Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Read any good books?

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.

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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!


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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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Spreading Some Sunshine

Clare Landigran (Teachers for Teachers) listed our blog (I write with Katie Keier) as one of eleven to receive the Sunshine Award. We were excited! This award is a way for bloggers to recognize other bloggers, as well as to encourage them to share a little bit more about themselves.   Here is the description:

The sunshine award gives others an opportunity to learn more about me as a blogger and then, in turn, I will send sunshine the way of 11 other amazing bloggers for you to get to know (but I’m going to cheat and not do 11!)

The Sunshine Award was started by Matt Renwick, an elementary principal in Wisconsin (@readbyexample). Here are the rules Matt lists in his post:

Acknowledge the nominating blogger.
Share 11 random facts about yourself.
 Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
List 11 bloggers.  They should be bloggers you believe deserve some recognition and a little blogging love!
Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. (You cannot nominate the blogger who nominated you.)

Here are 11 facts about me:

  1. My husband (of 39 years) and I have two wonderful daughters, two cool son-in-laws, and 5 fantastic grandkids!
  2. I walk 4-6 miles every morning and then one LONG hike on the weekend.
  3. I’m a storyteller and love telling folktales to grades K-5.  My two favorites are Tailypo and Tinderbox.
  4. In H. S. I thought I would be a math teacher; in college I studied social work until switching to teaching.
  5. I LOVE to shop… in real stores, none of this “shop on-line” stuff!
  6. Love going to the movies. My husband, Rick, and I go just about every Friday night.
  7. My favorite authors are Ann Patchett, Barbara Kingsolver, and Geraldine Brooks.
  8. Since becoming semi-retired, I eat lunch at Panera just about EVERY day with my computer and some books.  I find it a great place to work and the food is terrific.
  9. I’m left-handed.
  10. Growing up we always had dogs – Molly#1, Molly#2, Jeepers, Tammy#1, Tammy#2.
  11.  I like to play cards, particularly Texas Hold ‘em, Smear, 15, and bridge.

These were the questions (along with my answers) I was asked by Clare:

1)   What is your favorite board game?

Definitely Trivia Pursuit, the original and other versions, but not the Sports one.

2)   Where is your favorite vacation destination?

Hawaii – we’ve been three times and have included Maui, Kauai, The Big Island (Volcano Nat’l Park was great!), and Oahu. I love reading their signs full of ‘w’s’ and vowels!

3)   What is your first school memory?

My kindergarten teacher took a vote everyday as to what record we wanted to hear at the end of the day. “Davy Crockett” won every day because there were more boys than girls in the class.

4)   If you have an iPad –how do you use it?

Don’t use it enough. I’m still attached at the hip to my mac.  Plan to figure out Evernote and use my iPad more in the new year.

5)   When I am stressed, I relax by….

Watching TV (but I only watch between 9-11 at night – that’s my ‘veg out’ time.) Scandal and The Good Wife are two favorites, but Homeland and Breaking Bad are favorite netflix series. Don’t tell me the endings; we’re not there yet.

6)   What is your best tip for balancing your work and family lives?

Retire!  Ha Ha! Actually when I worked full time in a school I tried to say “Yes” to a few extra things and then “No” to some others.  Don’t overload your plate.  Did I really follow that advice? Rarely!

7)   How do you plan for writing on your blog?

I wait for an idea to hit me (usually when I’m walking) and then try to write it up before I forget.

8)   What motivates you to write?

Knowing that teachers have liked my books and posts; I love when they tell me it’s helping them teach struggling readers better. This makes me want to write and share more.

9)   I love to spend Saturday…

Taking a 4 ½ mile walk to a breakfast place with my hubby, having breakfast, and walking the 4 ½ back… then staying busy the rest of the day.  I hate being bored or having no plan!

10) What is your favorite meal to cook?

I’m a terrible cook and have little interest in it.  But lasagna or taco soup are two things I make when having a big crowd over.

11)  The one thing I cannot live without is…

Family.  And I have a helluva big one!  I’m the youngest of 6; between us we have 25 kids; and now those 25 have 64 kids.  I love Facebook for the advantage of seeing all those kids’ pictures!

The bloggers that I’m giving my Sunshine Award to are:

Karen Terlecky

Vikki Vinton

Renee Dinnerstein

If you’ve already been given this award, then just bask in the knowledge that someone else loves your blog!

My 11 questions for these bloggers are:

  1. If you hadn’t become a teacher, what would you have been?
  2. Tell me something about the grandparent who meant a lot to you.
  3. My favorite charity is…
  4. What’s the funniest thing a student every said to you?
  5. Name a teacher from your past who impressed you and why.
  6. The one thing on my bucket list that I know I will get to someday is…
  7. For exercise, I like to…
  8. Who is your favorite children’s book author?
  9. If you could visit any other country, which one would it be?
  10. What is the talent you really wish you had?
  11. If you could invent a holiday, what would it be for?

I hope you have fun playing around with your Sunshine Award!  I look forward to your answers.


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61-nLho6slL._SL160_SH30_OU01_SX135_I rarely notice the cartoons that my grandkids are watching on TV.  But this morning, one really grabbed my attention as four-year old Brenna was watching Arthur in school with his friends.  Buster (I think that’s the rabbit’s name) was telling the teacher, “You mean there’s no test for this book?  So I’ll get no points for reading it? But… but… I really enjoyed it.”  The teacher confirmed that it was true.  Buster would get no points because this particular book wasn’t on the list of choices. The teacher named the program that Arthur’s school was using — a made-up name.  They didn’t fool me; this show was poking fun at, and showing the flaws of, the Accelerated Reader Program.  I listened harder.

All the other kids tried to convince Buster that he should only read books on the list and then take the test for points because then you could turn your points in for prizes. (Another dig at those silly incentive programs that try to bribe kids to read rather than encourage the intrinsic value of reading.) Buster stood his ground. When the students went to “Point-Redemption Day” all the kids were complaining about their cheap-o prizes.  “I read 786 points worth and this is all I got?” The prizes were equal to turning in your tickets at Chuck E. Cheese’s (you’ve been there, right? 1,000 tickets for a plastic whistle.) Arthur asked Buster what his prize was.  Buster only had 38 points, so he got a straw. He told Arthur that that was OK with him because he had read so many books that were so interesting and exciting to him.

The cartoon show was followed by a short, 5-minute clip of real kids (2nd or 3rd graders) talking about how they choose books.  They discussed the kinds of books they loved to read, recommended some to friends, and talked about whether they mostly picked humorous books or adventure/action books, and so on.  Several of the kids mentioned how important it was to choose books you were interested in.

What can I say?  Hats off to the Arthur show and whoever wrote this episode.  What a great message for kids!  Maybe I should start watching more cartoons!

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At the recent NCTE conference in Boston, I heard Tom Newkirk say, “My original ideas are those for which I’ve forgotten the source” (and he may have even been quoting someone else!)  But it made me think about how much we all learn from each other.  In all my presentations for teachers, I always feel like I’m building on the works of others. Teachers are so willing to share ideas, thoughts, reflections about their practice, and when we listen to each other we are building our own understandings.

sharingSo, in the spirit of sharing, I’ll post some things I heard and learned about in three particular sessions at NCTE.

In a session called “Reimagining Literacy Workshop in the Digital Age” I listened with my not-so-techy-ear to the thoughts of three of my favorite teachers – Bill Blass, Ann Marie Corgill, and Franki Sibberson.  Bill built his talk around this question, “What does it mean to be literate in the digital age?” which switches our thinking from “What is digital literacy?”  We all want kids to become literate, but we need to add options to their repertoire. Kids can respond to texts using many digital tools like voicethread, educreations, making videos, etc. In addition to response logs or other old favorites, they can have conversations about texts by posting blogs and commenting on each other’s posts. Franki and Ann Marie were very clear in saying that we need to teach kids about the tools, i. e., how to post, how to consider your audience, how to comment, and so on. “Possibilities invite intentionality.” They shared charts they brainstorm with their students, such as, “Making comments to writers on their blogs” or “Possible blog posts.”  To me, the bottom line from this session was that the internet and new digital tools are not going away; they are not a fad; they are here to stay.  As teachers we need to make the best use of them without giving up what we know constitutes best practice for a literacy workshop – authenticity, choice, and ownership.

In another session (with Ralph Fletcher, Tom Newkirk, and Becky Rule), Ralph shared his concern that narrative writing is getting pushed to the back burner by the Common Core.  Of the 24 samples that CCSS gives at the 5th grade level, only two are narratives. The CCSS emphasis is heavy on argument and non-fiction writing.  Fletcher talked about how story is the way people think and view the world.  We retain information better if it is embedded in story. So much of informational text is composed of stories. Aren’t the best history teachers the ones who teach it with stories? Newkirk continued the talk saying that CCSS compartmentalizes writing into narrative, argument, and informational writing.  He felt that was a “category error” in that narrative is foundational to the other two. Newkirk read the Gettysburg Address and asked us to listen to it for the story it tells – the story of our country from the Declaration of Independence (all men equal), through the war, and on into the future. This session was concluded with entertainment from a most wonderful storyteller, Becky Rule, whose books I will be checking out soon!

The third session that got me thinking a lot featured Martha Horn and two first grade teachers she worked with on implementing writers’ workshop in their classrooms.  Martha showed a video clip of her modeling how to listen as a first grader told his story to the class. She encourages us to “listen with your eyes, ears, heart, and whole self” and she showed how to do just that.  This telling of stories that the children do is a rehearsal, a kind of planning, for the writing that they will soon do.  She’s there to help them “talk their way into writing.” She would retell parts of the story to give the child an opportunity to clarify.  She often said, “and then what happened?”  She didn’t assume to know what he meant or intended to mean, but rather gave him back his words in the language of books, so that he could confirm them or change them or add to them.  The two classroom teachers then shared their learning journeys of going from the whole class doing the same kind of writing to a true writer’s workshop with time, choice, opportunity, support, response and feedback.

I loved Martha Horn’s idea of bringing classroom teachers with her to share their growth stories.  I hope that many reading teachers and literacy coaches who are reading this are thinking about encouraging their teachers to put in proposals for next year’s NCTE.  AHEM, I’m especially talking to my local friends who work in the DC/Virginia/Maryland area (where NCTE will be held in 2014.) I know I’ll be nudging a few young teachers!

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Parents Want to Know

Learning-Time-Snowman-0061Although Katie and I usually write for teachers, this post will be for parents of preschoolers and kindergarteners.  As I speak to this group of parents I notice their constant worries – “Is my kinder teacher good enough? I don’t want my child falling behind.” Or “Is there more I should be doing at home?” “How much is my child supposed to know before beginning school?”  In my October 24th blogpost I began to give some advice to parents, but I’ll go a little further here and reference some past posts that share some great practices in a kinder classroom.

  1. Before all else, ask yourself, “Is my child happy in school?” And “Does your child feel safe?”  I don’t mean just physically safe, but safe enough to ask questions, safe enough to take risks, and safe enough to make mistakes without being made fun of.  Is your child allowed to play in the preK or K class?  Read one of the many ways that Katie encourages her kinders to play here.
  2.  Does the teacher read aloud books to the children daily?  For me, this is the single most important job of a PreK and K teacher.  Does your child also get some individual time to look through some books on her own or with a partner during the school day? At home, you can be reading picture books (2-3 every night before bed).  Ask your public librarian for suggestions based on your child’s age and interests.  Read Pat’s blog about wordless books. Also see Katie’s blog “We are Readers!” to see how she treats all her kinders as readers no matter where they are on the beginning- to-read continuum.
  3. When you get the opportunity as a parent to meet with the teacher, ask how your child is progressing.  Don’t be concerned about how he compares to the other students in the class (eg. “Is he in the top group?”) You really want to know if the teacher is taking your child from where he entered and supporting him in moving forward as a reader, writer, speaker, and learner. “Take Them from Where They Are” is a blog Katie wrote for other K teachers.
  4. What’s coming home in that folder or backpack? Don’t look for worksheets or pages with grades on them.  Instead, look for a weekly newsletter or some communication from the teacher as to topics studied or discussed that week.  Is there a way for you to find out what books were read in K this week; perhaps there was a favorite you can get from the library to reread. Find out one thing Katie’s kinders bring home every weekend in A Home Connection for Shared Reading.
  5. Young children are naturally curious.  How does your child’s teacher support this?  Read how one kinder teacher keeps the wonder alive in her room – The Wonder of it All.
  6. Is there a daily time for writing in the classroom?  (Granted, many preschoolers and some kinders may just be drawing or even scribbling and that is age appropriate.). In Katie’s kindergarten, and in many others across the U. S., the kids write from the very first day. See Writing in Kindergarten. (Other posts on writing were 9/22/12 and 9/15/12.) Unfortunately not every K classroom will have an on-going writing workshop, so as a parent, you can read up on the topic in the book Already Ready, by Katie Wood Ray.
  7. There are so many wonderful sites on computers for your child, I couldn’t even begin to suggest some in this post.  The number one rule, though, is to limit screen time. And the best advice for selecting a site would be, “if it looks like a workbook page, then it is a workbook page.” Stay away from those skill-and-drill type sites.

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2013-11-07 13.28.43This past year has been an amazing year in my running life. I’ve run over 17 ultra marathons and have set personal best times in several big races.  Yes, I’ve put in the training miles and have my nutrition perfected – and I am passionate about running – but there is something even more important that has helped me achieve my goals this past year. It’s the people I run with and having a whole team of friends who believe in me. I was lucky enough to be welcomed into a close-knit group of runners last year who have been there for me in more ways than I can count – on the trail and off. They laugh with me, support me, run many long miles with me, and believe in me. I can’t help but see the connection between this and the students I work with every day.

I truly feel that my job as a teacher is to believe in every child – to believe they can learn and to expect wondrous things from them. I have to focus on what they CAN do, not what they can’t do (yet), and build upon that foundation. Kindergarten can be an overwhelming grade to teach. I look at my state standards (which are remarkably similar to those I had when I taught first grade several years ago…that bar just keeps being raised) and then I look at my students – this year over 7 of them JUST turned 5. They have only been on this planet for barely 5 years and we expect them to learn so much in the short year we have them. And they do. They learn to count to 100. They learn to read. They learn to make books that stay on topic. They learn about the monarch migration and how magnets work. They learn to solve problems, be independent, to tie their shoes and wash their hands after they go to the bathroom. They learn to use their words, be brave, be strong, put on their mittens, be kind and that they can make a difference in their world. We teach them all of these things, but we also believe in them. We believe they can do it. And they do.

And if we’ve done our job well, they will believe in themselves.

“I think that the best thing we can do for our children is to allow them to do things for themselves, allow them to be strong, allow them to experience life on their own terms, allow them to take the subway… let them be better people, let them believe more in themselves.”  - C. JoyBell C.


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5281-22-23I began supporting teachers with developing their writing workshops in the 80’s.  Don Graves had written his famous book, Writing: Teachers and Children at Work. Lucy Calkins, Shelley Harwayne, Joanne Hindley and Nancie Atwell visited our county or state conferences and talked about their early work. Before long, their books were on my shelves too. I read it all, soaking it all in, sharing with the teachers at my school, modeling lessons for them, and so on.  As the years went by, I added new writing gurus, like Ralph Fletcher, Carl Anderson, Georgia Heard, and eventually Katie Wood Ray (really enjoyed In Pictures and in Words this summer.) As a Reading Teacher and Coach for elementary school teachers for most of my career, I never tired of reading about writing workshop and how to support students in becoming lifelong writers.  I bet many of you could say that you, too, learned so much from all the names I just mentioned.

Now there are a few new names on the writing front.  And I still find the topic exciting although I’m near the point of fully retiring (which I keep saying will happen “next school year” but my husband doesn’t believe me.) I continue to learn with Rose Cappelli and Lynn Dorfman with all their mentor texts books. Jeff Anderson and Aimee Buckner are also two of my new favorites.  I just finished Aimee’s recent publication called Nonfiction Notebooks (this is her third book on how she uses notebooks.)

41hANbCtgnL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-64,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_Buckner’s latest book includes her work with upper elementary students as they learn to use their writers’ notebooks to flush out ideas for informational writing topics, narrow their topic to find an angle or focus, try out different leads, experiment with organizational ideas, expand and dig deeper, make decisions about what’s important, and so forth.  She tells you right up front that this book will not include revising and editing of final drafts. It’s Buckner’s belief that the students’ first drafts will be a much better quality if they use some of these prewriting strategies in their notebooks first.  But she cautions us against these scenarios:

  1. The student who begins a first draft way too soon and then there is too much revision work to be done. This can frustrate a student.
  2. The teacher who uses far too many prewriting ideas so that by the time the students begin their drafts, they are tired of their topic.

Some ideas I gathered from Buckner’s new book:

  • On pages 72 and 82 when she is doing a shared demonstration with the kids, she has them glue the excerpt into their notebooks.  So simple, yet why didn’t I think of that?  I usually have the excerpt large enough for all to see and then we might create an anchor chart from the lesson.  When I want to refer back, I’d tell the kids, “Remember when we noticed what so and so did with her description in her NF piece…” It makes more sense to let the kids have the actual excerpt to refer to (with their jottings, things they noticed, and ideas around it.)
  • Using boxes and bullets for organizing ideas (p. 42).  This is something I heard about many years ago, and yet had totally forgotten about.  That’s why we need to keep reading articles, books, and blogs on teaching writing. There’s just too much information out there and sometimes we need reminders.
  • Since the teachers at my school use Readers’ Statements to open their mini-lessons, I appreciated the fact that Aimee began her lessons in a similar way.  Examples of a few: “Writers read informational texts and notice what the authors do”; “Writers write all they know about a topic and then they look for what they don’t know”; “Writers use specific nouns and active verbs to keep their informational writing interesting.”
  • P. 80 – chart of possible leads and the nonfiction books where she found them.
  • Although I don’t have to do report cards, Buckner has included a final chapter on assessment for those teachers who want answers to evaluation questions.

sad-children04Buckner’s book will mostly be helpful to teachers who already have a strong writing workshop in place.  What saddens me most is that even though my county in Virginia (which has 145+ elementary schools) began introducing writing workshop to our teachers in the 80’s, there are still schools where it is just not happening. And that’s a very sad thing for students of all grades.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve had several questions asked of me lately from preschool parents and teachers.  They all want to know what they should be doing when their children are 3, 4, and 5 so that the kids will eventually have a successful “learning to read” experience.  For the parents, I want them to know 3 important things.

1.  Reading aloud to your children is the single most important thing you can do with your children.  Finding fun books both in fiction and non-fiction is the best way to turn your kids on to reading. Use your libraries. Buy books as part of birthday and holiday presents.  By reading to them with expression you send messages to your kids.  The little ones will be thinking, “WOW, I want to be able to do that some day!”

2. Forcing children to learn their letters and sounds at age 3 and 4 will not necessarily guarantee that the children will maintain a two-year advantage on other students who only learn their letters and sounds in kindergarten.  Many children can catch up to these early readers. By the end of first grade many late starters catch up and level off with the early starters. However, if children do show an interest in letters and sounds at age 3 and 4, then certainly play with the letters and have fun.  Sing the ABC song in the car, do puzzles, play with the sponge letters in the tub, make the magnetic letters accessible on the refrigerator, and throw out some “hooks” for the letters during your play. For example, “D, that’s Daddy’s letter and Dawson’s letter!”  “N is for Nana and O is Owen’s special letter.” “R is for Robot. Let’s pretend we are robots.”

3.  Talk to your children.  Have conversations.  Pay attention to their interests. Expand on what they are saying.  Language development and vocabulary building can be done in the context of real conversations. I am always saddened when I see a parent pick up his/her child at preschool with a phone attached to the ear or texting someone as they gather the child’s coat and drawings.  Listen to your children.  Retell favorite stories together. Make up and act out stories together.

To the preschool teachers of 4-5 year olds or kindergarten teachers of children who are struggling with learning letters/sounds, I’d recommend these readings:

  1. In Catching Readers Before They Fall, we talk about kindergarteners that are struggling with learning to identify their letters. Read page 115-121 to see how we help kids learn about the “features of print.” Some kids need to learn to notice the shapes of the letters BEFORE you ever start giving each letter a name.
  2. Remember that learning left-to-right orientation and voice-print matching is just as important an early skill as learning letters and sounds. Hopefully preschool and kinder teachers are doing lots of Shared Reading with Big Books and Poems on charts.  Also in One Child at a Time on pages 107-114, you can read about making little books with the kids. Appendix B in One Child and Appendix 9 in Catching Readers give some samples.  This is definitely one way to make the learning fun.
  3. Making a personal ABC book for the child who is having trouble learning his letters is crucial.  Only put in the letters that the child knows with a picture of his “hook” for that letter (the picture can be a sticker or a simple drawing).  His personal “hook” may be different from the ABC chart you use in your classroom.  That’s OK.  If the child is wild about robots and dinosaurs, then those are better hooks for him than a “ring” or a “door”.  If he knows his brother’s name is Josh then that can be his hook for J.  Leave spaces for the letters he doesn’t have a hook for or can’t ID that letter. When you read his personal ABC book with him, you will just say those letters on those pages (even though there is nothing there), and he will point and read the ones he knows. You only add the letter and the hook as he learns it.  In Catching Readers, Chapter 11, we answer a question for parents about “what if my child has trouble learning his letters?”  Look for that on pages 202-204.
  4. Use SMALL GROUPS for those 3-5 kids who aren’t strong in letter ID and sounds.  Do small group Shared Reading and small group Interactive Writing.  These are the kids who will normally NOT be fully attending when you are doing Interactive Writing/Shared Reading with the whole group.  You need ACTIVE ENGAGEMENT from them — and the only way to be sure you are getting that is if they are right there with you; maybe even 2-3 at a time.
  5. Games sometimes help.  I used to make “hopping boards” on poster boards.  I would just draw a hopping board and put stickers on it.  One with all dinosaur stickers would be called the Dino Game.  Then I’d make another one with “Hello Kitty” or some other popular cartoon character on it.  The kids would think they were different games, and yet I used them for letter practice (or sight word practice with older kids.)  I was always amazed that kids would choose these homemade board games over packaged games. Anything to take away the idea of skill-and-drill and to make it fun. But remember, games cannot replace the time for real reading or writing. These would be things they would chose in their free play time.

“Games in general have little value, but designed specifically for a particular child and used for a brief period of time they may help to increase the items that a child remembers.”  Literacy Lessons 2, Clay, p. 176

6.   Give kids time to write every day.  These may only be drawings or scribbles, but that’s OK.  Read one of the books by Matt Glover or Katie Wood Ray on writing with preschoolers (see pictures below) or discover the wonderful work that Giacobbe and Horn have done in kinder classrooms.

7.   Reread favorite stories and act them out.  Provide props or stick puppets to retell stories.

Hope some of these ideas help.  Any comments or other thoughts are welcome.


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