Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Classroom Committees

This year, with my move to sixth grade, I've been having so much fun with classroom committees! They are a great way to engage kids in managing important classroom routines and processes. With committees, students take charge of various parts of the classroom.

What are committees?

A committee is a group of students focused on doing a job in the classroom. At the start of the year, my classroom had five committees: Library, Art, Science, Birthday, and Pencil. The library committee worked to organize our classroom library and set up book displays, the art committee made classroom art displays and contests, the science committee organized and displayed science materials, the birthday committee made a class birthday display, and the pencil committee organized classroom pencils.

In the second quarter, we changed committees, and I made a few changes. Students requested an organizing committee instead of a pencil committee, and the birthday committee had completed their task of creating a classroom birthday display. We added a wildlife committee instead, with the job of taking care of our fish tanks and filling the feeders.

It's neat to see how committees evolve and change. The library committee started the year with one process for signing out books, but refined the process over a course of weeks. The art committee ran an art contest in the first month of school, but has now changed their focus to work with maintaining and organizing art supplies.

When do committees meet?

We have regular committee meetings once each six-day cycle, on a day when I have my homeroom for an extended period of time due to the schedule. Students request committee meeting time! I also give committees new tasks when needed--for instance, today members of the science committee organized our graduated cylinders.

What happens when committees don't do their jobs?

This is what happens in real life, isn't it? Committees have trouble functioning, some groups don't follow through, and kids have disagreements. We work through it all! Sometimes I make quick decisions and act as arbiter, but more often I just listen and ask questions. Often in the answering of questions kids start to see solutions on their own.

Committees are a great way to engage students in the daily running of the classroom. How do they work in your classroom?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Compare and Contrast Writing

 Teaching students how to effectively write to compare and contrast is so important for teachers of all grade levels. Comparing is important for test-taking, but it's important for life, too. Readers of wildlife blogs want to know how cottonmouths are different from copperheads, foodies want to know the difference between cassia cinnamon and ceylon cinnamon, and teachers want to know how different basal series stack up against each other.

    Kids can get better at writing to compare and contrast very quickly, making it a great writing project for November and December. Here are some suggestions for getting started.

1. Start by comparing real objects
    Even older kids need concrete experiences! By starting with real objects, kids of all ability levels can learn how to systematically compare. Because last week was Halloween week, we used Hershey Hugs and Hershey Kisses, but you could compare anything that kids find interesting.
    As kids compare, focus on using language such as similarities and differences to move kids away from terms like sames and differents.

2. When you move to text, discuss: What to compare?

    Begin this conversation by talking about how students compared the real objects based on their physical characteristics. What could we compare in text? Be aware that what kids say (and don't say) in this discussion will reveal the gaping holes in your reading instruction. And that's okay, because you want to know about those gaps, right?
    Hopefully, students respond with these kinds of ideas: form (poem, narrative, article, etc), author's purpose, topic, central idea/theme, point of view, tone, word choice, and so forth. Students probably won't know the exact words for all of these, but will remember talking about them at some point in time.
    The big goal here is to make the shift from the physical world to the abstract world of talking about texts. If you don't hear at least a few of these abstract concepts, you may want to hold off on comparing texts and deal with this issue.

3. Use a graphic organizer
   I've used them all: Venn diagrams, double bubble maps, charts. The actual organizer is not as important as the thinking that kids put into it and the modeling that you show. Right now, we are using Thinking Maps again at my school (yay!), so I am working with those.
   You will notice that my students have used lots of color in making graphic organizer. My students are very visual thinkers this year and LOVE using different kinds of markers as they work.

4. Show clustered and alternated styles of writing, but emphasize alternating

   There are two distinct methods of compare and contrast: clustered, in which details about each item are clustered together, and alternating, in which the details alternate back and forth. I like to show students each version, but focus more on the alternating style. This is more difficult to write, but easier for the reader to understand. (You can find detailed examples in my Sea Turtles Expository Text Mini-Unit)
    I wrote about two of my favorite restaurants for my example. I recommend that you write your own little paragraph example--kids love to find out details about their teachers! In my example, I underlined details about Chipotle yellow and details about Montezuma's blue. Details that refer to both are green. (I wish I'd come up with it, but it was a kid's idea...he liked it so much that he created a similar color scheme for making his own double bubble map.)

5. Work with topic and concluding sentences
     Kids will look at the topic sentences that you model and alter them for their own writing. Variations of the topic sentence that I used in my Chipotle/Montezuma's paragraph has turned up again and again in student writing. Something about this sentence (even though I only showed it on one day of instruction) was compelling and memorable for students. This shows that they are still shaky on writing topic sentences for compare and contrast paragraphs.
    I'm not surprised that kids are struggling with topic sentences for compare and contrast paragraphs. Many adults struggle with this, too. Are we just writing for the sake of comparing, or is there a point to this comparison? If the writer doesn't know, the reader won't, either!
    In my Montezuma's/Chipotle paragraph, I created the idea of "choosing" between the two as a reason for the comparison. This can be effective and easy for kids to understand.

6. Give kids lists of transitions to use as they write
    Without access to strong transitions, students will revert to a "also/but" pattern. Having a list of transitions available to students challenges them to try phrases like "however" and "on the other hand". Creating this list is a good activity to try with students.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Meaningful Multiple Choice

Answering multiple choice questions doesn't have to be drudgery! In fact, multiple choice questions can have a place in an engaging ELA classroom. Getting kids to talk more about multiple choice questions helps them to move beyond "right/wrong" thinking and into looking more deeply at the text.

Reflect on the process of answering. Which questions were hardest? Easiest?
This is a great place to begin. I like to have students put a star beside the one that they think would be hardest, and a circle by the one that they think is easiest. Now here's the interesting part: Why? Listening to students talk about their choices reveals so much about their thinking.

Working in groups to answer questions
This works best with the really tough multiple choice questions, and when students feel comfortable with each other. As my students did this last week, I enjoyed circulating to listen in on conversations. In one group I heard a student timidly offer a (correct) answer, only to be overruled by the group. I called the student aside about a seemingly unrelated issue--and then I said, "You were right for #1! Why didn't you stand up for your answer?" It was neat to watch how the student returned to the group and re-started the conversation!

Some kids hated the questions in the item sampler, and it was easy to see why. Listening to them grumble good-naturedly about the wording of the questions was kind of fun for me.

Have students write their own multiple choice questions to reflect deep thinking about the text
The second part of this is the most important, because it is what provokes discussion. What is "deep thinking"? And how can we craft questions to reflect it?

In last week's groups, this led to some conversations about "tricky" versus "deep". The students were reading a version of Stone Soup from the PSSA Sixth Grade ELA Sampler. The man in the story asked the woman for several different food items. A question that presents lists of these items and asks students to choose the correct list would be tricky...but would it be deep? For kids, this was a satisfying and purposeful conversation as they grappled with where such an answer would be found. (Interestingly, the argument centered on how a reader would have to scan the text to find the information in question.)

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Summarizing Nonfiction...Again and Again and Again

It's been nine years since I wrote a book about summarizing, and I keep feeling like I learn more and more. This year, as I've moved back into sixth grade, I decided to start the year with frequent summarizing tasks. I'm teaching summarizing, but I feel like I'm the one who is learning lessons!

This year's summaries are based on a set of four expository texts about water. Each text has a similar structure and text features. My goal was to build on repeated experiences and frequent feedback to level up my students' summarizing skills.

Here are some of the things that I have learned (and re-learned!) so far this year.

Provide limited space for the summary
    Conscientious sixth graders want to do well! In many cases, this means that they write summaries that are almost as long as the original text. There are two different profiles for the writer of the long-winded summary. On the one hand, you'll see kids who are proficient readers and have a large working memory produce these summaries. They just have a big capacity for details, and they understand everything in the text. On the other hand, some kids who are struggling but conscientious will create these summaries. They're not sure of which details are most important, but they want to please the teacher and so they put them all in.
    My problem when I get these summaries? I'm too soft-hearted! These kids have obviously worked hard, and at the start of the year it's tough for me to hand them back for the kids to redo.
    When I provide limited space for the summary, though, I let the lines do the heavy lifting. "Make sure your summary fits in the space," I say, and when kids ask for extra paper, I give them a small sticky note.
    How much space should you provide? A good rule of thumb is to think about how much room it would take to write a sentence for each paragraph, and then add 3 or 4 more. This gives kids with big handwriting enough room to write a good summary without going overboard.

Teach students to chunk the summary process
    Some students look at the article and think, "I can never summarize that!" In many texts, though, kids can use the headings to guide them through. This is especially helpful for chunking a summarizing assignment for students with learning disabilities. "Don't worry about the whole thing today," I tell students. "Let's just do this first chunk."
    This also helps students who tend to summarize in a knowledge-telling fashion. These students write everything they remember about the text, in the order in which they remember it. A summary written like this tends to sound like a list of random facts instead of an organized summary. By reminding students to go back to the text, you can give them an anchor for their thoughts.

Beware the "about" summary

    Around about the third summary I start to see the topic-based summaries creeping in. Students are becoming more efficient with their summarizing and decide to take a shortcut.
    These are actually signs of good progress. Usually, I end up writing about twenty times: "Don't say what the article was about--actually include the information!" Once kids see the difference, they realize that the 'about' summary is quite empty of actual facts.

Look for growth over the long haul
    The development of summarizing skill is a long process. As readers grapple with more and more complex texts, they need to see how they can wrestle ideas to the page to write a summary. Students won't necessarily become strong summarizers after one lesson, or two, or even three. However, the good news is that repeated summarizing can build comprehension as well. I like to think of teaching summarizing as test-prep I can live with!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Depth of Knowledge in Science

As I move from teaching fourth grade to teaching sixth grade, I've noticed a great deal of overlap between the two curriculums*. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as so many of the big concepts are really important. However, knowing what kids learned in fourth grade is leading me to try to delve more deeply in sixth.

In the first few weeks of school, I reorganized an existing activity to add more depth. Originally, the activity was a standard water cycle model. You can see them in the photo to the right. The original activity had students identify the evaporation and condensation going on in the model.

How could I ratchet up the thinking in this activity? I decided to explore the word model. What is a model in science, and what is the role of a model? Both our PA standards and the NGSS place an emphasis on the creation and analysis of models in science class. However, not many traditional curricular materials for elementary school engage students in exploring the worth of a model.

So then, after we made the models, we didn't stop at looking for examples of condensation and evidence of evaporation. Instead, I asked the students:

Is this a useful model of the water cycle? Why or why not?

Students referred back to the water cycle diagrams that we had made together and worked in groups to discuss. It was beautiful to observe! Best of all, there was wide disagreement. Most of the disagreement had to do with the way that we set up the models on the windowsill--the models that were closer to the window had much more condensation that the windows that did not.

Some other models had been bumped and had blue water droplets clinging to the sides. "When it evaporates, it should be clear, right?" one student asked. "So why is it blue?" This led to a discussion of a model that is so fragile that a slight bump can change the results. "If someone who didn't know about evaporation looked at it, they might think that the water evaporated blue!" a student said.

The task also required students to refer back to their resources about the water cycle. "Would there be transpiration in this model?" one student asked her group. "There wouldn't, right? Because there are no plants." In another group, peers corrected a student's misconception about groundwater. "The water on the bottom is the groundwater because it's on the ground," she said. Group members went back to the diagram to talk about why they thought the water represented surface water instead.

The writing prompt was a straightforward introduction to science argumentation, as I provided students with a claim that they could use as their topic sentence. Some students wanted to write more than a paragraph, while others stuck with a simple explanation. This will give me great information about where they are with science writing so that I can plan instruction from this point.

For a busy teacher, re-making existing activities to involve deeper levels of thinking is a great way to build from an existing curriculum. What activities have you improved upon?

You can find the writing prompt and activity in Watersheds, Wetlands, and Water Resources: Texts and Activities over at TpT.

*I like "curriculums" instead of "curricula" because I think it's fussy to apply Latin-based rules to modern words. It's an acceptable plural here.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Flipping Lessons with Frolyc

In the early weeks of the school year, I admit to loving the computer lab. Not only is it equipped with great Macbooks for student use, but it is also air-conditioned! The cool air is a welcome respite from the heat and humidity of August and September.

Last week, I experimented with flipping a lesson. Instead of me standing up and teaching all students at once, I wanted to give them the flexibility to move through a lesson at their own pace. While they worked in the cool comfort of the computer lab, I could work one-on-one with students to complete our beginning of the year assessments.

Frolyc is the perfect tool for creating a flipped lesson. I can put all of the text, videos, and activities that I want students to use in one easy place. Even though my students don't all have computers at home, they still need to learn how to work through online content and learn from these kinds of lessons.

I started out by creating my classrooms. No need for student e-mail addresses or lengthy forms--I just had to type in student first names. Each student receives an individual code that they use to access their activities.

Next, I created my lesson through the authoring tool on Frolyc. We are working on story elements with a focus on protagonist, antagonist, and parts of a plot. I used a "Multimedia Text" activity to combine an image, a video from YouTube, and text. This is what it looked like on student computers:

I couldn't find a great video for parts of the plot diagram, so I adapted a few slides from a PowerPoint that I have already made (Story Elements) and did a screencast using QuickTime. Then I posted it to YouTube so that I could embed it in the next page of the Frolyc activity. (link to video)

The kids found it very amusing to listen to me! Even better, though, they had full control of stopping and starting the video. "Can we watch it again? I don't really remember all of the words," one student said. "Of course!" I replied. This is one advantage of a video!

After the video, students read a story, and then answered sequencing and multiple choice questions. These questions required students to apply the vocabulary that they had learned in previous pages. Some kids realized that they had to go back and reread, which was a great lesson for them.

 The lesson ended with a drawing activity. Kids enjoyed interacting with the drawing tool, and I loved watching the collaboration bloom--"How do you add a text box?"--and "How do I draw instead of erasing?"

I'm planning to continue creating flipped lessons for students in the weeks to come. These lessons are great for introducing vocabulary and helping students to experience content.

You can find the full activity here if you would like to try it out with your students.

If you would like to try to create your own flipped lesson, here is a story that you can use--for free! This retelling of "Stone Soup", told from multiple points of view, can be used for teaching about theme and point of view.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Using Real Data in the Classroom

I love teaching sixth grade! It is so wonderful to have the same students that I taught in fourth. The first few days of school had a totally different feel--I knew the kids, they knew me, so we could get to the fun stuff really fast.

Science has been especially fun. I wanted to get right into the learning. The more years I teach, the more frustrated I am by "Preparing for Science" units. I feel like we spend time naming the tools that we could spend USING the tools!

Instead, we jumped right into the real process skills and real science. I have pages and pages of data from our bird feeder observations of the last few years. Fourth graders liked to keep the data, but never worked much with analyzing it.

There are two kinds of lesson planning to me. One kind is the clear, cut-and-dried lesson planning of curriculum designers: Teacher will do x, students will do y, a known quantity of learning will ensue.

But my favorite kind of lesson planning is the fuzzy lesson planning. It's "fuzzy" not because of a lack of teacher preparation, but because of the multitude of possibility in student responses. I can't picture exactly how the lesson will turn out, but I bring all of my knowledge and experience in the lesson to bear.

First steps: Looking at data
As students entered class on the first day of science, I let them sit where they like. After some quick introductions I handed out the data and gave directions. Papers flew about as kids looked at the numbers. I walked around to listen (and to show bird pictures as requested.)

Kids wasted no time in looking at the observations, which was great to see. Because they had chosen their groups, I could make some social observations of my own, always good to start with at the beginning of the year!

Organizing the data
After they looked at the basics, students had to come up with a way to organize the data. This is a way that fourth graders and sixth graders are so different: The sixth graders jumped right into making tally charts.

But what were they tallying? Data sheets included dates, kinds of birds, weather, student name, and behavior notes. What kinds of information would students tally? Luckily, it varied across the classes--just what I wanted to see! Many groups tried to find a link between weather and bird types seen. Some went for the simple "Number of birds seen"--a safe and productive choice. One group tallied data related to the student-observers, making a list of all of the students who had recorded observations and tallying how many times each name appeared.

Knowing what to tally, and realizing that there are multiple possibilities, is a huge science process skill. And yet it is one that is never explored during those "Preparing for Science" units. The cooperation that I observed was also fascinating. Students figured out that they needed to keep track of which papers they had tallied, and which they hadn't--and they also figured out ways to split up the workload to keep everyone engaged. Again, these aren't skills that usually show up in traditional science units!

Displaying Data
I told students that they could have access to any paper in the classroom to display their data. This got them up and moving and looking around for supplies! I loved watching how some groups used graph paper and others used construction paper. Some groups looked for rulers to make straight lines.

I helped a few groups to create graphs using the NCES Create a Graph site. This site is one of the best for science instruction--instant graphs! Kids still have to do lots of thinking, though, and they worked together to create titles, figure out what to put on the x-axis and the y-axis, and work through the numbers.

The question of incomplete data came up frequently. There were a lot of bird observation pages that just weren't finished--it was time for recess, we were leaving the room, etc. (Several of the unfinished pages were mine. Oops!) What is the effect of incomplete data? Kids were passionate as they complained about how "annoying" it was to see so many pages that didn't have everything filled out. I only hope that they remember this annoyance when they have data charts to complete this year!

There was also the question of overlapping data. On the observation sheet, a recorder could check off weather conditions like "warm", "frigid", "cloudy", "cool", "sunny", and so forth. But some of these weather conditions could overlap--a day can be warm and cloudy, or frigid and sunny. The students who tried to link weather conditions to kinds of birds seen found this overlap frustrating and it really kept them from seeing clear patterns.

Questions to Consider

This fuzzy lesson revealed a great deal to me about the students, and helped my plans for the upcoming year to come into focus. They showed some great cooperation working in groups, which reinforces my instinct to build in as many collaborative activities as possible.

Once data is displayed, there will be more opportunities for questioning and learning. Each group had a different set of bird observations with the dates marked. None of the groups noticed that the dates were significant for the kinds of birds seen, as they didn't compare information across groups. (For example, juncos are heavily represented in the January/February data, but not at all in September.)

Once all of the charts are displayed in the hall, will kids notice this? Will they see that different groups came up with different information, and wonder why? What will I do if this happens? What will I do if this doesn't?

Next Steps
I really hope that students will be able to come up with a new data collection tool. What learning can they take from this lesson to apply to future data collection? I've added a digital thermometer to the window...hopefully someone will pick up on this hint that we have to record the exact temperature!

I was glad that I did this lesson, because it helped me to learn more about my students. A fuzzy lesson can be daunting to undertake, but the rewards can be far greater than any worksheet.