Friday, September 26, 2008

Do mini-lessons make a difference?

Sometimes we wonder if the mini-lessons that we teach make any difference. The Mall-ards (Maria Mallon and Cheryl Dillard) actually show the difference that mini-lessons make by showing student work "before a mini-lesson" and then the results "after the mini-lesson."

This first example shows the change one student made after a mini-lesson that included the teacher reading the great beginnings in Mem Fox books that had time, place and orientation. This student was able to improve on his story openings.

Before: When Jack came to my house, we had lots of fun.

After: One Saturday morning it was Jack's birthday. He invited me to his party.

In this next example, the student's writing benefits from a mini-lesson about using a question as an introduction to a story.

Before: In this story the student just jumps into the action of the sotry, beginning the story without an introduction. First we went between the cones. Then some people knocked down the cones...

After: In the piece written after the mini-lesson the student begins the story by engaging the reader with a question. One really hot day, I had a soccer game. Have you had a soccer game before?

In this example the lesson was simply about using the red line of the notebook paper to line up writing on the left side. The mini-lesson on the following day was about rereading and editing a piece by adding and deleting words.

Before: This example clearly shows a student whose writing habitually slides down the page.

After: Not only does the student move his writing over to the red line but also rereads and edits his paper by adding missing words and changing words to make a better choice.

Other examples of mini-lesson that are memorable are the TD's lesson comparing how to build an ice cream sundae the same way that you build a narrative story. As a student told his story to the class, he got a scoop of ice cream for each event, an M&M for each character and sprinkles for details. A little whipped cream came at the end for a good ending to the story. The memory of this mini-lesson is likely to have students licking their lips as they write.

Another memorable mini-lesson was Cathy Daniels teaching children to s-t-r-e-t-c-h their story while staying in the small moment. As the student told her story during the mini-lesson Mrs. Daniels stretched a piece of yarn until she and the student were on opposite sides of the room. Every student wanted a chance to s-t-r-e-t-c-h their story when they went into the work session of the Writers' Workshop!
Do mini-lessons make a difference? Not every mini-lesson makes a difference to every single student, but our thoughtful lessons do make a difference in the way that students write, how they think about their writing and how they reread and edit their work.

Mem Fox, Our Writing Mentor!

One of the most interesting Standard-based Bulletin Boards this month comes from the TDs (Randi Timmons and Cathy Daniels) first grade classroom. The class opened the year with an Author Study of Aussie Mem Fox. As they have been reading Mem’s books, they have been filling in an attribute chart that focused on parts of a narrative story including: Who? (characters) When and Where? (setting), What and Why? (the events) and Fun Language. As the students filled in the attribute chart with each new Mem Fox book they were able to visually see the ways that the books were the same and different, so they were able to “talk across the books of a single author.”

What came next is an interesting twist. The teachers echoed the Readers’ Workshop lesson with writing narrative stories in the Writers’ Workshop (using Lucy Calkins Small Moments: Personal Narrative Writing and Authors as Mentors). After completing Mem’s Attribute Chart, they started a new Attribute Chart in Writers’ Workshop featuring two of the young writers in the class. After each of the kid authors wrote his story during the Workshop, the next day's mini-lesson included filling in the attributes of each child’s story. In this way the children could see that a story by Mem Fox had the same attributes as a story written by one of their peers! Mem had characters. The kid authors had characters. Mem included the setting. The kid authors included the setting...The bulletin board displays the Mem Fox attribute chart and the kid attribute chart with the writing of both young men.

The stories are transcribed below:

When I Went to the Mall One day I went to the mall. We walked a long time. I had a happy time at the mall. I got a dart board. I love my present. You throw the dart at the board. Then it sticks. We ate at the mall. I ate a hamburger. It was yummy with ketchup. My dad had chicken. We started walking. There were a lot of people. My food was good. I loved it. We started to walk away. Then we saw the train. We did not go on the train. The train was red. We looked at the train and the train was going fast. There was a man sleeping in the sand with a butterfly on his nose. There was a croc in the water. There were giant clams and a sting ray. I walked and walked. Then we searched for clothes. We did not buy any clothes. Then we went home. Mom and Dad said, “Isabella and Even, it is time to go.” I was angry that I had to go but I will come back again. Wouldn’t you?

I visited Bacha for 12 days. Bacha lives in Poland. She is an old lady. One day I went to the mountains and touched the clouds. I went in the hanger up the mountains. No wall. No floors. No ceiling. Just chairs! First I got to the top of the mountains. I saw the people small as an ant up on the mountain. I went on the car down the mountain. The car went really high. One car goes up and one car goes down. I like Poland so much. I go on 3 airplanes to get back to Jacksonville. I want to go again!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Mem Fox Vocabulary

Standard-based bulletin boards are up this week and Meredy Mackiewicz showed the work her class has been doing with the America's Choice Mem Fox Vocabulary Study.

From Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge the students worked on the words admire, precious, errand, memory, favorite, and speckled. One of the culminating activities for this group of words was to give each child one of the words and ask them to use the word in a sentence and then draw a picture of the sentence on the back of the paper. The sentence/ pictures for each word were grouped together and hung as mobiles in the room. In the bulletin board example the child wrote the sentence, I saw a speckled fish with dots.

In Possum Magic the children studied adventure, nibble, invisible, visible, expectantly, and miserable. Each student was given one of the words and asked to write examples in their Australian shaped word web. In the bulletin board example the student showed understanding of the word adventure by listing haunted house, climbing a mountain, going on a boat, and going on a roller coaster! Great adventures!

From Tough Borris, the first graders learned stern, scruffy, massive, fearless, sorrow and greedy. Each child was given a word and then asked to complete a word web of words that meant the same. On the example shown, the word was massive. The student showed she understood the word by adding big, heavy, large, enormous, jumbo size and 10,000 pounds to his web.

Koala Lou featured the words fling, spectator, preparations, exuberant, determined, and splendid. The photos show the children acting out the words.

As you can see, the children have studied sophisticated words through their study of Mem Fox books. The activities shown are the culminating activities to show that the children understand the vocabulary and how they were used in Mem Fox's books. The real understanding of course, will be if the students understand the words as they hear them in other books or in conversation and if they use the words in their writing.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Reading with Intention

When I read Debbie Miller's Reading with Meaning in 2002, I couldn't wait to take it to school and show it to my colleagues. She took Ellin Keene's landmark work in Mosaic of Thought to a level that even I could understand. Debbie was a practicing first grade teacher, grappling with the same children and questions that I was. She understood my children. The book quickly became a grade level book study... and changed our practice forever. One of the things that we really loved was the way that she took reading strategies and spent time with each one. She didn't flit from one to another every day but spent weeks really teaching students to understand how to use the strategy in their own reading. We adopted her outline for the year and have loved the depth of her lessons (activating prior knowledge, drawing inferences, asking questions, determining importance, summarizing and synthesizing, monitoring, and creating visual images). Reading with Meaning became the first grade bible for our reading instruction.

When I heard the Debbie had a new book, Teaching with Intention, I was on the list to get the book long before it was released. When the book finally arrived, I took it out that very day and began reading. It was like catching up with an old friend! When she talked about "thoughtful, reflective, strategic teachers," I thought, "Exactly! That's what we have been trying to become!"
In this book, Debbie does not remind us of the specific strategies and yearlong lessons that she has already put forth in Reading with Meaning. Instead, she asks us to align our belief system to what we really do in our classroom. If someone walked into my room one afternoon after the children has gone, would they know that I believe that a literate classroom has to be organized, purposeful, accessible and above all, authentic? Would they be able to see the gradual release of responsibility in the way that I use read-alouds, shared reading, guided reading and independent reading? Could they find artifacts of each easily around the classroom? Would they see my notebook of formative, on-going assessment that includes running records, conferring and anecdotal notes along with teacher-made and more formal assessments and then see how that information is being used to design lessons in my classroom? Would they find the joy that the children and I share each day? This type of practice cannot come out of a Teacher's Guide filled with teaching tips, but must be based on an alignment of beliefs. As Debbie says, "it's hard to imagine the circumstances where prepackaged programs and scripts teach children better than I do." . Debbie reminded me to relax, slow down and be present in the moment.

Finally, in this test-obsessed environment Debbie reminds me to trust myself - to not lose sight of my intentions while I am trying to fit everything in. She reminds me to teach deeply and well and to "nix the juggling act." This book was like having a cup a coffee with my favorite teacher friend and leaving our conversation with a smile on my face!