The Last 20 Days of Literacy Learning: 14 Days to Go, A Little Self Reflection

Post #6 in the Last 20 Days of Literacy Series… Written in quite a rush after the teaching day and right before heading to the Shark Tank in San Jose to see my beloved San Jose Sharks take on the St. Louis Blues in game two of the Western Conference NHL Final. GO, SHARKS!

All posts in this blog series can be found here.

This will be a quick one…

After our class novel read aloud for the day, I introduced my students to a new project we’re embarking on as a reading community. I told them that each of them will create slides to accompany a book talk that they will give on the day before our last day of school. Their task was to think about and choose the book that meant the most to them this school year for this project, and create the book talk and accompanying slides around it.

Cheers erupted! The fifth graders were so excited to jump into this new project! We’ve both written books talks and created Google slides before. So, I decided just to let them have at it. I figured they could just start without having to listen to me talk much further. So, after not saying much more than that, I invited them to get to work.

A few students jumped up and proceeded to walk to different areas in the room to grab their reading notebooks, Chromebooks, and pencils. Others walked over the the Books We’ve Read Together bin to look through our class read alouds to jog their memories about the different books we’ve read as a group this year.

However, over half of my class remained in the meeting area. One student asked a question. I answered it. Then he got to work. Another student did the same.

Eventually, I had a line of students in front of me who needed clarification about our work for the period. At first I was admittedly a tad frustrated- why weren’t they just getting to work? We’ve done this before. They know how to do this! What’s the issue…

I then realized it. It was like a big lightbulb went off while ten students were staring at me waiting for their turn. I was the issue.

Clearly, I did not model, show an example, or even sufficiently explain how to get started in this work. I made the assumption that they could just get started without much direction of any kind, and I assumed wrong.

Sure, many of my kids were off and running with their pencils flying across the page or their chosen books already in their hands being reread. However, most were not. I did not give most of them what they needed to get started. So, instead of letting it go and answering their questions individually, I stated out loud, “Please quickly give me an indication if you feel I need to better support you in getting started.”

Heads started nodding, a few hands went in the air, some gave thumbs up, and a sense of relief washed over many faces.

So, we started over. Those who wanted to keep working kept working. Most met me back down in the meeting area and I got a do over.

When I was in my teaching credential program at San Diego State University back in 2001, a wise professor told our cohort of eager student teachers this about classroom management… “When there’s an issue, first look in the mirror before you look in the microscope.” I keep this advice with me even 18 years later.

After looking in the mirror, realizing I was the issue in class today, and then forgiving myself and reteaching the lesson, my students started writing and creating some incredible book talks and slides.

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.