Monday, September 15, 2014

Science and Writing: A Natural Pair

Teaching science goes so well with teaching writing! Kids naturally enjoy learning about science. When they learn, they want to write...and they have to grapple with the best ways to express their ideas. Writing instruction blossoms from science activities.

But it's not always so simple, of course. It does take some planning, some preparation, and a big dash of serendipity to get the most out of the connections between science and writing.

We love visiting nearby parks and poking about
in streams together!

The planning may not always be what teachers typically think of as planning. It's not always writing essential questions in little boxes! Squeezing the most learning out of teachable moments requires a broad knowledge of both science and writing standards. In addition, I try to learn as much as I can about the background details of what I am teaching.

So I take every chance to learn about geology, animal adaptations, day/night, and seasonal changes...I know that I may have to draw on this knowledge to guide student investigations. Following scientists and museums on Twitter is an easy way to build my background knowledge. Luckily my kids like "adventuring" so we all learn together.

Informal activities
Science writing starts with the informal activities that I have in the classroom. Toads, crickets, and praying mantises are all highly motivating for students, and a great way to get kids writing. We draw pictures, add labels, and take notes.

In third and fourth grades, students have trouble generating data tables independently, so this is a task that I take on at first. I like to have a Bird Observation binder for students to record what we see at the window. When students take notes, other students sometimes ask questions: "What were they doing? How many did you see?" These are the kinds of questions that scientists as writers need to answer!

Trays set up for our litmus paper experiment.
Even a task as mundane as lunch count can be the beginning of science writing. I have a student keeping track of our menu items and # buying and packing each day. Today he came to show me an interesting anomaly in the data. Little does he know that this data will be used next week when we talk about drawing conclusions!

Formal activities
Scientists also need opportunities for formal writing. One thing that I have learned is that students thrive on real experiences and clear prompts. Last week, while learning about classification, students classified liquids as acids or not acids, using litmus paper as an indicator.

Because it is so early in the year, I offered students a writing prompt with a writing frame. In the prompt, students take on the role of science teacher and write to their principal regarding the importance of litmus paper. (Requesting supplies is a fairly common writing task for
scientists, of course!) The writing frame helps students to see the kind of formal writing and sentence structure used in this kind of science writing. Students also enjoyed signing their names as "Mr." or "Miss" at the end.

In future writing prompts, students will take on varying roles. We do these prompts about once a month, and they always relate directly to activities we have done in class. Engaging real life experiences enrich student writing. Students elaborate more and use richer vocabulary when they are writing about class experiences.

Advance planning, informal experiences, and formal writing opportunities help students to see the natural connections between science and writing.

News and Notes
-A new version of November Reading Homework is now available. Revised file numbers, minor formatting updates, and an end of month assessment are available.
-In my classroom this week, I'm using character traits materials from Character Traits and Emotions along with stories from Teaching About Theme.
-Check out the great tutorials on Frolyc! Frolyc is a way to publish activities to student iPads. Many of my texts are available. You can hear me explain how to build these activities on the YouTube playlist.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Book Review: Developing Literacy in the Primary Classroom

I really enjoy reading educational research articles. The authors are pleasantly careful and measured in their descriptions of studies and conclusions. Instead of making huge claims and offering easy solutions, real educational research articles are like quiet coffee-time conversations. Authors work hard not to overstep and over-generalize. As a reader, I'm left with plenty of ideas to consider and think about as I watch the learners in my classroom.

In the course of this reading, I've found many new concepts and ways of thinking about reading, like the Simple View of reading, Four Resources Model, and task feedback. These different concepts have changed how I teach.

This is why I'm so delighted to have been given a copy of Developing Literacy in the Primary Classroom by Gary Woolley. Dr. Woolley's articles have been a deep influence on my teaching, especially as I teach students how to visualizing and self-monitor. Now, he has put together an easy-to-read yet comprehensive resource for teaching reading in elementary schools. All kinds of new and interesting models are discussed, with digital resources embedded within chapters and given a chapter of their own as well.

As Dr. Woolley works in Australia, this book offers American readers a refreshing change from constant talk of the Common Core. But strong literacy instruction is good practice no matter what you call it or what standards you apply to it. Reading and writing combine a number of different processes, and awareness of those processes helps teachers to design the best classroom environment and learning experiences.

This book is useful for any elementary teacher looking to expand their reading and literacy horizons. Short chapters and lots of headings make it easy to pick up and read in short segments. It would also be an excellent introduction to literacy instruction for college students, especially with the end of chapter questions and activities. (Plus there is a bit from my blog included--how exciting!)

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Tried and True: Literacy Activities I Love

What a week! After a relatively cool summer, Pennsylvania enjoyed (?) some hot and humid temperatures this week. I used old-fashioned heat management strategies like closing my blinds at 10 and starting fans early in the morning to pull in cool air. These strategies kept the temperature in my room to a manageable 86 degrees. The kids were amazing about it and never complained.

One of the nicest parts of my week was going back to some tried and true activities that should be part of every literacy teacher's repertoire of techniques. Even in the heat, these activities were engaging and fun for everyone involved.

Making Big Words

I first saw the Making Big Words activity back when I was doing my first round of graduate classes, and I started using it in middle school immediately. It is one of those rare activities that fits every ability level.

Kids get a strip of letter tiles arranged with vowels first in alphabetical order. This week's letters were:

e e i o o c h m n n p r s

The teacher gives clues about words that can be made with those letters, and kids arrange the letters to make the words. At the end, the students try to build the big word that can be formed with all of the letters. Can you figure out this week's big word?*

What I love is that it gives me instant information about how kids approach words and word-making. Every student in fourth grade used the same set of letter tiles this week, but as they were divided into our intervention groups we could see how each group dealt with the challenges. For example, students in the ESL group struggled with changing shop to shoe because of the odd spelling pattern in shoe. In my grade level group, I saw many different spellings of poison--poisen, posion--which shows me that unaccented final syllables are a topic to explore.

It is a fabulous activity to get to know a new group of students and get real-time information on how they are processing and working with words.

You can read my ancient review of Making More Big Words at Amazon--a relic from before I started blogging!

Retelling with Figures

When students have trouble comprehending a text, retelling with figures is my go-to plan. The idea grew from my days as a preschool teacher, when I used felt figures to tell stories. (Remember feltboards? Does anyone use them anymore?) With older students, having figures to retell the events in a story helps them to attach meaning to the events. Students have a visual cue for retelling and have fun manipulating the figures.
This picture from last year shows students using retelling figures
to retell key ideas from an expository text. 

This week, students in one of my reading classes read "Clever Coyote" and then retold the story using four pictures: a coyote, a mouse, a rock, and a rattlesnake. Watching them retell in pairs helped me to see how they were comprehending the events of the story. This story worked especially well because the plot hinges on the locations of the characters.

You can read more about retelling with figures at this blog post. I have some sets of retelling figures and stories available in Analyzing Story Elements (Gwen and the Witch) and Summarizing Stories (The Magic Key).

Settling into our literacy routines has become so meaningful and enriching. Even though I have done these activities many time before, I always love seeing how new students engage with them. What are your tried and true activities that you return to, year after year?


Sunday, August 31, 2014

Mental models for comprehension

    If it's the beginning of the school year, I must be talking about mental models! In reading, a mental model is a reader's representation of the text. It's no exaggeration to say that everything I do in reading for the rest of the school year will depend on whether or not students can build rich, elaborate mental models based on the details from the text.
A view of my school from the hillside. After our mental
models discussions, we went to the hillside to try to
draw a map of the school, using our mental models and
what we saw.

    If I can teach students how to access and talk about their mental models, then I can quickly figure out where comprehension is breaking down. These lessons need to start early!

   This year, I began with just a few images and sentences. Students were sitting up on the carpet, close enough so that I could quickly look at them and see their reactions. (This is so much easier with fourth graders than with sixth graders.)


    I started with this because it is so simple. I asked, "What are you seeing in your mind? Why?" It is really amazing that just a few marks on the page can make everyone picture the same thing!  Except--our cats weren't really the same. Without information about what the cat looks like, everyone was picturing a slightly different cat. This is what readers do all the time.

  The cat sat on the bed.

   I showed this sentence, but did not read it aloud. I wanted students to do this step. Then we talked about how our mental models changed.

The giant cat sat on the bed.

    When kids start to laugh at this sentence, I know that they are making mental models! Students liked talking about how their mental models updated to reflect this new information.

The giant cat sat on Mrs. Kissner's bed.

   Now more kids laughed, and interestingly enough most of them looked at me as soon as they finished reading the sentence. This is a totally natural reaction. To show them how they can use their mental models to build an inference, I asked, "How do you think I would feel about this?" They shared different emotions--scared, mad, unhappy--all of which could be supported. They don't know me very well yet so they don't know that a giant cat on my bed would probably make me feel curious, intrigued, and appreciative.

    The next step was to have students work with partners to figure out some clues that an alien left. At the start of the year I always have trouble foreseeing how students will do with various activities, and this one was no exception. Students talked and shared as they worked, and some were truly puzzled by the clues.  This was all good information for me! After all, when we read longer texts they will need to build even richer, more detailed mental models...the more I know about their processes, the more I can offer the right support.

    If your students would like to know more about Zomack, he is in the story "Boring, Boring, Boring" included in the Visualizing PowerPoint and Activities pack. If you have already downloaded it, do check out the new version with updated formatting and more activities.

    Taking the time to develop the importance of a changing mental model is vital. As transitional readers move from stories with picture support to stories without picture support, they need to work much harder to build mental models and visualize concepts from the text. Taking the time to set this up from the start is important for later success.

Other posts about mental models
Clicks and Clunks and Mental Models
Helping Kids to Build Mental Models
Help for Word Callers: Using Manipulatives

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Reading Assessments for the Start of the Year

     Another school year has begun! At the start of the year I am always eager to find out as much about my new readers as I can. I know that I need to hit the ground running if I want to move my readers and help them grow. At the same time, I don't want to burden kids with too many assessments. My goal is to keep things light and fun.

The Read-Aloud Test
    This is as easy as it gets. Read aloud an an interesting text with very few pictures. Watch how kids react.
    It's that simple! Well--not really. The book selection is the key part. With one group of readers I'm reading aloud Tollins: Explosive Tales for Children. If you have never met the Tollins, this book is well worth it. It has a very dry, British feel to the humor and is wonderful for helping me gauge the reactions of my readers. Which kids are laughing? Which are staring at the wall? Which readers look shocked at the treatment of fairies?
    In my other class I am reading aloud Toys Go Out. I've written about this book before, and I still love starting with it. This book is excellent for helping students to understand how readers build mental models. (It's funny, too.)

"What was the last book that you read that you liked?"
    I ask this question as I am trying to match books to readers in the first few days of reading class. Sometimes kids speak confidently about books and series. Sometimes they will describe a book that will help me to choose the next book to give them. And sometimes they will look at the floor and mumble a bit. Each of these is an important thing for me to know about a reader! By watching how readers interact with books, I can get a good sense in the first few days of which readers will need more targeted help.

Visualizing Assessment
    Fourth graders are good at using picture clues. So good, in fact, that I really need to pull away picture clues early on to see what they can do with simple text. A visualizing assessment is a wonderful tool for this.
    I tell readers: "I really want to know what is going on in your head as you read. Because I can't see inside, I'd like to you to do your best to draw a picture of what you visualize as you read. It doesn't have to be perfect, and I'm not looking at your artwork, so feel free to add labels if you want to."

 Another visualizing assessment in my book The Forest and the Trees: Helping Readers Identify Details in Texts and Tests. I've found that it's helpful to have several different versions to use throughout the year.

QRI Word Reading
    I learn so much about readers when I administer the QRI (Qualitative Reading Inventory). In the first few frantic days of school, I don't really have time to sit down and give a QRI my full attention. But I can give the first part of the assessment--the word reading part! This gives me some very early information that I can use to help students with book selection, and helps me to pull the right selections to use with students.
    I never do the QRI with all students. However, it's very helpful for students who seem to be struggling or seem to reading well above grade level. I love to sit down and really listen to these students read.

These quick assessments help me to find out some basic information about the readers in my room, early in the school year. They help to get me through the first few weeks of slow going as we look at routines and procedures. These assessments are a nice balance to my other main job of the first few weeks--getting books to readers! What assessments do you like to use early in the school year?

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Phenology of the Classroom

A vernal pool at Caledonia State Park, June and July
If you follow my Twitter feed, you'll probably notice lots of pictures of flowers, many with #phenology. I'm incredibly lucky to live in a place where two gorgeous state parks are within a 20-minute drive--and one of those state parks is on the way to a larger town where we do a lot of our shopping. So I get to walk a great deal on the same paths and see the same places day after day, week after week.

And yet they're not the same places. Even within one season a location can change a great deal. Year to year, I can see the same patterns unfold in different ways. This is the joy of phenology! Cardinal flowers that were in one location are a few feet away the next year. Mushrooms sprout after a wet August but remain hidden in a dry one. Garlic mustard invades a few more feet each year. A new stream erosion prevention barrier has been built--does it work? I could walk these paths a thousand times and still see new things.

When school begins, I take this same sense of phenology back to the classroom. Each week with a new class is like rediscovering an old trail in new seasons. Just as I know to look for blooming skunk cabbage as an early sign of spring, I also know to look for very early signs of class cohesiveness. In the first week someone will have an idea that goes beyond my imagination--an idea that takes the class in a new direction. This is as miraculous as that first spring flower.
A skunk cabbage flower wouldn't fit in August. Some routines that work
well in May just don't work at the beginning of the year.

In the later weeks, I see the same kinds of patterns unfold. Sharing becomes a treasured routine in the classroom, but each group of students shares in a different way. Each class has certain favorite classroom spots, favored clean-up songs, favored ways of tweaking our classroom routines. Seeing these patterns emerge is as delightful as watching spring come to a forest. Not quite as restful, though--because in the classroom I am always a participant, not an observer!

Walking the paths near my house helped me to see how the seasons naturally unfold. As you begin your school year, I invite you to try out the lens of phenology. How does your classroom ecosystem develop? What differences do you see as similar patterns build? If you see a negative event happen--the same kind of thing that happens every year--how can you intervene to change it?

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Back to School Books

This year, I have resolved to step away from the fancy border. Instead of buying beautiful classroom supplies or trying to make everything match, I'm buying more books...

...and not just any books. I live in an area with few bookstores, so my book purchases tend to focus on the ones that kids can't pick up at a big box store. I'm also trying to enlarge my graphic novel collection. So here are the books that I've bought in the last two weeks, or am planning to buy!

Fairy Tale Comics

I read a local library copy of this last year, so I was thrilled to find a copy of it in a comics bookstore at the beach. I just love to buy books in the real world, and a comics bookstore that has a selection of children's graphic novels is about the best thing ever.

I think that this book will take the title of the First Read-Aloud of the Year. Projected on the whiteboard, it will be the perfect tool for showing students how to interact with a graphic novel. Plus the short story format will be perfect for short reading sessions throughout the day...I think I'll call on kids to choose which story to read next from the Table of Contents.

Ubiquitous and Dark Emperor by Joyce Sidman

I discovered these at a local store called Ollie's. Of course after my husband and I went out to dinner for our anniversary I wanted to go and browse for books. Now Ollie's may not look like a place to discover books (it is a store of overstocks), but they have a surprisingly nice selection.

These books include beautiful poems alongside illustrations and informational text. They will be perfect additions to my poetry collections. I think that I'll make a poster of "Night-Spider's Advice" from Dark Emperor because the poem is such a neat example of how a reader can extract double meanings from a poem.  But I also plan to read the poems aloud in the first weeks of school...again, letting kids choose which poems to hear.

Amulet #6 by Kazu Kibuishi

Last year we bought the Amulet series for my youngest son for his birthday. As you may remember, he went through a period as an acquisitional reader, when he just wanted to collect books but didn't really read them. Well, luckily the Bad Kitty series changed that, and he started to take off as a reader. I found Amulet as a next step for him.

The Amulet books were too good to keep at home, and while the kids know that most of their books usually end up in a classroom, I just couldn't appropriate a birthday present! Deep in the bowels of the Scholastic book clubs I found the whole set for bonus points, and they were worth every single one. I don't think I've ever had a series of books that found such a diverse group of readers. In fact, one of the most constantly asked questions was, "Who has Amulet #___?" (Runners-up were "Where is the tape?" and "Has anyone seen my coffee?")

"I'll see you on August 26," one of the most devoted Amulet fans said last year. "We'll be in school then, right? I'll come to your classroom so I can borrow the new book."

Hmm, I think I'd better get two copies of this one.

Zita the Spacegirl, Legends of Zita the Spacegirl, Return of Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke

Like Amulet, Zita the Spacegirl has found a wide audience. I had it all year round and it was in pretty much constant demand. It has appeal for both girls and boys, which I really like. For some reason I didn't order the second and third in the series last year.

Over the summer I ordered the third (by mistake, instead of the second!) and took it on vacation. I thought that my youngest son had already read the first--but he hadn't! He went on and read the third, but hasn't really forgiven me for the mistake. Oh well.

I'm hoping to redeem myself by buying the second in the Zita series as well as Ben Hatke's new book, Julia's House for Lost Creatures. (You can see some gorgeous artwork from the book in this post at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.)

In the long run, these books will be much better purchases than any kind of fancy border or cool organizational tool. What books are on your list for the start of the year?