What Kind of Class Do We Want?

img_6072I love the way winter break is like pushing the reset button. I’ve enjoyed relaxed days with friends, family, books and the mountains. It’s been fabulous. It’s recharged my mind, my body and my soul. I’ve allowed myself to step away from my classroom (physically and mentally) and now I feel a renewed sense of excitement, energy and possibility as I get ready to return in a few days.

My kids and I have enjoyed 17 days off. While it’s been wonderful, I know that January 3rd is going to be like starting all over again in many ways. Seventeen days to a five and six year old is an eternity. But I love the idea of a second “first day” of sorts. It’s a chance to re-establish our community, to get to know one another again, to reteach those things that were falling apart in December and to revisit what kind of class we are. It’s like a blank slate that we can create together again.

One thing I always do that first week back is to ask my kids, “what kind of class do we want to be? What kind of community do we want to have? Who are we?” Those are big questions, but my kindergarteners never fail to think deeply, to reflect on what was working and what wasn’t, and to create a promise of sorts that guides us for the rest of the year.

We start this conversation in our morning meeting on the first day back. I take notes on chart paper as we talk and start to determine what really matters to us. We read new books and revisit old favorites that first week back and talk about what makes characters kind and likable, or unkind and unlikable, and how that might look in our classroom. Books like Grumpy Bird, Each Kindness, It’s Okay to Make Mistakes – and any Todd Parr book, Red, A Crayon’s Story, I Used to Be Afraid, Walter Was Worried, The OK Book, Elephants Cannot Dance, Ish, The Invisible Boy, Have You Filled a Bucket Today?  and Last Stop on Market Street – just to name a few of our favorites. The main idea here is to determine what would make our classroom a wonderful place to be – and how can we contribute to that.

We revisit the chart daily, adding and revising our thinking. After a week or so, we create our own chart – through interactive writing – that reflects who we are in this classroom. We always display it in a prominent place so that, as one of my kids said last year, “everyone who comes in here knows that this is how they have to be. You can’t be mean and come in our room.”

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Last year’s chart as a work in progress – adding things to it as we discuss.

This document serves as a class pledge or promise for the rest of the year. We read it and use it as a tool to solve problems, resolve issues and remind us of what kind of class we are. It’s a powerful tool to come back to when the inevitable problems arise.

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Last year’s  finished chart with photos!

How do you reset after a long winter break? Best wishes to everyone for a fantastic second “first day”!

Update: Here is our chart from last week (January 2017). We will be working on making our class chart next week. Stay tuned!

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Recreating Our Classroom Community – Part 2

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!

 

Recreating our Classroom Community in the New Year

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?

I love to watch you…

Day 5 Kid pix 006A few weeks ago an article circulated Twitter, Facebook and the daily news I read.  The title, 6 Words You Should Say Today, caught my eye and I read the article. It’s beautifully written and made me think immediately of the kindergarteners I teach. It was one of those articles that I kept coming back to, seeing so many connections with my daily teaching.

Our words are powerful. They create (or break down) our communities. They support (or discourage) our friends, the children we teach, our family and ourselves. Peter Johnston has written extensively about the power of language in our classrooms in Choice Words and Opening Minds and I have read and reread his books numerous times. They have shaped who I am as a teacher in many ways. I think a lot about the words I use in my daily teaching and am constantly reflecting on how I talk to my students.

After reading this article, I immediately started using the words they refer to. They are just perfect as we are creating our new community of learners in our classroom – as I am observing, kid watching and gently guiding us to becoming caring, kind, passionate learners who live and work together for 180 days. I’ve noticed such big smiles on my kiddos faces as I watch them busy at work and then say,

“I love to watch you do math.”

“I love to watch you make books.”

“I love to watch you play.”

“I love to watch you dance.”

“I love to watch you take care of each other.”

It’s so simple, yet so powerful. Six (plus) words that I am making sure I say all day long – because I do love to watch these young learners discovering what school, learning and life is all about. I want them to know how important they are. Important enough for me to slow down, observe, reflect and share with them how much I love what I do.

Morning Message

Morning Message on the SMARTboard

Morning Message on the SMARTboard

I recently sat down with my kindergarten team to look at our standards and do some big picture planning for the upcoming quarter. As we were unpacking the standards, we also talked about where in our day we could best teach the expected curriculum objectives. It became very evident to all of us how critical our morning message is, especially in the area of phonics and word work – but really in all curriculum areas. Morning message is a daily occurrence rich with learning possibilities.  It’s where the heart of my word work and phonics instruction occurs.

Morning message

Morning message

My children come together on our blue fuzzy rug in front of the SMARTboard with their own whiteboard and marker to begin this daily routine. The message is pre-written and carefully planned to address a variety of differentiated teaching objectives and to engage the children in playful learning. I often include pictures of the students and our classroom, book covers, things we are studying or wondering about, as well as predictable text that children can read. There are places for the students to fill in missing words and opportunities for them to interact with the message as we read and respond to questions within the message, circle or highlight words we know or things we notice, and fill in high frequency words to make our message make sense and sounds good.

We read it together first as a shared reading experience. Then we go back and fill in missing words and look for things we notice in the message. I ask the children “what do you notice?” and invite them up to the board to show us and explain what they see. The children follow along, writing on their own individual white boards while one child is writing on the SMARTboard. Children may notice familiar high frequency words, letters that are the same as in their names or a friend’s name, days of the week, numbers, punctuation that they have seen in another book, words they know, etc. I always ask them to share what they notice first, and then I move into my teaching point.

Interacting with the morning message

Interacting with the morning message

For many years I did this on chart paper but one great benefit of having a SMARTboard is that I can now print it out and send it home. I print a two-sided copy – one side is the message as it looks at the beginning of our learning before we have interacted with it, and the other side is printed after we have marked it up with our thinking. This message goes home daily and is a great way to share our learning with our families.

Here are some things to consider when teaching with a morning message:

  • Keep it simple and repetitive. My messages are typically 3-4 lines long. I keep the first two lines the same for most of the year and change the third or fourth line to go with a teaching focus. For example:

January 10, 2013

Dear friends,

Today is fabulous Friday.

It is the 70th day of school.

Do you think it will snow today?

Love,

Ms. Katie

  • Make your sentences obvious. I write one sentence on each line and alternate colors. This is similar to beginning texts that children are reading and helps children see the different sentences clearly. It provides another teaching opportunity to differentiate between a word and a sentence, as well as making it easier for children to read.
  • Always read the message together first and then read it again at the end of your lesson, especially if you have filled in missing words. You want to keep meaning at the forefront and give the children multiple opportunities to engage in shared reading of the text. I use a pointer to model one-to-one match and directionality.
  • Keep it short and fast paced. My morning message lessons typically last about 10 minutes. I choose 3 students each day to come up and interact with the message. Having individual whiteboards available allows all children to be engaged throughout the lesson.
Writing on the white boards while we do morning message

Writing on the white boards while we do morning message

Here are just a few teaching objectives that can be taught through morning message:

  • High frequency words – I use the morning message to introduce our new word wall words each week.
  • Word analogies – if “at” is in the message, you can make a list off to the side of words that you can write if you know how to write “at” (cat, sat, hat, fat, mat…)
  • Capital letter and lower case letter usage
  • Punctuation
  • The difference between a letter, word and sentence
  • Rhyming words
  • Blends, digraphs, clusters
  • Connections between children’s names and words in the message (“Can anyone find a word that begins the same way as David’s name?”)
  • Beginning and ending sounds
  • Vowels and consonants
  • Letter formation
  • New vocabulary for content areas
  • Surveys
  • Days of the week, months of the year
  • Friendly letter format
 A completed morning message

A completed morning message

There are so many possibilities for teaching with morning message. It’s a time that children love, it builds community and is rich with authentic literacy learning. Do you use a morning message in your classroom? What ideas do you have? Please share!

Take Them From Where They Are

The first week of kindergarten just ended. It was exhausting, magical and fabulous all at once. I love my new students already. I enjoyed reading lots of books like Pete the Cat, The Kissing Hand, Me…Jane, No, David!, David Goes to School, The Magic Hat and Let’s Count Goats – to name a few. We made books during Writer’s Workshop, started our Explore stations and practiced routines to make our class run smoothly. We played outside, we counted objects, we wrote on our morning message on the SMARTboard. And we got to know each other and begin to build our community. We learned names, favorite colors, things we liked and what we were excited and worried about. We bravely explored our school, ate lunch in the cafeteria and lasted until 3:20 every day – without a nap. It was a success.

One thing that stands out for me, as it does every year, is how different all of  my students are. Some of my kiddos can read already, others aren’t quite sure what a letter is. Some can write their names, others can make squiggly lines on the sign in sheet. Some can count to 100, others can put the counting collections in lines. Some can share the crayons, others want the blue crayon “right this minute” – never mind that it’s in someone’s hand. Some can help a friend find the blank writing books, others wander throughout the classroom and lay on the rug. I love it. How boring would it be if all the kids were the same?

But I have a challenge – again, just like every year. I have an important job to take each child from right where they are to as far as they can go this year. A one-size-fits-all approach simply won’t do. So how does this look when you have 20-30 children who are very, very different –  in many ways? Here are a few things I consider as I plan my instruction to make sure my kids are getting what they need.

1-A workshop approach with lots of small group instruction. I do a lot of instruction in small groups or one-on-one. It just doesn’t make sense to do a lot of things whole group when I may be boring one child to death while I’m talking way over the head of another child. Of course, some things are done whole group – our morning meeting, morning message, read alouds with rich discussions, focus lessons to begin our mathematician’s, reader’s and writer’s workshops – to name a few. Our whole group time is essential to building a community of learners as well. But I try to limit that whole group time and really get to the heart of my teaching in small groups. That way I can plan my lessons to make sure I’m teaching children within their Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) as much as possible. Is this more work and planning? Yep. But it’s my job and it’s what the kids need. It makes no sense to do something like “Letter of the Day” when several of your kids know the letter of the day just fine and several others don’t even know what a “letter” is yet. Either way, we are wasting children’s time and our children are only with us for 180 days – we need to make every minute count.

2-Teach children to be independent. So how can I meet with small groups and one-on-one? By teaching kids from Day 1 how to be independent. You need the tape? There it is. You need to use the bathroom? Make sure no one is in there and go. You need a drink? Get one. You need help finding a book? Ask a friend. I spend a lot of time the first weeks of school empowering children into believing that this is their classroom and they are “can-do” kids. I want them to be able to function without me. We model how to do things and declare “experts” as people to go to when you need your shoe tied or when you can’t find a book or when you need to know how to draw a guinea pig. This is part of creating our community together and it’s essential. But it also allows children to learn from each other and allows me to do a lot of uninterrupted teaching. I firmly believe in not doing anything for a child that they can do themselves. We want independent problem solvers, not robots that need to be told what to do constantly. I work hard at this from day one and throughout the year.

3. Model. Model. Role-play. Model. Repeat… The social curriculum is every bit as important as the academic curriculum. With community at the heart of our classroom, it’s a priority to teach children how to live, work and play together peacefully. I watch them like a hawk – celebrating when I see a friend help another friend and intervening immediately when I hear unkind words. We talk and act out  how to be friends and what we want our classroom to look like, sound like and feel like. There is a tremendous amount of teaching that goes on within the social curriculum. Having many opportunities available for play and free choice throughout the day gives me multiple opportunities to teach children how to get along in the world. This is every bit as important as teaching children how to read, write and do math.

Finally, I accept every child where they are. I do not spend a moment blaming their home life, their preschool teacher, their environment, etc…. There is no sense in blaming or wishing they were any different.  That just wastes time that I could be using to think about how I will teach them. All we can do is teach them. Right where they are. P. David Pearson says this beautifully:

 “…a teacher’s job is always to bridge from the known to the new.  Because there really is no other choice.  Kids are who they are.  They know what they know.  They bring what they bring.  Our job is not to wish that students knew more or knew differently.  Our job is to turn each student’s knowledge, along with the diversity of knowledge we will encounter in a classroom of learners, into a curricular strength rather than an instructional inconvenience.”

P.  David Pearson, 1997

So how do you differentiate your instruction – the academic and the social? 

We Teach Children

I just finished a week of preservice days – our children arrive on Tuesday. The week was a busy whirlwind of meetings, setting up the classroom, thinking through the first days and reconnecting with colleagues after summer vacation. As I left school on Friday I was reflecting on the week when I realized how inspired, energized and excited I am about the upcoming year. Our administration planned a wonderful week of meetings and activities that focused on creating community. We did not discuss test scores, school improvement plans or data. We spent time connecting with each other, exploring our strengths individually and as a team, and creating a shared vision for what the school year will bring and for the community we will all live in for at least 8 hours every day. There is plenty of time later to get into the scores, data and plans for the year – this week was all about creating that foundation that will allow us to work together as a team. It’s similar to that first week or so with our students. We have to spend time creating community, getting to know each other and making our classroom a safe space to learn. We need to go slow at first so that we can go faster later. I can’t express how much I appreciated my first week back being like that. And, yes, I do know how lucky I am. I wish everyone could experience a preservice week like that.

One of the things that I keep thinking about was something that was said during a math planning meeting. We have two new math specialists at our school so it was our first time meeting with them as a team. As we were discussing how we will go about planning instruction for our students, one of the math specialists said, “We teach children – not the standards, curriculum or tests. The children come first in our thinking and planning.” YES! This is so true. We DO teach children. We have to look at who they are as a learner, what they know, what they almost know, what they are struggling with and consider how they learn. Only after we have looked carefully at that can we consider the state standards, the textbook, the curriculum map or the information needed for the state tests. We have to put the children first.

So this year, when I am thinking, “what do I teach this week?” – my immediate answer will be “my children”. Only after I have thought about each of my learners will I look at the standards, curriculum, etc. and then decide the best way to make sure I am reaching the minds – and hearts – of the children entrusted to me every day.

Enjoy teaching children this year.