Thursday, April 23, 2009

Second Language Learners

Tonight I had the honor of attending our county's celebration of second language learners. To my thrill one of the general education students in my first grade classroom was honored as the "Chets Creek Second Language Learner of the Year." She is Armenian and I remember so well her journey into our school. Actually, who could forget! She entered shyly almost hidden behind her mother's dress. I don't know who looked more frightened, our little kindergartner or her mom! I think we peeled her off her mom that first day and for many days after that. She was terrified. When I would sit with the class at lunchtime, I would often find her in tears. She would be worried about a host of things, but most often that her mom would not be there at the end of the day. Those were such tearful times and there were mornings when I wondered if we would ever have a day without tears. I can only imagine her fears as she walked into that classroom each day understanding so little of the language and what was going on. I think of how brave her mom was to leave her. She too understood little of our language and customs and yet, she somehow found the courage to trust.

It's hard to reconcile those images with the happy, outgoing little first grader I see today. When I sit with her today at lunch she chatters endlessly (I barely get a word in!) She chatters about her family and her friends. She is a great little reader and has assimilated into our class culture in a way that is very Americanized.

She is only one of the 262 students we have this year at Chets Creek who entered with families that speak a second language and qualify for some level of second language support. That is about 18% of our total population. We support families who speak 21 different languages! We are so very fortunate to have an assistant assigned to our school who works with our students and who understands both the student and family needs. My student is only one of the many success stories that we see every day. We are fortunate to have this type of diversity in our school. In my own classroom, my own mini-United Nations, we have students whose parents are first generation from the Sudan, Mexico, Korea, and Poland in addition to Armenia.

In fact we have a kindergarten bulletin board up in the building right now that demonstrates a young student's growth over time in both English and Japanese. While reading a book that was written in both English and Japanese to their class, kindergarten teachers Debbie Cothern and Michelle Ellis realized that one of their students could not only read the English version, but actually read the Japanese version of the book as well!
As they investigated further, the student explained that she is learning to read and write in both languages. Their board shows her growth over time first in Japanese and then in English!
The world is getting smaller every day!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Our Little Seeds Have Bloomed

The TDRs display the work over time of two different students on this final bulletin board of the year. Reading across the board is one student's work and then under his work, is another student's work over time.Parker begins first grade full of things he wants to write about. He uses some sight words and uses invented spelling for words that he doesn't know by sight. His work is easy to read because he has made the letter sound connection and easily hears sounds in words. He opens the piece establishing the context and then writes three pages describing a series of events. His ending provides closure for the piece. Parker also demonstrates that he is learning some conventions. Even early in the year you can find a sense of humor in his work. In this first piece he writes about liking being alone in his room which is funny in his family of three sisters!By mid-year Parker has written many engaging pieces. The piece above is an example of a nonfiction work where he writes all about computers including instructions for getting on the computer. He obviously knows lots about technology. He uses a series of questions to drive the piece. Parker demonstrates that he knows lots about nonfiction writing and includes many nonfiction conventions. His language conventions and spelling have greatly improved but it is his writing fluency that demonstrates the most obvious progress.

Parker's final piece, which was written in early March, is a response to literature written during the Kevin Henkes author study. Parker has a complete retelling of Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse. I think it is probably one of Parker's favorite stories because it's the one that his mother read to his class. Parker's spelling and use of sight words has really improved along with his use of conventions. He even used dialogue in the retelling, along with quotation marks! Parker is developing his own voice in his writing but it is the ten pages that he writes that is most impressive.
Parker is a wonderful example of what can be accomplished when a student writes daily in a Writers' Workshop and is exposed to mini-lessons that teach him all about genres and writer's craft.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

"Watch" How Time Will Tell!

It's time for the last standard-based bulletin board of the year. Most teachers have posted "work over time." The Mallards have looked at writing over time and have posted work over the Kindergarten and first grade year of a single student. The first piece, which is a writing log, looks at how the child's writing changed with a sample from kindergarten each month of the year. The growth is obvious as the student moves from a drawing that tells a story in August to a long written piece by the end of the year that shows a growing sight word bank, beginning punctuation and writing stamina.
The first piece written in early first grade is a small moment, "When I Went Ice Skating." The author writes a series of mini-events and shows that she has learned to edit her own work (using a green pencil). In October the student completed a Question/ Answer pattern book, "Swimming Fun," that introduced a unit on nonfiction writing.
The December piece is a report about the student's family. It includes a Table of Contents, comparison, a "how to"/ procedural piece and a narrative about a vacation. The piece shows that the student has been exposed to and has internalized the nonfiction conventions.

In February the young author wrote a response to the book, Wemberly Worried, during an author study of Kevin Henkes. This is one of many responses that the student wrote during the author study. The work meets the standard as it includes an opening, a detailed retelling and a closing.

The final piece is a letter written during our persuasive writing unit. This young writer wrote to the lifeguards at the beach asking them to come out a little earlier so she can have some fun!

It is always amazing at the progress that children make from the day they enter kindergarten until they end first grade. This bulletin board certainly displays that well and shows a young writer that is well on her way!

The Big Chicken Project.

The Principal' s March book-of-the-month was Big Chickens. I wrote about this book at the time the Principal presented it and again recently after Leslie Helakoski, the author of both Big Chickens and Woolbur, visited our school last week.

The Principal challenged us at March's book-of-the-month reading to use some form of technology that we have been learning this year to respond to the book. Many of the classes took the Principal up on her challenge and all or their responses to literature have now been housed on a new blog created by Instructional Technologist, Melanie Holtsman. The blog includes such responses as retellings of this hysterical story with puppets, a Chets Creek version of the story, an extension of the story, persuasive commercials, text-to-self connections, responses to "I'm a big chicken when ___", a video of the students doing the chicken dance, and even a wordle! It's amazing to see the many ways that students can respond to a single book! It reminds me that we so often think that responding to literature is the simple, formal written response to literature but responses can really be a multitude of possibilites. Sometimes our thinking is so limiting. This blog shows us ways to open up our creative minds! Today the blog becomes public, so not only can you take a look at ways that other classes have responded to the book, but you can add a response from your own class! We are hoping that teachers from all over the world will join us in responding to this book so that we can show all of our children how small the world really is.
Directions for participating in this project are at Melanie's blog. Don't be a big chicken! Come join us in the fun!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Woolbur: Book-of-the-Month April 2009

Today was one of those days that reminded me of why I LOVE being a teacher at the Creek! The morning started as I entered the Media Center with each grade level table decorated with a yarn filled sheep-shaped container and a specially selected April Book-of-the-Month. Our Principal, Susan Phillips, has a special appreciation for funny farm animals and Woolbur was no exception! Susan was a kindergarten teacher so she can read a story- I mean, she can REALLY read a story! - and she had the teachers rolling in the floor all through the story as she read about the little sheep who had a mind of his own - always thinking outside of the box. Finally when his parents laid down the law and insisted that he do what the other sheep do, he became the leader! I so connected with this story, because it is the story of our class this year. We have so many quirky little personalities - so many students who think and act differently, but who have such incredible potential to make a difference in this world. the key is to make sure they have a chance to lead the way! I also connected with it as a school. At Chets Creek we are often doing things differently and there are always people that are scratching their heads and telling us to just join or follow the crowd. I think a long time ago we decided that if we were going to be forced to do as the crowd does, then we were at least going to be in the lead! Woolbur would be in good company at Chets Creek!

After Susan's rousing storytelling, Melanie Holtsman, our instructional technologist, used the book to teach us to use glogster. She will have a "sandbox" set up (a place to play) every morning next week. In other words, she will have computers set up so we can play with glogster until we feel comfortable enough for a project of our own. More about that later, after I 've had time to learn this fun new application!

As Melanie and Susan pulled the morning to a close, Susan introduced us to Leslie Helakoski, the author of Woolbur! Can you imagine reading a book while the author of the book is sitting there watching? That's exactly what Susan and Melanie did. Leslie Helakowski, the author was visiting our school today. We already felt like we knew Leslie because we had enjoyed another of her books, Big Chickens, earlier in the year. Big Chickens was illustrated by one of our favorite illustrators, Henry Cole, who has also visited Chets Creek several times before.

After spending time with the teachers, Leslie entertained each grade level of children. The first graders thoroughly enjoyed hearing about her training as an artist and then hearing about her taking her first story and art work to a publisher in NYC and having them want her story but reject her art work! It was nice for the children to hear that rejection can actually make you try harder. I am sure they learned a lesson about her persistence as a writer and illustrator. She also entertained the group with her farmyard version of "Going on a Bear Hunt." Later Leslie signed books for all the children who bought them and engaged in delightful conversation, answering their questions and smiling at their comments.

One of the things about activities at Chets Creek is that there is always a "village" of people working behind the scenes to make things happen. Susan is the master designer and today Melanie was our professional developer, but behind every great event at Chets Creek, our Media Specialist, KK Cherney is at the center. It was KK who chose the author and made the arrangements. It was KK that made sure the author's books had been ordered and that children and teachers alike were familiar with her work. It was KK and her little elves that made sure there was a welcoming sign when the author entered the building. It was KK that made sure that the author had a basket of kid-made welcoming cards, letters and pictures. It was KK that made sure the Media Center was decorated for the morning events. It was KK who played hostess all day. Of course, KK has a group of Media elves to help her, but without her enthusiasm, her love and dedication to the children of Chets Creek and her ability to always say "yes," our days just wouldn't have the same joy and fun! Thank you to the host of people who worked so hard to make a truly memorable day for the children and teachers at Chets Creek!

Thursday, April 16, 2009


Today, I have been thinking about this whole idea of transparency. That's really why I started writing this blog in the first place - I wanted to be honest and informative about what we do in our school that works. I wanted to chronicle our successes along with our challenges. I wanted a place to ask the hard questions and a place to be able to write about real feelings and to tell real stories. Today someone mentioned to me that people might be reading my blog, not because they were interested in what I had to say, but to "monitor" what I say. They might be more interested in things like- is she bashing the county? is she bashing the new reading series? is she sharing things that should not be talked about?

Recently at TLN, there was a conversation asking members if they shared their blog with their county, their administrator, their colleagues? I was surprised to learn that some of the members don't. While their on-line presence and global audiences are HUGE, the teacher next door or their principal might not know what they are writing - for the entire world to see! I, on the other hand, am likely to send a blog post to you, even if I am complaining about you. I sent the Technology Director my blog when I complained about not enough bandwidth or not being able to Skype. I sent the literacy trainers my blog about the district's adoption of a Core Reading Series that was really not meeting the needs of the digital natives we are teaching. It's not that I'm trying to stir things up or cause controversy because basically, I'm a peace maker. I guess I just think, it is what it is. I don't usually write something that I wouldn't say to your face, so, if I've written about it, you might as well know I've said it directly in person or with my pen! After all, it can be quite difficult to "hide" on the Internet!

Besides, if I censor everything I say, what is real or different about this type of writing? It's in its honestly and timeliness that makes it unique and worth reading. Since I write on my own time and since the thoughts are mine, what could anybody do about it anyway? Does my "boss" have the right to censor what I say? On the other hand, while I think I am basically respectful, I do believe it is possible for totally inappropriate things to be written that would be totally offensive - is that okay? I'm not sure how I feel actually... However, it would be nice to have some guidelines from the county -some suggestions for appropriate behavior online or maybe... even a list of what might get you fired!

I like to think that I work in a county that values risk taking. I KNOW I work in a school that encourages risk-takers.  I would like to think that those in our county that read by blog are smiling or applauding. I want to think they are proud that I, and so many of our teachers, have enthusiastically embraced this new form of networking and communicating. However, a friend asked me recently if I was retiring after a blog post she read because she couldn't imagine I could still be teaching if I was willing to risk such a stand. Often I have been told from teachers that have read certain of my blog posts that they were afraid to comment - afraid of what? Of having an opinion? Of engaging in thoughtful, open discourse? If that's the case, how sad is that?

Since I haven't answered any of my owns questions except with more questions, I guess I am left to continue pondering... unless YOU would like to share your thoughts so we can have a discussion. I'd love to know what censorship you think should be placed upon an employee? Is there a line that shouldn't be crossed? Should a "boss" be able to tell you what you can or can't write about? Should you follow that "suggestion"? How are counties dealing with this issue? Anyone have a list of suggested guidelines? I'd love to hear your opinion!

Closing Out Persuasive Writing

As we close our unit on persuasive writing, we have moved the persuasive lessons that our first grade teachers wrote collaboratively on Google Documents to our first grade wiki . Make sure to check them out!

Below are some examples of the letters written by our first graders.
Dear Mrs. Harbour,
I want more lunchtime. I never get to finish my lunch. It's not fair. We only have a little bit of time. Can we have silent lunch because if I try to eat my food, then in a minute people start to talk to me. That's why I never get to finish my lunch.
Your hungry student,
P.S.-I want more lunch time!
March 26, 09
Dear Mrs. B,
How are you feeling today? I hope great! Would you mind letting me and Anna have a sleepover some day? Please! Because I really like Anna. We spend the whole day together in school and I am not kidding. We spend every minute together. I promise I will behave. Thank you for listening.
Anna's friend, Kaylee

Dear Miss Correia,
How are you doing? I was thinking if we can have lunch in the class. This is important because it smells bad in the cafeteria. Another reason is if it smells, people will loose their appetite. For example, one day it smelled bad. I lost my appetite. This shows that we need to stay sometimes in the classroom. I promise to help.
Love, Mia
This comes from Parker, a "teacher's kid!"
Dear Mrs. Phillips [Principal],
Can you please make the lunchroom quieter? I will give you $100 out of my mom's credit card. Probably not, but I'll try to, okay? And I will clean the toilet and you can make my mom teach monsters instead of kids...

Besides writing letters and mailing them, some students have been writing arguments for one cause over another, like the ones below. Using the persuasive mentor text, Should We Have Pets? by Sylvia Lollis and Joyce Hogan, the Mall-ards wrote their own class book, Which is better - beaches or pools? Make sure to check it out!
Beaches are better than pools because you can play in the sand. You can go in the water. You can bury yourself in the sand. You can lay in the sun. You can eat and drink at the beach. You can build a sand castle and you can find seashells. When you are done at the beach, if you are covered in sand, you can go to the beach's showers. Then you can dry off and go home very happy.

Originally this was a unit we were dreading because it was new. We hadn't written persuasively before and we couldn't find many good resources, but after we discovered A Quick Guide to Teaching Persuasive Writing we were able to use it as the backbone for 15 lessons that we wrote collaboratively using Google Docs for the first time. What we found is that first graders have no trouble finding their voice and stating their opinions. There is lots that they care about and are willing to write about. They have no trouble taking a stand! Now we can't wait to revisit this writing genre again next year!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Movin' on up... to 2nd Grade!

For our last Teacher Meeting of the year (we have no Teacher Meetings in May and the last two in April are part of a Math Book Study), we invited two second grade teachers to come and share what they felt were weaknesses when their second graders entered this year. First grade teachers want to spend this last nine weeks really honing in on the skills that will make their children more successful as they begin second grade. This is what was shared and discussed:

  • Susanne Shall shared a skill sheet of 2nd grade skills where she highlighted the skills that should be covered in first grade. She noted that 2nd grade teachers felt the students were weak in identifying nouns, verbs and adjectives. Guess why? We don't have that on our first grade Pacing Guide so it's no wonder the kids don't know it coming into second grade! That's something we can certainly do something about!
  • Second grade teachers felt like they had lots of kids coming in that had handwriting that was not readable. First grade teachers do handwriting the first nine weeks but don't usually revisit it again, but this year they will make sure to do a few mini-lesson on being able to read your handwriting!
  • Second grade teachers also felt that narratives going into second grade were weak - weaker even than the narratives in the first grade portfolios. During discussion first grade teachers felt that it might be because first grade teaches narrative at the beginning of the year. However, this year first grade teachers will revisit narrative at the end of the year again to pull a portfolio piece from the end of the year instead of the beginning of the year. This should help close that gap.
  • In Math second grade teacher Lynn Patterson talked about a few misconceptions about the Open Number Line. In showing teachers where children are going with the strategy, she helped first grade teachers understand their responsibility.
  • Lynn also mentioned how important it is for students to have fluency with the combinations of ten leaving first grade. The teachers talked about games that they could do this last nine weeks such as "10s Go Fish" with Uno cards to reinforce fluency. Suzanne Shall promised to copy a group of new games with 10 combinations that could be practiced this last nine weeks and then sent home for parents to practice over the summer. 
  • Math vocabulary was another area that we discussed. We cleared up the difference between a number sentence or expression (5+5) and an equation (5+5=10). Lynn also cautioned the teachers about transitioning from the cutesy names such as the alligator munchy mouth to the more mathematically correct "less than" and other cute names that we may have used to introduce new concepts.
  • Giving more advanced students strategies is also not recommended. Students should come up with the strategies themselves and they will, when they are ready. Often a teacher has taught a strategy before students are ready, but the child doesn't really understand it and can't really explain it. Second grade teachers would rather first graders not be given new strategies if they are not ready.
  • Lynn also recommended for teachers to check and to share with parents who are interested in knowing what is to come.
This conversation of vertical articulation makes a difference as we close the gaps and help to make our students successful as they transition from one grade to another.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

IEP H-E-Double Hockey Sticks!

This is THE time of the year that I HATE! It's IEP time! Time to write those yearly individualized plans for each of my Special Education students. I love almost everything about being a Special Education teacher but this time of year turns me into a cynic. It's the only time of year I feel out of sorts and stressed with anxiety bubbling right below the surface.

It's not that I don't understand the IEP process. I do. Early in my career I got to know a group of parents from NC that fought for PL 94:142, the law that granted ALL children the right to a public education and brought the first IEPs into our lives. Before that law many children were excluded from public school and early in my career I directed a "developmental day care center" run under the Mental Health System that rounded those excluded kids up and offered them an alternative from staying at home all day. Kids came because they were young and hearing impaired and their parents didn't want to send their three year old off to boarding school (the only option), or because they weren't potty trained (a law on the books at the time said that if you weren't potty trained you couldn't go to school which effected many of our youngest children) or because they were multiply handicapped (deaf-blind and with cerebral palsy, for example) or they were very physically involved (with a feeding tube, for instance) or they were severely or profoundly handicapped or many other combinations of challenges not provided for in public education. We served children from two to 12. Even then, we wrote individualized plans, but back then we were driven by our need to sit down with all the stake holders in a child's life and find ways to do what was best for the child - not by a legal system or a mandate. Parents and teachers just sat together and shared their dreams and their expectations and then put a plan into place to make a difference.

Somewhere along the way, the court system got involved and now we seem to have this "you verses us" mind set. All of my career it seems there have been these broad general threats of audits or threats about having to go to court or having to sit with a lawyer at the table, as if "somebody" was always watching and you certainly aren't doing it right.. It's never actually happened but every year something changes about the IEP because or a new law or a new interpretation of the law or some new legal precedent. I think I've actually learned 3 or 4 different computerized IEP programs without leaving the same county. For years, I stressed and worried over every "i" I dotted and every "t" I crossed, because "somebody" might come take me away. I would read every single word of the three page checklist for every IEP of everything to remember so I wouldn't get "caught." I went into meetings with parents and then when I reflected after the fact, it seemed we spent most of the time worrying about compliance of the IEP instead of the needs of the parents and the education of the child - and then we wonder why parents don't seem to trust teachers and the school system?

As the years have peeled away, I have lost most of that fear (what are they going to do - fire me?) and have tried at the IEP conference to remember, it is about the child - not the document... but it's hard - with our computers out and little red stars popping up if something is not compliant. It interrupts the flow of the conversation. I also realized that in all the IEP audit sheets I've been forced to do over the years that no question is ever asked about the quality of the IEP. I didn't matter because I really do understand that it's about the child's needs and I always make sure that the parent had REAL input in his child's education?   The only question that is ever asked in an audit is if I have the signature on the right line and that my dates match and that I checked the right boxes - because surely that will guarantee academic and social growth! I also resent the month I miss of instruction (which is what it takes to test, write and meet for a normal class load - even when you're doing most of the writing at home on your own time). I have to admit that I do really enjoy meeting with the parents and sharing so much good news, but the truth of the matter is, I would do that anyway, with or without a document to sign.
I long for a system that goes back to the days when the child was at the center instead of a piece of paper and the court system. I feel so fortunate to have been a teacher in the early years so that I still understand the heart and original intent of the process. I can still see the faces of children and parents who just wanted a system that cared. I will never forget the parent whose child was denied entrance at school saying to me with tears running down her cheeks - I just want him to have a chance at a productive life. If I can keep that picture in my mind when I close my eyes, maybe I can get through this process with a little dignity and calm. That is my prayer. That is my dream... Now, take a deep breath...

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Welcome to the Crab Shack!

"Welcome to the Crab Shack!"
Several years ago we studied the book FISH! as an entire faculty. It is the story about the famous and highly successful Pike's Fish Market in Seattle and teaches 4 important concepts that we applied to our school environment:
Be in the moment

Make their day


Choose your attitude

JB frying fish
That first year we studied the book we were welcomed to the Chets Creek Crab Shack during our regular lunch time to celebrate the philosophy. We enjoyed deep fried fresh fish, cheese grits, and cole slaw along with a row of fanciful desserts. As we entered the principal yelled, "Welcome to the Crab Shack," and everyone clapped and cheered as each new faculty member came inside the door. JB Boyd, our famous volunteer, spent the entire time frying fish! As each faculty member came in, they got to "go fishing!" From a bait box each one pulled a paper shaped fish with one of many prizes (Pepperidge Farm fish crackers, fish gummies, real live fish in a fish bowl - oh my! - gift cards from Starbucks, book stores and a host of other themed prizes). As we enjoyed the simple fellowship of eating together, we laughed and sang and just enjoyed being together. We were reminded in a very real way of how to be successful.

That first fish fry has developed into one of the many annual Chets Creek traditions. Sometime after the first of the year, the Crab Shack opens with Principal Phillips in charge for a single day in the Teachers' Dining Room to remind us once again that we are in charge of our own destiny - and that we can have FUN along the way! Welcome! - Welcome to the Chets Creek Crab Shack!