Sunday, November 5, 2017

#NerdcampLI - Tough Topics in The Classroom

image from @nerdcampli Twitter feed

Yesterday I attended nErD Camp Long Island, an "unconference" edcamp with a focus on literacy. If you want to know more about these amazing, fun, and free professional development conferences go to the #nerdcampLI website. The sessions are generally very informal and audience participation is encouraged.

One session I attended yesterday was called Tough Topics in the Classroom and was moderated by authors Tony Abbott, Barbara Dee, Sarah Darer Littman, Lynda Mullaly Hunt and Marissa Moss. Each of these authors have written books that include topics that often have been considered controversial and perhaps inappropriate for the middle grade audience. In the book, The Summer of Owen Todd, Tony writes about the sensitive topic of sexual abuse and Barbara Dee's book, Star-Crossed includes a character, Gemma, who has a crush on another girl. Lynda's book, One for the Murphys is about a girl in foster care and includes flashbacks that explain why she has come to live with this foster family. All 3 of these books are intended for the middle grade audience. Sarah's book, Backlash, is recommended for grades 7 and up and deals with the damaging effects of cyberbullying.

The session began with the authors sharing a bit about their books and why they think these topics need to be included in middle grade books. When they asked us how we share these types of books in our classrooms a flood of questions and comments began.  I want to write about it here on my blog so I can process what I heard and how I felt about everything that was said. First, I want to make it clear this is my opinion and I can only tell you my perspective. If you attended this session you might have taken away something different. And that is okay. Both personally and professionally I believe these controversial topics need to be included in middle grade books. I am so happy that I can now find more than 1 book with an LGBT character or theme to add to my classroom library. I read most of the books I put in my classroom and feel they are age-appropriate. They deal with themes of fitting in and trying to find out who you are. Many include themes of bullying and my 5th graders love those books. They have a great sense of fairness and are often dealing with these issues themselves.

During the discussion some teachers shared that they often required a parent signature when a student chose certain books that had topics that might concern parents. One teacher said she gave slips with notes to parents about the book chosen. My understanding was she didn't always do this, just sometimes. I was left wondering how she decided who got a parent note and who didn't? I shared that I included these types of books in my regular book talks. I didn't treat them any different than other books. I think that my parents trust that I have selected books for my class library that are appropriate for all 5th graders. What I didn't share, because of time constraints, was the few experiences I have had when a parent questions a book their child is reading independently. (Parents have never questioned my read alouds or book club choices.) Years ago a parent contacted me to express her concerns about her daughter's reading choices. The daughter had become very interested in Greek mythology and the parent requested she not read these books because they went against their religion. Since this was a student's choice and not an assignment I respected the parents wishes, but asked her to explain this to her daughter, as I do not restrict children's reading choices. If this had been a whole class unit on Greek mythology my response would have been very different. When I taught 3rd grade a parent contacted me about the Dork Diary books her daughter had begun reading and was concerned that the books modeled poor behavior and shallow morals. Fortunately, I was able to have a great discussion with this parent about the value of book choice and I was certain that her daughter would get bored with these books soon and move on, especially after conferring and book talks designed for her daughter. I encouraged her to discuss the books with her daughter and bring up her concerns because kids actually do listen and want to know what we think. Eventually, this reader moved on to different books.

When, during the session, a K-6 librarian shared that she was okay with including Lynda's book in her collection, but was uncomfortable with Barbara's book I decided to respond.  It seemed to me that most of the comments from teachers and librarians related to fear of parent reactions so I stated that we cannot let a few parents decide what we put on our library shelves. I said that we need to explore our own bias. It's okay to be uncomfortable but we have to think about and discuss why we are so uncomfortable with books that explore LGBT themes. These books aren't about sex, they are about self-acceptance, overcoming adversity and finding out who you are - important themes in children's literature. When we don't include books that make us uncomfortable I think it's essentially banning a book, and as the gatekeepers of what children get to read we have a responsibility to make sure diverse titles that children need are available.

Now here's the thing that bothered me after the session and made me write this post. I felt bad. The K-6 librarian had shared something about herself. She shared her discomfort and worry. That took courage. I had hoped my comments would lead to conversation about how to prepare and talk to parents or other adults that want to ban books. Maybe we would even talk about why we are uncomfortable with these "hot" topics. But I knew by her body language she was upset and felt attacked. I can't blame her. That was not my goal, but it happened.

Later in the day someone came up to me to thank me for my comments during the session. I shared with him that I felt I had come off rude to this poor librarian. We discussed the fact that the conversations were just getting going as the session came to an end. We agreed that this was an important topic and much more conversation was needed.

To me, it's clear why we need these types of books on the shelves. It's also clear that we have to have more discussion about these topics that make us comfortable. And most of all, how can we help teachers and librarians feel empowered and safe so they will put these books on the shelf?

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Using Star Wars to study the Hero's Journey

It's been a long while since my last post, and I am now teaching 5th grade.  But today I am back and writing about Star Wars!

Last spring, after deciding to move from 3rd to 5th grade, a colleague asked if I might be interested in creating a literature unit surrounding Star Wars.  Of course, being a Star Wars fan, I immediately said yes!

But we weren't studying and watching Star Wars movies just for fun. (Although it has been lots of fun.) We used the Star Wars movies to teach our students about the narrative archetype of the Hero's Journey.  The movies helped us to understand the different stages of the journey. We would then be able to tie in the Hero's Journey to other literature.  There's even a website dedicated to using Star Wars in the Classroom. If you want to read about Star Wars and other sci-fi from the female fan perspective I highly recommend The Fangirl Blog.

The Hero's Journey is a narrative pattern that scholar, Joseph Campbell, identified in myths, storytelling and other dramas. In this monomyth, or hero's journey, the Hero goes on an adventure, faces many tests, wins a victory or achieves a goal and then returns home, changed.  You can read more about it in Joseph Campbell's book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  You might also like to watch this TED-ED video that explains the Hero's Journey archetype very nicely.

There are several different versions of the stages out there, but we decided to use the stages found at The Writer's Journey website.  You can view the Google slideshow that my colleague, Brian St. Pierre, created for us to teach our students about the Hero's Journey stages. We watched Episode IV, A New Hope first, and then we began learning about the stages. My students used this graphic organizer to take notes as we went through the stages.  You can complete the hero's journey for Luke Skywalker for just the first move, A New Hope, or you can study Luke's journey over the entire trilogy. With my class, I had my students analyze Luke's journey for the first movie.  Later, after we had viewed the entire trilogy we re-analyzed his journey.  After we finished the original trilogy we watched The Force Awakens and then were able to analyze Rey's heroine's journey.

After watching The Force Awakens students immediately started discussing the character, Rey.  Who was she?  We all had our theories and opinions. This led to an assignment that you can view here.

Then in December the new Star Wars movie, Rogue One, came out.  Many students went to see the movie.  So many students wanted to talk about it that Brian set up a Google Classroom just for kids to discuss the movie without spoiling it for others that hadn't seen it yet.

In case you are wondering, we watched the first movie, A New Hope, during class time.  Later, we showed the other 2 movies - The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi - during recesses.  Students were given the option, but I think all of them decided to stay in and watch.  We also discussed the unit as part of our Back to School Night.  We wanted our parents to be as excited as we were and also understand the connections to learning.  My parents were all very excited and supportive of the unit.  We did ask all of our parents to sign permission for viewing the movies.

Each class also began reading literature that followed the hero's journey narrative.  Brian's class read The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander and my class read Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin.  Other books you could use are Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and Percy Jackson & the Olympians. There are some great picture books that you could use also, like Brave Irene and the wordless book Journey .  I've even see a post with someone using Last Stop on Market Street!

Once my class finished Where the Mountain Meets the Moon we began analyzing the main character, Minli, and her journey.  Often when the hero, or heroine in this case, is female their journey is slightly different. So we adjusted our stages as we went. My students created a Google Slideshow to share what they had learned.  You can view it here.  

Our entry into the world of Star Wars and the Hero's Journey was a great way to start our school year. It engaged my students and helped to create a classroom community.  We bonded over Star Wars.  If you were already a fan it was frosting on the cake and I am excited that we created new fans along the way. New Star Wars clothing seem to appear weekly, especially with the girls in the class.  One of my students has even tried out many different Star Wars inspired hairdos.  When we had to decorate our class door to celebrate an author's visit, my students decided to draw Star Wars characters reading the author's books. As any teacher knows, your classroom is like a little family. Star Wars has helped us to achieve academically, but it has also helped us bond as a group.

I was in high school when the original Star Wars movies came out and cannot remember how many times I have watched these movies.  Watching them with my own children was a great experience and now watching them through the eyes of my 5th graders is a real treat.  Luke and Rey's journeys continue to inspire conversations and students are always looking for ways to connect to the hero's journey during reading.  Just yesterday, during one of our book club groups, reading Elijah of Buxton, the students discussed Elijah and the hero's journey stages.

The entire 5th grade faculty dressed up as Star Wars characters for Halloween.  That's me as Princess Leia.

Monday, July 4, 2016

#CyberPD 2016 - Week 1

It's time for July CyberPD.  This year we are reading DIY LITERACY by Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts.  You can follow and join the discussion on the Google CyberPD Community and follow the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #cyberPD.

This week's response is for Chapters 1, 2 and the Bonus Chapter.

How do we get our students to remember what we've taught them?  How do we get our students to work independently?  How do we meet the needs of a diverse group of learners? These are our goals as classroom teachers and these are questions all of ask each regularly!  In this book Kate and Maggie will be introducing tools that can help us meet these goals.


TEACHING CHART: I think many of us already use these - I certainly do! The authors refer to 2 types: repertoire - a list of skills or strategies and process: steps to using a skill or strategy.  I believe the key here is to make the chart with your students and make sure it hangs where students can see it.  In my experience students also need us to model how to refer to and use the chart.

DEMONSTRATION NOTEBOOK: This would be a working notebook that the teacher creates and keeps on the ready to use in small group or individual instruction. It is a collection of interactive lessons to help students practice a needed skill.  I am interested in learning more about this tool.  The first time I heard about this tool was on Kate and Maggie's blog DIY Literacy video series and it really captured my attention.  How many times have I gathered a few students together to try and reteach a skill, only to spend more time talking and not enough time practicing!  I really want to see and hear what other teachers are thinking about this idea! Am I organized enough to make and use one of these? Would I start making it as I need it and then have it for the following year?

MICRO-PROGRESSION CHART: This reminds me of a rubric.  Students are provided with examples of work that are leveled from lowest to highest quality.  Criteria or descriptions for each level are provided.  This way students can self assess and know specifically what they need to improve.  I don't think you would make this chart for everything you teach, but I could see creating one for areas that you feel the whole class is in need of work.  One particular area I think would work for me is in writing workshop.  Even after using checklists and rubrics my third graders will often think they have included particular revision strategies or skills.

BOOKMARKS: These are personalized for the specific student and students are involved in creating them.

In the Bonus Chapter Kate and Maggie discuss how to find the strategies you need.  And I think this CyberPdD is a perfect way to connect with other teachers to help locate great resources.  They also discuss how to write a strategy and what to write, in detail.  I admit this is where I will need to go back to when I'm ready to try it in the classroom.  It is summer after all!

FAVORITE SNIP-IT FROM BOOK: page 3, "we often get trapped in the hamster wheel of breadth-of being sure we have gotten to everything-rather than centering our work on depth." Yep, yep, yep! I agree and remind myself of this hamster wheel for me!

I am very excited to read and learn from all the other cyberPD-ers this summer.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Inspirational and Fun Songs for Making an End of Year Video

There are 12 days left to our school year and I am busy with all those end of the year activities.  From cleaning and packing my classroom, finishing last minute assignments and putting on our class play things can get hectic.  One crazy thing that I add to my schedule is making a slideshow for my students.  Throughout the year I take lots of photos and it's easy for me to create a slideshow with the Macbook Pro.  I add music that I put together using Garage Band.  Then I burn a CD as an end of year gift for each student.  Then on one of our last half-days of school we sit and watch the video together.  Selecting all the photos and songs and creating the slideshow is one way I can slow down a bit and remember our time together as a community. I thought I would share a list of some of my favorite songs I have used over the years plus a few new ones I've added this year.  These songs are inspirational, fun and not just for the end of the school year. Enjoy!

Count on Me by Bruno Mars
Good Feeling by Flo Rida
A Sky Full of Stars by Coldplay
Heroes by Alesso
Best Days of My Life by American Authors
Gone Gone Gone by Phillip Phillips
Brave by Sara Bareilles
Baby I'm A Star by Prince
Dynamite by Taio Cruz
You've Got a Friend by James Taylor
Never Gonna Let You Down by Colbie Callait
We're Going to be Friends by Jack Johnson
Here Comes the Sun by The Beatles
Over the Rainbow by The Hit Crew
Firework by Katy Perry
It's a Beautiful Day by Michael Buble
Happy by Pharrell Williams
You've Got a Friend in Me by Randy Newman
Life is a Highway by Rascal Flatts
My Wish by Rascal Flatts
Hey, Soul Sister by Train
Smile by Uncle Kracker
These Are Days by 10.000 Maniacs
Just Like Fire by Pink
Humble and Kind by Tim McGraw
Roar by Katy Perry
Smile by Vitamin C
Fireflies by Owl City
Celebration by Kool and the Gang

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Favorite Fiction in our Third Grade plus a Bonus Video

 So, it is June and the last month of school.  And for me, the last month of third grade, because next year I will be teaching fifth grade.  Before I go I wanted to share some favorite and popular third grade books.  Many fiction books are labeled "grade 3-5 interest level" or "recommended for ages 8-12".  Many books seemed to be lumped into that middle grade category which is very broad and often too difficult for my third graders to read independently.  Finding books that capture my 8 year olds attention while also meeting their independent reading needs is a challenge.  Third graders love funny books and books with animals, especially dogs!  They like reading books with adventure and suspense. They usually don't like long books.  They like realistic books with characters that have school problems and love getting to know a character in a series.  And they really love graphic novels.  Here is a list of some popular fiction books in my class this year.  I will write about favorite graphic novels in another post.
Nikki and Deja series

Marty McGuire series

Dragon Master series

Eleanor series

Andy Shane series

Stick Dog Series

Anna Banana series
Shelter Pet Squad
Puppy Pirates series
The Buddy Files series
Poppy series
Dory series

Chicken Squad series
Ellray Jakes series
Bonus: I have written many posts about my class library.  Here is a video of what things look like at the end of the year!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Book Clubs & Strategies to Help Students Think More Deeply About Character

Helping my third graders think more deeply about fiction and go beyond retelling the plot has been a main focus and goal this year.  Through read alouds and class discussions my students have come along way. Getting my students to do this work independently is the challenge!

I have found using some of the signposts from Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst's book, Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading to be extremely helpful.  In addition, I love using ideas from the book, What Readers Really Do by Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton.  I've wrote about this book here and here.  Both of these books are brilliant!

To get my students to start thinking beyond plot and focusing more on character I have found one strategy very useful.  I call it the FAST strategy. (It's nothing new and my apologies for not giving proper credit to the inventor!) FAST is an acronym.

  • F: Character's feelings
  • A: Character's actions
  • S: What the character says
  • T: What the character thinks
We spent a lot of time this past winter working with this strategy during read aloud.  Students use their reader's notebooks to collect notes.  A simple T-Chart labeled text and thinking works well. This was a great place to practice together.  Because not everything the character does or says is important to note, our class discussions gave students the opportunity to share and listen in on classmates' ideas.  When Ivan throws a "me ball" is that an important action, or is is just a funny part?  When Opal asks her dad to tell her about her mom, is this important? Does it reveal something important about the character?  It's not enough for students to note something from the text.  They have to connect their thinking to the text and explain why they chose this piece of text.  Rereading our notes each day was also an important part of helping my students begin looking for patterns and start forming theories. 

When my students are reading independently they use post-it notes to jot down their thinking.  When I would confer with students I was not surprised to see that most were not using the FAST strategy independently.  Most still clung to earlier strategies we had learned that focused on plot or predicting. Working with students in small strategy groups helped some, but I knew they could benefit from reading the same book together and having a conversation about that book.  So, I headed to the book room in search of multiple copies of books.  

When I go to the book room I'm generally looking for more than just a particular level of book.  In this case I wanted books that were more character driven.  I needed stories that didn't spell out everything for my students and they would need to make inferences.  I wanted books that my students might need to reread parts to really figure out things.  I wanted realistic fiction that my third graders could relate to the character and conflicts.  I wanted the character to have internal conflicts!  Yep!  In second and third grade this can be a challenge.  After weeding through all the Junie B. Jones and Box Car Mystery books (seriously, why do we need so many?) and reading some books that I ended up not liking, I was able to find a couple of books.  And then one of my trusty colleagues had another couple that fit my requirements. So, here are the books that I used during our "book clubs".

Class Clown by Johanna Hurwitz
Students enjoyed this book a lot.  Lucas is very naughty and fools around at school all the time.  They could relate to the story because they have all had a "Lucas" in their class at one time or another! The big question for my students centered around why Lucas was behaving so badly.  It was amazing one day when a student theorized that perhaps Lucas wanted attention?  With that theory in place, the book club looked for evidence to support this theory as they continued to read. In the end they were excited to share that they noticed Lucas changing and discussed their ideas as to why this was happening.

The F & P reading level is listed as either O or Q, depending where you look.  I feel it is more of an O.

Fourth Grade Rats by Jerry Spinelli

Suds is starting fourth grade and is being pressured by his friend, Joey to be a "fourth grade rat".  Throughout the story Suds is conflicted about becoming a rat, which means basically being mean, tougher and not listening to your parents.  Of course students were highly interested! Maintaining focus on Joey's conflict was a challenge for some of the readers who tend to read to quickly or just like to talk about the funny parts.  Even when students pointed out that their notes were about events and not character, they often continued to focus on events alone! Several times they needed to reread sections because they were either confused or disagreed with one another. Students stood their ground and pushed others to prove their reasoning!

Champ by Maria Thornton Jones

What kid doesn't like a story with a dog?  But the key here is that the story is NOT about the dog, but about the main character, Riley.  This book is more complicated for several reasons.  First there are more characters and relationships to keep track of for the reader.  The dog is important to the story and the character's development, but readers have to understand this and stay focused on the character.  The conflict is also difficult to understand at first, so group discussion was very important, as was staying focused on the FAST strategy.  I was happy to see that most of the group began to realize that the main conflict wasn't the dog's injury, but Riley's conflict regarding baseball.  It was great when one student theorized that perhaps Riley stayed in baseball because he didn't want to let his dad down.  This is key to the story!  Riley's relationship with his dad.  Then they were able to discuss the role Champ plays in helping Riley face his fears.

Rules by Cynthia Lord

I selected this book for my students who are reading above grade level and were already using the FAST strategy independently.  It was a chance to really experience the person versus self conflict more deeply.  They pulled out quotes and favorite lines non-stop which became a focal point of discussion.  As they discussed Catherine's conflicts they began wondering how they would be resolved.  Catherine seems embarrassed by her autistic brother, she wants to have friends and fit it, she feels neglected by her father - these were some of their ideas.  One reader asked, how will Catherine solve her problems?  Her brother can't be fixed.  He has autism.  She wants him to be "normal" but that can't happen.  Through their discussion they realized that Catherine might need to change herself!  From then on they started focusing on this big idea or theory.  My favorite student quote: "Catherine says she wrote the rules for her brother, David, but I think she wrote those rules for herself.  Maybe not intentionally, but they were for her."

I know this type of work will continue in 4th grade and beyond.  This is just the beginning for these young readers.  How do you engage younger readers in thinking beyond plot? Do you have favorite books for book clubs?

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Using Inquiry Circles to Teach Content Area

Back in December I wrote about how I have been experimenting with inquiry circles.  You can read that post here.  I have continued implementing ideas I learned while reading the book, Comprehension & Collaboration: Inquiry Circles for Curiosity, Engagement and Understanding by Stephanie Harvey and Smokey Daniels.  During the winter I began an inquiry unit on slavery and the Underground Railroad.

First, I would like to say that this topic is not part of our official third grade social studies units.  So, why did I choose this topic? Over the years that I've taught elementary school I have noticed a lot of confusion surrounding African American history.  I've had numerous students after reading about Martin Luther King Jr, ask if he "freed the slaves". While reading various picture books that either focus on an African American or a topic in African American history I have many students ask questions during the reading that often surprise me.  One such question is, "What is a slave?" And while I always answer these questions I have been surprised at how many of my students are either confused about or don't know just a little bit about our African American history.  Their knowledge at best is very superficial.  And when I do answer questions I often feel like I am just skimming the surface and there is so much more I would like them to know! Every time I share books or talk about Martin Luther King, Jr and the civil rights movement I have felt like there was a big piece missing.  So that question that so many of my students had: "What is a slave?" or "What is slavery?" turned into an inquiry circle.  It wasn't long until that question morphed into "Why was there slavery?".

I began by reading several picture books to introduce the topic of slavery in America. One of my favorites was Now Let Me Fly: The Story of a Slave Family by Dolores Johnson.  It is a fictional story about a young girl kidnapped from Africa and sold into slavery. It is not a pleasant story and doesn't have a happy ending, but my students were riveted, shocked and had so many questions afterward. This is exactly what I wanted - they had bought in and wanted and needed to know more.

I decided to use the Underground Railroad Scholastic website for our internet research.  It it well put together, in chronological order and used a lot of primary documents as well.  In addition, it gives students the ability to listen to the text as well.  This was important since there was so much new vocabulary and the text could be challenging at times.  Students would work in partnerships to read, discuss and take notes on each section of the website.  Each partnership used one computer.  This kept them focused on collaborating. This portion of the research took a LONG time due to limited access to computers and the fact that they are 8 and 9 years old!  There were many lessons on collaboration - how to listen and have a conversation. There were lessons on how to read and understand the text - how to reread, how to notice when you are confused, noticing important vocabulary, asking further questions.  There were note-taking lessons - using 3 column charts to note our new learning, questions and important vocabulary, learning to reread our notes often.  Periodically, we had whole class discussions about our learning and questions.  An important idea that we explored was noting our misconceptions.  As students began to read about the Underground Railroad I knew it would be difficult for them to understand that it was not a real railroad.  There were several days of discussion before most of the class began to realize it was a symbol or metaphor for escape. (They did not use those terms!)

When we weren't in the computer lab or using the chromebooks with our school librarian, we were reading the book, If You Lived When There Was Slavery in America by Anne Kamma.  This is a great non-fiction books for third graders because each chapter or section has a question as the title.  Students were divided into cooperative groups.  I gave each group a different set of chapters from the book to read together and take notes on.  Later each group taught the rest of our class their sections of the book.

As our research started to come to a close I began thinking of ways my students could share what they learned.  I decided to have them write slave narratives.  Each student would tell their story as an escaped slave, writing in first person.  In addition, I decided to have them do this in a Google document.  This would be the first time they would type a long piece of writing in Documents. Prior to this they had only used Google Presentation and Draw, but this had provided the practice they needed to get familiar with the keyboard.  They clicked away with one or two fingers fairly quickly! A link to their slave narratives is available on our class blog.  Just scroll to the bottom of the page.

During the time I was planning this inquiry unit a discussion began on twitter and other social media regarding the depiction of slaves in the book, A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall.  I read all the tweets, blogs and comments surrounding the book and hope I have learned a lot and am a better teacher because of these discussions.  But I will admit that I was even more nervous about teaching this unit!  What if I did it wrong?  I am white.  Do I have enough understanding of the topic to teach it to my students?  Yikes! But then I thought back to the 8 year old Debbie, back in third grade, in 1968, living and going to school in a suburb where everyone looked like me.  That little girl went to the library and checked out a book on Harriet Tubman.  That little girl cried and cried over that book.  That little girl wondered why she hadn't learned about Harriet in school. That little girl went back to the library to learn more.  It's with that little girl, that little Debbie (pardon the pun) in mind, that I tried to create an inquiry circle that would encourage my students to learn more.  

I will close with one last story.  As students were peer editing their documents I heard this comment. "Your narrative is so good, it makes me want to cry."