Friday, 29 November 2013

Parent Conferences, Tweets and Hashtags

Recently, I found a wonderful idea via Twitter! Someone posted a photo of parents filling out a paper tweet to show support for their child's progress. These paper tweets acted as a "ticket out the door". Thank you, Twitter! Thank you to the person who shared it!

Our classroom has an actual twitter account that is connected to our classroom blog. We like to share our learning with others. It's fun to see what other classrooms are up to from around the world. We decided to brainstorm possible hashtags for parents to use in their paper tweet. 

I really enjoyed listening to my students explain the purpose of a hashtag during conferences. Naturally, some parents were quite versed in all things Twitter. Others, however, were learning all about it for the first time! Below you will see our paper "Twitter Board" and samples of parent tweets. One thing to note - we weren't worried about the 140 character limit! Grab your copy of the paper tweets here.

Students were so proud to receive words of encouragement from their families. Now it is my turn! I will tweet this post from my twitter account. I guess you could say I am retweeting the paper tweets from parents. 

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Public Conferencing

Finding the right words to describe the great things that students do in their writing is a goal of mine. I have been following Regie Routman's advice, not only from her multiple books but from the time she spent in my classroom, coaching me last year. This year, as a whole staff, we have been sharing ideas about the various ways teachers confer with students about writing. There are many ways to do this and all are valuable. However, I really want to get better at conferring within a large group.

I try to celebrate the writing from all of my students. It does take a lot of time and there is no way I can get through all of them in one day. What I have learned is, it is best to first select a couple of students who are quite strong writers. These students read their piece first. Then it is my turn to read through the entire piece. Afterwards, I will go line by line and share with the class the writers' strengths. Starting these types of conferences with stronger writers also raises the bar for other students. They end up getting ideas to try out in their own writing. Usually, I give a suggestion about what they might add or remove to push their thinking further. That can also be a difficult task. For the most part, suggestions have been made regarding word choice or adding or deleting sentences to help the overall meaning of their piece. I am starting to get better at helping a student notice that the order of their sentences can make a difference to the flow and rhythm of their piece. To be honest, students watching the conference will often add their thoughts too - which is always very helpful. I like this open conversation because we are beginning to share ideas like a true writing community. Public conferences or whole class shares model the conversations that I want my students to do on their own with peers. It just takes time and practice.

Modelling techniques for revising and editing is also very time consuming, but it pays off in the end. I've been having students share how they made revisions using the document camera. They have also been using the document camera to edit their writing based on the criteria we set as a class. I find this really helps them to be more successful and purposeful when they work on editing independently or with a partner.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Reading is Thinking: Inferring

Recently, we have been talking about inferring. We feel that inferring is "reading between the lines". To infer, you use what you know (previous life experiences) with the text or illustration. Inferring is a critical thinking skill allowing students to dig more deeply into the various texts they choose to read. I  love teaching this strategy so that students can have more meaningful conversations in their book clubs later on in the year.

We started with a book called Tight Times by Barbara Shook Hazen. The illustrations in the story are rich with facial expressions and body language. I posted some of them in the classroom and students made their thinking public using post-its.

Next, students worked in small groups looking at various comics. In each comic, a portion of it was covered. Students had to use what they knew about the characters, they used their own experiences and observed the body language and facial expressions within the comic to make an inference. They definitely loved this activity!

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Wild About Literacy

Wild About Books” by Judy Sierra is the perfect book to share with students at the beginning of the year. The rhyming text is loads of fun and students at the Grade 4/5 level can appreciate Sierra’s clever writing style. One of her lines reads, “She even found waterproof books for the otter, who never went swimming without Harry Potter.” I love the overall message of the book – everyone can be readers and writers. It also shows students that reading and writing go hand in hand. In the book, as soon as the animals start reading, they also begin writing their own stories.

Students use two special books in my classroom that revolve around reading and writing. One is a BLB – a “Book Lover’s Book”. This holds onto all of the thinking students have about all sorts of books. Below is a guided entry we created as a class following a discussion of real reading. There is so much thinking that occurs when we read. This visual is the perfect reminder for students.

Students also keep a Writer’s Notebook to collect and document all of their writing. One of the first entries that I get students to complete independently is a collection of thoughts around the theme – “What’s True for Me About Writing”. I found it particularly interesting that one of my Grade Five students (who I had in Grade 4 last year) mentioned Regie Routman as a source for his ideas for writing!

Monday, 15 April 2013

An Inquiry into Citizenship

To begin our inquiry, we read a wide variety of books (picture books, chapter books and non-fiction) to get us thinking and to allow thoughtful conversations. I was very selective with the books that I found to help anchor our study. I wanted the message of the text to connect to citizenship; however, I also wanted the writing to be excellent. 

I decided to read aloud the picture book, Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson. The story is about a little girl, Chloe, who misses her opportunity to be kind to a new student. In fact, she chooses to be unkind. The new student moves away and Chloe misses her chance to repair her unkind actions. As a class, we found the ending to be very powerful because it wasn't your typical "happy ending". Instead, Jacqueline Woodson forces us to realize that people can be unkind to one another. There is a part in the book where Chloe's teacher says: "Each kindness makes the world a little bit better."

This was the perfect opportunity to invite students to write about a moment of kindness they received from a family member. I didn't want students to miss their opportunity to share their appreciation for a loved one.

To support students, I wrote a piece showing my appreciation for my mom's weekly visits when she volunteers in my classroom. Students were then asked to create their own written pieces, which were given as gifts at parent conferences. They also published this writing on their individual blogs and parents were able to comment on them as well. It was wonderful to see the reactions of parents and the students loved receiving their comments.

Here are some samples from student blogs:

Sample 1                                       

Sample 2                                        

Sample 3

We charted our thinking about the question - "What does it mean to be a good citizen?"

Students interviewed their parents to find out who they admired and why. We thought this would add another perspective to our study.

Then I asked students the question - "What Face Do You Want to Show the World?" We created silhouette portraits and students picked a character trait or attribute to explain their thinking.

Before too long, we started to realize that a good citizen is simply someone who wants to make the world a better place. Making the world a better place is being the best person you can be at home, at school and in the community. We created a diagram called, "THE RIPPLE EFFECT". It's to resemble the waves moving outward when you drop a pebble in the water. 

We connected this idea to a portion of a poem written by James W. Foley:

Drop a pebble in the water
just a splash, and it is gone;
But there's half-a-hundred ripples
circling on and on and on,
Spreading, spreading from the centre,
flowing on out to the sea.
And there is no way of telling
where the end is going to be.

After several discussions, students also wrote about what they think it means to be a good citizen. These became their most current understandings and we posted them on our "Wonder Wall".

Throughout this study we also read two important texts:

1. Wonder by R.J. Palacio. I have blogged about this text before. You can find it here

2. Ryan and Jimmy by Herb Shoveller
Both of these texts provided rich discussions and opportunities for deep thinking. We looked at them as readers. We analyzed them as writers. See below:

This is a passage from Wonder with student thinking all in the margins.
This is a passage from Ryan and Jimmy with student thinking in the margins.
You can see all of the reading and writing experiences that took place during this citizenship study. 

Finally, we were ready to start thinking about how we, as a class, could make the world a better place. We decided that we wanted to build a bench, to symbolize respectful conversation and friendship. This will sit by our main office in the school. When we first started discussing this idea, our plan was to find out how much it would cost. We'd also have to take a survey of our families to find out who could help us build it. That evening, I got a message from one of my students on Edmodo:

This week we are painting our bench. We have a couple of students helping us from one of the high schools in our division. Here is the "before" picture:

I will post the final product when we are finished. 

Students also worked on their own plans to make the world a better place. This writing was completed in collaboration with Mrs. Routman. This continues to be a work in progress with the end result being a  beautiful book. Right now, however, you can find our plans on our blogs

Sunday, 10 March 2013

My Week with Regie

I have had such a wonderful experience working with and learning from Regie Routman. We hit it off the moment I spoke to her on the phone! She pushed me to think more deeply about my practice. I’ve decided to make a list of things learned throughout this exciting experience. I know I’ve learned more than what’s written in this post, but my list represents highlights of my learning and beliefs.

1.   Write for an Authentic Audience and Purpose

Writing must have an authentic audience and purpose. Engaged students will take the time to construct a wonderful piece of writing. They will also do the hard work of revising and editing.

Prior to Regie visiting, we had been working on an inquiry into citizenship. Our central question was “What does it mean to be a good citizen?” We charted our initial thoughts and students interviewed their parents to find out who they admired. After sifting through all of our data, we discovered that a good citizen is simply anyone who wants to make the world a better place. This “place” could be at home, in school, in the community, and in the world. 

I'm showing Regie our thinking surrounding our Citizenship Inquiry.

We read several excellent picture books (fiction and non-fiction) connecting to our inquiry on citizenship. We also read the novel, Wonder, by R.J. Palacio. This book is definitely an all time favourite for my students. During a phone conversation with Regie, she told me about an excellent non-fiction text called Ryan and Jimmy: And the Well in Africa that Brought Them Together by: Herb Shoveller. This is the true story of a Canadian boy, Ryan Hreljac, who helped build a well in Africa and founded Ryan’s Well Foundation. This story was a wonderful connection to our inquiry, and most importantly, the writing was excellent. While reading all of these texts, we thought about how they positioned us as readers. We also looked at them as writers by commenting on specific lines.

Regie and I decided that our shared writing would became – “What can we do as a class to make Strathmillan School a better place?” and our individual writing focus was going to be – “What is your plan to make the world a better place?”

Students were really excited to think of all of the ways they could help make the world a better place. Some want to be better siblings, some want to do chores without complaining and others want to pick up litter around their community. There was a great deal of frontloading before we began writing as a class or as individuals. When students are excited about their topic, the quality is high!

Note: I plan on creating a separate post about our shared piece of writing and students’ individual plans later on. Stay tuned!

2.   Celebrations First and Critiques Later

Regie is so very good at making students feel comfortable and proud of their writing. She conducts a public conference. She sits side by side with a student and has them read aloud their piece first. As the student reads, she listens for the overall meaning or message. Next, Regie will read the piece aloud with expression to make sure all students hear everything clearly. The idea is to focus on the writer first. It’s an empowering experience for everyone. The proof is in the picture below.

3. Pick Out Those Magical Moments

This next step builds upon the idea of “Celebrations First and Critiques Later”. During a public conference, Regie will also go through a piece of writing, line by line, and is very specific about her comments. She will repeat lines and comment on the rhythm or flow of the sentences. She will explain how a student built up suspense or how they combined specific words to slow down their writing, allowing the reader to paint a picture in their heads. I like to call this portion of the public conference, “picking out magical moments” because all students hear these ideas and can try them out in their own writing.
Here I am giving feedback to a student with Regie coaching me.
During our citizenship inquiry, students also wrote about what makes them happy or what I called “Snippets from the Heart”. We had several public conferences. I found these conferences so valuable because students would comment on each other’s writing. The best part is that I started to see students using each other as mentors by trying out a line that someone else used and twisting it to make it their own. Below are samples showing this “piggybacking of ideas”. This is the power of a public conference.

"But my first step on ice was like my first step in life and I realized I would never be without hockey."

"When I grow up and move out of the house, right when I take my first step out the door, I will look back and see my dogs sitting with their eyes filled with tears. I will stop for a moment and say to myself, "I'll never leave them behind."
"Now, when I look at my bear, I think back to being on my papa's lap, in the rain and he is holding his black and white umbrella."

4.     Write in Front of Students - “On the Spot”

Regie encourages teachers to write in front of their students. Students must see us struggle to find the right words, how we use different lengths of sentences, etc. They need to see how we re-read our work over and over and how we revise “on the go”. I remember Regie saying that if we expect our students to write fluently, we need to as well. This is the perfect opportunity to share and model your thinking out loud. In other words, make your thinking visible. You never know, you may even receive some constructive feedback from your students! I often do! :)

5.      The Inseparable Reading and Writing Connection

Reading and writing are so complex there is no way we can separate them. They are intertwined. They inform and complement one another. Students must be reading texts as readers as well as writers. This involves a lot of deep, critical thinking. I can’t imagine teaching reading separate from writing. I’ve written about the reading and writing connection in an earlier post. You can find it here.

6.      Students can be Independent, EVEN if they Struggle!

As teachers, we are constantly finding ways to support all learners in the classroom. Sometimes, I think we forget that these struggling learners must be accountable for their work – especially if they have a plan, they know what to do and we’ve checked in with them before they begin. Regie makes it very clear that students must be the ones “holding the pencil”. It’s easy for teachers to jot down student’s thinking on a post-it note during a conference and send them off to start writing. Instead, when conferring with a student, have them list their ideas in a way that makes sense to them before sending them off to write. This conferring may take longer, but you have greater pay-off in the end.

Here is an example of a student's prewriting plan. We discussed ideas together; he recorded his thinking, before I sent him off to write.

It has been such a rewarding experience to work with Regie Routman. I can’t think of another professional development opportunity that has topped it. One of my students sums it up perfectly in her reflection below:

I learned that writing a strong lead will catch/hook the reader and I feel more like a writer than I did before. To be a writer you have to be a reader. You have to read your work from a writer’s point of view and a reader’s point of view. Coming to our classroom helped us so, so much. You inspired us and made us AMAZING writers. Thank you. And thank you for making Mrs. Steuart happy. You made me happy too.

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