Chills and Thrills

26 Jul

Looking for that “just right” book to entice a middle or high school age reader? I have just the book for you… The Hill by Karen Bass, (Pajama Press) will reach out and grab the most reluctant reader.  With a fast-paced narrative, delivered through short, punchy chapters, readers will stay engaged in this thriller. Karen Bass does an excellent job capturing the voice, thoughts and fears of a teen-aged boy. Beginning with a plane crash into a wooded wilderness (reminiscent of The Hatchet), readers will dive through page after page to see what else is coming. Once our hero regains consciousness, similarities to The Hatchet quickly end. Karen Bass crafts an atmosphere that is at once both familiar and foreign. Can places be cursed? Can certain locations hold a door into an alternate, evil dimension? How does a scared, selfish, pampered city boy find the courage and skills to fight consummate evil? Pick up The Hill and find out!! Available August 15, 2016.


Have you Read This?

30 Mar

Looking for a few “fresh reads” for your students? I have two  great new picture books that I’m excited to  recommend!

The first is Allen Say’s Drawing from Memory. Drawing from Memory is an engaging, well-written autobiography told in a “graphic novel” type format. Say recounts his struggles toward becoming an accomplished and widely-recognized author and illustrator. Students will readily connect to Say’s young life as he dealt with World War ll and his parent’s subsequent divorce. Other issues addressed in the book include parental approval, finding a mentor, perseverance, and starting over. Children who are passionate about art, illustrations, and Japanese Manga will be particularly intrigued. Older students who struggle with reading will be supported with the  comic strip type format and pictures. Rich vocabulary and thoughtful writing will expand the reading abilities of all readers. Great teaching points abound from the  descriptive illustrations to the autobiographical genre.

Another great book that would be appropriate for all ages is Mind Your Manners, Alice Roosevelt! by Leslie Kimmelman. This entertaining biography offers a fantastic opportunity to teach the genre of biography as well as an inviting look into the family life of President Theodore Roosevelt. Sprinkled throughout with quotes from Theodore Roosevelt, children will be interested to learn more about the lives and families of our presidents. Most students will easily connect with the feisty, full- spirited Alice and her adventures.

Happy Reading!

Getting to Know You Write Now!

28 Mar

So, for the last few days I’ve been talking about ways to get to know your students’ individual strengths and weaknesses. In previous posts I talked about how to reach students on a personal level through individual student conferences in reading and writing. I also talked about how to gain a deeper understanding of students’ reading needs through a variety of formal and informal assessments.

Now, we’ll turn our attention to how to do this for writing. In the same way that you have to listen to students read in order to assess their reading strengths, you’ll have to see a student writing in order to assess their writing strengths. You can collect a random sample of student writing, ask a child to write toward a prompt,  or let a child write and choose their own topic. After taking a few minutes to look over the student writing, ask the student to tell you about it. Ask them to tell you what they think is the best part of the writing and what part they think they might be able to improve. Have them explain why they identify a section as the best or worst. Ask them to tell you about what steps they go through to compose a piece of writing. Ask them to tell you what is their favorite and least favorite modes of writing. As the student talks to you, jot down a few notes to help you remember what was discussed. After the student leaves, you’ll want to take a close look at the writing. As you look at the writing determine what the child is already doing well. What can you praise? Even if the writing seems very weak, you’ll want to find at least one thing you can point out to the child as a “praise point”. Most of us learn from our strengths and identifying (and helping a child identify) strengths is an important beginning in building confidence as a writer. Next, make a list of needs. Before zooming in on grammar and spelling look at the overall structure of the piece. Here a few questions to ask as you look at the writing:

  • Is the writing organized?
  • How is it organized?
  • Does the child have an awareness of audience?
  • Does the writing pull you in, making you want to read more?
  • Does the child use clear and vivid vocabulary words and descriptions?
  • Does the child use any “techniques” such as figurative language?
  • Does the child have an awareness of literary structures?
  • Does the piece have a good beginning or ending?
  • Does the child use transitions?
  • Does the child vary word choice?
  • Does the child use an active versus passive voice?
  • Can you hear the personality of the writer in the writing style?

After you’ve begun to make a few notes about the overall content of the piece, you’ll also want to look for understandings and misunderstandings in grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Once a child understands how mechanical errors impact meaning, they’ll be more motivated to correct them.

You’ll also want to think about the child’s individual interests (that you learned about from your reading assessments). If a child is very interested in horses, dinosaurs, or rockets, chances are good that those are topics the child will be more interested in writing about. You’ll need to determine a child’s efferent stance toward writing as well. Does the child hate writing? Why? What parts of writing are frustrating for the child? Is there an issue with the act of handwriting itself or is the problem in composition? Knowing what a child struggles with, will allow you to tailor your conferences, whole group and small group instruction to meet a child’s needs.

Just like plants need water to survive, writers need readers to survive. You will be amazed at how your students’ engagement and interest in writing will improve when they know they have an authentic audience reading their writing, ready to give them feedback. Good assessment is the heart of good teaching! If you’d like to learn more about assessment and/or conferencing in writing I would highly recommend Crafting Writers by Elizabeth Hale. Her writing style is focused, easy to follow and full of practical suggestions.

Getting to Know You Part 2

27 Mar

In yesterday’s post we discussed the value of individual student conferences. As you begin to consider how you’ll structure conferences, you’ll want to think carefully about how much you know about your students already. What do you already know about their strengths and weaknesses as readers and writers? What can you do immediately to gather more information?

Here are a few suggestions for gathering more information for reading (in later posts we’ll talk about how to do this for writing). First of all, the most important thing you’ll do to gather information on your students as readers is to listen to them read. Whether they are in kindergarten or 5th grade you’ll have to listen to them read to learn about them as a reader! As you listen, note what errors they make. Do they skip words? Do they substitute words? Do they insert words? See if you can detect a pattern in their errors. Do their errors look similar to the text? Do the errors sound right (syntactically)? Do the errors make sense? Is there a particular word element the child struggles with (for example r controlled vowels or inflectional endings). Is the child missing many sight words? Doing a miscue analysis where you mark the student’s errors will help you note what reading behaviors a child is showing and will help you to see overall error patterns. If you need practice taking a miscue analysis, Marie Clay in An Observation Survey will explain it in-depth. Pat Johnson in One Child at a Time also give in-depth, easy to follow information on miscue analysis.  As you listen, you’ll also want to notice if the child is monitoring their understanding as they read. Does the child re-read and/or self-correct? Do they try to sound out unfamiliar words? What fix-up strategies does a child use? How does the reading sound? Is the reading smooth or choppy? Does the child read in long phrases that make sense? Does the child attend to punctuation? Is the reading expressive? Does the child laugh or smile at humorous parts or frown at sad parts? Is the child able to retell the main idea? If this type of assessment is brand new to you, you might want to audio or video tape the child reading so you can go back and listen again and again.

Initially, don’t try to observe too much. Keep your focus fairly narrow. For example, in the beginning you might want to just note what substitutions, insertions or deletions a child makes. Later on you could listen to a child read again to note how fluent the child is. As you gain proficiency, you will be able to deepen your ability to assess. Don’t stress too much about whether or not your initial “diagnosis” of the child’s reading is precise. You are looking for overall behavior patterns and strengths and weaknesses. The more you assess, the more you’ll get to know each child and the more accurate your picture will become.

In addition to the miscue analysis and the questions that you’ll be asking as you listen to a child read, you’ll also want to note other reading behaviors. What kinds of books does the child choose to read independently? Does the child know how to choose “just right” books or does the child routinely choose books that are too hard or too easy? Does the child choose from a variety of genres or is there one genre or series that the child returns to again and again? What is the child’s stance toward reading? Do they like to read or are they reluctant? You could give the child an interest inventory to complete, or you could compile this information by informal observation. What is the child interested in? Does the child love to draw? Is the child obsessed with baseball, princesses, horses or dinosaurs? Knowing what the child loves will aid you in helping the child choose the right books.

As you compile a picture of the reading behaviors of each child, you’ll use all of this information in your conferences to support the student. You’ll know exactly what a child is already doing well (and use this to push them to the next strategy) as well where they are weak and require support to go a little further.

Getting to Know You

26 Mar

Looking for a way to move your students even further in their reading and writing abilities? Have you considered individual conferences? Now, before you throw your hands up in frustration, let me share a few benefits of conferencing. Taking the time to schedule one-on-one conferences will yield benefits far beyond the scope of the ordinary day-to-day routines. You will gain insights into the reading and writing strengths and weaknesses of each and every student. Moreover, you’ll be able to target instruction to address each student’s specific needs. Conferencing will allow you to get to know your students, build a deep and lasting rapport, and build confidence in your students. You’ll be able to give targeted feedback and then later monitor the students’ use of the feedback or strategies that were taught.

As you consider conferencing, the question that is probably uppermost in your mind is, “How on earth would I ever find the time to do this?” The answer to this question is that you don’t find the time, you make it. There are several ways to “make” time for conferencing. One of the first ways to make time is to consider shortening small group sessions by 3-4 minutes to allow time for one conference following each small group session. You might also make time throughout the day to schedule 1-2 conferences (perhaps when students first arrive and are doing morning work, or when they return from lunch and are reading independently, etc.). It is important to remember that a conference doesn’t have to be long to have major impact. In fact a shorter conference is probably more effective in that it doesn’t overwhelm a student and it forces us to be succinct and  focused. An effective conference can be as short as 3-4 minutes.

The next consideration is organization. You’ll want to have plans in place for which students you’ll meet with, when you’ll meet with them, and ideas on how you’ll record instructional notes and/or ideas. Keeping a binder with a calendar and a page for each student can ease organization. The Daily Cafe offers fantastic suggestions on organizing for conferencing as well as ideas on planning and instructional strategies.

Start out small. Schedule just one to two conferences per day initially. See how you can modify your schedule. Experiment with ideas on record keeping. The important thing is to start! Individual conferences can be done and you will be amazed at the difference they will make in both reading and writing  instruction.

Read Aloud Every Day

22 Mar

There is an instructional strategy that has all of the following benefits:

  • Increases student motivation to read
  • Increases positive feelings toward reading
  • Builds comprehension
  • Models comprehension strategies
  • Models fluency
  • Builds vocabulary
  • Builds content knowledge
  • Helps students make connections
  • Increases the cohesiveness and unity of the classroom
  • Helps students explore and discover the world
  • Helps students learn more about themselves
  • And more!!!!

ALL of the above benefits can be gained through the simple strategy of a daily read- aloud.  Although I believe that most primary grade teachers include a daily read-aloud, the pressures and curricular demands of the intermediate grades often cause intermediate grade teachers to leave off reading out loud to students. I would argue that it is too important and too beneficial to ever leave off.  There are so many ways to read aloud to students. When the classroom is a little tense,  relieve the tension with a few jokes from a joke book, comic book, or poetry book.  Between lessons work in a few book review “commercials”.  Share that interesting article you saw in the newspaper. Read aloud picture books. Yes! Picture books are always appropriate in the intermediate grades. Some of the subject matter is quite sophisticated and children love them. Read aloud a chapter book. Work in poetry that connects to content areas. Demonstrate to students how you try to vary the genres that you select by keeping a posted chart of all of the classroom read alouds. Learn more about how to deepen your read aloud time by consulting the experts. Jim Trelease in the New Read Aloud Handbook offers great suggestions for books to read aloud as well as important pointers. Mary Lee Hahn in her book, Reconsidering Read Aloud,  gives a wide- range of tips and ideas for getting more out of read aloud. The important thing is this, though, just do it every day!!

Let’s cooperate

20 Mar

Over the years ample research has confirmed that establishing a classroom environment that supports cooperative learning supports expanded learning. Cooperative learning is even mentioned in the Put Reading First Report released by the National Reading Panel as being a “proven strategy” in comprehension instruction. However, if you have ever  tried to just leap into the use of cooperative learning, you may have discovered a few snags along the way. One surefire way to reduce the number of snags you’ll encounter in teaching students how to work cooperatively is to initially lay a firm foundation in what it means to work cooperatively. In the research done by Bob Slavin he cites 5 standards for cooperative learning. By front loading instruction and spending time teaching what each of the standards look like, sound like, and even how they can make a classroom feel, teachers will reduce many potential problems.

Here are the standards:

1. Everyone participates. When you put students together into a group they need to understand that the work of the group isn’t just designated to the “eager beaver” or the “brain”.  The work of the group is everyone’s work.

2. Help and encourage each other. Students (particularly younger students) will need help coming up with verbal prompts to encourage each other. Teachers and students can co-create charts of helpful language, with questions such as, “What do you think? Do you agree? Is this what you were saying?, etc.” Students may also need help understanding how to respond to encouragement from each other and receive help.

3. Complete tasks. It is important for students to understand that the work of the group is not optional. Students need to know that the work of the group is important and that there is a system of accountability in place.

4.  Listen actively. Perhaps more than any of the other standards, this one will need ample time and review. Brainstorm with students what they would be doing if they were actively listening. What would they see in a classroom of students who were actively listening? What would they hear? How does it make us feel when someone actively listens to us (or when they don’t?). Engagement will improve if a classroom has a clear idea of what active listening is.

5. Share your ideas and tell why.  Setting a standard that establishes that everyone will talk and explain their thinking ensures that everyone will participate. Moreover, it  values the contribution of each and every group member. By requiring students to explain their thinking, they will have the opportunity to verbally clarify what they are thinking.

Teaching students the standards for cooperative learning will demonstrate the value that you place on cooperative learning and will smooth the way for continued learning.