Thursday, June 25, 2015

A Tune For Tuesday


It's time for another installment of

Each Tuesday, I will try to post a song from my playlist. These are songs that would be on a soundtrack of my life. I hope you enjoy them.

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Loving Cup - Rolling Stones

Rolling Stones - Original Version

Phish - cover version (My favorite)

It's difficult to dispute the fact that The Rolling Stones are one of greatest bands of all time. Their music is loud, cocky, and raucous.  In 1972, they released the album Exile On Main Street, which appears on a whole host of Top Albums of All-Time lists.  It's gritty, unapologetic and raw.  Loving Cup is a stand out song for me.  When I hear the opening chords, a smile appears on my face, and it feels like everything is going to be OK.  It's simple, but powerful.

(** I am included a second version of this song by the band Phish, another of my favorite bands.  Every Halloween, this jam-band has a annual tradition of covering a classic rock album as part of a "musical costume."  A few years ago, Phish covered Exile On Main Street.  Their version of Loving Cup is a staple at many of their shows and it usually appears as an encore.  This cover version has a bit more bounce to it and a gnarly guitar solo at the end!  Plus, it contains a horn section.  Come on, there's nothing better than a great horn section.)

One of the things that I've always loved about The Stones, and especially this particular album, is the loose and bare sound of their songs.  Nothing is over produced, and you can actually hear the core instruments without the clutter of sound effects.  The songs have so much power, but not because they're complex.  Four-chords, drums and simple lyrics can be more compelling than a symphony.  The power comes from simplicity.  

I think the same applies in my personal life, and my teaching life.  It's easy for me to get bogged down thinking about all the complexities of teaching in the 21st century.  I often feel like I have to use a certain author, program or framework to craft my lessons.  (e.g. Calkins, Fountas & Pinnell, etc.)  If I don't follow a certain author's work to a tee, then I feel like the lesson was not a hit.  The audience (my students) somehow missed out on an extravagant learning experience.   Perhaps the most powerful lessons are the ones where I break it down to the essential instruments and compose a Loving Cup.  Perhaps the power of the lesson comes from its simplicity.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Adding Spice to Read Aloud

In the early days of my teaching career, a former administrator once told me, PICK ONE THING.  She said that each year I should pick one area of my teaching craft to which I give special attention and spend just a little more time and energy nurturing.  For example, two years ago I concentrated on becoming more purposeful and intentional in reading/writing conferences.  I wanted to improve the quality of my conversations with my students and use the feedback to plan future teaching points that met their needs.  I read books, I consulted my school’s literacy coach and used Twitter to find resources that I could use to do this.  Without ignoring other aspects of the job, I spent just a little extra time reflecting and scrutinizing this one particular area.  With this past school year in the books, there is one part of my literacy block that clearly stood under the spotlight—read aloud.  

Year after year, read aloud tends to be my students’ favorite time of day.  Quite frankly, it is mine as well.  I love sitting with my students and reading a great book.  And the discussions…the discussions can be so rich and dynamic.  The daily read aloud builds community and allows readers of all levels to enjoy the same text.  Read aloud also sparks some amazing conversations about reading strategies and our reading lives.  So, this year, I put a great deal more time and energy than ever before planning how to improve this critical time of the day.  This was my ONE THING.

I started out trying to read articles and books.  I consulted with my literacy coach and colleagues.  I even tried to use Twitter to find ideas.  However, I didn’t have to look very far because it was my students who guided me.  I just had to listen to what the students were saying and offering as feedback in order to make the necessary modifications.  Here are a few examples of changes I made so our read aloud time was more productive:

  • Moving the conversation - Sometimes, my students and I would get to talking so much about a character or plot event, that we run out of time too quickly.  So, I experimented with using Padlet as a way to continue the conversation beyond the classroom walls.  Before the day’s reading started, I asked five students to get an iPad so they could add to our Read Aloud Wall.  While I read, these students recorded their thoughts or typed important details or "a-ha moments" from the book.  After we finished reading that day’s chapters, or before we read the following day, the class and I visited our Padlet and discussed what the students wrote.  On occasion, students added their thoughts to the Padlet at home.  This didn’t replace our interactive discussions while reading.  Yet, it only enhances them.  Here are some examples from this year.

  • Choosing wisely - Selecting a new read aloud book is one of the most stressful decisions I have to make because I am not one to read the same books year after year.  I always want to introduce my students to a wide assortment of rich middle-grade novels in a variety of authors, genres and formats.  My hope is to expand their reading horizons and let them see the variety of books just waiting to be read.   I try to pick books that alternate between male and female protagonists.  If the last book was more thought-provoking, my next read aloud may be more action-packed or humorous.  Not every read aloud has to have a deep theme or tons of figurative language.  This year, I even read my first graphic novel during read aloud by projecting the book using my Kindle app on an iPad and AirServer.  Choosing the perfect book for my reading community is almost more important than anything else.

  • Project the text - This year, I read El Deafo by Cece Bell, and it was one of my most successful read alouds ever.  Since it is a graphic novel, I downloaded the Kindle version and projected it onto the screen.  In doing so, my students were visually captivated by Cece Bell’s wonderful illustrations.  It allowed us to talk about how to truly read a graphic novel, and use the different elements of a graphic novel to make meaning.  We discussed panels, gutters, dialogue bubbles, and thought bubbles.  My students grew accustomed to having the text projected as I read, and as a result, my students insisted that I project the text for our next read aloud.  What I love about this idea is that now I can model fluent and expressive reading while students see the same text I’m seeing.  This opened up conversations such as: how punctuation affected my voice or how authors use text features to create meaning.  Not only that, but I used the highlighting tool in the Kindle app to make any words or sentences that made an impact on me or made me ask a question as I read.  I also highlighted authentic examples from the text that corresponded with teaching points from writing workshops.  I found read aloud to be a perfect opportunity to show students how much our reading and writing workshop is intertwined. 

There are certain fundamental ingredients that every chef needs when he/she makes chicken parmesan.  Yet, each chef adds his/her own spices, seasonings and extras to these ingredients.  And THAT is what makes each chicken parmesan special.  Like a chef, I chose to tweak the ingredients of my read aloud, and offer up a new version of this special meal.  The fundamentals stayed the same:  Read aloud has always been a powerful component of reading workshop.  Read aloud has always been the most popular time of the school day for my students.  Read aloud has always had the purpose of creating a community of readers and exposing students to an assortment of books, authors and genres.  These truths are unwavering.  Yet, this past school year was a chance for me to overhaul some of the essential ingredients and kick it up a notch, so my students and I could enjoy this special time together.

Monday, April 27, 2015

7 Minutes

Today was a lot like any other day. It was the end of writers workshop, and my students and I gathered on the carpet for what we call “workshop debriefing.”  I always look forward to this 5-10 minute conversation because it provides me with teaching points for the coming days.  Not only that, but it’s also one of the most fun parts of the day.  The students and I get to hear what everyone is working on.  My students have also become very helpful to one another as they are always willing to offer feedback.

As usual, I started out this debriefing by asking each writer to share where they are in their writing process.  (I have been heavily inspired by Ruth Ayres’ work this year, including this blog post.) As they made their way around the circle, I noticed that I had stopped writing down teaching points and “next steps” on my Status Of The Class page.  Instead, I was amazed at how these 10 and 11-year old students were speaking to one another.  They were talking like…writers. 

I quickly started jotting down what these young authors were saying.  Here is a sample of what I observed:

  • Bruce shared that he was planning out a story with lots of suspense. He had a basic idea for a plot, but he needed to fill in some plot holes.  Nathaniel, Bruce’s peer editor, suggested looking at Jon Scieszka’s Guys Read: Thriller anthology.  Another boy ran over to his desk and pulled out Ralph Fletcher’s Guy Write to Bruce while saying, “You can learn a lot from Ralph.”
  • Abby shared that she was working on some poetry as she held up a few mentor texts we used in our recent Poetry unit in reading workshop, including poems by Robert Frost.
  • Chris announced that he had started writing the third episode of “Monkey Attack.”  This announcement was met with a few fist pumps and shouts of “Finally!”  from about half of the class.  “Looks like you have some fans, Chris,” I said as he shyly chuckled.
  • Lanore shared that she started writers workshop with nothing to write about, so she used Rory’s Story Cubes for some inspiration.  Three other students asked if they could borrow those tomorrow.
  • Tiara mentioned how she was mulling over the idea of starting a graphic novel about ferrets.  I steered her towards a book in our classroom library that was about how to design comics, paying particular attention to the pages about when to use wide-angles and close ups.
  • Braydon, a very reluctant writer, explained how he was writing a script for a book trailer for a story he was creating.  A few students offered him help for writing the draft, as they had just finished creating a book trailer themselves.
  • Jineen announced that she had finished typing up her biography of Margaret Peterson Haddix, and was starting a poem inspired by the book RUMP: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin by Liesl Shurtliff.  
All this occurred in about seven minutes.  I was beyond elated.  What I had just witnessed was a community of writers helping each other, offering feedback, giving advice, sharing their failures, planning out their writing, and asking questions.  For a few moments in the day, these young writers were cherishing this time to share, comment and connect.  Even some of my most reluctant writers had found a topic, audience or genre to pursue.  These seven minutes were special to me because I saw the power of our writing culture.  The writing customs, routines and behaviors we’d worked so hard to develop were on full display.  

This group of writers had connected around an appreciation for the writing process.  Yet, none of these young writers had noticed recess had started 4 minutes ago.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Default Setting: Blackberry

When’s the last time you saw a Blackberry? I don’t mean the fruit. I mean the smartphone. The other day, I was standing in line waiting to check out, and I noticed there was a man using a Blackberry. I made a face that I’m sure was misconstrued as one of horror or disgust. But, honestly, that was the first time I’d seen a Blackberry in quite some time. I must say it took me by surprise, and I thought to myself, “I wonder why he has a Blackberry? Perhaps it must be for work?” I truly was stunned because it wasn’t the typical iPhone or Android smartphone that have become the standard.

Lately, in my teaching career, I’ve been feeling like a Blackberry. Why? Because I am a fifth grade teacher in a self-contained classroom.

For some reason, “self-contained” classrooms seem to have moved from being the norm to being an exception. “Self-contained” has become a painful word to many. It’s a word that makes people crinkle their faces and look at you like a poor, lost puppy shivering in the rain. “Ooh, I feel so sorry for you.” “How do you survive teaching all the subjects?” These are just a few of the reactions that are becoming more typical. They’re similar to the looks of sympathy you get if you only have an iPhone 4s.  Or, heaven forbid, a flip phone!

I am the Blackberry. Departmentalization has become the new and improved. Why? Since when did being a self-contained teacher become not cool? When did departmentalization in elementary school become the default?

So often, my students are able to make connections to concepts and skills we discussed earlier in the day. Our lives are all about bringing people and ideas together, not isolating them in separate silos. I look at teaching being about creating a culture of learning that’s dictated by the child, not the clock. If I want to spend longer than my normal math block doing a rich mathematical task, so be it. If the conversation about our read aloud is going longer than usual, that’s okay. If that’s what my tribe needs, that’s what we do. I can skip writer’s workshop today because I know we are going to be blogging our math reflections on our last unit test. I love how reinforcement of my students' learning often occurs when a concept is applied to areas different from which I originally taught them. I would struggle not seeing this integrative process take place if I taught in a departmentalized classroom.

I am told that a wonderful 5th grade teacher, Mary Lee Hahn, says, “I am not a teacher of content. I am a teacher of children.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. I am not a content expert, and I don’t claim to be one. I am not the best literacy teacher. I am not the best math teacher. I do not understand every single scientific theory about the universe. But, I don't have to be. Instead, I hope I can create an integrated learning experience for the twenty-something learners in my class.

I strive to make my classroom not be only about the act of knowing; it should be about the experience of learning. In other words, learning is not always strictly about content.