The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Posts tagged “Reading

Options We Can Live With

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has read this blog more than once that I absolutely love reading. I read everything I can get my hands on, including shampoo and conditioner bottles and toothpaste packages. I even make sure any movies or television shows I watch have the captions on so I can read those! (They also help since I am hard-of-hearing.)

When it comes to reading books, there are very few that I have read and put down because I didn’t like them at all. I admit that it happens, but I am usually willing to give a book a full read before making any conclusions about it. Sometimes I read a book and, overall, don’t particularly care for it, but find a brief snippet of wisdom that sticks with me.

That was the case with Teaching with Love and Logic by David Funk and Jim Fay. There was a lot about this book I didn’t agree with, but I was reflecting today on one part that really hit home: giving students choices when faced with a problem. (It is quite possible that this was also suggested in Setting Limits in the Classroom by Robert J. Mackenzie. I’d need to read it again to see.)

There are some teachers who give very artificial choices. Here’s an example: “You can choose to do your assignment or you can choose to go to the principal’s office.” The better option is to give choices you can all live with. I sometimes fall short of this, but I’d like to think that, more times than not, I do a pretty decent job.

One memorable occasion was when I was babysitting for some friends. My friends wanted their kids to clean their room. The kids wanted to watch a movie. I presented two options: You can clean your room now and then watch a movie, or you can play for ten minutes, then clean your room and then watch a movie. Either way, your room needs to be cleaned before you watch a movie.” The options were perfect because the children could either play then clean, or clean first. I didn’t care which they did, because I knew that a movie wouldn’t happen until the room was cleaned. The children tried to negotiate, but I held firm to the options and then an interesting thing happened: the boy decided to clean first, the girl decided to play for ten more minutes. But they eventually both cleaned together and then they both got to watch a movie.

No yelling, no cajoling, no negotiating, no threatening. Simply presenting options that we could both live with.

Today I continued my quest to try something different with my class. I presented them with options as we transitioned to new tasks and let them decide how to go about doing it. The first was for our afternoon recess. It was really hot out today and so I said, “I noticed as you came in from lunch recess that you were hot and many of you were sweating. You have two options for our afternoon recess: we can stay here and have an inside recess, or you can go outside to play. I really don’t care either way. You decide.” The students all looked at each other like they couldn’t believe their ears. Was I really going to let them decide? When it was clear I was, they took a vote. Enough wanted to go outside that that was what we did. And the ones who would have preferred staying inside still went out because they felt it was a fair way to decide.

Another presentation of options was after our math lesson. Math yesterday was a catastrophe. What should have been a 30-minute lesson turned into a 2-hour slog and barely any students learned anything. (I should have just stopped and tried something else, but I got caught in my mindset that we were going to finish the lesson one way or the other.) Today I reviewed the expectations for math, explained what we were going to do and how we were going to do it, and we got through the lesson with plenty of time for students to have independent practice on Zearn, Front Row, and/or Prodigy. At the end, I observed the two options before the class: option one, students argue and talk and disrupt and math takes two hours, using up our afternoon recess and writing workshop time; option two, students listen and participate and work together and have time for using Chromebooks, having a recess, and working on writing. Here’s the thing: while I don’t really prefer option one, I can live with it and adapt if that’s what my students really want. But I had a hunch they would all prefer option two, and they did.

Will every day be smooth and problem-free moving forward? No, of course not. We will still make mistakes, we will still get in ruts, we will still lose our focus. But I think our days can be better and I think my students know they can, too. As I said yesterday, it will take lots of time and lots of patience, but I am confident that it will be all the better in the end.

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Reducing Distractions

Classrooms have a lot of ambient noise in them. I once used a decibel meter on my iPad and found out that the average level of noise in my room was about 65 dB if everyone was present and trying very hard to be silent. Once we add movement and activity, the noise levels increase dramatically.

This can be especially challenging when I am trying to teach my students to engage in different tasks at the same time during Reading Workshop. Some students will be reading independently, some will be doing individual practice on Chromebooks, some will be working on writing, and others will be meeting with me. The size of these groups vary depending on the activities, but it almost always results in an increase in noise, even when we are trying to work as quietly as possible.

Today we added to the mix our Drama teacher who came in to work with the students on an arts infusion project involving narratives and plays. Even though she was only working with a relatively small number of students at a time, the ambient noise was enough that many were distracted and struggled with staying focused on their own tasks.

I realised this afternoon that what may help my students the most is a simple tool to reduce distractions: noise-cancelling ear muffs. I once had a massive classroom supply of these that I picked up at Harbor Freight nearly six years ago. In fact, I had 30 sets, because I had 28 students that year and I figured a few extra would not be a bad idea.

Over the intervening years, however, that collection has dwindled down to just one pair. Some of the original 30 were borrowed and never returned. Some were damaged, either accidentally or, sadly, intentionally, by students. One way or another, I have lost most of my collection. So now I am contemplating devoting a portion of my wonderful district-provided classroom budget to restocking. (I usually use this money to purchase new books for my classroom or to pay for subscriptions to educational websites to support learning.) While Harbor Freight still sells them, I can get them for much less through Dollar Tree where they are, of course, just $1 (although I have to buy them in cases of 12, that’s really not a major concern).

The question really isn’t, “Should I buy them?” though; it is simply, “How soon should I place an order and provide a simple tool for my students to work with fewer distractions?” I am thinking tomorrow is a good idea.


Introducing Rotations in Literacy

The first 20 days of literacy instruction in my building are set aside for helping students build stamina and establish regular routines. We also ideally begin our literacy assessments during this time so that, after the first 20 days, we can start working with small guided reading groups.

The purpose of spending the first 20 days on routines and strong work habits is so that the remaining 160 days or so of school can be spent on learning and growth. I need my students to be able to stay focused on their tasks so that I can focus on mine. If students are supposed to be reading independently while I am meeting with a small group, for example, I need to know that they will actually be reading independently. This allows me to focus my energy on working with my different groups.

To this end, I began introducing literacy rotations to our reading workshop time. I divided my students into three groups and assigned each group a specific location and task: the first group was on the carpet for independent reading; the second group was at their desks working on Front Row ELA tasks; the third group was assigned to read self-selected articles from Wonderopolis at the back of the room. Every 20 minutes we would pause and rotate so that each student had the opportunity to work at each station by the end of the literacy block.

The first 20 minutes went great! Everyone was focused and working on what they were supposed to be doing. The second 20 minutes were good, but not great: there were a few brief snippets of chatter and a few students who were getting up and walking around instead of staying focused on their tasks. The last 20 minutes were just okay: more chatter, more distractedness.

So we now have a plan for our stamina: 20 minutes, 20 minutes, and 20 minutes, with 5-minute breaks between each rotation to let students move and talk before getting back to work. (My goal is for the students to work through the block with fewer breaks, though; I am hoping I can have four rotations total, with one break at the halfway point. But we still have lots of time to build up to that.)

At the end of the literacy block, I shared a video from Flocabulary about finding the main idea of a text, which we watched twice. (I will likely use videos like this at the start of the literacy block in the future to tie in to the mini-lessons of the day, but today it was used in part to give the students time to get up and move around before we switched to the last part of our morning.)

All in all, it was a good start to using rotations in literacy. Tomorrow it will look a little bit different, but we will continue to work on building stamina and establishing routines day by day until the students can regularly and consistently maintain the focus they need to be successful in developing their literacy skills.


Building Stamina for Workshops

I mentioned yesterday that I have organised my classroom schedule around a workshop framework for the majority of our instructional time. What I didn’t mention is that it will take quite some time before we are actually there.

For the first 20 days of school, we focus almost entirely on developing good habits in the classroom so that we students can maintain the stamina needed to work independently during the biggest chunk of each workshop period.

In reading workshop, this especially focuses on building independent reading stamina. To this end, we are tracking how many consecutive minutes the students successfully read independently. Independent reading does not mean just reading on one’s own, though. It also means staying focused on the book or text being read, staying silent so as to not distract others, and staying in one spot the entire time.

Yesterday was the first day I recorded the students’ time. They were able to successfully read independently as an entire class (meaning all 23 students were engaged in independent reading) for 8 minutes and 35 seconds. When I timed the class today, they nearly doubled that time, with an even 16 minutes. We will continue to track the time until all of the students are able to successfully maintain their reading stamina for 25 minutes every day.

Once the students have the necessary stamina, we can start moving into the other components of a workshop, especially the mini-lessons and the guided small-group instruction during the work time.

But it all starts with building independent stamina.


Introducing Inquiry Workshop

Some of you may recall that I changed my approach to scheduling instructional blocks last year to create more workshop time for learning. I don’t think I really explained what, exactly, a learning workshop is. For those who aren’t familiar, a learning workshop is an approach to teaching that has a 10-15 minute mini-lesson followed by 30-40 minutes of independent work time and concluding with a 5 minute period for students to share what they have done with the class or small groups.

I have four major workshops set up for my students’ schedule: reading workshop, writing workshop, mathing workshop (yes, I know that mathing is not a real word; I use it anyway to emphasise that math is something that we do),and inquiry workshop (which, as much as I wanted to calling inquiring workshop, sounds better as inquiry).

Inquiry workshop is the time we have set aside for units of study in science and social studies. While I haven’t started any units for either content area yet, I introduced the concept of inquiry workshop this morning by having students complete a simple prompt: what do you wonder?

Each student then shared something he or she wondered. I let the students share anything at all. Some wonders that got shared included the following:

  • Why does Mr. Valencic wear ties every day?
  •  Why is LeBron James so popular?
  • Why didn’t it get very dark during the eclipse?
  • Why do people get sick?

After students shared their wonders, I introduced a website that is dedicated to answering questions like these: Wonderopolis. I showed the students how to find articles, the features each article includes (vocabulary, comprehension check, and text-t0-speech), and how to ask questions. Students may not find the answer to every research question they have on Wonderopolis, but they will certainly be using this site to explore questions they have about the world around them!


Book Review: Lost at School

I have done a lot of reading over the past three months. In fact, I am currently reading what I believe is my 20th book for the summer. I haven’t written blog posts for every book I’ve read, some because I’ve written about them before, but mostly because I tend to save my reviews for professional books and I have tried to read for more pure pleasure this summer than I have in the past.

That being said, I really do enjoy reading books related to my profession, especially when those books give me not just inspiration, but reliable strategies, techniques, or ideas that I can incorporate in the future. One of the books I recently read did just this. The sad part is that it is a book that I first placed my hands on in 2012 and has been languishing on my shelf and in my TBR pile for nearly five years. (more…)


Book Review: What Every Superintendent and Principal Needs to Know

My mother has served on the school board in the grade school district I attended as a child for many years. Far more years than anyone else on the board, actually. (She wasn’t on the board when I was a child, though. I think she first ran for, and was elected to, the board in 2000 or 2001.) In her many years on the school board, she has had the chance to attend the Joint Annual Conference of the Illinois Association of School Boards, the Illinois Association of School Administrators, and the Illinois Association of School Business Officials. (I have had the opportunity to attend with her as a guest for several years now and have blogged about my experiences.) This conference, often called either the Joint Annual Conference or the Triple-I Conference, is an amazing experience, with speakers and presenters and vendors who inspire and invigorate school leaders.

One of the years that my mom went to this conference without me. she got a copy of a book called What Every Superintendent and Principal Needs to Know by Jim Rosborg, Max McGee, and Jim Burgett. She didn’t read the book, but she gave it to me because she knew that school leadership was on my radar as a possible future option for me. (More on this at a later date.) I honestly don’t remember if she told me anything about the authors or not, but I think that Dr. Burgett was a keynote speaker at the conference and she was impressed by his message.

Jump ahead to a few months ago. I was listening to a podcast series on educational leadership and heard a two-part interview with Dr. Burgett, who mentioned writing this book. I found him to be a captivating speaker and was excited to read a book to which he was a major contributor. I could tell that he had had plenty of experience and developed a considerable amount of expertise in school leadership. I also vaguely remembered that I owned this book, so I dug it out and threw it onto my To Be Read pile at home.

This book isn’t bad; it just wasn’t great. I wasn’t excited to turn the page to see what other wit and wisdom and research and expertise the authors had to share. Much of it seemed commonplace; other points are outdated; others I vehemently disagree with (especially their take on standards needing to be entirely local). The advice was sound; I just don’t know if it was groundbreaking. Maybe it was when these gentlemen wrote this book. From the podcast interview, I got the impression that school leaders weren’t trained very well in the day-to-day operations of schools. So maybe I felt like this was commonplace because I have been blessed with great school leaders who model these practices.

There were some points in this book that struck a chord with me. One of them was a suggestion on how schools can be more active as community centers. As I read a chapter by Dr. Burgett, I had this idea: What if school districts partnered with local businesses to hold an annual job fair open to the public? The key would be that businesses would not have to pay to use space or tables; if they are interested, they are given space in the gym and potential applicants can meet with managers or HR personnel, fill out applications, even have on-site interviews. And, of course, there would be information booths about the district (including any adult education opportunities), transportation, housing, parks, service organisations, etc. I could see this as a way of promoting employment, connecting business and school leaders, and generally improving the quality of the community. And it would be all free of charge.

Another point that struck me was how Dr. Rosborg described the role of the school administrator:

“Your job success will be evaluated by such subjects as physical facilities and equipment; the effectiveness of teachers; the school’s curriculum; test scores; public relations; your effectiveness with the media, stakeholders, and politicians; collective bargaining; diversity; changing demographics; school safety; the perception of school discipline; and the monies available to fund programs. Add to this your need to have specific knowledge about transportation, special education, technology, buildings and grounds, food services, diversity issues, union organisations, health issues, and personnel…

“The good administrator helps teachers incorporate a significant range of strategies and a vast array of resources to help each individual child. The administrator helps develop a team spirit among the teachers. The goal is to create an attitude where the entire school exudes a zealous commitment to reach each and every child.”

I have struggled to come up with a good explanation of what it is I think my job as a school leader will be and why it is so important. Dr. Rosborg put it perfectly, though. Being a principal or a superintendent isn’t easy and it isn’t for the faint of heart, but that zealous commitment to reaching each and every child is what makes it all worth while!

Even though I wasn’t super impressed by this book, I am willing to give all three of these authors another chance, but I think I’ll seek out books written individually instead of collaboratively. I think all three authors have a great deal more to share that can influence others, including me, for good and I hope to tackle some of their other works in the future.

For now, though, I think it is time I take a break from the school leadership books and read something delightfully absurd. I’ll be back with another professional book soon enough, though!