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?


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.

Opening Minds: Summer Cyber PD

I’m excited to be reading Peter Johnston’s Opening Minds and joining the #cyberPD conversation hosted by Cathy Mere, Jill Fisch and Laura Komos. If this wonderful book is on your summer reading list, please join us! Check out Cathy’s blog for more information or follow the #cyberPD hashtag on Twitter. And if this book isn’t on your summer reading list…I strongly suggest adding it! Here are my reflections on Chapters 1-3.

When I read Choice Words (Peter Johnston’s first book) eight years ago, it changed who I am as a teacher. I remember reading it. Then reading it again. And again. It was a little book that was jam packed with “a-ha moments”. I felt as if I got something new from it every time I read it. (I still do, which I why I reread it every summer.) I started a teachers as readers group at my school to talk about the book and kept referring back to it. I wanted to internalize all of his wonderful words and wisdom. I was extremely lucky to be invited to a small group lunch with Peter Johnston at NCTE in 2005. I remember what he shared with the table – he told us to feel free to make “cheat sheets” – to write down the phrases, language and responses from the book that we wanted to internalize. He told us to use the cheat sheets until the language became a natural part of our teaching. I recently found those cheat sheets in a file and was amazed at how much of that language is just a part of who I am in the classroom. I really did internalize and now own a new way of thinking, talking and teaching. I am so excited about Peter’s new book and I am starting my new “cheat sheets” for next year after reading the first three chapters of Opening Minds.

At the top of my “cheat sheet” is the word, “yet“. What a powerful word it is!  Imagine what happens when a child says, “I’m not good at this.” vs. “I’m not good at this, yet.” I just love the sense of possibility that the word “yet” generates. It opens up so many opportunities, rather than shutting down the learning. Working with kindergarteners gives me a huge opportunity to help them create themselves as learners. Johnston talks about how “for us to have agency we have to believe that things are changeable, because if they can’t be changed, taking action is futile.” (p.27) I want my students to see themselves as “can-do kids” – kids who can make a difference in their learning, their lives and the world. Choice Words talked a lot about agency and Opening Minds layers bold new thinking on this idea.

Next on my list is, “thanks for teaching us that“. (p.32) I often ask my students “how did you do that?” or “how did you figure that out?” and then I ask them to explain and share with the class. But I love how ending that conversation with “thank you for teaching us that”, rather than with praise, empowers children and positions them as another teacher in the classroom.

My third word on my cheat sheet is one I want to eliminate, the word “smart“. After reading Choice Words, I immediately stopped using the term “good” – as in “good readers/writers/mathematicians” because by saying someone or some action/behavior was good, I felt that it was implying that someone or some actions must be bad. Johnston illustrates, and shares research on why  using the word smart, and telling children “you must be so smart”, really do the same thing. (p.9-10) It implies that you are either smart or dumb, which is a fixed characteristic that doesn’t leave a lot of room for learning, growth or facing challenges. I grew up thinking and saying (often) that I was dumb in math. Recently, I’ve changed that fixed theory and embraced learning and teaching math. Thanks to many great mentors, professional texts and workshops, I have come to see math as a fun challenge to teach and to continue learning more about. I even started my summer with a 2 day math workshop! I realized that my fixed idea about being dumb in math wasn’t serving me or my students. I don’t want my students to stay in a fixed mindset about anything in school, or beyond. Johnston says, “when children holding fixed theories encounter difficulties, mistakes become crippling.” (p.11) I want our classroom community to be one where people take risks, attempt challenges, make mistakes and learn from all of these things. I want them to see that “when you run into difficulty it just means things are becoming more interesting. Challenging activities present no threat, only the promise of learning something new.” (p.12). Imagine how exciting, interesting and fulfilling learning and teaching would be if that was our thinking!

I am looking forward to reading the rest of this book, probably multiple times, and reflecting on my language as a learner and a teacher. Please join in our discussion in the comments section here, on any of the host blogs mentioned at the beginning of the post, or on Twitter. Check back in the next two weeks for posts on the rest of the book.

If you are interested in reading Opening Minds or Choice Words, both books are available at Stenhouse for 20% off during their Blogstitute Event, along with free shipping. Just use the code BLOG when you order online. Peter Johnston is a featured author for the Blogstitute, so look for his posts on the Stenhouse blog site.



For many of my early years in teaching I spent a significant amount of time before school started designing the *perfect* behavior management system. I had the colored cards, boxes on desks with tokens, and one year an elaborate system that involved a fancy bulletin board and names on balloons that kids moved from level to level as I told them to “drop their balloon”.  And every year it was the same kids’ balloons/cards, etc. that were tattered and beat up from moving and turning them and the same kids who got to visit the treasure box or turn in tokens for rewards. Clearly, this extrinsic way of controlling behaviors was not working. Perhaps it created an illusion of an orderly classroom, (and oftentimes not) but there were always children who did not feel empowered and who were making decisions in order to “get something” or to avoid a punishment rather than to work towards a common peacefulness, community and mutual respect in our classroom.

Then, about 8 years into my teaching career,  I realized what really mattered in behavior management – and it wasn’t management at all. It was community. I really think that the heart of a successful classroom is a strong community. I don’t have a behavior plan, a behavior system, rewards, tokens, stickers, treasure boxes or anything else that, in my opinion, equates with controlling children. I don’t even have a class list of rules. Instead, I work very hard with my students from Day 1 right up to Day 180 to create a community of learners who respect, listen, care, are kind to each other and who can live together peacefully in a small space for 180 days.

So how do we do this?

We talk. A LOT. In class meetings, in role play situations, in short puppet skits that address behavior issues we need to think about as a class, and in one-on-one conferences with children who may need more guidance in becoming a part of a larger community – we work to build the relationships in our classroom. While I don’t make a list of class rules, we do create some charts together as needs arise. Charts that we construct together like, “What kind of classroom do we want to live in?” and “Words that Hurt / Words that Help” – help us keep track of our thinking as we have classroom discussions about issues that inevitably arise when many people share a small space together. I trust my kindergarteners to handle problems independently and often will say, “do you think you can handle this or do you need my help?” when a problem is brought to my attention. Most of the time, children want to be empowered to solve problems and will talk about it with their friend and come to a good solution that works for them. I want them to feel in control in our classroom and feel a shared sense of responsibility for how our classroom runs. When they do need my help we get out the puppets, do a role play, read a book that relates or have a class meeting. I turn it over to the kids with a “we have a problem in our community. How can WE solve it?”

Yes, this social curriculum takes time away from reading, writing, math, etc. But it is a critical piece of education – whether there is a standard for it or not. Children have to learn how to solve problems and how to work together in our world. They need to learn empathy, compassion, how to work through frustrations, how to build mutual respect with people they work with, and how to celebrate their successes. I want children to leave our classroom feeling empowered, with a strong sense of self-efficacy, equipped with tools to negotiate problems and issues they are going to encounter in the world. I want them to be thinkers, reasoners, questioners, problem solvers – who care a whole lot for themselves, the world and each other. Without this, it doesn’t matter what test scores, reading levels or report cards grades look like. We teach all the academic subjects, why not teach children how to create and sustain relationships, community, trust and respect. It will take them further than we can imagine.

Here are some excellent resources that I’ve read as I moved towards a child-centered, progressive classroom:

Choice Words by Peter Johnston

Learning to Trust by Marilyn Watson and Laura Ecken

On Their Side by Bob Strachota

Beyond Discipline by Alfie Kohn

Responsive Classroom materials

Community Writing

Last week we finished a community writing project that we’ve been working on for several weeks. After completing a unit of study on fairy tales, we decided to write our own version – calling it The Three Gingerbread Kids. I posted the story in a VoiceThread below so we could share it with others. There is also a slide show that shows the illustration process.

In Catching Readers, I talk about community writing in Chapter 5 as a key component to a comprehensive literacy framework. Sharing the pen with the students as we negotiate the text together provides many excellent teaching opportunities. My kinders are making books like crazy during writer’s workshop. They are trying a variety of genres and all of them are adding words to their books – from labels to detailed sentences. I wanted to use this community writing piece as a way to support all writers in taking even bigger risks in their writing. I wanted to have them create a continuous text, based on what they learned about fairy tales, and practice strategic reading and writing actions and skills while we composed and wrote the text together. Within the context of community writing, we not only learned about letters, sounds and how words work but also about decisions writers make, such as what to include, how to best structure a sentence and how to organize their thoughts into a coherent piece of writing with a clear beginning, middle and end. I am also seeing a huge transfer in their own writing. The books they are making in writer’s workshop have more words, more details and show a clearer story structure. Kids are taking more risks as they attempt to write the words they need to create their books.

I also wanted to focus on the writer’s statement, “Writers make sure the pictures match the words.” We looked closely at our read aloud favorites and noticed that indeed, all writers make sure the pictures match the words. We took this into our illustration days, thoughtfully planning how our illustrations could not only match the words, but build upon the story, just like Mo Willems, Jan Thomas and other favorite mentor author/illustrators do. We chose to illustrate the book using a method I learned about from Ann Marie Corgill in Of Primary Importance (an excellent resource for writing). We used Sharpie permanent markers to outline our drawings. Then we filled in the colors with crayons. The bold outlines really make the illustrations pop.

Community writing is one of my favorite teaching contexts. It’s just so rich, meaningful, engaging and differentiated. It does build community and allows all children to shine. Rereading the book every day before we added a page had this book soon become a known favorite. We have it displayed in our hallway to revisit during reader’s workshop and to share with our school. Enjoy our story!

Illustrating “The Three Gingerbread Kids” on PhotoPeach

Vodpod videos no longer available.


Vodpod videos no longer available.

We All Have Stories to Tell

I recently read an excellent blog post from Cathy Mere in which she said,  “In a teaching world filled with data, I think the best thing about the first days of school is getting to know kids not by numbers, but by living beside them.” How true and wise these words are. They have echoed in my mind since I read the post. Living beside our students, establishing trust and relationships and getting to know who they really are as people is the foundation of a good year.

The first three days in my new kindergarten class have been full of getting to know my students and beginning to establish a strong community for us to live and learn in all year. For many of my kids, this is their first experience of school. It’s so important for me to make our learning community one where we know each other well, and care about each other. One of the routines I established on day one was an oral storytelling time. It quickly became my favorite time of the day. It’s all about getting to know each other and sharing ourselves in this new community together.

I started our first storytelling time by reading No, David! and sharing the author’s notes by David Shannon on why he wrote that book. Then I said, “you know – everyone has stories to tell, just like David Shannon did. I have stories and I’ll bet you have stories too!” Then I shared a story about my dog Cayo and how she barks at the mailman every day. The kids were spellbound, listening to me weave a story out of an everyday occurrence. I then asked if any of them had a story to tell. All hands went up. These kindergarteners, many of them English language learners, on the first day of school, sat still and were engaged for over 20 minutes while story after story was told by their classmates. It was magical. I realized then that this was a necessary part of every day. We were getting to know each other by sharing what was important to us and by sharing the stories of our lives. What a great way to connect with each other, realize similarities and begin to build a strong community.

As my year continues, I plan to keep our storytelling time as an important part of our day. While I will eventually get to know my kids by numbers, I want to keep living beside them every day, listening to the stories they tell and getting to know them as people.