Sunday, December 22, 2013

Engaging Students in Complex Poetry

Last week I stumbled upon a way to engage students in reading complex poetry. It was a wonderful, magical moment--made even more enchanting by the fact that students were completely immersed in a poem twenty minutes before dismissal a week before the holiday break!

Behind the Scenes
    I love to start our study of poetry with accessible, easy poems that students can read and decode without much effort. After some success with these poems, students are much more willing to read more complex poems that require more thought.
    I have loved John Masefield's "Sea Fever" ever since I first read it in my seventh grade literature anthology. (Oh, I adored that book--a huge volume of different stories and poems!)  It is a perfect poem to read and revisit during a poetry unit, as it can be discussed in many different ways, looking at speaker, speaker's attitude, figurative language, and more.
    But how could I introduce it in a way that would engage students? I decided to try out Keynote for this. I quickly put the poem into Keynote, using a different slide for each line and a different background for each stanza. On a snow day, I recorded myself reading the poem in Keynote, and then took it over to iMovie, where I added some ocean sound effects. The entire process took about an hour.

During Class
   I wanted students to have experience with this poem over multiple readings. For our first reading, I had pretty low expectations--I just wanted to see if students could connect their printed version with the video version. Could they find the way that I had marked the different stanzas?
   It turned out somewhat differently. Students noticed the marking of the different stanzas on our second viewing, with lots of comments along the way. ("Is that you?" "Wow!" "Why don't you talk like that during class?") With ten minutes left in class, I decided to show it one more time as a choral reading, inviting students to read along.
   But students had different ideas. They couldn't help but call out their questions. I paused on the line with a star to steer her by when one student asked, "Why would you steer with a star?" Another answered, "Oh! They must have looked at the constellations!" We hadn't progressed much more when we got to the wheel's kick and the question, "How can a boat have wheels?" This didn't need much discussion--I just pantomimed steering a boat with the wheel and said, "You know, the big wheel they use to steer with."
   By this point I realized that the choral reading wasn't happening. In fact, it had evolved into more of a close reading--students were really focusing on each line, carefully considering the meaning. I have taught this poem many times, but I have never had students try to get so much out of it. Feeling brave by the end, I asked, "Who is the speaker?"
   Of course, some answered, "You are," because I was the one reading the poem. But another student protested. "No, she's reading it, but she's not the speaker. The speaker is inside the poem." Tentative answers were offered--"The speaker is someone who likes the ocean" "A person who works on a boat".

What Worked 
   Several things came together to make this lesson work well. First of all, I chose a high-quality poem to share. Something about this poem resonates with students--we are about 4 hours from the beach, close enough to visit every summer or two, but far enough away that students really do feel that longing to get back to the beach.
   The visual format of the poem also changed the experience for students. Many of the readers in this group have trouble accessing the right background knowledge to help them visualize effectively. The simple photographs in the video gave them a cue to access their "beach scenery" schema. Also, showing the poem one line at a time helped to give students a clear focus.
   Finally, I have to remember to keep an open, encouraging attitude, especially when we look at text for the first time. I went into this with a very low-level expectation for a first read. The students totally overwhelmed me by going beyond my expectations. I knew where I eventually wanted to go, and so I could steer the conversation onward when students showed that they were ready. But it was so wonderful to have students move beyond what I expected, instead of feeling like I was in the position of "pulling teeth" to get students to an expected level of understanding. This is something worth remembering for the rest of the poetry unit and beyond.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Snow Science

The snowflakes are flying! Today's snow in Pennsylvania was the kind I especially loved as a child...a layer of 3 inches of snow covered by about half an inch of ice. It makes a satisfying crunch as you break through the top layer and step into the snow. It's also especially fun to break apart into big sheets.

Snow presents some great opportunities for easy science investigations. Today, we looked at the volume of snow and watched what happened when it melted.

It doesn't get much simpler than this! I took this picture mid-morning, after some of the snow had melted. We started out with 100 mL in the graduated cylinder and 250 mL in the beaker. The boys who got to go out to the playground to collect the snow also filled out a chart that I had made with their classmates' guesses about the final volume of the water.

Interestingly, the boy who filled the graduated cylinder used more of the fluffy snow from underneath the ice layer, while the boy who filled the beaker used mostly ice. Did this have an effect on the final volume? Absolutely!

Having done this several times, I have learned that the final volume of water is always much lower than expected. I've also learned that there is no single rule of thumb to use--it really depends so much on what the snow and ice is like (and even more so on how much the snow collector packed it down into the container.)

Lots to explore here...
Review of volume: My fourth graders still have trouble with the use of milliliters to measure volume. Talking about the initial volume and the final volume gets the word "milliliters" in use over and over again.
Predicting and checking: The routine of making a prediction and then checking the real-world results is always engaging and helpful. Results will vary over several days as the snow changes.
States of matter: This activity helped us to think about the change of water from solid to liquid. Some students expressed surprise at the final volume of water--"Where did it all go?"

At recess, I filled a tub with a collection of snow and ice and let students handle it for short periods of time. Students noticed that the ice sheets bend light ("they work like glasses!") and that the snow changed when they handled it. All afternoon, they stopped by the science table to check on the progress of our snow--"I can't believe it hasn't melted yet!"

The forecast calls for more snow for tomorrow. If we have school, I hope to capture some snowflakes on some black paper; then we can talk about the shapes that we see. Ken Libbrecht has an amazing site with a guide to snow crystals, and I also have his book, The Secret Life of a Snowflake. 

Of course, all of this snowflake study will go quite nicely with our poetry unit...lots to write about with so much snow!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Introducing Poetry: Lines and Stanzas

Back at the start of November, I noticed that there were only 14 teaching days in December. 14 days! Instead of introducing nonfiction, as I usually do this month, I decided to squeeze in poetry. In many ways, poetry is the perfect topic for a month in which schedule changes are the norm. (Only 15 minutes of reading class because of a holiday show/Santa's workshop/artist visit? Let's read a poem!)

I like to start poetry with some informal reading. Yesterday, students had some time for free reading of poems in the morning. One student found the poem "Candy Cane" by Valerie Worth in a book of holiday poems (specifically, Christmas Poems selected by Myra Cohn Livingston). She brought it to Morning Meeting to share with the class. Here are the first two stanzas:

Candy Cane
Hot wintry
mint, striped
round with
fire and snow.

Sweet icicle
that melts
and burns
and chills...

Of course this poem sparked discussion. How can a candy cane by hot? How can it burn and chill? Luckily I had a bag full of starlight mints--close enough to a candy cane--that I could hand out to the students. We talked about how our experiences with the mints were similar to the poem, and how they were different. Along the way, I was also able to listen to what kinds of language students were bringing to the classroom. How were they describing the poem? I only heard the word "stanza" once, which told me that this was not a well-known concept in the room.

Today, we explored the idea of lines and stanzas. We looked at poems with short lines, long lines, and multiple stanzas. (I used the PowerPoint in the Poetry Unit for Poetic Structure, but you could easily do this with any poems.) This is so important because students need to know how to navigate a poem. Once they know about lines and stanzas, we can quickly talk about how to get to a particular spot.

After a whole group lesson, we did a carousel activity. Students rotated to different poems that I had around the room and described them--title, lines, stanzas, and a picture to represent the main idea. I watched to see if they could record the title of a poem with quotation marks (some used parentheses instead!) and listened to their conversations to see if certain words came up. I hoped to hear alliteration, personification, and simile....but I didn't. When I introduce them, students may recall what they've learned before. At this point in time, however, students don't have access to these words to talk about poems. Good to know! And finding this out from a busy, talkative activity is so much nicer than learning it from an assessment.

Finally, students had some free time. Some chose to escape from poetry and go right back to their independent reading books. (The Amulet series is hugely popular in my room right now.) Others started to try writing some poems. (Alas, many jumped right into acrostics...looks like I'll have to break out the book Silver Seeds to talk about meaningful acrostics.) Still others read from their poetry collections, a book of poems that I have put together to use as our core resource for our poetry unit. All in all, it was a nice start to our precious few days of focusing on poetry.

Other Poetry Posts
Having Fun with Poetry

Poetry Picture Books for Making Inferences

Student Poetry Conferences

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Learning Notes: Stories in a Sea of Data

This week, as I was cutting down the remains of last summer's garden, I thought about how lucky it is that my classroom and my garden work as opposites. In June, as I am feeling the deep sadness of a vanished learning community, my garden eagerly clamors for attention.  In November, just when the summer garden is completely gone, my classroom "garden" of learners and excitement is entering full bloom.

And what a bloom it is! I have a class of students with lots of enthusiasm and ideas, and they have brought many interesting ideas. Clubs have been all the rage this year--kids love making sign-up sheets (of course, everyone who wants to join must be included), having club meetings at recess, assigning club homework, and then complaining when club members don't attend meetings. It seems that the process of making the sign-up sheet and making announcements to the class is the most exciting part of this. On the other side of the room, a group of students is making a play. Another student has taken on the task of writing the morning message each day, and another is writing a story. There are smaller moments, too--the girl who is making a PowerPoint about Greek mythology, the student who created a cupcake analogy to describe summarizing, the boy who is writing his own story for us to act out during reading class.

So the question arises of how to capture all of this activity. Even though I have 100+ data points on our standards-based report card, I cannot imagine turning any of these rich experiences into a number or a letter. They are more than that.

I found a way to capture the learning as I was browsing the Graham Nuthall Classroom Trust to see if there were any new newsletters. I've been fascinated by the work of Graham Nuthall ever since I worked on the Forest and the Trees book. In one of the newsletters, I read about the idea of Learning Stories. In early childhood settings, learning stories are used to describe and interpret the learning of young children. I was intrigued by these stories and wondered--how could I do this at my level?

Fortunately, I skipped around to another blog that answered my question. Learning Notes are a way to capture those wonderful classroom moments! I patterned mine directly off the example on the Blog of Proximal Development by Konrad Glogowski: three columns labeled Describe/Interpret/Next Steps. (Feeling in a decidedly un-technological mood, I handwrote mine and added some doodles before copying.)

I quickly made a binder to collect the Learning Notes. Then, I started looking around for what to write about. It didn't take long!

These are some of the quick little notes that I've written over the last two weeks. Will every student get a learning note? Not at first; I'm averaging only one per day. But I hope that these notes will help to create a culture of learning in my classroom. I'm still thinking about whether I want to display them (with student permission, of course) or keep them in a binder. In a time of year when I often start to despair a bit about the upcoming state testing, these learning notes help me to focus on the small moments that really matter. By the end of the year, my copy of the Learning Notes will be a wonderful memento of our classroom garden.

I finished December Homework! These were so much fun to write. I'm working to get the texts up over on Frolyc as well. Then, they would be available digitally for students with iPads with the free Activity Spot app. Write to let me know if you'd be interested in this!

I am deep in the Personal Narratives unit right now. Today we worked on adding paragraphs to a personal narrative--such an important topic for fourth grade writers!