The Last 20 Days of Literacy Learning: 16-15 Days to Go, Literacy & Math

Post #5 in the Last 20 Days of Literacy Series… Written after the teaching week on Sunday morning while savoring a cup of coffeewell, three cups of coffee.

All posts in this blog series can be found here.

A few years ago, I was given the best advice about teaching math that I have ever received.

Christina, you will start feeling more comfortable with teaching math as soon as you make the decision to approach it in the same way you teach literacy.

Those words, spoken by my friend and then math coach, Mangla Oza, have stayed with me years later. Mangla’s words have propelled my math thinking and my students’ math learning forward since that day.

Like many of you, as an elementary school teacher, I am responsible for teaching all subjects- not just the subjects that I have most intensely studied as a student myself. If you’ve taken a look at the requirements of elementary school teachers, or if you are one yourself, you know that this is no easy feat. In my multiple subject, self contained, fifth grade classroom, lesson design, implementation, reflection, and redesign is a constant process- the kids are new each year, therefore so are many things I do. No two classes ever receive the exact same experience- nor should they!

So, for the past few years now, I’ve held Mangla’s words close. Those words have actually guided much of what I do across the entire teaching day. I now approach math (and all the other elementary school subjects) with the same thinking that guides my reading and writing decision making.

When thinking of a new lesson, I first think about what my students already know. Then, I consider ways to get them interested. More often than not, the way to get them interested is to tap into their curiosity and invite them into inquiry.

I attempted this on Thursday and Friday when we we started a study of circles. That’s right- Pi Day came late to fifth grade in room A1 at Nixon School this year. Back in March, on March 14th specifically when Pi day is traditionally celebrated in schools, we weren’t in a place in our studies where we could just throw in Pi. It would have been out of place and not exactly meaningful. Now that we are concluding our geometry unit, I thought I’d introduce it. I knew the interest was there, and gauged that my kids were ready to dig into this study based on many different assessments- informal conversations, observation during group and individual work, and student math work samples.

After some informal assessment- asking who was familiar with pi and how to measure the dimensions of a circle and listening to partner talk, we dove into inquiry using this web page on Smithsonian’s site: A World Full of Circles.

As an entire class, we viewed the first two circles on the page as a group. I invited students to ask and jot down questions, describe what they noticed, and to think about these circles using our first draft of a guiding question: Why are circles important?

After doing this with the first two images, I invited students to go through this process on their own or with a partner. So, they busily got to work observing, wondering, noticing, questioning, chatting, and jotting…

After my students’ exploration time, we shared our thinking, questions, wonderings, noticings, and observations as a whole group. My entire goal for this first day was to get students thinking and wondering about circles and why they are important. Well, as a group, we came to realize that important was not exactly the best word. We revised our initial guiding question of why are circles important, and narrowed down our new guiding question to a few contenders:

Why do developers make communities and other places circular?
Why and how are circles so often found in nature?
How can circles be made to look perfectly symmetrical?

What more can we learn about circles to apply our own lives?

The next day in class, we revisited circles. We talked a bit about our ideas from the day before and angled our workshop time to explore circles found in the classroom. So, I invited the fifth graders on an exploration of sorts- I invited them to view the classroom in a way they never had in their first 164 days there. I invited them to view it as a place to explore circles.

After student exploration around the classroom, I then introduced a way for us to think about how mathematicians might start to measure and compare circles. I wrote terminology used when thinking about circles on the whiteboard, modeled how to measure the different aspects of a circle under the document camera, and then invited students to try it on their own with the circles they found in the classroom. So, off they went to explore measuring circles…

Many students in class already had background experience with this vocabulary, as is evidenced in some of their writing from the day before. But, for others, it was brand new.

Having the time to think about this terminology, apply it to the work they did in discovering and exploring circles around the classroom, and then ultimately reflecting on what they learned through discussion and writing (some examples of this are seen below), naturally provided access points for all students. They all came to this work with different understandings about circles, and were all offered a way to explore them that hopefully fit their academic and intellectual needs.

In reflecting on the past two days’ math lessons, I’m realizing that the more I infuse the moves of good literacy instruction into my math lessons, the more engaged my students are with the work. The more engaged they are with the work, the more they will benefit from it.

Some of these moves I borrowed from literacy instruction included invitation into inquiry, reading and viewing images and descriptions, lots of group and partner discussion, writing to question/wonder, writing to think, writing to discover, and writing to reflect.

I used to think infusing literacy into other subjects meant reading aloud a picture book to go along with a lesson. I still think this is a good practice, but I now know that this practice needs to be a bit more intentional…

On Thursday, the first day of this study, I decided to read aloud a picture book that I felt would complement the lesson nicely. If you’re an upper elementary teacher or middle school math teacher, you probably guessed correctly that I read aloud Sir Cumference and the First Round Table. During the first few pages, my fifth graders loved the clever play on words, and even tried to figure out the math diagrams displayed on the pages. Then, the conversation took a different direction altogether…

"Why is it all men at the round table?" 

"The one woman is solving problems and not getting any credit."

"That's not right."

"But, it's fiction!"

"Well, the author could have decided to make things different."

I couldn’t help but smile inside when this conversation arose. It certainly isn’t one I intended, but it was an unintended bonus. My thinking then went into a different place. I thought that maybe this isn’t the best book to share with my students because it perpetuates the misguided idea that men need to be in charge. However, without this book, this conversation wouldn’t have happened on Thursday. It’s just something more to reflect on, and should probably be a whole blog post on its own.

Who knew our math learning could take us in so many different, yet really important directions! I’m really looking forward to continuing this exploration next week.

Magic seems to happen when the moves of literacy instruction are infused into math class. Perhaps there are many math teachers out there who knew this all along. I’m still on my learning journey with this idea, and it’s a wonderful journey to be on!

Now, imagine if instead I just assigned my students a worksheet?

The Last 20 days of Literacy Learning: 17 Days to Go, Interruptions Galore is No Excuse

Post #4 in the Last 20 Days of Literacy Series… Written after a day of not much instructional time.

All posts in this blog series can be found here.

Take a look at today’s teaching schedule. As you can see there was not much instructional time. If I had absolute control over my teaching day everyday, it would probably look different than this. Alas, I teach in a school community that highly values learning outside of the traditional elementary school subjects of reading, writing, and math as much as it values learning inside of those subjects. While the lack of traditional academic instructional time irks me on days like this, when I take a step back and think about the benefits of all of these programs, I realize how fortunate my students are to receive consistent learning in the arts and physical education. It’s rare. It shouldn’t be.

Where I teach, days like this are a common occurrence. The scheduled assembly, music class, and PE class are completely out of my scheduling control. Plus, every Wednesday is an early dismissal day for students. While all the other days of the week students are dismissed at 2:30, on Wednesdays, they are released at 1:20. Our Wednesday afternoons are dedicated to staff, grade level, IEP, SST, and parent meetings. On the rare Wednesday where we don’t have a meeting, we might have a district-wide professional development afternoon, collaboration time, or teacher prep time. Obviously, my instructional time is limited on Wednesdays- even more so today due to the hour long assembly this morning.

However, lack of instructional time is not an excuse for robbing kids of precious learning moments. I’m a firm believer that we must make use of the valuable little time we have on days like these. Also, the saying that we make time for what we value is so true. If we value it, we do it.

Years ago, I made the deliberate choice to make time for self-selected independent reading every single day. Some days, independent reading time lasts 45 minutes. On days like today, we independently read for 15. Those 15 minutes of time matter.

We should never discount even small chunks of time- we must make the most of the valuable little time we have on the days where we feel like we have no time at all.

The Last 20 days of Literacy Learning: 18 Days to Go, Book Clubs!

Post #3 in the Last 20 Days of Literacy Series… Written in a mad hurry as I’m leaving school soon to head to San Francisco with a few colleagues to see one of their sons in a play! Have to squeeze in some fun, as all work is just not good for this teacher’s soul. Never feel guilty about having a little fun.

All posts in this blog series can be found here.

Our final round of book clubs is going strong! Right now, some of my fifth graders are finishing up their journeys to Hogwarts, The Land of Stories, and Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (I still need to travel to this last one, myself!). While some are finishing their journeys, others are just now embarking on new adventures with Roz the Robot and Mibs as she discovers her Savvy.

The fifth graders are all in different places in their club reading- which has been a huge adjustment for me as a teacher. Some are finishing books, others are starting new ones, a few are in the middle of their books, and one club is taking time to seek out a new book. In prior years, I determined the focus of the club discussions and reading schedules so they would all finish at the same time and focus on the same ideas. I used to feel that I would be able to more closely keep track of their thinking and progress through a book by determining everything myself. Well, now that I’ve let go of control by allowing students to have complete choice of their book, club schedules, and how to run their discussions, I noticed they are more engaged while reading, and their discussions are much more meaningful with each other. **Huge note- it took a ton of modeling, lessons, small group work, and conferring for us to get to this point. It did not magically just happen back in September! Perhaps I’ll explain more in a future blog post.

Our book clubs will probably take some students up until the very last week of school. Because some clubs will finish before the last week, those students will decide if they want to continue reading something else together or if they want to focus on their independent reading choices during club time. The important thing here is that all students are engaging in reading and thinking- the rest is just the details.

The Last 20 days of Literacy Learning: 19 Days to Go, Reading with Our Buddies

Post #2 in the Last 20 Days of Literacy Series… written in a bit of a rush after school! All posts in this series can be found here.

One of the biggest joys as I have as a teacher is watching kids fall in love with books. One of the most effective ways to support kids in finding this love is by modeling it.

All school year long, not only have I modeled this love for my fifth graders, but my fifth graders in turn have modeled it for our kindergarten buddy class. My colleague, kindergarten teacher, Stephanie Han and I have developed a system where 1/3 of my class goes to her class three times each week for buddy reading. Sometimes we go as a whole group, but most of the time we go in thirds. Today was a whole group day. Sometimes, the fifth graders bring a picture book to read to their buddies, while other times the kinder buddies read through their book stacks on their reading mats to the fifth graders. Stephanie and I plan to continue buddy reading up until the very last week of school.

The benefits of multi-age buddy reading are truly endless. In addition to the fifth graders modeling a love of reading for the kindergarteners, the kindergarteners are supporting the fifth graders in using the important (and often an afterthought in school) life skills of patience, kindness, empathy, and mentorship.

Buddy reading is a wonderful year-long endeavor that I will long hold tight to even with other interruptions and requirements abound. In elementary school, there is nothing more important than falling in love with books. One of the best ways to do this is by reading and talking with a mentor on a consistent, predictable basis.

The Last 20 days of Literacy Learning: 20 Days to Go, The Art of Comprehension

*Disclaimer- this blog series will most likely not include poetic, profound writing. Rather, it will consist of on-the-fly quick writes after my teaching day during the last 20 days of school. Reader, you’ve been warned.

Today marked day 160 of the school year. My fifth graders have 20 days left of elementary school. While we have many typical end of year festivities ahead of us- assemblies, kickball games, a pool party, promotion practice, a class party, a middle school tour, and the big promotion ceremony on the last day, we still have quite a bit of literacy learning ahead.

Rather than detail the entire day in each blog post in this series, I plan to share one or two things we did in class to continue the literacy learning through to the very end of the school year. I decided to write about the last 20 days of school for a couple reasons…

First, the last couple weeks of school do not need to be viewed as throw-away, meaningless days which often ends up being the case. These final days will likely be the ones many students remember. How do I want my fifth graders to remember their time together in my classroom?

Also, over the past few years, I have become increasingly interested in why many kids tend to read less and less on their own as they get older. So, I’m trying my best to help my students build a love of reading and writing as they leave elementary school, and hopefully continue that love in their own lives away from school. This has actually been my #1 goal all year.

As you can probably tell, I deem these last 20 days as critical ones- in my opinion, they are actually more critical than the first 20 days of school.

My goal with this blog series is to do a little bit of writing on our literacy learning in class each day, but the reality may end up being that I write about it every few days- you know how crazy the end of the school year can get! However, despite the craziness, the literacy learning will go on. It will matter. It will count.

Thanks for sharing in the literacy love and learning of the last 20 days with me!

20 Days to Go, trying something new…

The Art of Comprehension

Finally, after reading Trevor Bryan’s fantastic book, The Art of Comprehension, I introduced his Access Lenses to my class earlier this week. The Access Lenses support students in thinking more deeply about viewing art, and in turn transferring that framework for thinking over to their reading and writing.

Earlier this week, we viewed and engaged in a wonderful conversation around The Library by Jacob Lawrence. Students discussed how color and body language can give us clues to mood. The conversations were vibrant as students openly shared their differing opinions grounded in the Access Lenses that Trevor offers in his book.

Then, earlier today, during our class read aloud of The Thief of Always, I noticed my students’ conversations shifted a bit. I heard them talk about mood in reference to how the author, Clive Barker, wrote about and described facial expressions and body language. Many of them even asked to look back in the book during independent reading time to think about earlier scenes in the book using the Access Lenses. WOW! They asked to look back in the book- sure, by all means, have at it!

Now that I have finally introduced my students to the Access Lenses and saw how they have a huge impact on understanding and response, I wish I started with this work earlier in the school year.

Next school year, I plan to start right away with The Art of Comprehension!

It turns out, the last 20 days of school is a great time to try something new.