Sunday, September 21, 2014

The High Highs and the Low Lows

This week has been odd to say the least. I spent the weekend preparing for Dot Day and doing gobs of grad school work. When Monday rolled around I felt like I didn't really have a weekend, which is not how I want to go into a full week of teaching. As a perfect example of how this week has felt, I forgot to wear my glasses today. What? I have had my glasses since I was a junior in high school and I have never forgotten to wear them... until today. Odd. I experienced some high highs and some low lows this week, and I'll honestly be glad when this week is over and I can actually take a break.

We had an amazing day on Monday celebrating International Dot Day, and I'm certain it will be a day the kiddos remember about first grade. The highlight was doing a Google Hangout with a first grade classroom in Canada! This was the first GHO/Skype/Face Time experience for me as a teacher and for my kids as students, and it was awesome! I announced to the kiddos on Monday morning that we would be meeting up with a classroom from another country, but I didn't tell them which country. I held that over their heads for a few hours, and when I finally let them in on the secret the kiddos went through the roof. We spent the rest of the morning researching Canada and coming up with questions for our Canadian friends about life in their country. By the afternoon, we were more than ready for our first GHO; we had practiced our questions and statements and we had talked about expectations. The actual GHO was incredible. The kiddos learned so much about our friends and were excited to hear about our similarities and differences. Each kiddo had a chance to tell our friends how they were going to make their mark, which was the greatest part of the experience for me as it connected us to our friends. What an exciting day! Here are a few of the dots we made:

These dots are actually on their way to Canada for our friends!

Unfortunately, Tuesday and Wednesday paled in comparison. I found out yesterday that I have to pass up the opportunity to see Peter H. Reynolds in living person because of grad school, which was a major bummer. We did our normal thing and I'm hopeful the kiddos learned something. Nothing sparkled like Monday did, though, and I felt sad. It's like how a girl feels when her wedding is over and the honeymoon has been had and all that's left of those exciting days are a few souvenirs and a ton of thank you cards to write (and of course a lifetime to spend with the person she loves, but it can be easy to feel down about the special-ness disappearing).

I finally felt happy again today. I'm feeling more in control of conferencing during Daily 5. I met with seven kiddos today. We set measurable goals, we had some great conversations, and I felt the time was useful. I'm not going to say I'm completely there yet, but I'm getting closer. Also, in the spirit of doing things for the first time, I ate school lunch today. It was chili and cinnamon roll day, and I just couldn't resist. I'm so glad I did too. It was quite tasty!

The greatest of all of the moments of today was this:

After lunch today, we had a guest speaker scheduled to come in. She and I had our times mixed up though, and she ended up arriving 20 minutes later than anticipated. This extra time with my kiddos was a blessing in disguise. I have been wanting to start a "chapter book" as a read aloud for a while, so I took this time to start one up. I chose Dinosaurs Before Dark - the first book in the Magic Tree House series. After talking about how this read aloud would be different than others because I wouldn't have pictures to show on every page, we got started. It was 20 minutes of pure bliss. I have never truly experienced the feeling of having a whole classroom hanging on my every word until that moment. Not only were they listening, but they were understanding! Occasionally one of them would make a quiet prediction or exclamation as I read, and they excitedly answered every comprehension question I asked. That, my teacher friends, is a win in my book!

Who knows what tomorrow will bring? I'm just grateful it'll be Friday. This weekend, I'll try to get my spinning world back under control with the hope that next week will be more stable.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Growing a Passion for Reading

I'm fighting a inner battle between philosophical differences with reading instruction this year. Our district uses the Houghton Mifflin reading series starting in first grade. Coming from four years in preschool and kindergarten, this is the first year I've had to use a series like this. There are things I appreciate about having a scope and sequence created for me, but I also have many "issues" with the series.

To begin with, I don't agree with the idea of all students reading the same thing, especially at these beginning stages of reading. The range of reading abilities in my classroom is huge. My highs are not being challenged by the ease of the reading material, and my lows are trying to read something that is simply too hard for them. I feel uncomfortable knowing that I am not meeting the needs of my students during the times we are reading these stories.

Also, I worry that, in many ways, the "extra stuff" (phonemic awareness and phonics activities, writing activities, and (ugh....) worksheets) is not motivating and inspiring my students to become better readers and writers. I believe in accessing student interest; I also believe in creating authentic reasons to read and write. When my kiddos are able to write a story of at least 8 sentences about something that happened to them to share on their blog, it just seems silly to me to give them an worksheet on which they write a new ending to the story we read in one sentence. The whole one-size-fits-all mentality of the series is a concern with this "extra stuff" too. Most of my students could, using inventive spelling including long vowel sounds, write the word "sprayer," yet the phonemic awareness and phonics activities for the last three weeks have solely been focused on CVC words. Certainly I have a few (two maybe three students) who still benefit from this practice, but the majority of them need more of a challenge.

I'm doing my best to consider what I know about best practices in literacy instruction to supplement this reading series. We don't do all of the worksheets (to be completely honest, we typically only do about one a week), and I try to include some phonemic awareness and phonics activities for my higher-ability readers. My students are well established into Daily 5 now, and we're quickly adding to our CAFE menu. They know how important it is for them to read and to write in order to become better readers and writers, and the power of their own choice of what to read and write has proven to motivate my students to do so. I have been working with small groups on specific strategies, and my goal for this week is to beef up those strategy groups and to really start into conferencing. My conferencing notebook is ready to go, and I'm ready to fill it with notes and ideas.

My whole point in all of this is that I'm really feeling to disconnect between certain state and district expectations and what I know to be best practice this year. As I was writing my plans for next week, I kept telling myself that whatever I do I need to do it confidently. I have read the research on Daily 5/CAFE, and I believe it to be true. Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild echo this same research. Giving students the time to read and write is a powerful use of time. My job is to fill in around the edges; I'm the scaffolding. By staying true to what I believe, I know my students will improve.

Already, I'm seeing the impact of the message of Daily 5/CAFE on my students. On Friday, a parent joined us for lunch. During recess (inside because of rain) afterwards, I walked into the classroom to see this kiddo showing his mom the CAFE menu. He was reading the strategies to her and talking about what they all mean. Bless his little heart! He made my day! Another example of this impact happened a few weeks ago. I had taken the class down to the library to check out books for home. One of my kiddos had forgotten his books at home that day so he couldn't check out new ones. He was discussing this with me when he said, "Yup. I'm going to bring them back tomorrow so I can get new ones. That way I can get better at reading!" Score one for me! The cherry on top of everything though has been watching two specific students read to each other. They almost always choose to read together, and they are typically reading a Pidgeon book. One of these kiddos can be difficult to motivate, and our reading block, especially writing activities, can be a challenge for him. With that in mind, watching him read to his buddy is the neatest thing! He smiles and laughs, and he is completely focused on the book. He is experiencing the true joy of reading and it's amazing!

Sometimes it can be difficult to go against something that has been established for so many years. I often find myself in arguments with my mother-in-law about this exact thing. If it used to work, why not continue using it? My challenge is this: what if something works better than what used to work?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Whole New Set of Challenges

We've had eight full days of school now, and I can say that I was not wrong to fall in love with this group so early on. They're hard workers full of personality, and they have brilliant thoughts and ideas to share with the world. In my class, I have:

  • a handful of sports stars - Seriously, ask them anything about wrestling or football, and I think they'd be able to answer.
  • a superhero expert - This guy loves him some superheroes, and he will excitedly share his knowledge with you at the drop of a hat.
  • a Transformers expert - He has shared his "research" (his terminology, not mine) on Transformers, and he knows way more than I ever knew a person could know about them.
  • a handful of introverts - They're quiet, but I know they're learning right along with the more chatty kiddos. I can't wait to get more into their worlds this year.
  • a handful of kiddos who march to the beat of their own drums - They make me smile multiple times a day with their laughs and off-the-wall questions and comments. 
  • some amazing readers and writers - I can't believe what these young people are doing! It simply amazes me!
I'm completely blown away by how much more mature my students are than they were at the end of last year. They are "trained" in how our school operates, and they follow directions quickly. They just know so much more than they did last year. It's the greatest feeling in the world! I still find myself grinning as I walk down the hallway with my class, and my favorite answer to any question about how my year is going is, "It's fantastic!"

This year has been the polar opposite of last year, but with that difference comes a whole new set of challenges. Because I don't have to worry about the behavior and management issues I had last year, I have more time to think about my actual instruction. I'm constantly asking myself if I'm being everything I need to be for my students. As I've mentioned before, I read Teach Like A Pirate by Dave Burgess this summer. In the book, Dave talks about the importance of creating a classroom environment that students want to be a part of. As I walk around the room watching my kiddos fill out their handwriting worksheets and workbook pages, I know I am not living up to the potential Dave would say I have. That bothers me. 

I keep telling myself that I have time to become that teacher. Unfortunately, as in life, some things we have to do even though they aren't incredibly engaging. I'm working to be more okay with this idea; not everything can be filled with un-containable energy. (I wonder what that would look like anyway...) It's okay to be calm and focused on simply getting better from time to time. On the bright side, we have had a handful of successful, highely-engaging activities. We blogged last Friday, and we made these movies on Thursday. My kiddos latch onto the use of technology, and I can use that excitement in the future. They also love to laugh, so I've tried to be silly from time to time. I incorporate a number of brain breaks to keep our brains active and to be respectful of the fact that we're a room full of 6 year-olds and sometimes we just need a break. GoNoodle can wake my kiddos up in the matter of minutes.

I hope to continue adding little details here and there to evolve my classroom into the highly creative and engaging environment Dave describes in his book. In the meantime, I'm trying my hardest to be content with what I have done so far. After all, I am only one person with only a limited amount of time to spend creating. It's not going to happen overnight.