Tuesday, December 29, 2009


If you're like me, you have been run over by information, and misinformation, about RtI - Response to Intervention. It seems I have been mucking around in all the little pieces - which seem overwhelming - and what I really need is to understand the big picture and to understand why this is a good thing. I understand, of course, there is a financial, political side to RtI which I really don't want to know about, but what I do need to understand - and believe - is how this is going to be better for children. If I am going to make all these thousands of graphs to prove what I am doing, then I want to know that it is really going to make a difference for my struggling readers and is not just jumping through a bunch of hoops that do no more than satisfy a bureaucracy.

In an effort to get the big picture I am reading Richard Allington's What Really Matters in Response to Intervention. I actually heard Allington when he was President at IRA give a keynote - in fact he talked about some of the same issues he discusses in this book - and he is someone that I really respect. I picked this particular book because of that respect and the belief that he could cut through all the goobly gook and give me the nitty gritty. I am not disappointed.

Allington suggests, for instance, that Kindergarten is the perfect place to start with interventions and that it is the kindergarten teacher that is the first line of defense. She should have daily small group focused lessons in her plan for those two or three lowest-performing children in her class. It is our job to provide our teachers with the professional development that they need to identify and teach these students to close the gap right there. This small group of students will be seen every day while students who have better developed skills and need less teacher-directed time will be seen less often. Research shows no negative impacts on assigning those student with better skills more student-directed work.

Up until this point I am jumping up and down because this is exactly the situation at Chets Creek. We do expect the kindergarten teacher to provide the interventions in a small group daily. However, it is the next part that frustrates me. In the best situation this very small group of students will be getting a second literacy period each day, which means after and before school interventions. Most of our struggling readers do get a second period of reading instruction in a small group BUT - and it is a big but - this is done by a paraprofessional and sometimes is during the literacy block to make the best use of the para's time. We don't have money for before and after school unless the child's parents are able to pay for Extended Day. Even though - in our very large school of 1200 students, we have almost 300 students considered at-risk - a small school of students within our large school - we don't qualify for that type of help. That will be my challenge for the new year...

Allington discusses the research on intervention and identifies principles that accelerate reading development:
  • Make sure that struggling readers have books that they can read all day long. Sounds so simple but Allington makes a very convincing argument for text books - one size fits all - being inaccessible to most struggling readers. He suggests that students need to spend most of their time reading books that they can read with 99% accuracy! He calls this high-success reading.
  • Practice makes perfect. Allington explains quite eloquently why students need to practice reading and going back to the first point, reminds us that students can't practice if they can't read the text. He calls this reading volume. In a 30-minute researched intervention design he explains that 20 minutes should be reading appropriate text, 5 minutes of word work and 5 minutes of comprehension and skills. He discusses how to design appropriate interventions which really goes back to having the quantity and quality books that students enjoy including a non-fiction library that matches the standards in Science and Social Studies. We have worked so hard on this at Chets Creek, but it's still not enough. We have a long way to go to make this a reality!
  • Group size for interventions should be no larger than 3! Yikes! He even suggest that if a child in a group of 3 is not developing satisfactorily that he be moved to a 1-on-1. Yikes!
  • Intervention must be coordinated with core classroom instruction. I have always felt that if a child was not learning in the core program then the intervention should be a different approach, but Allington says that this is confusing to the child and the intervention must instead reinforce the core - be coordinated with the core. This is one I will have to think about some more... Getting the type of coordination that he is talking about is difficult. It is difficult for the general education teacher and the interventionist to find the time to plan that type of intervention with real daily coordination, especially when he does not believe that standard protocol design -a specified box program - is the best. Instead he would suggest a responsive intervention design that is designed specifically for the child and reinforces what the child needs from the core classroom instruction each day. While this sounds ideal, the reality is most difficult.
  • Intervention should be delivered by an expert teacher. This seems so obvious. The best teachers have the largest toolboxes and when a lesson isn't producing the targeted results, they simply reach back into their toolbox and know how to present it in a different way. These teachers have flexibility because they are able to adapt their lessons to the needs of their students on the fly. At Chets Creek we have turned our teachers away from commercial programs and asked them to look instead at their students and their data and a pacing guide of the scope and sequence of the grade level expectations to teach tomorrow's lesson. I think we are preparing them to teach with this type of flexibility. It's so much harder and so much more time consuming than just teaching the next page of the teacher's manual, but Allington's research certainly confirms what we are seeing in our teachers. The effort does create teachers with a larger toolbox. Effective teachers improve their performance every year while less effective teachers achieve their best results after 5 years and nothing after that!
  • Focus instruction on meta-cognition and meaning. As I was reading this chapter and Allington was identifying sub-groups of children, I am jumping up and saying, "Yes, I have that group and that group and that group!" In one study of 4th graders 20% of the strugglers could word call but with no understanding. Another 20% had problems with decoding but could comprehend. Other clusters were slow steady readers who comprehended but read so slowly. Another cluster were deliberate, slow decoders who maintained comprehension, and a very small cluster who were low on everything. All of these describe MY kids!! According to Allington only a very few of these need intervention with an emphasis in decoding but instead could use lessons focused around getting the meaning (summarization, graphic organizers, question generating/ answering, prior knowledge/ predicting, and visualization) and lessons around mega-cognition which basically is knowing if the text you are reading is making sense as you read it (slowing down, pausing, looking back, reading aloud, strategies for figuring out unknown words, skipping a word and rereading).
  • Use text that are interesting to students. If we want struggling readers to accelerate their reading then they have to read. What better way to get them to read than to surround them with books about topics that they have an interest in or even an expertise. Seems so obvious but how often do teachers ask struggling readers what they would like to read about and then go out and find appropriate texts?
There is so much in this book that I find compelling. The back even has a guide to use as a book study and I hope that we will do that at Chets Creek. I want to reread this book and talk about its contents with my Leadership team, with my ESE peers and with my grade level teachers. I want to identify what we are doing right according to the research and how we can do things differently. I want to argue with some of Allington's finding and get a deeper understanding through conversations with my peers. This book has a lot to say - this book can make a difference.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Kindergarten "Parties"

Kindergarten classrooms look a lot like Santa's little workshop this time of year. Most classes host a holiday "party" which is really a morning of special holiday centers. The teacher chooses 4-6 centers and many parents join the fun to help out. It really is a special morning, with holiday music in the air, lots of laughter, and lots of FUN!

These last few days also include lots of holiday crafts. Some of them are so meaningful. One of the most popular is the snowmen keepsake that is made as a child wraps his white painted hand around a blue ball (left) and then snowmen details are added after the paint is dry. Or the cute little reindeer made from the kindergartner's fingerprint on a silver ball. These special ornaments will adorn trees all over our attendance area this holiday season and then will be such special reminders of that special kindergarten year for so many years to come. Each year as the family takes out the ornaments they will reminisce about this first special school year!

There are always cards and snowmen and Christmas trees to make and, of course, cookies to decorate and toy trains to make from candy. Each class works on their own designs, but the message is the same. This is such a special time of year - a time of joy!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

It Takes a Village!

Chets Creek is made up of about 1200 students in grades K-5. Like many schools, our population is very diverse. Over 21 languages are spoken in our homes and our second language population continues to grow every year. Our free and reduced breakfast and lunch percentage also continues to creep up each year and currently is around 22%. That means that we have almost as many students on free and reduced breakfast and lunch (250+) as some of our urban schools! While our school is very close to a gated country club, our attendance area also includes a mobile home community of almost a 1000 homes.

Over the years, like most schools, as we have combed through our data, we have looked at many factors such as our Special Education and safety net services, Level 1-2 FCAT students, discipline referrals, free and reduced lunch, second language learners, and many of the other indicators that might be factored into our academic achievement. Because a third of our children as nestled together in that one mobile home community, that area often pops out as an area that includes many of our at-risk kids. Don't get me wrong. There are also many wonderful, hard-working families in that community - many retirees also live there. We have hard working PTA moms from that community and some of our school employees come from that same area, but when you have so many homes in a single area and the economy takes a plunge and times become so tight, it is not surprising that that area would continue to be singled out as a place where some of our neediest students reside.

As a Leadership Team we have often dreamed about on-site tutoring or summer camps or other services that we might give to this under served community in a meaningful way but because we do not qualify for some of the extra monies that are available to schools with majority poverty, we have never done more than dream and talk about it. This year, however, the Leadership Team decided to go over to the Community Center and talk to the resident manager about what he felt the needs in the community might be and how we, as educators, could have the families see us as active members of their community. We want our families to know that we really do care about them and we are willing to be there as neighbors. That's what this is really all about- turning to our neighbors next door and being there when there is a need in a meaningful way - showing our love in real, substantial ways.

At the same time that the Leadership Team was planning on loading up in a van to visit the community, Beach United Methodist Church, one of churches attended by many of our faculty, did a series of sermons about service. They declared Saturday, December 12 as an official day of service for its members. The idea was that each member would seek out a way to be of service to their neighbors on that specific day. Liz Duncan, both a member of BUMC and a Special Education teacher at Chets Creek who handles much of the discipline at school, stepped up to organize an event at our mobile home community on the specified day. The idea snowballed and even as it drizzled rain today, crews were all over the area offering a helping hand.
Bags of groceries were at the
Community Center for the taking and
some were even delivered

Volunteers circled in prayer
on this rainy Saturday of service
Bundles of baby blankets and clothes
Delivering groceries
Food offerings

Crews went out to decorate common areas with tinsel and ribbon and others pressured washed homes that were in violation of the community's ordinances. Teachers and teens along with small church groups went into homes stapling plastic to cover windows as the colder weather begins to fall upon us, leaving groceries and blankets at each stop. All of our faculty that are second language speakers themselves went to translate for second language families. Our Principal sat on the phone calling families from our school and reminding them to stop by the Community Center for the party activities and snacks but also to pick up anything they wanted. Teachers made holiday ornaments with the children and helped them decorate holiday cookies at the Center. Santa was there for pictures or just to chat. Bags and bags of groceries were given away along with blankets, clothes and toys. Families were encouraged to take anything they wanted.

It is our hope that this day will be just the beginning of a real relationship with this community. Wouldn't it be nice if this relationship made a difference in the academic achievement of the children that we serve? Sure, it would... but today was about getting to know each other better - letting our families know that helping means more than offering a few hours of tutoring at school - it was about showing our families, and ourselves, that we are really ready to walk the talk.

People often ask me what makes Chets Creek different than other schools. Today is what makes it different. I work with people who say they care and then turn that into action. I work with people who believe they can make a difference and then do something about it. I work with people who see teaching as their life's work and then make that real in their daily life. May every day this holiday season be a living testimony to our beliefs...

Update: We could never have known it at the time, but this day was the beginning of the school's commitment that led to opening the ARC (which was a tutoring center in the community) which led to the MARC when the Mckenzie Wilson Foundation decided to lend the name of their beautiful daughter and their resources to this community.  This was the beginning of a dream that became a reality.

Friday, December 11, 2009

It's a Holiday Present!

From the "Mall-ards" comes this delightful repost of their holiday art and writing activity. What an excellent idea to take an art project and combine it with writing. Our little ones are so excited as the days tick away and have so much to share about the holidays!

In this activity the children began with an art project of making four different sized wrapped boxes and then were asked to write about what might be inside!

Josey wrote:
"On Christmas, I would give the blue box gift to Chase. It would be a spy tank. The green box gift would be for Lily. It would be a rose. The red box would be for Lexie. It would be a crown. The yellow box would be for Lauren. It would be a new puppy."
Jack wrote:
"On Christmas, the big blue present is for Chatfield and it is going to be a Hess plane and a Hess train. The little green box is for Emmy's stuff - and a My Little Pony house. The yellow present is for my dad. My dad's present is a new Lo book. The red present is for my (mom) Coach Hall - a new pair of earrings."
Madison wrote:
"On Christmas, the red gift would be for Megan. The green gift is for my dogs, In the box was balls. The yellow box is for the Humane Society. The blue box is for Miss Karen."

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Differentiated Professional Development

One of the professional development sessions that won rave reviews last year was one of our technology afternoons when we offered eight different technology sessions and invited teachers to sign up for the session that peaked their interest. Each session was run by a teacher at Chets Creek that was using the technology. Once again this year we offered seven new sessions this afternoon: Making graphs from an Excel spreadsheet; Using igoogle and Google calendar; Voicethread; Review of Geeks from the Creek; imovie and Photobooth; windows Movie Maker and Classroom wikis.

I attended the session for making graphs from an Excel spreadsheet with Tracy and Tom Ruark (2nd ELA and fifth grade Math/ Science teachers). This is of interest to me because, as a special education teacher, I often have to present behavioral and academic data in graph form to the Target Team (our intervention team) or to parents or to behavior specialists. I usually spend hours doing this by hand. Today I figured out how I can take much of the data directly on the computer while it is happening and then automatically turn it into a graph! What a time saver. This is something I've always wanted to learn how to do, but just haven't found the time to stop and figure out. Today was the day! Like most learners, I really enjoy getting to choose what I want to learn! What a fun afternoon... and how time flies when you are engaged!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Santa Claustophobia: Fun Theory for Book of the Month December 2009

Today's December Book-of-the-month was Santa Claustophobia by Mike Reiss (the "Simpsons" writer) and David Catrow. It's a funny, irreverent story in rhyme. Principal Susan Phillips was in rare form this morning, giddy with holiday cheer, but all for a good reason. The message today was about putting the fun back into the classroom. She stood on the theory that behavior is easiest changed when it involves fun! For more information on this month's book-of-the-month, keep an eye on the Chets Creek Book-of-the-Month wiki.

Haley Alvarado went right back to her room and put the theory of having fun right into practice. She reads several holiday books every day as read-alouds. To put a little more "fun" into the activity she wrapped each book and will let a different child pick a wrapped book to read each day. Such a simple little detail that absolutely engages every single little kindergartner! Here's to more fun this holiday season!

Humane Society Visits

Today Meagan from the Jacksonville Humane Society visited Chets Creek kindergartners. The children learned about what dogs need, about the Humane Society in general and about how to approach a dog that they do not know. Many of the kindergarten classes are collecting cat and dog food, animal bowls, brushes and blankets to donate to the Humane Society as part of their holiday service project. Many of the children returned to class and wrote about what they had learned today from this shared experience.

I pet the dog.
He was soft.
I learned that he
did tricks.
The dog was happy.
I was eager to see
the dog do tricks.

Abigail's picture matches her words as it shows the children in line waiting to pet Noodles, the Humane Society dog, at the end of the assembly. You will notice that Abigail also got a sticker for using the word "eager" which is a vocabulary word from our "Star Vocabulary" curriculum!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Writing About Pow Wow

As we have been moving through our unit on Native Americans, the children have been working on reports about their Native tribes. Most kinder classes began with reports about themselves at the beginning of the nine weeks because there is nothing kindergartners know more about than themselves! During Readers' Workshop the children have been reading and investigating nonfiction text and learning about nonfiction text features such as titles, chapter headings, labels, Table of Contents, etc. The expectation is that children will begin to use these text features as they write their reports.

As the children were beginning to write about their tribes, they had many experiences to build their background knowledge. Each class studied the types of houses the Natives lived in and then built replicas of those houses with their families during Family Night. They learned about what their tribes wore and then helped to dress a cardboard cutout in tribal gear. They also made many of the pieces that they wore during the Pow Wow. The Nootkas learned, for instance, that the spears that they made were used to spear whales. The Seminoles learned that the ribbons they made were used for ceremonial dances. The children learned what the Natives ate and then tasted some of the foods during the Pow Wow activities. Throughout the activities, the stories that they read and the research that they did, each child learned so much that they could write about!

Teachers depend on our Kindergarten Native American wiki for the research about their tribes.  The information is continually updated by each teacher each year that teaches the tribe.  It saves teachers an enormous amount of time!

Below is just one example of a kindergartner's writing from Miss Sasso's Hopi tribe. Nate has a title for his book, Nate's The Hopi Book.

Add Image

Miss Sasso gave each child a form to help them organize a Table of Contents. Nate's Table of Contents includes:
1. What did the Hopi eat? 1
2. What did the Hopi wear? 2
3. Where did the Hopi (live)? 3
4. How did the Hopi travel? 4
5. Snake Dances 5

Nate begins each chapter with a question. Notice also how he uses labels and in this chapter, a list.
What did the Hopi eat?
red beans
yellow orn
What did the Hopi wear?
Girls wear mantas and boys wear kilts.

Where did the Hopi live?
Indians lived in Arizona and adobe. To get up to the top they needed a ladder and windows.

How did the Hopi travel?
The Hopis walk in feet.

Snake Dances
The Hopis need snakes for the Snake Dances.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Pow Wow: The Main Event

This morning was a beautiful sunny day. As the drums began to beat and over 200 kindergartners began to pour into the Pow Wow arena dressed in authentic native attire, my mind drifted back to my first Pow Wow. My first Pow Wow was in 1990 at Alimacani Elementary School. It was the first year the new school opened. At the time my daughter Courtney and I were both part of that Pow Wow. She was a kindergartner just beginning her school journey and I had returned to teaching after a leave of absence as a stay-at-home mom. Back then we did a very generic Pow Wow with our brown dyed pillowcases and a grocery bag headdress of feathers. We colored large macaroni and strung then into necklaces. We painted war paint on every child's face. As a tribute to my daughter, who began her first year of teaching this year, I wear the clay Pow Wow medallion that she made that first year, as I have every year since then, and I also keep her picture on my desk during this season. It is a reminder to me of why we spend so much time making memories for our children at Chets Creek. Pow Wow is one of Courtney's favorite elementary school memories.

Ten years later a new school was built in our area and Chets Creek opened its doors with many Alimacani students and teachers. Susan Phillips was one of the Creeks first kindergarten teachers and she brought the Pow Wow tradition with her from Alimacani. She, of course, is now the Principal at Chets Creek and still uses her original native name, Chief Jumping Frog, named for the frogs that dominated her kinder classroom. During the years that she has led Chets Creek there has been quite a transformation in our Pow Wow ceremony. We have spent quite some time researching Native American tribes in hopes of presenting our children with an authentic picture of life back then.  We have tried to recreate the clothing that the tribes might have worn then. Each of our eight kindergarten classes represents a different tribe from a different part of the country. We have chosen to learn about native dances, authentic songs and to celebrate native music. The unit now is one in which we celebrate diversity.

This morning the sun shone through the trees as eight tribes entered the Pow Wow arena. The tribes danced and sang as their families snapped away, catching each precious moment on film.

It really does take a village for us to pull off  Pow Wow! As the tribes left the main event - the Pow Wow - they spent the rest of the day working their way through Centers manned by the Resource Team (PE, Music, Art...) that provide a culmination to this important appreciation of cultural differences. Take a tour of the centers. Children spent time in an authentic tepee with Peaceful Waters Media Specialist KK Cherney, each taking a turn with the talking stick to tell their friends what they are thankful for this Thanksgiving season. They visited a longhouse with Speech Therapist Moe Dygan listening to a real outdoors man talk about his hunting experiences and letting the children touch many of the artifacts before tasting a venison wrap. Then it was time for tapping out authentic tribal beats on drums with the Music teachers and going on a Native American scavenger hunt with the PE teachers. Watch out for the bears and buffalo! Using natural dyes to paint with one of the Art teachers and working with clay with another helped the children understand the crafts and art of native people. The children even participated in a Native American Bingo game to help synthesize their experiences with the different tribes. This is a well organized learning event for our youngest learners. I'll bet the children - and the teachers - sleep well tonight!

Update: Visiting with us at Pow Wow was a photographer, Kristina Broome, from our Duval County Communications Department. She has written a beautiful article for our county about the event that includes a Flickr photostream. The article and pictures form a wonderful overview of the event. Enjoy!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Shared Reading in Kindergarten

I wrote about our new idea for vertical professional development last week. We gathered for a day around the single topic of "shared reading." During the day we saw shared reading in Kindergarten, First Grade and Fourth Grade. Below is the video of the Kindergarten demo lesson. Enjoy!

K - Shared Reading - Mallon Dillard 10-09 from Melanie Holtsman on Vimeo.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Pow Wow: The Unit Unfolds

As each classroom investigates their Native American tribe, each child works on parts of his/her Native American clothes to wear for the Pow Wow celebration. In Haley Alvarado's classroom the boys paint poles to turn into spears that the natives may have used to spear whales and larger fish. As the boys worked they talked about all the the fish that the Nootkas ate because they lived near the ocean on the Pacific side, much like we do today.

Each child also worked on his/her own small leather bag which would have been made from animal skin and decorated with shells and beads. The mighty Nootkas gathered medicines from the forest to keep in the little medicine bags.

The girls especially enjoyed making necklaces. They loved the beads with the fall colors, so like Nootka girls might have strung.

The girls also worked on weaving baskets. A couple complained because it was just "so hard!" As they worked they talked about the Nootkas also gathering turtle shells to use as larger bowls and shells to use for spoons. Some of the children wondered how hard it must have been to fix food when the First Americans couldn't even go to Publix! It must be so hard for our little ones to imagine what those early days must have been like. Gosh, it's hard for me to imagine!

The girls made shell head bands earlier in the week, but today the boys added shells to their loin cloths. Then they modeled the leather pieces and even danced around. enjoying the moment!

These same activities are going on in each Kindergarten classroom although the clothing for each tribe is different. One of the best parts of Pow Wow is what the children learn as they work on their costumes. We count on parents to make much of the costume but it's the part that the children make themselves that is the most fun and where they learn the most about people of long ago. What a fun, fun, FUN Friday the 13th!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Long Night Moon: Book of the Month November, 2009

This month's Book-of-the-month connects the entire Chets Creek family by choosing content that weaves its way through each child's Chets Creek career. The Kindergarten tradition is to have students participate in an authentic study of tribal nations around the Thanksgiving holiday culminating in a Pow Wow celebration. First graders are invited to attend the actual Pow Wow, along with families, to commemorate and write about their memories of the Pow Wow experience. Fifth graders revisit the same tribes as part of their Social Studies requirement during November. Students individually and in small groups make glogs and as a class develop an authentic scaled representation of the tribal grounds for the tribe they are studying. They present these class dioramas to the individual Kindergarten class that is studying their same tribe and then present them again for family and friends at a Kindergarten-Fifth Grade Family Night.

To honor this Kindergarten to fifth grade connection Principal Susan Phillips chose as this month's selection, Long Night Moon by Cynthia Rylant. Watch her reading the story as Chief Jumping Frog. It's a beautifully illustrated poem in the Native American tradition. This is a book by a favorite author that will be read to legions of children who pass through our doors. They will first hear the story in Kindergarten, and before they leave on their final leg of their elementary journey, they will hear it again with a new depth of its meaning and beauty in 5th grade. 

The Natives Come Marching In - Family Project

One of my favorite family projects during Pow Wow is the cardboard cutouts that go home with each kindergartner. Each family is to research the specific tribe that the class is studying and then as a family, they are to decorate their Native American. The native projects were due today. The kids were so excited as they came into the room sharing their projects with each other. In most classes each child had a chance to tell about their project. You could see the research and discussion that had gone on in each home as the children described why the natives used bark for cloth or shells for decorations, depending on the individual tribe. They also told about how they made their First American at home and which parts they did and which parts their parents did. From the simplest to the most ornate the children were so proud of their work. The examples shown are from the mighty Nootka tribe of the Pacific Northwest.
For representations of the peaceful Lenape tribe, check in with the natives from the Mall-ard's tribe.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Difficult Side of Building Relationships

One of the things that Chets Creek is known for is its collaboration. It's not that we just started with a group of teachers who amazingly liked each other and who shared common goals! From the very first day the doors opened, the leadership intentionally worked on school culture and built a collaborative environment one brick at a time. It's also not like the hard work was done early and so now we just coast - always hiring all the right people and putting each one on the right grade level so we all live happily every after! Some have the perception that we all just get along and work together seamlessly! Oh that life were so easy!

Although we are very intentional about the interview process and are very particular about the people that we hire (after all we want them to be as happy with us as we want to be with them), we do look for diversity in style, talent and experience. We would never grow if we all came with the same set of skills. I think what we have figured out over time is that teams that work well together don't just happen and aren't always just magically compatible. It takes WORK and the key ingredient is finding people who are honestly willing to do the work and who understand that building relationships is the foundation!  It's really not about the age or experience or degree or any of the things you might think are the most important.

In fact it is the story of this year's Kindergarten Team. This is a highly talented group of 13 women! They each came with their own talents and strengths but it was not love at first sight for this group. Some of this team had worked together before - cliquish? Not exactly... They perceived themselves as a well oiled machine who easily shared responsibility. They were used to jumping in, getting right to work, and getting it done. They had built a mutual trust and respect for each other. They had accomplished amazing things together. Add to that some new players - a mix of interesting personalities, budding leaders, both perfectionists and those with laid back styles. Most came from other grade levels and experiences. Most had had great experiences in the past and felt they had lots to offer to this group, but really floundered to find their place in this unusual mix of teammates. As rumors swirled about a split team, drama and discontent, this group could have turned on itself and imploded, but instead they honestly addressed their concerns and frustrations. They decided to build rather than destroy. Last night those that were available got together over good food - laughed, played games, and just enjoyed being together. Some came early before other engagements. Some had to leave early because of other commitments, but the feeling of comraderie was there.

I'd like to say that now they all love each other unconditionally and will live happily every after. The truth is that they are doing the work that makes teams successful. They are finished with the "storming" process (common to many new teams) and have moved on to building bridges. They are investing in relationships and are recognizing and respecting each other's talents and abilities. I'm very proud of this team. I am sure there will be other bumps in the road, but I am also confident that this team will weather the storms.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Vertical Professional Development

One of our challenges in professional development at the Creek has always been to move our seasoned teachers forward while at the same time offer foundational work to our newcomers. Accomplishing this type of differentiation at an individual school with limited professional development time has been challenging and sometimes frustrating. We don't want our seasoned teachers to start on lesson one at the beginning of every year, repeating the same content year after year, but at the same time we don't want to leave our beginning teachers behind. We have also always wanted teachers to take more personal responsibility for their own professional development. We want the time that they spend learning to be be useful and applicable. I am sure you have been to hundreds of training sessions that were "required" where you left and felt like you had wasted your time. We have been committed to trying hard NOT to have teachers say that, but how do you meet the many and complex needs of such a large faculty?

This year we decided to try something new and different. We are offering whole days of instruction around a single topic. The topic is chosen based on what teachers identified as their number one need earlier in the year. The day is open to anyone that feels like s/he wants to learn more about that particular subject. The day includes the topic with information from K-5 so that teachers leave with both deep and wide knowledge of the subject. There is some reading/ research about the topic, multiple demos and debriefs with an emphasis on vertical conversation.

Our first day this year was a Science day. Our first Reading/Writing day was on the topic of "Shared Reading." The group included about 10 teachers representing most of the grade levels who had chosen this topic as one they wanted to further investigate. Susanne Shall, our Instructional Coach facilitated the training. She gave each teacher a reflection sheet (on the right) to take notes during each of the live demos. The sections on the reflection sheet included What Shared Reading is... What Shared Reading is not... Artifacts, Resources, Implementation ideas for my classroom.

Kindergarten, of course, was the natural starting place, and Maria Mallon and Cheryl Dillard did not disappoint. They began by reading a new "sounds chart" together - one that they will do every day for quite a while. Next they demonstrated how they use the sound chart to practice new skills and to review previously taught skills in their Morning Message. This too was another example of how they use shared reading. Then they let us peek into a rereading of a favorite Joy Cowley big book. They have been doing an author emphasis of the many delightful Joy Cowley big books since school started. This was their third day of working with this book, and to reread it for the demo, each of the teachers and two of the students took parts while most of the reading was done chorally by the entire class. After this shared reading, the children were asked to match some of the phrases in the book with sentence strip phrases. Finally as yet another example of shared reading, the teachers brought out a chart with the words to a new color word song for the students to practice singing together. All of these examples were part of their Skills Block. When you leave Maria and Cheryl, the one thing that you absolutely know for sure with so much learning going on, is that they are having fun and so are their students!
Then it was off to first grade with Carrie McLeod. The interesting thing about Carrie's presentation was that the children used a familiar text that was enlarged on the document camera so that all of the children could see the words. While this is a common way for intermediate teachers to find an enlarged text to use for shared reading, it was an a-ha for me. I have become so accustomed to pulling out laminated charts from previous years and using my set of big books, that I had forgotten how easy it is to take any text and enlarge it on the document camera. Duh? I am kicking myself for not thinking of this strategy to use with the many rebus nursery rhymes that are on the web while we were doing nursery rhymes. It is this sort of professional development that can introduce you to new strategies, remind you of some that you have used in the past or help you find new and easy applications of strategies that you already know. We debriefed both lessons, finding the things that were alike in the lessons and the things that were different. All of the teachers who taught the lessons joined us for the debrief.  Watch the lesson.

The Principal provided lunch for this group (isn't that a treat?!!) so we could work through our lunch time, getting to know each other better, trading ideas and gaining new respect for those that teach other grades. We jigsawed a text on shared reading to get the researched best practices and then it was off to fourth grade.

Jenny Nash is one of those teachers that is just a natural so it is always a pleasure to watch her teach... anything! She began by having the children read a poem by a familiar author, Roald Dahl. It was a funny poem with a part for the teacher and a part for the class. It required the children to really understand the poem to use their voices correctly. Jenny often uses poetry in her intermediate classroom because it is shorter than a story, picture book or chapter and poems often have interesting punctuation and phrasing, perfect for oral reading. Jenny then took two familiar texts to enlarge by flashing them on the document camera, one that had punctuation clues to help the reader know how to read it and another with and and or without punctuation that still required the reader to understand the passage to read it correctly. Watch the lesson. These were both great examples of how to use shared reading in the Readers' Workshop to enhance comprehension at a more advanced level.

One of the great things about a day like this is that it is relaxing and yet you feel like you've really learned something when you leave. You feel like you really understand the concept presented and the activities and conversation help you to figure out how to incorporate the topic into your everyday teaching. What a delightful way to ENJOY professional development! Can't wait until the next day.