Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Reading Round Up: Starting the Year

Oh my goodness, this was my first proper back to school in three years! I moved from fourth grade to sixth grade at the end of 2015, which meant that I had two years with super-easy starts, as I'd taught the students before.

Getting Started with Assessments
So this August I was back to square one with a new crop of readers and writers. True to my reading specialist training I've been using the Qualitative Reading Inventory to listen to my students and gain an insight into their word-solving and comprehension techniques. There are so many things to like about this as a quick reading assessment--the word lists help me to see where kids are with words in isolation, while the passages allow me to listen to students and gain insight into their answers to both explicit and implicit questions. I've been working with one students each day, during independent reading time, and this has worked well.

Popular Books
It's been interesting to see how readers have taken to my classroom library. I always love seeing
which books they love! What's great about having so many excellent books around the classroom is that I can quickly pull them to explain concepts that I'm teaching.

  Calamity Jack by Shannon and Dean Hale retains so much appeal for students. This is one book that hasn't seen the shelf (actually, the bin dedicated to Shannon Hale's books) all year. What's neat about this book is that it leads to so many others--not just the Shannon Hale books, but also books by Nathan Hale.

Another popular graphic novel has been The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks. The characters are interesting, the setting is new and exciting, and the action appeals to a wide cross section of readers. Today a student even brought me the sequel, The Stone Heart, to show me the way it reveals a flashback in the text.

With a movie on the way, Wonder has been making its rounds through the room. It's so great to have this book at hand to illustrate important concepts about point of view. There are so many reasons to love this book, but Auggie's wry sarcasm is my favorite part.

New on TpT
I made these Expository Text Structure signs for my classroom. They're pretty simple, but a nice ongoing reference for my students.

I'm starting the year teaching about Earth's Spheres, so I'm using this set of resources that I made last year. They go very nicely with the Crash Course Kids videos on the topic.

These Summary and Analysis sets are easy to use for ongoing summarizing and text-based essays! I use them on a two-week basis (we're doing the Stormwater text right now) and see so much growth from my students over the course of the year.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Leading Stream Studies for Kids

This summer I've been having a great and relaxing time stepping away from the classroom for a bit. I've been reading and reading and reading, writing, and volunteering to lead stream studies at a local summer camp.

Doing informal stream studies all summer has helped me to really fine tune the process of leading a stream survey with kids. I want to start by saying that it's really difficult to get the perfect balance between fun, learning, and respect for stream creatures. (Anyone who says differently just isn't watching the situation closely enough.)

It's also helped me to realize the importance of stream surveys for science education. Getting kids into a stream and looking for living things immerses them in scientific thinking. So...here's the accumulated wisdom that I've managed to gather over the summer!

Get the Right Materials

These are the things that I found most useful:
-white ice cube trays
-local stream ID guides (the one included in Project Seasons is great for younger kids)
-local fish species guide (the Pennsylvania one is available here and wonderfully useful)
-small aquatic nets
-larger basins

Find the right site

Not every spot in a stream is suitable for a stream study, especially for younger students. The best spots have a nice, rocky beach, plenty of shade, and a variety of stream habitats. As the adult in charge, remember that you are responsible for the safety of the children, so make sure that you have walked the entire section of stream to check for hazards such as deep pools and poison ivy. Also, be aware that some kids will absolutely not want to walk in the stream. This is fine!

Choose a site that provides a walkable bank to allow for this. Remember, for some kids a stream is a mysterious, almost frightening place--you want them to be able to explore at their own pace.

Prepare the kids

Before anyone gets in the stream, brainstorm safety rules and boundaries. Remind students that the rocks are often slippery, and act out best practice walking techniques, especially with "seesaw rocks". You can learn a great deal about a group by asking the question, "What do you think we'll see?" Because I'm in rural Pennsylvania, many kids bring knowledge of minnows and crayfish to our stream studies! In other places, you may find different levels of stream knowledge.

This is also the time to briefly outline the collection tools and proper handling of stream creatures. "We don't want to harm anything!" I tell kids, and they earnestly agree. The ice cube trays are perfect isolation containers for individual creatures, while the larger basins hold fish and crayfish. Be sure to keep everything in a shady spot so that temperatures don't soar!

Phase 1: Open search

This is what I hit upon over the summer that made stream studies so much more successful. Instead of talking about the biotic index and macroinvertebrates first, I got kids into the stream as quickly as possible.

Inevitably, they gravitate toward catching crayfish, salamanders, and minnows. This is fine! These are the obvious creatures in the stream and they want to capture them. I walk up and down the collection area, making sure that things are going well and offering advice.

Regroup and Discuss

After about 15 minutes, get the group back together to discuss what they have found so far. Write down the species of animals that students have found and do a quick biotic index. Here's how it played out with my most recent trip: "We've found 3 species of animals so far, and we have a score of 2 on the biotic index. But an earlier group found 11 species and had a score of 18. What do you think is different today?"

In every case, kids saw quickly that they weren't looking carefully enough! This is when I introduce the term macroinvertebrates and show kids the stream study guides. Now that they have found the salamanders and minnows and crayfish, they are much more receptive to looking for the smaller mayfly nymphs, water pennies, and dragonfly larvae. (Why is this? I have no idea!) Depending on the age of the group, we even act out turning over rocks, looking for creatures, and gently returning them to their original locations.

This is also when I briefly outline the biotic index and how to use it: "Scientists have a tool called the biotic index to help us make a good guess about a stream's health. By looking at the macroinvertebrates in the stream, we can see if the water is high quality or not."

Phase 2: Biotic Index

Kids head back to the stream for a second round of collections, and this time they use different methods. On this phase, we find the dobsonfly larvae, the mayfly nymphs, and the caddisfly larvae. As they put creatures into temporary observation containers kids also inquire about their biotic index score and the number of species they've found. Some playful competition between groups and weeks helps kids to see what kinds of scores others found in the same stretch of water.

Debrief and Return

Of course, all of the kids want to see the creatures that were found and hear their names. I have kids stand in a circle while a counselor or another camper walks around with the specimens. Then, each item is carefully returned to its home. I always emphasize the safe return of creatures as the most important part of the process. Our goal is to help the stream to stay healthy and harm no living things.

Finally, we discuss the overall health of the stream. Does this stream have high water quality, or not? How can they tell? What can they do to keep it healthy?

And that's it! The final step--send kids back with their counselors and return to my car, where I have a cold VitaminWater waiting for me in a cooler. Ah, the joy of a cold drink after a long afternoon!

Do you have tips for conducting stream studies with kids? Add a comment!

A Closer Look

If you're working with macroinvertebrates in a formal lesson, you may enjoy the reading selection in Summary and Analysis: Macroinvertebrates or the Biotic Index text in Problem and Solution Texts.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Links to Google Classroom Presentation

This spring I've been working a great deal with Google Classroom and the writing process. Each new assignment helps me to consider new questions about writers and how writing skill can be cultivated.

Use this link to access the Google Classroom presentation from 6/7/2017:

Google Classroom and Process Writing

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Station Rotations in Sixth Grade Math

    My math classroom is quite the collection of students this year! I have 24 sixth graders of all ability levels. We have a demanding curriculum (Math in Focus). The bumpy rollout of our curriculum when these students were in fourth grade has left them with a few holes in their math knowledge, holes that I didn't even know to look for at the start of the year.

    But most importantly they are a collection of delightful individuals who need the most math that I can teach them. This year, I've been trying to figure out the best way that I can do this. One thing that I know from my years of teaching ELA is that there often is no single best way--that I must be constantly changing up my strategy, working on my plans, and altering routines to fit my students at that moment.

    In October I attended a workshop about hybrid station rotation, and I decided to implement it right away. My class does break pretty evenly into three groups. I'm really lucky this year in that the gifted teacher can take a group for enrichment during two days of the cycle, and an instructional assistant comes in during all of math.

    With these advantages, hybrid rotations should have worked out perfectly, right? Well, it was bumpy.

    My first problem was in my arrangement of teacher lessons. In the first week, I saw the middle group first, the struggling group second, and the enrichment group last. (With students, of course, I called them by content-based names instead of these terms.) This arrangement
crashed and burned. My enrichment group consisted of the largest personalities in my class, and leaving them to their own devices for the first 40 minutes of math was not successful.
     Technology use was another issue. I needed at least 5 computers per class, and these was not always easy to secure. While students said that they liked watching the videos, they struggled with learning from them. Another issue was that the method required 100% of my focus and attention. There were at least 12 discrete tasks that I needed to complete for each math lesson!
It took a great deal of Saturday time to plan each lesson, and most of my lunch to get ready for it each day.

Workshop Station Rotation
    We took December, January, and part of February off from station rotation, moving to a more traditional model. Special events in December made this essential, and we kept the routine in January as students were enjoying it.
    In the middle of February, though, we were all ready to try stations again. But I had some changes in mind! First of all, I changed my rotation. The hybrid model works wonderfully in
some situations, but I wanted something different.

Whole Group Lessons
    I've limited my stations to 15 minutes each instead of 20, which means that I have 20 minutes for a whole group lesson in each class as well. This helps us all to stay on track.

Homework/Review Station
    I've been having great results with a homework packet due Friday mornings. I use great materials put together by Maneuvering the Middle. When students have questions or problems, I have used time in the morning before school, at the start of recess, or at the end of math to help them.
   Why not use class time for this? The homework and review station is time each day for students to work on their homework packets, reviewing key skills from the entire school year. Even better, students could help each other by explaining their work and showing their steps.
    In the middle of the week, as students are finishing their homework, I add some Reteach or Extra Practice pages from my math curriculum to this station.

Teacher Station
    Now, instead of planning a lesson to fill my entire 20-minute block, I prepared a single problem or technique to show students. The remainder of the time I kept open for emerging issues. What problems did you encounter at the other stations? What would you like me to show you?
    This method works perfectly with our current unit, Area of Polygons. After I started with some basic whole group lessons, students moved on to finding area of more complex shapes. They would bring their questions to me and we would work on those tougher problems together.

Lab Station
    This station is especially useful for manipulatives-heavy topics like geometry. Here, students extended our learning in projects or activities. I use a combination of prepared activities, like these, and homemade projects here. An example of a homemade project is pattern blocks--we worked in the teacher small group to calculate the area of pattern blocks, and then students made composite shapes and showed the area of them.

    The Workshop Station Rotation model is prone to a beautiful entropy. In the last few days I've found that the structure is not as necessary. Students are moving into a workshop model in which they are trying things out, doing the math, and working with each other. And that is amazing!

Is it the model or the content? Are students doing well because the routine works well for them, or because they enjoy working with area? I'm not sure if the answer is necessary.

Every classroom routine has its ups and downs, its pluses and minuses. Have you tried station rotations? How have they worked for you?

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Ongoing Science

As a young child I visited a summer camp high in the Laurel Mountains of western Pennsylvania. In a sunny glade there was a small log cabin, the demesne of "Miss Alice" the nature teacher. The cabin was filled with all kinds of interesting objects, from turtle shells to paper wasp nests to butterfly wings. Posters of all different ages lined the walls, and new field guides mingled with old mimeographed booklets. It was a place that invited inquiry and curiosity.

Thirty-five years later, I try to cultivate a classroom that feels like the nature cabin. I used to feel embarrassed about this and wish that my classroom looked more orderly and tidy. But I've decided not to feel embarrassed at all. Just like the nature cabin invited me to explore and ask questions, I want my classroom to invite students to do the same.

One of my classroom jobs is the "ornithologist", and these students have the task of refilling the birdfeeders each day. I do buy my own birdseed for the classroom, large bags of black oil sunflower seed and suet cakes every few weeks.

It's interesting to watch how students interact with the window and the birds. Many stop by to take a look outdoors as they are going from task to task. They have their own names for the birds--"the chipmunk bird" (wren) and "the one with the mohawk" (tufted titmouse), and they correct each other quickly when needed.

This week I overheard two boys talking about their favorite birds: "I like the female cardinal best. The orange beak is just so cool."

The other student said, "I like it when the blue jays come. They're awesome."

Pond water
Science instruction should be ongoing and pervasive. While one-shot lessons and visitors are fun and engaging, real learning happens when students have many opportunities to explore. Too often teachers get out the microscopes for a single unit (usually a "Science Tools" unit in my area) and then neatly wrap the cords and put them away.

I like to keep the microscopes out for weeks at a time! Right now, I have a pond water exploration station in my classroom. This is a great time to get pond water because there aren't yet any mosquito larvae, but there are lots of copepods, mites, and clam shrimp.

A simple set of guidelines lets students know what to do, and then the station runs itself. Just like with the birds, students stop by, engage for awhile, and then go on to other tasks. It's so interesting to see that some students have extraordinary microscopy skills and can focus patiently on very small creatures. One student called me over to the more powerful microscope to show me the tiny clam shrimp swimming!

So while my classroom may not be the tidiest, I definitely love having natural objects for students to explore. How is your room like a nature cabin?

News and Notes
I finished another Summary and Analysis packet! This one includes a biography of Robert Louis Stevenson, a summarizing page, a text-dependent analysis, and a comprehension quiz. Robert Louis Stevenson is frequently anthologized and his writing often appears on standardized tests (my cynical opinion: his writing is public domain, so using a story or passage of his cuts down on costs!) Helping students to see how his writing related to his life and times was an interesting activity.

Close Reading with Chronological Order Texts Grades 5-6  is a reimagined version of some previously published chronological order texts. It includes lesson plans, activities, and a text-dependent analysis prompt. Try it out and let me know what you think! (If you have already purchased the original Chronological Order texts set, re-download and you'll get the new items for free.)

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Teaching Sonnets in Sixth Grade

Last week I wasn't sure about teaching sonnets with sixth graders, but now I can tell you: sonnets are awesome!

Okay, our discussion of "Ozymandias" was highly influenced by this video:

I don't know if I've every seen such a brilliant combination of text and image. I used it to introduce the lesson, and students were hooked. (Note: Kids didn't know where the original recording was from, and I wasn't about to tell them.)

Shelley's sonnet doesn't quite follow all of the typical conventions of a sonnet, so I supplemented with "Still will I harvest beauty where it grows" by Edna St. Vincent Millay. After a review of rhyme scheme, we analyzed this poem. I talked it up to kids as an amazing game that poets are playing. Can they find a way to express an idea within these incredible constraints?

After they were amazed by the rhyme scheme, I asked students to count the syllables on the lines. "Pick a random line and count," I said. Students started clapping and reciting the poem to themselves. Around the room they started calling out: "Ten!" "10!" "Ten!"

All of this structural analysis actually happened before we looked at meaning.

And this is a shift from my usual style. I like to go for meaning, meaning, meaning before we look at structure. In a sonnet, though, the meaning is hidden in the structure. Understanding and appreciating the structure first gives students that charge to dig deeply for meaning.

When it came time to look for meaning, some students were able to quickly find the theme of "Still will I harvest...", especially because it's stated in the first line. With the help of a stuffed moose as poetry translator, I guided students through the images in the poem. Then we connected the theme of the poem to the images within it.

"The ideas go across the lines," one student commented. "One of the things being described starts on one line, and ends on another. Is that because it's a sonnet?"

What a great question to consider! Students were able to take what we had learned with "Still will I harvest beauty..." and go back to "Ozymandias." With the help of the visuals from the animation, they could paraphrase the theme.

So wow. Later on in the day I overheard two boys talking to each other while they were supposed to be doing quiet writing; I found out they were trying to recite "Ozymandias" to each other. I felt like I won teaching.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

I'm teaching a sonnet next week...

   I'm teaching a sonnet next week, and I'm not sure how I feel about it.

   Growing up I read my mother's literature anthologies, the thick books of poems and stories for seventh and eighth graders, and I read some of her college textbooks too. These books came from a dank room we called the library, but was really an unfinished room in our basement; what we'd call a bonus room today. Even now when I think of certain poems and stories I remember the damp smell of books that spent many years there.

   I read my mother's anthologies, but I had the good sense to skip the sonnets. I read some of the narrative poems--I was a sucker for a good story, the more blood and sorrow the better, and I loved encountering Lord Randal again and again in different books. But I really loved the modern poems, stripped of all but the most important words, like the ones by Gwendolyn Brooks or found inside the gift of a watermelon pickle. Perhaps I was a lazy reader.

   Or perhaps I just had the good sense to skip sonnets. Rhyme I could deal with, but only in the hands of someone like Robert Frost, and a poem written just to meet a set pattern of rhymes seemed an absolute waste of time. Plus sonnets tended to have extra words like O and I really didn't like that. Sonnets, in my opinion, weren't long enough to tell a good story or short enough to really grab my attention and leave me breathless.

    On my second or third reread of A Wrinkle in Time I did notice what Mrs. Whatsit said about sonnets, and it made me reconsider a bit. Maybe sonnets were not such a lost cause after all.

  So I consented to read a few sonnets, and while I still didn't like the form I could at least like some of the sentiments, especially in "If Thou Must Love Me..." by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. But I still skipped the sonnets in most of the poetry books I read. I think that, besides the form, I also was just too young to appreciate the themes. After all, what 12-year-old is really looking back on lost loves as in "What lips my lips have kissed" by Edna St. Vincent Millay? 

   And this is what gives me such pause as I think about teaching sonnets next week. Sonnets pose both a structural and a thematic challenge to young readers. They come from another age, an age when poems followed rules and when every word, carefully chosen, conveys a meaning that may not be initially apparent. Teaching students about reading a sonnet should take time, time to look at what a sonnet is and what it is not, time for students to move through the stages of disliking sonnets and into enjoying them.

    According to my basal series lesson plan, I have 5 total days to teach lyric poetry, sonnets, personification. Well, four days actually, because the fifth day is supposed to be for assessment.

   Which brings me back to where I began: I'm teaching a sonnet next week, and I don't know how I feel about it.