Monday, August 30, 2010


Several years ago I worked as a Summer School Literacy Coach.  It was my job to train teachers who were going to be working with some of our most striving learners in reading best-practices and then be available to work with them side-by-side in their classrooms throughout the summer.  I was new to the district in which I was working and found myself surrounded by many veteran teachers. 

Most of the teachers I worked with that summer were quite willing to listen and implement some of the current reading strategies---even if they were coming from a “young teacher”.  They had to keep the kids for five hours, and only do reading, so they were hungry for activities that would sustain these youngsters.  There was one, however, who made it quite clear to me at the outset that she’d never taught any different for 30 plus years and really had no intention of doing so that summer either. 

Prior to starting summer school, we conducted a HUGE literacy center workshop complete with make and take opportunities so teachers had some “tricks” in their bags to help students practice and apply reading skills and strategies.  We focused on those centers that regenerate themselves and require little or no effort on the teacher’s part.  One of these centers was “Read the Room”, where students use unique pointers to wander about a print-rich classroom and practice reading the walls. 

Not too long into our summer adventure, many of the teachers with whom I worked were happily implementing the centers and strategies we discussed in our introductory in-service. 

Imagine my surprise when one day I arrived on campus and the “conscientious objector” excitedly pulled me into HER classroom to see her students practicing their literacy skills.  Feeling quite proud (and perhaps a bit cocky) that “I had broken through to this staunch critic” I excitedly entered the room.  What I saw next, couldn’t have snapped me back to reality any faster. 

The children, twenty 2nd graders, were lined up in rows.  They all had a basal textbook open on their desk.  Their hands were folded neatly on their books.  Their eyes were facing the chalkboard and the teacher perched on a stool at the front of the room.  Norman Rockwell would have loved this picture, I am sure, as it screamed “turn-of-the-century” American classroom.  The teacher excitedly tapped me on the shoulder and said, “See?”  I looked in the direction that she pointed and I still found myself questioning just what the commotion was all about. 

There, in the corner of her room, I saw one little girl, meekly walking with a large pointer in her hand, mumbling something barely audible to any of the rest of us.  The teacher smiled a HUGE “I-did-it” smile and said, “See, I’m doing what you said, we’re reading the room!” 

She was so proud that she’d “given in” to one of the strategies we’d suggested.  She’s right that ONE child was, I think, reading the room.  But she just didn’t get it!  One of the key points of the whole in-service was total class engagement.  I’m pretty sure she missed that part. 

It’s a picture I will never forget.  I wanted to tell her “NO!  You don’t get it!”  I wanted to take over the class and show her how to reach into the emptiness that was on almost every face at every desk.  But, you see, she “had a good class”.  They were sweet boys and girls who were willing to sit obediently while one child roamed the room trying to read the print.  They even obediently raised their hands when the girl was done and asked to be “next”.  She thought she “had them” and was doing the right thing. 

Let’s face it, “in her day”, that would have been considered a good teacher.  She had control.  Children were behaving.  No one was up and moving around.  Had a principal walked into that room 30 years ago, and even in some places today, he or she might have said, “Way to go, Mrs.  B!” 

I fear that too often we “miss it” though.  We miss those opportunities to engage our students…really engage them.  Instead, we settle for compliance.  And the more I ponder it; the more I really let my mind wrap around it, I am certain that deep learning that lasts is found when the learner is totally engaged.  It’s messy.  It’s social.  It requires kids to take risks.  It is not “top-down” but “side-by-side” learning and doing. 

It should be the goal of each educator to “go for that place” each and every day with each and every student.  I am reminded of the motto of our district at the time this incident took place:  “Every Child, Everyday, Whatever it Takes!”  What could be more clear than that?     

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Getting Started with Literacy Centers in K-2

Here is a synopsis of the first six weeks to set up Literacy Centers in the K-2 classroom.  This is excerpted and adapted from The Next Step in Guided Reading by Jan Richardson and More Primary Literacy Centers by Susan Nations and Mellissa Alonso. 

Week 1: Building Community and Collaboration

Have students work in small groups or teams at tables or a specified place on the floor doing activities they can manage with little direction from you.

• Plan a variety of engaging small group activities: puzzles, manipulatives, clay, coloring books, Legos, blocks, or simple art projects. Put each activity into a separate tub and give one to each group.
• Set the timer for 10 minutes.
• Observe the teams and see how they interact with each other. Try not to interact with them at this time.
• When the timer goes off, clean up and bring students together to a gathering place. Praise them for working together and solving problems.

Each day of week 1, redistribute the tubs so that teams can practice working together on a different activity.

Week 2: Begin Teaching Literacy Centers
• Begin teaching ONE Literacy Center this week. Consider starting with the Classroom Library so students really learn that it is the HUB of your center activities. Only teach one team per day. The others can work with tub activities from the previous week.
o Use some of the same activities from week 1: puzzles, manipulatives, clay, coloring books, Legos, blocks, or simple art projects. Put each activity into a separate tub and give one to all but one group.
o Set the timer for 10 minutes.
o Pull one team to the Literacy Center and demonstrate all aspects of it while you are there. Allow them to practice while you observe and coach.
• When you teach a new center: set a purpose for it, identify the materials that will be used, talk about what successful use should look like and what it should sound like, role play use, practice putting materials away.
• On each consecutive day, teach another group the Literacy Center until all groups have been taught how to use it.

Determine a signal for clean-up time like a song or a bell. Make sure to give them a five-minute warning.
Week 3: Expand Time and Teach Another Center
• Teach a new Literacy Center this week. Consider adding a Writing Center this week. Expand your time to 15 minutes daily.
o Use some of the same activities from weeks 1 & 2: puzzles, manipulatives, clay, interesting picture books, coloring books, Legos, blocks, or simple art projects.
o Set the timer for 15 minutes.
o Put one team at the familiar center (introduced in week 2).
o Pull another team to the NEW Literacy Center and demonstrate it. Allow them to practice while you observe and coach.

On each consecutive day, teach another group the NEW Literacy Center and allow another group to PRACTICE the familiar center while everyone else works with tubs.
Week 4: Teach a Center and Expand Time
• Teach another NEW Literacy Center this week. Consider adding Word Work this week. Directly teach one team per day. The others can work with tub activities or the TWO familiar centers.
o If you have five groups, allow two to do tubs and two to do familiar centers while you teach one group a NEW center.
o Set the timer for 20 minutes.
o Remember to make your centers open-ended so that students are never really “done” with them.
• Begin using a Center Management board this week. Show students how to find their name and where their group will be during this 20 minute session.
Week 5: Expand Time and Develop Independence
• Expand to 25-30 minutes. Continue to assess, adjust, and clarify expectations at the centers during this time. Add two NEW Literacy Centers this week. Consider adding Listening and Poetry (with Read the Room).
o Teach BOTH centers to ONE group per day (10 – 15 mins. per center)
o Set the timer for 25-30 minutes.
o Remember to make your centers open-ended so that students are never really “done” with them.

Begin using a Center Management board this week. Show students how to find their name and where their group will be during this 20 minute session.

Week 6: Introduce Guided Reading Groups
• Show the center management chart. Remind students that they know how to work in and complete each of their centers.
• Hold a class meeting explaining Guided Reading procedures:
• Remind students they should NOT interrupt a guided reading group.
• Designate a few “knowledgeable” students as your “center captains”. Give them a clothes pin or necklace to identify their role. Students may ask center captains questions while you are teaching.
• Pull ONE Guided Reading group daily.
• Make sure if a student comes to ask you a question, that you do not acknowledge them. Hold up your hand and continue to teach.
• Be sure students know WHEN it IS appropriate to interrupt: i.e., fire, blood, someone is sick, etc.

At the end of each session remember to gather together and discuss what went well and what needs work.
Gradually increase the time to a full 60 minutes allowing you to work with 2 – 3 groups daily.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Reading Workshop: Oral Language Development

For so long, reading experts and educators everywhere were fixated on the "Fab 5":  Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary, and Comprehension.  Now, it seems everyone is realizing that there is no way to condense reading into only five components.  In fact, in some places, they are now calling it the "Sensational Six".   The sixth component is absolutely critical to successful literacy development.  It is also quite simple to implement:  Oral Language

Letting students talk with one another regularly is the best way to develop oral language.  In fact, Reading Expert and Author Dr. Brenda Parkes once said in a workshop:  "Teachers need to know when to zip the lip.  You already know how to talk. Children develop syntax and an ear for the language when they practice talking.  How else do you think the kids will learn it?" 

Here are some thoughts on Oral Language Development in preK, K, and early 1st grade:

“The child’s everyday speech is linked to the fluency with which he will read.”  Marie Clay, Becoming Literate
(5-10 minutes daily) 
  • Use fun language activities found in your teaching resources or come up with your own.
  • Singing and talking support listening and speaking skills.  
  • Post a daily song/poem on your board, projector, a poster, or the white board and recite it together
  • Use oral language and conversations as part of your morning routine
  • Embed opportunities to increase oral language abilities and applications throughout the entire literacy block and the school day.
  • Conversation, collaboration, and learning through others are integral to learning. A child's oral language ability is the basis for beginning literacy instruction. They learn from you as well as the other students in your classroom.  

You might consider the approach used by teachers in Buffalo, NY  called "Let's Talk" 
 (LET'S TALK: A Different Approach to Oral Language Development. Woodward, C., Haskins, G., Schaefer, G., & Smolen, L. Young Children, 2004, 59(4), 92-95.):  

Implement "table talk" in the preschool and kindergarten classroom daily.
Identify children with low language skills, and pair them with classmates who have higher language skills for 10 - 15 minutes per day. 
Provide  boxes of carefully selected dramatic play toys and manipulatives.  Tie these manipulatives (or talk items) to other teaching and learning that will be taking place throughout the day.
Wander around the room during the "Let's Talk" time and stimulate conversation, if needed.
BE CONSISTENT---a short amount of time every day will result in dramatic increases in vocabulary, language use and understanding.

Several factors seem to contribute to the success of the Let's Talk approach to oral language development:
* Children work together in designated pairs at the tables, with little intervention from adults.
* Manipulatives used for the table talks are rotated weekly to initiate new conversations.
* Teachers model literature and vocabulary related to the manipulatives each week.
* Opportunities for sharing with others are provided routinely in the classroom.
* Extensions related to the manipulatives are integrated throughout the curriculum.

Oral Language development happens all day long in the busy classroom.  Look for ways to increase their talk with you and with one another.  The paybacks are worth it!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Thoughts on Community

Barbara Streisand sings, "People who need people are the luckiest people in the world."  There is no doubt that relationships are critical for most of us.  How does that translate to your job as an educator?  Do you think you need others to help you do your job?  

You may be able to come in and execute your lesson without much difficulty, but what happens in those times when a lesson doesn't go quite right?  Or when you are wondering just how to reach that child that seems unreachable?  Or when you are downright frustrated by the latest mandate or instructional focus?  

When you can talk to a colleague and process what is happening in your classroom and around the school community, you're often stronger.  Consider this quote:  
“Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.”
As you step foot into the new school year, how will you build positive collaborative relationships around you?  Look for the opportunities.  To change Streisand's song just a bit might just sum it up:

"Teachers who need teachers are the luckiest people in the world!"   

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Read Alouds for Fifth Grade

And to round out our elementary lists of Read's a Fifth Grade suggested list.  Picture books are GREAT teaching tools...never underestimate their power to teach, launch lessons,and develop a love of reading:

·       Sounder by William H. Armstrong
·       The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
·       The Indian In the Cupboard by Lynn Reid Bank
·       Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
·        Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson.
·        Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary
·       From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
·       The Borrowers by Mary Norton
·       The Black Stallion by Walter Farley
·       Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
Realistic Fiction  
·       Coco Grimes by Mary Stolz.
·       Dicey's Song by Cynthia Voight.
·       The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson.
·       Hello, My Name is Scrambled Eggs by Jamie Gilson.
·       More Stories Julian Tells by Ann Cameron.
·       The Skirt by Gary Soto.
·       Wanted: Mud Blossom by Betsy Byars.
·       Me, Mop and the Moondance Kid by Walter Dean Myers.
·       No Arm in Left Field by Matt Christopher.
·       Skinnybones by Barbara Park.
·       The Trading Game by Alfred Slote.

o       The Cay by Theodore Taylor..
o       Hatchet by Gary Paulson.
o       The House of Dies Drear by Virginia Hamilton
o       The Illyrian Adventure by Lloyd Alexander.
o       Julie by Jean Craighead George.
o       My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George.
o       The Scorpio Ghosts and the Black Hole Gang by Kathy Kennedy Tapp.
o       Snow Treasure by Marie McSwigan.
o       Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner.
o       Trouble River by Betsy Byars.

Books that Teach in the Content Areas
·       Sir Cumference and the First Round Table: A Math Adventure by Cindy Neuschwander
·       Math Curse by Jon Scieska
·       Science Verse by Jon Scieska
·       Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett 
·       Gorilla Doctors by Pamela S. Turner
·       Babe Didrikson Zaharias by Russell Freedman
·       A Hot Planet Needs Cool Kids by Julie Hall
·       Hurricane Force by Joseph Treaster
·       The Greedy Triangle by Marilyn Burns
·       Math Potatoes: Mind Stretching Brain Food by Greg Tang

Award Winners and Honor Books
·       The Cricket in Times Square  by George Selden
·       Airborne by Kenneth Opel
·       Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinnelli
·       Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky by Faith
·       Ringold
·       Cricket in Times Square by George Selden
·       A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle.
·       Mirette on the High Wire by Emily Arnold McCully
·       The Bicycle Man by Allen Say
·       The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordecai
·       Gerstein

·       The Boggart by Susan Cooper.
·       The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander.
·       The Borrowers by Mary Norton
·       The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper.
·       The Dark Stairs: A Herculeah Jones Mystery by Betsy Byars.
·       The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.
·       The Mennyms by Sylvia Waugh.
·       Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Justin.
·       The Sea Egg by L.M. Boston.
·       Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt.

Fantasy/Daydreams and Folk/Fairytales
·        The Boy Who Painted Dragons  by Demi  
·        The Fairy Tale Detectives by Michael Buckley
·        My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett
·        Half Magic by Edward Eager
·        In the Time of the Drums by Kim Siegelson & Brian
·       Pinkney
·       The Korean Cinderella by Ruth Heller

Picture Books and Books that Teach a Lesson
·        Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco
·       The Wall by Eve Bunting
·       Smoky Night by Eve Bunting
·       Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson
·       Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges
·       The Gardener by Sarah Stewart
·       Ma Dear’s Aprons by Patricia McKissack

Humor and Books About School
o       Aliens for Breakfast by Jonathon Etra.
o       Anastasia Krupnik by Lois Lowrey.
o       Bunnicula: A Rabbit Tale of Mystery by Deborah Howe and James Howe.
o       Chocolate Fever by Robert Kimmel Smith
o       The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald.
o       How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell
o       Kevin Corbett Eats Flies by P. Hermes
o       The Best School Year Ever by Barbara Robinson.
o       Class President by Johanna Hurwitz
o       Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.
o       Maniac McGee by Jerry Spinelli.
o       The Top 10 Ways to Ruin the First Day of 5th Grade by Kenneth Derby
o       No Talking by Andrew Clements
o       The Canning Season by Polly Horvath

History and Historical Fiction
·       Anthony Burns: The Defeat and Triumph of a Fugitive Slave by Virginia Hamilton.
·       Behind Rebel Lines: The Incredible Story of Emma Edmonds,
·       Civil War Spy by S. Reit.
·       Bound for Oregon by Jean Van Leeuwen.
·       Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Brink.
·       The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli.
·       A Family Apart (The Orphan Train series) by Joan Lowrey Nixon.
·       Johnny Tremain: A Novel For Young and Old by Esther Forbes.
·       Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
·       Mississippi Bridge by Mildred D. Taylor.
·       My Brother Sam is Dead by James L. Collier.
·       Sing Down the Moon by Scott O'Dell
Charley Skedaddle by Patricia Beatty