Supporting Reading Process – Not just for First Graders

After taking some time to work in upper elementary classrooms, I have returned to volunteering in a first grade classroom.  Since I did Reading Recovery for 7 years, this is where my heart often returns to. I am absolutely loving my work with these little guys! But because I only see them once a week I want to be sure I’m using my time as expertly as I can.  Therefore, I looked back in Clay’s texts to make sure my teaching is as effective as it can be.  I find I can open to just about any page of a Clay book, read a few paragraphs, and I am filled with food for thought.  I’m going to copy a list of Clay’s (see bottom) that got me thinking in hopes that you too will spend some time reflecting on it. Perhaps you’d even like to take the list to a team meeting and get some discussion going.

Clay believes (as do I) that every reader must build their own self-extending reading process system. (You can read more about this system in Chapter 2 of Catching Readers Before They Fall.) Some children do this very naturally no matter how they are being taught to read.  But with children who struggle (beginning readers or those in upper elementary grades), they need to be scaffolded as they build that system.

The aim of all teachers of reading is to produce independent readers – readers who work at problem solving, fluently and flexibly; readers who self-monitor themselves; readers who self-initiate their own strategies and behaviors and don’t wait for the teacher to prompt, etc.

Here is Clay’s list.  She writes that children become more independent:

“ – if early behaviors are appropriate, secure, fast and habituated.

- if children learn to monitor their own reading and writing.

- If they search for several kinds of information in word sequences, in longer stretches of meaning, and in letter sequences.

- If they discover new things for themselves.

- If they check that one kind of information fits with other available information.

- If they repeat themselves as if to confirm what they have read or written.

- If they correct themselves, taking the initiative for making all the information they find fit the word they decide upon.

- If they solve new words through their own strategic activity.”
Marie Clay, Literacy Lessons Designed for Individuals, Part Two, Page 114.

When I reflect on these, I ask myself:

  • Am I making sure the students are monitoring for meaning and not just to see if they ‘got the words right’?
  • Am I giving them time to search and time to problem solve? Or am I jumping in too quickly?
  • Am I modeling the many ways they can search and gather information from the picture, the sentence, the meaning of the story, how the letters look, etc?
  • Am I encouraging rereading which will help them confirm, or check, or redo a word choice, or discover something new?
  • Am I sending the message (in all that I do and say) that it is their job to do the reading work? Do I encourage them to check and confirm for themselves instead of looking to me for confirmation?

There are just a few of the questions I want on the tip of my tongue as I work with first graders.  I hope they inspire some reflection in you also.

It’s Their Day, Too

2014-12-05 12.41.58I recently read a blog post written by a mother, sharing how frustrating some days can be. I related to this post not as a mother, but as a teacher. It’s easy to get caught up in things that can suck the energy out of our teaching – the trainings that often don’t directly relate to the work we do with our students, the new mandates and requirements that are handed out, the lack of planning time, the lack of support from our administration, colleagues, (or even our nation), the slow response of systems that are supposedly in place to help our kids, the constant addition of things we must do, the lack of time to do these things, the endless assessments, the constant raising of the bar, the negative perception of how we do our jobs and how we all just need to work harder/better/faster. It can be exhausting.

2014-12-05 14.36.46When I find myself getting sucked into this frustration, I have to stop and get grounded again. It’s not all about my day and my huge to-do list and my deadlines, benchmarks and expectations. It’s about the kids. It’s about being present and in the moment. It’s about listening.

Our children come to us each day to learn, to grow, to have fun. To laugh, to explore, to be in awe of something. To discover things for the first time, to have that “a-ha” moment, to change perspectives, to open their eyes to a new way of thinking, to find a passion. It’s their day, too.

2014-12-05 14.36.50Some of my best days of teaching look nothing like what’s on the lesson plan. They come from listening to my kids, following their lead, and remembering why I am a teacher. Some days the lesson plans and assessments need to be pushed aside and I need to sit down with my kids while they explore worms in a nature box. I need to be there to help them find a worm book in the class library and listen as they wonder and investigate the worms crawling on their hands. I need to laugh with them, wonder with them and encourage them.  I need to run to the art room for paper to cover our play stand because they decided a gingerbread house needs to be built today. Not next week, but NOW. Because NOW is where five year olds live. I need to stand back as they gather all the gingerbread men books we’ve read to decide what characters they should make to put inside the gingerbread house. I need to listen and be responsive to what they need.

2014-12-05 12.41.51Now. In this moment.

Because it’s their day, too.

On mentors

MentoringHands-0A mentor is defined as someone who guides another to greater success. I’m mentoring a new-to-kindergarten teacher this year, and it has caused me to reflect on who my mentors are. Of course, I could list so many of the authors of the books that line my walls – Nancie Atwell, Katie Wood Ray, Lucy Calkins, Donald Graves, Dick Allington, Ken and Yetta Goodman, Marie Clay, Debbie Miller, Steph Harvey and Anne Goudvis – just to name a few.  We all have those mentors. The people we get excited to see in person at NCTE or IRA, the authors we wait in line for the chance to speak a word or two, the authors whose voices echo in our mind as we teach every day.

But as I reflected on this, I started thinking of the teachers I have taught with throughout the years. Teachers I have worked with who were in their first year or their twentieth have made an impact on my teaching to this day. I fear that we are entering an age of teaching where collaboration and sharing are discouraged. Stories of competition between teachers in the name of test scores frighten me. (for many reasons) Teaching can be a lonely profession. We can easily be isolated in our classrooms. Sharing and learning from our colleagues is so important and sometimes the littlest thing can stick with that teacher across the hall forever.

I want to thank a few of my teaching mentors I think about daily. You’ve given me ideas and inspiration that I carry into my classroom every day. I realize the danger of doing a post like this – I’m sure I will leave someone out. And really, everyone who I’ve had the privilege of teaching with has impacted me in some way. Thanks to Zoya Bankley Lucas, I still hand out “love notes” – tiny pieces of paper with fun messages – to my kids every day as we say good-bye for the day.  Christy Thompson, Sam Straker, and Susan Cox are my inspirations for creating community in my classroom. They have taught me so much about honoring and respecting children and listening to them. I can hear their voices every day as I interact with my kindergarteners. Julie King taught me how important enthusiasm and patience are in a classroom. The joy she showed for her job and students, even in the face of challenges and frustration, is something I think of often when faced with difficulties. Pat Johnson’s voice comes to me often as I work with my young readers and writers. “What would Aunt Pat do?” is a thought I have at least once a day. Rosary Lalik and my cohort for the Literacy Studies master’s program at Virginia Tech truly transformed who I am as a teacher. Your voices blend into a symphony of support and encouragement to challenge me to think outside the status quo and always question and speak up for what is right for children. You help me be brave in my teaching. Melanie Rick taught me so much about arts integration. The lessons we planned and taught together help me every year as I integrate the arts into my teaching. Ann Mabry has helped me achieve balance in my life. I learned that I could be a good teacher and have a rich life outside of school through her. Kassia Omohundro Wedekind, Jessica Shumway, Debbie Gates and Michelle Gale, you have taught me to love teaching math. You come into my math workshop with me every day and help bring excitement, inquiry and fun to math. Shannon Christie, Lauren Price and Althea Greenstone make up my current kindergarten team. I learn from each of you and feel so grateful to be a part of a team who shares a common, child-centered philosophy and love for teaching kindergarten.

Thank you all.

Who are your teaching mentors? Who can you thank today for making you a better teacher?

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Our Virginia Tech Literacy Studies cohort

Writing on Day One of Kindergarten

Writer's Workshop

Writer’s Workshop

“The fastest way to teach a child to read is to teach them to write.” -Mem Fox

In one week, I will start my 24th year of teaching with a group of eager, squiggly, excited kindergarteners. One of the things we do on the very first day is start Writer’s Workshop. I begin by reading David Shannon’s ever popular book, No, David! In the front of the book is an author’s note, explaining how he got the idea for No, David! I share that with my kindergarteners and then tell them that they are authors, just like David Shannon. And in our classroom, they will get to make books every day – just like David Shannon! I then pass out a 5 page stapled blank book to each student and send them off to make a book. After four years of doing this with kindergarteners, I have never had a student ask what to write about, say they couldn’t write or question this task at all. They get excited and carry on – making books. Just like David Shannon. It’s really quite amazing to watch.

Last year I was invited by the folks at #kinderchat to participate in their Campfire Chat series. I did two Blackboard Collaborate sessions and wrote a blog post about writing in my classroom. If you would like to hear more about the possibilities of writer’s workshop in kindergarten and beyond, check out Campfire Chat 1 and Campfire Chat 2 – Writing Joyfully. When you launch these, you may have to download the Blackboard Collaborate Launcher. Once the program opens, click Playback – Player – Play on the top bar. You will then get the hear and view the recorded presentation. Enjoy and have a great year of writing with your class!

Here’s One for Primary Teachers

I read a lot of professional books and I don’t post about all of them. But every once in a while, one comes along that demands a mention. “Let’s Find Out: Building Content Knowledge with Young Children” by Susan Kempton is one such book. And if you are a kindergarten or first grade teacher looking for a summer reading professional book, look no further.

513Zfv+93tL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_The number one fact that drew me to this book was that Kempton moved to a school with a very diverse population (with students from low socio-economic families who faced multiple literacy issues), after having taught years in schools with many average to above-average readers. I knew I could trust her ideas and practices to work in the classrooms where I often find myself.

Kempton uses children’s natural curiosity about animals to build concepts and vocabulary on a variety of topics. Together they look at pictures, pose questions, infer, observe, research some more, and build vocabulary from polar bears and snakes to life cycles and dying. Her kinder class is filled with animals that offer many opportunities for the children to learn in an inquiry-based environment. I loved her stories about the bunny that was a comfort for the children to hold as well as the ones about the snake who devoured his lunch right before their eyes and later molted and left them his skin.

Her tools are many. She uses books, magazines, artifacts, movement, songs, dramatization, repetition, visual aids, the internet, and drawing. The children read and write daily and have many opportunities to talk. They ask questions, negotiate meaning together, and then draw, write, and share what they are learning about. Many teachers may say, “Well, I do all that too.” But the extent to which Kempton expands her students’ vocabulary is amazing to watch. At the end of each chapter she lists the concepts and language covered. I love the way she doesn’t “dummy down” the language. In one unit alone, her kinders become familiar with: tortoise, growth rings, hexagon, dome-shape, desert, hibernate, burrow, soil, reptiles, scales, hooves, rosettes, drag, prey, species, and so on. They even know how to tell the difference between a leopard, cheetah, and jaguar.

The two chapters I found especially inspiring were the one on the class’s Martin Luther King study and the one titled “What is Math?” She broadens the MLK study to include citizenship and civil rights in a way that kinders can understand and apply to their own lives. I admired the way she used the book Dear Willie Rudd which many may think is too hard for primary students. She continually asked the students “Who is Willie Rudd?” through multiple readings and discussions. But when she got no answer, she didn’t just tell them. She trusted the children as thinkers. She believed that with repeated readings and with time and opportunity for plenty of talk with partners and as a whole group, the children would get there on their own.

In Chapter 10, she shares how reading and writing have a root word that indicates their meaning. Math, on the other hand, doesn’t have an “identifiable act to bring it to life.” Throughout the chapter she supports the children as they discover what math is. “It is about shapes, graphing, patterning, sorting, adding, subtracting, comparing value, estimating, place value, surveys, symmetry, money, measuring, weighing, telling time, and more.”

I hope some of you will take the time to read this very worthwhile text that comes with several free videos that you can access on-line.

Readers Front and Center

readers-front-and-centerI just finished reading a new book and now I’m feeling the need to shout about it. You might remember my posts from 2012 about my excitement after reading Barnhouse and Vinton’s What Readers Really Do from Heinemann (click on the 3 highlights and you will go to my past posts.) Dorothy Barnhouse has continued to share her work with her latest book, Readers Front and Center, from Stenhouse. Her premise is that “instead of listening for answers, we should be trying to listen to our students.” And she does exactly that as she takes us with her to each student she confers with.   She believes that if we really listen to our students we will be able to figure out not only what they are comprehending but also how they are understanding or misunderstanding what they are reading. But the biggest thing I’ve learned from her is what to do once I make those discoveries.

In every conference that Barnhouse shares, you will notice how she situates the child as a problem solver. Too often when teachers find out that a child is confused, misunderstanding, or losing track of the characters or plot, the teacher jumps in to rescue the child. We show the child where he got confused and then prompt, nudge, or support him in finding the meaning we were hoping for (sometimes just giving the answer.) To this, Barnhouse says, “If we short-circuit our students’ thinking, they will fail to learn that reading is an intellectual enterprise” (p. 39.) If we want kids to be problem solvers as readers, then we have to expect that they will get confused and make errors.

Here are just a few gems from her book:

* She teaches us how to help students do the “back and forth work” that readers really do as their reading processing system is at work.

* She suggests using “and” instead of “but.” When we say “you did it over here, but you didn’t do it here,” we are emphasizing what the child got wrong. But when we say, “you did it here and you can also do it over here,” we believe the child can be successful. “If we treat students like meaning makers, they will act like meaning makers” (p. 148.)

* “A conference is not a delivery system for a teaching point” (p. 62.) It is a teachable moment.

* She encourages students to “think across the pages” — connecting details and then asking and answering their own why questions. She is building on the ideas we learned from her first book with Vinton, but you will have many new “aha” moments when reading these very specific scenarios and seeing how she works with students on Book/Brain charts.

* Her examples span grades 2-8 and also show how this teaching can work in individual conferences, with small groups, and with whole group teaching.

I learned so much from this text; my end pages are full of notes! I can’t wait to find a group of literacy friends to discuss this book with. (And you can still preview the book on-line for free at stenhouse.com.)