Monday, December 22, 2014

Using a Data Wall to Increase Accountability and Track Student Progress

One of my goals for this year was to increase students' investment in their own learning by tracking their progress.  Each of my student groups have a Friday meeting where they enter in how many sight words they mastered that week, their accuracy, their fluency, and whether or not they met their suggested minutes for Lexia (our online reading program) on a google form.  They enjoy this and take an interest in it, but I wanted a concrete visual in the classroom that they could refer to.  My data wall is by no means streamlined, but it's served its purpose.  The main points represented are Dolch words level, accuracy, fluency, nonsense word fluency (NWF), and Lexia level.  Because my students are all at different levels and in different grades, each bar starts at a different point.  For example, one student's accuracy bar might begin at 88%, because he started at 86%.  Another's might start at 60% because he was working at 55% before.  The same goes for Dolch words... for students that already mastered their pre-primer and primer words, they started at the first grade level.  By doing this, the emphasis has been on student growth rather than competition between the students.  You can see how students' charts vary by looking at the two images below. These students are in the same grade, but their starting points were very different.

It's also been really helpful for me as a teacher to be able to glance at the student charts and notice where students aren't making growth.  It also makes goal-setting conversations much more natural.  I can say to a student, "...your accuracy has really gone up, but your fluency has stayed about the same... do you think that could be because you haven't mastered your first grade level sight words yet? If you know your sight words really well, you'll be able to read more quickly because you won't have to stop and think about every word." 

Last year, my students HATED doing DIBELS, which is the accuracy/fluency tracking program we use.  This year, my students are always asking to do it.  Before they start, I show them on my iPad what their accuracy and fluency was for the last week. If they beat their previous high score for either accuracy or fluency, they get to take a highlighter and fill in the appropriate bar on their charts.  Then I fill out a certificate for them, and, I'm embarrassed to admit, they pick out a prize. 

I would love to make our data wall a little nicer looking and more streamlined, but for the time being it's working just fine!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Special Ed Teacher Shopping List

This post contains affiliate links.

I had the opportunity to present to some first year Special Education teachers on the basics of teaching reading in a resource room earlier this week.  It was great to get to share some of what I've learned with people who will be able to use it! One question I've been getting is where I purchased my classroom supplies.  This is by no means a comprehensive list, but in looking around my classroom, here's what I've found to be most crucial and where I've gotten it:

Velcro Dots Once you use these, you won't believe you ever spent hours cutting apart the sticky velcro strips.
Tabletop Pocket Chart Love these for small group time!
Snap-Together File Boxes
Small Book Bins
Bingo Daubers
Card Stock
Mr. Sketch Markers My favorite for anchor charts!
Home Laminator Just bite the bullet and get one. The school one will inevitably break and you will be sad.
Mini Easel Poster Display Perfect for posters printed on standard copy paper!
Classroom Rug See more of my favorite classroom rugs under $75 here.

You can also see some of my teacher & classroom faves from Amazon all in one place here.

Supply Storage Containers
Target has some great teacher supplies that pop up in the Dollar Spot and Back to School section in late July. Here are some of my must-haves that you can find year-round:

Index Card File Box I use these for storing students' complete sight words.
Prizes Check the party section and the dollar spot for inexpensive prizes.
Dry Erase Markers I like the ones that come with erasers on the back- perfect for keeping students from squabbling over erasers.
Stickers They always have some in the party section, but check the Dollar Spot for seasonal ones!
Decorative Garlands

School Specialty
Wedge Seat Great for students that need to a wiggle a little bit.
Yuk-E-Balls My students' favorite thing in my classroom!

Kaplan Co.

Gel Boards I use these as a word work option during centers.

If you're looking for ideas on getting your special ed classroom set up, check out my resource room tour here

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Using Colorful Duct Tape to Bind Printed Books

Aesthetics affect me, and I think they affect my students too.  I find a sloppy, crowded classroom really disheartening.  I know that it's not exactly direct evidence of how much learning is going on, but I still think students deserve to learn in a bright, cheerful environment.  I'm always trying to spruce things up or add elements that I think my students will enjoy.  At my school, we use a lot of printed books to differentiate learning.  In general, this is great! Students are all reading from different texts at their own levels rather than reading from one standard text that could be far above or below their own levels.  That being said, I hate seeing flimsy black and white, stapled together books everywhere.  I've started printing some books I know I'll use over and over in color and then laminating the front covers for durability.  That helped a lot, but they still looked a bit sad with their exposed staples.  I copied this pin and bought some patterned duct tape to use to bind the edges.  No more sharp exposed staples and they look a lot nicer too!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Recommended Listening: Is This Working?

I first heard episode 538 of This American Life: Is This Working? in the car last Friday night. I started halfway through, and my google maps directions kept cutting the audio off, but I could tell that the episode was talking about one of the subjects I'm most passionate about: discipline in schools. I listened to the whole thing on a run a couple days later, and I highly recommend it.

It compares a "zero excuses" charter school with harsh punishments to a community school with a restorative justice policy.  Thankfully I don't work at one of the many zero excuses-style charter schools in Chicago, but many of my friends do. For more on my views on school discipline, see my post on Alfie Kohn's Beyond Discipline here

Stream Is This Working? here, or you can find it in iTunes by searching for the This American Life podcast.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Our Classroom

I love this circle map that my kindergartner and first grader created about our classroom.They're with me for an hour a day, and sometimes they exhibit behaviors that I know they never would in their general education classrooms, so I used this circle map as a kind of "re-set."  I wrote the words, but they dictated everything on the map.  My initial prompting questions were about behavior, but I LOVE that the first things they listed were all academic-- practicing our sounds, practicing my letters, reading books. "Don't be scared" really tugged at my heartstrings, as it came from my little guy that is frightened by everything-- the cacti on my desk, pictures of snakes or spiders in a book, and even flies! 

Have a fantastic Monday! 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Movement in the Classroom

A blog I follow on Facebook recently shared this article: The right- and surprisingly wrong- way to get kids to sit still in class. It is a follow-up article to another piece the author wrote in which she explained the dire need for movement and exercise during the school day. This new article details all the "wrong" ways teachers are trying to incorporate movement into the classroom, such as short movement breaks, sitting on exercise balls, or working while standing instead of sitting.  She states that students really need to play, not just get a little bit of movement here and there.

Photo: AP Photo/Matt Rourke

I absolutely agree that students need to move more, and that doing so would improve many students' attention spans.  However, I think that integrating movement into the classroom rather than always separating it (as seemingly recommended by the author) is a fantastic idea! I actually think this builds healthy habits they can carry with them later in life. When they're college students cramming for an exam, they'll know they need to take periodic breaks to refocus because they've been doing "brain breaks" since they were in elementary school.  I personally LOVE brain breaks and am definitely guilty of using that terminology when I need a break from lesson planning! The author disparages such alternative seating such as exercise balls or seats with bicycle pedals, but again, I think this is a great idea! I always allow my students to stand if they prefer, and I've recently looked into getting pedals for their desks.

All that being said, I think it's critical that students be allowed a full recess, enrichment classes, and extracurriculars.  However, I think we should be encouraging movement in the classroom too, not just taking an all or nothing approach. What do you think? Do you build in movement throughout your classes?

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Sight Word High Five Hands

My kids LOVE giving these sight word hands a high five on their way out the door.  The ones on this side of the door are for my littlest students (kinders and firsties), but frankly it's not hurting my 2nd and 3rd graders to review them either.  On the other side I have slightly higher level words (still pre-primer and primer Dolch words though, alas) for my other boys. I love that my kinders insist on trying those words and high fiving them too! An added benefit of having these by the door is that they slow my very active boys down before they leave, giving me time to make sure they've tucked in their shirts, are calm, etc., before returning to their general education classes. And, of course, credit where credit is due- I got the idea via pinterest from this blog post. I originally just used paper and a paper clipped word as per my inspiration-- ha! It only took my little guys a few rounds to knock off the words and destroy all the fingers.  Now my hands are laminated and the words are firmly taped on. Let me know if you try this idea-- I wonder if older students would like it too!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Recommended Reading

The Vox article "Teach for America has faced criticism for years.  Now it's listening-- and changing." is one of the few pieces I've come across that portrays TFA as I know it.  It neither glorifies nor vilifies the organization.  Many of the potential pilots and changes discussed are ones I've been hoping for since I started the program, like more training and a longer teaching commitment. I'm excited to see these changes start taking effect!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Setting up a Sight Word Station

Last year I had a lot of success with sight words in boosting students from non-readers to beginning readers.  This might seem really basic, but I had third graders coming in who didn't even know all their pre-primer and primer words. Decoding words was a long and difficult process for them, so in the meantime we really hammered those sight words.  I love sight words because all of my students can experience a sense of accomplishment with them.  My process developed throughout the year, and changed even more as I researched over the summer.  My approach this year is a mix of what I did last year, aspects of Word Work from the Daily 5, and this blog post from Teaching Special Thinkers. 

This post contains affiliate links.

First, I assess every student on what Dolch words they already know.  For students who are really struggling, I stop assessing after the primer list-- we have enough to work on by that time! I write the first ten words they missed on index cards, color coded in Orton-Gillingham style (as per this blog post-- I'm not O-G trained, though I wish I was!), and put them on rings.  The rings go on the side of a bookshelf that holds our sight word building materials.  Sight Word Work is a choice for my students when they're not directly working with me (I follow a structure similar to Daily 5, but heavily modified to suit my students as well as teaching in a resource setting), and they can choose to practice their words in any way they want (well, within the choices offered). Here are their options:

Magnetic Letters: Students can make each card on their ring with magnetic letters on a magnetic easel.

Chalkboard: Students write their words with chalk on the child-sized chalkboard ($15 from IKEA!)

Gel Boards: I got these special gel boards through a Donors Choose project, and they're great when you can supervise, but kids can't seem to resist just drawing on them when left alone!

Dry Erase Boards: Students bring down the whole tub and choose a board and a marker to write with. 

Stamps: It took me a while to find a storage solution for these stamps! Kids would spend so much time sorting through the stamps looking for the right letters that they would only get a word or two done during a station rotation.  I bought this 24-section container and labeled the bottom of each section with the given letter.  This way just putting the stamps back helps increase letter recognition! For those of you keeping count, x and z were banished to their own plastic bag so kids wouldn't try to squeeze two stamps per section. 

Every time I work with a student one-on-one, I run through their cards.  When they get a word correct, I add a tally to the back of the card.  I add a dot if they get it incorrect.  When they get five tallies, the card will move off the ring to their learned word box.  Then I put on another word they missed during the initial assessment, always keeping the number of cards on the ring at 10.  Last year everyone just had 5 words per week (though still words specifically for that student) and after practicing all week, I quizzed them on Friday.  If they missed any, those words would roll over to the next week.  I like my new system better because a student has to get the word right 5 times before it gets taken off the ring, but he still gets validation every time he gets a tally mark.  

After students complete any of the sight word lists, they earn a Sight Word Star Brag Tag, which really motivates them to learn their words. You can read more about how I use brag tags in my resource room here.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Library Reveal

My masterpiece is complete(ish)! I am in love.  My library area is adjacent to my desk, and I get a little thrill every time I look over there (not sure what this says about the level of excitement in my life...).  So here's the rundown of how I created my library:

Books: I bought 750 used books from a friend from my teacher program who was switching grade levels.  I went through them a couple days a week after summer school and probably ended up getting rid of a third or more of them.  I threw out any that were torn beyond repair or outright racist (helloooo offensive portrayals of Native Americans), and then gave away ones that were too high for my kids or I knew they wouldn't like (Babysitter's Club). I was also able to get a ton of new, high quality books from First Book, an organization that provides books for free or at discounted rates to classrooms at Title 1 schools. These books are really the gems of my library.  And then of course I've bought some books piecemeal that I thought my kids just had to have.

Organization: I used Ladybug's Teacher Files' Ready 2 Number Library Labels. I LOVE these labels and they were so worth the $10.  I ended up having to heavily edit them because I grouped my books slightly differently.  However, they still give my library a cohesive look and I do love the images and colors. Here are my categories:
Nonfiction/Topics (Green Bins): Animals, Weather/Natural Disasters/Plants/Habitats, Science/Space, Numbers/Math/Language, History, Biography, African American History & Biographies, Advanced African American History & Biographies, Artist Biographies.
Nonfiction/Topics (Black Bins): Countries/Cultures, Transportation, Jobs, Sports, Dinosaurs, Holidays, Marine Life, Dual Language, Social Skills/Helping
Fiction (Green Bins): Realistic Fiction (2), Animal Stories (2), Favorite Characters, Fantasy, Scary/Funny, Historical Fiction, Fairy Tales/Folk Tales
Fiction (White Bins): Mystery (2), Sports Fiction, Goosebumps, Assorted Series, Berenstain Bears, Magic School Bus/Dr. Seuss, School Stories, Poetry, Reading A-Z Decodables

Materials/Decorations: The green bins are from IKEA and are something like $1.60 each. They're kind of awkwardly big for most shelves, but they don't look too bad if you have a whole shelf full of them.  The smaller black bins/boxes are from the Target Dollar Spot-- my favorite place after IKEA! The white bins/baskets came as a set from Amazon (Sterlite brand). The ladybug and colorful pillows are from IKEA.  The bench, beanbag, carpet, and blue pillows were hand-me-downs.  The colorful strand of diamonds came from the Target party section.  And I made that Hogwarts castle last year for a bulletin board when I was teaching Harry Potter!

This was such a satisfying project for me.  It was pretty labor intensive, but I'm so proud of it and I know it was a good investment in my students as readers. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

My Classroom Clocks

I'd seen this idea all over Pinterest, and I'd been on the lookout for foam or paper clocks ever sense.  And then behold, I found some last month at the Target Dollar Spot for, what else, a dollar each! I couldn't do every part of my students' schedules since I work with five different grades, but I got the basics.  It's actually useful for me too since last year I would sometimes forget to send my kids to lunch! 

If you want to make similar signage, I just typed these up in Word using the KG Skinny Latte font. Then I put them on bright backgrounds and ran them through the laminator. For the final step I had to teeter on top of a desk and try to use a staple gun with one hand while the other held the clock or sign! My classroom walls are glazed brick (tile?) for 5 or 6 feet from the floor, and then turn into this weird, burlap-ish material that NOTHING will stick to or into (I have tried: masking tape, packing tape, a regular bulletin board stapler, sticky tac, tacks, and sticky velcro).  Hence the staple gun. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

PD Week & Prepping My Classroom

We just wrapped up Professional Development week at my school and I'm getting so excited for the kids to arrive on Monday! We have a ton of new staff this year, so it was a fun week getting to know everyone.  My room is *almost* ready, but I'm definitely going back on Sunday to put on the finishing touches. 

Check out my library!!! I am a woman obsessed.  I seriously get a little thrill every time I look over there.  I used Ladybug's Teacher Files' Library Labels as a base and then went in and edited the blank ones to make labels specific to my library.  

I also made this little flashcard station on the side of a filing cabinet.  Nothing too fancy, but I like making good use of space.

After I saw this blog post I hunted down a similar toolbox and made my own labels using the editable file included in the post.  My supplies are always getting mixed up with the students' and then I never have any at my desk.  I'm hoping this will solve the problem! 

I've got a bunch of other little projects I worked on this week that I'll be posting about when they're finished! 

Friday, August 8, 2014


I spent the last three days at a "STEM Camp" organized by my charter school network.  I semi-reluctantly signed up for it in June, and I have to admit I was kind of dreading spending my last three days of vacation learning about technology.  Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly since I spend like 75% of my free time working on school stuff anyway, it was a blast! I got to meet a ton of teachers from our network that I didn't know and definitely felt like I had some "camp friends" by the end.  I also learned SO MUCH about integrating technology in the classroom.  The camp was structured so that we had a lot of time to explore and create our own projects.  I'm most excited about the "action research" I'll be conducting this school year.  As part of my vision for this year, I wanted students to develop and track their own goals.  Check out my project proposal below:

I made this video using an app called Explain Everything-- if you're familiar with Khan Academy, it lets you create videos similar to those.  I'll be talking more about that specific resource in another post.

(edit: sadly it appears that the original quality didn't hold up after being exported and then uploaded through blogger.  It's clearer if you keep it in the small view rather than making it full screen!)

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Classroom Inspiration

This classroom actually belongs to an art teacher, but isn't it BEAUTIFUL?  I love the flags and all the colors.  See more here.  

This photo is from Kinder-craze-- it's so cute! It's a little brighter than I'm thinking for my own room, but it's perfect for kindergarten.  

I am in complete AWE over Tunstall's Teaching Tidbits classroom.  So coordinated, so sleek, so organized! The color scheme is very close to what I'm using, except I'm not using as much black.  

You can see more of my classroom inspiration over on my Pinterest page (scroll to the bottom for all classroom-related boards!).  

Monday, July 14, 2014

Teaching The Phantom Tollbooth

After my foray into authentic texts with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, I decided that The Phantom Tollbooth was up next.  We did a month long unit on Black History in between that allowed us to delve into some biographies and other nonfiction, so I felt okay getting back on the fiction train.  I chose The Phantom Tollbooth because it's a fantasy with tons of interesting characters and places that I knew my students would appreciate.  But it also allows for teaching almost any literary element you can think of.  You can't read the book without discussing idioms, hyperbole, and just about every other kind of figurative language.  I will readily admit that this book was too challenging for my students, even as a read aloud.  If I did it again, I would do it with fifth or sixth graders rather than third graders.  That being said, I think they still got a lot out of it.  As we did for Harry Potter, each student had a binder devoted to the book.  For each chapter they had a packet that included five vocabulary words, a section for "before, during, after" questions, a section to answer who (characters), what (events), where, and why, a section for a prediction, and a section to retell and illustrate an event.  Occasionally I would combine chapters or skip the packet entirely if we were doing a different activity.  We kept character charts on sticky chart paper as we went that listed each characters' name, traits, and a picture.  These were invaluable, as there are SO many characters in this book, many of whom have hard-to-remember names, especially if you don't get the pun (Faintly Macabre, Officer Short Shrift, The Whether Man).  A look at the number of charts we had to make (above) reveals just how many.

A couple of activities we did throughout the book:
  • We created the word orchard from Dictionopolis (see below), and added our new vocabulary words from each chapter
  • We made dodecahedrons with 12 "faces" (which got brought out again during a geometry unit!) to better understand the character the Dodecahedron form Digitopolis (see above)
  • We colored the kind of sunrise we would conduct after Milo took over for Chroma the Great and made the sunrise all different crazy colors
  • We practiced visualizing by drawing the story that Faintly Macabre tells Milo when they're in jail, and then saw how someone else visualized it by watching that section of the movie (on YouTube for free here)
  • As a cumulative project, each student chose a place in The Phantom Tollbooth and wrote a persuasive paragraph on why you should visit there along with creating a travel brochure-style poster. 

After we finished the book the students watched the whole movie (which doubled as a prize for learning all of their Dolch sight words), which provided the great pleasure of hearing them debate the virtues of the book vs. the movie. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Using the Daily 5 During Summer School

I started reading The Daily 5 a few weeks before school ended, and really liked the ideas behind it.  The premise, described as a framework rather than a curriculum, is a daily structure of students choosing between five authentic reading activities, rotating between these choices in "rounds" with "focus lessons" in between. The choices are "Read to Self," "Read with Someone," "Listen to Reading," "Work on Writing," and "Word Work."  The emphasis is on students reading and writing rather than doing inauthentic busywork.  The rounds of independent work are designed to allow the teacher to work with students strategically in small groups. The authors (known as the 2 Sisters) purport that you will spend less time "managing" your class and more really engaging with your students, which of course sounds wonderful.

In retrospect, it was overly ambitious to try to implement the Daily 5 in a 3 1/2 week summer school course.  According to the authors, it takes several weeks to get the program up and running, so it likely would have gone better if I could have rolled it out more slowly.  We started with Read to Self, and a few days later started Work on Writing.  The next week, we started Word Work.  We never got to Listen to Reading or Read to Someone.  The authors recommend waiting until your students have 10 minutes of stamina during Read to Self (reading quietly the entire time, staying in one spot) before launching Read to Someone.  Our stamina only got to 8 minutes, so it seemed unwise to try Read to Someone.  As far as Listen to Reading goes, I just never got around to setting up the technology.  

  • Students built their reading stamina from 2 minutes (on the first day) to 8 minutes, including students with traits of ADHD
  • Students had the opportunity to read authentic books of their choosing
  • Students were able to write on topics of their choosing on a daily basis
  • Focus lessons were short, which was crucial to keeping my 5- and 6-year-old's engaged
  • We never got to the point where I could work with students in small groups during rounds
  • Because I wasn't able to work with small groups, students did not get truly differentiated/individualized reading instruction
  • While students appeared to be reading, I'm not entirely sure that all of them were

My Daily 5 Set Up
As a caveat, I wasn't in my own classroom this summer, so my set up was strictly functional.  I used IKEA magazine files ($1.49 for 5, alleluia!) for students' individual book boxes so they could just grab their box and start reading.  I used the CAFE menu (which is sort of part of Daily 5, but provides more content-- you can check out the book here) a little bit, but as you can see, we didn't get very far with our strategies! The giant 3 shows the three ways to read a book (read the pictures, read the words, retell the story), which my students frequently referred to. I kept our stamina chart directly on our Read to Self I-chart (a chart that shows student and teacher expectations for a given time), and the students were definitely eager to fill in our stamina for the day ("how many staminas did we get??").  I kept our word work options (dry erase boards, magnetic letters, letter cubes, phonics puzzles, letter stamps) underneath the book boxes. For work on writing, I found the students really could not get started right away unless they were at their desks, so for the sake of efficiency we all did it at once and at their normal seats.

If you decide to pursue using The Daily 5 in your classroom, there a TON of resources online.  A quick search on Pinterest or TeachersPayTeachers will give you a lot of ideas and free resources.  I found this post from Kinderworld particularly useful in planning my first days of instruction.  There are a million different themed Daily 5 printables (monsters, owls, you name it) available on TPT, many of them for free.  

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Resource Review:

During the school year I work with students for pretty short amounts of time (20-60 minutes), so I didn't really find breaks necessary beyond getting up to switch stations or getting a drink of water.  3-hour summer school with 18 kindergarteners and first graders proved an entirely different animal.  The website GoNoodle seriously saved my life.  It has 50+ free "brain breaks" that your students can dance or sing along to.  When you create a class on GoNoodle, you can choose a "champ" that will earn points as your students rack up brain break minutes.  When you reach a certain amount of minutes, your champ makes it to the next level.  Then you can send him to the "transmogrifier" where he transforms into a bigger, stronger champ.  My students went CRAZY every time their champ went to the transmogrifier.  They were blissfully unaware that their points were solely determined by the length of the brain breaks, and instead thought that their participation directly affected the points earned by the champ.  I did not disillusion them. 

As far as implementation goes, there are a couple of things you might want to consider.  If you don't want students lobbying you all day, you can work the brain breaks into the schedule so that they know when to expect them.  I don't make the brain breaks a reward, because when students aren't following behavior expectations might be the time they need it most! Taking away a brain break as a punishment is just going to make antsy students antsier and surly students surlier. Choosing the brain break also requires a procedure to avoid chaos.  Students will quickly develop favorites, and you will find yourself watching Despicable Me minions dancing to "Happy" three times a day if you aren't careful.  You can either make it clear that you will be the one choosing the brain break every day, or else you can rotate letting students choose.  Another thing to watch out for is brain breaks your boys may decide are "for girls." Anything with a pop song in the background or from the movie Frozen may qualify.  To avoid my boys covering their ears and moaning the whole time, I would select a "leader" to go to the front of the room and lead the dance or song.  Their eagerness to be chosen as the leader generally reduced the moaning/ear covering. 

How Teaching Harry Potter Transformed My Classroom

I started the 2013-2014 school year with very few concrete ideas about what I should be doing in my classroom.  I was lucky enough to have my own classroom for my students with "pull out" minutes (special education services administered in a separate classroom), but was also spending several blocks of time a day doing "push in" minutes (services administered within the general education classroom).  I had students from kindergarten to third grade, with a very wide range of needs and levels.  I found myself wildly trying different techniques with my third grade "pull out" students, who had very low reading levels, but were quite bright and perceptive kids (though I hadn't yet realized how much so!) 

I'm not sure what clicked, but around October, I decided to start reading Harry Potter to them and doing comprehension activities along with it.  My school has adopted the Common Core standards, and I was finding it impossible to follow the rigorous third grade standards with students at kindergarten and first grade reading levels.  So without a curriculum or really any idea how my students would react, I began reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.  I was genuinely excited to begin-- I was am one of those Harry Potter nerds who dressed up for the movie premieres and devoured each new book in one day.  They didn't show much interest in the first few chapters-- the books were a higher reading level than I realized, and it was sometimes hard for them to understand, even though I was reading the book aloud.  I started pre-reading the chapters and crossing out words or sections that didn't contribute to the plot.  I created graphic organizers for my students so they could keep track of the characters and Harry's different classes.  Their interest started to build once Harry got into the magical world.  I drew outlines of the different shops in Diagon Alley and as he visited each one we wrote what happened in each shop and colored them in.  By the time Harry got to Hogwarts, they were hooked. 

 I'll never forget the first time I saw one of my students ever show a real interest in reading.  Harry had just realized that Malfoy never intended to show up to the midnight duel he had challenged Harry to, and really just wanted to get Harry in trouble.  "Draco TRICKED him? That's BOGUS!" my student said admiringly.  I started getting reports that he was calling his general education classmates "muggles" (non-magic folk).  I was delighted when they started using their own vernacular to describe the characters.  Snape was "stingy" and Malfoy was a "crybaby."  When I needed to motivate my students to complete other work, all I had to do was mention that we couldn't start Harry Potter until they had finished.  

I started incorporating it into my other subjects.  Every word problem I did for the rest of the year was Harry Potter themed, from five groups of three snitches each, to Hermione getting six books from the library and returning two.  Working on phonics, I had a student observe that the name Snape has a long a and a "bossy e" (the silent e at the end of long vowel words).  Most importantly, we were really getting to dig into the literature standards, from describing characters to considering points of view.  Observers in my classroom (and as a first year teacher, I had a lot) were surprised at the high level of observations my students were making and questions they were answering, and so was I.  I'll admit that I didn't know they were capable of truly understanding and engaging with the text.  Teaching Harry Potter has made me passionate about using authentic texts in a classroom, particularly with students reading below grade level.  Students aren't going to be engaged in leveled readers or books designed around a certain phonics skill.  These books are useful to build specific skills, but not in encouraging a genuine love for reading.   

Before the school year begins I'll be doing a more practical post with tips and ideas on using Harry Potter in the classroom. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Recommended Listening: NPR Topics: Education Podcast

Before moving to Chicago, NPR was my primary source of news.  I had long drives to and from students' homes (I was an SAT tutor), and I would catch the news a few times a day.  When I moved to Chicago I left my (ahem, my parents') car behind, and have been roughing it on public transit for the last year.  Sadly, my NPR consumption dropped drastically as a result.  Fortunately, NPR has "Topics" podcasts available for subscription/download.  The education one features news stories about education from throughout the week and compiles them into a ~20 minute weekly podcast.

Subscribe or download here.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Education in the News: "Higher Calling"

Slate's recent article, "Higher Calling" by Amanda Ripley, lauds states that are raising the bar of entry to become a teacher. It cites countries such as Finland as evidence that making teaching a more respected profession will lead to better educational outcomes. I couldn't agree more. While it certainly isn't a magic bullet, making teaching programs more rigorous and setting the bar way, way higher to actually become a teacher would go a long way. It might seem ironic that I feel that way since I'm teaching through the program Teach for America, with its infamously short preparation program. But Teach for America has something in common with the universities of Finland mentioned in the article-- it accepts roughly the same percentage of applicants (education universities in Finland accept ~10% and TFA accepts ~6%).

Ripley writes, 

"Unlike the brawls we’ve been having over charter schools and testing, these changes go to the heart of our problem—an undertrained educator force that lacks the respect and skills it needs to do a very hard 21st-century job." 

I don't think the "brawls" over charter schools and testing are unimportant, but I do agree that a high quality teacher force is essential.  Politicians and people in general are always saying how hard teaching is and how much they respect teachers, which I always think is odd.  Becoming a teacher is easy-- there are practically no admission standards for most education programs, and most state teacher exams are laughably easy.  Being a GOOD teacher is exceptionally hard, but to assume all teachers are good teachers insults the profession.

Check out the article here.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Recommended Reading: Beyond Discipline by Alfie Kohn

I first encountered Alfie Kohn during an undergraduate class on urban education.  I read some of his writing before I had any real understanding of education, so all I recalled about him was his strong views about Teach for America (negative).  I was reintroduced to him, ironically enough, at a Teach for America professional development day.  We read a short excerpt of Beyond Discipline along with a few other articles concerning classroom management.  I immediately went home and ordered the book.  I think this book is absolutely essential reading for anyone who works with children.  Prior to reading this book, I understood rewards and punishments, incentives and disincentives, carrots and sticks... whatever you want to call them... as essential to "good" teaching.  When I encountered a classroom without them, it seemed to be due more to disorganization or teacher apathy than any concrete decision to avoid them.  Beyond Discipline completed changed my mind on that matter.  While what he proposes-- classrooms without coercion-- is far more difficult in practice than in theory, there are some "take-aways" I could implement right after reading the book.  

  • Hold classroom meetings.  Allow this time to be student-led.  I began with an agenda and prompted the students for their thoughts, but after a few weekly meetings, my students came to the meetings with their own suggestions and ideas.  More than anything else I had done, this made my classroom feel like a community.
  • Ask students how to solve a problem rather than telling them how. It is SO much easier to just tell students what to do than try to help them solve the problem themselves. But when we do this, we're setting them up to be dependent and to ultimately be followers. 
The book is so much more than that, but these were just a few things I was able to implement right away. I have been trying to stay away from rewards and punishments with my summer school class, and I will fully admit that it is SO difficult! I have 18 kinders and first graders, and they are so used to being coerced into behaving that they've actually told me to change a student's color to red-- we don't even have color cards in our classroom! Figuring out how to hold to my belief that extrinsic motivators are detrimental to students' development while still having some semblance of "order" in my classroom is one of the questions I'm seeking the answer to this summer. 

Buy the book here or put it on hold at a Chicago Public Library here.  
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