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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

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!

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-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.)

When I last saw Katie we lamented about not blogging as often as we used to.  I told her, “I feel like I have nothing new to say!”  When I met Cathy Mere for coffee the other day in Columbus, Ohio (she blogs at reflectandrefine) she told me to stop stressing about it.  Blogs are not meant to be stressful.  The desire and inspiration to write on your blog comes and goes.  People get busy with other things and that’s just life.

So rather than trying to think of “the best idea ever to share with teachers,” I decided to write about some reading I’ve been doing. Many of our readers might be searching for a book to read right now, so here’s my list.

51uWLOkb2AL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_In the area of children’s literature, I enjoyed Counting by 7’s by Holly Goldberg Sloan.  It’d be a great read aloud for grade 5, but be prepared for 378 pages.  The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is still with me, even though I read it a few months ago.  It’s a powerful story about two teenaged cancer patients aimed at older kids, 7-12th grades.  Another one for that age span is Divergent.  I picked up a copy at the airport mostly because it’s a popular teen book right now AND a movie is coming out.  Divergent was just OK for me.  It doesn’t hold a candle to either the Hunger Games or The Giver trilogies, but there are echoes of those books in it.

51RknfJZMqL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_My adult reading lately includes the newest Wally Lamb book, We Are Water, which I enjoyed a lot.  I liked Jeannette Walls’ The Silver Star (her first fiction one) and The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. Those last two are fairly light reading.  Oh, and one more good one was Wild – the memoir of Cheryl Strayed who spent weeks/months hiking the 41p1ldx9y-L._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_Pacific Crest Trail alone.

41k2NXKvByL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_The last area is professional reading.  This week I’m highly recommending Ruth Ayres’ Celebrating Writers.  I’ve had this in my pile for a few months.  I kept putting off reading it because I thought it was only about the celebrations of ‘final products’ of students’ writing.  I let myself be misled by making an assumption about the title.  I should know better.  When I wrote One Child at a Time, several friends told me that readers may think the book was only for teachers who could work one-on-one with children and if they had 25 in their class, they wouldn’t pick it up.

Once I began reading, I realized that Ruth is expanding the idea of celebrations to include “the process writers go through and the products they create.”  In fact, only the last part of the book talks about those big celebrations after publication of students’ work.  Most of the book gives us ways to sustain our writers’ enthusiasm during the on-going writing workshop.  Here are a few things that got me thinking:

  1. “Response is noticing and naming the things a writer is doing and then sharing how we are affected as readers.”  Through her mini-lessons, charts, and 1:1 conferring, she teaches us how to support students in giving worthwhile response to other writers.  She also talks about forming partnerships among students so they get to know the work of one other writer well.
  2. Most of her figures (charts, surveys, reflection sheets, etc) can be downloaded from the Stenhouse website.  Whenever there is a web icon next to the figure, it’s available.  This is a big plus for busy classroom teachers.
  3. I’ve been in many conversations lately with colleagues about technology and social media.  Ruth answered a bunch of my questions. The biggest aha for me was when she was saying that kids today are all digital natives and they are usually way ahead of many of us in the world of social media.  However, they are self-taught.  “They know how to use social media, but they haven’t thought through how to do so with integrity and effectiveness.”  That’s where we come in.  By using social networks in classrooms, teachers can teach kids “appropriate ways to function in these spaces.”
  4. I love her idea of adding a sheet called “Can you spot our learning?” to a hallway display (pgs. 73- 74.) These help the visiting reader know what to look for in this display of writing, i. e., what the students have been working on.
  5. And finally, on page 50, Ruth is so kind to share her letter to parents which explains the reasons why she uses things like twitter, facebook, skype,  and blogs in her classroom.

When you read Celebrating Writers you will be inspired to improve your writing workshop time, no matter what grade you teach.

2014-01-09 15.38.53In my previous post, I shared some thoughts on the importance of reconnecting and recreating our community as we went back to school after winter break. January has turned into a constant dance of recreating routines with many snow days and 2-hour delays. It’s been a challenge to try to maintain a predictable schedule and keep routines flowing as Mother Nature continues to hand us arctic temperatures, snow and ice. My kindergarteners and I created this chart on our first day back from winter break. It’s been an anchor for us during the month of January. We read it together each morning during our Morning Meeting and I ask the students to turn and talk to a partner about what word they are going to focus on for the day.   We share out and then revisit the chart through the day as I notice children trying hard to live the vision we created together for our class. At the end of our day, during Closing Circle, I ask children to reflect on how the day went and how we are working together to have the classroom we imagine. This has resulted in some great conversations with children acknowledging areas that we need to work on and celebrating areas that we are successful in showing. As February approaches, I will continue revisiting our vision for our classroom and hopefully we will be able to get back into a routine. We shall see what else this winter holds in store for us!

How are you managing all the snow days and late openings? Have you tried this in your classroom? We’d love to hear from you!

 

IMG_4581It’s Sunday afternoon and here I sit, looking at my to-do list, planning for the week ahead in kindergarten, working on a presentation for later in January, checking Facebook…daydreaming out the window about how great the past two weeks of winter break have been. It’s a new year (on the calendar, at least) and I’m excited about seeing my kids tomorrow. I’m a bit worried too. While these two weeks off have been wonderfully fun and relaxing, well…it’s been TWO WEEKS OFF from school and routines for my kindergarteners. I know how important it is to rebuild our community, revisit expectations and routines and to make a plan for the rest of our year together. In a lot of ways, I see it almost like a second First Day of School. It’s a refreshing fresh start and a new beginning.

Tomorrow I want to be sure and listen to every child. I am sure they will be full of stories to tell and memories to share from their two weeks off. I don’t want to jump right into the new math unit or literacy unit of study right away. I want to make time to welcome the children back to our classroom family, to allow them to reconnect, play, enjoy each other, share their hopes and dreams for 2014 and to ease back into our routines and life in the classroom. I want to start our morning meeting by making a chart of “What kind of class do we want to have in 2014?” with the kids – creating a future for us together in the new year. I want to remember that community is at the heart of our classroom and when we’ve been apart for two weeks we need time to reconnect and recreate. What a fun opportunity as we return to our classrooms tomorrow! Enjoy the time with your students and I wish you a most excellent 2014!

What are you focusing on as you go back to school after winter break?

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