Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Skills Block Begins with Star Names

Years ago after spending a week in NYC with Lucy Calkins at Teachers' College, Columbia University we brought back the idea of teaching beginning phonics to Kindergartners using the children's names.  Of course, this was not unique to the NYC schools as the idea has been around for decades.  There is nothing more important to a five year old than his own name and it is often the first letters and sounds that he learns.  As a result, we took what we learned and made it our own "Star Names" program and it begins both our phonics and phonemic awareness instruction in Skills Block and our Writers' Workshop in Kindergarten.

After we have chosen our Star Student of the day, interviewed the child, noticed the letters in the name, sung about the initial sound and listed other words that start with the same sound, we model handwriting by writing the student's name and drawing a picture of the student.  To write the name we fold down about two inches of paper from the top to use as a line and then model each letter (handwriting practice).  Next we model drawing a picture of the child, making sure to model different ways to draw, from stick figures to using shapes to just drawing freehand.  As the week goes on we begin to label the picture, using different labels each day.  In the beginning we might draw arrows and label hands and legs and hair and then we might begin to use words such as friend or princess or baseball player, making sure to sound out each word and write the letters that we hear.  After a few days of labeling, we begin to write sentences, using the same strategy of listening for  the sounds of any words that we don't know how to spell.  By the time we have spent 36 days of giving each child in the class a chance to be the Star Student of the Day, we have modeled writing several sentences, using some of the sight words we are learning, using capitals for student's names and beginning sentences, and using punctuation at the end of sentences.  And... the Writers' Workshop is well on it's way.

One of the things most interesting about kindergartners is that they come on the first day with many different levels and skills.  I thought you might find it interesting to look at a few of their first drawings and writings.
This student, who did not go to preschool, is just beginning to draw a circle for a head on his picture of Robert and is just beginning to make letters, even though the S is not in the Star Student's name. He does not yet write his name.

This student copies the name as seen on the left side of the paper and draws a picture of Robert.  While he doesn't label his picture with words, he draws an elaborate picture with lots of details and can tell an elaborate story about Robert!
This child copies the word "Robert" that is modeled for the class and then with the help of the teacher, writes some letters for his thought, "Robert is my friend."
Still another child writes "Robert."  Then she writes the sounds she hears in "friend" and finally writes a sentence at the bottom of the picture, "Robert is my friend."
And then finally, one student copies the name, "Robert," draws a picture of Robert with two friends and writes, without assistance, her own original sentence with each word spelled correctly!

All of these are appropriate levels for children entering Kindergarten!  And the activities of "Star Names" give students the ability to complete the activity at the level where they are.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Empowering the Future

First day back is always a fun, exciting time at the Creek.  Each grade level meets over the summer and prepares a skit according to our theme.  No 3-hour boring meetings for us on the first day back!  This year,  we walked into the Dining Room with each place set with superhero paraphernalia.  As usual, the skits were funny and irreverent.  My favorite was a Gov. Rick Scott look alike as a villain because of all of his educational budget cuts - I'm not talking politics right now - just saying...  I am pleased to say that my spirited Kindergarten Team won the skit challenge with their Kinder Superheroes Saving the Day and each kinder teacher will enjoy a $50 gift card at Target!  Woo Hoo!  After enjoying the skits, our Principal presented her own little superhero, her two-week old baby, to thunderous applause!  Now that's a way to bring a tear to your eye - seeing this newest addition to our Chets Creek family all dressed like a little superhero - in a tutu!

The Principal then introduced our hero of the day Lester Laminack who spent the rest of the day with us, making us laugh and inspiring us with so many thoughtful reflections of our current practice.  You know a speaker has made a difference when you actually see change in your building.  His messages validated much of what we are doing but some of his thoughts also hit home at many levels. 

I know for the kindergarten class next to me that they were moving furniture out away from the walls to get more of their work at eye level for kids - one of Lester's many, many suggestions.  As for me I bought into the idea that we should use our 5th graders as reading heroes to our kindergartners.  I e-mailed the 5th grade language arts teachers to ask if they would have their 5th graders draw a picture of their favorite book from kindergarten.  They loved the idea and so I plan to feature photos of different 5th graders holding up the picture of their favorite book on the bulletin board outside my classroom. 

Lester also talked about letting your students know about your life as a reader and so I decided to put outside my door, "Mrs. Timmons is reading..." and to write what I am reading as the year progresses.  This is something we used to do but have gotten away from this past year.  I am hoping teachers and students will see it and ask me about what I am reading.  I want to have conversations with students and adults about the words that make a difference in my life.

It is so exciting to come back to school and be inspired -to have your thinking lifted, especially before you begin making decisions that will influence your entire year.  Thank you Lester for a remarkable, thought-provoking start!

Around our Superhero World

As I roam through the hallways in the primary part of our building, I am always impressed with what teachers are able to do. While we tend to like our classrooms a little sparse at the beginning of the year, so that the children can join with the teacher to create the classroom together, teachers have been very thoughtful about the way they have organzied their spaces around our yearly theme. Enjoy these photos of our teachers welcoming back a new crop of Superheroes to the primary Hall of Justice.

The building is ready to welcome our new students and "empower the future"!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Revisiting Retention

Today was the day in our county when you go to some type of county in-service.  At my school only one person in our Special Education Department goes, although it's meant for us all.  Over the years the message has always been "pretty boring" - certainly nothing to inspire you to be excited about a new school year. You usually come away stressed, wringing your hands or bored to the point of falling asleep. This year I drew the short straw... I arrived at the Convention Center and entered the appointed room - long metal tables with black lint table cloths, metal chairs in a room with two story ceilings and concrete floors.  Not exactly what I'd describe as warm and fuzzy.  The speaker was tethered to the mike and it was difficult to hear questions asked throughout the room.  I realized I hadn't attended this in-service day since 2004, but  from the sparsely populated room, I guess other teachers had heard some of the same stories of being bored over the year and just skipped the day.
Actually there was nothing in the presentation that I hadn't heard before.  The speaker tried to deliver the message in a calming, reaffirming way because really, with RtI there is a lot of disequilibrium.  There were really no new answers - just the same questions and frustrations.  The speaker, however, is one of my favorite speakers, one of the few in the department that I have really admired over the years.  She's knowledgeable, likable.

With all that said, there was one point today that really caused me to stop and think.  She quoted the well known research about retention - if a child is retained one year, he only has a 50% chance of graduating from high school.  If he is retained two years, there is a 90% chance he will drop out.  I have been aware of this research for years and even wrote a position paper for our faculty several years ago advocating against retention.  I have sat with many teachers over the years and implored them to reconsider retention in light of those statistics. I have asked them to consider how the child's program would be different if the child repeats. If it's just going to be a rehash of the same, then the retention makes no sense.  However, today I had to really think about if I believe that retention is ALWAYS so detrimental to our young Special Education children.  I have certainly recommended to teachers and to parents that a child delay entrance to kindergarten which would make them overage and have recommended that a child repeat kindergarten or first grade, especially a child that needs a stronger foundation in phonics or phonemic awareness because I am well aware that after first grade there is precious little time dedicated to decoding.  I think many of the Special Education teachers at our school have also recommended retention in the early grades, even though they know the statistics.  I would love to see the statistics for high school graduation of just retention data on students who are identified with special needs.  How many of the 50% that do graduate are special needs students who graduate because they had extra time to master those phonological skills in the early grade? I'm not sure that I believe that retention is ALWAYS an undesirable option.  Of course, I certainly believe there has to be a cap on the number of retentions.  There is no need for a child to be driving to 3rd grade!   I just haven't been able to get the conflicts I have about retention out of my head.  I guess I believe that retention should always be an option but should be considered very carefully, especially considering the research. 

There... now that I have dumped the words across this page, maybe I can finally sleep.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Nook

My daughter-in-law is an avid reader.  She always has a book in her hands.  Even though we don't often read the same books for pleasure, I love that she is a reader.  I love it because I have two grandchildren that absolutely adore her and watch everything she does.  Her love for a good story is contagious and because of her, my grandchildren both LOVE books. 

Last fall when we went on a trip Randi finished the book that she was reading but hadn't had time to go by the library or bookstore to get a new book.  She complained several times during the trip that she wished she had a new book to read. When it came time to purchase her a Christmas present, I was reminded of that trip and how she would have loved the idea of having a new book right then.  I decided to invest in a Nook.  If anyone deserved one, she did.  I didn't know if she would really love a Nook because I've always hesitated for myself because I really like the feel of a book, but I thought, with two little kids, the ease of carrying the Nook along with the other hundreds of things that you have to carry for children might be appealing. 
At the last minute, I decided to upgrade to the color Nook because, knowing how my granddaughters love books, I thought it would be so convenient to pull out the Nook at the docotor's office or on a trip to entertain the kids.  And, that worked out really well this summer. Randi traveled for six weeks and worried how she would read each night to her girls.  She knew she couldn't pack books to go on the airplane because of the added weight and she also knew finding a library would only work for reading to the girls while she was physically in the library.  She knew a public library would never allow her to check out books on the go! So, she dowloaded books on the Nook - books that the girls read over and over all throughout the summer!
I think Randi was thrilled with the gift and that could be the end of the story, but it's really only the beginning.  Randi is also a teacher.  When I purchased the Nook for her I never really thought about how it could be used in the classrom, but Randi is a child of her generation and technology is just a part of her everyday life.  I do know, as a teacher, that I am always looking for picture books to read to my class - ones that are recommended in curriculum resources, or another book by an author that the children have really engaged with, or a book on a certain research topic or Science of Social Studies theme.  I am always going to the school and public library or going by the book store on the way home to see if I can find something that I'm looking for special.  Occasionally I find what I want, but more often than not it has be ordered - which, of course, takes a few days.  By the time it comes in, the moment I needed it has passed.  I never want it in just a few days.  I always want the book that very minute!  So, I guess it should be no surprise that Randi started downloading picture books on her Nook to share with her class.  She just slips the book under the document camera - no special hook up - and uses the Nook for read alouds or just a passage from a book to teach a Skills lesson or a mini-lesson for Readers' or Writers' Workshop.  She stores and organizes the books right there on the Nook, buying them for a third of the cost of actually buying the book.

Last year she actually used the Nook for her teacher observation and so today, our Principal, using her as an example, gave away two new Nooks to classrooms in our school!  I can't wait to see how these tech savvy teachers find other ways to use the Nook in their classrooms.  In a perfect world, I would have Nooks for every classroom at my school.  A Nook in every classroom would go a long way in providing the variety and depth of literature that children need.  In a perfect world every child would learn to LOVE reading and would hear lots and lots of wonderful stories every single day. Anyone have a suggestion on how to make that dream a reality?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

What's new in Kindergarten?

If you haven't already seen it, you need to check out Lucy Calkins' new curricular units for Readers' and Writer's Workshop which are correlated to the Common Core Standards  (which Kindergarten is suppose to be using this year in our county!)
Did I mention that they are an on-line resource and can be downloaded? For only $10 each? And they are grade specific? Amazing!  You can't see me, but I am dancing with delight!

Not only do the units incorporate all of the teaching that we have gleamed over the years from actually visiting Teachers' College for their Summer Institutes, but it also links together Lucy's Units of Study for Primary Writing, Fountas and Pinnell's Phonics Lessons and Baer's Words Their Way! As I have been reading the monthly units, I realize that at Chets Creek we will have to move into the first grade units before the end of the kindergarten year to account for the fact that Florida has universal Voluntary  Pre-kindergarten.  Our students are coming to us with more experiences so we can breeze through some of the earlier units more quickly, but this will be interesting work for our Reading Council this year.  This will become our Reading and Writing Pacing Guide.  Can't wait to see what each of the grade level Reading Leads think about this new resource.  If you get a chance, let me know what you think about the units.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Bulletin Boards - Are they worth it?

One of the things that summer school gave me was a window into the thinking of other teachers from my county. We came from schools from all over the beach area. Each day on the playground we would have a few minutes to discuss some topic or the other. Certainly the highs and lows of summer school were often on the list along with when we were going to get paid, but one day, the conversation turned to standard-based bulletin boards. I was sitting with teachers from three other schools along with a couple of younger teachers from my own school that have only taught at my school.

Standard-based bulletin boards are a type of bulletin board that raise the level of display to showcase student work. They have a specific configuration that includes a title, a description of the task the students were asked to do and the standards addressed, four pieces of student work and commentary about each piece of work. At Chets Creek one of the non-negotiables for each teacher is that they present a bulletin board at each of the six times of the year that the boards are scheduled to be changed. The bulletin board is suppose to be a "window into the instruction in the classroom." For the most part, teachers take great pride in the work that they present and are always looking for creative ways to express the depth of the work in the classroom on a board. At one time, standard-based boards were the norm in our county, but I guess as so many things have changed, that expectation has taken on different meaning at different schools. One of the teachers from another school said that they were only required to have one standard-based board on each grade level and another said that they only had to have one on each hallway. The young teacher from my own school who was sitting beside me was amazed. What in the world do you put on your bulletin board if you don't do a standard-based board? I had to laugh remembering that delightful turkey I made one year out of my husband's ties for it's tail or the cute reindeer faces that my children made one year with the colored balloon noses that we labeled "Rudolph's Cousins" or that really cute dancing hippo I made with the tutu skirt that said, "Dancing into First Grade!" oh so many years ago.
It's a little sad to me that so many teachers do not see the value in designing the type of boards that require reflection and that provide their own type of professional development as you sit in front of someone else's board and figure out what they did and how they did it. It's such a conversation starter among colleagues and pushes our thinking.
I am glad that we have kept that piece in our work at Chets. Don't get me wrong. There are times when I hate the idea of putting up a new board because they take time and effort and I have to really think... and who wants to have to think? I guess that's my point...