Archive | September, 2013

Making Envisioning Tangible

28 Sep

My in-laws came to visit this weekend, and we started talking about books.  My father-in-law doesn’t visualize when he reads.  At all.  “I don’t really understand what that means,” he said.  Although he’s highly educated and successful, he also doesn’t read for pleasure.  The two are probably connected.  It’s hard to get lost in the world of the story, to “become the character” if you’re not experiencing the sensory details of the world as you read.

How do you make something invisible, visible, to students who don’t naturally envision?  We do think-alouds to try to make our thought process more explicit, but that’s still asking children to turn words into pictures.

A few years ago, Jennifer Serravallo did a great session at Teacher’s College on using media to help engage students and teach them reading strategies.  She talked about using instrumental music to teach children plot–having them notice how music tended to start gentle, then reach a rising crescendo, and then gradually fade away.  Music has an amazing ability to make us feel strong emotions, and we can also connect it to images, Fantasia style.  So we kick-started our envisioning work this year by listening to soundtracks and painting what we envisioned.

We started off by listening to three diverse themes:  the soundtrack from Titanic, Psycho, and Amelie.

After listening to each one, students shared what colors, images, and actions it made them imagine.  I didn’t tell students where the music had come from (and none of them had seen those movies) and it was pretty amazing how similar their envisioning was to the film.

Titanic:  I envision calm water, a pond with fish lazily swimming.  I envision a forest with peaceful animals.  I see green and blue swirls floating in the sky.

Psycho:  I see someone being chased through a huge maze.  I see jagged lightening in a red and black sky.

Amelie:  I see a bread store in France with Eiffel tower behind it.  I see someone playing the accordion in Europe.  I see children playing.

Each student then got four small squares of white construction paper and a set of watercolors.  I played the next few themes multiple times, with the lights dimmed, while students painted what they were visualizing.  Some of the songs made you want to get up and move, but I asked them to keep all the action in their mind so they could focus on what they were imagining.  We listened to the theme song from Up (cheerful, upbeat), Jaws (menacing, danger), Last of the Mohicans (bravery, war, courage), and Harry Potter (curiosity, fantasy, magic.)  For better or for worse, they knew most of these themes.  They were excited to recognize the music, but it did tend to skew their visualizations towards scenes from the movies, so next time I might try to pick some more obscure (or older) films.

After they painted, we glued the squares on a large piece of construction paper and they wrote captions with what they imagined underneath.

photo 3  photo 1 photo 2 photo 3 photo 4 photo 5

We ended the lesson by talking about how the music never told them what to imagine.  They filled in all of the feelings, images, colors, and actions themselves.  Readers do the same thing–filling in the sounds, surrounding scenery, and mood when they’re reading.  As we work on visualizing, we’ll use this project as an anchor for understanding how readers build a picture/movie in their minds while they’re reading.

Using Goodreads to Create a Community of Readers

21 Sep

At the Google Apps for Education Summit last summer, Megan Ellis talked about how she uses Goodreads to create a community of readers and to help her keep track of what her students are reading and writing about.  I thought it was a fantastic idea, so I wanted to try it.

I started a goodreads account myself this summer, and the amount of reading I’ve done has skyrocketed.  I always get books based on recommendations by others.  When I was growing up, my dad filled the loft above my parent’s bedroom with rows and rows of books.  For 18 years, as soon as I said, “do you have a book for me to read?” he would come down with one, or two, or three recommendations.

Now I get recommendations from the rest of my family and friends, and I realize that I virtually never pick up a book that someone hasn’t told me about first.  It’s hard to choose a title from the thousands available without some guidance!  But a lot of the time, that’s what we ask students to do.  “Go the library and pick something interesting.”  No wonder some of them struggle.

Megan sent me instructions for how she sets up her class (thanks Megan!) so I was ready to go.  Goodreads lets you create private groups, so we now have a 4th grade reading group going.  Students can put book reviews on the home page, recommend books to each other, and comment on each other’s reviews.  A few books immediately jumped out as popular (The Lightening Thief, Origami Yoda) and as students wrote and read reviews, they also started organizing lists of who would read which would book in what order.  I think we have a 5-student waiting list for The Tale of Desperaux now.

I asked students to write a review with a 1-2 sentence summary, because in Goodreads you can click on the title of the book and get the publisher’s summary (so we another lengthy one isn’t necessary.)  Most of their review should be spent talking about what kind of reader would like the book, giving specific examples, and maybe recommending additional books that reader would like.  Some great reviews went up:

jkt_9780545334792.inddThis book is about a girl named Minty that finds a boy named Ramon living in a model house that was never finished. They have to figure out the secrets that were found in a tree to get Minty’s friend Paz to be friends with her again.This book is for people who like mysteries, action, and guessing what will come next. This book is so good, it’s hard to put down. Join Minty and Ramon on their adventure to get Paz to be friends with Minty again.



This book is about 4 kids climbing Mt. Everest.

You’ll like this book if you like cliff hanging moments.
While some are doing the climb, one is trying to get the others.
If you like this series, you’ll like Titanic.



It is one of the best books I have ever read!!! I absolutly loved it!!!

I love the part when Despereaux’s father thinks he is a ghost!!! If you enjoyed it then you will love Because Of Winn-Dixie, also by Kate Di Camillo!!!


These aren’t book reviews in the traditional sense.  The goal isn’t to gauge students’ comprehension of books, practice writing, or deeper thinking skills.  It’s to pump up enthusiasm and start a conversation between readers.  We teach kids to “buzz” about books whenever they can, sharing stories they love and passing titles around.  This way, they can do that whenever they want.

Goodreads also gives the kids personal book shelves, where they can track what they read, what they are currently reading, and what they want to read.

Screen Shot 2013-09-21 at 1.36.58 PM

This is one of my favorite parts of the website–the ability to keep track of your reading present, past, and future.

I’d like to go back to the website once a month to update it and have students pick their favorite book from the month to write a review about and recommend to friends.  In the meantime, those that are excited by the site can go on at home and update whenever they like!

Streaming with Amazon Prime

18 Sep

A parent just let me in on the most amazing fact–if you have Amazon prime you can stream many shows and movies straight from your Amazon account.

In the short term, this is really going to get me bogged down with all the seasons of Downton Abbey that I’ve missed, but it’s also pretty good news for teachers.

Blue Planet

Nova Science

Ken Burns Documentaries

The list of educational videos that can be streamed isn’t huge…yet.  But the possibilities are exciting!  We watched a few minutes of Blue Planet, which tied in nicely with our environmental science unit.  Food chains, plankton, camouflage, it was all there.  I was surprised at how good the quality of streaming was.

The videos all have a high production value and are aimed at informing while engaging.  Comparing them to the 80’s-inspired singing-and-dancing-while-pollinating-flowers video that is included in my science kit, and I think I’ll be searching Amazon prime quite a bit in the future :).

Doctors and Patients, Teachers and Students–Medicine and Education

12 Sep

I’ve been avoiding the Stanford Alumni magazine this issue, because the main article is about depression, and that seemed like such a…downer.  But I finally opened it, and the article, about Professor David Burns’s techniques for fighting depression, struck a chord.

It turns out that a lot of his techniques for successful therapy closely mirror what we know about successful teaching and coaching.  Not such a shock when you think about it–both fields are about working with people and moving them from where they are to a better (more advanced, more happy, more proficient) state.

In particular, Burns talks about his metholodogy, called TEAM–testing, empathy, agenda setting, and methods.  It bears a remarkable resemblance to best practices in teaching.

“Testing means requiring that patients complete a short mood survey before and after each therapy session…Therapists falsely believe that their impression or gut instinct about what the patient is feeling is accurate,” says May, when in fact their accuracy is very low. “  In teaching?  Assessment, particularly formative assessment, so we can track patient/student progress as we go, rather than just at the end.

“An error many therapists make, says Burns, is skipping empathy and agenda setting and jumping straight into methods. It’s the desire to fix patients instantly that drives this ultimately unproductive shortcut.”  In teaching?  Community building.  How many of us jump into curriculum and hard-core strategy work too early, because we feel like we need to be teaching SOMETHING.  It’s hard to slow down and do the foundational work of community building, norm setting, procedures and routines, but without them, the best lessons in the world have nothing to stick onto.

“…the key to agenda setting is specificity: focusing on an upsetting incident or moment around which different methods can be tried. Saying “I just haven’t made anything of my life” is unlikely to lead anywhere.”  In teaching?  Specific teaching points and goals.  It’s the difference between saying, “Proficient readers read fluently”  (true, but  broad) and, “Readers read smoothly and fluently.  One way they do this is by thinking about how the character is feeling and reading with that expression,”  (for your robot readers) OR “Readers read smoothly and fluently.  One way they do this is by scanning the punctuation beforehand and reading in chunks, up to commas and periods,”  (for readers who run through punctuation.)

Therapists need to forget that they are supposed to be disciples of this or that school and apply what has been proven and known to work. In teaching?  Instructional expertise in best practices.  I laughed when Burns wrote,

Can you imagine going to a doctor with a broken leg and he prescribes penicillin? You’d say, ‘Why are you giving me penicillin for a broken leg?’ And the doctor says, ‘Well I’m in the penicillin movement. Brain tumor, broken leg, you get penicillin.’ It would seem ridiculous.” Burns feels the same way about therapists who rigidly subscribe to a single therapeutic approach.

This feels so close to so many educational debates, like phonics vs. whole language (how about kids be able to decode words and comprehend them?).  It feels pretty safe to say that just like every patient doesn’t need the same treatment, every child doesn’t benefit from the same type of instruction.

It’s interesting that Burns’s methods are seen as revolutions in the field of psychiatry.  Education and business have long been thrown together by corporate America, but maybe education and medicine should take a closer look at one another.  It might be surprising what we can learn from each other.

Shifting from Curmudgeons to Readers

7 Sep

In one of her opening lessons on engaging readers, Lucy Calkins writes about how kids have the choice to approach books as “curmudgeons” or to “read like it’s gold.”  One of the great things about Lucy’s approach to reading is how she makes what “good readers do” equivalent to what “good people do,” and this lesson is no exception.  It’s all about how we get to choose the attitude with which we approach the world.

I also love the lesson in part because I love the word “curmudgeon.”  What a great word to start throwing around with kids!  The last few years though, kids haven’t internalized the word and idea like I wanted them to.  They enjoyed the lesson, but for many it was soon forgotten.  Maybe part of it was that they didn’t have the deep seated image of a curmudgeon that I did.

Well, we could fix that.

On the SMARTboard, we started with the phrase – Curmudgeon: a mean tempered or surly person.

Then a slow reveal of the following pictures.  Students could choose to approach every book like it was going to be the best book ever, OR, they could approach it as this guy:


or this woman:


Or this guy:


They laughed.  But then I could see them thinking in their heads, “that’s not really who I want to be.”  When we tried opening our books and reading a few pages “like they were gold,” there was a new stillness to the room.

The next day, a student asked if we could see a video of a curmudgeon.  That stumped me for a bit, but I did find what I thought was a pretty appropriate clip:

Carl, classic curmudgeon.  Russell, trying to turn everything into gold.  Plus it’s from UP, one of the best Pixar movies ever, so that’s an added bonus.

I did regret that all of my curmudgeons were old.  There are certainly a lot of two year old curmudgeons out there, as well as kids and adults of all ages.  Luckily, it didn’t seem to phase the class too much.

A few days later,  we read a section in Stone Fox where Little Willy decides he’ll enter a dogsled race, and the bank manager tells him that he’s being crazy and will fail.  Little Willy insists it will work, while the bank manager insists there’s no hope, the plan is doomed to failure, and Willy should sell the farm.  “Willy is determined and an optimist,” we decided, and the bank manager…”is acting like a curmudgeon!” the class declared.  Ahhh…transfer :).

50th Anniversary of the March on Washington and Literacy

1 Sep

August 28th was the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King gave his iconic, “I have a dream…” speech.  The weekend before the anniversary, civil rights leaders, politicians, and even a 9 year old named Asean Johnson gave speeches about the March 50 years ago, and where we are today in terms of civil rights and economic equality.

John Lewis gave a particularly powerful speech–full of historical references (history that he was present for), biblical references, references to Lincoln’s speeches, King’s speeches, and more.  It struck me what a powerful persuasive piece he was demonstrating.  His last few lines, “I’m not tired, I’m not weary, I’m not prepared to sit down and give up.  I’m ready to fight, and continue to fight, and you must fight,” showed the power of repetition, of appealing directly to the audience, of short, directive sentences.

Think how much our children could learn from studying these speeches–about writing, about speaking, about politics, and history.

Lewis’s speech had a lot in it that was more appropriate for high schoolers.  His reference to Lincoln’s “house divided” speech, for example, is  a little beyond elementary school students, and not everyone would be comfortable sharing the violence he references with young children.  But there are other speeches that are riveting and appropriate for younger students.

On Tuesday I showed my class an excerpt of King’s speech–just a little over a minute  from the “I have a dream” section.   We talked about how King used repetition to ingrain the phrase, “I had a dream,” into our heads.  If he had used the sentence just once, would we remember it? Would we associate it so firmly with King and civil rights?  Not nearly as strongly.  One student noticed, “His voice sounds different…he’s talking differently,” and we talked about the fact that King was a preacher, and how he used the cadence of his voice to add power to some sentences, and to have people listen more closely to others.

We spent less than 10 minutes watching and discussing this clip, but when students begin to write persuasive essays, study speeches, and research the civil rights era, this is an example I can come back to.  We can discuss how King’s speech fits in history (CCSS RI 4.3), compare and contrast it with current speeches–like 9 year old Asean Johnson’s (CCSS RI. 4.9), and write our own persuasive speeches that we present (CCSS W4.1 and a host of listening and speaking standards).

There are some amazing historical speeches, caught on video, that students can watch, analyze, and mentor off of.  It’s high level informational literacy that blends a host of skills and standards into one project.  Exciting stuff, and I’d love to have more ideas of videos and speeches to use with the class.  What kind of historical events do you show your class?



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