Archive | December, 2012

Lucy Calkins and TCRWP Teaching Videos

28 Dec

Lucky Calkins and the Reading and Writing Project just uploaded about 40 new videos on Vimeo.  The videos are clips of reading and writing instruction, appropriate for K-2, 3-5, or 6-8 classrooms, and vary from mini-lessons, to small-group instruction, to book clubs.  It’s always nice to see instruction in action–especially when it shows students’ responses and work as they grapple with the material.  I went through the majority of the 3-5 reading lessons and found them very helpful.  Lucy says that they’re not meant to be perfect lessons, just examples that can represent a pathway to the common core.  A few of my favorites from the 3-5 reading world:

Class Debate  – The class listens to “Stray” from Cynthia Rylants “Every Living Thing.”  They read the book, jotting notes on “is Doris strong or weak?” and then split into two debate teams and debate a partner.  There’s a protocol for finding evidence, working with your team, and debating.  Ends with both partners taking one position (A, B, or C (both strong and weak)).  Then they write some final thoughts.

Main Idea and Detail and Fluency in Non-Fiction – Readers read more fluently when they determine main ideas and details through a text first.  Readers can then re-read fluently, using pacing and intonation to make their “boxes and bullets” clear.

Non-Fiction Read Aloud – Kathleen Tolan demonstrates close reading and interactive read-aloud about gorillas.  She helps them to synthesize the text with graphic organizers, maps of Africa and a word bank.  They work on the skill of comparing and contrasting.

Book Club – Amazing small group conversation comparing Budd, Not Buddy and The Tiger Rising.

Each of these videos involves the students in the strategy of close reading.  Look closely, and you’ll notice that they show both how to push children to stay close to the text and how to go beyond it.

Content Words–Academic Vocabulary

17 Dec

Academic vocabulary is a big buzzword in my district right now.  We have a large population of EL students who remain language learners throughout their academic career.  They come to us in Kindergarten as English learners, and they leave us in twelfth grade as English learners.  It’s a vexing problem.  Vocabulary can feel overwhelming to teach, especially given the research.  Marzano, for example, has found that:

“there is a roughly 6,000-word gap between students at the 25th and 50th percentiles on standardized tests in grades 4–12. Since the 1980s, researchers have estimated the difference to be anywhere between 4,500 and 5,400 words for low versus high-achieving students (for a discussion, see Marzano, 2009). This means we can take the commonsense connection between vocabulary and content one step further and conclude that the size of a student’s vocabulary is directly related to his or her academic achievement.” Carleton, L., & Marzano, R. J. (2010). Vocabulary Games for the Classroom (p. 1). Bloomington, IN: Marzano Research Laboratory.

The question is what to do about it.  I made academic vocabulary a focus this year, with some amusing results.  “The sand deposition on the hill,” is an example of a written response that I received on an Earth Science test.  I was initially bummed, until my co-teacher, Jenny, pointed out that it wasn’t that the students didn’t understand the word.  It was that they didn’t know how to fluidly use it and change its form.

How to change its form…that sounds dangerously close to traditional (i.e. boring) grammar instruction and conjugation work.  Should we be diagramming sentences in fourth grade?

I modified what I was doing instead.  Jenny created a four-square graphic organizer that showed students how a word would look as a noun, and then as a present-tense and past-tense verb.  We paired this organizer with sentence frames that showed the word in use.

4-Square vocabulary graphic organizer, with squares for the noun, present tense, past tense, and present participle form.

Sentence frames and 4-square vocabulary graphic organizer, with squares for the noun, present tense, past tense, and present participle form.

A variation of this approach is the Frayer Model, which focuses more on full comprehension of the word rather than the word in use.

Screen Shot 2012-12-16 at 10.36.37 AM

The Frayer Model uses four boxes–definition, characteristics, examples, and non-examples–as a way to build a more thorough understanding of a vocabulary word.

Some important ideas to consider when working with academic vocabulary:

  • Choose high-leverage words (words that students will encounter frequently OR are key to understanding academic content) and use them frequently.
  • Teach them, practice them, refer back to them, make students use them!  It’s more effective to do a few words well than many words haphazardly.
  • Students must use the words themselves to internalize them.
  • Work with your grade level team and school to decide which words you will teach explicitly.  It’s important to have cohesion at a site and grade level so that students aren’t left with holes in their academic language.
  • Consider the forms of words as well as their definition if you want students to be able to use the words fluidly.

If you’re interested in a slideshow from Marzano that shows some alternate ways to work with students on academic vocabulary, view Vocabulary_Sketching.


Organizing Small Group Materials

15 Dec
My small group table.

My small group table. The seats are storage crates from Target that I covered. GREAT for fitting lots of kids and not dealing with chair feet (and they can double as storage! Click on the picture for a link to the blog that shares how to make these.

Working with small groups requires organization.  A lot of organization.  I’m using a small, cheap bookshelf to hold my supplies right next to my small group table.  Each pencil tray holds a pencil, dry-erase marker, eraser, container for magnetic letters, and sticky notes.

Student Supply Tray

Student Supply Tray

I organize student books and writing journals by reading group.  Each group has its own book box, where their small writing journals stay.  That way, when I begin a group, one student can easily grab a pencil tray for each student, and take out the group’s box.  It’s easy set up, easy clean up.  You can grab these simple supplies almost everywhere.  If you’re looking for high-quality materials, and a lot of choice, I would recommend abcstuff.  It’s a site devoted to resources for reading and reading recovery materials.

Bookshelf near the table with student supplies.

Bookshelf near the table with student supplies.

For my own records, I currently use a binder.  It’s divided into sections, one per group, and a back section for resources, such as word-work pages and research.  Each group’s section has the lesson plan for what the book we are reading, and on the back of a lesson plan is a recoding sheet where I jot down my running records, observations, or place a student work (usually sticky notes with their jottings.)  I don’t love it yet.  It’s convenient to have everything together, but somewhat cumbersome to use.

Binder with a pocket for books to read with groups.

Binder with a pocket for books to read with groups.

It’s important to have a system that works for you, or the sheer quantity of materials will make you crazy.  I’d love to know how you organize your small group supplies!  What’s working well for you?

Organizing Your Classroom Library

11 Dec

Classroom libraries…so wonderful, so important, such a drain on time and money.  It feels like I’m never done reorganizing, restocking, and repairing mine.  I’ve tried a number of configurations over the years, some of which make me laugh when I think about them:

  • Alphabetical by authors last name.  This is when I was  a first year teacher.  It was a ridiculous method.  Children struggle with alphabetizing, so it’s out of order immediately, and it’s challenging for children to find genres they like, or books at appropriate reading levels.
  • Organized in bins by genre and author.  My second attempt at organizing my library.  An improvement over the first, but not quite enough guidance.
  • Completely leveled.  Having all of my books leveled definitely helped my most struggling students.  By fourth grade, they’re so used to reading books they don’t understand that the goal of “find a just-right book” rarely happens.  Unfortunately, this fostered in children a sense that they were “P” readers or “U” readers or “L” readers.
  • Genre, author, series, level, and partner bins.  Last year I reorganized my library into many categories.  Favorite authors have their own bins (Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, Roald Dahl), favorite series (Harry Potter, Magic Tree House), genres (Fantasy, adventure, biography) and levels for my most struggling (J/K box, L box).  In addition, I have a partner book area.  These books are all leveled, and come in pairs, so that reading partners can enjoy books together.  I have these books leveled so that it’s faster for partners to find books (they still take forever to debate their choice) and I have them in a separate area so that they don’t get mixed in with individual books.

Book boxes organized by author, genre, or series.

So far, I’m happy with this arrangement.  Having the majority of my books organized by author, genre, and series, allows me to ask students, “What kind of a reader are you?  Who do you like to read?  What genre do you enjoy?”   I found that a relatively specific level of organization–for example, my fantasy books are divided into magical fantasy, adventure fantasy, and fairy/princess fantasy–lets children identify what they enjoy even more efficiently.


Partner books organized in levels.

Each book has a label with the name of the box and the number of the box typed on it, so that they can put the book back in its appropriate place.


Book label and book box label with the title and number of the box.

Scholastic has some more ideas about how to create classroom libraries.  Happy organizing!

Grammaropolis: a fun grammar site

8 Dec

Grammaropolis is a website devoted to teaching children about the parts of speech in a fun, engaging manner.  The site features nouns, adverbs, conjunctions, etc, as different characters that interact with each other.  There are songs, quizzes, short movies, and information pages about each part of speech.  Some of the songs are quite catchy–my students request “noun town” constantly, and then I catch them singing it around the room for the next few days.

I do find that some of the songs go into too much detail for elementary students.  The conjunctions song, for example, has the classic “FANBOYS” (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) but also introduces about four more complicated types of conjunctions.  Maybe a little much for a nine year old.  Still, the graphics are very kid friendly and the animations create enthusiasm for grammar, which can be a tough sell!

Grammaropolis charges for access to anything beyond the “noun” portion of the site, but they will give you a free educator’s access to the site.

What works well: I like using the songs to introduce a grammar concept, and then I will often replay the song as a “warm-up” kind of activity for the next few days.  The movies and tunes create engagement for the students, and gives them a basic understanding of the role for each part of speech.

Next Steps: I would like to have my students write their own songs or stories after watching the Grammaropolis examples.  It would be a nice way to dive into more complex verbs, or use complex sentences with conjunctions.

Why Invest in Coaching?

7 Dec

This year, my school began a professional development initiative focused on small-group instruction in reading.  Eleven teachers signed up to participate in voluntary coaching centers with a literacy coach from the New Teacher Center.  Our coach, Allison, will meet with each teacher four times this year, watching a small-group reading lesson and then debriefing with the teacher.

Teachers were brave to sign up.  No one knew exactly what these coaching sessions would look like, and they could have looked like this:


But fortunately, they didn’t.  Allison is supportive and competent, and she’s helped to link our professional development sessions with actual classroom practice.

When we began, I knew the coaching sessions would be important, but I underestimated how crucial they would be in building positive momentum.  They impact classroom practice in a number of ways:

  • When you know someone is coming in to observe you, it pushes you to implement a strategy that may have felt too difficult or time consuming to take on.
  • The pre-conference allows you to focus on the purpose of your lesson, what you want students to learn, and how you’ll know if they learned it.  The idea that we should have not only a key learning objective, but a way of knowing if students met the objective, is something we often lose in the hubbub of day-to-day teaching.
  • The debrief after the lesson provides space to problem solve and to think about next steps.  On my own, I’m frequently frustrated by the feeling that I’m not quite sure where to go next with my students.  A coach, especially one with content area expertise, can provide you with support and guidance.
  • It provides some much needed positive reinforcement.  Trying something new is hard, and it often feels difficult and painful.  Since we so often teach in isolation, it’s difficult to tell if we’re on the right path, or royally screwing up.  A good coach will help you to see what’s working about what you’re doing, and make you feel a little more safe and confident in your work.  Then she’ll push you to do better.

The last point might be the most important.  The learning anxiety involved in taking on a new initiative can be huge.  A sense of being overwhelmed can shut a person down, and it’s hard to grow and stay positive in that situation.  Allison has done a remarkable job of making teachers feel competent and successful, which in turn gives them the energy and strength to continue to work and grow.  Some teachers are more confident than others, but I think we all appreciate a supportive ear and a helping hand.

3 Dec

Joel Stein wrote an article decrying the imminent demise of literature under the new Common Core Standards.  His argument seems to be that the new standards throw out most of fiction in favor of dry, dusty tombs of informational reports.

Some of his article hit home.  “Fiction also teaches you how to tell a story,” Stein writes, “which is how we express and remember nearly everything.”  Later on he writes, “School isn’t merely training for work; it’s training to communicate throughout our lives.”  Amen!  Too true!  My problem with Stein’s article is that his love-affair with fiction seems to be blinding him to non-fiction.

Non-fiction teaches us how to communicate.  Organization and persuasive reasoning are not only key to reading and writing, they’re key to communicating in life.  Listen to a student who hasn’t yet learned how to do this.  As he gets to the five minute mark with no point or cohesion in sight, you’ll know what I mean.

Non-fiction tells a story.  I was obsessed by The Emperor of All Maladies and Steve Jobs (amazing books, go read them) when I  read them, and not because I’m all that interested in cancer or technology, but because of the story the authors told.

Non-fiction can be beautifully written.  There’s a reason we still get chills when we listen to MLK’s I Have a Dream speech or The Ghettysburg Address. Those speeches are far more deliberately crafted than much of the drivel of fiction that invade our bookstores.

Don’t get me wrong, I love fiction.  I talk about books all the time.  But we have often taught non-fiction as a vehicle for delivering information, rather than a craft and technique in itself, and that’s a shame.  We can be dragged into this change by the Common Core, or we can embrace the possibilities it brings.


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