Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Reflections on first STEM club

I'm not really sure what led me to starting a STEM club at my school. Maybe it was watching my own children create with the Makedo set they got for Christmas. Maybe it was the excitement of my students as they experimented with Scratch after the Hour of Code. Or maybe it was the influence of the people I follow on Twitter.

Whatever the reason, I wanted to offer something for students that goes beyond the typical sports and music offerings. I decided to start small by just making the club available for fourth graders. I also started with scheduling just four sessions--totally manageable!

But what to do? I don't have any budget for the club, so I decided to work with easy to get materials and what I already have. These are the sessions that my oldest son and I brainstormed.

Session 1: Toothpick structures
Session 2: Computer coding
Session 3: Boat building
Session 4: K-Nex

Our first session went wonderfully. We started with about 10 minutes of downtime for students to eat the snacks that they had brought, use the restroom, work on homework, observe the tadpoles in my room, and chat. Then, we watched the NASA video, "What is engineering?"

Our next step was to start building. The task was simple--build a structure that could hold a social studies book, using only the toothpicks and marshmallows. The kids jumped right in. They were so excited! (We did try some marshmallows, too.)

Before we tested their creations, I showed the "Success through Failure" video. This helped to cushion kids against the upcoming disappointment they might feel when their structures failed. After all, failure is good! We can learn from it!

After we tested, we watched the MIT Bridge Building videos. These are fantastic and the kids really enjoyed the addition of the LEGO minifigures. (Next time, I'll bring some of my own minifigures to use on our structures.)

And this is the most important part: Then we did it all again. This time, kids could choose from more materials--clay, cardboard, straws, and whatever else they could dream up.

The hour passed quickly and before we knew it we were cleaning up, talking about next time, and negotiating about what materials kids could take home to do more experimenting at home. I could hear the kids saying, "This was so fun!" as they went out into the hallway.

The whole thing has turned out to be really fun. Hopefully our next sessions will run smoothly as well!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Questions to ask of chronological order text

    I usually teach chronological order text fairly early in our study of text structures. Students can draw on their understandings of narratives and their own experiences with time order to quickly build an understanding of this text structure.
    But this doesn't mean that chronological order text is "simple". In fact, these texts often have deep complexities lurking beneath the surface.

How does the author play with time?
    Comparing a timeline to a chronological order text is fascinating. While timelines have a regular, ordered interval between events, chronological order texts often zoom in on certain time periods while flitting over others. An event that is important to the sequence may have several sentences devoted to it, while a less important event may be glossed over in just one or two sentences.
    With a group of fourth graders, we looked at the use of time in "Lafayette and the Battle for Freedom." Lafayette's early years are discussed very quickly in the first paragraph. The rate slows down in the second section, however. Why? How does this match with the main idea of the article as a whole?
    Noticing these differences in fourth and fifth grades can help students to have more sophisticated discussions in upper grades. How does this use of time reveal an author's bias? Why might an author want to devote more space to a particular event?

How is this different from a narrative?
    As you can see in the last post, my students really love reading about animals. Because we're doing a choice-based activity right now (Expedition Text Structure), they are happy to select animal text structure books for themselves. I've started to devote more read-aloud time to technology and history texts.
   We were reading Steam, Smoke, and Steel: Back in Time with Trains when a student said, "Wait. How is this different from a story?"
    This is a great question! It's best to send it right back to the students: "What do you think? What does a story have that this text does not?" Some texts have blurrier edges than others. These can provoke wonderful discussions. (Bad News for Outlaws comes to mind as a great example of this.)

How do the paragraphs line up with events?
   This question can lead to great discussions as students are reading. Many students will think that authors will use one paragraph for each event in a narrative. But this isn't always the case! Check out this text from my Introduction to Text Structure unit. Which paragraphs have only one event? Which have more than one? Why might this be so?

Peregrine Falcon Chronological Order from Emily Kissner

    As you can see, chronological order text can be fascinating to explore and discuss!

Other posts about text structure
-Peregrine Falcons, Chronological Order, and More! (from 2013)
-Assessing Text Structure (from 2012)
-Chronological Order Texts (from 2011)
-Comparing Texts: Chronological Order (from 2011)
-The Many Sides of Chronological Order Text (from 2011)
-Text Structure: Chronological Order (from 2010)
-Teaching Text Structure (from 2009)

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Summarizing Chronological Order Text

   I love teaching text structure because I love exploring all of the different ways that authors can play around with expressing ideas. (See my Pinterest board for some texts.)
    Today I shared a wood frogs text with a group of readers. I had selected texts for the class based on a quick interest survey designed by one of my fabulous colleagues. A student agreed to tabulate the results (for 10 coupons, our classroom currency) with these unsurprising results.
  I love the other ideas listed at the bottom. I will have to start working on some texts about gems, koalas, and technology! (Or maybe koalas who create technology with gems...hmm...)

From text to graphic organizer
    In the small group, we started by looking at the text, especially the headings. "The headings don't really help you know the topics," one student mused.
   I modeled a strategy for note-taking with chronological order text by underlining and numbering events in the text. We went section by section through the text, discussing which paragraphs introduced new events and which gave additional information about events. (Notice that a student convinced me to add an event. Awesome!)
  A quick note about this: Looking for these events is a fuzzy process. There may be multiple ways of considering what are separate events and what can be lumped together. After all, I wrote the wood frog text and a student convinced me to change my mind about an event.
    Don't turn away from this fuzziness. If you're not sure about something, tell the students. "Would this be one event, or two? What do you think?"
    After we had our events underlined, making the graphic organizer was easy. I modeled the process of writing first and then putting boxes around the text. We also talked about how to change the wording and condense ideas.
    Notice that this is not beautiful, but quickly sketched and displayed with the help of the document camera.

From graphic organizer to summary
    I love scaffolded summaries. If I were ever to be able to write another edition of the summarizing book, I would add a whole chapter about scaffolded summaries! These frames help students to see what the summary should look like while still giving them some work to do.
    Fourth grade readers are always asking, "How long should this be?" when asked to write a summary! So I introduced the scaffolded summary by asking students to count the sentences. How does this relate to the original text?
    Then, we went between the scaffolded summary and the graphic organizer. We explored which events were put together in the summary, and why. Then we filled in the blanks and read the entire thing. Some blanks could have multiple answers, while others required just one.
    A scaffolded summary is a good first step for summarizing chronological order text. Often, kids love the details of the text so much that they just can't discard any, and their summaries go on and on and on. Explicit teaching about how to combine events (also known as "collapsing lists") helps them to confront this tendency and try to avoid it.
    Our next step is for students to write the graphic organizer and summary independently. To give them some choice, I've set up a box with a wide variety of chronological order texts. They can browse the box and select the texts that interest them.

-The wood frog text used above is available in Chronological Order Texts. Wood frog eggs are in vernal pools now and are great for the classroom!


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Daily Sentence Writing

This year, I've been working on daily sentence composing with my students. Each week, students have been unscrambling, imitating, or combining sentences. I've been able to use this method to teach most of our grammar standards, including prepositional phrases, compound sentences, and subject/verb agreement.

This is based on sentence composing and sentence combining research, with some key differences. First, I incorporated lines to help students improve their handwriting during these activities. Second, while many of the target sentences in other books are from literature, I wrote the sentences for this program. I hate the random examples on typical grammar exercises. It seems that students have to use precious processing power to reset their schema as they go from one sentence topic to the next. If the sentences are all based on one topic, then hopefully students will have more processing capacity to deal with the complexities of sentence composing.

Writing these sentences was hard, but so worthwhile. I have a YouTube playlist for each theme, so students can see the videos during arrival, dismissal, and as transition activities. These videos reinforce the content in the sentences and add new vocabulary words, which students can then take into their sentences and paragraphs.

Each week ends with a paragraph prompt inviting students to write on a topic related to that week's sentences. Often, students have to incorporate an aspect of the week's lesson, such as a compound sentence. Students then check their own work using a highlighter and a red pencil.

Two weeks ago, I joked to the co-teacher in my room, "Well, thirteenth time's the charm!" We had just finished our thirteenth week, and the paragraphs were amazing! Students had to write about their experiences from the point of view of a fish--and they were able to read the prompt, figure out what to do, and weave in their own experiences. One student wrote that he was a shad in the Susquehanna River, using details from our migration simulation in his writing. Considering that I had students who responded in just a single sentence (or a single run-on sentence) at the start of the year, this is great progress.

I've also created several PPTs to go along with the ideas in these lessons. Each PowerPoint includes the examples that I want to show students, along with some interactive elements. Here is the latest one, created to help students learn how to use "sophisticated" transitions:

Combining sentences with the words although and despite from Emily Kissner

Well, the thirteenth time does seem to be the charm! If you are looking for a way to combine grammar with writing, you may want to try creating your own daily sentence lessons. You can purchase the first 8 weeks of mine here. (Part 2 is coming soon!)

And of course the other PowerPoints are available free at Slideshare:
-Imitating Sentences
-Combining Sentences
-Formal and Informal Language (download it to see it properly as I got too fancy with the text boxes)

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Teaching Main Ideas

So this year I thought that I could take a shortcut through the Land of Main Ideas. My idea of a shortcut was one quick lesson, authentic note-taking about Antarctica, create our own main ideas, and emerge with full mastery.

Looking back, this shortcut idea was a big mistake. After all, I know all about how students understand (or fail to understand!) main ideas. I know that students often pay attention to individual sentences, processing text at the micro-level instead of putting together the macro-structure of the text. I know that students are easily led astray by seductive details. I know that students confuse topics with main ideas. I know that the same students who can pick out explicit main ideas in a paragraph can struggle with finding implicit main ideas. (I wrote a whole chapter about this in my book Paraphrasing, Summarizing, and Retelling.)

So, trying to teach main ideas in one lesson was not a good idea.

Once I realized my mistake, I stepped back to observe what students were doing. A card sorting activity proved to be a great way to find out what students were thinking--they had to put together a paragraph and select the sentence that states the main idea. I noticed that students were drawn to whichever sentence should come first in a paragraph, even if the sentence is a question, and seemed to struggle with the role of a main idea in a paragraph. (You can find this activity as part of this unit.)

Topics and Main Ideas
Next we looked at some paragraphs and found topics and main ideas with the help of a PowerPoint. (You can find it here.) I really like using PowerPoint to illuminate text and show students key ideas. In this particular example, notice how the PowerPoint makes the topic of the paragraph jump right out at students. And for teachers who are sure that their students have already mastered this, I challenge you to give it a try. You may be surprised at how far students can get without having a true grasp on topics. I wrote a book about it and for some reason I still find it shocking, every year. Maybe you will learn a little faster than I have.

Identified Main Ideas
Instead of jumping right into having students identify main ideas, I showed them several paragraphs that had the main idea underlined. Then I challenged them to make a generalization about where the main idea can be found in a paragraph. If you know fourth graders, you know that making generalizations about text can be tough for them. Many tried to answer with information about the wood thrush, confusing the text at hand with the abstract idea of text. If this happens to you (and it probably will), just remember that it takes students time and practice to talk about texts in the abstract. But every new experience adds to their background knowledge for next time.

You may notice that these examples are usually about animals, and that there are multiple paragraphs about one topic. My students love animals and are always motivated to read about local creatures they may see. Using real topics instead of the "fluffy" topics that proliferate in worksheets keeps our work with main idea from devolving back into the worksheets or color-coded SRA cards of yesteryear. I always end the lessons with a video or photo (sometimes from my own personal collection!) of the animals in the paragraphs.

Implicit Main Ideas
Our next step was to jump into creating main ideas for texts with implied main ideas. Fourth graders really struggle with these tasks, but they are so important. In fact, I think that creating a main idea sentence for a set of given details is one of the most important skills for students to develop. This is a lifelong skill that transcends reading and writing.

Looking at paragraphs with implied main ideas and talking about what the main idea could be helps students to consider the gist of a set of sentences. In this paragraph, notice how all of the sentences relate to the movement of the fairy shrimp. Movement and other abstract nouns are vital for academic reading and writing, but not frequently used in speaking. Exposure and practice help students to weave these kinds of words into their writing.

Generating Topic Sentences
Our next step was to write a topic sentence for a paragraph. Yes, it's test preparation, but it is worthwhile. Students really need to be able to do this! Strong readers will breeze right through an activity like this, especially as the pictured example has such a transparent main idea. However, struggling readers will have difficulty. They may write a topic sentence that relates only to one kind of skink. Circling the different kinds of skinks in the paragraph is a way to scaffold their learning.

Assessing Understanding
I'm not talking about student understanding here--I'm talking about my own. What did I learn from my longer-than-expected-journey through the Land of Main Ideas?
-Helping students to identify and generate main ideas is vitally important and may take more time than expected.
-Practice with finding topics and main ideas is worthwhile work, and I can keep it from just being boring worksheet practice by incorporating topics of interest and real-life links.
-Even strong readers may need explicit lessons with topics and main ideas--and that's okay.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Peeps Dioramas for Student Council

In between blogging, writing, playing around outdoors, and spending time with my family, I also run our school's Student Council. Things get crazy!

I imagine that there are probably many others who have found themselves in the same situation--running Student Council, but without much extra time to give to such an undertaking.

I've learned that it is helpful to have a set schedule for the year. Repeated projects give a shape to our school year. They also help me--I am always short on time, and having a standard schedule means that most of the prep work can be saved from year to year.

Several years ago we were looking for a fun spring event that would engage students after standardized testing. My oldest son suggested Peeps dioramas after we spent time looking at the Washington Post galleries together. What a perfect idea! We don't do dioramas for school projects much anymore, but kids are just naturally attracted to creating miniature worlds.

And it's been a great success. Each year we've had more than 40 entries, which is an amazing showing for our school of less than 200. As students bring in their dioramas, our fabulous custodian arranges them in the cafeteria. I can always tell when a particularly impressive diorama has come in--the students are buzzing as they come in from breakfast. "Did you see...." "Mrs. Kissner, you have to go to the cafeteria right now!"

Some dioramas are obviously completely kid-made, while others look like they have become family projects. Kids talk about working with their moms and dads or even grandparents to bring their ideas to life.

This year,  the end of the contest will coincide with our Parent Breakfast. It may make the serving a little trickier, but it will be fun to show off all of the dioramas. We end the day with a brief awards ceremony in the gym and the presentation of The Golden Peep.

So, if you're embroiled in a thousand crazy schemes (like me), you may want to consider giving Peeps dioramas a try. After all, what's the harm in one more crazy scheme?