Teaching with a Sense of Urgency

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Shared reading with a pointer

“When I suggest that we need to “teach with a sense of urgency” I’m not talking about teaching prompted by anxiety but rather about making every moment in the classroom count, about ensuring that our instruction engages students and moves them ahead, about using daily evaluation and reflection to make wise teaching decisions. Complacency will not get our students where they need to be. I am relaxed and happy when I am working with students, but I am also mindful of where I need to get them and how little time I have in which to do it. I teach every day with a sense of urgency.” – Regie Routman

These wise words have stuck with me since 2003, when I first read them in Regie’s wonderful book, Reading Essentials. This year they came back to me loud and clear. I have a group of fabulous students. They are kind, loving, thoughtful, fun, curious, passionate, inquisitive and they need A LOT in the area of school literacy and academics. Our beginning of the year assessments made it very clear to me that intentional teaching, with a sense of urgency, was essential for this year to be a success.

Urgency doesn’t mean that our classroom is a stressful, rigid place full of drill and skill activities. Do we have fun? YES! Do we play? Absolutely! (It’s how children learn!) Do I keep in mind that they are 5 and 6 years old and make sure that my practices are developmentally appropriate? Of course! Do I enjoy each day with my learners and do they enjoy being at school? For sure. Do I stay true to the belief that I teach children – not standards – every day? Indeed. Do I make sure my children have every opportunity to learn the necessary literacy skills to be successful? That’s my job.

Teaching with a sense of urgency is happy, relaxed, purposeful teaching. It’s making every moment count. And that makes an impact on student learning.

Here are a few structures I’ve put in place that are supporting my young learners and helping them make great progress in the area of literacy.

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The morning message on the SMARTboard.

-A stronger focus on letters, sounds and other “item-based” things in the context of meaningful literacy work. One example is our daily morning message. It’s a 10 minute, highly focused, literacy event that kids love. I highlight a letter and how to correctly form it, we find words that start with that letter and say the sound the letter makes, we find that letter in the message and we look for other letters and words we know. We talk about words vs. letters, capital vs. lowercase letters, spaces between words, what letters are first and last in a word, and punctuation – just to name a few things that come up during morning message. This is all done through a meaningful message – keeping in mind that meaning making comes first. This message goes home with the kids to share with their families. I print a copy before we do our work together and then another copy that shows the work we did – I copy it 2-sided and send it home. I plan my focus each day based on where my children are and what they need next in their learning.

Matching letters to ABC chart

Matching letters to the ABC chart

-Guided reading groups with all children 3-4 times each week. Our kindergarten team is reading and discussing Jan Richardson’s book, The Next Step in Guided Reading. We looked carefully at the pre A – emergent lesson plans and structured our lessons around her framework. When I meet with my pre-A emergent groups (currently, 14 of the 18 children in my class – students who know fewer than 40 upper and lower case letters and hear few, if any, sounds and are lacking in early concepts of print), we go through a fast-paced, engaging lesson that includes working with names, working with letters, letter formation, working with sounds, a shared reading lesson where each child has a copy of the book and an interactive writing lesson. I have a record of where each child is in their letter, sound and link acquisition and can teach directly to their needs within the small group lesson. I love that these groups have the necessary item-based components AND the meaningful reading and writing piece that is so important. I reflect and assess often, changing the groups and the activities within the groups to make sure that they are matching the needs of my learners.

Our letter tracing books - known letters are marked with small Post-it notes.

Our letter tracing books – known letters are marked with small Post-it notes.

-Daily letter tracing books with my instructional assistant. Jan Richardson talks about tracing alphabet books in her book. I made paper ABC books with upper and lowercase letters and a picture and started by tagging the letters in their name with a Post-it.  The students take their finger and trace the letters using the correct formation path, then say the link. (A a apple) As they learn the letters, we add new letters for them to learn – tagging those letters with Post-it notes. Each day, our students have a 3-5 minute session with an instructional assistant or a volunteer, tracing and saying the letter names and links that are tagged. Eventually, they will have all 26 pages tagged with Post-it notes and will be able to trace, say and identify the link for all the letters. We have seen remarkable results in letter identification through daily use of the letter tracing books.

Name puzzles

Name puzzles

These are just a few of the ways I’m teaching with urgency this year. This is all in addition to many read-alouds throughout the day, rich discussions and purposeful talk in the classroom, a daily writer’s workshop, shared reading, community writing, inquiry based projects, listening to and responding to interests and wonderings that the children have, and building a strong community of learners.

Name Books

Name puzzles

In my kindergarten class I have a wide range of learners – from the few who aren’t quite sure what a letter is to the few who are fluently reading Hattie and the Fox. I’m sure many of you can relate to this! I was reflecting on my work with the kids who had no known letters, or only a few, and wondering what our next steps were. I always start with the known, so names were my launching point. We did many name activities and these students were beginning to consistently know a few letters from their names. I wanted to create a book with them to keep in their book box and to help reinforce the teaching I was doing. These particular students were not quite ready to start an ABC book like the ones Pat and I refer to in Chapter 6 of Catching Readers. Since they had very limited letter knowledge, (2-5 known letters), I wanted to start with something more in their ZPD. So I decided to make them a “name book”.

“For almost every young learner, knowledge of one’s name unlocks a multitude of understandings. A name forms a link in helping a child learn about print.”

(Fullerton, 1997)

The cover of a name book.

I made the books with enough pages for each letter in the child’s name and one additional title page. I wrote the full name (first name only – for now) on the cover, making the capital letters red and the lowercase letters blue. Then I put a picture of the child on the cover as well. On the inside pages I wrote the letters of the child’s name – one per page – again with the capital in red and the lowercase in blue. I sat down with each child as I created this and the child chose links (pictures or words) to go with each letter. They either put a sticker on that page or drew a picture. These books can now be read with the children, read independently and kept in book boxes or read with a buddy. Currently, I only made name books for my children who are working on learning their names and the letters in their names. But I think all the children would enjoy having one of these books. It would make a great book basket for our reading area and would allow children to learn each other’s names.The first page of Sophia's name book.

Some other concepts that can be taught by using names and the name books:

*The connections between letters and sounds

*That letters can be written in two ways (upper and lower case, like David)

*The same sound can be represented by different letters (Jasmin, Gerald)

*Concept of word vs. letter (“Jose’s name is a word. How many letters are in this word? Let’s count them.”)

*Long and short words (“Jackeline’s name is a long word, Bo’s name is a short word.”)

*Words have parts (“Let’s clap Alexander’s name. Let’s clap Ann. How many parts?”)

Names are such a powerful tool for teaching in the early grades. How else are you using children’s names to teach?