Monday, November 14, 2011

"That Was Unexpected!"

I have the luxury of doing brain gym with our school community two days a week at our Community Time. Day one usually consists of teaching and modeling a new Brain Gym strategy that we can use, with day two being a pop quiz and taking a picture of a student modeling the strategy for our Brain Gym Wall. (We have pictures of all the strategies the students have learned this year posted so they can trigger their memory.) Each week, I give it my best while trying to inspire students to be all they were created to be. (All within five minutes of course!)
One particular week, I was giving it my best and I hear “Hey Mrs. X, Mrs. X… hey, hey!” I’m looking in the middle of our 350+ faces to see a precious special needs student who was in my class last year, enthusiastically participating and trying to get my attention. I acknowledged him as he became even more verbal and excited. I thought, ‘This is what it feels like to be heckled!’ (by a 6 year old) I couldn’t help but laugh.  Well, later in the day, this little fella approaches me with letter in hand. “Dear Mrs. X, I am so sorry I was hollering at you during Brain Gym. That was unexpected.” Well… that cracked me up. He evidently didn’t expect to holler at me! It was unexpected for both of us! His little face was so serious… but with a hint of ‘I wonder what I’m going to eat for dinner.’ This had me smiling the rest of the day. The unexpected behaviors are often the ones that get my attention and help me to notice the blessing in life.
From this point forward, I will march on, with my lesson plan in hand, but make sure along the way to let the “unexpected” grab my attention and remind me of how blessed I am to do what I do!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Teaching is like my golf game!

Today, I spent the day at the golf course! No, I wasn’t playing golf. Long gone are the days of summer… prior to the beginning of school! When school started, suddenly, my reading load became a bit intensified! I have found myself spending time with many of the greats: Doug Reeves, Lucy Calkins, Reggie Routman, Bear, Johnston, Invernizzi, and Templeton. Today, I spent the day in the cart reading! I love reading and synthesizing material to figure out just how I can implement it in the classroom! If the truth be told, my entire Masters was done… in the golf cart! Don’t get me wrong… I have come to love playing golf. My mind can get so wrapped up in my swing, where I want to place the ball and the complete frustration of trying to figure out what needs changed in my swing! I have learned it’s my motor, not my equipment! I love it… but when fall arrives, the reading takes over. I have found getting outside and being carted around while reading is a terrific way for me to ‘go deep’ with reading material. Let’s face it… I know I am there for at least 4 hours on a short day at the course! So it is a great place to study. There are always snacks and an occasional squirrel that has lost a nut!
This fall, instead of working on my game, I am trying to take Word Work to a more developed level in our classroom. In the past, I have used Fountas and Pinnell’s Phonics combined with Cunningham and Hall’s Word Work material for 1st grade. I feel very comfortable teaching with the material. Our grade level has put it into slides to make it easier to manage when introducing it to the class before turning them loose to do the activities.  I appreciate how the two (Fountas and Pinnell and Cunningham and Hall) have worked together so well, plan to continue using them, but I am ready to amp it up a bit. I spent the day reading Words Their Way. I noticed in the Lucy Calkins Common Core for Reading, she talks about using Fountas and Pinnell’s Phonics with Words Their Way to round out the Word Work in a classroom. So,  I have had my precious volunteer (she is in her upper 80’s) do  the copying and laminating of the material in Words Their Way while I am working to put this additional study in a manageable system to use in the classroom. But this Words Their Way is a bit more intensive. It is such fun to analyze where your students are as spellers. Word Work visually show us what students believe to be true about reading and writing. I have realized I have been using too much of a ‘spray and pray’ approach to Word Work.  I am already enjoying the differentiation that is about to take place in the classroom. It has been a fun day in the cart to attempt to synthesize this material. When I think of reading instruction, I always think of reading ‘to’, ‘with’ and ‘by’ the students. I am learning it is no different with Word Work. Fountas and Pinnell is the ‘to.’ Words Their Way is the ‘with’ the students. Using personal word work study for frequently misspelled personal words is the ‘by’ practice the students need! So really, teaching is much like golf! In order to improve you have to do the work, spend the time and let’s face it… keep your head down! 

Monday, October 24, 2011

Time for Student Led Conferences

It’s finally time! The children have worked so hard and it’s time for them to shine! The performance centers are in place, the children have talked and walked through their jobs and visualized their Student Led Conference. They know the material and they know how their conference will go. There will be no surprises. The parents have been well-informed up to this point so all that is left is for them to ‘witness’ what I have been telling them. Seeing is believing.

Even though there will be no surprises, I can be certain there will be an eye opener. Sometimes the children go through the entire conference seamlessly, while other times you see lights come on for a parent, a child, and sometimes the light comes on for the teacher. There is the occasional parent who struggles to grasp the concept their child might find a task a challenge.  When the parent actually sees the child working through a center, it’s hard not to acknowledge a beautiful answer or an answer that lacks substance. There is an occasional child who has continued to chug through a task while you have been teaching the concept (chug…chug…c-h-u-g) and finally, during conference time, the light comes on and ‘poof’! They get it! Right there in front of the parent and teacher. To see the light come on and the grin spread across that face… it’s just the best. As the child and parents (siblings are provided childcare) move through the ‘centers,’ the parents are invited to record what they notice about the child in each center. (The parent typically writes about their child’s use of reading strategies, their awareness of writing skills and traits, math skills, science and social studies concepts while navigating the smart board. ) The parents are usually shocked at all the things their child has been up to.  The parent might state, “Bobby needs to notice capitals and periods.” Or “Emma is great at her math facts.” Sometimes there is a different concern voiced, “I noticed Carson has a hard time focusing.” This opens the door for a future conversation.

As the families move through the centers, I typically stay out of the way and watch the pride shine all over the child’s face.  I love the time I get to share with the family during this conference. My involvement goes like this… I share a chair with the student behind my desk directly across from the parent. I always ask the child first, “What have you noticed about your learning?” Then I ask the parent, “What have you noticed about your child this year?” This is always a fun conversation. Usually we are all on a similar page. I often learn of something new I can use in my teaching to engage the child. Possibly an independent study… who knows what it could be this year. Then I share what I have noticed about the student’s learning.  (Strengths, areas that need attention and what can be done at home to help.) This is where it gets fun. I let the parents know they can contact me at any time with questions or concerns and excuse myself from the conference. The child, still seated in the teacher’s chair, takes over the conference by going through their portfolio and grade card with the parent. The child delights in being the expert. I usually leave school that late evening so inspired by what I have witnessed that I can hardly wait to get to school the next day.  So, as I write this, I am hoping the children are asleep rather than watching the World Series! I suppose I should hit the hay, because tomorrow will be a late night of grins and eye openers at our Student Led Conferences.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Collaboratively Planning a Literacy Party

Collaborative planning has risen to a new level for me this year. I am honored  to plan the reading workshop for our first grade team. Reading is one, among many tasks in teaching I adore. After our team decided on a planning template, I could hardly wait to get started. I diligently poured over all ‘the literacy greats’! It is so much fun to revisit our reading resources! They are like old friends. From our  resources provided by our beloved trainers,  to the gurus I love so much; Calkins, Fountas and Pinnell, Routman, Taberski, Miller… I could go on and on. I love those resources. I love this work…

The Reader’s Workshop model invites the true gems to the literacy party: 

·        Read alouds (complete with a comprehension focus anchored by charts)

·        Interactive read aloud (got to have the turn and talks)

·        Guided reading (careful to include that differentiation to meet the needs of all of our readers)

·        Shared reading (focusing on accuracy and fluency and fun!)

·        Thoughtful and focused centers (for learners to practice the newest tricks)

·        Plenty of independent practice (to settle in and develop that love of reading!)

·        The mini lessons focused on word patterns.

Needless to say, I was really enjoying this work.  Until… over the past couple of weeks I have found myself pouring over these materials (seriously 8-10 additional hours on Saturdays) to attempt to meet the needs of four different classes while planning this balanced literacy workshop. The pressure has settled in as I realize… this can’t be done. Balanced literacy can’t be scripted.  Balanced literacy isn’t a neat lesson plan. As much as I adore the reader’s workshop- it must be personalized from class to class. When done well, the party gets messy! I have a passion pulling the mess together for my learners, but I would be a fool to assume teachers don’t enjoy the ownership of orchestrating their own literacy party.  A teacher knows their own class and is able to take advantage of those ‘teachable moments’ on the fly! We all have to make those decisions for our students. I am fortunate to work with top notch professionals. Yes, I can plan the party, but I would seriously diminish credibility and professionalism when I try to step in (on paper, in a plan) and influence a teacher’s workshop.  Literacy instruction is the heart and community of the classroom. This year, our school has divided the planning duties and I am honored to provide the reader’s workshop piece. (Did I mention, in addition, I will be helping out a teammate by taking on planning the writer’s workshop in the following weeks.) I have done this with ease in years past for myself and I have loved the planning. Yes, I have wonderful resources and feel I can pass along the suggestions of ‘the greats.’ Remember, I love those resources. However, I am so open to hearing how others collaboratively plan their literacy party.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Community of Learners

This year things have just felt different. The first 30 days have come and gone and we are still trying to become that community of learners! The working hum is sooo close…but, just a bit off. Last week, I worked the kinks out of the Guided Reading. So now, I decided to take a closer look at my schedule and notice where we can enhance the rest and rigor to get the most bang or the buck! Eric Jensen talks about alternating the rest and rigor so the children can maintain a cognitive and emotional balance that encourages learning.
 Our morning is much longer this year. The children are having lunch almost 30 minutes later. (Yeah! More time for Writer’s Workshop… but empty bellies that require an additional brain snack! Note to self: The kids need another brain snack!) The longer amount of time spent in the classroom has also made me look at the rest and rigor relationship to decide if it is working efficiently. It clearly isn’t. The expectations are off.  The children are getting plenty of rigor and they are working their hearts out… but I know if I can give them more rest (brain gym break, make sure they know they are to take drink breaks when they need them, high energy poetry, fun and expressive stories, 2 minute word sorts…Note to self: Add more of these brain rest activities!) I know they will be able to work better! So… I made an executive decision! (Can I do that?) We have been hitting the floor running! Go, go, go!!! All day. Our schedules are handed to us with all the blocks built in; reading block-CHECK, writing block-CHECK and math block-CHECK!  Already built in. I am so grateful I don’t have to work out the gruesome details of the schedule… but I have come to realize our longer morning sets us up for play…THEY NEED PLAY! Good old run and scream or swing so high you feel like you are in the clouds! PLAY! So this week instead of returning for Math Workshop, (Which has felt like a push and pull relationship… not the comfortable flow of learning.) we returned to the classroom and did Word Work. A hugely kinesthetic and often loud activity. After stomping, clapping, funky spelling the words and lots of belly laughs… not only did the children write the words beautifully, they were focused and ready to work. We did this prior to math and I couldn’t believe how much more productive the children were during the entire math workshop. (I should have known better! Note to self- When I know better- THEN JUST DO IT!) This process has reminded me, I need to invest in their interests (fun!) and then they will invest in mine (learning). By golly, if we continue to vary the rest and rigor… the individual interests become a focused team effort. All of us pulling together, alternating giggles, fun experiences, emotional experiences… and gee – we just become a community of learners!

Monday, September 26, 2011

I Thought I Was Prepared!

We have been preparing for this day since day 1 and we were ready… or so I thought! At approximately 10:00 am on Monday, the wheels came off! It was time to implement the guided reading groups that I had planned for. Detail, by detail… I was ready. I had created the flexible groups with much attention being paid to the zones of proximal development. I pulled engaging books while thinking about the interest level of the students. I created lesson plans with these specific children in mind. The children were prepared. The Reader’s Workshop is up and running. We practiced the guided reading routines last week. This wasn’t my first time at this rodeo, I was prepared! The students knew their jobs! So what happened?

This year, I have a revolving door. I have 5 kiddos who are leaving during Reader’s Workshop, at rotating times to get the much needed help from our Reading Recovery teachers. (Did you hear the angels sing when I said ‘Reading Recovery’? You should have because the Reading Recovery teachers hold the keys that help struggling readers unlock their reading success.) So imagine this: We begin our workshop, kids are off and doing their job beautifully. I head to the Guided Reading table with my first group awaiting my arrival and ready to go! We begin. While introducing the book, I scan the room, on the sly, to see if the children are engaged and, YES, everyone is on task. So far, so good. Then the door opens, 2 Reading Recovery kids return, tap the shoulders of the two who are to go next (the ones who are in my group at the time…) and out the door they go…. No disruptions. Everyone is doing their job. This routine continues, but as we continue… I am quickly unraveling… I hadn’t accounted for so many leaving at awkward times. Not one group had been completed without someone leaving. The flow of the workshop is fine at a glance, however, my instruction feels disjointed. This is driving me nuts and I watch for the kids to become distracted during group. That doesn’t seem to be happening. The children are reading their little hearts out. Why am I feeling so frazzled? I tell myself, “Be patient.” I know the first day or two can be tricky, but the kids are doing what has been asked. The last group I notice is having a particular difficult time with the book that has been selected. Oh my Goodness… how could I have misjudged this. I was way off.  The children continued to plug away and give it their best shot using their reading strategies.

The morning finally ended. I reflected during my 10 minute lunch and realized, in my frazzled state, I had given the struggling group the wrong book! Bless their little reading hearts. So, I went in for a visit with the reading teachers during my planning time. I expressed my huge flop of a morning. I needed to talk this thing out. I took a closer look at my groups and the order of the groups. I did some slight adjusting and thanked them for their flexibility and helpfulness. (These experts are quick to listen, willing to assist in any way and most importantly, wonderful sounding boards.)

Following our day, ( and by the way, the kids seemed great the whole way!) I headed into the classroom, to make some adjustments. 1. Hone the order of the groups to ensure there are no interruptions of the guided reading group at hand. 2. Create one additional group. Yes, it’s more work but it is what is best for kids. No more than 4 in a group if possible. This sets the stage for better instruction and better learning! 3. (This one is essential, but incredibly difficult.) Start our Reader’s Workshop earlier to minimize distractions. That means read the 1st Read Aloud (our community builder) the best I possibly can to get their attention and get everyone into the current of learning. After that, we need to make hay. Get moving through calendar and lunch count. Take a bit more time with the Morning Message, as it sets so many important notes for the day. (We range from quick community builders to introducing new concepts.) We already have our morning bathroom break under 3:30 minutes so I can’t ask for more there. When we re-enter the classroom, following the break, we need to slip right into our Reader’s Workshop.

So after I changed the material tubs and prepared for the next day, the frustration was still there, but rewarded by the thinking and planning to make tomorrow a better day. I have never had a first day of Guided Reading with this type of result. If I need to rehash it tomorrow, so be it. Frustration or not, I do know it is essential these children have the best possible introduction to reading. I can’t wait to see what tomorrow holds.

Monday, September 19, 2011

My Good Fortune

It was Friday at 4:30 and the clock was ticking. I was due to be at the golf course for our Friday Night Couples League. This is the one evening I must leave the classroom on time… or else I would suffer the wrath of the spousal puppy dog eyes. In walked a colleague which I hold with the utmost respect. This colleague has stopped by on occasion over the past few years and I always look forward to our visits. Our visits range from his child’s education to grade cards and what immediate feedback means to students. He is a Cognitive Coaching trainer. I went through Cognitive Coaching training a couple of years ago and just ate it up! The experience changed how I go about business in the classroom, team meetings and daily life. I love the whole process of helping someone become self-directed. I believe Cognitive Coaching, however limited or in depth, will only improve our classroom experiences. So as I checked the clock, I knew I was on verge of getting into a wonderful, rich conversation that would leave me contemplating improvement and growth for my class. He said he had a proposal for me. I listened (like a good coach) as he expressed his interest in using Cognitive Coaching through a full school year with a teacher. This colleague believes Cognitive Coaching can expose a teacher’s thinking if the teacher has a ‘growth’ mindset.  I could hardly believe the good fortune that had walked into the classroom.  As I listened to his plan, I began to look forward to the instructional planning conversations, problem resolving conversations and the growth that I know is inevitable. He will be helping me by gathering data in the classroom during instruction, helping me process the data and create a plan of action for that instruction. The risk is, all the thinking is on my end. Being metacognitive is great but it is exhausting! He will mediate my thinking while monitoring the states of mind. (efficacy, flexibility, craftsmanship, consciousness and interdependence) These are the foundations that nurture high performance. These are exactly the sources we look for in our students to determine where we need to go in our instruction. My gut has always told me teachers would really benefit from coaches.  So… I could hardly wait to jump at the opportunity. Yes, I left the classroom a bit late on Friday. I still made it to Couples League.  I can’t imagine where this adventure might lead our class, my craft of instruction or who knows, maybe even my golf game!