23 May

Saturday Sentiments

So much is happening this week.  My principal and I had our annual one-on-one meeting to discuss this past year.  It’s had me reflecting on this past year and thinking what I could do differently next year.

Meanwhile, a lot’s been happening in NC specifically.

For example, the general assembly has determined that we don’t need extra paperwork in the form of PEPs.  Pretty much the only thing I’ve agreed with the general assembly on in a very long time.

Then a teacher was an amazing example for his students.  And the community wasn’t even that crazy about it.

Let’s figure out how to teach kids to read better.

Student blogs.  It’s hard to say no to anything that gets kids engaged in writing.

In general, I’m pretty much a fan of any extra money for education.  But this has me thinking.

What to do this summer.  Because I’m sure you haven’t already thought about it.

21 May

Graphic Organizers

If you walk into my classroom, you’ll instantly see my obsession with graphic organizers.

Graphic Organizers

My kids eat and breathe graphic organizers.  They hardly ever do an activity that doesn’t include them.  The reasoning behind this is pretty simple: graphic organizers improve achievement.  And truth is, it has shown in my kids data.  Kids who effectively use graphic organizers while reading understand what they’re reading better.*

I say effectively because… some kids will draw a graphic organizer because Ms. Coldren is making them draw a graphic organizer.  They’ll write some stuff into the various different sections of the organizer.  Then they’ll get upset when they still get a bad test score.  It’s taken all year for my students to finally get how to use graphic organizers.  And even now, a couple are still just going through the motions.  But the kids who have really bought into the whole concept are seeing results.  And then it’s been a snowball effect these past two months as students see the results of other students and buy in as well.  It’s pretty exciting.

When using graphic organizers, I’ve learned a couple things this year that really help students engage with them.  Here we go…

1.  Let students draw the graphic organizer.

If you have limited copies (don’t we all!), this is just a survival tactic.  But it’s also good for kids.  When they draw the graphic organizer, they understand the parts better.  They’ll come up with creative ways to think about things.

Example: We use a bubble map to identify key details and the main idea/central message of a story.  One of my kids started turning all the outer bubbles into skeleton keys that “unlocked” the main idea.  The graphic helped him understand main idea conceptually, which is the whole point of graphic organizers.

Key Details

This is also really important when students are reading on their own.  If they’re reading to put events in sequence (at home, on a test, with another teacher), they have access to the tool (a timeline graphic organizer) that helps them put events in sequence.  This allows them to apply the skill any time and anywhere, which obviously fosters independence and confidence within the students.

2.  Start small.

I won’t say my students didn’t use graphic organizers before this year.  But I will say that they never used graphic organizers as universally as they did this year.  Because of that, I had to start small.  Telling kids there are 15 different ways to represent main idea and key details can be a bit overwhelming.  So we created one (a bubble map), and we’ve stuck with it all year.  For each concept, we have a go-to graphic organizer (these are displayed on the cabinets in the pictures above).  I never tell my students that these are the only ones because they’re not.  But I do tell them that these are the ones we’re using right now.  The end goal is to have students start to create their own graphic organizers.  For these kids, that will have to be next year because it’s taken so long for kids to actually buy in.  I’m excited to know that one of the 4th grade teachers is really good at this, though.

3.  Require students to use graphic organizers in context.

It’s easy to require graphic organizers when the whole activity is a graphic organizer.  It’s a little more complicated to require a graphic organizer on a test.  But I made the decision that if I were going to get kids to actually buy into what we were doing, they needed to use graphic organizers constantly.  Failure to use a graphic organizer on any reading activity would result in “moving your clip” and a classroom consequence.  In truth, only a few kids violated this rule before they all caught on.  Every once in awhile, a student forgets and I remind them.  But for the most part, it’s become a way of life in our classroom.

4.  Make graphic organizers a priority.

I know there are a thousand things we have to put up on our walls.  From student work to district and school required displays… instructional posters… the list goes on.  But if students are going to use graphic organizers, they need to see graphic organizers.  There are a thousand reasons why we don’t display these in our rooms.  We really just need one reason: it helps kids process through a text.  And now it’s just about making it happen.


*If you understand what you’re reading better, then you’ll answer more questions on a standardized test correctly.  This is absolutely true, though I do want to note that the focus of this strategy is to help students better understand what they’re reading.

21 May

Virtual Classrooms

When I was working an an educational technology non-profit, I was given the opportunity to get certified in online teaching through another well-respected non-profit for free.  So I took it, because who wouldn’t want that skill and the ability to add another certification to the ol’ resume.  But in truth, I haven’t really used what I learned.  The classes I took were all about how to use a specific software (moodle) and how to supervise a class that is exclusively online.

I don’t have much of a desire to use this specific software or teach classes that are exclusively online.  But I don’t want to say the experience was completely useless.  Because, well, it wasn’t.  And there are lots of ways to integrate an online classroom with a real-life classroom.  Especially in an age of google classroom.

I know I might seem like a bit of a google fanboy.  And in a lot of ways, I probably am.  But hang in there with me for a moment.

Google classroom is part of google apps for education.  From what I can gather, it’s free to non-profit educational institutes.  My district adopted it, so I just log in with my regular school login.

I understand that many teachers probably do not have access.  But I’m learning something about advocacy within schools.  It’s our job to find what would be good for children and tell our administrators (even at the district level) what those things are.  And even though there is often a lot of enmity between administrators and teachers, at the end of the day, we all joined this field to help children learn.

So don’t tune me out just yet.  Because if it’s good for children, it’s probably not as hard as you think to make it happen.  And I’m about to tell you about how it’s great for children.  Let’s get started…

Here’s a screenshot of my Google Classroom.

Google Classroom

You can see the latest assignments, as well as how easy it is to add new assignments.  I’ve got documents my kids are working on as well as links I added to help them with their research (explained more below).

1.  You can seamlessly integrate google drive which fosters collaborative work.

Google Drive, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is basically like Microsoft Office Suite.  You can create presentations (called slides), documents, and spreadsheets (called sheets).  They’ve got added functionality like forms and drawings, but those are other conversations for other days.  The main reason why Google Drive is so amazing is that multiple people can edit a document at the same time.  You can see the changes they’re making in real time.  You can access the documents from any computer with internet access.

My students have used Google Drive to research and summarize their findings for both a Science Fair and a Multicultural Fair at our school.  You’d be absolutely amazed at how engaged they all were.  In fact, the only times I had to critique their behavior at all was to ask them to be a little quieter.  Not a single student was off task.  For an hour.  Whoa.  They love working together!  I’ve never seen kids so excited to research and summarize.  You can see their board for the Multicultural Fair.

Multicultural Fair

Our assignment was Vietnam. The kids chose to add a thatched roof, and we featured a student who was from Vietnam in the middle.

2.  It allows the teacher to curate resources for students.

I absolutely believe in open-ended research for kids, even kids in elementary school.  But there’s a time and a place for it.  And kids have to be prepared to know how to use that freedom responsibly (not just from the perspective of appropriateness, but also in how to find good resources).  To be perfectly frank, my kids aren’t there, yet.  It’s something I have done an awful job at teaching them.  So we’re taking baby steps.  One is World Book for Kids, which our district has a subscription (Yay Durham Public Schools!).  The other is my selecting websites for my kids to research on topics that they want to know more about.  I just add the link to the assignment, and bam!  My kids can use the link to complete the assignment.

3.  It allows children to upload assignments for grading.

I like for my kids to get plenty of time to write on the computer.  It is, after all, how most of us write nowadays, anyway.  We also have a subscription to NCWrite* (again, thanks, Durham Public Schools!), which assigns students lessons based on their weak points in writing.  Even without this, though, it’s important for kids to type what they’re writing and use basic word processing to edit and revise, since this is a commonplace tool.  When the kids are done, they submit their product to me via Google Classroom.  Classroom will tell me who has/hasn’t submitted yet, and I can download all their documents from there.  This is especially cool since students in my school don’t have printing privileges.

4.  It allows for digital interaction between students and teacher.

For some kids, this is a game changer.  Introverted kids, I’m learning, have a lot of trouble in today’s highly collaborative classroom.  Everything is groups and numbered heads.  And kids who don’t do well in that environment often don’t do well in school.  Digital interactions can be a lot easier for these kids and move at the pace that the student is comfortable.  The student can answer the question when they’re ready, and the teacher can still get their response.  They can ask questions without having to speak in front of the whole class, and the teacher can address any misconceptions.

5.  It creates a landing spot for students.

I don’t know about you, but getting third graders to accurately type in a url is basically impossible.  Instead, I just pop the link onto Classroom.  It took a little while for my kids to learn their usernames and passwords, but once they did, they don’t have to learn any more website urls.  They type in the one for Classroom, and then we’re rolling.

6.  Students can access it from home.

Because they’re going to want to work on stuff from home.  I know.  This is super weird.  But some of the most unmotivated students will come up to me and ask if they can keep working on it from home.  Not every kid has internet access, but it’s still really exciting for the ones who do.  A lot of times, they’re so proud of what they did that they’re excited to show it to their parents at home.

*NCWrite does have a pretty neat submission feature which allows teachers to make comments on student work, and while I love it, I also recognize that their formatting options are extremely limited.  So when it comes time to publish our writing, I give the kids about 15 minutes to copy and paste their work into a word processor and edit the formatting.

16 May

Saturday Sentiments

This week was our multicultural fair at school, which I resented tremendously, because it mostly seemed like just one more thing shoved on classroom teachers in May.  When my class actually experienced the fair, though, I completely changed my mind.  The kids were blown away by other languages, sports, music, and dance.  It wasn’t nearly as full of stereotypes as I expected it to be, either.  And my class learned so much about one of their classmates who is new to our country.  More on the process of creating our class project later.

I also attended a professional development workshop with my administrators and technology specialist this week.  It was incredibly energizing and gave me all kinds of ideas for next year.  More on this will come as well, as I am still figuring out a lot of it.  In the meantime, I’ll share this: Plickers is an app that allows you to use one central device (tablet or phone) to have every child in your classroom respond (from their desks) to a multiple choice question.  You get instant class feedback, but can also look at individual students.  How have we not been talking about this more?

15 other websites you might be interested in.  I don’t love every one of these for me for my classroom.  But several of them are absolutely terrific.  Yay technology!

And then, obvi, no talk about tech would be complete without mentioning google.  This list is interesting, but far from complete.  We’ll talk more soon.

There’s an episode of the West Wing, where they talk about how we count poor people.  It goes like this…

Sam: On Monday, the OMB is putting out a new formula for calculating the poverty level.
Toby: I saw that. Doesn’t it need Presidential approval before it goes to Congress?
Sam: Yeah.
Toby: What’s the problem?
Sam: It’s a good news, bad news thing. Under the new formula, poverty is up two percent. It was anyone under seventeen thousand, five hundred and twenty-four before, now it’s twenty thousand.
Toby: What does that shake out to?
Sam: Four million new poor people.
Toby: Four million?!?
Sam: Yeah. Obviously, that’s the bad news.
Toby: Yeah…
Sam: The good news is more people will be eligible for benefits.
Toby: And taxpayers are nuts about that. Let’s get back to the bad news. Four million people became poor on the President’s watch?

Universal free lunch?  Good.  Not knowing how many poor people there are?  Possibly bad.  Let’s think about this.

Should 3rd grade be a pivot point for early reading?  As a 3rd grade teacher, I vote no.  Or maybe just no to so much threat of retention.  And maybe also so much testing, especially at the expense of instruction.  And maybe also to how we ignore a child’s progress up until this point.  And maybe also putting too much pressure on 8 year olds.  And maybe also some other things.  Again, let’s think about it.

Homework.  So many mixed feelings.  So little time.

06 May

Laziness is the Mother of Invention

Anyone who tells you otherwise is either lying or hasn’t lived in 21st century America.  Last week, laziness led to a pretty awesome, effective, low-prep activity for my kids.  I’m dying to share.

Here’s how it goes:

1) Have the kids read or read aloud a passage.  Do your typical close read thing, have the students work with partners to summarize, whatever.  Bottom line: make sure they understand the text.

2) Give the kids question stems.  We’ve been developing question stems all year, based on different assessments.  We don’t bother with the obvious ones like “what is the main idea”, but instead focus on the ones that are a little confusing.  These are posted alongside the corresponding graphic organizer.  More recently, I’ve added question stems based off of the state assessments we’ll take in a few weeks.  Even if you don’t have them around the room, you probably have question stems that you use, so why not share them with the kids?

Graphic Organizers with Question Stems

3) Have the kids create their own multiple choice tests using the question stems.

Kids' Tests

And there you have it.  Kids get way more familiar with question stems and are more prepared to answer questions.  They’re actively engaged (don’t ask me why, but kids love this) in asking and answering questions (oh wait, that’s a standard!).  They’re using higher order thinking skills (hello, create).  It’s bonkers how good this is for the kids, and it’s still accessible for students who struggle because they can copy the question and fill in the blank.  And to top it off, it’s low-prep independent work my kids can do while I pull groups.

Next year, this will totally be a literacy center all year long.  I only wish I thought of it early.  What low-prep independent work do you have your students doing?

02 May

Saturday Sentiments

I feel a bit like a broken record, as I started typing “some kind of a week” at the start of this post.  May is an overwhelming month for educators.  It’s going to be “some kind of week” for the rest of the school year, I don’t doubt it.  We’re all just trying to keep our heads above water.

It can be easy to get bogged down in your own concerns, but it’s always good to keep perspective.  Other teachers are struggling, too.  That’s why we’re coming up on teacher appreciation week.  They know we need it.

I love the idea of polling in the classroom.  Quick mini-assessments keep me clued into where my students are.

Let’s save the world.  Let’s create equity in education.  No, seriously.  Let’s.

North Carolina is struggling with creating accountability in education and not making everyone hate them.  This is the latest in that struggle.  Spoiler: the general assembly is losing.  And so are the rest of us.

I’m trying to figure out my thoughts on how kids develop in their sexual and gender identities.  What does it mean if a kid comes out as gay in elementary school?  And if some kids come out, do other kids know and keep it to themselves?  Did I know I was straight at that age?  So many questions, not nearly enough answers.  Let’s figure it out together.

A final note on teacher appreciation: some teachers are at schools that shower them with appreciation… from the parents to the kids to the administrators.  If you’re not, don’t for an instant think you’re not appreciated.  Know that the people who should be thanking you can’t… perhaps because they don’t know how… because they don’t have the emotional intelligence and maturity.  It might take years before those students, parents, and administrators realize what a gem you are.  It might never happen.  That’s their issue.  Not yours.

29 Apr

I wish my teacher knew

So this teacher gave her kids an assignment: Complete the sentence, “I wish my teacher knew…”  And then she posted their responses on social media.  And then the #iwishmyteacherknew happened.  And then the whole internet broke.

And on the one hand, this is super cool.  People need to know that kids deal with a lot more than we are aware.

On the other hand, duh!  Which I don’t mean to be disrespectful at all.  This teacher, like many other teachers, was undoubtedly taught this in college, learned this during her internship, and that’s why she gave the assignment in the first place.  Teachers are acutely aware of their students’ needs, in and beyond the classroom.  And I want to make sure that the rest of the world doesn’t get confused and think that any of this is news to us.  It’s news to state governments, I’m sure.  But not to teachers.

So what do you do when your heart is breaking for your child?  I came up with some things, though this is by no means a comprehensive list.  This is just a list of things that have worked well with my kids, some of the time.

1) Give them space.

Depending on the kid, maybe all they need is a little time to themselves.  I had a kid who usually performs quite well recently bomb a test.  It really surprised me, so I asked him what was up.  And he started telling me about his crazy morning that day.  I know he has a very intense home life, but he usually copes quite well, so I usually leave it alone.  This test score told me he wasn’t coping quite as well as I hoped or thought he was.  So I suggested he maybe spend some time to himself first thing in the morning, every day.  He really liked this idea as he shares a bedroom with 3 other boys.  So every morning, he comes in, goes straight into the little office attached to the classroom and comes out 5 minutes later completely refreshed and ready for the day.  Behavior incidents are down.  Wham bam!

2) Enlist the help of a friend.

The truth of the matter is… you’ve got 20+ other kids you need to worry about.  And the relatively petty concern of this child (i.e., “he wasn’t taking it easy on me in soccer”) is not really going to be your top priority.  It can’t be.  And that’s ok.  As long as you recognize that it is this child’s top priority.  So find somebody who can also make it a top priority: a friend.  Bonus points: you also get to help the helper learn how to help a friend.  2 birds, 1 stone.

3) Accept the explanation without letting it become an excuse.

Kids lead very crazy lives.  I know.  But if you accept those crazy lives as excuses not to succeed, the child will never succeed.  And that kid needs to understand that reality.  So when a kid tells you they didn’t do their homework because they went to the hospital and a whole lot of other drama mumbled through tears… Let the kid know you’re there for them.  But then also work with the child to figure out how they could complete their homework anyway, because school is how they’re going to rise above their circumstances.

But then also, give them assignments that they can complete within the context of their crazy lives.  A reading log that needs to be signed by a parent?  Let’s get real.  Anything they need help on?  Let’s pass.  A few simple math problems (some word, some just calculations) to let you know if they got what was in the lesson.  Some time reading (and this might mean loaning them a book from your classroom library because they don’t have any) and a very simple summary to prove the did it.  These things teach responsibility, but also allow for kids with very hectic lives outside of school to still be successful.  And then sometimes, maybe you should just “forget” to put the kid’s name on your no homework list that day.

4) Be an advocate for the child.

Some older kids were passing my kids in the hall, laughing and pushing each other right into my line, knocking down some of my kids.  And, I’m not altogether proud to admit it, but I lost my cool.  I laid into those kids, and when they walked away, they must have thought I was absolutely bonkers.  But my kids learned something that day: I am a fierce mama bear who will protect my cubs.  One of them even mentioned it to me later.  And when a kid doesn’t have anybody to advocate for them, we absolutely need to.

If they need shoes, make sure they get shoes.  If their parent won’t wake them up in the morning and get them ready and on the bus, buy them an alarm clock.  A kid is constantly bullying them on the bus?  Ride it with them.  I watched a teacher at my school spend a tremendous amount of her own time (and she’s a single mom!) to help raise money for one of her students to get a service dog to help with her disability.  Most kids don’t need us to do that sort of stuff, but it means the world when it is needed and we do.  Kids need to know they can count on us.  And truthfully, being someone they count on is usually barely more what we were going to do anyway.

26 Apr

Test Prep

In the past, I’ve never really gotten behind the whole “test prep” movement.  There are a couple reasons for this.  My old principal used to announce with the morning announcements on the intercom that she wanted 70% of kids to pass the state assessment.  This assessment for two reasons: 1) 70% was more than double what we had done the previous year (no judgements).  2) As one of my fifth graders observed one morning, “Shouldn’t she want 100% of students to pass?”  Basically, she communicated to students that she had given up on them.  And because few of our students had ever seen themselves as particularly successful, many of them put themselves into that 30% that wouldn’t pass, whether consciously or unconsciously.

Obviously, it’s important to be realistic, and 100%, especially for the school, was hardly realistic.  At the same time, I absolutely believe in every one of my students, and even if they don’t pass (and I’ve got a handful of kids that I’m just hoping for growth, not even proficiency), it’s important that they learn as much as they possibly can to be prepared for the next grade.

But test prep this year has me all jazzed up.  I think it’s because my principal has been very specific with his goal and has been specific since the beginning of the year.  It’s realistic, ambitious (a marked improvement from last year), and so close I can taste it.  Seriously, I’m two kids away in both reading and math, based on our latest benchmark data.

So test prep we’re doing.  Math, I feel pretty ok about.  Here’s what’s going on:

1) I’ve split kids into groups based on domains they scored lowest in.  Some kids are in multiple groups because they need help with multiple domains.  Then, I’m giving each of those groups a pre-assessment so I can figure out exactly where the problems are.

2)  The frequency I’m meeting with the groups is dependent on the percentage of the test those domains make up.  If it’s 5-10% of the test, I’m going to meet with you, but maybe not as much as the group that’s struggling with concepts that make up 30-35% of the test.

3)  Other kids will be doing a combination of math practices, including targeted computer practice, vocabulary puzzles (odd one out, crossword puzzles, etc.), scavenger hunts (because somehow doing problems posted around the room is more fun than doing them at your desk), and obviously, Jane’s Game (a post on this later this week).

Reading, I’m struggling with but going back to the data has helped me a lot.  Let’s take a peek:

1) I’ve split kids into groups based on different strands (Literature Texts, Informational Texts, Language).  I focused on kids who were doing well in the other domains, but struggling with one or two.  These kids can obviously read and understand the words quite well, but are struggling with something about a particular format.  An easy fix, if you ask me.  And then, as space allowed, I tried to add in kids who we not proficient across the board.

2)  Because I only have three categoriesI have two groups of Informational Texts, but only one of each of the others.  This is because Informational Texts is 40-41% of the test.  And also, because I have quite a few kids struggling with this.  I split the groups based on discrepancy in scores.  If you scored very high in the other domains, you’re in one group.

3)  Kids not in groups will be doing a combination of reading practices, just like in math.  Vocabulary practice, practice reading passages with questions, independent reading with summaries, computer games, and writing.

We’ll be checking in weekly, to monitor our progress.  I’ll keep you posted.

25 Apr
The True Story of the Three Little Pigs

Saturday Sentiments

This week has been busting at the seams busy.  Compounded by the fact that we had somewhere in the range of 40 visitors at our school today cycling in and out of classrooms.  And to be honest, with everything else going on at school and at home this week, I didn’t have time to plan some brilliant lesson to showcase.  The night before, I had a bit of a freakout.  I felt like my typical close read lesson wouldn’t be very interesting or engaging for visitors (even though my kids actually really enjoy these).  Top it off with the fact that my old boss would be among the visitors (it felt a little bit like seeing an ex after a break-up).

So we read two books the kids loved (and that I have read aloud so many times, I’ve got the characters’ voices down pat) that even tied into our writing unit on fairy tales, and then we compared and contrasted their themes.  Followed up with two passages from their workbooks (our workbooks are mostly reading passages 2+ pages in length, with minimal questions, which I LOVE).  The kids filled out a compare/contrast graphic organizer on them.  Then, because it’s testing season, I created questions on the two texts using question stems from our state end-of-grade test.  I was pretty proud of what I threw together the night before.  The kids had a blast… because Jon Scieska.

Anywho, education news lately has been slow.  It’s basically just all about how people are opting out of testing, and how computer tests suck, especially if you’re in Nevada.  Neither of which really thrills me because neither apply to the state where I work.

But I did find a few gems.  Here’s what I’ve got to share:

Going Beyond Teacher Appreciation Day.  Because… yes, please.

Tips for Using iPads in the Classroom.  We recently got an iPad cart, and I’m constantly looking for new ways to use it.

Good Problem Solvers are Curious and Empathetic.  Which you probably already knew if you’ve ever taught.

25 Apr

Green Glass Doors

I like to play this game with my summer camp kids (middle schoolers) called “Green Glass Doors”.  It goes something like this…

I’m going to go through the green glass doors, and I’d like to take some things with me.  Can you figure out what I can take with me through the green glass doors?

And then the kids guess various things like “dog”, to which you might reply, “You can’t take a dog, but you can take a puppy.”  And, to the extent possible, you try to give them alternatives that fit the rule, if they guess something that can’t go.

In the end, the kids figure out that they can only take things with double letters through the “green glass doors”.  It’s a fun lesson in pattern recognition.

So yesterday… I taught my kids about measuring liquid volume and weight, specifically using units of liters, milliliters, grams, and kilograms.  I’ve always been very rule oriented, so I taught the kids the way I learn, using rules.  “You want to use kilograms for anything bigger than a kilogram.”  Likewise with liters.

And basically exactly 4 of them understood.  And to be quite honest, I didn’t know what to do.  So I thought I’d try writing the rules down, because to be honest, I didn’t know how else to teach it.  I wasn’t feeling confident, but I’d present it using different words, and maybe a few more kids would catch on, but not before multiple children got frustrated, lost interest, and made me so angry I abandoned the whole lesson.  But sometimes, that’s what you do anyway.

But luckily, then I remembered the green glass doors, where you infer the rule based on examples and non-examples.  We played a quick game, but I made my rule simpler: the thing had to have a “t” in the word.  You can take your “parents”, but not your “mom” or your “dad”.  The kids loved the game and caught on surprisingly quick.

Then we created a T-chart with grams and kilograms at the top, and listed things we could weigh on the appropriate side of the chart.  And then the kids discussed with their partners what the rule was.  And then they described the rule to me in words that made sense to them.  And then we wrote the rule down, using their words.  And then we practiced, where I called out different items, and they had to figure out whether grams or kilograms would be better.  They kept calling out, “That’s so easy!”

They never seem to realize “that’s so easy” is my goal.