Monday, November 29, 2010

My Life as a First Grader

Back in the day - children were not required to go to Kindergarten, but my mom worked so I was enrolled in a small private Kindergarten where I mostly remember playing in the sandbox. However, going to "real" school was a big deal and I was enrolled in Royall Elementary School in Florence, SC on that first day of first grade with a little fear and lots of anticipation. My teacher was Mrs. Sharp and she ruled with an iron hand. She was older, stern and had a ruddy complexion. I don't remember that she ever smiled. I was deathly afraid of her. I vividly remember the day in first grade as we opened our reading books to the "adventures" of Dick, Jane and Sally. I did not know the word "see" and called the word "look". Mrs. Sharp was furious, furious, furious (as I remember it!) and pulled me by the ear. I was so afraid that she was going to make me wear the baby cap (which was a baby blue crocheted cap with a satin bow she made the "bad" boys wear to lunch) that I was practically trembling. I was a timid student with no self confidence. My mother had never read to me. I don't think she knew that is what she was suppose to do so I was not particularly well prepared for the academic pursuits of first grade. I was very fortunate the next year to have a second grade teacher, Mrs. Gilmore, that changed my life by believing in me. She was the reason that I later became a teacher. Right before I got married, my mother and I ran into Mrs. Sharp and she was actually delightful. She told my mom that I was such a sweet, well-behaved student! Really? She was actually pleasant and I remember walking away and being so surprised. That lesson has stuck with me all these years. When my students remember me I want it to be with a smile on my face!

I graduated from high school with most of the same students who sat with me in first grade. There was very little diversity in our little school. Schools in my southern town would not be integrated until my final years of high school. I knew nothing else so it would be years - when I became a teacher in my own hometown - before I really came to terms with what was actually happening in our southern segregated schools.

Life was safe in my little first grade world. I rode my bike to and from school. It was a couple of miles, across a main road. Many of my friends rode their bikes or walked to school and I can't ever remember any parent worrying, although remembering some of the things we did on the way home, maybe they should have! Even though my mom owned her own dancing school and worked every day, which was unusual for the times, I came home every day to my Granny who lived with us. I don't think there was anything like day care or Extended Day after school. All my friends went home to after-school snacks  and most of them went home to their stay-at-home moms. Divorce was not even an option in the times when I was a first grader.

I think life is much more complex for families today. Children spend larger amounts of time in the care of someone other than a family member. Parents, who mostly seem to be working these days, often come home tired. I know I did when I was a parent and I had a first grader while I was working full time. As a teacher now, I try to remember that my little first graders really have much more complex lives and the very things that excite us about their connectedness to the world also bother us because our children are exposed to so much more. In my years as a first grader we only had three television stations available, no cell phones or computers - hard to imagine - and rotary telephones with cords attached! Was it easier when we were just oblivious? I guess only time will tell....

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Thanksgiving on Thursday

Many of our young readers are ready for their first chapter books - more words, fewer pictures - so we thought we would begin by reading aloud some of the first books in some of the series that they can choose such as the Magic Tree House series. By reading the first book in a series, the students can meet the characters and get a feel for the books to see if they might be interested in others in the series. We started by introducing the class to eight year old Jack and his seven year old sister Annie as they are transported to another time when they open a book in their magic tree house. We first read book #1, Dinosaurs Before Dark, which the children loved. We just couldn't resist adding book #27, Thanksgiving on Thursday right before the holiday. Of course, we realized that we might need to add a little additional background knowledge to this historical fiction when we asked them to guess who the characters might meet on this adventure and they guessed George Washington and Abe Lincoln! We did fill in with some traditional Thanksgiving books of the first celebration between chapters!

Not all of our little sprouts are quite ready for chapter books. We also have children that are beginning readers (and we are quite proud of them!) but they, of course, want to read the same books that some of their peers are reading. One of our little beginning readers chose a Magic Tree House chapter book to put in his daily reading book bin. I asked him if he was sure he could read all the words and he assured me that he had taken it home the night before and stayed up all night reading it and that it was really a GREAT book. When I asked him if he had trouble with any of the words, he replied rather sheepishly, "Well I did have trouble with this word." He opened the book to the first word on the very first page, "Jack"! I mean, really, you have to give him credit for desire!

We won't stop reading, of course, because he can understand stories well above what he is able to read independently, but we will encourage mom and dad to continue to feed his desire by reading to him at this higher level at the same time that he is reading to them from books that he really can read fluently and independently. I can't wait to hear him respond as he moves through adventures with mummies and knights and even travels with the astronauts to the moon!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Last Look at Mem

We have completed our author study of Mem Fox but as standard-based bulletin boards went up last month, Maria Mallon and Cheryl Dillard's board displayed some of the work that was done during this unit. It's worth one last look!
Having children make connections to Mem Fox' books is one of the ways that we hope to have children connect to her work. We want our children to understand that good readers activate their own prior knowledge when reading a book and that they make connections to help them understand the setting or the character or the character's motivation and reactions of particular situations that they have encountered in their own lives. Associating an experience in a book with one that the child has actually lived, helps him understand the character and the stoy. The same is true for setting, characters, moods they have read about in other books. Making those connections to the new book helps them understand, predict, analyze what is happening in the new book. The student above shows that he has made a connection between Mem's Shoes from Grandpa and There Was an Old Lady who Swallowed a Bat. In this case the child recognizes that both are pattern books with rhyming text that add on. Understanding the structure of the book helps the student predict what will come next.
In the work above the student sequences the major events in the story Possum Magic. Not only does this require recall of basic information but the student is also determining the most important events in the story and summarizing them into a few short sentences - all strong components of comprehension!
In the final example, the student compares a story by Mem Fox with another story that he knows. This type of comparing and contrasting helps the student analyze what happens in both stories.

All of these activities are ways that students are taught to read across the books of the same author. Knowing more about Mem Fox and the type of books that she writes, where she gets her ideas, where she is from and what is important to her will add layers of comprehension to the student's experience with her books. Comparing and contrasting and making connections to other books will also help the student understand what is happening in these new books. All of the reading and writing in an author study is to teach our students to comprehend at a deeper level and to help our children mentor themselves to the author so that they are able to recognize and to duplicate some of Mem Fox' craft in their own work. Maybe we are watching the birth of a new Mem Fox right in our own classrooms!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The New and Improved Morning Message

For the first nine weeks Tracy and I have faithfully added a couple of sentences to our white board each morning as a morning message for the students to edit. We have concentrated this first nine weeks on capitals at the beginning of sentences, the capital I, capitals of names of people and places, ending punctuation, and spelling of high frequency words and the phonics skills we are studying. Although the children had gotten very good at editing the sentences, the rules didn't seem to be transferring into their writing. The very student who would find every period in the morning message would then begin a Writers' Workshop piece and not use a single ending punctuation!

So... we decided to try something different this second nine weeks. We decided to go right down the list of students and have each child in turn choose a piece of their own writing for the class to edit. The class would edit the first two sentences of the student's writing, just as we had the morning message. The difference would be that the student who was having his piece edited by the class would be more vested in the process and we would begin to show the students what we expect when we ask them to work with their writing partner and edit each other's work. We put the selected piece under the document camera and hit "freeze" which freezes the piece onto the white board. Then as students come up and edit the piece on the board, just as they did the morning message, the child with the chosen piece can make the same edits of his own paper. We also make sure that we point out all the great things that the student is doing so that they feel good about the process. So far this has seemed to be working. Two different students have changed the spelling of "wuz" to "was" in a new piece after having their papers edited by their peers and several have finally begun to use the capital I and one began a new piece for the first time with a capital. This editing practice does seem to be making the difference! It will be interesting to see how this new idea works over time!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


We started a new reading unit this week on the comprehension strategy of inferring. After introducing the idea of what it is and how it helps good readers, Tracy selected a student and put a word on his back. The class could see the word but the chosen student could not. Tracy invited the class to give the chosen child hints so he could try to infer what the word might be. Nicholas got the first word on his back, "mad." The students gave several hints to Nicholas including situations that would make him mad, the synonym "happy," and Shawn even showed Nic his best mad face (on the right)! After several hints, Nic guessed the word. Tracy discussed with the children that it is the same way that good readers infer when they are reading. They have a word or words in the book. They take their own schema (background knowledge) which were represented by the "hints" and put those two together to come to a new understanding. In this case the understanding is the word!

Tan got the second word, "sad." He, of course, couldn't see the word and had to guess the word on his back from the hints that were given by the rest of the class. Once again the students gave him several situations that might make him sad. Jacob did a great imitation of crying and another student gave him a synonym.
 Tan soon guessed the word. Once again Tracy went through the explanation of how the students had used the hints to figure out the word.

The students thoroughly enjoyed this lesson on inferring and seemed to get the idea that the author might not always give them all the information, but instead might just give them hints so they could figure out what had happened. We'll see how the rest of the week goes with this new and complex comprehension strategy.

Monday, November 15, 2010


As I think about the things that I am thankful for, of course, my family comes to mind first. They are the foundation of my life and why I do the things that I do, but besides their very powerful influence and love, it is the students that I have taught over the years that have defined my life. I have always believed that I was called to teach - that this is where I am suppose to be. It's as if God whispered in my ear and let me know that my life's work was to be in the classroom. I have also always believed that the children and families that come into my classroom come by Divine appointment. I was meant to teach that child and engage with that family at that time. No mistakes. However, in my youthful arrogance, I once thought that children came to me because I had something to offer them.  As I have gotten older and have gained a degree of humility I have come to realize that it is not what I have to offer them but what they have to teach me. That is why they come... And one of the things they have taught me is thankfulness. I am so thankful to be able to spend my life in the company of children who laugh... and cry, who love with abandon and who say just exactly what is on their little minds. I laughed out loud last week when I asked the children to use our vocabulary word "admire" in a sentence and Isaac said, "I admire you Mrs. Timmons." I was so touched that I almost got choked up and so I asked him why. He thought for just a second and said, "Because you're old!" Ya gotta love work that includes that kind of honesty!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Super Slime Slip-off!

What will a Principal do to motivate her students to read? Our Principal Susan Phillips agreed to be slimed if 90% of the students met their first nine weeks goal. In our first grade classroom that meant that students were required to read and log in 25 books that they read at home. Each night the students take a book-in-the bag home. The book is chosen from the 12 books that each child has in his/her "book buddy." These are the same books that they read during independent reading time at school and change out each week. In the bag is also a sheet to log the book each night, Monday through Thursday. It is the student's responsibility to log the book - not the parent's. Each student who read and logged the 25 books met his Readers-to-Leaders goal. We could have assured that every student met the goal by having the students read and log the books during class time but decided on this more difficult goal because we didn't want to take the time away from reading during Readers' Workshop to log the book and we thought it was important that even our youngest children begin to develop the routine of reading every night. While I am NOT an advocate of homework for first graders, I am a real advocate for children reading at home every single night!

However, having said that, we were very disappointed that we didn't have 90% of our class who met their first nine weeks goal. Of course, that doesn't change our resolve to get our children to read at home! We are so fortunate that our Principal is willing to put herself out there to motivate our children so that we are able to use the event to remind our students how important we think reading really is! Next nine weeks the children have an opportunity to make up the first nine weeks goal and meet the second nine weeks goal of 30 books (plus the 25 they read the first nine weeks). If they meet the goal they will be on their way to reading a million words during the year and will be invited to Book Bonanza Bingo with the Principal! We are expecting every single child to meet their goal!!!

Happy Veteran's Day

One of the most popular Chets Creek Book-of-the-Months was repeated today in celebration of Veteran's Day, America's White Table. The book is the story of a white table that is set in remembrance of the men and women who have sacrificed their lives so that we may enjoy peace. As we entered the Media Center today all the lights were off except for a spotlight on a small table. As the Principal began reading, the Media Specialist set each item on the table to remember - a white tablecloth to honor a soldier's pure heart, a lemon slice and grains of salt on a plate to show a captive soldier's bitter fate and the tears of families waiting for loved ones to return. A black napkin is added for sorrow and the empty chair represents the missing soldier who is not there - a white candle for peace and a red rose for hope. As the Principal closed the book at the last words, the sounds of Taps played. Each person was left with their own memories...
thank you Daddy for your service and for your sacrifice.


Tonight Cara Stieglitz was named Homecoming Queen at Fletcher High School. High Schools all over the country are naming Homecoming Queens this time of year but what makes this story so very special is that Cara is a young lady with Downs Syndrome. Twelve years ago Cara's mom, Melanie, sat with Kerry Rogers and me and suggested that she wanted Cara to be included in our Kindergarten class full time. Although inclusion was the new buzz word, it was not really being done in Duval County at the time - at least not with students who had the significant challenges that Cara had. As we sat there, Melanie honestly explained Cara's abilities - and her challenges - and laid out her plan. I guess Kerry and I could have said no but I think we all knew that the legal system was behind Melanie if it ever came to that - not that she ever pushed or demanded. She was the perfect blend of "let's give it a try" and "I'll be there to support you every step of the way" - and she was. Kerry and I never hesitated. I think we knew even then that it was the right thing to do. Every time we stumbled - and we did - we simply went back to the drawing board to figure out how we could rearrange things so they would work.

Kindergarten is a good time for inclusion. Children at that age are very accepting of differences. It was easy to get children to partner with Cara. Most of them enjoyed being selected to be her helper. That's not to say everything went smoothly, but when we did have bumps in the road, Melanie made it easy to call her and sit down and work through solutions. By the end of the year, Kerry and I were very pleased with the outcomes. Although Cara had not mastered all of the kindergarten academic skills, she had made good, consistent progress and she had certainly matured socially. She had learned to navigate the kindergarten classroom and playground. She had friends. And the other children in that class had learned from Cara. In fact they had learned the most. They had learned how to be helpful without doing it for her. They had learned empathy.

I kept up with Cara on and off as she went through school. I would run into Melanie every now and then after I left Alimacani for Chets Creek. I remember she called me once and told me that Cara had been invited to her first sleepover. I think we both cried. As the years went by, every year had its challenges, but Melanie stood strong as Cara's advocate. She was never unreasonable, but she would not be pushed around either. She stood firm when she needed to and compromised when she needed to. She actively sought out the best teachers and the best programs for Cara and left no stone unturned to help her along the way. When I got Melanie's e-mail that Cara had been nominated by her bowling coach to serve on this year's Homecoming Court, I cried. I couldn't have been prouder.

My hat is also off to the students at Fletcher. Many of them have known Cara since that first year at Alimacani. They have watched her grow and mature. I am sure they have seen her fall too, but they have also seen her pick herself up and with more determination than ever, take the next step. Many of them must have been willing to forgo a vote for a friend in order to make this dream possible for Cara. That shows a group of students who had the maturity to understand the bigger picture. The smile on Cara's face tonight says it all, but this is not only a victory for one little girl, it is a victory of an entire community. The Stieglitz family serves as an example of what can be accomplished when families and educators work together - when they can put aside their own personal needs and wants and do what is best for a child! Congratulations Queen Cara! May your reign be an inspiration to us all!

Monday, November 8, 2010

My Life as a Writer

I guess I've always been a writer, but as a young student I don't ever remember being taught to write or any teacher ever encouraging me to write. I do remember being in middle school and the teacher assigning a creative writing assignment. We had to write about "Red." I don't really remember what I wrote but I do remember the pieces that the teacher read out loud and I remember being blown away because they were so-o-o- good. None of the stuff that they wrote ever popped into MY head! I remember thinking that I could NEVER write like that!

Even as a young child, however, I liked to write. I had a diary. I remember writing long journal entries about everything in my life. I also remember destroying a couple of the diaries because I was afraid my mother would find them! As a young wife I wrote furiously in a journal trying to figure out how to learn to live with another person. I really didn't have a good role model for being a good wife so none of it came naturally for me. My husband used to call it my "hate" journal because I was more likely to be writing when things weren't going well or I was really upset! I still think I do my best writing when I'm fired up about something. It's easy to write with voice - with passion and emotion when I care deeply about an issue.

While I was home on my second maternity leave, my writing took a dramatic turn. I had been leading a mixed group of teachers who had been meeting together once a week for a couple of years to share teaching ideas - I guess I understood collegiality way before it was the newest buzz word - and while I was out with my second baby I decided to finish the document that we had been working on for those two years. It was ideas around teaching a letter of the week to beginning readers. I had been keeping notes on all of our ideas so I decided to complete the research that we never seemed to have time to finish as a gift to the teachers when I returned. It was their idea that I try to have it published after they realized how much additional work I had put into our original ideas. I thought it was lark but decided to send the manuscript off to six publishers. I knew so little about publishing but within two weeks I had a contract for my first book. However, there were many delays and it was not published until five years later in 1991, A is Amazing. I just happened to submit a manuscript that a particular publisher was looking for at that particular time so the contract was immediate, but the publisher was going through some editorial changes that caused many delays and frustrations. Now, of course, the idea of "letter of the week" has fallen out of favor and of course, the book is out of print, but at the time it became a best seller for the company and within 6 months I had a contract for another book and so it went. I published 10 books with that company over the next few years.

In the meantime I had been publishing ideas in The Mailbox and they invited me to a Summer Writing Institute where I joined eight other authors from across the country that were all doing freelance work for the The Education Center which publishes The Mailbox Magazines. I went to Greensboro, NC for two summers to learn to write the "Mailbox" way and it was both intimidating and awesome. At the summer retreat I met three other teacher-writer-moms who lived in different parts of the country. We decided to propose a series of books to The Education Center while we were there and to our surprise, they accepted our proposal. It was a first for them to have collaborators outside their direct organization make a proposal.  For the next four years the four of us wrote books using e-mail. It was before Google Docs or any of the on-line pieces that make cooperative writing so much easier. It was cumbersome but it was the first time The Education Center had a completed manuscript that was done outside of their offices that didn't require major revision. Those three women were funny, creative, and wonderful co-writers and I am richer for having known and worked with each one of them. Just remembering that time in my life puts a smile on my face!

During those ten years I wrote or co-authored 19 books for teachers. When I think about it now, I am awed by how prolific I was and I am proud of that accomplishment. I could not have done it if my husband had not been so willing to take up the slack. He learned to wash clothes and dishes during those years as I often wrote through the night to meet a deadline while I taught full time. I tried for my writing not to take time away from my children and so I wrote late at night, very early in the mornings, and while they were away with friends. I loved it, but there came a time when I felt it was taking too much of my time... so before my daughter left home, I decided to put down the pen and spend time with her. It was a good decision.

In the meantime, I joined a new faculty and began a steep learning curve into a new chapter in my life. I haven't really been moved to take on a book project or at least, when I thought maybe I wanted to, things just didn't seem to piece together easily so that I really felt it was what I was suppose to do. I usually get very clear messages about what I am suppose to be doing - nothing like the burning bush, of course, but still pretty clear! Today I write on a more immediate level. I have written about the work I'm doing now in magazines and for some on-line publications, when asked, and I love blogging about my work. I work with incredible teachers. I've written some units for and with the teachers I work with now and then have sent them out to anyone that wanted them. That actually has been very gratifying.

While I have written on topics that I was asked to write on, that kind of writing is like writing to a prompt. My best writing comes when I just have something noddling around in my head and I just can't seem to get rid of it unless I write about it. Some of that writing is so emotional that it will never see the light of day and some of it is just my ramblings about things in my personal life but some of it has a purpose and involves things I want to share about the work that I am lucky enough to do now.

I am not, nor will I ever be, the world's greatest writer. I don't write deep pieces with great thoughts that will change the world. I don't write "funny," because actually I'm not really a very funny person. I just write about the world as I see it and hope that something I say might resonate and make a difference...

I do believe that the varied experiences that I have had have made me a better writing teacher. I think I understand many of the reasons that people write and I realize that children need to learn to write for many different reasons. It is my job to release the inner writer's voice that is in each of my children so that whatever it is that they will need to do, they will be equipped to do it - whether it's texting or therapy or writing the next great novel. Here's to that writer in each of us!

Friday, November 5, 2010

After the school day...

I got an e-mail this week from our Instructional Coach, Suzanne Shall. She forwarded an e-mail from a Teach for America teacher in an inner city school who asked for some writing samples from our students. I was happy to comply. This teacher came after school one day this week to pick up the samples. She is sharing them with a group of teachers that meet regularly to help them understand that we need to have high expectations of all of our students.

I had the opportunity to share with her my own "aha!" experience with high expectations. I had the amazing opportunity of being sent to Columbia University's Teachers' College for a Summer Institute to study with Lucy Calkins soon after I transferred to Chets Creek. Professionally, it was life changing. I had been with kindergarten students for several years in a high performing school and I really thought I had very high expectations for all students, but when I went to NYC and watched video after video of kindergarten students from some of the most diverse and poverty stricken areas of the city, who were able to talk about their writing and their reading in ways that I could never have imagined kindergartners doing, it changed forever what I would expect of our youngest learners. So I know what a difference it can make to actually see children doing things that you once thought impossible.

As I gave this teacher the writing samples, I invited her to tour some of our first grade classrooms, even though the students had left for the day. She spend the next hour with me walking and talking our way through first grade. We went first into Maria Mallon and Cheryl Dillard's classroom and they spent some time answering questions and sharing the way that they see things. I am always so proud to take visitors through our classrooms because I think - I hope, that it is obvious that we are collaborative, that professional development is embedded into the very pores of our existence and that we depend on professional conversation to make each of us better. I like for our teachers to also hear from teachers in other schools so that they can be as thankful as I am that we have made AYP each year and are not under some of the restrictive guidelines that would sap our professional time and energy. Because we have such freedom to envisions where we think are students should be, we sometimes forget what is going on in other parts of our country, our state, county. I also like for them to hear the different challenges that other teachers face and how their solutions and professional development, even though it is very different from what we do, can give us ideas to feed our own creative possibilities. We then went down to Debbie Harbour and Tenean Alleyne's classroom and even though they were getting ready for their Awards Ceremony the following week, they also stopped to have conversation with this teacher that they didn't know and hadn't expected. I think that's one of the things that we do well - we share and look to visitors as much to get information as to give it. We finished by stopping into Haley Alvarado and Denise Donofrio's classroom. Even though they had left for the day I felt completely comfortable taking her into their room, poking around in their student work and sharing with her some of the charts and work that I saw around the room. I am sure that they would have not minded because we have so many visitors walking through our classrooms that our teachers and our students are very comfortable with teachers snapping pictures, asking questions, and taking notes.

Of course, as so often happens, I was the one that really benefited from the visit. I was reminded of the enthusiasm and urgency that so many teachers at our inner city schools feel because they really are changing a generation of students. Their work is changing the direction of lives. Even with what must seem like insurmountable odds at times, they are making a difference and when you see the determination, the ability and the urgency in teachers like this one - who took her own time and initiative to come across town and look for answers - you know how fortunate our profession is. We would all be better teachers if we could find a way to collaborate in this bigger family of educators...

Monday, November 1, 2010

Moments that Make Me Smile

As we wrap up the day. I sometimes play the "Skittles quiz" with the class. The quiz is simply me asking questions that review the day and kids get a single Skittle if they answer correctly. As I was reviewing the afternoon before our Mem Fox Celebration, I asked the kids what we would be doing first thing in the morning. To open our Mem Fox Celebration, we were going to be Skyping a first grade teacher in Australia. It would be the middle of the night for her! We were very excited in anticipation, but the students were not really familiar with Skype so most of them didn't really know what to expect. When I asked them, "Who remembers what we will be doing in the morning?" one of the kiddos piped up, "We're gonna be skyping the fox!" I would love to see the picture in his mind! It made me smile.

Last week we were stamping on fake "tatoos" of pumpkins and bats. We were using wooden stamps and acrylic paint and asking the children if they wanted the stamps on their face or on their arms. As one of the little girls sat down, she pulled the collar of her dress down to show the space right over her breast and said, "Can I have mine right here? My mom has hers right here." We said, "Absolutely not!" but it still made me smile! My day is full of those small moments that make me smile for I know from experience that I’ll look back and realize all of these funny little moments add up to something special, something important, something irreplaceable.