Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Tour Around First Grade

I was roaming the halls this morning - walking through each first grade teacher's room, looking for things I thought you'd find interesting. I am sure I missed many things, but here is a peek inside some of our eight first grade classrooms as we begin the year.

What I have learned about teachers this year, being back in the thick of having a homeroom, is what I've always known. Teachers work really, really hard. Even after all these years I couldn't get my room ready in the 5 pre-planning days that the district pays me for, even though I basically knew what I wanted and where everything should go. It took nine days - long 8 'til 8 days - and even that didn't leave me with the feeling that I had done everything I needed to do. I was also reminded once again that teachers are grossly underpaid. While the District argues over teachers getting their promised pay increase (step), those of us at the top of the pay scale will get the same $500 that we got last year  and the year before and the year before which means no raise for us. Eventually I will get $200 discretionary money for starting my classroom although I already have spent over $800 on my new classroom in this new year. I am not sure that parents or even administrators appreciate what teachers do every day, just because they want to do what is best for the children that walk through their doors, and just because they really love what they do. Somehow no mater where I go or how many years I teach, I am always impressed with the teachers that I call my peers, and especially with those that have such a deep passion for their work - those that I call my friends...

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Our First Day! Yee Haw!

It was an amazing day for the students returning to Chets Creek. KK Cherney, our Media Specialist, and her little elves have been at work all summer to pull off this farm-thrilling feat!

Our first day WOW for the children included many farm stations - petting farm animals, seeing tractors - old and new, planting seeds, tasting honey and seeing a self-contained bee hive, eating watermelons and spitting seeds, and listening to a story about Florida produce that came with a little singing. It was really a fun, fun day!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Classroom Makeover 4: The Final Reveal

Welcoming our new class is a bulletin borad outside the classroom. We welcome the children by writing something we know good about each child. This information comes from last year's teacher on a promotion form or if the student is new to the school, it comes from the parent registration information. The parents always stop to see what we have written. Each classroom K-5 has the same type of welcoming board outside their classroom. Welcome New Peeps!

We decided to put our behavior system one of the large bulletin boards at the front of our classroom. Our system was explained to parents at Orientation. The board at the top of the picture below is our chart for "Chicken Change." Below the title is a list of the children in the classroom. Each child can earn a tally mark any time during the day. The idea is to "catch them being good." Twenty tally marks at the end of the week earns the child a chance to go to the Treasure Box which is party favor treats, small candies, and Happy Mean-type treats, mostly sent in by parents. At the bottom of the bulletin board, each child has a library pocket. We can add a green clothespin if the child has to be warned about breaking a rule, a red clothespin and the loss of a privilege for a second offense in the same day and a note or call home for a third offense. The color clip is noted on the calendar on the back of each child's Home-School folder and is used at report card time to base a Behavior Grade.
 The area below is our Guided Reading area. Small groups meet with the teacher and use the leveled sets of readers on the shelf. The teachers' notebook or running records, notes and DRA2 forms are also found in this area. While all of the supplies are kept in this area, a second small group meets in the front of the room.
We always want to use every space. The peek into our closet in the next photo shows a small area where small groups of children meet with a teacher. They all sit on the floor. The floor has a carpet and also houses five tubs, one for each table, where children keep their backpacks and jackets.
Book-of-the-month is a Chets Creek tradition. The principal has already introduced the August-September book.
Everything is ready for the children. Later this week I will be snapping pictures in the eight first grade classrooms at Chets Chets so stay tuned...

Monday, August 16, 2010

Today we were "Cultivating...!"

Today it was back to school. I was so excited that I could hardly sleep. I was up early - probably earlier than I needed to be - but I love the first day back. I always have. Even when I was a teacher in SC and all the teachers in the county dressed in heels and their Sunday best to go listen to the Superintendent's speech, I have loved starting a new year. This year was no different. Our first grade teachers gathered together early in a classroom in their jeans and colored tee-shirts to match the animal that they would be. We chatted and laughed, added Popsicle sticks to our animal masks and practiced our irreverent skit, "Animals Gone Wild". Then it was off to the very farm-themed front lobby to meet and greet all the other grade levels. As we piled into the Dining Room with its farm-y festive decorations, some teams began going through the breakfast line while other teams went to have their pictures made.

Soon the Office and Administration in their rainbow colored overalls, led by the principal in her orange Clemson-colored farmer jeans opened with a Green Acres song and dance. Each grade level in turn presented their skit from Kindergarten's farm-related Nursery Rhymes to farmer charades to a take on a Miley Cyrus concert. WHAT FUN! Next the Principal reviewed our A grade -AYP status with new goals for performance. She also revisited our earliest founding mantra of results, risks and relationships. She brought us right back to those early days when we established so much of what has carried us through these last few years.

We also played games - lots of games. From watermelon seed spitting to three-legged races and building with Tinkertoys, the grade levels competed against each other for prizes... but the point of the activities is not necessarily to win (although that is nice too!) but to build relationships among the team members - to see how teams operate so that they are better able to solve the real problems they will face in the school year. Somewhere in between the games the newest members of Chets Creek were "hazed." Each year the newbies are asked to do something that will help initiate them into the Chets Creek family. This year they had eight minutes to make a pie and then had to find someone brave enough to try it. After they received thumbs up for their creations, they each raised their right hand and took Chets Creeks' irreverent oath, promising to work hard on becoming part of the CCE family.

The Principal ended the morning by reading to us our first farm Book-of-the Month, Otis by Loren Long - a loving, touching story about relationships.

The first day back, or "skit day" as many of the teachers call it, is a day that we all look forward to because it gives each of us a good reason to end summer and commit to the new year! Today was a very good day... the beginning of a very good year.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Catch Readers Before They Fall

Catching Readers Before They Fall: Supporting Readers Who Struggle, K-4 by Pat Johnson and Katie Keier has been my summer read and it's been a good reminder of some of the things we need to look for when a child is struggling. One of the things that was particularly interesting to me is how the authors discussed teaching individual comprehension strategies. I think since Elin Keene's work has come out that teachers have tended to teach the strategies in isolation instead of making sure that children understand that the main purpose of reading is comprehension so that one of the strategies that you explicitly demonstrate and think-aloud might be a way that a student could add to his own system of comprehending. In other words, more emphasis on the integration of strategies instead of just practicing a single strategy. The authors even say that it is not necessary for students to name a strategy - only that they are able to use the strategy! For me, this is a slightly different way of looking at strategy instruction.

Another strong chapter is the explanation of using running records as a source of information to show a teacher how a student is solving words, including examples of what struggling readers might do and how teachers might respond. I think this is a chapter that would be good for the K-2 teachers at my school because I am not sure that they always understand how to analyze a running record in depth. For me one of the interesting discussions in this chapter was how teachers immediately correct a struggling student when they make a mistake. This technique doesn't always give our students a chance to self-correct. When we interrupt them, they don't have a chance to hear for themselves that the sentence doesn't make sense. I am certainly guilty of this because it is a technique taught in my early Direct Instruction training. However, I have noticed that I have students that become dependent of me correcting their mistakes instead of becoming students who hear their own mistakes and self-correct so I think this is a technique that I will give a try when I start to see this happening.

At our school, we have a separate 30 minutes Skills Block. The book explains how all phonics instruction needs to refer back to connected text and meaning so that our students do not get the idea that the phonics instruction is separate from reading. I think this is an area that I could improve so I am going to make a conscious effort to make sure that all of our phonics instruction this year is taken from a read aloud of in some way refers back to connected text.  Realizing this is probably why Fountas and Pinnell call Skills Block Word Work and it follows the guided reading session.

I think this is a book that would make a good book study for K-2 teachers. It's not that there is so much that is new, but it does give strong instruction that would make good discussion among early childhood teachers.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Classroom Makeover 3: Making Decisions

First of all, let me say that I spent the first hour at school today wiping down each blade of the blinds in my classroom. They were filthy! Obviously this is not part of the summer maintenance. I considered just letting it go and pretending that I hadn't noticed, but all I could think about was that little first grader that might be sitting in my classroom with dust allergies! Wiping out cubbies and shelves came next. At least things will be clean in the beginning!

Tracy and I have met several times over the last week and have been joined by our wonderful para professional, Lee Cordoza. We have had time to talk about how we want things to go as we've cut and pasted and planned displays.

Word Wall
Tracy and I got a word wall up that is "utterly" delightful! There are also cows up and down the sides that are out of view - remember, the farm theme. Although this takes a major portion of our back wall, we are planning to really use it daily so we want to make sure that there is plenty of room and that the words will be large enough for the students to actually read! We want them to use the word wall every day in Writers' Workshop. The first words to go up the first week of school will be each student's name and then the kindergarten review words after we have reviewed them in Skills Block.
Vocabulary Vine
We introduce new vocabulary words each day, using Text Talk words from the series' read-aloud books. This program is based on the work of Beck and McKeown. We will place the new words each day on our "Vocabulary Vine." These vines are attached to the shelves in the back of our room (the sink is underneath). We want these words to be large enough to be visible during Writers' Workshop. Again we want the children to use this vocabulary word wall every day. Notice the scarecrow, bales of hay and various fruit and vegetables above the shelves!

Leveled Reading Books
We have found all of our leveled books and have them in bins so the children will be able to easily find "just right" books which will also be the books that they take home each night. These books and bins are in the middle of the room. Levels C-I are considered first grade levels but we are prepared for students who may be reading below level, A-B and also a few students who will be reading above level, at second grade levels, J-M.

Large Group Area
We have our large group area designated in the front of the room and materials with borders on all of the board areas, although we haven't yet decided what will go into each area. This is where we will do our Skills Block, and our mini-lessons for Reading, Writing and Math. We know that one of the large bulletin board areas will be designated for Math. I want to make sure that all of the Math folks notice that we start with negative numbers on our number line (at the mid-point on the white board - This has been an on-going debate at our school)! Another area of the bulletin board will house our behavior system. We will also need an area to display the standards we are working on each day. For now, we simply have the boards up!
Genre Library
We have sorted Tracy's many books and have put them in bins in our cubbies. We found that we had many books that could go into our new bins of Farm Fiction and Farm Non-fiction to go with our new theme. This is a great start for our new students!

It seems we have done a lot but it also seems that there is so much left to do: finishing the bulletin board outside the classroom that will welcome students to the new year, buying and having white board cut so that we have a board for each student to use during Skills Block, making a final decision on a behavior management system, buying treats for our Treasure Box that will be part of our behavior system, making a decision on a system for taking anecdotal and guided reading notes during the work session of Reading, finding a CD player and the list seems to go on and on... but... we still have a week before the students will actually arrive!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Welcome back to school!

We go back to school next Monday. My daughter and sister returned to their schools in the southern part of the state today and after talking to them both, I'm even more excited to be going back to Chets Creek. They both talked about starting their first day with a boring two hours Teachers' Meeting. The Principals at both schools talked about changes and then someone got up and spent quite some time dissecting all of the state testing scores. They were both bored out of their minds wishing they could just get in their rooms and get started.

Things at the Creek are much different on the opening day for teachers. For us it's a fun day of grade level skits and team building activities. Even the Principal's address, which is short and focused is cloked in theme-related fun. It's the most fun ever and I can't wait! Just to give you a little hint of the difference, take a look at the "letter" we just received from the Principal inviting us back. Can you already tell that things are mighty different at Chets Creek?!!!

Welcome Back to School 10-11 from Melanie Holtsman on Vimeo.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Classroom Makeover 2: Just beginning

Tracy and I met for the first time today to put all of our thoughts and summer purchases together. Seems like we are going to make a good team because we went for different but complimentary purchases but still have the same goals in mind.

Group areas
Today, we moved some of the furniture to create a large group area in the front of the classroom where the bulletin boards and white board are located. We also found a small wooden table that was being given away by another teacher to house the Elmo and projector. This table definitely needs a little skirt to cover all the ugly cords! We established two small group areas - one at the back of the classroom and the other at a semi-circle table on one side of the classroom where we will also house the guided book collection on a small shelf brought from home.

Leveled books
We decided to put the leveled books in the middle of the room because students will need access all during the Readers' Workshop as we meet with small groups of children and they change out their books. We have a nice wooden bin provided by the school to house books C-J but we are going to need more shelves to house the A-B books for those reading below level and the K-N books for kids reading above level. I am amazed at the limited furniture that is actually supplied by the school in each classroom! Today I added gingham letters to each of the leveled bins. We decided to use cardboard book bins for students to keep their own individual "just right" books. Tracy will make theme-related name labels for each box.
Genre books
We are going to use the individual cubbies that are stationary in our room for our genre library. Tracy is bringing baskets to house all of the books - a huge expense - and will be responsible for making books tags to go on each basket that are theme-related. I am putting paper in the back of each cubbie just to add color to the room. Since we are using the 12 X 12 inch cubbies for shelving, we have purchased five large bins in the closet for students to house their jackets and backpacks.
We have decided on 6-sided tables that seat six in a group. Looks like the chairs that we have in our room are too big for the tables so we will try to change out the medium-sized chairs with small chairs. We figure we need to start with 30 seats so we put five groups of tables in the middle of the room. Tracy has purchased name plates to go on the table for each student.
Seems like today we mostly made decorative additions. We added red gingham curtains. I brought some additional red gingham material home to make a skirt for under the computer area so we can use that area for storage without seeing all the clutter. Tracy added an alphabet today at the front of the classroom and will add some barn cut-outs over the alphabet to invite students into the theme.

Not sure we have a lot to show for our time in the room today but we did lots of the big thinking so we know where things will go and what we want to put where. Tomorrow I'll be off for one more day of training and Tracy will be in the room working. Now I'm off to look for some more shelving... Stay tuned.