Saturday, November 23, 2013

Managing a Vocabulary Routine

"Mrs. Kissner! Mrs. Kissner! Can I read my words to you?"

This has become a common question in my classroom during arrival time, dismissal time, and any spare moment that might arise. It is an interesting side effect of a vocabulary routine that I started this year.

Thinking about Vocabulary
In the past few years, I have come to see vocabulary as a huge issue in my classroom. Fourth grade readers are moving into more complex, difficult text. Many of the new words that they encounter are not typically heard in everyday speech. Unfortunately, wide reading alone is not enough to help students build their word knowledge.  (This pdf from Scholastic is a great source of background information for teaching vocabulary.) More instruction is needed. But what could I do to incorporate this instruction in a meaningful way?

Five Words
When creating new content for the classroom, it's often easiest to work in steps. I knew that a comprehensive vocabulary program was my eventual goal. But this is a huge thing to accomplish. What little steps could I implement right now, each week, to get on my way?

Last year, I experimented with vocabulary lists for texts that we shared in the classroom. As I built my reading homework packets, I pulled five words out from each text. Some of these words matched the master list of academic words that I had compiled two years ago. Others were words that I knew to be common in fourth grade texts.

I created vocabulary activities for these words, using a variety of drawing tasks, discrimination tasks, and word consciousness tasks. Each week, students have a short quiz on the words--matching and filling in sentences. The quizzes are fairly simple so that, with some effort, all students can experience success. (I also needed to make the quizzes easy enough to grade so that I can quickly return them to students.)

Word Rings

This year, I added a new component to the weekly homework/quiz routine. After some paper engineering help from my ninth grade son, I created easy double-sided flashcards. I attach these flashcards to rings so that students have an easy to keep set of words. Many students are still working on decoding multi-syllabic words, so these flashcards are helpful for them to practice pronouncing the words. With the definitions on the back, the flashcards also help students to learn the meanings.

But independent practice wasn't enough. So, with a fancy paper punch from the craft store, I added another step (borrowed from sight word work!): When students can read the word correctly and explain what it means, they get a punch on the card. When they have three punches, the card can be removed from the ring.

Lots of interaction
There are many benefits to this routine--both expected and unexpected. One expected benefit is that it is easy to explain to instructional assistants, substitutes, and volunteers. I keep a clipboard with a list of student names and anyone who reads words with kids can mark the date next to the student's name. Even our sixth grade tutors help out. When students are working independently or have completed a task, they can also come and read words with me. Each individual kid usually reads words with an adult once every week or so.

An unexpected benefit is that this becomes such a verbal, conversational interaction. Fourth graders love individual attention and sharing stories. Talking about these words has become a way to frame our conversations and make sure that everyone gets some personal interaction. I hadn't really considered this at the beginning--but hearing the interesting conversations that go on has convinced me that this is worthwhile. Kids and adults are talking, and they're using rich vocabulary words as the basis for the conversation.

Of course, there are some issues to consider. Some kids love the routine and will go through their words at lightning pace. The opposite is also true. I put each week's words on a different color so that they are easy to differentiate. This week, I did remove some of the early October words from the rings of kids who have been absent. Having more than 20 words on the ring at a time makes the process a little unwieldy.

I always try to work ahead and have the next week's words copied. For example, right now in my classroom I am adding the words for the week of 12/3 to their word rings. Kids then have the opportunity to see and experience words out of context before they read them in the context of the homework text.

Moving forward
My next step is to try to come up with a cumulative assessment. Right now we are working with one set of words at a time. In the future, it will be nice to have long term assessments to capture ongoing growth. Some kids don't finally learn all of the words for a week until several weeks after the whole group quiz. Anecdotally, kids are bringing me their independent reading books to show me vocabulary words that they have found.

Finding words
If you're interested in trying this, I do have vocabulary words and flashcards with my most recent reading homework sets:

I am working on a December set, and I'll add flashcards to the previous homework sets. Eventually I'll have the whole year.

...and this is the important bit: When starting something new for the classroom, work on just one step at a time. If I had set out to do the homework texts, word cards, and quizzes from the beginning I would have become quickly overwhelmed. By working on it in little steps, I've come to a workable, sustainable routine.

Reading words with kids is now something that I do about 3-5 times each day...and it is delightful!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Analyzing Story Elements

Analyzing stories is a tough task for fourth grader. First they have to read and understand the whole of the story. Then they have to analyze the elements of the story, often making inferences about characters, setting, and theme. Finally they have to put this analysis back into the context of the story as a whole.

Over the past few weeks we've been working hard to analyze stories. With different groups of readers, this takes on different aspects. In one group we worked on literature circles with picture books. Here are the pages that I put together for students. Notice that it is a highly structured literature circle, which is very much what fourth graders need at this time of year.

Picture book literature circles from Emily Kissner

Our books included my time-honored favorites from other blog posts: Weslandia, The Memory Coat, City Green, My Rotten Red-Headed Older Brother, and Dragonfly's Tale.

I love having students ask each other to share text evidence. When we did discussion groups, it was wonderful to see students holding the books open, lifting them up, and referring to specific page numbers. After their discussions, students worked to complete the open-ended response to write about the theme of the story.

With a different group of students, we analyzed setting during guided reading. This graphic organizer helped students to collect details about the time and place of the story.

I like how this graphic organizer can be used in two ways. When a setting is known, students can extend their knowledge of the time period and location by using this graphic organizer. When the setting is not known, students can gather details about the setting, and use those details to infer the time and place. (You can read this blog post from two years ago for more on how to infer a setting.) The details on this graphic organizer helped students to think about how a different setting would change the events of the story.

Analyzing story elements is an endeavor that takes students deeper into a story, helping them to think about deeper meanings. A strong foundation in this kind of thinking will also yield great results when students begin to compare stories in the weeks ahead.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Remaking a Map Unit: Combining Digital and Traditional Maps

I love maps. I love finding the ways to get places, looking at how the roads go (and comparing it to how the roads went), and finding names and locations. Strange that I manage to frequently get lost a great deal anyway...hmm...

As I was planning for our social studies maps unit, I started to consider my use of digital maps. Teaching students how to use online resources such as Google maps would be a great way to address CCSS 4.7 (interpreting information from various types of sources). But how would I combine these digital resources with our existing map unit?

1. Student-created maps
Before we even began the unit, I gave students blank pieces of paper and told them to make a map of a place that they knew well. I didn't give them any further instructions.

 The results were fascinating! This is one of those activities that is so simple, but reveals so much about students. I saw three basic patterns:
Skilled maps: These maps reflected a level of map-reading skill and incorporated many of the conventions of the map genre, including map keys and a birds-eye view. One student even included a compass rose. I was a little skeptical about his compass rose and the directionality of his map until he told me, "I know which way is west, because the sun sets outside my bedroom." This definitely represents a high level of mapping skill.
Novice maps: These maps represented a novice level of maps and mapmaking. They included few or no conventions of the map genre, and often attempted to show objects as seen from ground level instead of a birds-eye view.
Hybrid maps: At first glance, these maps looked like novice maps, with some elements being represented at ground level. But a closer look showed that these students were intentionally combining birds-eye view with ground view to enhance meaning. This is a convention that is seen frequently in maps of amusement parks.

Seeing the maps that students created helped me to see what knowledge students were bringing with them.

2. Exploring Paper Maps
My regular reading display area has become a maps display. I have lots of maps from various vacation destinations, some print-outs, and even some old maps. We used the DOGSTAILS acronym as an organizer to help students look for key elements in paper maps. Kids had the chance to see the many different ways that mapmakers use to represent spaces and places.

3. Destination of the Day
A few days before the unit began I changed our table names to continents, which sparked a great deal of discussion in the classroom. At the end of Morning Meeting, I chose a student at random to pick a "Destination of the Day"--a location that I would display on the Smartboard with Google Maps. As part of this I showed students how to find a location, how to zoom in and out, and how to use street view.

4. Google Maps in the Computer Lab
I worked from our traditional social studies lessons for a few days, including an adaptation of this "Maps are Models" lesson from National Geographic and work with the compass rose and directions.

For our reading class in the computer lab, I had carefully put together resources to go along with our literature circle and guided reading books. But the students would have none of that. "Can I go on Google Maps?" one student requested. All it took was one "Yes" for the entire class to want to head over to Google Maps.

I took a deep breath and observed students interacting with the site. After all, this is what RI 7 is all about! If kids don't get a chance to explore a site, they will never know that it is the place to go to get answers to a specific question. Kids made interesting choices. Of course, every first time user of Google Maps has to find their house. But then what? Some students looked at vacation spots. Others went to find landmarks that they had read about or heard about--the Sydney Opera House (we had looked at a model of it in the previous lesson), the Golden Gate Bridge, the Great Pyramids. The chatter that filled the room was interesting--"How do I get out of street view? How did you get there? How can I get there? I'm lost!"

5. Comparing Digital and Paper Maps
One of our key skills for the map unit is being able to use a scale on a map. Personally, I haven't used a map scale in years, except for when I have been walking and I want to see if a distance is manageable. But there is some value in learning about a map scale, and the way to learn that value is to try out the scale.

I started the lesson by teaching students how to use the scale on the paper map. Then, they worked with partners to complete the bland scale worksheet, drawing lines to connect the locations, measuring them, and calculating the distance.

But then we got back together to share our results. I introduced the "Get Directions" feature of Google Maps. Would the distances on the digital map match what they found? Why or why not? This led to some interesting discussions of why the routes that Google Maps displayed were so different from the straight line routes that students had drawn on the worksheet. (It will be interesting to see if kids go back to the "Get Directions" tab when the return to the computer lab this week.)

6. Writing Prompt
This week, we'll wrap it all up with a writing prompt. Students will have to write to show whether they prefer paper maps or digital maps, and then support their opinions with details from our unit. Which will they choose? I'm interested to see. I'm also interested to see how details from our classroom activities find their way into the writing that students produce.

Using digital maps has moved from novel activity three weeks ago to standard classroom routine last week. For example--Friday morning I was checking to see who had moved their lunch cards, so I called a student's name. He looked up from the computer in the corner. "Sorry--I'm at the Golden Gate Bridge right now!" he called out. And he was--in Google Maps, in street view.

November Homework packets are ready! Two fables are included, plus an article about Veterans Day and one about the Pilgrims. (If you just want the article about Veterans Day, it is free in the preview file.)

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Writing Frames and Open-Ended Responses

Ah, the joys of open-ended responses. They can be frustrating to students and teachers alike. On the other hand, they can also be exciting and interesting, giving students a chance to show off a little bit of creative thinking. This year, I am working on helping students write the passage-based essays that will be on our new state tests as well as the shorter paragraph responses that are on our current tests. Testing aside, though, the writing of open-ended responses is important for its own sake. Being able to write about a text in an informed way is a necessary skill for a literate individual no matter what the testing environment.

Helping students to write these kinds of responses can be challenging. In fourth grade, students are expected to use formal academic vocabulary. For many of my students, this formal vocabulary is entirely foreign. Writing frames are a great way to build their skills with formal writing.

Introducing writing frames
Writing frames have a long history in teaching writing. (For more research, check out David Wray's list of articles. The one from 2000, "Developing non-fiction writing: beyond writing frames", explains some cautions to keep in mind when using writing frames.) The idea of a frame is simple--you give writers an outline for how to structure a piece of academic writing.

I like to start with frames for writing about our shared activities as a class. Here is a frame that I wrote for students after we attended a concert assembly. When students returned from the assembly, we discussed the frame. What do you notice? What do you think you should put into the blanks? Students then wrote their own paragraphs in their writing journals.

Early experiences with writing frames do go more smoothly when students are writing about experiences instead of texts. When the details are already in their minds, they do not have to juggle going back and forth between text and response.

I've found that writing my own context-sensitive frames works better than using pre-made frames. It's worth the effort to try to write the piece in my head and then figure out where to put the lines for student responses. Notice that my frame to the right uses a colon as punctuation. This is not something that most of my students use or even notice. I included it as an experiment to see which students could find it and how they would incorporate it into their own writing.  Many of my students had problems with the transitional phrase "in addition"--they simply did not know what it meant.

Of course, students had the choice of whether to use the frame or not. Many looked at the frame for some elements and included their own sentences as well. After we wrote the paragraphs, one student (chosen by the popsicle sticks of destiny) filled in the blanks on my frame, while another student looked up the musicians' website and added illustrations. The completed work can then be displayed.

Frames for text-based writing
The next step, of course, is to use frames for text-based writing. There are times when duplicated frames that students can write on directly are useful. I wrote this frame to go along with a story that students read. This prompt was rather difficult, as it asked students to complete two different tasks.

I like to include both easy blanks and more complex blanks in my frames. I do have some students who struggle with writing to the point of tears. The first sentence is such an easy task (just fill in the title of the story) that students can feel some success before diving into the more difficult thinking required by the prompt. When formatting frames, I always use double spacing and picture the handwriting of my student who writes the largest. There are still times when students want to write more than will fit in the blanks, but I show them how to mark with an asterisk * where they want to add more, and use another piece of paper to do so.

Much of the literature on frames advises teachers and students to use frames as rough drafts only and have students rewrite their responses. However, I am trying to do open-ended responses each week. Rewriting the entire response would take approximately 1.2 million years for some students, and I just don't have that kind of time. Instead, I settle for having students read the entire frame aloud to me.

Moving away from frames
Writing with frames goes so smoothly that it is tempting to have kids keep doing it. But of course it is our job to diminish the supports over time so that students write independently. A good first step to doing so is to offer a choice. Last week, students had the choice of using the frame or not in their response. (I did tell them that using the frame meant that they could not get the highest score on the rubric.)

Some students asked, "What if I look at the frame, and use some of it, but write it all myself?" Well, that's just wonderful! Of course that is fine! So I did see many hybrid responses. Interestingly, the readers who did not use the frame had serious trouble with crafting a topic sentence. This shows me that I need to spend time on this in the future. Students who used the frame had no trouble adding "cool" or "interesting" to finish out the topic sentence.

Another way to move students away from a frame is to project the writing frame on the board, but not give students a copy. Some students will look up at the board and use what is given, while others will not.

As the year goes on, I vary what is given to students on the frame. Sometimes it will just be a topic sentence and concluding sentence. Sometimes the frame will include the information and have students fill in the transitions. All of these variations help me to see what kinds of writing techniques are within the grasp of students and which are still developing.

Writing a Genre?
I have a fabulous class this year with some very creative kids. Some have started a Skylanders Club in which they meet to discuss the game at recess. Well, one student asked if he could type up some homework for students in the club. I was amused to notice that his "homework" included a writing frame for other students to complete.

I love it when our classroom genres make it into student writing, because it shows that an essential shift has taken place. The writing frame represents an expert to novice genre. When a student takes it over, that student takes on the role of expert. (How did the kids in the club take the homework idea? Surprisingly well. In fact, they ask if they can do their club homework during quiet time or choice time in the day. It is fantastic.)

-The writing frames used above (and two others) are included in my October Homework Packets.
-Summary frames are included in selected activities in my text structure materials: Chronological Order, Description, Cause and Effect, Problem and Solution, and Compare and Contrast.