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." 

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Technology and Digital Learning: Reflection, Update and Status of my Teaching #CyberPD

Around this time of year I always start reflecting on my current year of teaching.  Last summer I participated in #Cyber PD Google Community, which caused me to stop and reflect on my use of technology.  You can read my posts here, here, here and here.

I wanted to write an update on my current use of technology and my current mood/philosophy regarding technology in the classroom.  A couple of things have changed since last summer.  Our school got a cart of Chromebooks for the library and the district hired a full-time library media specialist for our building.  We still don't have wireless in my hallway, but I hear the district is working on that.  I also hear they are purchasing another cart of Chromebooks to be checked out for the classroom.  This, in addition to a computer lab is good news!

I still believe that technology should be used to help students create, collaborate and share their learning.  In general, I'm not interested in the next best app or gadget just because it's available and all shiny and new.  Whether it's an old fashion pencil, book, or electronic device I always ask myself one question.  How will this improve my teaching and students' learning?  If a notebook and pencil works best, than I'm still going to use it! Last summer, I have to admit, I felt envious of all the 1-to-1 i-pad and Chromebook classes.  It was frustrating to see the inequity across schools in regard to technology.  This fall and winter, as I dreamed of my own 1-to-1 classroom, I realized that I needed to decide what that exactly meant to me.  What would I do if I had access to devices all day long?  Would I use them for everything?  Since I don't have 1-to-1 devices yet, I can't tell you what exactly I would do, but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't use them for everything.  Here's why;  First, I just don't think it's healthy for children to sit in front of a screen for long.  Elementary students need to touch and manipulate paper, pen and math manipulatives.  They need to use oral language.  They need to lay on a beanbag and read.  And, yes they need to do the physical act of writing.  And they need to do it a lot.  I also think it's important for students to have choices and know when to use technology.  So right now, for me, a 1-to-1 class means that my students would have access to the technology whenever they need it.  They don't have to sign up to go to the computer lab.

One thing that has come up quite often this past year, at least in my school district, is whether or not teaching third graders to use Google Drive is appropriate.  Many teachers argue that without keyboarding skills, students cannot successfully use Drive. It is my opinion that Google Drive is definitely appropriate for third graders!  Yes, they are very, very slow with the keyboarding skills, and it takes most students 1-2 sessions just to learn how to log onto their account.  But we must remember that learning is a process, it is not about a product.  I start with Google Draw and Slides which allows students to get familiar with the keyboard without having to type an entire document.  I also think it's important for teachers to understand that Drive is so much more than a word processing program!  Right now my students are creating their first Google Document.  They are pecking away much quicker and finding the right keys.  Using Draw and Slide, along with working collaboratively, allowed them time to learn the keyboard and how to format text so they were ready for independence.  My access to computers is very limited, so I didn't want to use that time with a formal typing program.

Other Changes
I started a class twitter account and still have a class blog.  One goal I had was to blog more regularly.  This didn't happen, so I need to re-evaluate my class blog and whether I will continue blogging.  I did revamp my class website and I think it is very useful.  I am particularly proud of my Symbaloo page.  It allows my students to easily access different Internet sites that we use. I continue to use Wonderopolis for shared reading, but also added DogoNews.  I tried out Bookopolis with my class, but students really don't use it due to our limited access to computers.  My class has visited the library often to use the Chromebooks for several inquiry projects.  You can read a post about it here. It has been wonderful to work alongside our new library media specialist.

Next year some things will be changing.  I've decided to move to 5th grade.  I've been in grades 1-3 for the last ten years, so I am excited and nervous for the challenge of a new grade.  I have loved every grade I have taught.  There isn't a big reason for the change, it's just something I have been considering for awhile.  I started my career teaching 4th, which made me a better 1st grade teacher, which made me a better 2nd grade teacher, which made me a better 3rd grade teacher, and that will make me a better 5th grade teacher! I look forward to using Google Drive with my fifth graders and exploring other digital tools as well.