Tuesday, January 29, 2019

What to do with a classroom bird feeder

Choosing Feeders

    For the widest variety of birds, think about your levels. Some birds like to eat from the ground, others from hanging feeders, others from suet, and still others from elevated trays. Of course, your classroom location will determine which birds visit your feeder. When I was on the playground side of my school I was visited by very different birds than we see on the forest side.
    I decided to start small with the free feeder from BirdSleuth (offered occasionally). Over the past five years, I've added more and more! It's important to choose something that is easy to clean, inexpensive, and sturdy.
     Trays: A plastic tray is a great starting point because it's easy to clean and easy to replace. Because I have a heating unit right outside my window, I have the perfect spot to place a tray of sunflower seeds. (I buy the 40 lb. bags at Tractor Supply, which last about 2 months for $20)
     My students love the juncos, cardinals, chickadees, and finches that come to the tray. We sometimes put out unsalted peanuts, which attracts my class's favorite: the blue jay.
     Tube feeders: These are cheap and attract a nice variety of finches. Last year, though, we had record rainfall, and I did find that mold sometimes grew in the nyjer seed.
     Suet feeders: Suet is inexpensive and attracts woodpeckers and nuthatches, which are fun to watch. If you are not near a forest, you may find that starlings come to get your suet, which is also interesting.
     Peanut butter: In the years that I don't have any students with allergies, I purchase peanut butter to put outside as well. You can see the feeder in the photo above, but honestly it's easy enough to just smear peanut butter on some branches or put it on some wired pine cones. The Carolina wrens love it! Plus, it's way cheaper than many other kinds of seed.
     Feeder cam: No place for a feeder? No problem! The Ontario FeederWatch and the Cornell Birds Feeder are great to display for students.
    Feeder cleaning: Whatever kind of feeder you use, be sure to clean it frequently so that you are not inadvertently spreading disease.


     Part of the fun of observing birds is learning their names. I like to use a classroom birds slideshow as a fun icebreaker at the start of the school year. Kids like practicing their identification skills with photos I've taken at the window. They're often amazed to find out how many different species we can see just from our classroom.
     The allaboutbirds.org site is excellent for teaching students website navigation skills. I especially appreciate that it doesn't have external ads! With these webpages, you can teach all about digital text features, navigation, and browsing. There are great nonfiction texts there for the reading as well.
     Will your students make some identifications that sound silly at first? Absolutely! It's only through practice that students learn how to find the maps to see if a bird lives in their area, how to sift through the photos of similar birds, and how to connect bird behavior to different types of birds. Be patient and make the identification process a learning experience from start to finish.

Bird Observation Journal

     Once students get to be good at identification, I get out the bird observation journal. This is a place for students to record what they are seeing at the window. Kids may get up and look out the window, one or two at a time, as long as they write down what they see.
    Each year, students decide how they'd like to organize the journal. Sometimes students prefer to go by hour, while at other points students like to just write down what they see in a more casual way.
     There are occasionally discrepancies and problems with our data, which just means...we're doing science! When there are issues (wait, that wasn't a white-crowned sparrow, it was a white-throated sparrow!), we can discuss what these mean for our data and what to do next.


     The records in our observation journals then become data for future years! We can track when the juncos will arrive, when the white-throated sparrows will leave, and when the goldfinches will turn yellow. As I tell my students...it's all because we noticed what was there and wrote stuff down.

Closing Thoughts

     I'm not sure when the process of knowing what lives around us and following the patterns of season and sky became unworthy of teaching. When I was in fifth grade, I told my teacher that I wanted to be a naturalist when I grew up. She said, "That's not a job."
     This is the kind of thinking that has brought us here--facing a future with insect populations in collapse, monarch butterflies disappearing, once familiar birds of field and forest now rare and unseen. You can't love what you don't notice. Taking the time to help students appreciate and love what surrounds us is worth the effort.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Understanding Narratives: Story Events

    Supporting all learners in a mixed ability classroom can be a daunting challenge. Over the years,
I've found that having the right materials makes a huge difference! When I'm teaching narratives, my go-to tool is a simple set of events from the story.
    These event cards are so useful! Differentiation is quick, easy, and meaningful, as event cards have so much potential for helping students to zoom in on a story and read closely.

Preparing Event Cards

    Event cards are simple to prepare. Just make a single-column table in Word and type the events from the story in order. Use the same number of lines for each cell to keep your final cards the same size. (I find that a 16-point Georgia with three lines per cell work well.) Remember that it's almost impossible to cut a single line cell!
    Depending on your students, you may want to make your events simple, or more detailed. Be sure to include a sentence to establish the setting and the characters.
    When I'm ready to use my cards, I photocopy them on some cardstock and trim the edges at the paper cutter. The kids can do the rest of the cutting! I store cards in envelopes or clear plastic bags in the hopes that I will find them again the next year. (Narrator's voice: She won't.) I never make enough for everyone in the class, because I want students to have to share! Groups of 2-3 are best to make sure that everyone gets to handle the events.


    At the most basic level, the event cards are great for helping students to sequence the events in a story. This week, students read a drama from our literature anthology. Putting events from the drama in order helped students to piece together the action.
    Here's where these cards are great for differentiation! It's fascinating to listen in on the conversations that students have. As they argue about which event comes before that one, they often can't resist going back to the text to prove their points.
    Groups finish this task at different times, of course, and so I always put an extension question on the board. In this case, it was: "Read through the event cards with your partner. How is this reading experience different from reading the story in the drama format?"

Understanding Parts of a Plot

     Event cards are also perfect for talking about how a plot unfolds. This is an important standard for sixth grade, and one that requires lots of productive conversation.
     Using event cards is so much friendlier for students than filling out a plot diagram! A mistake in ordering doesn't mean tedious erasing and rewriting--instead, it's just a simple swap of the cards. Watching my students piece together the events of a story helped me to see how their understanding of plot is developing and how they see the different pieces come together.

Character Changes

     If students are having trouble talking about how characters change over the course of a plot, event cards can be helpful tools! Events provide anchors to help students recall the sequence and understand what happens when. Sometimes students who struggle to respond verbally can hold onto an event card and explain how the character changed in response to what occurs. For students with retrieval and executive functioning issues, having manipulatives for reading can be just the scaffold they need for higher order thinking.

Have you tried story event cards? What have you noticed with your learners?

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Teaching Summarizing: If It's January, They Must Be Writing "About" Summaries

    Outside, the snow is falling, and our classroom feeder is attracting many beautiful birds. Students are learning to observe and ask questions about these birds, noticing the small differences in species and individuals.
    Inside, my co-teaching partner and I decided to do a formative assessment on expository summarizing. We used the bedbugs text from my Paraphrasing and Summarizing pack, which I like because it uses a main idea scoring tool instead of a rubric. Main idea scoring tools are a great way to quickly score many summaries without too much pain.
     We've been working on expository summarizing a little at a time over many weeks. Students have had scaffolded summaries (from this resource), modeled summaries, and main idea work. We felt confident that students would do well with this assessment.

What is an "about" summary?

     So imagine our surprise when we ended up with a pile full of "about" summaries! I really hadn't seen many of these so far this year, which made their sudden proliferation more surprising. If you're not sure of what an "about" summary looks like, take a look at the example on the right.
    "About" summaries hopscotch through a text, using chronological order transitions to show the reader's journey from topic to topic. You can see why it's called an "about" summary--the word appears over and over again. This kind of summary includes only topics and not main ideas.

What do these summaries mean?

     Over the last ten years, I've come to recognize "about" summaries as a key step on the way to summarizing skill. Notice that this kind of summary shows an awareness of the topics in a text, and the order in which they are presented. It's no surprise that these summaries often come from high-performing students. These readers are experimenting with ways to express ideas from a text in fewer words.

Next steps

     Students can't be allowed to stop at "about" summaries. This kind of thinking keeps them at the topic level, not looking for a text structure or deeper connections within a text. Here are some ideas to help students improve:
Choose the best summary tasks: After reading an expository text, have students choose from 3-4 sample summaries. Write one as an "about" summary. Then, discuss their choices. This is a great way to gently nudge students away from this style.
Text structure awareness: If students have to put information from a text into a graphic organizer that reflects the text structure of the text, then they are much more likely to write a strong summary. Help students to see that a successful summary should reflect the structure of the target text.
Continued work with summarizing: Yup, we need to keep working on it! Summarizing doesn't have to be a single week of instruction. Instead, spread it out over the course of the year so that students put summarizing and paraphrasing skills to work again and again.

News and notes

I've put up some new materials on TpT!

 Algebraic Expressions: This is a free (for now) PowerPoint that introduces algebraic expressions. I wanted some lovely pictures to enhance my math class.

I haven't made many math materials because I'm still relatively new to teaching sixth grade math (this is year 3!), but I'm looking forward to doing more.

A Look at Lightning: My husband, who teaches third grade, has been using the "Lightning Readers Theatre" script for years. This year, he asked if I could write a short text to go along with it. I added two levels of the text, plus some writing activities to make this an activity for both writing and science.

Comparing with Adjectives: This was another special request! Using the comparative and superlative forms of adjectives is so important for young writers. (I couldn't resist adding bird pictures.)