Sunday, October 31, 2010

Science Instruction

Being back in the classroom full time this year means that I have taken on Science and math instruction for the first time in many years. This week I was responsible for planning our first grade Science instruction and I found myself in charge of a unit about the Earth's Structure and how the land and water of the surface can change. I guess it sounds simple enough, but I realized for the first time why Science in the primary school has not moved further along. First of all, the District has done some work giving us Resources in the form of a District curriculum aligned with state standards and we do have an adopted series that isn't very aligned... but that's it. There are no lessons to teach. You only have the standards, some resources and a pacing guide that tells you when to teach what.

Our first grade Science lead teacher recognized this right off and so we have had our grade level teachers organize and write some lessons. The problem, of course, is that many of us do not have strong Science content backgrounds and we are not really familiar with the depth of the content, so we don't understand the continuum of the content K-5. Although we know that our students will learn better by experiencing labs and experiments, we don't really know how to best set those up, so the lessons that we write are just a beginning. As I looked at the lessons for this week, I had to really think about if the lesson REALLY taught the concept I thought I wanted the students to understand. It didn't. So I spent probably three hours a night for three or four nights trying to understand the big picture and looking for a lab experience that might engage the students - time I surely did not have! Finally I felt like I had an idea for a lab that might work - didn't really know for sure! Next, I needed to find or buy the materials for the lab. About $15 later I had everything I thought I needed for a 20 minute lab demonstration! This was one week's lab.
So why hasn't Science moved forward in primary classroom? In my opinion, it is because
  • teachers lack the Scientific background knowledge that they need
  • teachers lack "outside the classroom time" to gain the knowledge that they need
  • there is not sufficient "on the clock" time and professional development for teachers to learn what they need to know
  • Science money and supplies are not readily available in the school. It takes both the money to purchase the supplies and then the time to buy them off the clock
I don't think anyone at my school will be surprised by my observations. I think by forming a Science Council and by having a lead Science teacher at each grade level they have recognized the needs, but I'm not sure it's enough to roll out the type of instruction that is needed in K-2 to support a 5th grade state assessment. The 5th Grade certainly can't be expected to build ALL of the knowledge in a single year. They have to expect teachers in the lower grades to build a foundation for them to build upon. So what's the answer? I am sure with the creative and dedicated people that I work with, that we will figure it out. In the meantime feel free to leave your suggestions!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Three Blind Mice!

What a fun day! The children arrived this morning dressed as their favorite book character. They began with a parade around the bottom floor of the school, slapping the hands of upperclassmen lining both sides of the hallway and entering the Dining Room to their parents' flashing camera lights. They paraded back to the room to enjoy fall centers: Making Autumn colored leaves sponge painted with fall tempera and then washed in water to make the colors run, a wreath of jack-o-lantern shapes, using permanent pens to paint real miniature pumpkins, stringing fall colored beads and foam shapes to make a Fall necklace, colorful Fall trees with the hand and forearm used as the tree shape and finger prints used for the Fall leaves, pumpkins and bat acrylic tattoos, and decorating sugar cookies to look like pumpkins. As the children went to lunch the teachers prepared the room for a second set of Fall activities that included cutting a pumpkin into a jack-o-lantern, predicting the number of seeds, estimating the circumference of the pumpkin, using pattern blocks to vote on a design to cut the jack-o-lantern eyes, nose, and mouth (triangle eyes, a rhombus nose and a trapezoid mouth with rhombus fangs!) and finally decorating a group picture to take home. And, of course, there were a few festive read alouds in between activities. It was a day of fun but also included applying some of the skills we have been learning into problem solving activities.

The evening brought the children back to school as the teachers passed out candy around the bottom floor and the children converged on the playground to find rides and jumping houses and food and games! It was a carnival night for families and just good fellowship with friends. This elaborate celebration is a combination of work between teachers, administration and loads and loads of parents. This reminds me that schools are still the center of many communities.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


As our school went into the 10 day count at the beginning of the year, we added teachers. One of those teachers was Rebecca Roberts, an experienced first grade teacher, who had recently moved to the Jacksonville area. Rebecca is doing safety net work in the mornings in first grade but in the afternoons she has joined our classroom for Math and Science. Rebecca had SmartBoard training at her previous school where she used the Board daily. We only have two SmartBoards in our building. One was part of a technology package that was a gift to each of the state Teachers of the Year during my reign. While the technology package was given personally to the teachers, I decided to have my technology housed at my school. I can't imagine what I would have done with it at home! I did have enough professional development with the SmartBoard to have a good idea of how engaging it could be to children! Since returning to Chets, I haven't had my own classroom so the SmartBoard has been housed with several different primary teachers, but no one, except maybe the Media Specialist, has actually had training on the ways that a SmartBoard can be used in a classroom. When Rebecca came into our room, it was the perfect opportunity to see the SmartBoard in action. Today was our first lesson as Rebecca taught our Calendar Math lesson on the Board! As predicted, the students were glued to the screen! I can't wait to see this piece of technology actually used on a daily basis. I've followed the pros and cons of SmartBoards in the classroom, so it will be a nice treat to actually see for myself. Are they worth the money? We'll see...

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Mem Fox Celebration Day!

We began our Mem Fox Celebration Day by Skyping a teacher in Australia, Amanda Marrinan! It was quite an adventure! It was 1:00 am her time but she stayed up so we could have a conversation. Each class had prepared a question so the children asked everything from if she had known the Crocodile Hunter and if she had been to the Australian Zoo to what she thought of Mem Fox when she met her and her favorite Mem Fox book. She had even prepared some of the Aussie dishes that the children had read about in Possum Magic such as lamington, pavlova, minties and even Australian tim tams. We are indebted to our Technologist Melanie Holtsman for traveling around the world virtually to make the experience available to our youngsters!

Our next adventure was hearing a former Creeker play the didgeridoo, an Aboriginal wind instrument native to Australia. Sam had lived in Australia when was a first grader! He left his college classes to come share with our children. They were fascinated by the handmade instrument and it's sound and the story he told about termites carving the hollow tube of the gum tree !

Then it was back to our classroom to preform Mem Fox Readers' Theatre scripts that the children have been practicing all week. They presented Koala Lou, Hattie and the Fox and Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge to the delight of their classmates. We tasted pavlova and made some Australian crafts. We completed the day by playing Mem Fox Bingo which was a review of all of the books, characters, Australian animals and places that we had learned about throughout the four week study. While the children have loved Mem's pattern books, they equally loved her touching stories. It will be hard to say good-by to this amazing author.

My Life as a Mathematician

My friends will NEVER let me live this down but somehow I missed this week's challenge in my list of fall blog challenge topics and wrote about next week's topic instead. I have given the math teachers such a hard time all these years that they are going to swear that I skipped the math post on purpose! We have had an on-going debate among Math and Reading teachers over the years about which subject is the most difficult to teach and which is the most important. Obviously, I'm on the RIGHT side - with Reading being much more complex and difficult to teach and certainly more important than Math! With all that said, I am back to teaching first grade math for the first time in many, many years so I am probably going to have to eat my words about which subject is the most difficult to teach!

There is no question that math is an important part of my day from balancing my checkbook to figuring out how to convert a recipe to appropriate Weight Watcher measurements to figuring out how many days until my niece's wedding. And of course, teaching is run on data these days so there is hardly ever a day when I'm not trying to interpret some sort of assessment information! I guess I am fortunate that Math has always come very easy for me. I grew up in a Southern county that had an excellent math prep program and I actually tested out of all Math in college. It will surprise most of my friends to know that I actually started my freshman year of college as a math major! However, it didn't last long.   I had especially loved Algebra in middle school when I first started advanced Math. It came really easy and I loved my teacher. I actually went back to teach in that same middle school many years later and taught in the classroom beside her! She was as outstanding then as she had been when I was a student.

I'm not sure that any of that prepared me to be a Math teacher. As I have begun to teach an inquiry-based Math program, I have felt as unsettled as some of my students. The disequilibrium is real.  I have really had to dig to remember the HOW I know something works. I just know the answer but I don't always know how I know. It's a lot like reading comprehension. You know the answer because you have learned to use strategies automatically. It took a while for me to break through HOW I knew the answer and to identify the strategies and proof when I first starting taking reading comprehension apart. I think it will work that same way with Math. I know the answer automatically, but I will have to really search for the strategies and proof of how I got the answer. I am thinking that it may take as much creativity and depth of research in Math as it has in Reading! In fact, I have decided to use this year as I journey through the Math curriculum to write about math for the first time. I've always used this blog to document literacy but today's blog will begin my journey with Math! I'll still write about Literacy, of course, but I will begin to include Math instruction as it is rolled our in our first grade classrooms... Stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

When Is It Too Much?

This is one of those weeks that I wonder why I ever wanted to go back into the classroom full time!  Sometimes the load on a teacher's shoulders is almost unbearable.

First of all we've been working on a class pumpkin. The tradition is to have your class choose a favorite book and then illustrate the book in pumpkins. It's a tradition I've always loved as the lobby is adorned with pumpkin creativity. However, most teachers have worked out a system that includes having their Room Mom take on most of the responsibility for the project so as not to take away from instructional time. I'm not quite as good at that! Our room mom was already committed to a run in Atlanta to support her sister with breast cancer - a noble cause - so we've been painting and designing and hot gluing in between each lesson all week. Today someone came in and said the instructions (there were instructions?) said not to use hot glue! Too late!

Then there are the grades that are due on Friday. That's a big undertaking any nine weeks - especially with our on-line system (which is suppose to make it easier, but until we learn the system well, only makes it harder) but this nine weeks we have had seven new students and each of them has a different set of circumstances so we have been running around trying to find out just who needs what - driving the office nuts as we try to get the paperwork we need from states across the country. We've been making up assessments with children that have been absent and trying to make sure that our grades reflect what has actually been going on this nine weeks. We never seem to have everything we need. We've been working at every planning time- coming early, staying late. We still have comments to write for each student and the social growth and development grades to finalize before the Monday deadline.

Then there's the standard-based bulletin board that is due on Friday. My teaching partner has taken most of this on her shoulders as she prepares a Math board, but I am impressed again with the time that it all takes. Doing the student work is the easy part. It's the commentary and actually designing the board that takes the time. Even covering the board with paper and scraping the hot glue from the last board takes time! And did I mention the expected creativity and quality that is a given?

Then there's the Mem Fox Celebration Day on Friday. We are completing the four week unit which we have really enjoyed. On Friday we will be Skyping a class in Australia and then having a teacher's son play the digideroo. Then it's on to themed centers and activities and the students performing Readers' Theatre of Mem's books. We also need to look up a recipe for pavlova which is a Mem Fox dish and which we will be preparing as our Fun Friday treat. Lots of prep for the special day.

And did I mention that next Friday is our parade of book characters so we have to decide how to dress? That might be the most difficult decision of the entire week! And of course, I've been buying the supplies for our Fall Centers all week. We'll have parents in for that fun day after the parade to help so we certainly want it to be fun and organized. That night we will be dressed again and at school to give out trick-or-treating candy. It's also our responsibility to decorate the basketball toss, which is one of the games that evening.

Today we met with our RtI group and I was again reminded that we are at the end of a nine weeks. One fourth of the year has flown past. Have we done enough to make sure every child is getting what they need? Because in between all of the other "stuff" we are suppose to be teaching! It's the teaching that can't suffer, no matter what else is going on.

I know I'm at a school where much is expected of teachers. I sometimes think so much is done that it begins to be more expected than appreciated, but I wouldn't want to be at a school where we were satisfied and didn't want to do more for our students. It's just important that the fluff doesn't overpower the important stuff - that teachers stay true to their main mission - that when teachers have to let something go because it's just too much that it's the extra things that go - not the strength and depth of instruction. If we keep our mission in mind, all the other pieces will fall into place...won't they?

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Book That Made the Biggest Impact

This blog challenge is on the book that made the greatest impact on my life. Wow - this was really a difficult post to write. There are so many books that I have loved - so many that I have read that have left an impression or that have taught me about life. I really struggled with which book had the greatest impact.

I finally settled on a series of books. When I was in the 3rd-4th grade I was introduced to a series of books called The Dana Sisters written by Carolyn Keene. She was probably more famous for the Nancy Drew series. Of course now I know that Carolyn Keene was a pseudonym for several different writers who wrote under the Carolyn Keene name. The Dana Sisters were a cross between the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew but those books really hooked me. Each story was a
mystery that was solved by two sisters. It was the first series of books that I ever read - books with strong independent young women - the first time I got so hooked on books. At the time I got an allowance - my lunch money plus a dollar a week. The books cost a dollar and I spent my allowance on the books for many weeks. The books were actually being written during that time and I remember I would go to the bookstore every single week to see if a new book had been published. A new book was like a golden prize.

I guess the reason I think those books made the biggest impact is because they opened up a whole new world - the world of being lost in a story - a habit that would become such an enjoyable part of my life. If I could do one thing for each child in my class it would be to give them that gift of a love for reading. Not only is reading for information a critical skill, the ability to lose yourself in the story of a good book or the ability to cry at a true story that touches your heart or the ability to search the Bible for answers in times of great struggle or the simple ability to enjoy a picture book with your child, add such depth and dimension to your life. May that seed be planted in every child that walks through the door...

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Class Poll - Our Favorite Mem Fox character

We are deep in the midst of a Mem Fox Author Study. This is our third week and children are digging deeper as they are comparing and contrasting books, retelling the stories in pictures and words, and are talking about the descriptive way in which Mem Fox describes her characters. For this week's survey, I thought I'd ask each student which was their favorite Mem Fox character and why. We discussed the characters and then each child joined a table group and wrote characteristics of one of the characters. We shared out the results. Then they each took a index card and and drew a picture of their favorite character on one side and on the other side wrote why that particular character was their favorite. Finally we graphed the results.

Looks like little Hush from Mem Fox' Possum Magic is the class favorite. I'm not surprised. He started out as invisible so the snakes couldn't see and harm him and when he wanted to become visible so he could see himself. Grandma Poss traveled with him all over Australia trying native foods until she figured out exactly what would break the spell. Hush is adorable, knows what he wants, and loves an adventure. Hmmmm...sounds a lot
like the kids who voted for him!

Boo to a Goose

It took Mem Fox ten years to get Boo to a Goose published. It didn't take our class ten minutes to fall in love with the lyrical lines and memorize most of the rhyming text! It is yet another of Mem's pattern books that includes repetition, so it is a natural for an innovation. After reading the book a couple of times - until the children joined in on the last line on each page without any prompting - we told the children that we would be writing our own innovation of Mem's picture book for young children. Since our theme is the farm, we listed all the farm animals that we could name. I chose "duck" as my example and "wrote in the air" my own lines of "I'd sit on a duck if you'd give me a buck... but I wouldn't say 'Boo!' to a goose!" Each child worked with a teacher to help refine his lines before writing them down and illustrating, and before you know it, we had our own class innovation of a Mem Fox book! Enjoy some of the examples below.
BOO!” to a Goose
Adapted from Mem Fox’ Boo to a Goose

by the R&T Farmhands

I'd sit on a cat and I'd give him a hat... But I wouldn't say "BOO!" to a goose.
I'd sit with a pony and marry a phony... But I wouldn't say "BOO!" to a goose.
I'd sit on a dog and I'd croak like a frog... But I wouldn't say "BOO!" to a goose.
I'd sit on a sheep if you give me a jeep... But I wouldn't say "BOO!" to a goose.I'd dance with a bunny if you give me some money... But I wouldn't say "BOO!" to a goose.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Retelling Mem

!As we have been studying Mem Fox' books in our class, the children have begun to practice writing retellings of the books. After watching the teacher model a retelling of Koala Lou, the children then divided into partners and chose a different Mem Fox book to retell. They divided their papers into three section and referred to the attributes chart to make sure they had the details correct. They discussed what they should put into each section and how they should say it and then one of the partners began writing. Before you know it, they had an entire retelling!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Comparing and Contrasting Mem Fox Books

Comparing and contrasting books is a good way for children to begin to understand books across a single author. Today I demonstrated the way that Koala Lou and Possum Magic, both books by Mem Fox, are alike and the ways that they are different by using a Venn diagram. For the active involvement of the mini-lesson the students were divided into partners and allowed to select two other Mem Fox books to compare and contrast using their own Venn diagrams. We helped the partners either chose two of her pattern books or two of her story books so the books would have more in common. As children use the graphic organizer to help them understand the Mem Fox books, it helps them organize their thoughts and begin to talk with a partner - the first steps in accountable talk.

Mem Fox' Shoes for Grandpa

Shoes from Grandpa is a delightful cumulative text about the clothes that a family buys for Jessie. In order to understand the sequence of this book, today the children drew the sequence as I read the text. It helped the children understand the characters and setting, the sequence and the cumulative way that the text works. Understanding this book will help them understand and predict other books by Mem Fox and also other books that have the cumulative story structure.

Swatting Our Words

There's nothing more fun than playing a game while we practice a skill. Welcome to the fly swatter game! We were introduced to this game by Miss Young and it requires dividing the class into two team, writing high-frequency words on the board, calling one word at a time and seeing who can swat the word first! Boys won today, but it's girls revenge tomorrow!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Small Moment at the Farm

Lucy Calkins talks about children learning to write about small moments instead of bed-to-bed stories that just tell a sequence of events from the time they get up in the morning until they go to bed in the evening. Our field trip to the farm last week was the perfect example for the children to stop thinking about long, all day stories and just think about a small moment that they could blow up. As we talked about the farm, we talked about each of the things we did - beginning with putting our lunches in the coolers and putting on our name tags to taking the long ride on the bus and then going through the corn maze and then the hayride to see pumpkins and sunflowers ... until we loaded the bus back home and fell asleep! We talked to the children about thinking about a small moment during the day instead of trying to tell everything we did. To emphasize that, we put photographs of moments at the farm onto writing paper and asked each child to choose a favorite moment from a photograph to write about. It was such a great way to explain to the children that we want them to write a lot about one event instead of a list or series of events. Mrs. Ruark modeled with the story about jumping on the corn popper and all the fun she had. She did leave out the part about almost wetting her pants, but I still think the children would have enjoyed that part too! While the writing may still not be quite as deep as we'd like or have as much detail as we'd like, they do seem to be getting the point!

When my class went on the playground I went in the popcorn box and I was excited that I buried Tanner and Jesse. And I played that I was a monster under the water

but it was wasn't really water. And I played and played and played and I was so excited until my pants fell off.

And here is another example of a small moment:

My class went to the farm. And we got to go on a hayride. And it was fun. We saw big sunflowers and big white and normal orange pumpkins and I was in the sun. They call it a hayride?Maybe because it has hay for the seat to sit on. Maybe for another reason. I don't know. But they call it a hayride.

Monday, October 4, 2010

My Life as a Reader

My teaching partner, Tracy Ruark and I actually just did this lesson, "My Life as a Reader" for the children in our classroom last week. We wanted them to know how reading effects our own lives so they could see all the ways that we use reading in our daily life. We then had the children write about their lives as readers.

I love, love, love to read. I read fiction. Right now on my nightstand is Barbara Delinsky's The Secret Between Us - a new author for me. My favorite author is Jodie Piccoult but I've read everything she's written so I'm just waiting until her next release. I just loved her last book about a young man with Asperger's Syndrome. Reading is relaxing for me and I most often read laid out on my comfy sofa or in bed before I go to sleep. Probably my most favorite place to read is in the late afternoon at the beach.

When I was young, reading was a way to escape - a way to imagine living in a perfect world of dreams and imagination. I think I still read fiction for that reason. The problem is that I often get so involved in a story line that I just can't put the book down. I have been known to read all night long - especially during vacations! That's one of the reasons that I read People and Southern Living and right now, I'm reading wedding magazines because my daughter is "that" age! Magazines have shorter articles and I can pace myself better! I'm not as tempted to do an all-nighter.

I also read non-fiction. I have three books about teaching reading and writing on my night stand right now. I usually make myself read the nonfiction books before I allow myself the pleasure of reading fiction! If I'm honest I'd have to admit to doing most of my reading these days on the Internet, so I'm probably reading more non-fiction than I imagine. I'm always searching for something new to use in my classroom. I also read lots of blogs. Reading is a big part of my life. I can't imagine life without something good to read!  Hope that love for reading is contagious and that each child in my class catches it before theyear is out!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Night Noises

Night Noises is another delightful book by Mem Fox that revisits the elderly characters that she so often incorporates into her stories and a nighttime theme. As we move more deeply into Mem's work, we want our students to be able to retell her stories. Night Noises is full of the onomatopoeia (writing craft) that Lily Laceby hears during the night as her family sneaks up on her to wish her a surprise "Happy Birthday!" To retell this story the students used a worksheet and wrote each of the sounds that are in bold red type from the story. Then they went back and recorded the event that made the sound in the same box. After the children had completed their illustrations, they practiced retelling the stories using their drawings. You can find a copy of this graphic organizer at the grade level wiki under the subsection "Author-Mem Fox." Enjoy one child's drawings below!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Mem Fox Innovation

We started our study of Mem Fox this week by reading her delightful night time story, Time for Bed. In hopes of bridging the curriculum from pattern books to Mem Fox we chose a Mem Fox book that is a pattern book. The children loved this lyrical repetitive book about night time animals going to sleep. Next we decided to take a look at Mem's pattern and write a similar pattern of our own. The children decided instead of writing about going to bed, they would choose a pattern about waking up and since our theme this year is the farm, they wanted to have the animals wake up on the farm. Next we brainstormed all the farm animals we could name. The children divided into partners and each partnership chose one of the animals from the chart. The children decided on the pattern, Good morning little ____, little ____. Next the partners brainstormed all of the real words that they could think of that rhymed with their animal name. Each group wrote a rhyming sentence to complete the couplet. Since this book was going to be a story that all the children would read, the teachers opted to type the couplets with corrected spelling and punctuation.

The second day of this two day project, the teachers talked about matching the words to the pictures before the children went off to illustrate their rhyming couplet. After the pictures were complete, the children came back together to talk about an ending for their book and to illustrate the final page. What a delightful way to begin an author study - by adapting the writer's style to a class story!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Join a Blog Challenge

At the end of last year our Leadership Team noticed that many of our blogging teachers had really stopped posting altogether or had posted fewer times as the year had gone along. What had started as a new, fun, creative idea the years before had begun to fizzle. Not only that, but while teachers had done a pretty good job of putting photographs up of the children in their classroom during big events, it seemed that they were missing the variety and deeper lessons that could be shared through blogging. I remember making the comment at that time that I wanted to send something to teachers every week when I returned to the classroom full time so it would give them some ideas of what to blog about. Of course, while my intention was good, as I returned to the classroom full time I got stuck in the quagmire of things that eat up a teacher's time. I haven't delivered on my intent. Our technology mentor, Melanie Holtsman, had heard that little seed of an idea and, as it so often happens, had let the idea germinate until she had a plan for how it could be implemented. One of the things that I love about our Leadership group is that someone can present a problem or even an idea of how we might do something better and someone else will pick up on it and run. So... Melanie has come up with a blogging challenge. Of course, she always thinks bigger than I do so she has opened it up to anyone that wants to take the challenge! To read all the details, check out her blog. As for me, watch for my blog each week to meet the challenge. You'll know it's a blogging challenge because it will be labeled fallblogchallenge2010.