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

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.

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.


Hats Off To Arthur and Friends

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!

Digital Tools, Narrative Writing, and Listening: Reflections on NCTE

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!

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.