Monday, February 21, 2011

Laura Ingalls Wilder in 140 Characters or Less

The On the Banks of Plum Creek unit is coming to an end, which means its time for reflection. (Read more about this unit in the Literature of True Life post.) As I think back, I’ve realized that, during this unit, one of the most helpful resources was Twitter.

At first, I had reservations about using Twitter. (Would the hype overshadow the educational aspect? Would my students understand how to use this tool to express their understanding of what they read?) Each student chose a character and wrote a main idea Tweet for each chapter from their characters’ point of view. As the unit progressed, my fifth graders enjoyed posting and their Tweets were usually accurate, insightful, and even entertaining.

Some Tweet highlights:

At the beginning of the story, the family arrives at the dugout house after traveling in a covered wagon across the Midwest.

@Laura (the main character): Finally I got here. I’ve been waiting to get out of the wagon and walk for months!
@Jack (the family dog): I have been traveling for days. I am exhausted and I arrived at the dugout!

Later, Laura is exploring Plum Creek and runs into a badger.

@Laura: I was scared because I saw an old gray badger, but I never saw it again. Pa punished me and I was so bored.
@Pa: (the family patriarch): Laura went back to the lake and saw an animal and ran away. I punished her for one day.

In The Haystack, Laura and Mary repeatedly play in a haystack even after Pa tells them not to.

@Jack: I can’t believe Mary lied to Pa like that about playing in the haystack. Pa must be really mad. This is so out of character for Mary.
@Pa: I yelled at Laura and Mary for wrecking the haystack that I made.

In one chapter, Pa and Ma are coming back from town and their oxen run away with the wagon. Pa has to stop them from running into the creek.

@Jack: I was so scared, my master was in danger, I was glad he got ahold of Pete and Bright.
@Pa: I came back to the dugout and brought candy. I almost died in the creek because the cows did not stop.

After using Twitter for seven weeks, here’s what I noticed:

Tweeting definitely helped my students crystallize the main idea. They showed me each Tweet before they posted it and I could immediately tell if they understood the chapter or not. If they didn’t get the main idea right away, we revised the Tweet together.

Writing their Tweets was an opportunity to review sentence structure, capitalization, and punctuation rules. Because they were only writing a few sentences, my students were able to really focus in on making that sentence as clear and complete as possible.

Twitter connected them to a larger Laura Ingalls Wilder community and fan base. My students connected with Little House fans @TrundlebedTales and @HalfPintIngalls, as well as resources @LIWMuseumWG (the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Minnesota) and @LHOTMuseum (the Little House on the Prairie Museum). This expanded their idea of how other readers engage with the Little House books and made them feel a part of something larger than the classroom, the ultimate goal of social media.

If you’re thinking about using Twitter, Once a Teacher… has a helpful blog post about getting started. 

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Literature of True Life: On the Banks of Plum Creek Discussion

In my literature group, we’re currently reading Laura Ingalls Wilders’ On the Banks of Plum Creek. In addition to some basic pioneer and Midwestern history, On the Banks is the core of our unit on main idea and memoir.

A quick primer: in On the Banks of Plum Creek, Laura and her family (Pa, Ma, older sister Mary, and baby Carrie) move into a dugout house on a creek in Minnesota. Laura, the energetic, tom-boy continues to develop her sassy persona and alternately helps Pa around the farm and gets into mischief—an ongoing discussion among my students has been Wilder’s portrayal of Mary as a stick-in-the-mud contrasted by Laura as the fun-loving one. They’re convinced that Wilder overemphasized the “timid, boring” Mary and “fun, rowdy” Laura in the story, just as they, if given the chance, would recreate themselves as more fun than their siblings in their own memoirs.

Anyway, I’ve been impressed at how well my students have understood the fundamentals of this book and have enjoyed working with them on two key activities: portraying main idea through Twitter and dissecting memoir. 

Main Idea Tweets
At the start of the book, each of my students chose a character to portray through a Twitter account. I set up Twitter accounts for them and a few times each week they Tweet the main idea of the chapters as we read them. I connected them with some friends and followers, from my sister and mother to children’s libraries to a bona fide Laura Ingalls Wilder expert, Sarah Uthoff (author of Trundle Bed Tales who gave us a shout out).

Twitter helps my students understand the importance of writing a concise, clear main idea, even as they focus on point of view. One student chose Jack, the family dog, and each chapter he has to write the main idea from the dog’s point of view, even when his character isn’t included or mentioned. One recent Tweet from Jack’s perspective: “I can’t believe Mary lied to Pa like that about playing in the haystack. Pa must be really mad. That is so out of character for Mary.”

As a teaching tool, Twitter has required a lot of supervision, including technology permission slips, setting up accounts under my name and email address, and monitoring their use of the site. They love using Twitter, though, and so far haven’t missed a Tweet.

Memoir and the Reliable Narrator
In the discussions of On Plum Creek, we’ve discussed difference between biography, autobiography, and memoir, which was a new concept for them. We’ve also discussed just how reliable memoirists are, or aren’t.

In a recent discussion, we talked about just how much information Wilder may have changed or omitted when she wrote her story. Along the way, one student brought up the idea that Laura may not be as reliable a narrator as we initially assumed and we’ve discussed how that affects our reaction to her work—how do we understand this account of life on the prairie if we can’t completely trust the memory of the person who wrote it? And, where does autobiography end and fiction begin?

So far we’ve focused on the important events that Wilder includes (a sunrise that was as exciting to her as Saturday morning cartoons are to today’s nine-year-olds) and how clear those memories would be to her as she wrote decades later, as well as the idea that authors can write their stories for a variety of purposes, including entertainment. It’s Wilder’s story to tell, after all.

Here are memoir and Laura Ingalls Wilder Resources that I’ve found helpful:

The Little House Books web site and an eThemes Resource Page for On the Banks of Plum Creek. Also, check out Trundle Bed Tales' Blog Talk Radio.

This Scholastic article about encouraging kids to write their own memoir includes a good blend of reading and writing instruction. 

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Newsroom Blog: A Starting Point

As a former full-time writer, the project of writing a classroom blog holds special interest for me. The challenge: can I instill a passion for writing in my students? And, can I get them to be genuinely motivated to work to make their writing better for themselves and for whoever reads their work?

To start our classroom blog, when we returned to school in January, I told my students that we would be writing a classroom news blog, asked them to choose a “beat,” reviewed how to compose a sentence as well as basic punctuation and capitalization rules, and discussed the basics of Internet safety.

The second week, each student worked on an article about how schools addressed the problem of Silly Bandz in classrooms. We read through a Scholastic News Article about Silly Bandz (gaining fluency practice in the process). Then, each student wrote two paragraphs, one describing the issue, and another about their opinion on schools banning Silly Bandz. After they were off and running with their pre-writing organizers and the rest of the week progressed in the style of a Writer’s Workshop, with conferences, assignments, and publishing on the Web.

As this project has progressed, I’ve noticed a few things:

First, my students were very good at following my directions about what and how to include information describing the Silly Bandz issue. One unforeseen result, their first drafts were dull and lacked real voice. So, on Thursday, as they worked on their second draft, I taught a mini-lesson on how to add themselves into their writing (add their experience with Silly Bandz in the introduction, or come up with a creative solution to the Silly Bandz problem, for example). Then, I required them each to go back and add their voice. Thank goodness they followed my directions on this one too! Their final drafts were much less monotonous.

So far, it’s been pretty easy to differentiate for my students. This week, as they’ve started working on their own “beats” and are reporting on everything from dolphins to the future of cars, I’ve been able to find material that each of my students can work with (videos, podcasts, articles at varying reading levels), which allows them to develop independent work skills and helps them feel real ownership over their work.

As they research, they’re building reading fluency and comprehension skills. They’re constantly going back and rereading their articles to find answers to questions or to refine their information. During our conferences, I ask them to read parts aloud to me, which has been a great way to increase their fluency practice. After they work independently, reading their articles and answering questions on a pre-writing organizer, I review their work to gauge how well they’re understanding what they read.

Finally, the blog, even though its just on our school Intranet, is enough of an external audience of peers and teachers to get them excited about publishing. I’m hoping this enthusiasm will grow as they become more familiar with the technology (this week they spent a lot of time logging on and figuring out how to navigate the site, post comments, etc).

If you want to start your kids on studying news, check out Teaching News Writing from Scholastic

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Technology Review 2010

I firmly believe that, when used with intention and purpose, technology enhances learning for students, and understanding how to use and adapt to current and future technology is a quality that all students need. So, one of my professional goals for 2010 was to incorporate more technology into my classroom. This was no small feat, considering that I have no computer aside from my personal work-issued laptop, so my students (in groups of three to eight) have to share one computer with a lot of teacher oversight when they do use the computer, which isn't often.

Still, thanks to generous donations this year, my students were able to work with a variety of technology tools, here's the round-up:

eInstruction Clickers

In August, I received a generous donation of "clickers," an eInstruction CPS IR System. The "clickers," a student communication device, look a little like Wii controllers, with buttons that the students push to select answers on my computer screen. I was surprised at how quickly my students took to them and they've been a great addition. Some of my students favorite activities:

Clicker Sound Sorts: Students who are working on phonics match a letter with a picture. For the letter M, for example, their choices may be pictures of a moose, elephant, or fish. The kids love to click in, see their clicker's number turn dark blue, and encourage each other to get the "right answer". I've also used clickers to have students identify long and short vowel sounds in words (click A if you hear a short vowel, B if you hear a long vowel).

Reading Comprehension: I've used clickers to set up storybook reading comprehension quizzes for young students that include both text and images in responses to questions like "Where does the Grinch live?" (answer: a cave) and "What was the Lady Next Door doing to annoy Harry?" (answer: singing loudly). The addition of images along with written answer choices, allows all my students, regardless of reading ability to participate and be successful. In my literature group (fifth grade students) I create multiple choice reading comprehension quizzes based on the novel we're reading and the standards they're working on (identifying literary tools, for example). With my older students, creating reading comprehension quizzes specifically for their skill level has been very helpful and it's made me a better question and answer writer as I have to think about what I want my students to identify in each question and how I want them to think as they're answering it.

Math Review: Every week or so, I have my students in a fourth grade math group review use clickers to answer either math review questions or speed fact practice.

ePod Handheld Learning Device

There's a new start-up in Chicago that's focused on hand-held learning devices. ePod Club provides ePods (iPods configured with learning apps and eBooks). They provided one for my students and asked me to help try it out. Using the ePod apps, I've noticed a few things:

It's great for math fact practice: My fourth grade math students require a lot of extra subtraction, multiplication and division fact practice (as I'm sure many other fourth graders do as well). Our ePod came equipped with math fact practice games that focus on speed and accuracy and the kids love to play them. I've used the ePod as a learning tool for "down times" when students have to wait (for another student to finish a test, when something unexpected comes up), and as a part of our schedule. Thanks to the ePod, with my smaller groups, I've set up Math Center time that involves a rotating schedule of time on the ePod, time on a computer game, and time playing fact practice games. Throughout the past eight weeks especially, I've seen my students' multiplication and subtraction fact practice skills improve remarkably.

Also on the ePod, games for phonics and word review consistently engage my students who are working on phonics and basic reading skills. My younger students love the tactile nature of the ePod as they identify letters and read stories. It's a popular "center time" activity for them as well and they'll sit on the rug engrossed in a game or story for as long as I'll let them. One kindergarten student, who loves playing the letter games, has increased his knowledge of letter sounds from three to 13 in the time we've worked together.

Portable DVD Player

My classroom also received a donation funded through Donors Choose of a portable DVD player and phonics DVDs. We just received the DVD player and are still receiving all the DVDs so we haven't been able to make full use of it yet. However, I have used the player with DVDs of read-along stories with students who are working on reading comprehension. The students watch a DVD of a familiar story (Where the Wild Things Are, for example) and then complete comprehension questions about it.

In 2011, I'll be starting Technology Centers that will involve rotations between computer learning games and DVD phonics and sight word videos that reinforce the letter of the day or sight word of the day.

So far this year, one aspect of tech that's been driven home to me: it's all in the planning! Technology has the most impact on student engagement and learning when I plan it just as much as I plan a paper and pencil lesson. For me, this has included really understanding and getting to know the technology inside and out, and scripting it into lesson plans and routines so that students understand how and why we use the technology to reinforce old skills and learn new ones.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Looking Back and Looking Forward: 2010-2011 Round Up

'Tis the time of year for reflection and goal-setting. I really like this time of year and tend to go through Year in Review photo albums, magazine issues, and top-ten lists ad nauseam. Then, when I've had enough nostalgia, its time for the Top 10 Tech Predictions of 2011, Top Ed Trends for 2011, and so on. As other educators are setting goals and intentions (find inspiration at Edutopia), here's what I'll remember from 2010 and what I hope to remember from 2011.

Looking Back
In 2010, I went to Peru and volunteered with Manos Unidas. In August, I was able to integrate more technology through very generous donations. We focused on Fluency as I worked with my students to identify and improve their reading skills and habits. But by far, my favorite lesson of 2010 was a discussion that centered on finding truth in fiction, because the resulting discussion epitomized what I want my student's literature discussions to sound and feel like.

Looking Forward
In 2011, my goal is to continue what we started in August when it comes to creating students who dream and wonder as they read, who are transfixed with topics and places and who want to explore and create through nonfiction and fiction, books and multi-media. Now that I know my students very well, I also want to focus on their inherent interests, which range from science to technology to popular culture, to develop their reading, analytical, and writing skills. 

So, in that spirit, my initial intention with my group of third, fourth, and fifth graders is to create a classroom blog (check out the Edublog here) thanks to a new-to-us donated computer (thanks Mom and Dad!).

As 2011 begins, look for more about our new blog, and about the challenges and successes of developing students who read, research, and write for a purpose. In the meantime, if you're an educator, what do you remember most about 2010 and what intentions or goals have you set for 2011? 

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Fluency Finale: The Grinch

The fluency unit came to an end this week (see previous post for more) with a readers’ theatre reading of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. This week the students read their play to the kindergarten classes instead of into a podcast. The script did, indeed, give them a chance to read with expression, however Grinch-y. They loved presenting to the kindergarteners (I asked the kindergarten teachers to rate their performance, they averaged four stars).

At the end of the week, I was looking forward to testing their fluency. I use the DIBELS to progress monitor their reading each month. They’ve been making gains, typically one or two words gained per minute, so I was really hoping to see great leaps this month with all the extra read-aloud practice.

On Friday, (drum roll please!) I was ecstatic to calculate their Words Correct Per Minute (WCPM). I had them read a passage at the DIBELS level they’re working at (typically one to three levels below grade level) for three minutes, marking errors and minute marks. Then, I calculated the WCPM and accuracy (words read correct/total words read). I was so pleased to see that each of my students improved a lot! One improved his WCPM by 16 additional words per minute, a 26% increase, and another increased by 9 WCPM for a gain of 50%, in just one month. And, their accuracy increased a well, which I was even happier to see. 

Looking ahead to 2011, fluency will remain a priority, especially now that they have a better foundation. Next up: reading fluently, for comprehension.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Fluency Update: Reading Punctuation

I have been working on fluency skills with my group of third, fourth, and fifth grade students this month (see previous update). Mid-way through the focus on fluency, they’ve all had the chance to read and record a play podcast at least once, one group has completed the process of reading, practicing and recording a podcast twice.

This week, I realized just how difficult it is for some students to separate reading fast with reading well. Working with one student who read through the script with the cadence of a semi-truck flying down a hill with broken brakes, I stopped him over and over to try to get him to read the periods and commas. Even after I modeled the right and wrong ways to read punctuation, and explaining why reading the punctuation was important, it was really difficult for him to slow down. Part of the problem for this student was that he’s a kid who likes to get things done fast. He play sports and the faster he runs, the better. We’ve been working on math fact practice and he’s gotten better and better at doing multiplication faster and faster--the more multiplication facts he recalls in five minutes, the better he feels about his math ability. And, in some aspects, he’s been encouraged to read faster and faster. This year, he’s shown a lot of growth in his reading skills, and part of that has been the timed reading that we do together once a month for progress monitoring. His Words Correct Per Minute (the, however faulty, measure that we use to track fluency) in a third-grade reading passage has doubled since September and I know that’s something he’s proud of. So, slowing down is also an old habit that’s dying hard. By the end of the week, when he recorded his podcast, he was able to slow down a little, but it’ll be a skill we continue to work on.

Coming up, it’s Christmas all around (it’s the last week before Christmas break and, as I always feel this time of year when kids are gearing up for winter vacation and Santa’s visit, it's best to go with the holiday cheer). One group will be practicing a rendition of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, a play that I thought would give them a chance to practice reading with a certain curmudgeon-y, grumpy, exasperated tone that they don’t often get to employ. My other group finished their play reading and have moved on to writing a skit of their own, for the novel they’re writing The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson.