everest; to India and Tibet with elephants and rhinos; through the pyramids of Egypt and through Germany, England, and Israel - 14,000 miles in two years. What an amazing way to open our new adventure!

We returned to learn the routines of coming to the carpet as a group, lining up, getting through lunch and outside play. Each child received a themed-shirt for a class picture that will be sent home today and worn school-wide tomorrow. After tomorrow Fridays become spirit days and children are encouraged to wear their themed shirts. A little exploration in Math in the afternoon and before you know it, the day was coming to a close. It really was a WONDERFUL first day. One of our goals is "to make their day" so each child is anxious and excited about returning to school tomorrow! From the smiles leaving the building, I think we succeeded!

Around the World in 180 Days Walkaround

As I walk through the eight first grader classrooms at Chets Creek, I am amazed at how teachers problem solve solutions. For instance, take a look at the way teachers display their book collections - using cubbies built into the classroom, or baskets in box bins on top of shelves, or baskets inside of stacked connecting baskets.

Book bags with themed name tags
While most of the first grade teachers prefer a magazine bin for each child to keep his/her personal collection of books, this teacher has a blue cloth bag for each child. She has added a travel identification tag and will hang the bags on the back of each child's chair so that each child can easily turn in his seat to choose a book to read any time during the day. Another teacher purchased red Target shopping bags for the same purpose!
Book bins

I think teachers realize that supplies need to be accessible to the children as they work, but the question is how to make them accessible without having children up and down, all over the classroom? Teachers have several solutions. Some teachers prefer that the supplies be placed in the center of the table for the children to share. Others prefer that each child have his own supplies. It comes down to the system that works best for you - just like some teachers like tables and some like desk! It doesn't really matter as long as you have a routine for managing the supplies.

One of my favorite clever ideas is that many teachers now write children's names directly onto the table with a permanent marker! Yes, a permanent marker! On our tables, the markers come off with a little rubbing alcohol and elbow grease or you can go over them with an Expo marker and then rub both marker colors off or you can use a Magic Eraser! Know how you hate the name tags that attach to the table and how grungy they become as the year goes along? I've tried other things too such as writing the names on tape (the kids eventually roll the tape off) or covering the colorful name plates over with clear tape, but, over time, the edges roll up and look dirty. Writing names directly on the table really is a perfect solution. However, don't write on YOUR tables until you make sure you can remove the ink!

Each year teachers divide their class into smaller groups, usually children who sit at the same table. Some teachers let each table give themselves a names so you'll have the Sponge Bobs, the Barbies and the Jaguars. This year some of the teachers decided to have each group reflect the year's theme. One class will call each table a different continent. In another class, each table will be a different animal in Australia. Now that's a pretty good way to insert a little content into a daily ritual and routine!

Four of our eight first grade classrooms are co-taught which means they have two teachers. Now how do you seat two teachers for the mini-lessons or how do you have two children in the "Share Chair" or "Author's Chair" to share at the same time? Not to worry. This creative solution makes room for any two-some!

I could go on and on about all the clever and creative things that I saw as I walked through the first grade classrooms but my all-time favorite is "the tree." Although we are a fairly new school (10 years old) we were not really wired for today's technology. When we added Elmos and projectors to use with our computers last year, the only way to get service was to run wires through the ceiling from the wall to the center of the classroom. Ideal would have been mounting everything in the ceiling so we would not have to contend with the cords, but, of course, money was an issue so the cords were dropped from the ceiling. Everything worked, but the cords were an unsightly mess. This year, one creative teacher used that obstacle as an opportunity. She purchased a small child's desk at Big Lots, covered it with grass (even features a pull-out tray for her computer and a place for her to put a chair) and turned the cord drop into a tree that you might see on the Australian coast. The speakers are even disguised as coconuts! Now this get my award as the "Most Creative."
Just give teachers a little problem and a lot of leeway to be creative and innovative and the sky's the limit. This same pioneering and risk-taking attitude goes with them into their classrooms. So... stay tuned... you won't believe what they can do!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Church and State - May They Forever be Intertwined

Early in Chets Creek's history a small group of people began meeting at our school on Sundays. That small congregation, the Church at Chets Creek, grew over the years. As it grew our classrooms became Sunday School classes on Sunday morning and our halls were decorated in the summer with Bible School. I always loved knowing that people were praying in our building on Sunday mornings and often praying for us! They were always so considerate, sending flowers on the first day of school and remembering special events in the school's life. They have volunteered any number of times to move furniture and help prep the building for the first day. They single handily hung every bulletin board in the building. They have donated books so we could have professional book studies and partnered with us to send trucks of needed supplies to New Orleans after the hurricane. After all, we share many of the same families and many of our employees are active members at the church. After several years, the church outgrew our space and built their own sanctuary on adjoining property. Now we share parking lots for crowded events and so much good will. Today in my box at school, as in each faculty members' box, I received a card from the church reminding me that the church would be praying for me throughout this new school year. They also included a gift card to Starbucks! It put a smile on my face and just makes me feel good to be a teacher! Thank you, Church at Chets Creek... and keep praying!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Orientation 2008

This year I will continue to chronicle a group of teachers at a standards-based school. Last year these teachers were in kindergarten. I was an inclusion Special Education Teacher and Literacy coach assigned to kindergarten. This year many of those teachers have "looped" up with their classes. They take their classes with them to the next grade level, allowing them deep and on-going relationships with children and families. I have continued with my class so I have looped with them to first grade. Of the 12 first grade teachers this year, six of them are looping up from kindergarten. The 12 first grade teachers make up eight classes, four of the classes are co-taught with two teachers in a class and four classes are single teachers. This is the group that I will chronicle this year - an amazing group of first grade teachers that I am proud to call my peers and I am proud to call my friends.
Schools don't have to do an Orientation. It does cut into a teacher's planning time, but at Chets Creek we want to get to know our families so that they can partner with us about their child's education from the very first day. So... today each teacher at Chets Creek hosted an Orientation.

Parents were greeted outside the door with sign-up sheets, such as e-mail addresses, home and cell phones, if they wanted to volunteer in the classroom, if they wanted to be a room mom or if they wanted to bring in a Friday Fun Treat for the class on a Friday. Sheets were neatly arranged with pens and pencils available.

The teachers were prepared for many students to bring their school supplies with labeled bins outside their classrooms, since the list went out in the end-of-the-year report cards. Families are not REQUIRED to bring supplies, but with budgets so tight, it is a real help when parents who are able contribute to the supplies needed for the class. It is not unusual to have several parents buy extra where they find a bargain to make up for parents who have difficulty affording the requested items.

The outside of many classrooms includes writing that the students have done back and forth with their teacher over the summer months. Other bulletin boards include a "something good I know about you" statement. Teachers use the statements that are written by last year's teacher at the end of last year to generate these welcoming bulletin boards. Each child has an object with something good about them written to welcome them into their new classroom and to show proudly to their family.
The tables were decorated with information and a little treat bag for each student. Some classes even offered snacks for the children and parents.

The school theme is "Around the World in 180 Days," but each grade level has been given a different continent and first grade will incorporate Aussie themes by beginning the year with an Australian author, Mem Fox. You can see the theme including the Australian Outback and the Great Barrier Reef all through the first grade classrooms.

Classes were packed for today's "meet and greet" as teachers went through the ABC's of First Grade. Does Orientation make a different to the first grade parents at Chets Creek? You bet it does! They are informed. They are ready to participate. They become fans!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Adopt or Adapt: A Relection

Yesterday model classroom teachers from around our large county met for an overview of the county's new Core Reading Series. The county has tried hard to use the Core Series in a way that respects the America's Choice reform that we implemented eight years ago using Readers' and Writers' Workshop. For many years, the county has had schools in all kinds of different designs and programs, so it is trying for the first time in many, many years to truly unify the county. I Don't envy their job.  There is plenty of push back!

As I listened intently I was thrilled that the county has adopted the same three-part format that we have spent so many intensive professional development meetings and demonstration lessons refining with our teachers as they use the Readers' and Writers' Workshop. The new guided reading books and the 500 book library are welcome additions to our depleted classroom libraries.  The county has developed a learning schedule that shows teachers how to use the resources day-by-day and is allowing teachers to customize the lessons with their own unique resources as long as they keep the same content.

The only problem I see is that the county is mandating that everyone in the county be within 10 days of the day on the calendar which means no more than 10 days behind or ahead of the specified learning day. While I understand the mobility rate in the county (students moving from one school to another) is the driving force for unification and consistency, that's the rub. In a school that had 97% of it's students last year working at 3.0 (proficient) or better, it would be educational malpractice to abandon the things that have been working for us in lieu of any new program. Of course, the new program is "research-based" and on the "approved" list for Florida schools but because the county is picking and choosing what to emphasize from the Teachers' Edition, we are not implementing the program with the same fidelity that any original research might have supported. In some ways the program is still "new" and untested. Don't get me wrong. In schools or for teachers that want or need intensive support this program is scripted. For teachers that really like the assurance of knowing exactly what they are going to teach each day, this program provides that kind of support - and does it well - especially with the explicit learning schedules supplied by the county on-line. However, if I walk into my first grade classroom on Monday and pre-test my children to find that 90% of them already know all of their letters and sounds (which will probably be the case), I cannot believe that anyone would suggest that I continue reviewing those letters and sounds for 9 weeks, because of what the Skills Block lessons suggest in the Teachers' Edition or Learning Schedule. Certainly that 10% of students who are not at mastery will continue to get small group instruction, but I would normally continue to move forward with the continuum of skills for the majority of my students - possibly even looking at the activities to challenge children. If children happen to move into our school, who have been at a slower pace, we would assess them immediately and provide small group safety net instruction until they catch up - just like we have been doing for years.

It is certainly our intent to do everything we can to implement the Core Series in a way that makes best use of the resources that we have been provided, to continue rolling out skills in the researched sequence that has been established and to continue to cover at least the scope of skills in each grade level, but I do not think we can in good conscience stay within 10 days of a given directive for the majority of our students if the results in our classroom do not support that pace. This, of course, will continue to be a conversation in our building as we adapt the new series to our present schema. It would be educational suicide to simply adopt any curriculum without deep and meaningful conversation and thought. We have spent eight years teaching our teachers to think deeply and critically, to analyze the data and to use the depth and breadth of their knowledge to prepare the lesson for tomorrow. This new series will, once again, give us cause to reflect on our practice and to improve our understandings.

We applaud the district's sincere attempt to provide what we need in order to teach our children and welcome them into our continuing conversations and discussions. As a district, we are making giant steps forward and we, as a school, are anxious to be a part of that movement. I hope it is going to be a banner year for Duval County!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Teachers Return

Wow! What a great way to begin a new year! All Chets Creek teachers gathered at school today to load three large buses for the Schultz Center for the day. The Schultz Center is our professional development facility that had set up our entrance into a technology tour around the world. We arrived to be greeted by Jeff Utecht from Manilla! Jeff was skyped into the center via the Internet. Wow! Can you imagine? Someone giving an opening keynote from his motel room on the other side of the world! It was just a quick peek into the possibilities. After Jeff wow-ed us, our own Principal, Susan Phillips, took the stage to remind us of our theme, "Around the World in 180 Days" and how the theme would impact our children throughout the year as we delved into technology as a tool for engagement and efficiency. This became real to us as all of the papers that are usually handed out on this first day came to us loaded on a flash drive disguised as a bracelet!

As is our tradition, each grade level then introduced themselves with a skit that, as usual, was irreverent and hilariously funny! Each grade level is assigned one of the continents and first grade has Australia so it was the Australian Idols that took the stage singing songs from the past by Aussie artists such as Olivia Newton-John's "Physical", "The Land Down Under" by Men at Work, and "I am Woman" by Helen Reddy. Judges, "Randi, Simon and Paula" weighed in after each song! I will be laughing at those memories all year!

Lunch was provided (how nice is that!) with a menu consisting of one dish from each of the continents!

Then Dr. Terri Stahlman, our Director of Technology and former Chets Principal, introduced our new professional book study for the year, Web 2.0: New Tools, New Schools by Gwen Solomon and Lynne Schrum. The book parallels the work that we will undertake in our classrooms as we take risks by re-envisioning and enhancing our curriculum.

New teachers were up next. They were invited to the front with a little "This is You Life" information about each "new to Chets" teacher.  Then, as is the tradition, they were asked to perform. They were given 10 minutes to design a flag to represent them as a group and to write and perform a song. As usual, they did not disappoint and reminded us why they had been hired and all that they will add to the diversity and talent of our faculty!

In between each event we played games and won prizes - using the Internet to help! Most of us found out we had better brush up on our geography skills before we begin on this adventure around the world!

Next up was Melanie Holtsman, our Instructional Technologist (a new position for us this year), who explained the opportunities that we would have to send a stuffed bear, "Chet" with any of our traveling students or adults who would then be asked to blog about his adventures. How exciting that would have been last year when one of my students traveled to Hong Kong! I can't even imagine what we will learn from the many travels that Chet will have this year as he travels around the world and we live vicariously through his adventures! The day ended with THE GRAND DRAWING for some wonderful prizes including a flip camera, headphones, an iPod, a web cam, a digital camera and even a Wii! Does it get any better than that?

We boarded the bus back to school with visions of technology dancing in our heads! I can only imagine where we go from here!!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

And so the adventure begins...

School begins on Monday, so in anticipation of the new year, the Leadership Team met today - all day! Principal Susan Phillips chose an "away from school" location so that we would not be interrupted. As we worked we peered out the large windows onto the the peaceful waters of St. Augustine, Florida. We adjourned at lunchtime for a working lunch and then returned to finish up the agenda. So what does a Leadership Team discuss before the first day of a new year? What does a "Planning Meeting" look like?

The agenda included:
Team Development - The Principal presented each member of the Leadership Team with a journal inscribed with a favorite quote (Risk more than others think is safe; Care more than others think is wise; Dream more than others think is practical; and Expect more than others think is possible)and a copy of the book School Leadership That Works by Robert Marzano - a book that was reviewed earlier this summer on this blog. This book comes the closest to describing what we actually do as a Leadership Team and will make good discussion for this group.

Risk - We discussed "the data" at length - which includes our final standings on our state assessment which show a pattern of steady increase over the years! We also talked about our most immediate classroom needs. For instance, with the new reading adoption we now realize that our classroom leveled libraries will not be restocked so Kindergarten and first grade have a desperate need for new book, especially non-fiction books.  We also looked at our training needs which certainly center around technology.

Care - Our faculty roster is as stable as it has ever been. Even our new teachers are experienced or returning! We reviewed the Master Calendar, adding grade level dates, Teacher Meeting days, Early Release days and visitors that we will be hosting (yes, they are already calling!)

Dream - Our dreams will be reflected in our School Improvement Plan which each member will review and edit before the next meeting. Our Professional Development Plan will be during Early Release Days and so we thought through the first day. We identified model classrooms for each grade level and subject area and identified the Leadership Team member that would support each group.

Expect - Pacing Guides for Literacy are in flux because of the county's late posting of reading and writing learning schedules for the new year based on the new reading adoption. We spent much of our time trying to decide if we would go with what is "tried and true" for us - developed with experience and collegiality - or if we would jump into a learning schedule that is meant to shore up our neediest county schools. Looking at the primary level overviews that are available seem to show that if we go with the county's plan we would spend as much as a half year in review of skills that the majority of our students mastered in an earlier year. It's a difficult discussion as we try to be a leader and team player in our county but, at the same time, use our experience and success to guide our final decisions. The bottom line is that we have to do what is best for OUR children - I think we all agree on that! As lessons become available and the county continues to provide guidance, I'm sure these discussions will continue at every level. We also discussed roles of each member of the Leadership Team to make sure that we provide a level of support that assures achievement at every level.

All in all, it was a great day. While each of us have responsibilities to get classrooms ready, we also relish the opportunity to take leadership roles in our school. As teachers return next week, we will be super busy and, I'm sure, super tired, but we will be armed with a map, provided today, of our destination. We can't hope for better directions than that!