Monday, January 31, 2011

The Test Game

As in many other classrooms across the country, there is a teach/test cycle in my classroom. I like to call it the test game. Kids know how it works. Parents know how it works. Even most teachers know how it works. It goes something like this:

  1. Look over the test before preparing lessons.
  2. Teach the lessons, paying special attention to items that will be tested.
  3. Prepare a study guide for students to have/use either before, during, or after instruction.
  4. Spend class time each day or the day before the test reviewing the test items.
  5. Give the test.
  6. Start all over again.
What's the problem with this, you may ask? The number one problem is that I don't agree with teaching to the test. Should we preview the test? OF COURSE! Should students know what they are expected to learn in advance? DEFINITELY! Should we focus the main part of our instruction on test items? Not really. This is the part that boxes me in as a teacher. I know that I must "cover" what students will be tested on, but worry that focusing too much on such things will stifle their learning.

Year after year, unit after unit, it is the same, predictable pattern: Students who have good memories "learn" what they need to pass the test, then may forget the information when it is no longer needed. Students with less help, less background experience, or who struggle to remember have trouble with the tests.

I'm left wondering: How do I make the assessment match the learning? How do I make learning about LEARNING and not so much about the test at the end of the unit? How do I make sure that students really learn the material, and not just memorize for the test? How do I accurately assess student learning, rather than their reading ability or memory? Can their learning be accurately assessed? Does everything HAVE to have a number or letter attached to it?  I'm going on an assessment adventure. Hopefully, some of my questions will be answered along the way.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Can We Do This Everyday?

Don't you love it when you hear this? It's a magic little 5-word phrase that says to me, "Yep, you pulled it off today!" For someone whose goal is to inspire students to learn for the sake of learning, and to teach them that LEARNING is FUN, this magic phrase is music to my ears. 

In a world of high stakes testing, report cards, and higher standards (accountability), I sometimes worry that my instruction tends to lean toward the "preparing for the test" end of the spectrum. To counteract this, I strive daily to incorporate "fun" activities, keep students engaged using multi-sensory, interactive lessons, and provide choice within their independent work. 

So, what brought about the magic phrase? A science lesson about vertebrates and invertebrates. My student teacher and I front-loaded some of the content information during small group reading this morning, using our science leveled readers, so during science today I set up rotating stations: 

1. Streaming online Bill Nye Invertebrate video
2. Cute flipchart on Promethean board about vertebrates/invertebrates that students went through without my help.
3.  With me: Students were given play-dough and told to build a person as tall as possible and see if it would stand on its own (of course it wouldn't). Then they were given toothpicks to be used as backbones and they repeated the activity. We discussed the differences between vertebrates and invertebrates. 

And the best part of all, is that after it was over and we met as a whole group to discuss what they learned, the students mentioned ideas that I probably wouldn't have even covered if I had lead the lesson in a "traditional" way. I really feel like today I met the needs of my diverse learners, leaving me with the question,

Can we do this everyday?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Step in the Right Direction

A few days ago I decided to embark upon a journey to cut out homework. I had this great conviction that I needed to teach the kids what they need to know and provide enough time for practice IN CLASS while I'm there to give assistance. I had made the necessary schedule changes, curriculum adjustments (slight reduction in work load), and carved out a few additional minutes here and there to help the "strugglers", and I was ready! I couldn't wait to go to school and talk to my kiddos about it!

The reaction I got from them was not quite what I expected.

When asking students how they felt about homework, I got the following:

"Homework makes us smart."      "Doing homework gives me something to do."    "Homework is important."

(If I could raise just one eyebrow, at that point it would have been up to my hairline). And then it hit me: They're playing the SCHOOL GAME! They're saying exactly what they think I want them to say. What an eye-opener! (Perhaps I have a little more to learn about making a truly child-centered classroom, if they think they have to feed me lines like that).

Little by little, though, they began to open up. They were hesitant at first because this kind of conversation about school with a teacher was just new to them. By the end of the day, pretty much everyone in the class was excited about the change, and many have even blogged about it, asking "Will it stay or will it go?"

I think I've learned that I've got quite a distance to go and much to learn, but at least I'm making a few steps in the right direction.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Hanging Up the Homework

This idea  has been marinating for a while, but really has gotten a kick-start lately for a few reasons:

  1. My son's recent experience in middle school. Let's just say he didn't get much sleep those two years because of the hours (not exaggerating) of homework. High School has been a completely different experience.
  2. My concern that the students who could really benefit from the extra practice are seldom the ones who are capable of completing it without support.
  3. A parent who asked at orientation this year, "You're not one of those teachers who gives a lot of homework are you?"
  4. Most of my students' days start around 6:30 and we dismiss at 2:40. Many bus riders don't get home until 3:30 or later. 
  5. Kids need time to be kids--they need to have unstructured time at home to just play and spend time with family. 
  6. I worry that it causes problems at home and can diminish a child's enjoyment of school.
  7. I've been reading blog posts like this one: by Mrs. Pripp: So What's My Problem With Homework? and this one by J. Steven Carr: Should Homework Be Banned?
  8. I've been reading online research that suggests homework is not beneficial: The Truth About Homework
Before I go any further, let me interject that I DO NOT simply send home busy work pages just for the sake of sending work home. Our daily homework consists of 3 things:
Read for 30 minutes (school-wide). I think that is reasonable. I don't require reading logs or parent signatures that are checked daily, so there isn't the dreaded "homework check/punishment. I just remind students and encourage them by having book talks and discussing what books I'm currently reading at home. 
Study for Tests: Perhaps 5 minutes of reviewing a study guide if needed. Students have a science or social studies study guide at the beginning of a unit. Social Studies tests are open-book, and many students don't really need to study the science as long as they are present at school during the lessons. (We currently alternate units of science and social studies). 
Finish Math Classwork: Here's where I have a bit of a problem. Math lessons at this point in the year have 30 problems. These are in addition to the whole group lesson, practice set problems, fact practice, or any review we may need to do. (In my post The Marriage of Saxon and Guided Math I talk about how I teach the lesson and arrange independent/group work.) I totally "get" that in Saxon Math, problems are practiced over and over in different lessons so that students don't forget how to do them from year to year. But here's the thing--why so many? I just think it is too much. What happens is that I help them as much as possible at school, but those struggling students still can't finish (which means more homework for the ones who really can't do it independently). 

So, I'm going to try something radical: I'm going to reduce the number of problems on the lesson set to between 20 and 23 and check the lesson set in class at the end of guided math time. Students who haven't finished will have to finish during recess, (where I can be there to give guidance), rather than taking it home. 

I've been warned that students who don't do the entire lesson set won't be able to pass the assessments. I don't know if this is the case or not, as I've never talked to anyone who has actually admitted to doing this in 4th grade, but I'm about to try. Well, we'll see...

Climbing Multiplication Mountain

My coworker and I recently had a conversation with my principal (who happens to be a fabulous administrator) about multiplication that went something like this: 

Us: We need to buy some multiplication wrap-ups
Princ: Why?
Us: So students will practice their math facts at home...
Princ: How's that piece of plastic going to help them learn math facts?
Us: It's fun! They'll WANT to use them and learn math facts.
Princ: You can motivate them without the shiny, new toy.
Us: (a little deflated, but seeing his point): Okay.

Alright, so this was a very shortened version of the actual conversation, but you get the idea. The funny thing is, before the talk was even over, I was already thinking of ideas to motivate my students. The problem in my room is that about 1/3 of my students just haven't learned their multiplication facts yet, despite all of my efforts: games, skip-counting, daily drills, partner drills, videos, music, computer practice...So it must be a motivation issue. Armed with this knowledge and with information from my current read, The Power of Our Words, I've decided to approach the issue as a team-building opportunity. I'm calling it Multiplication Mountain.

I'll start with an envisioning question such as, "What would it be like in our class if everyone knew their multiplication facts? How would it help you as a mathematician? What would it take to make sure that everyone learned their multiplication facts?" As a class, we'll discuss these items, then I'll make an envisioning statement such as, "By the end of this year, mathematicians, I hope that you will work together so that everyone will know their multiplication facts like the back of their hands." Then we'll discuss how members of a community help one another and work together, sort of like mountain climbing. (We recently watched a video about a man with cerebral palsey who climbed El Capitan). 

We'll talk about how climbers depend on one another to reach the top of the mountain. One may be in the lead but teamwork gets everyone to the top. It may be easy in the beginning (0's, 1's, 2's) but the work gets harder the higher we climb. 

I even spent a little while Saturday night (I know--I'm a nerd) drawing a poster-sized mountain and printing stick people to represent each student in my class. From now on when we do daily drills, everyone will do the number that he/she is currently working on. Sounds confusing, but really it's not that difficult to keep up with. Once a student passes the quiz with a 90% three times in a row he can move his stick person up to the next level on Multiplication Mountain. The following day, he will practice the next level of facts. During math choices every day students are able to chose "Expanding Facts" as an option. I will encourage the students who need the most help with math facts to choose this activity more often. We'll celebrate one another's successes as each person climbs the mountain, and also encourage students to work together to "pull up" the ones lagging behind. I'm also planning to find a separate "fact practice" time during the day for the 5-6 students who need the extra help. (Not sure where that time's going to come from, but I have a few ideas. I'm hoping that this exercise will make the classroom community even stronger, while motivating ALL students to learn work together and learn their facts. 

I'll let you know how it goes. How about you? Have you done something similar? Please share.

The Multiplication Monster

Have you seen this monster anywhere?
He is wanted for the following crimes: 
Convincing 4th graders that they don't really need to learn their multiplication facts
Making some facts difficult to remember
Creating endless activities that steal time away from facts practice

Beware! If spotted, use extreme caution. He is not a respecter of classroom teachers, parents, or students. He likes to lurk in most any home or classroom and no one is immune to his subtle tactics. Be advised that there have been spottings in other places as well: Little League fields, gymnastics practices, video games, and even near classroom windows that look out to the playground!

There is a reward for eliminating the Multiplication Monster (or submitting ideas for his elimination), if you're innovative enough to tackle the job: pride, relief, successful students, and that great "teacher" feeling you get when you know your kids are learning.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Marriage of Saxon and Guided Math

As you  may have guessed from the title, we use Saxon Math in our district. For anyone not familiar with this series, it is basically a spiral math program. Every day there is a different lesson and the problem set that students work has many different types of problems, providing repeated practice during the school year. For example, Monday's lesson might be long division, Tuesday-stories about a fraction of a group, Wednesday-subtraction across zeros, etc. (You get the picture). Students aren't expected to master each day's content on that day, but rather continue practicing the skills in subsequent lesson sets. I won't go into the pros and cons of the program in this article, but I will say that trying to "marry" this program with my idea of guided math has been a bit of a struggle.

So, just what is Guided Math, anyway? Well, my idea of guided math is similar to a guided reading lesson--start with a short mini-lesson on the skill of the day, move to independent/small group work, wrap up at the end of the lesson with whole group share time. I really believe in this approach because students are given opportunities for instruction in whole and small group, on their levels, and in short, focused lessons. It also provides the time for independent practice that is so vital. 

With Saxon, the minilesson is the easy part---whatever the lesson is for the day is the minilesson. Although, I must admit it can be difficult to keep the lesson "mini" sometimes.  But for me, the real struggle involved two main issues: 

1. How do I pull math groups, and what do I teach in those groups?
2. What are the other kids doing while I work with small groups (besides their daily lesson set).

Here are some of the answers I've come up with. As with anything else, they're still a work in progress and will likely change as I learn and grow.

How do I pull math groups, and what do I teach in those groups?
  • My ideal situation: Do an item analysis from students' math tests and pull skill groups based on which students demonstrated a need for that skill. Groups would be flexible, based on reteaching a particular skill, and focused on one outcome.
  • My actual situation: Because the lesson sets are so long and it takes my students sssooooo long to complete them, I pull groups (high-middle-low), and we work through as much of the lesson set as possible together. *I'd rather do groups the other way, but I just can't because my students need a great deal of help on the actual problems on each day's set.
What are the other kids doing while I work with small groups?
  • This is the fun part. I've taken what I know about Daily 5 Reading and applied it to Math, offering students choices each day: Games on Computer, All by Myself (lesson set and eventually math journal), Math games (with partners), Expanding facts (facts practice). 
  • We have 3 choice rounds. Every student must choose All by Myself once (but can choose it more than once if desired). Our rounds go for about 15 minutes. The choices weren't hard to set up: I already had several different partner games, computer games, and fact practice items such as wrap-ups and hotdots. 
"How long does all of this take?" you may be asking yourself. Honestly, it takes quite a while to do well. Usually we spend between 70 to 90 minutes on math. It is well worth it, however, as my students LOVE doing math this way. Almost daily they excitedly ask "Do we get to do math groups today?" That question is enough of a reason in my eyes to keep pushing forward with this math marriage of sorts. 

Thursday, January 13, 2011

They're Copying Me Again!

This is such a great time of the school year. It's right about this time that I start to hear some of my favorite sayings around the classroom. The only difference is, I'm not the one saying them--my students are: "Make smart choices, Y'all! Follow directions quickly! Cheaters only cheat themselves...Let's get started right away! I'm ready for math because I have my....Hey, where's my coffee cup?" (Okay, maybe not that last one).

But the point remains that year after year, eventually students will internalize the language they hear over and over and begin to incorporate it into their own speaking. This fact is both inspiring and scary!

At this time of the year I start to really analyze my language patterns even more than usual. Did my body language match what I said? How was my tone of voice? Could I have phrased _____ in a more positive way? Is there something I said today that I shouldn't have?

This realization, coupled with my desire to run a more student-centered, responsive classroom has prompted my latest read:

Might I say, it was very eye-opening!! This book is bringing out elements of teacher language that I never even considered could be counter-productive. It outlines some general guidelines for teacher language (listed below) and then goes into more detail by given specific examples of language that promote learning.

General Guidelines:
  • Be direct and authentic: Use direct language--don't phrase commands as questions (Ex: Will you put your markers away? Put your markers away). Stay away from sarcasm. Watch the tone of voice and body language. Avoid over-generalizations, such as "This is going to be hard." (That last one was an eye-opener for me). 
  • Show faith in children's abilities and intentions: Notice positives, avoid baby talk, and be aware of language that treats boys and girls differently.
  • Keep it action oriented: Connect abstract terms with concrete behaviors. (Example: What will it look and sound like in the lunchroom if we are being responsible?) Describe behavior, not character or attitude. Keep the wording non-judgemental.
  • Keep it brief: Children can get lost in long, wordy explanations. Short, concise words work better.
  • Know when to be silent: Provide wait time, listen to what students have to say, refrain from repeating directions, avoid voice-overs (repeating what students have just said for the rest of the class). That last one was an eye-opener for me. I thought teachers were SUPPOSED to repeat things students said, but apparently "...the unintended message is that children's words are important only if I repeat them and the rest of the group needs only to listen to me since I'll repeat everything that is important." 
Some of these general guidelines are affirmations for language I'm already using, but I know there are a few aspects I need to work on---especially since little ears are listening, remembering, and eventually repeating the things I say.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


As I sit here thinking about my lesson plans for the upcoming week (written and re-written thanks to 4 snow days in a row), I'm struck by the sheer amount of collaboration it takes to be the kind of educator I dream of being. Just on the aforementioned lesson plans I consulted my 4th grade coworker through texts, my student teacher through email and text, my dear friend at another school via twitter, and numerous sources on the Internet. A few of my favorite collaborators don't really even know me--people like Beth Newingham, Mrs. Powell, Mrs. Bunyi, and Mrs. Renz have been inspirations on the web. And of course I can't leave out my twitter PLN. So many links and great ideas!

Because of the nature of our profession, teachers are often isolated throughout the school day, and many of us spend at least a portion of our evenings preparing for the next day. Still, it is imperative that we carve out some time to collaborate with peers. It's energizing, thoughtful, and brings out the creativity that can get pushed to the side amid the daily pressures of our jobs. So, with that said, I thought I'd list my favorite online (and off-line) collaborators:

Mrs. Whiteheadsclass (aka @whiteheadsclass) Dear friend and fellow 4th grade teacher in my district, but at a different school. Mrs. Whitehead has fabulous ideas and is always willing to share her expertise.
Proteacher Community Loads of different question boards. People are always willing to contribute ideas.
Beth Newingham 3rd grade teacher that details how she teaches reading and math. Lots of great organization and teaching ideas.
Mrs. Bunyi Class videos, explanations of daily procedures and schedules. Great ideas for teaching science, reading, and technology.
Mrs. Renz 4th grade teacher willing to share many, many ideas she uses in her classroom.
The CornerStone for Teachers (formerly I've been reading her information for YEARS. So many insightful views and ideas! 

Who would you add?

Why I love the Daily 5

What is it about Daily 5 that I like? Well, in a word: Choice. In this system (and it is a system, not a program), students are offered structured choices for independent work time during reading. The organization system, created by The 2 Sisters, discusses a practical way to structure small and whole group reading instruction. It allows the teacher to work with small groups while the rest of the class does authentic, real-world reading and writing tasks that they choose. In addition, they have developed a no-fail strategy for teaching students to be independent. (Click here for their 10 Steps to Independence).

In my class I have tweaked it, of course, to fit our needs. First of all, we only have 3 rounds, or "choices" as we call them. Each choice lasts about 20 minutes. Students may only choose an activity once each day, except for Read to Self. They may choose it as many times as they like.

The choices in my class are Read to Self, Read to Someone, Listen to Reading, Work on Words, and Write about Reading. (The original model calls for work on writing, but since I already have a separate Writer's Workshop and I wanted students to respond to their reading, I changed this choice to Write about Reading).

I love this approach because children get to be responsible for their own learning. The power of choice is HUGE. When students have the opportunity to make decisions, it allows them to take ownership of their learning and it is a definite motivator. They want to do well because they chose their task. Their is intrinsic motivation built in.

Does it always work? Well, honestly, no. Does anything work 100% of the time?  Sometimes we have our days when there are interruptions or lessons run long, or a million other things impose themselves on us. Some days attitudes need adjusting because of (who knows?) But generally, it does work. The students value their work because they have a say in what work they're doing.

The Content Conundrum

Just as education at large seems to be on a pendulum swinging back and forth, I am on my own personal pendulum when it comes to teaching science and social studies. Back and forth I swing, wondering all the while, "Will I ever find the perfect balance?" Time constraints, daily demands, delays and time killers, mixed with the continued push to spend more time teaching reading and math (which I DO love to do), all put the squeeze on content area teaching and learning.

And so I swing...teach them both in one day or alternate between the two every so often? I can't figure out what the right answer is! Or even IF there is a right answer. Back and forth I argue with myself. It goes something like this:

On teaching them both:
I should do them both every day because students need to be exposed to the content area at this age. For many of them, science or social studies is the most exciting part of the day. When they get to fifth grade they will have them both, so I am helping to prepare the students. If I leave one out, what about the History Buffs? What about the emerging Scientists? Is it really fair to NOT cover them every day?

On alternating:
You know, if I only teach one or the other, we can really 'dig in' to the content and go deeper. We'll have more time to spend on the content and be able to do more hands-on activities. I can prepare for lessons and teach better when only preparing for one content area because my focus and time will not be divided. Students are used to this format. It's what they've done in the primary grades. I can always try to integrate the "other" subject into reading or writing. 

So it goes--back and forth---one or the other. I'm currently on the "Alternating" side of the issue. I like that I don't have to rush through one subject to get to the other one, and that students can dig deeper into the content.

Perhaps one day I'll find the balance, or maybe I'll simply chose the side that works best for me and my class. 

Seeking Readatopia

Over the years I have read about and embraced many different methods for teaching reading: Four Blocks, Reading Workshop, Daily 5, CAFE, Centers, Literature Circles, and more (although not necessarily in that order). And truthfully, I love a lot about what each of these approaches have to offer, but the issue I'm faced with is this:
How do I take what I like from each idea and incorporate it into an effective, efficient, child-centered learning program that I can actually manage?
I think many of us are on this same journey, trying to balance what we know works best for our students with time constraints and other curricular demands. And it may change from year to year depending on the children in our classes and what they need. 

So, with all of the fabulous ideas out there, what's a teacher to do? Because I truly believe in making our classroom a community and a place that is child-centered, I've been incorporating my version of the Daily 5 with a separate time for Literature Circles. Like many of you, I have a basal reader (Scott Foresman) that my district provides and expects me to use. It provides me with multiple shared texts for each week and a set of skills to teach. 

What does a reading day look like?
  • 8:05-8:25: Students doing literature circles while I meet with my Intervention group (students choose books, groups, and roles---I taught and modeled what the roles would be). 
  • 8:25-8:35: Minilesson 1: Question of the Day, Listening/Viewing/Speaking skills, Phonics/Spelling. Yes, I realize this is a lot to cover in 10 minutes, but each things is relatively short, and I like to keep the lessons "mini" because of the brain-based research I've read.
  • 8:35-8:55: Choice 1: Students may choose between Read to Self, Read with Someone, Work on Words, Write about Reading, or Listen to Reading, while I meet with my first small group.
  • 8:55-9:10: Minilesson 2: Vocabulary and/or Comprehension: Short, focused lesson based on Scott Foresman skill or strategy
  • 9:10-9:30: Choice 2: Same as above
  • 9:30-9:40: Minilesson 3: Comprehension lesson (from Scott Forsman)
  • 9:40-10:00: Choice 3: Same as above
  • 10:00-10:20: Read to Self/Conferences: All students read to self while I meet with individuals for conferences. I like having a separate Read to Self time because there are fewer distractions when the whole group is reading at the same time.
So far, it is working beautifully! Students get to have a choice in their learning that involves "real" reading and writing activities. I get to teach all of the required skills in a way that works for my 4th graders. I have a specified time to meet with individuals, my intervention group, and three small groups a day. I don't know if I'd call it "Readatopia" but it's definitely a start. What about you? Have you found it yet? 


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