Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Reading Folders

Today was the fifth day of school! For the first few days, I worked with the students to find "just-right" books. Now that they have settled into their books, the next challenge is to get them thinking about what they read.

Yesterday, we made a chart to show all of the different kinds of thinking that readers can do as they read. (This is based on the "Reading Is Thinking" chart in Guiding Readers and Writers by Fountas and Pinnell.) Each student received a sticky note, and wrote one kind of thinking that they do while they read. Some students had some great ideas, like "making pictures in my mind", while others drew a blank. Still others knew important words, like "schema", but weren't sure of how to put this as a kind of thinking. Students shared their sticky notes and grouped similar ones together.

After we talked about all of the different kinds of thinking that they can do while they read, I introduced the simple chart we'll use to keep track of our thinking. Then, I showed them how they can do this. Finally, they returned to their own books to try writing down at least one example of how they think while they read.

In past years, I've been very encouraging on the first day, accepting almost every approximation. Today, though, I was a little choosier. One student wrote, "I am wondering what will happen next."

Ah, the stand-by reading response! This fuzzy response plagues me every year. Not today, I decided! But it takes some work to help a reader figure out how to make this more specific.

I said, "Let's try to make this a little more specific. Why are you wondering what happens next?"

The student rattled off a pretty detailed explanation of the events of the page, so I knew he was following the story. (He was reading the second book of The Sisters Grimm--his third grade teacher had read the first book the previous year.) I said, "You just told me that Jack and Sabrina are fighting. Can you put that into a specific question about what will happen next?"

He thought for a few moments, then said, "Well, Sabrina has a sword, and I wonder if she's going to use it in the fight."

Much more specific thinking! I said, "Think about how much more detail you added! This really shows your thinking as a reader."

As I start routines, I am always thinking, "What will this look like months down the road?" It's important to make sure that students aim for specific thinking, each and every day.

Of course, today wasn't all about the winning. As the temperature climbed, I asked one reader to tell me what he was thinking. He looked at me, sighed, and said, "I was thinking about if you would let me go stand in front of the fan."

Teaching reading in August is always an adventure!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Organizing the Library

Here's a quick tip for organizing a classroom library--something that I just learned by trial and error.

One thing that is always a problem early in the school year is that fourth graders often pick out the second, third, or fourth book in a series, instead of the first.

In series for young readers, this isn't such a problem. I know this from vast experience of reading the Magic Treehouse books aloud to my youngest son! But books meant for older readers are often more complex, with each book building on the last. A reader who jumps into a series with the third book will get confused. (This isn't to say that it's impossible--I've done it, and I know lots of other readers who have. But it requires a different kind of reading, a knowledge of the genre and how series books work that's often beyond the scope of fourth grader.)

When students pick a book that is later in the series, I often have to tell them that this isn't such a great idea, and we go to find the first book. Invariably we find that the first book in the series is already in someone else's hands, which leads to disappointment. Take the Dragon Slippers series by Jessica Day George. The second book, Dragon Flight, looks beautiful and inviting. But it will be hard to understand without reading Dragon Slippers. And the kind of reader who doesn't know enough about series books to realize that it's best to start with the first is the kind of reader who just can't jump into the middle of a series.

I've solved this problem by pulling the later books of some more sophisticated series and keeping them on a special shelf behind my desk. Kids have to ask for these books. When I see that a student has been carrying around Dragon Slippers, for example, I know that she is going to be ready for Dragon Flight soon. My library shelves are less cluttered, and I don't have the problem of readers trying to read books that just aren't quite right for them.

In short: Put out the first books in the series, but keep the later ones out of general circulation. They'll be easy to find when you see that a reader is ready for them, and kids won't pick them up by accident.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The First Day!

Three more days...and then the students will arrive. While I'm sad to see the end of summer, I am starting to feel a little bit of excitement for the new school year. (Thank heavens!) I can't help but think about what I'm going to do the first day, scribbling down notes on whatever paper I can find.

My focus for the first few days of school will be to help students realize how they can be great learners. Most of my fourth graders are a little anxious about the challenges of the new grade. I want them to get learning and feel successful right from the start.

I've already planned to do the What's Missing game from the Think-ets set, probably during my first few science sessions. While my first day's schedule is not entirely finished, here are two things that I know I'll be doing.

Distraction (from The Forest and the Trees): Too often, students don't realize that they have control over their attention. They allow themselves to be distracted by all of the little things going on in the room. I have to get students to realize their role in paying attention right from the start. After all, in my room, we can have two fans blowing, classes walking by in the hallway, birds chirping outdoors, and even the town's volunteer fire siren going off right down the hill. If students allow each little noise to be a distraction, they will have a very fractured learning experience.

The game of Distraction is simple. A student reads aloud from an informational book. During the reading, I zoom around the room, trying to be as distracting as possible. The kids think that this is really funny! After the reading is over, I ask students five simple questions based on the reading. Their success depends on how well they were able to tune out the distractions and focus on the reading. Then we talk about how they were successful or not. Invariably, some students are good at this, and can explain their strategies to others. We try it a few more times so that students can try out the strategies and see success.

Schema Maps: One of the tasks for the first day of school is a school tour. My fourth graders are new to the school, so a tour is definitely needed. This year, I'm going to combine the tour with a discussion of schema.

Early in the morning, I'm going to ask students to try to create a map of our school, labeling as many features as they know. They will probably find this challenging! Then, we'll walk around the school with our original maps on clipboards. Students will be able to make changes as we go. When we return to the room, we'll make new maps to show what we have learned. This will be an introduction to schema. Students will have a concrete example of how they can add to and change their schema. And our school tour--one of my least favorite first day chores--will have an added dimension of learning.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Text Structure for Younger Readers

Well, it's taken most of the summer, but I finally finished a primary grade text structure Powerpoint. No more fighting about Powerpoints across the grade levels!

Because it has so many pictures, I had to upload it to TeachersPayTeachers in two parts. Here are the links:

Text Structure for Younger Readers, Part 1
Text Structure for Younger Readers, Part 2

This presentation focuses on five text structures: description, sequence, compare and contrast, cause and effect, and problem and solution. It includes quite a few example paragraphs and LOTS of pictures.

The paragraphs are about a wide range of topics, mostly going along with whatever interesting pictures that I had. You'll find that some paragraphs are easier than others, but all of the topics are clear and concrete.

Games for the Start of School

One of the issues with August vacations is that I'm already starting to make the switch from my summer self to my teaching self. In some ways, this can be a bad thing--my teacher radar informs me of every misbehavior in a 100 ft radius, and I have to bite my tongue to keep from explaining to random children why it is not a good idea to walk on the dunes at the beach.

But the good part is that I often discover some great teaching ideas while on vacation. This year, I found a neat version of an old game. I found little bags called "Think-ets" while I was browsing in a bookstore. The bags include tiny little objects like miniature animals, shells, dollhouse items, and charms. Small enough to fit in my purse, the bag also had directions for several different games.

I quickly recognized one game--the "What's Missing?" game that saved my life back when I was substituting. I'd put seven different objects on the overhead projector, reveal them to students, and then take one away. The students would have to figure out what was missing. When I used to play this, I'd gather any objects that I could find, like paperclips, marker lids, and even my jewelry. The items in the Think-ets bag are much more appealing. What kid can resist a tiny horse or a miniature copper cup?

While we were waiting at restaurants, we played the "What's Missing?" game several times. Both of my sons enjoyed it! We also tried a game in which one player gathers 5 items, shows them to the other player for about 10 seconds, and then hides them. The other player has to try to guess all 5 items. Well, my five-year old son was very frustrated with this at first. But once I showed him how to make a story out of the items, as explained in the directions, he became very successful very fast.

I realized that this is perfect for the first few days of school! I'm planning to use the set that I purchased to play the games with the whole class, using the document camera to project the items on the screen for everyone to see. These games will help to communicate some very important lessons for the first few days of school:

1. It's important to observe and notice small details
2. The more we observe, the better we are at it
3. Using strategies (like making a story) can help us to improve with remembering

These big lessons will help us to establish a culture of observing, improving, and telling stories. What more could I ask for those first few August days?