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. 

Sunday, December 5, 2010

On "Passion"

Recently, I saw the education documentary Waiting for Superman with my parents. Afterwards, over lunch, my father shook his head. “Watching that makes me think that nothing will ever change,” he said.

“Then do something about it,” I countered, and went through the now clich├ęd save-education to-do list (write your senator, get involved in the school board, educate yourself, read Whatever It Takes) to no avail. Eventually, I gave up convincing Dad and we moved onto other topics. Still, his despondency nagged at me; I don’t think his reaction is at all unusual.

As a teacher in a charter school that serves a low-income, immigrant community in Chicago, I work with large class sizes, students who are working years below grade level, and teachers who work around the clock to help students succeed. Despite the challenges, I believe that things can and will eventually change. But, people have to get riled up to change it—call it stubborn, foolhardy, or call it a “passion for education.”

The idea of “passion” is one that comes up often. Pretty much every teacher claims to have a “passion for education” and the idea of “passion” for students, or for learning, is thrown around so often that at times it seems to have lost its meaning. So, I was pleased to come across Steven Anderson’s recent blog post in which he argues that passion is a prerequisite for any kind of educational reform and I couldn’t agree more.

In his post, Anderson outlines his definition of passion in education is (I’ll refer you to his blog post for more) and I challenged myself to do the same. So, here are my personal criteria for passion in special education:

Passion is coming to school every day committed to meeting each child where they are, whether that means handling a temper tantrum before you’ve even finished your coffee, figuring out new ways to teach phonics to a child who’s struggled with reading for years, or losing your planning period to help a student.

Passion is advocating for your students’ academic and emotional needs, and not accepting limitations, ignorance, or insensitive comments imposed on or about them by adults.

Passion is building classrooms that are learning environments for all kids, including buying materials after school-provided resources run out, planning lessons that meet their learning needs when there are none in the curriculum, and going off-lesson to teach the skills the kids need right now.

Passion is doing what’s best for your students, even if it means going back to the drawing board and recreating a lesson cycle from the beginning when you realize it’s not working, changing your behavior to meet the needs of a child, and starting with empathy every time you approach a challenging situation.

Passion means not letting yourself, your colleagues, or your students reach the point of apathy, no matter how difficult it is for the students to learn, or you to teach.

Passion is building relationships with individual students, teachers, and parents, and working within those relationships to collaborate, solve problems, and move forward together.

While I’m sure that education in America will get better, I’m also just as sure that nothing will improve without passion to drive it. If you’re an educator, parent, or just a tax-payer or documentary-viewer, what is your passion for education? And, what will you do with it? 

Fluency Update: Reading The True Story of the Three Little Pigs

I started the fluency focused readers’ theatre lesson cycle this week (as mentioned in last week’s post). To start the three-week lesson, six students in third, fourth, and fifth grade practiced The True Story of the Three Little Pigs.

On Monday, they were introduced to the idea of reading fluency (it’s “reading like you talk,” as defined by one of my students) and started reading the scripts. At first, I had them read the scripts in pairs, alternating lines, so that they had the opportunity to read the entire script through instead of memorizing a few lines. On Tuesday and Wednesday they kept reading different roles and worked on answering comprehension questions about the play. On Thursday they got their official “roles” and on Friday they read their scripts into a podcast recording. Throughout the week, we talked about how to increase fluency—working on words in the script that were hard (porker, wrong, and honor) and adding voice and expression to the lines.

Over the course of the week, two things surprised me. First, they didn’t get bored. I was worried that, reading the same lines over and over would become tedious, especially for these students who tend to jump to the next book, activity, or even sentence before fully understanding the initial one. But, when it did get a little boring for them, I was able jump in and challenge them with prompts such as: How do you think the wolf would say that? Or, imagine how you would feel if you were in that situation, how would your voice sound?

I was also surprised at how easy to find “new” learning for every student. On Monday, they were all working on decoding and phonics, though some more than others. By Friday, two students were still decoding and working on phonics. Two others were working on increasing their speed and accuracy with the lines. And, the final two were working on adding voice and expression where they hadn’t before. That was a nice change—usually, in a one-week plan that focuses on a specific skill, by Friday I have kids who are bored and kids who still “don’t get it.”

This coming week, they’ll be working with scripts that are a little more challenging but, judging by the comments after they recorded The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, (That was fun! Are we recording next week too?) they’re ready for it.