Friday, December 31, 2010

My American Girl

Earlier this month I wrote about a gift that I had received that meant a lot to me as part of the fallblogchallenge2010. However, this Christmas I may have given my most favorite gift of all.

My daughter, Courtney, is a third grade teacher and she has written quite eloquently about her own challenges as a young reader. As part of her blog entry about her life as a reader she told the story about how I tried to bribe her to read more in the second or third grade. The American Girl dolls were so popular and she REALLY wanted one, so I told her that if she would read the entire series about any one of the dolls that I would buy the doll for her. She chose Molly so I went right out and bought the series. I was so proud of myself- so smug, so sure that I had the perfect plan! I think Courtney really tried, but the books were just too tough for her. I brought it up again several times over the years- as the books gathered dust on her shelf. I'd catch her looking longingly at the books but to my knowledge, she never touched them again. They just stood there as a reminder of her failure.

As the years went by, Courtney continued to really work hard. She never gave up, although it seemed she had to work harder than most of her friends. By the time she got to college she had decent comprehension skills but it still took her much longer than her friends to complete reading assignments. By then, of course, she had developed lots of coping skills such as color coded note taking, summarizing at the end of each paragraph, making notes in red on yellow note cards, dictating important events into a tape recorder as she went and then playing it back when she finished and dozens of other "tried and true " techniques that she had developed that helped her study. Things really seemed to click for her as she went through her college years and, much to my surprise, she even went on to pursue a masters degree. About two yeas ago she actually came home and read a book that my husband had finished and recommended for PLEASURE! It had been a long, hard road, but I am so proud of how she persevered.

As I was choosing her present this year, I wrote her this letter.

Dearest Courtney,
When you were a youngster, I so wanted you to love reading... but you didn't! I tried EVERYTHING, including trying to bribe you with something you really, really wanted - an American Girl doll. I told you that if you would read the entire set of books, I would buy you the doll. I think you tired. You read about half of one book before you abandoned the series. Always good to my word, I never bought you that doll!

As the years have passed, you have worked so hard. You never gave up. With lots of determination you really have become a reader - even reading for pleasure! You have used what you learned during those difficult years to work with and understand your own struggling students and that insight will make you a better teacher for generations of children.

I just wanted to find a way to let you know how I feel. I hope this present will say to you how really proud I am and how much I have always loved who you are but especially who you have become. You are... and have always been... my most precious daughter. I love you.

Merry Christmas, Dearest One. May all your dreams come true. Mom

On Christmas Eve, I read the letter to her before she opened the present. At least I tried to read it - more tears than words... As she opened the doll, I hoped that it would become a symbol that she would proudly display in her classroom and use to tell her own story to children that struggle. It was such an intense moment for me... and for Courtney. Later that night, her boyfriend would ask her to be his wife, so I am sure this night will always remain as a magical Christmas for her. My part is small in comparison, but seems like all her dreams really are coming true...

Friday, December 17, 2010


Is this not the cutest little ornament you've ever seen? Found a similar idea on-line and adapted to this adorable ornament. Hope the parents like it as much as we do!
1. Cut a piece of fun foam 4X6"
2. Take head and shoulders picture of each child. Print out on tag board in black and white.
3. cut around the head shot.
4. Cut antlers from brown construction paper and glue onto the back of each head shot.
5. Use hot glue and glue the photo with antlers onto the fun foam.
6. Hot glue a red pom pom nose.
7. Use a hole punch and punch two holes on the top corners of the fun foam. Add a yarn hanger.

Polar Express Day

Today was Polar Express Day in our first grade classroom. We all came dressed in pajamas. Jardale forgot to wear his pj's and was crying in the hallway before school. Jacob came dressed in his MVP pajamas and a robe so when he saw Jardale so upset, he simply took off his robe and offered it to Jardale for the day. If there is anything that represents the love of Christmas this season, it is that simple gesture of one friend for another. I just love first graders!

We began the day by writing cards for elderly folks that we had decided would be part of our class giving project this year. The children did such a wonderful job adding season's greetings to some of our most vulnerable citizens. The cards will be delivered to the Plantation, an assisted living facility in Matthews, NC where my mother is a resident.

Next Mrs. Ruark and I demonstrated how to make a cup of hot chocolate (which we would have later in the afternoon as we watched the Polar Express movie - Did I mention that Soma brought his copy of The Polar Express written in Japanese - How cool is that?!!). After reminding the children of all of the details that needed to be in their procedural writing, they were sent to their seats to write directions for making the chocolate drink. We also enjoyed the book read on-line. The children were given the opportunity to share with the class their favorite part of the book. Then we completed a word search based on the book.

After recess and lunch we invited partners to read their hot chocolate directions while their partner made the hot chocolate to see if there were any details left out. What fun! Add a little popcorn and it was just like watching the movie in the movie theatre. As always, the children were enthralled with the story. When the little boy gets the bell back and hears its sound, they clapped! They all said that they could hear the bell too because they believed. Only one little boy made the thumbs down sign as the rest of his friends jumped up and down expressing their absolute belief. It really was a special day spent with a very special group of children!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Petite Rouge

Our mystery reader today, dressed as Red Riding Hood, was our Instructional Technologist Melanie Holtsman, reading a delightful Cajun rendition of Red Riding Hood, Petite Rouge. Melanie grew up in Louisiana so she has that Cajun accent down to a second language. The class was mesmerized with this fractured fairy tale featuring a duck Red and an alligator in the wolf's role. Melanie front loaded the children by introducing some of the vocabulary as part of her introduction. What a treat!

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Gift

When I think about gifts that I have received and even gifts that I have given that have meant a great deal to me, a ribbon of vignettes flow through my mind - from a favorite doll that I received for Christmas as a child that my grandchildren still play with and love today to letters I have written through the years to my children during the holidays that express the love of an entire year. Some of them still make tears well in my eyes as I remember each of them at a certain age or have specific memories of specific events in their young lives. Childhood, especially looking back, whether it's your own or that of your children is such a special gift that you hold in your heart forever.

But if I had to narrow it down to one gift to write about, it would be the memories of a Christmas when the children were very small. Jimmy and I were both teaching, but I had taken a few years off to be a stay-at-home mom and money was especially tight - I mean TIGHT! We hadn't really planned for me to stay home and we had truly sacrificed for me to spend a few years at home while the children were very young. We didn't have a Christmas savings or a piggy bank that we could open for the season so Jimmy had taken a second job after school was out for the holiday - I think working at a jewelry store. We were going to use that meager extra income to pay for Christmas for the kids. I remember as Wes wrote his letter to Santa I tried to make sure that he asked for very modest things because I knew there wouldn't be that much money. Courtney was just a toddler so I knew she would be happy with the wrapping paper and a roll of tape to play with! I also remember not letting Wes watch much TV that holiday season because I didn't want him to see the very persuasive commercials of the season so he wouldn't be mesmerized by some certain toy that I wouldn't be able to afford or wouldn't be able to find at the last minute. Jimmy worked all day and late into the evenings during his Christmas "vacation", as so many teachers are forced to do. I met him during lunch on Christmas Eve to get his check so I could do the kids' Christmas shopping. I remember going to a toy store and the shelves being practically empty. There were parents there who looked haggard and as hopeless as I felt. I think that picture in my mind of feeling so empty in that moment and seeing the desperation in the eyes of other parents - some who were desperately looking for a certain toy or doll - will be seared into my mind forever. I bought what I could find, really just buying what was left. I arranged all of the toys that night from Santa but I worried that Wes would be disappointed. As the sun came up, he and Courtney rushed into the room with the tree and were as excited as if they had received the jewels of the kingdom. I have asked Wes since he has become an adult if that Christmas stands out, if he felt like he received less as he compared what he received with friends' lists or went over to his cousins' house to see their limitless gifts, but he remembers it as a great Christmas and simply blends it into all of the other family Christmases that we spent together.

As I have reflected on that Christmas, I have remembered what I should have known all along - it's not the money that you spend, but the strength of connection that is the enduring feeling of the season. Of course, every Christmas since them, I get a pit in my stomach remembering how, as parents, we want so much for our loved ones and how devastated we can be when we think we are disappointing our children or that we aren't living up to their expectations, when really, it will never be about the things. It will always be about the depth of emotion - the smiles that pass between us as we sing a familiar carol, hugging each other in the reflection of the Christmas lights, the smells of the season. That's the gift I wish I could give all parents - to know that you can't really buy those kind of intangible gifts - they only come through time together, delight in the season, and loving with abandon. May this season bring the gift of joy and of knowing love in its purest form!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Holidrama! December Book-of-the-Month, 2010

This month's Book-of-the-Month is the hilarious Llama Llama Holiday Drama. If you have a young child in your own at home, you may have already discovered this delightful series, but this particular holiday book is filled with all the reasons that our little ones get frustrated with the holiday rush and stuff. As I read it to the children, their little eyes twinkled as they obviously identified with many of Llama Llama's predicaments. Principal Phillips often chooses funny books with animal characters as our shelves of holiday books-of-the-month through the years can attest. But this year she had a specific reason for choosing this particular book. For her own personal holidrama make sure to check it out in her own words! Get ready - it's going to be Llama Llama Mama Drama!

Friday, December 10, 2010

"How to" Be SNEAKY

I have had children write about lots of different topics during procedural writing over the years, but "being sneaky" is a first! The assignment started with children writing a list of at least three things that they thought they were good at and could teach others. Joe (not his real name) listed three things that he thought he did especially well and decided to write about being sneaky. When the teacher tried to discourage him, he said, "but I'm really good at being sneaky!" So she let him go and noticed that he was engaged for the entire Writers' Workshop! Enjoy!
How to Be Sneaky 12-8-10
First I check to see if my Daddy is sleeping. If he is sleeping I go out of my bedroom. I find my DSI. I quickly turn my DSI on. Then I play. If my Dad wakes up, I shut my DSI off. I go to my bedroom. I wait for my Dad to go to sleep.
Check out these other first grade "how to" papers.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus!

Last week Gabriel announced to the class that there really wasn't a Santa Claus. He smiled like a Cheshire cat after his announcement as his classmates indignantly exclaimed that he was wrong. Just as I thought we'd adverted the inevitable, today Natali told the friends at her table that Santa was DEAD. While I deeply respect whatever parents want to tell their children these days, I do have to admit that I really hate to see the Santa myth exposed so early. Of course, I did tell my own son, Wes, when he was six when he asked me- heart to heart, saying, "I just really NEED to know. Please tell me the truth, Mom." I did tell him the truth but I explained to him that believing was one of the really fun and exciting things about the holidays for many families and that he would really spoil it for his friends if he told. To my knowledge he kept quiet and he certainly maintained the fairy tale for his sister long after she was in first grade. It'll be interesting to see what he does with his own children. I hope he'll be indignant when one of her friends tells her before he is ready! Tracy and I have decided to respond, when asked, that those who believe receive. It's okay for Gabriel to believe that there is no Santa but as a result, he might not get a visit from Santa at his house this year!

As a born again Christian, I am always conflicted about exactly what to say to the children this time of year. I want to tell them the glorious story of the baby born to save the world, but I know that I have a responsibility as a public school teacher to also share with them the many religious and secular traditions of the holidays, which I try to do through a holiday read aloud each day. I always mention the story of Hanukkah. I overheard the music teacher explain the Dreidel

in music this week before they sang a song about it. One of the students in my class explained some of the symbols on the Dreidel that he said he had learned in Hebrew school. After Music he came up to me very upset and said that one of his friends had said that he didn't celebrate Christmas, but he wanted everyone to know that he celebrated both. My friend, Melanie, said that her children ask to be Jewish every year after they heard one of their friends explain that his family celebrates both Christmas and Hanukkah and he receives a present every day of Hanukkah and at Christmastime! I also often do a few Kwanzaa activities each year although I've never had a child in my class that actually celebrated Kwanzaa. This year our class is more like a mini-United Nations and I wonder what other religious and secular holiday traditions the children celebrate in their homes and in their culture. I really hope they will share through their writing and through their comments as we read through our holiday selections.

What I really hope is that we teach tolerance and respect through this holiday season. I also hope that I model what I believe through my actions of love and kindness and giving. When asked, I will be honest about my own personal beliefs. We have so many things to teach our children, but probably one of the most important is how to get along in our pluralist society - acting on our own beliefs with passion, being a living model of what we believe, but at the same time respecting the beliefs of others. In the meantime, I hope that we never have to take down the beautiful holiday tree in the lobby of our school that has a picture of every single student because someone objects to holiday symbols of any kind, because to me, it represents our unity, and I do hope that, at least for one more year, we allow those who believe in the fantasy of the fat old man dressed in red another year of belief!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Procedural Writing

This week begins our work in procedural writing, writing about "how to" do something. On Monday Tracy had the children write directions for how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. On Tuesday, I read some of the papers as Tracy followed the directions - EXACTLY!
The kids protested loudly, but they had to admit that she was doing exactly what the papers said. When she started spreading the peanut butter and jelly on the bread without taking it out of the wrapper, they really had a fit, but she made her point about how the lack of details can make a big difference. After the demonstration she asked the students to write directions for making peanut butter and jelly again with the details. What a difference!

It's All in Their Heads! Creating Mental Images

Debbie Miller refers to it as creating mental images. Elin Keene refers to it as using sensory images to enhance comprehension and in her newest work Lucy Calkins calls it envisioning. Regardless of what you call it, good readers create mental images as they read. For many readers, it’s more than just visual images. They also pay attention to the other senses by noting “smells, textures, sounds, mood and ambiance”. The images change as the words change. The pictures are fluid. Readers revise their images as they add new information, as they read new information, or as they discuss their images with others. Good readers are able to look at a movie of the actions in their mind or they are able to step into the book by stepping into the “skin” or “head” or “shoes” of a character. Good readers understand that visualizing the action of the story helps them understand and comprehend the words. Good readers use their mental images to draw conclusions, to make inferences, to fill in spaces. The images clarify their thinking. They combine the words from the text with their own schema to create their pictures. The images may come from the five senses and the emotions but they are anchored in the reader’s background knowledge. Good readers draw on those images to recall details after the text has been read.

Tracy has been doing lessons for several weeks trying to teach our children to visualize. We displayed two different activities on our bulletin board this month, one where the children visualized the scene from a passage in a book and another that showed how an image can change as a child talks about her image. Below are some pictures of our bulletin board and the thinking of the children and our thinking about the children's work.
It is important that children see action in their minds. If they don’t, they will never fall in love with reading because they won’t see the movie that other children enjoy. They miss the action and the details and wonder how other children can figure things out.  As a Special Education teacher, I know that for many of my children, the reason that they struggle with comprehension and even with math word problems is because they can't visualize what is happening in their mind. The way that students "see" text is what Tracy and I are were trying to capture with this month's bulletin board.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Wondering of a Mad Scientist

When I think of myself as a Scientist, there's not much there! I did LOVE Biology in high school, but it had nothing to do with the content. I did well in the class because I had a terrible crush on my teacher, Coach Fisher DeBerry who was also the baseball coach (later the head Football Coach at the Air Force Academy). He treated us like adults and had very high expectations. I ADORED him so I studied harder and worked harder in his class than any other class that I had. I remember how crushed I was when he told us that he was going to get married! Unfortunately my crush on the teacher did not instill in me a love for Science. In college I took the mandatory classes including an astronomy class with a lab on top of one of the dorms that was held at night so we could look at the night sky. I don't remember ever learning to use the telescope in a way that was useful! One of the reasons that I have to work so hard to understand the first grade Science curriculum is because I don't have a strong Science background. It is my hope to do enough study now to find the doors that will engage my students in a way that I never have been. It's not easy to teach something that you don't really know well and that's why I relish having a co-teacher that has a strong major and interest in the Sciences. She can often fill in the interesting little tidbits, the vocabulary and the explanations that the children find so amazing. As we expect stronger and stronger content in lower grades to prepare a foundation for our 5th grade state assessment, it will require all of us to dig deeper. It will require administrators to stretch their professional development dollars to take teachers like me and make them the type of Scientists that can move a generation of children. Quite a challenge!

Friday, December 3, 2010

A Visit from Auntie Claus

Several years ago Auntie Claus was the December Book-of-the-Month. Thus was born a tradition of our Principal, Susan Phillips, dressing up like the character, Auntie Claus, and reading to all of the 1300 children in the school. She takes a different grade level (about 200 children at a time) each hour all day long and reads holiday books that are age appropriate, all the time pretending to be Santa's sister who has been left in charge of the school for the day. The children love it. The teachers love it. After the book is read, all of the Resource teachers, dressed as elves, serve cookies and chocolate milk. It really is one of those very simple traditions that makes a school special. How wonderful to have a school that is full of holiday traditions!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Holiday Book Exchange

Today we had our annual Holiday Book Exchange. Any staff member at school can sign up to participate. This year's event was hosted by Maria Mallon and Cheryl Dillard in their first grade Winter Wonderland. Each person brings a holiday read aloud to the table. Some of the books come wrapped, some in holiday gift bags and some easy to see without wrapping. The Reading Council brings tasty treats and each person draws a number. Then, beginning with #1 each person selects a book. Susan Phillips, our Principal, makes the rules and calls the numbers, as each teacher in turn selects a book. The twist is that you can choose to steal a book instead of selecting a new book and once a book has been stolen three times, it is "dead" and belongs to the person that has it. It's a fun way to choose books and just enjoy each other's company. The goal really is to add to each person's holiday readalouds and to leave the morning with a new book that you don't have! What a great way to start a day ...and a merry time was had by all!