Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Meaningful Spelling Homework

 Now that I have two children in school, I realize the importance of homework. For many parents, it's a welcome glimpse into the life of the classroom. When I work on homework with my sons, I can see what they're doing in school.

So I am now careful with the homework that I send home. What do I value in spelling instruction? What do I want to be communicated across home and school? My first step, of course, is to make everything predictable and easy to understand. (As a parent, I love predictability!)  I put the spelling list on the front page, along with a list of the assignments. Usually I also include a little note about the list, explaining why it is interesting or important.  The rest of the homework assignments are stapled in opposite order, so that pages are easy to tear off and turn in.

But what do I put on those pages? If you're a classroom teacher, you can probably appreciate the challenge the of coming up with homework for each week. I know that generic assignments are easy. However, since so many of my spelling words are vocabulary words as well, I want to make assignments that are content-rich. Helping kids to learn about words and how they work is something that I value highly. Here are some assignments that I use and recombine for each list.

Semantic maps
These take some teaching, but they really work well. I have kids do about 2 semantic maps for each list. They are best used judiciously--I would never want to make kids do a semantic map for each word on a list. I look for words that will lead to interesting conversations, and words that have lots of possibilities for adding prefixes and suffixes. For example, "murky" is not the most common academic word, but it is an interesting adjective, and has many different forms, like murkier, murkiest, murkiness, and so forth. A month later, a few students spontaneously used this word in their descriptive paragraphs.

To make a semantic map, simply make a nine cell table in word. Use "merge cells" to combine the middle three cells, and gray out the middle cells on the left and the right.

After kids have created their own semantic maps, we make class maps together. It's always interesting to hear how different dictionaries and thesauruses list different words. And it's good for the kids to have a use for the dictionaries they were given in third grade.

(More information on semantic maps is included in my Differentiated Spelling file.)

It's pretty disheartening to see hastily written spelling sentences. At the same time, I don't really want to spend my entire life grading spelling sentences. I've found that the quality of sentences increases when I give kids two words to use. Sometimes, I offer words that fit together well, like "phantom" and "night"; sometimes, I offer words that will nudge kids toward writing more complex sentences, like "fought" and "but". (These were from a list of gh and ph words) When we share our work, it's always fun to see how everyone used the same two words to create very different sentences.

These offer the artistic students a chance to shine! I make four panels on the page, and students have to write a comic using a given number of words. 

Multiple Meaning Words
No matter what the list, I can always manage to find a few multiple meaning words. These are so important for reading success that I want to give kids a chance to work with them. One easy task is to put two definitions in a box, and then have kids decide which definition is shown in each sentence. Another task is to illustrate sentences that show each meaning of the word. Notice the common theme--I like to give kids the definitions, and then have them work with the words in a meaning-based way.

Affix study
Many of our lists focus on what happens to words when we add prefixes and suffixes. In homework assignments, I try to highlight these aspects. Charts are a great way to do this. You can give kids the base words and suffixes; they can write the derived words and try to use a few in sentences. You can give kids the derived words; they can write the base words. In the chart to the right, students have to decide how to change the spelling of the base word as they add the given suffixes.

Practicing cursive has its place. After all, kids need to be able to read cursive. I practice my cursive skills each week when I make a handwriting practice sheet. But handwriting practice doesn't have to be boring! On the page that I gave students today, they had to circle the illegible writing and find the invisible hamster. (Can you tell that we were examining words with the -ible suffix?) On another assignment, they had to copy and illustrate the sentence "Please refrain from raisin mistakes." Lots of funny discussions there--but they helped kids to build their understanding of the use of the word refrain.

 By mixing these different assignments, I can add some variety to each week's spelling list--without feeling like I'm starting from scratch each week. I haven't published any of the lists in this style, but I can send some your way if you'd like. (I'm doing materials for Syllables and Affixes and Derivational Relations this year.) How has your thinking about spelling homework changed?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Science: Understanding Food Chains

I love teaching science. Last year, I had the chance to pick it up again after a few years away from it. I had forgotten how much I enjoy talking with kids about their science understandings and planning lessons to help them grow.

For the past week, we've been looking at food chains. My students don't have much prior knowledge about food chains and food webs, so I pretty much started from scratch. I created this Powerpoint to introduce the basics.

Another wonderful tool for teaching about food chains is the book Who Eats What? Food Chains and Food Webs by Patricia Lauber. Patricia Lauber is so skilled at explaining difficult concepts in a clear, easy-to-understand way. I used a document camera to project the book for my class. They loved seeing the underwater food chain and thinking about how it related to our lunch that day (fish sticks!)

While I was in college, I worked as a camp counselor and naturalist. It was as a naturalist that I first discovered one of my favorite games for teaching about food chains--Into the Forest: A Food Chain Game. Since then, I have used the game multiple times in both formal and informal situations. It never fails! The kids love the beautiful illustrations. They marvel at the lists of what creatures eat others. "I never knew that skunks eat insects" or "What is a shrew, anyway?" The game works just fine with a whole class, with each kid having 2-3 cards. At first, everyone works to get the high order predators. Who doesn't want to be top of the food chain? But then I add the wrinkle of the energy points at the top of each card. While the owls and the bobcats are really awesome, they only have 1 energy point--while the less exciting plants have 10. The game changes for everyone, and we play another round before we talk about what we have learned. It becomes a favorite for indoor recess.

No discussion of the food chain is complete without a discussion of decomposers. Last year, I had trouble getting together some simple and quick materials to teach about decomposers. I wrote a short article and created an anticipation guide for it. This year, the article and anticipation guide went wonderfully. Kids were surprised to find out that they have indeed seen decomposers--and that decomposers may not be so disgusting after all!

Link to decomposers article and activities (free)

And then I finally got around to setting up an account on PBS Learning Media. This was the find of the week! Short videos on various topics are easy to find and favorite, with none of the horrible ads of those other video sites. With one search, I found a 3-minute video on the food chain to reinforce everything that I wanted students to know. Magical!

I'm actually sorry that our study of the food chain is coming to an end. But I'm excited, too, because our next unit is adaptations--and that is even more fun.

Do you have any great science resources to share?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Troubleshooting Theme

Teaching theme can be a real challenge. When kids have trouble, here are a few tactics that I've used.

Give kids a list of themes: I can't say it often enough--this transforms your teaching of theme. When kids have a list of themes in front of them, they can understand the abstract nature of the task. Leave some blank spaces on your lists to add themes as you encounter them in text. (You can find a list in Summarizing, Paraphrasing, and Retelling, or write to me for a copy.)

Use lower level texts for teaching theme: This year, I had wonderful success with Mole and the Baby Bird. Now, this is a very easy text. We read it three times before we looked at the the theme. First we watched this wonderful video version. Then we read it again and sequenced the events. By the third reading, I had gotten to that wonderful point where the readers felt secure enough to speak up, offering their own inferences and interpretations. This was the time to bring up theme.

When kids only talk about theme in reference to stories that are a bit of a stretch for them, they'll always put theme in that fuzzy part of their brain where they store ideas that don't quite make sense. Using easy stories helps to make theme a little more comprehensible.

Don't just use fables: Fables seem like they would be perfect for teaching theme. But the moral of a fable is a shade different from the theme of a story. Morals are stated, and the point of a fable is to teach the moral. Most stories, however, have more layers of meaning. Sticking to fables can give kids the idea that themes will always be stated, which is not necessarily true. (You can tell that I started my career with the literature teachers in middle school! No one stands around the copier in an elementary school debating the difference between moral and theme.)

When in doubt, use an Eve Bunting book: This makes for easy differentiation. Go to the library and check out a selection of Eve Bunting books. Struggling readers can read Sunflower House, which has a stated theme in a story told in verse. Other readers can work with Train to Somewhere or Gleam and Glow. Compare themes across books. What do you notice about Eve Bunting as an author? What themes do you see repeated? (Patricia Polacco is another author whose works would be good for this.)

Raise the level of concern: So one day I earnestly taught about theme. I showed the Powerpoint, discussed examples, shared a story. At the end of the session, I asked students to write down an explanation of theme, or an example of a theme. Not one kid could.

This started a serious discussion about what was happening in class versus what was supposed to happen in class. It made an impact, because the kids tuned in to our next conversations about theme. They wanted to learn! They knew that it was important! (They didn't want to hear me lecture again?) Regardless of the reason, things improved.

Connect to other media: Kids often know more about theme than they know. Every single episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars starts with a statement of theme. So many kids have some knowledge of theme and how it is expressed in a story. Not that they realize this, of course. "Oh, you mean that screen they show before the episode starts?" they ask. Yes! Other popular shows have strong themes as well.

Tell them a theme: If you're working to have kids try to support a theme, sometimes it helps to give students a theme that goes along with a story, and then have them find reasons to support it. What I love about this is that it often spurs students to come up with a different theme, just to be contrary. If they can support it, that's great!

Keep track of themes throughout the year: Make a poster to keep track of themes that you uncover in stories.

Enjoy teaching theme! It's a wonderful journey!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Teaching Possessives with Greedy Apostrophe

I love the book Greedy Apostrophe by Jan Carr. In this book, the punctuation marks all take jobs from the Director. But Greedy Apostrophe wreaks havoc in toy stores and magic shops, inserting apostrophes where they don't belong.

This book makes talking about apostrophes so easy and fun! Like many elementary students, many of my fourth graders start to put apostrophes everywhere in their writing. Greedy Apostrophe gives us such an easy and concrete way to address this problem--after we read the book, I can just say, "Hm...I see a greedy apostrophe in this paragraph," and kids know what to look for.

I created the sheet below to help students apply the ideas in the book as I read it aloud.

But the best part of this book is that there is more to it than the grammar rules. Kids like to look at how all of the different punctuation marks have been characterized, and many pick up on the punctuation puns that are scattered throughout the book. Some kids even notice the color scheme--"Why does red always mean angry?" one girl wondered, pointing out the fact that Greedy Apostrophe stands out from the rest of the punctuation marks. Another student drew a picture of Greedy Apostrophe in the Punctuation Pen, with a word bubble: "I've learned my lesson! Only use apostrophes to show ownership!"

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Understanding Setting

As fourth grade readers encounter more challenging texts, they need to pay close attention to setting details. Sometimes, these details will help them to discover the setting, as I wrote about last time. But setting details will also help readers to build background knowledge about places and time periods.

This only works if kids are consciously collecting these details, though. Readers who are reading sentence by sentence often just think about the setting in small terms (the bedroom, the playground, the house) instead of taking a broader view. They often don't catch the setting details that build a bigger picture. Over the long run, think about how this impacts their schema and their comprehension!

I created this graphic organizer to help kids think about setting and time details. (Well, okay, I sketched it out, and my husband did the formatting!) On one side, students collect details about the time period in which the story is based. On the other side, students collect details about the place. This helps them to pay attention to the details in both the text and the pictures to help them learn more about the time and place.

What books work well with this? I started with The Librarian of Basra, available on Tumblebooks. (If your school library doesn't have access, try large public libraries.) We read the book together twice. On the second viewing, we started to add setting details. I told them that the book takes place in 2003, as discussed in this newspaper article.  Then we mined the text and the pictures for all of the details we could find about the setting. It led to some interesting discussions--one student said that the houses looked like houses in Mexico; a student who has been to Mexico disagreed. We talked about the palm trees in the pictures, and what they meant; we talked about how the story is deeply connected to the setting.

For guided reading, I wanted my group to work with an easy text, so that they would be able to put all of their energy into locating setting details. Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie was my choice--admittedly because there are many copies of it in the bookroom. It turned out to be a good choice for this group. Just like in The Librarian of Basra, the setting contributes to the conflict. It was a quick read, but one that led to interesting discussions. (Just for fun, I also showed them parts of the Reading Rainbow. It's old, but such a great way to build background knowledge!)

Helping students to go beyond just place-based thinking about setting is an important step. But I can't just relax and work setting...because plot is on the horizon. And understanding plot brings a new set of challenges!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Making inferences: Setting

Well, we're finally moving on to story elements! This year, I'm trying to work on two thorny setting issues--the issue of multiple locations in one story and the issue of understanding time as a component of setting.

Problem 1: Multiple locations
In the primary grades, setting is often described as one location--the barnyard or the house or the playground. As students get older, though, they often have to describe more complex settings. A story might start in one location, and then move. The reader needs to collapse this list of different places into one overall setting.

Today, I started by practicing collapsing lists with my students. We started with easy ones: mango, pineapple, orange, apple (fruit); basketball, softball, golf, tennis (sports); table, chair, lamp, sofa (furniture). Then we looked at how this could work with setting: hallway, cafeteria, library, classroom (school).

To show students how this works with a text, we read the book Earthquake by Milly Lee. I love this book because it tells the story of the San Francisco earthquake in a very simple, powerful way. And "San Francisco" never appears in the main text!

We made a list of the locations shown on different pages: the family's living room, their apartment, the street, Chinatown, Golden Gate Park. Then, we tried to collapse the list. This required them to pull on their background knowledge. (We had read a play about the San Francisco earthquake the week before.) Some groups pulled on this experience, while others used their knowledge of the Golden Gate Bridge. The important thing, however, was that they were able to collapse the list of small locations into one main setting.

I love how simple this lesson was, and yet how important. It brings together the idea of collapsing lists with making inferences with story elements. Wonderful!

Problem 2: Setting as time
Well, the setting is the time AND place of the story. But many readers are a little too literal with their statement of time. Instead of "1906" as the time for Earthquake, a reader might write, "in the night and the next morning." This is a big problem, because a reader who is thinking of time on such a micro-level may not notice important dates and might fail to add big ideas to their schema.

I decided to make a graphic organizer to show a timeline. When I handed it out to students, I didn't explain anything--I just said, "What do you notice?" Working with their partners, they found all of the important elements: that it shows how time goes in one direction, that there are little pictures to show past, present, and future, that it includes words to help you find the time of a text.

What about fairy tales? It's so hard to show how they fit in. I decided to show how they are off the timeline. Fairy tales and fantasy take place in another time, often with elements of the past mixed in.

After we read Earthquake, we talked about how the setting is not just the location, but also the time. Students easily found that it took place in the past--once again, by drawing on their background knowledge.

I love it when things come together in one lesson. And a great book makes it happen even more easily!