Sunday, August 29, 2010

The "Write" Space

Writing in the classroom deserves a designated area.  This can sometimes be challenging.  Classrooms need so many places for all the little bodies not to mention all the materials.  I always notice that writing centers often only have a small desk with minimal materials.  Though these writing spaces are cute and may reflect a kind of "at my desk," experience for a young writer, I think there can be more thought put into this area of a classroom.  Aside from the writing that goes on in the classroom during workshop time or whole group writing students need to see the many ways writing can take place within all the areas of the classroom.  Setting up a creative arts area to house all materials for illustrating and writing is a place to begin.  Then it is important to make writing materials available in the other areas of the room.  Such as the block area for students to write out a building plan or the science area for writing observations and ideas about how something works or what they noticed.  Students can write about books they have read or create posters advertising a favorite book to their peers.  The list is endless, but if the materials are not available for students to utilize--they won't.  If you only allow two students at a writing center and then it is "full" your classroom may not be full of blooming authors.  If the writing experiences are constantly made available, opportunities will present, and the kids will write. 

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Sisters

About 2 years ago I read the book, The Daily 5, by The Sisters.  It is a great and quick read and gives lots of ideas and tips to make teaching literacy to young learners more manageable.  Yesterday, I was lucky enough to sit down with some colleagues to watch a couple of their videos on room arrangment and the sometimes daunting task of managing materials within the classroom.  It was great to see that they had easily accessible writing materials in the room and lots of different spaces for students to do their "work on writing," one of the daily 5 routines their students participate in each day.  Because this book has profoundly impacted my teaching in the past two years, I think I will read over my prior notes and do a post this week as a reminder to myself all the important and simple elements of the book. 

Thursday, August 19, 2010

When to Pick the Apples

Many teachers grow tired of the phrase, "an apple for the teacher."  I have received my share of apples over the years, and when I get one, there is a certain comfort that comes along. 

I think I am coming to understand my own personal connection to the apple.  It may be your connection too.

Before bearing fruit, an apple tree can take years to develop and mature.  There are so many varieties, many of which are grafted and engineered to make flavors like pink ladies or pineapples, (yes, there is an apple called pineapple).  Some are even engineered to grow sooner but are pruned and grown in such a way described as “training the tree.”  They are dwarf apple trees that can fruit just after a year of being planted in the ground (search for a tutorial on YouTube), but their process is still more challenging than say a bean plant.  It takes care, nurturing, and patience for someone who is just interested in an apple.  The same characteristics I hope to emulate everyday to my family, students and colleagues. 

I began thinking about the apple trees in my backyard.  It is my understanding that the property my house rests on used to be an apple orchard and four-five apple trees were left to stand in the yard alongside the walnut, butternut and hickory trees.  The apples that grow in my yard are left to chance; they must rely solely on the limbs holding them and nature to sustain them.  Many become deer feed, and the ones we do pick to cut into and investigate in fall are usually immature, bruised, and worse for wear.  It got me wondering, how is this any different than the children I teach each day, week, year?  Many of them come immature, bruised and worse for wear.  I certainly wouldn’t want to throw them out for the deer, but that is the metaphorical fate of some in this world of ours.  If I think of my students as a developing apple, is it possible to then be too late to make a difference?   What purpose would I have? 

So, maybe my students are not the apples, but maybe they are the trees themselves awaiting my care, nurturing and patience.  Maybe those little apples that grow are in fact more like the connections we make as we grow and experience the world.  We don’t need to wonder when an apple is ready to be picked; we just need to take care of the tree.  I hope to water and warm the little minds of many this year and help them grow lots of apples and develop into wonderful people.  

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Two Books at Once…here I go!

                                            Double the Surprise!

I picked up Reading with Meaning, by Debbie Miller this week because I have been trying to cement writing and reading and all the connections they hold more firmly in my mind.  I had planned on reading Dancing with the Pen, by Ministry of Education but found Debbie Miller in my lap first.  But Dancing with the Pen was nagging at me to give it some attention too.  So, I decided to pick it up tonight and dust it off. I was thinking it could be a mistake to read two informational texts like these, but was soon pleasantly surprised at what I would find.

Dancing with the Pen The Learner as a Writer

Less than four full pages in and already this book is inspiring my thoughts about teaching writing to our youngest authors.  Donald Holdaway, a new name for me, is quoted in Dancing with the Pen on page ten, below is what he said related to reading and writing being a connected entity.

Instruction has persistently separated reading from writing in a way that would be insufferable in learning to listen and talk.  The two modes form an integral nexus of learning around common processes, and this, too, may be readily reflected in teaching.  There are no logical or practical excuses for the dismemberment of literacy--only instructional precedents. 
Everyone who teaches reading and writing to kids knows they go together but sometimes the instruction does separate the two whether it is intentional or not. I find myself always looking for ways to bring the reading of a book into my modeling of writing, whether I am comparing my writing to an author or merely generating a list of ideas that were inspired by a good text. I do this for my students but I rarely push them to write about a book they read or utilize the skills they got from reading workshop and connect them to their writing workshop. Why? This will be my big question to analyze as I read further.

Reading with Meaning

I just love Debbie Miller. The way she writes sounds so genuine to the art of teaching. The book really started to get going for me in chapter three. She has the students tell her what reading behaviors are and at first I wasn't sure how I would do the same. She just asks them what readers do when they are reading. I tried to imagine what my little 4, 5 and 6 year olds would say to such a broad question. Then I began thinking about all the information I would get, most importantly, did they know what a reader looked like at all? I would find out quickly what kinds of literacy experiences they had for the first few years of their life and whether they were pleasant. I would hopefully guide the students who did have some ideas to tell me about selecting a book, turning the pages, noticing a picture and maybe even how the people sit or how they feel when they read. These behaviors would be listed and become my lesson plan for teaching reading workshop. I would demonstrate and model the behaviors and allow students to then practice during reading workshop.

She talks quite a bit about setting up her procedures and how important this is to the success of the reading workshop. She explains one of her ideas where students put their thoughts on a sticky note and place them in a book they are enjoying to show their connection. For myself I thought I would have students leave sticky notes out of the book but keep the novelty of this idea by allowing students to create an illustration of the book. This would become the advertisement for the story and sticky notes with a recorded connection or idea could be placed next to or on the advertisement. I am thinking this would generate some motivation to jot down thoughts they are having and details they noticed. Since some students often find themselves stuck in a genre, it may also encourage students to look outside of their own favorite book and dig into a different text.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Assessing and Teaching Beginning Writers Every Picture Tells a Story

Prior to reading the book, Assessing and Teaching Beginning Writers  Every Picture Tells a Story, by David M. Matteson and Deborah K. Freeman, I was asking myself questions about the ways I assess and focus my writing instruction.  I often wonder if what I expect of students is appropriate and if I am on the right track with individuals.  It seems like the words “developmentally appropriate,” are thrown around often and I have been really trying to figure out what it actually means; coming to realize it is more challenging to determine this for a group as opposed to an individual.  I also really wanted to review the importance of the plan and where it fits with each developmental stage of the writing process students go through as the year progresses.        

The Layout:
The book was an easy read and well organized.  Each chapter began with 2-3 reflective questions to get you going before digging in to the information.  There were several examples of student and teacher interactions to help associate the ideas of the text.  The book was broken into two sections, which I will go into a little detail to explain my understanding and summarize some areas of the book.
Section 1:  Developing Theory about Early Literacy Experiences
In the chapters within section one, the book went through the changes that occur from preschool to kindergarten, theories and perspectives of these grade-levels, and characteristics of readers and writers at this stage of development.  What I took away from this section is that the theories of the best way to introduce literacy to early learners are still very different among educators.  I also got a sense that these different perspectives influence educators ideas of what a student can do as a learner.  Students at the emergent level may need one kind of instruction while individual students beyond the idea of what seems appropriate may need a different delivery of instruction.  It also expressed a need to take advantage of the time a student is in an early program, such as a prekindergarten or preschool program.  Gaps can only increase when the experiences do not fit the learner.  The book effectively expressed the importance of reaching all learners and that it can be done with focus and intention.    
Section 2:  Understanding how to Use the Early Literacy Continuum
The Early Literacy Continuum, the main tool of the book, was introduced and explained in depth in this section.  It nicely differentiates the levels of student oral language development as well as the development of the emergent writer.  Using these levels to determine where a student is learning helps the teacher determine what to work on next.  The authors expressed the importance of Vygotsky’s theory, Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).  The ZPD is the range of what the student is beginning to demonstrate and what she is getting ready to take on as a learner. 
Digging In:
I really liked that the book explained and gave examples of prompts that effectively give the teacher a clear picture of what the student is independently doing as opposed to what the teacher is leading the child to do in her writing.  Guiding the student is important, but leading a student only leads to less independence.  I really want to know what the student can do, not what an adult/peer told her to do.  The book described this as “being neutral,” a term I plan on using this year and reminding myself to ask—“was I neutral here, or was I leading the learning?”  I look forward to putting that directly on my monitoring notes when I reflect. 
Through student examples the book went into depth on the levels of detail a student needs as they progress.  I enjoyed reading about a particular student who simply drew a picture of a house but had a great story about being locked out because their dad accidently locked the door.  There was a great oral story, the illustration was done mostly in yellow and difficult to make out, so the teacher asked the student how they would remember this story.  Together they reviewed the details of the story and through coaching the child decided to add a door to the house.  The teacher asked him to use a different color so that there would be an emphasis on the door and that would help him to remember that detail.  This reminded me of many of my emergent learners who begin to get the hang of telling a great story, but it is all coming at them so quickly, they don’t always know how to add those details to their picture.  I liked this simple illustration of good teaching and not leading.  The teacher did not say, “why don’t you add a door.”  He guided the student to the conclusion that adding a door would help him remember his story later.  I felt this moment of teaching was also an important element to the student remembering due to the deep, yet brief conversation about an important detail in his story; a “critical detail,” as the book described.  It also discussed the learning of and English as a second language (ESL) student who made an elaborate zoo display with blocks.  Taking this very teachable moment and advantage of all the critical details laid out in this structure, the teacher engaged in a conversation, coaching and repeating back complete sentences utilizing the one-two word responses from the student.  Together, the pair worked to label the zoo and the student learned how to add another critical detail to an already strong piece of work—a block structure.  How easy it would be to make writing materials available in all areas simply utilizing those extra baskets or caddies you already have stowed away from last year.  Leftover pencils and scrap paper could easily be placed in the block and dramatic play area to encourage writing to take place because it already does occur naturally in these settings that we set up for students to practice in the classroom.
My Conclusions and Plan of Action:
·        I plan on utilizing this continuum and levels of learning for my emergent learners.  It has been challenging to find something that is truly just for them and not something beyond or below their learning levels.  This book fits the bill for me to fill this gap and be sure that I am moving students into early learning and development. 
·        Developmentally appropriate is only appropriate on a child by child basis when digging deeply into student achievement.  I cannot group students together and make a claim that an objective is not developmentally appropriate.  I feel it is too challenging to make such a generalization.  If some students are writing or reading and some are still learning letter sounds than there is no such thing as developmentally appropriate for one grade-level.  Just as it would not be developmentally appropriate for me to fly a plane, seeing as I have no experience, it would not be developmentally appropriate to give keys to an 18 year old to drive if they had no experience. 
o   When I feel any urge to toss around the term, “developmentally appropriate,” in a conversation, I will promptly ask myself “based on what information?”
·        I will remain neutral when conferencing and coaching my students.  I won’t lead, but guide instead. 
o   I will put this directly on my form for monitoring student learning in writing so I remember to reflect on how this is going.
·        Planning needs critical details that can come out in any form. 
o   I will utilize my classroom areas to make writing available all the time.  I can monitor progress in this form as well and encourage these ideas to later take shape on paper for students still exploring writing.