Thursday, November 10, 2011

All conferences are not created equal...

Yesterday I explained a little bit about the Student Led Conferences that my middle school has been doing for 14 years now. In that post, I mentioned that I would not be attending my own 6th grader's conference. Instead I emailed her teachers to make sure all was well. I know them all; my first daughter had them when she went through 6th grade. And my 6th grader is still an open book when it comes to letting her mama know what is going on at school.

I did decide, however, that I should attend conferences for my 9th grader. She's in a new building, I don't know many of the teachers (even though it is the high school I attended), and I am not sure I can count on her to tell me if there are any problems...that whole issue of growing up and not talking much to your parents anymore and all. Her conferences started today at 3:30. I had to be back at my building by 5:00 and I have about a 20 minute drive between the two.

I do not intend to offend anyone with the rest of this post. I know that the description that follows is just the way things have always been done. But I honestly believe that if schools want to get parents more involved, they need to seriously look at their conference procedures. When I arrived at the school, I picked up G's report card and went into the cafeteria. Where all the teachers were stationed. All of them. I had to find her teachers (I knew this would be a chore; that's why I made her come too.)

Once I located all G's teachers, I proceeded to wait in lines. I was in that cafeteria for almost an hour. The amount of time that I spoke with teachers: 5 minutes. Maybe. I will not attend parent teacher conferences again. The waiting was not the only thing that wasted my time. Even the 5 minutes of talk was wasted time. Why? Because all the teachers did was tell me her grade (which I could see on the report card) and give me a print-out that detailed how they arrived at their grades. Even the assignment names didn't give me any hints about what she learned.

I don't care much for grades, but if a teacher is going to give one, they ought to be able to tell me what the grade means. In one class, G received an A-. In going over the detailed report, this teacher told me, "Well it's pretty close to an A. There really isn't much she could do better." Then why the A-? is that I wanted to ask. But my real burning questions were: What is she learning? How are you assessing her learning? How are you teaching her to assess herself ? How are you making sure she maintains her curiosity and her desire for learning? What do you REALLY KNOW about my child?

Another teacher, after telling me his concern that she isn't challenged enough told G that if she needed to be challenged more, she should read more, and maybe some more challenging text. Really? I agree that she should look for ways to challenge herself. But if the class text isn't challenging enough, shouldn't there be some differentiation of instruction happening?

But the best comment of the night was from, well, I don't even want to say what subject in case people who know G and who know the teachers at this school read let's just say, from one of her teachers: "I wish I could find something negative to say but I just can't." I hope this teacher has a dry sense of humor that went over my head. I hope this teacher was saying this tongue-in-cheek, but honestly, I couldn't read him well enough to tell. But I know there are some teachers who really do look for the negatives in their students. I'd just always hoped some teachers wouldn't be my kids' teacher.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Student Led Conferences

Our middle school is looking forward to our 14th annual student led conferences tonight and tomorrow night. We love our student led conferences. And I am so envious of the parents who get to hear their children talk about their learning.

My daughters attend a different district than where I work, and I will be missing my own 6th grader's conferences because I have to be here at work. But I am not even really sorry. Her conferences are conducted with all teachers in the cafeteria and parents have to wait and wait and wait to see each teacher. How I long for them to hold conferences where my child takes ownership in the ability to tell me how she is progressing in her learning.

The staff of our middle school, grades 5 through 8, all take time in the days before conferences to help the students put their binders together. The students practice in their classes what they will say to their parents. They take it all very seriously.

Having the grade 6 intervention class this year, I was so excited to once again watch students prepare for sharing their classwork. We took time this morning to practice what they wanted to share from the intervention class. And some of them decided they wanted to share with the world as well. Below are videos from three students who wanted to practice for conferences and reflect on one piece of learning from our class. It would be awesome for them to see the reach of technology. Please leave them a comment with some feedback!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Tiers of Vocabulary Revisited

Last week I taught my grade 6 intervention block about the Tiers of Vocabulary. They spent most of last week reading, analyzing, and discussing words. On Friday, I did a quick writing-to-show-understanding to assess where the students are in their understanding of the Tiers. I gave them two options:
1. Write a letter to a parent or one of your other teachers to tell them what you have learned about the Tiers of Vocabulary.
2. Pretend you are a Tier 2 word and write a letter to your Tier 3 friend explaining why you are a harder word.

My reflection on these assignments showed me several things. 1) The two options were not created equally. The second option really was harder to do and the students who tried it were not really able to show understanding of the tiers. 2) Once again, I failed to give the students clear criteria about what I was looking for. (See my fluency post for more about matching criteria to assessment.) 3) If this were my classroom of 10 years ago, I'd have given grades and moved on, though most of the students are not showing me that they understand the tiers on a higher order thinking level. Teaching is so much more rewarding when learning is the motivating factor, not grades.

So I once again went back to the drawing board. I realized I was looking for the students to be able to do three things: to explain the tiers and how to know which words fit which tier, to give example words for each tier, and to explain why it is useful to know the tiers of vocabulary. I read over their assignments and grouped them into three categories:
1. The students who still had some confusion or misconceptions about the tiers themselves.
2. The students who could explain the tiers but who were only picking examples we'd already discussed in class.
3. The students who had good explanations and gave examples, but didn't include why it is useful to catagorize words this way.

Today we created 3 stations to address the three groups. The students in group one started at station one and once they cleared up their explanations, could move on to station two: giving examples, and then to station three: the "why" station. At the end of the class, most of the kids were ready for station 3. I have three students to confer with tomorrow. I am going to give these three the opportunity to explain the tiers orally because the writing part of the assignment was getting overwhelming for them.

And while I had a couple who could give me some reasons why the tiers might be useful, none of them are all the way there yet. And that is due in part to the fact that so far, we've just been categorizing. Next week, we will go back to the Mysteries of Ancient Poop article and start to look at how we use context clues to determine the meanings of words.
The pink highlights are Tier 2 words, the blue are Tier 3. What I want the students to discover is that they will encounter more Tier 2 words in a text and Tier 2 words are much less often defined in context, while Tier 3 words are quite often defined in context. These are the reasons why it is also important for teachers to know the tiers. Content teachers often focus on their Tier 3 words, when it is usually the Tier 2 words that give readers the most trouble in terms of comprehension.
Here are a couple of students sharing their assignments. You can hear that they have a good basic understanding of the tiers. I am hoping over the next week, we can deepen that understanding for the whole class.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Re-assessing how I assess fluency

I've really been doing a lot of thinking about students becoming the architects of their own learning. I have begun incorporating learning targets and having students do some self-assessment on those targets.
An example of learning targets with stoplighting stickers. The students applied the stickers to indicate how they think they are progressing towards the targets.
What I noticed was that in terms of fluency, my students didn't have a clear picture of the criteria. And this is despite the fact that we use this rubric to talk about fluency:
I decided to put the rubric into a different format to see if I could break the criteria down better. I came up with our USIP Fluency House.
This is our class chart. Each student also has their own copy for their folders.
Our fluency house has four rooms. Today we focused on the speed room because that is mainly what they have been peer-assessing in the partner fluency checks. I broke the wpm down into a chart that let them know if they needed a lot of work, a little work, or if their speed was right on. The star colors signify this and I can tell at a glance how many students need to work on their speed. They put the appropriate color sticker on their personal fluency house as well, so I can see where individuals are just by looking in their folders.
The "speed" room close-up.
 Our next task will be to focus on the other rooms in the house. So far, I am the one best able to listening in order to assess using word phrases, intonation, and punctuation. But our plan is to find ways to audio or video tape each other so that the students can listen to themselves and their fluency partners to self- and peer-assess for those areas of fluency.

I am hoping that by breaking down fluency in this way, the students will be better able to create specific fluency goals for themselves and concentrate on their weak area. I also hope that this format will allow the students whose wpm is WAY above 150 to see that they may be reading too quickly and that their ability to use intonation or follow punctuation is being negatively affected by their speed.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Tiers of Vocabulary....with kids!

Last year I held an inservice for my middle and high school staffs about the Common Core State Standards. In going through the vocabulary standards, we spent some time talking about Elizabeth Beck's tiers of vocabulary. You can read in-depth about the tiers in Beck's book, Bringing Words to Life. In a nutshell (or a graphic organizer) here are the tiers described:
Most of our words fit in tier one. In tier three, the words are very specialized. We tend to encounter them infrequently. Tier two words can show up in any class. They are words we use more often in writing to make our writing "juicy" or more specific. Tier two is general academic language as well; words like analyze, synthesize, defend.

Can you tell from my graphic organizer that I decided to teach kids about the tiers of vocabulary? I began with the graphic organizer. Then I did an activity where I put Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 signs on three different tables (one sign per table.) I put a bunch of words on index cards, handed them out to the kids and telling them to go to it. I let them decide if they wanted to work alone or talk to others. Here's what the activity looked like:
Grade 6 girls debate whether a word should go on the Tier 2 table.
After the students were done placing their word cards, we stood at each table, starting with Tier 1 table. I asked the students to look over the words and make sure they agreed with all of them. Occasionally, they would want to debate one and we would sometimes leave the word, and sometimes move it. The students realized that some words might be able to fit in Tier 1 for one person and be a Tier 2 word for someone else.
The words the students put in Tier 3.

After this activity, we were ready to apply our new knowledge to a piece of reading. I chose an article from Dig magazine called The Mysteries of Ancient Poop. Cuz, seriously, what sixth grader doesn't want to read about poop!? The students really focused on vocabulary, pulling out Tier 3 words like archaeologist and coprolite (the scientific name for ancient poop!) and Tier 2 words like excavate and comparison. Their thinking was deep, their discussions about words were heated but respectful. It was so fun to watch them!

The students have realized the importance of focusing on Tier 2 words. They see that they are often harder to understand because they are often abstract words, while Tier 3 words are often long and hard to pronounce but represent concrete things. So next week, we will take some of their Tier 2 words and start to talk about context clues and what strategies we can use to figure out what these words mean.

It is so amazing to see their interest in words grow. To see them work with joy and excitement to analyze and talk about words. I can't wait to see what they figure out next!

ADDENDUM: Thinking about these vocabulary activities with a lens of formative assessment and triangulation of data (gathering student evidence through conferences, observations, and products) I was cognizant of being aware of the understanding of every student. The sorting activity allowed me to make great observations. I looked for evidence of understanding or confusion in their faces and body language. When I saw a student wavering between Tiers but working alone, I conferred with that student, asking questions like, "What are you thinking about that word?" or "What might be making you lean toward Tier 2?" And during the debrief when we all stood around tables, each student had the opportunity to explain the placement of a word. Their classmates listened and asked questions or made arguments to push their thinking, giving lots of peer feedback. Who needs summative assessments when you can gather all the evidence of success that you need formatively? :)

Monday, October 24, 2011

Reader's Theater!

Fluency is one area that we work on in our intervention block in 6th grade.  Not only do we work on our words per minute, but we also self and peer assess following this rubric:

A fun strategy we like to use for increasing fluency is Reader's Theater. Recently, our daily schedule was all messed up due to state standardized testing. The intervention block didn't meet as many days, so we took some time to do some fun reader's theater plays. We hope you enjoy them!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Phat -n- Famous

The formative assessment team is entering its third year. You can read previous posts on the team if you are interested or need some schema built for you. :) This year we have three new members and a new team name, and we held our first meeting of the new school year last Friday.

The project itself has a new name: FAME or Formative Assessment for Michigan Educators. All coaches were asked to discuss this article with their teams. My principal asked that I do something around formative assessment for the whole staff for our PD day, so I used the article with my whole staff. This had three benefits. First, it left more time to get to the nitty-gritty in our team meeting. Second, reading and discussing the article ahead of time and with the whole staff gave two of my new members a chance to read and talk about FA before coming to their first meeting. I hope it helped ease a bit any anxiety they were feeling. And third, the whole staff activity also resulted in one more member joining our team.

When the team got together after lunch, our first task was to create our group norms. Two years ago, we created our norms using the Hopes and Fears protocol. Because six of the team are returning members, I didn't want to use the same protocol, but because we have three new members, I knew it was important to follow a protocol to create new group norms that belong to all of us. I used a protocol called Forming Ground Rules from the NSRF website. These are the norms that the group decided on:
     There will be snacks.
     We will follow a short, succinct, flexible agenda.
     We will set long and short term group and individual goals.
     What happens at PHAT stays at PHAT.
     We will all be contributing members.
And our safety word will continue to be SQUASH. (Yes, there is a fun story behind that!)

Our next task was to do some team building by creating a team poster that would include a team name, symbol, and motto. Our new team name is PHAT -n- Famous. This is (obviously, I hope!) an acronym and a play on words. PHAT=Pretty Hot Assessment Team and the Famous incorporates the new name of the project (FAME.) Our motto is Assessing Outside the Box. Here is the poster:
Each star coming out of the box has a team member's name on it.

The next thing I wanted to do was to "prime the pump" of formative assessment by accessing their prior knowledge. Now that we are a couple of years into the process, I know that team members have a lot of knowledge about FA. To bring that out, the team did a chalk talk. A chalk talk is accomplished by each group member writing what they know about the topic in the middle. They may branch off things other members write, but they cannot talk out loud--all talk is in writing. After the Chalk Talk, we reviewed some of the resources from last year and briefly brought up points from the article again.The group then went back to the Chalk Talk and added to it (in red so we could all see what was jogged in their memories after the review.)
Chalk Talk is a formative assessment tool that can allow a teacher to see how much a group knows about a topic before teaching about it. Groups of 4 are about right in a classroom, and if each student has a different colored marker, the teacher quickly gets an idea of where each student is in terms of their knowledge on the topic.
By this time it was getting late in the day, and we all know how functional teacher brains are at 3:00 on a Friday...after a long day of PD! The last thing I asked the team to do was to create individual goals and write them on a ticket out the door with a section where they also were asked to consider ways I could support them in reaching their goals. I will meet with team members about their goals in order to support them before we meet again. The goals also help me see where the group wants to go and so they assist me in planning our next meeting together.

It was a great meeting and I am looking forward, once again, to spending another year with such dedicated and curious teacher/learners.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

On Becoming a Better Thinker

Last week I completed an 8-day professional development series on Cognitive Coaching(SM). Though I have been involved in many professional conferences and workshops that have improved my practice, none will have the far-reaching effects of this. I have learned how to help my colleagues the people in my life mediate their thinking: to be better at planning, to be reflective, and to use their own internal resources to resolve problems in their professional and personal lives. Through this learning, I have been able to be more aware of my own thinking. But that doesn't mean that a cognitive coach doesn't need a coach sometimes.

On the last day of training, our trainer, Carolee Hayes, asked me to have a problem resolving conversation with her. I was excited about the opportunity because, while this was designed as a model coaching conversation as part of our training, I knew the benefit to me as someone with a problem (something I was "stuck" on) would be immeasurable.

I had begun this school year with a professional goal to "develop a backbone." I didn't really have a better way to say it to myself. But I knew that I needed somehow to be more influential in my position. While I feel like I have made some progress towards my goal, I knew it would be hard. I hate confrontation. I avoid situations where there might be any kind of discomfort. And in "getting a backbone" my vision of myself was "getting in the face" of people I felt needed to hear certain messages. I knew I was not going to be very successful at that for several reasons: 1) the aforementioned aversion to confrontation, 2) my lack of any kind of power to force change, and 3) my philosophy that (even if I had the power to demand) I can't force people to change by demanding it.

My problem was that I had been encouraging staff members to attend workshops offered by our ISD on Argumentative Writing. I know this is instruction our students need, but very few teachers are yet registered for the sessions. I tried to presume positive intentions...I know teachers don't like to be out of the classroom. But this is one of the biggest (in my view) changes in curriculum with the new Common Core State Standards.

Through the coaching conversation, I came to the realization that what I really meant by "developing a back bone" was that I had to have the difficult conversations about student success and academic achievement, but I had to have them in an impersonal way. I realized that if I want my staff members to take part in professional development sessions that are going to help change practice that is good for kids, I have to show them why they should do it. I have to create cognitive dissonance without personal confrontation. I need to show them the data that our kids need this instruction and they aren't getting it right now. And I feel capable and empowered to do that because Carolee was able to change my thinking. What I had seen as a third party problem I came to see as MY problem. I was able to think through what I can do to get my desired result.  I also came to the realization that if I do all that, and they still choose not to attend the sessions, I have to be OK with that. My cognitive shift was huge.

And now I am excited to help my staff have these same shifts in thinking; to be more efficient planners, to be reflective practitioners, and to find the internal resources to resolve the issues they face.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Building Community Part 2: Giving Students a Voice

Do you really want to have a learning community in your classroom? Some teachers say that they do, but then the only person who gets any kind of say in the classroom is the teacher. Students aren't going to feel like they are part of a community if their thoughts and ideas don't count for something. And for some of us, as teachers, that means we have to give up a little of our power. We have to trust that our students want to learn; that they want to be active and engaged. Giving them a voice in the classroom is a necessity. Following are some areas where students can rise to the challenge of helping to create the kind of learning environment that will be attractive to all members of the class.

1. Setting norms, rules, guidelines. So many teachers on the first day of school sit or stand in front of their classes and lecture students on the rules they are expected to follow. Instead, why not ask students to help create those norms. One way to do this is to have students individually brainstorm a list of what they need in a classroom to be successful learners. They can pair-share their lists and then as a class, create a master list of what they feel are the necessary conditions. Using these conditions, the teacher can then ask, "If these are the conditions we need to be successful learners, what norms or guidelines could we create and follow to ensure the conditions are met?" Different groups will need differing amounts of support to create these guidelines. Sometimes, they can be very abstract, such as "We will respect each other." That's ok, but what I have found with abstract norms like this, it can be very helpful to create a Sounds Like/Looks Like T-chart. This will produce a concrete list of actions to guide behavior. I always end the process of developing norms by having the students create a "warning" word or phrase; something we can quietly say to one another when we are getting off-track in following our norms. I also wrote about another protocol for creating norms here. This was done with adult learners, but I think would work just as well with children.
These are the norms created by my graduate class this summer.
The chart paper below the norms is their list of conditions
necessary for a successful learning environment.

This is an example Sounds Like/Looks Like T-chart.
My graduate class created this one about what a community
of learners should be. It helped them get to their vision of what
they wanted in their classroom.

2. Setting procedures. Teachers put a lot of thought into the procedures they use in their classroom. That's good. Good planning for transitions, for when and how to sharpen pencils or turn in papers, or for what a student should do after returning from an absence make a classroom function in a smooth and efficient manner. What if we let the students develop these procedures? We might be surprised when their ideas make more sense than our own. And when students have a voice in the way things are run, they are much more likely to remember those procedures!

3. Starting the year without rules. I wish I could remember where I read about a teacher who actually did this. But I did read it in either a blog or a classroom management book. I admit, it would scare me to try it! But in spite of my fear, I can still see the power behind letting students come to the realization that guidelines are necessary in the successful functioning of a class or a school...or a society!

4. Giving students a voice in the curriculum. I am a firm believer in teaching through an integrated curriculum. But teaching this way requires a shift in paradigm that many teachers lack the knowledge of and courage to try. Mandates in certification require us to be "specialists" in an area and quite often at the middle and high school level, teachers see themselves as a teacher of their content rather than a teacher of students. But there are ways to add student voice to the curriculum. One way is add choice. When creating assignments or assessments, give options for students to choose from. Teachers can also give students a voice in driving the curriculum. If you are a science teacher and you are teaching a unit on space, show students the benchmarks you are required to help them meet, tell them about some of the content and then ask them to brainstorm questions they have about the topic. Their questions can become the essential questions that drive the unit.

If you center your units around a concept rather than factual content this becomes even easier. One activity for gleaning curriculum from a concept is to do a List-Group-Label. The pictures below are an example of this process that my graduate class did as they began to plan an integrated curriculum around the concept of Change.
I was the guinea pig for this activity. The students asked me
to make a list about change. 
Earlier in the week, my 5th and 8th grade daughters were at
class with me and the students asked them to create a list as well.
This shot shows how our lists compared. The left side is my list,
the right; my daughters. It also shows how a teacher could use the lists from more than one classroom to create a cohesive unit that all students would be taught.
After creating my list, I was asked to group them. The color-
coded circles in the first picture show how I did that. Then I
had to label each group. My labels were: Society, Descriptions Of,
and (I can't remember the third one!) Then I wrote an essential
question for each group. My essential questions were:
Can change ever be positive and non-threatening?
I wonder if the changes happening in society are too negative
and too fast for our species to survive? and
Will scientist ever be able to change the speed of the cycle of life?
Students have a tendency of questioning everything we ask them to do. This is a good thing. And we as teachers should be able to answer their questions in an honest way. I think that the more voice students have in their own education, the less they will ask us "Why?" Because in using their voices, they see and understand the why.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Building Community Part 1: Knowing Your Students

Everything that happens in a classroom is a direct result of the time and energy that a teacher puts in to build a safe and caring environment. The classroom is a microcosm of the larger school community, and it can mirror that school community or it can be in contrast to it. Teachers who hope to foster a love of learning, productivity, and a sense of caring in their students know that the foundation for this is in the type of community they create in their classroom.

Jeremy Bentham said: "It is vain to talk of the interest of the community, without understanding what is the interest of the individual." A teacher who understands the importance of building that sense of community knows this is true. Students will not feel a sense of worth or importance if the teacher does not know who they are: what are their strengths and weaknesses, their likes and dislikes, their hopes and fears. Following are some activities that can help a teacher get to know his/her students:

1) Million Words Assignment: This assignment involves giving homework to parents, which makes it a winner in the eyes of most students. Parents are asked to write, in a million words or less, all about their child. This activity not only allows teachers to get to know their students, it opens the lines of communication with parents in a positive way. Most parents love nothing more than to talk about their children. For the few instances that this assignment is met with parental resistance, it can be offered to aunts, uncles, grandparents, siblings, or previous teachers.

2) Star Activity: Each student receives a star cut-out. They put their name or a picture of themselves in the center. The teacher can decide on a prompt for each point; for example: # of siblings, favorite genre of book or music, last/first movie seen, favorite color, season, food, etc. After filling out their stars, the students can do Mix-Freeze-Grouping to find commonalities. Another option is to have one student start by reading their points and then one-by-one having students connect to each other's points to create a physical web. This web creation could also be done by pinning the stars to a bulletin board and connecting common points. Language arts teachers have the added benefit of using any information gleaned from the stars to help direct students to books which they might find interesting.

3) Two truths and a lie: In this activity from Spencer Kagan, also called Find the Fib, students think of facts about themselves that their teacher and classmates wouldn't know. On an index card they record 2 facts and then make up something that could be true but is not. Students then share their 3 statements and the class has to guess which is the fib. This activity can also be great for language arts teachers to help students see the stories in their lives for writing. A variation for sharing is to have students turn in the cards and the teacher reads the statements. The class has to first decide to whom the statements belong and then which one is the fib.

4) Whip around: This is a quick activity in which one person (the teacher or a student) gives a prompt (such as: What is the furthest you've been from home?) and then each student in turn quickly gives their answer. It is another activity that can be useful for mining the stories in their lives.

5) Good new, bad news, any news: This activity can be a quick way to have a "morning meeting." Students are encouraged to share something in the way of news in their lives. Because middle school students love to talk and mostly about themselves, teachers who use this activity usually limit it to once a week. A variation is to ask students to respond in the form of a simile or metaphor. For example: My weekend was a whirlwind because we visited family in three cities in two days and my Aunt Lucy got married.

These are just five simple activities to get you started on getting to know your students. Having a full tool box for community building and then using it throughout the year will ensure your classrom community will become and remain one where students feel safe and accepted. Please feel free to share in the comments any tried and true activities you use in your own classroom. And stay tuned for Part 2 in Building Community: Giving Students a Voice.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Beauty of a Good Read-aloud

I love to read-aloud to kids. Honestly, it probably goes beyond love...I'm obsessed with it. I adore when I have to cover classes for coaches at the end of the day because it gives me a chance to share a great story with kids. When I find the right read-aloud, I could sit in front of a group of kids and read ALL DAY. So, what a treasure I found in Alan Sitomer's soon-to-be-released book Nerd Girls: Rise of the Dorkasaurus.

My copy of Nerd Girls was given to me by my good friend Linda (@linda704 on twitter-you should follow her. She's even a doctor.) She picked it up for me at the Michigan Reading Conference and had it signed by the author; I positively adore owning books signed by the author. It makes me feel so special. Anyway, soon after I arrived home from the conference, I read Nerd Girls. Oh. My. God. It is so funny. I knew immediately that this was a book I HAD to read aloud. To girls.

Luckily for me, our 6th grade has a split gender reading program. So I went into one of the all-girl classes and asked the teacher if I could use her class. That day, I began reading to the girls. They were enthralled for a couple of reasons. First of all, I showed them that the book was signed by the author. Many of the kids in my middle school have learned to get geeked out by that because I have shared so many of my signed books. Secondly, I explained to them that the book was and ARC, and advanced reader's copy. Once they understood that it didn't mean they had to be "academically gifted" (advanced) to read it, they realized it was pretty awesome that they were getting to experience this book before it ever hit the bookshelves. And thirdly, it is apparent very early on that this book is Funny. That's right, Funny with a capital "F."

It is the characters that make this story. The main character is a cynical, wry outcast. She bands together with two other outcasts to defeat the popular girls (The ThreePees) in the school talent show. It is a great story of friendship, courage, and character. It yields so many different topics to talk about with kids.

After reading the book to the girls, I showed them that many books will have short, often single sentence, reactions from readers and other popular authors. These mini-reviews help people decide if they want to read the book. Because Nerd Girls is not yet out in stores, the girls wrote their own mini-reviews. And because the girls know that I have been sharing their reactions to the book with Alan on twitter, they are pretty excited to know he'll be able to read their reactions here. So without further ado, I give you the girls!

Nerd Girls was awesome; I loved it. The book was funny and sad. Girls can relate their life with this funny spectacular book.                  ~Taylor M.

"Girls will laugh."  ~Jade

A great book that tells the true meaning of friendship, something that not everybody really knows. GO NERD GIRLS!!                     ~Taylor J.

Nerd Girls is funny and the drama from the ThreePees keeps lots of readers on the edge.   ~Lauren

I absolutely loved it! I can't wait to hear the others! I love it because I can relate to the Nerd Girls, I'm just glad I got to read something so interesting and funny! I hope people love this book as much as I do! Once I started reading it I couldn't wait for the next chapter to start. Outstanding!   ~Serena

It was a very very good book. It kept me hanging on the edge of my seat.     ~Breanna

I thought it was great. I hope to hear more and it was funny and I loved the name Nerd Girls. I loved the talent show. It was so interesting to hear what happened, so detailed and funny--that was the best part.               ~Marissa

The book Nerd Girls is a very cool, funny good book. My favorite is the ending.     ~Lauren

Nerd Girls was outstanding and wonderful! You will never want to stop reading it!  ~Trisha

Wow! Nerd Girls was so amazing!       ~Sadie

Nerd Girls rock. Girls can relate to this funny spectacular book. These girls are true dork-a-sauruses. ~Hannah

Girls will love Nerd Girls!   ~Amber

Nerd Girls was really funny. I almost cried at the part....Also is was funny when the ThreePees lost....Nerd Girls put readers on their edge of their chairs because it is so funny.   ~Andria (This entry edited to remove spoilers.  :-D)

Nerd Girls was funny and exciting and they have a very fun adventure.   ~Meagan

Nerd Girls is definitely a book I would consider reading again. It's the best book I have read in a long time and I would encourage people to read it because it was a good book and has so much understanding of girls.  ~Emily

This book is brilliant. It may be by a guy but it is about girls and it is great. So when Nerd Girls is on the shelf, buy it. This book will keep you on the edge of your seat.    ~Jamie

Nerd Girls was amazing and I absolutely loved how it always left you in suspense from one chapter to the next.     ~Morgan

Awesome book. I loved it. It should be a series!              ~Alyssa

Nerd Girls was a really great and inspiring book. I thought it was pretty funny because I've never heard a book where the main character had the same last name as me. My favorite thing about the book is that it shows "Good attitude will get you wherever you want to go."     ~Kylie

Nerd Girls was a great book. It inspired me to never ever let anyone put me down and it taught me that it doesn't matter what you look like, it is what's inside that counts.       ~Alexis

A funny, interesting, and disgusting story.     ~Jasmine

Nerd Girls is a funny and awesome book and now I want to buy the book. Nerd Girls is the best book every. I like the part where the Nerd Girls get back at the ThreePees.         ~Summer

Nerd Girls was cool. I can't wait for Nerd Girls number 2!            ~Demona

I loved Nerd Girls. I can't wait for the second book to come out. I couldn't wait for Mrs. M to come back and read a chapter every day. It was the best. I want to read it again.           ~Emily

Wonderful, funny, and creative. Urges readers to keep reading.     ~Zoey

Aydan had two reviews to share:
Alan Sitomer has outdone himself with Nerd Girls. Once you pick it up, you won't want to put it back down.  ~Aydan

Warning: This is a well-executed book with an awesome plot and hilarious characters. It also has dangerously strong powers that suck you in in the most amazing way. Be careful!!      ~Aydan

And Maddie loved it so much she wrote four:
It was funny...hilarious...Nerd Girls rock. With friendship, determination, and a lot of laughs.   ~Maddie

I'm gonna tell my children and grandchildren about this book for ages to come!   ~Maddie

Funny. Probably the best book of all with funny characters everywhere.    ~Maddie

Sitomer is a true genius, a mastermind. I can't wait for the rest of the series to come out!   ~Maddie

So that is what the girls had to say. And really what can I add to that? Not a whole lot. However, if you need further proof that this was a great book, I have one more piece of evidence. I have read many books and stories aloud to students. Many that they have loved and that have caused them to want to read the book on their own. But one thing that had never happened before DID happen at the end of Nerd Girls. When I finished the last chapter, the last page, the last word, and then closed the book....the girls all began to clap. It was the first time one of my read-alouds garnered an ovation. It was so sweet and awesome that it almost made me cry. Thanks, Alan Sitomer, for a great, great book. For the opportunity to share a wonderful, relevant story with some fantastic girls. And thanks girls for being such great nerdy listeners!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Why I Hope We Never Stop Teaching Kids to At Least READ Cursive

A wedding present from my Grandma

The story of her wedding day

A book that I am writing to my girls

One of many's almost full.
 I know my daughters can read these, but will my grandchildren be able to? My great-grandchildren? Will precious memories like these be lost one day if, as a society, we give up on cursive?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Reading Month 2011 Recap!

It was a very busy month of March in my middle school. We celebrated March is Reading Month with an underwater theme. This theme was the top choice in a school-wide theme creation and voting process. Before March arrived, we had a poster contest so that we could begin to spread the word about Reading Month.
The Artists

Second Place Poster
Third Place Poster

First Place Poster

Fourth Place Poster

During Reading Month, we like to come up with activities that will help brighten up the building while stressing the fun and importance of reading. This year we had a Door Decorating Contest. Students in each homeroom decorated their homeroom door. The doors were judged on adherence to theme, creativity, and originality.
Most Creative-a 5th grade Homeroom

First Place-the 7th Grade Entry

Second Place-the Art teacher's door, decorated by 8th graders

Third Place-a 6th Grade Homeroom

The art teacher is always great about having art students create displays in the halls for Reading Month.

Nonfiction reading is highlighted during Reading Month with Information Scavenger Hunts. This year we had one on the topic of water animals and one on the topic of rivers of the world. Informational articles are hung throughout the building and students have to read to find answers to questions. Winners are drawn from all correct entries and the students received books of their choice.

Looking for all this information is making her crazy!

Some 6th grade boys take a break to pose.
Each Monday morning during the month, a passage is read to the entire building over the intercom system. Students have to guess the genre of the passage. They guess by filling out an entry slip which they must have turned in by the end of their lunch time that same day. Correct entries are put into a drawing. Winners get to select a book that they donate to a teacher and a small prize for themselves. These prizes consist of pencils, bookmarks, small notebooks, and such. The Parent Group sponsors this activity and gives us $500 to spend on the books that help to grow classroom libraries.
Students look over their choices to pick a book to donate to a teacher.

"Found one!"

Of course, our goal during Reading Month is to get kids to read. This year we created, with the painting skills of one of our parapros, an underwater mural on the windows in the cafeteria. We ordered some fish die-cuts from the REMC and cut fish in four colors, one color per grade level 5-8. Teachers had students fill out a fish after they finished a book, adding their name and the title of the book. The fish were hung as part of the mural and it was fun to watch our school of readers grow!

The month was capped off with a "water" themed Mock Rock, which was a complete and total blast! Click here to see the videos of Mock Rock, which include some killer teacher dance moves to Ice, Ice Baby by Vanilla Ice!!

Hope you enjoyed the recap of Reading Month. We are always looking for new ideas to incorporate and to build a love of reading in kids. I encourage you to leave a comment and let us know what you do to celebrate Reading Month in your school!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Reading Month Finale: Mock Rock 2011

For the finale of March is Reading Month, we cap things off with a Mock Rock.
Student groups try-out for a coveted spot and a teacher group or two always provide added enjoyment.
This year, our Reading Month theme, voted on by the student body, was underwater. We used catch lines such as "Dive into Reading" and "Hooked on Books." In the Mock Rock, acts had to have a connection to the Reading Month theme. The Mock Rock director instructed our students that their chosen song or artist had to mention water in some way, shape, or form. This led to a variety of acts; from Umbrella by Rihanna, to Barbara Ann by The Beach Boy, and Water by Brad Paisley. Our Mock Rock was too long to post as one video on You Tube, so enjoy parts one and two!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Text Complexity and the Common Core

Ever since I attended the roll-out of the Common Core State Standards, I have been intrigued by the topic of text complexity. I have read Appendix A of the Common Core document and I am not surprised by the fact that the complexity of the texts we require of k-12 students has dropped. I could go into several reasons why I think this has happened, but I'll save that for another post.

Over the last two days at the Michigan Reading Association State Conference, I feel that I finally have a firm enough grasp on the complexities of text complexity to begin to share the information with my middle and high school staffs. I see this as being a process in which we formulate answers to three sets of essential questions: 1) Why is text complexity such a big deal? Why should we make sure that students are reading and comprehending more complex texts, both in narrative and expository reading? 2) How do we determine the complexity of text? How do we take into account the themes and ideas of a writing when we determine the level of complexity? and 3) How do we scaffold and instruct our students in ways that ensure they can get to a necessary level of comprehension? How do we formatively assess their progress so that they and we know what needs to come next in their growing abilities of comprehending complex text.

I am excited about the work that we have to do together to examine our expectations for students in our district. I look forward to the conversations about teaching and learning--conversations that, sadly, are too often missing in our day-to-day work. I am also excited about what it means for our students that we are bringing the science and social studies teachers into the conversation through the inclusion of the 6-12 Literacy Standards in Science, Social Studies and Technology in the Common Core.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Is this book too hard for me?

The first lesson I teach struggling readers who are in literacy groups is how to tell if a book is going to be too hard for them. I use a strategy called the five finger test. I did not create this test, but I have adapted it a bit. Basically, in the five finger test, a student opens a book to a full page somewhere in the middle. They read that page and hold up a finger for every unknown word.

Many resources for the five finger test will tell kids that five fingers up means a book is too hard. I find that with my middle school students, three fingers up is too hard.

I think the reason I had to change the number of fingers is because my students only counted words they couldn't say as unknown words. When I ask them to read out loud to me and there are words they can say but I think they don't know, I will ask them to tell me what the word means.

Quite often these students can't determine a word's meaning from the context. Because so many struggling readers are not metacognitive about their reading, they don't realize when they don't understand a word. I tell my students if they are going to partner read, or follow along with an audio book, they can probably read a four or five finger book. But if they are reading independently, my students choose one, two or three finger books.