Sunday, August 29, 2010

Rethinking Beginning Assessment: How Soon Is Too Soon?

Early Assessment
In many ways I miss the earlier days of my teaching. I miss the first few weeks of school when we could get to know our students and build our community of learners. We can still do that, but there is now this pressing need to assess our learners early. We are in the first days of school and students are leaving my room to be assessed by intervention teams.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm all for having helpful information about my learners. I'm all about knowing where they are and where they need to go. I think it's important to know what they have under control to find ways to support their learning. I assess my students often, and adjust my instruction accordingly.

I've worked on the intervention side of instruction so I understand the need to get students identified quickly, placed in groups, and positioned for thoughtful instruction. But I'm wondering - just wondering - what would happen if we slowed down a bit in those first weeks? What would happen if we gave learners a few weeks to get back in the groove of school? What would happen if we spent time getting to know what our children CAN do through observation and reflection? What would happen if intervention teams started with the students whose previous year's data demonstrates, without a doubt, they will qualify for services? What if, within the other slots, intervention teachers went into classrooms and worked alongside the teachers to get to know students?

Assessment vs. Observation
So how soon is too soon to assess? This difference between assessment and observation is critical at the beginning of the year. Intentional observation, instead of formal assessment, during the first four to six weeks of school allows children time to get back to what they knew and get comfortable with the teacher and learning environment. It allows us to get to know our students as individuals. This time, will allow the rest of the year to be more focused and intensive in instruction. This time, allows me to see what students know, the strategies they utilize and how they respond to instruction.

In our district we are fortunate to have strong data from our previous year's teachers. I start my year by looking at the previous end of year's assessments. Using previous year's assessment information I can find out strengths of my new learners. I look for strategies they have in place in literacy. I can also find commonalities among students. I place books in baskets on tables which I think would match my learners. Then I watch. I provide opportunities for writing. Then I watch. There are times for conversation. I listen. As students read, write, and talk I confer alongside them to add to what I know about each child as a learner. Read aloud, shared writing, and interactive writing also allow me to discover strengths of my new learners.

Observing Students in the First Weeks
During my time as a Reading Recovery teacher we were taught to begin our weeks of instruction with "Roaming in the Known". My trainer was adamant we respect this time to get to know our students, establish a rapport, and discover all children COULD DO. It wasn't a time to teach, it was a time to observe. It was a time to see what children knew about language, the ways they construct knowledge, the strategies they use to read and write, their ability to monitor and self-correct, and note learning strengths. It wasn't a time to record what they couldn't do. It really wasn't about what they couldn't do. It was about discovering what they had under control to use their strengths to teach into new learning. I use this "roaming in the known" thinking to guide my observations in my classroom during the first weeks of school.

In the first days of school I prepare my assessment notebook, and take notes about what I notice students are able to do. I also take the time to find out about their interests and attitudes about literacy. Here are some questions I consider as I work with students during the first weeks of school:
  • How confident are learners?
  • What are their attitudes about reading and writing?
  • What do they prefer to read and write about in our workshops?
  • Do they read and write with purpose?
  • Do they have a sense of story?
  • Is there a match between literacies (is there a match between what they know in reading and writing, or a difference between the two)?
  • What oral language structures do they use (do these carry over to their writing)?
  • Do they monitor and self-correct?
  • What is their experience with books, writing, and story?
  • What strategies do they have in place for reading and writing?
  • What do they know about letters and words?
During the first days of school these questions will guide my thinking as I observe my students during various learning opportunities. Discovering and celebrating all they can do in the first days of school, instead of quickly assessing my students, will give me time to see all they know and how they transfer this knowledge to new situations. It also gives me time to get to know them as readers, writers, thinkers....and the amazing people they already are.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Picture Books, A PLN, and Possibilities: A Thank You

August 10 for 10
Nothing like having a big event and then disappearing for 10 days. Since completing our Picture Book 10 for 10 August event, I had to shift gears to get in back to school mode. Lots to do!!! I couldn't, however, not say a few words about our event.


It's really all I can say. When Mandy, of Enjoy and Embrace Learning (Mandy's reflection is here), and I developed this crazy scheme of a picture book round up to share 10 books every classroom library should have, we had no idea it would turn into such an event. The response was much greater than we anticipated thanks to so many friends and bloggers who thoughtfully participated by sharing the books they love having in their libraries.

Picture Book Must Reads!
The result was a "jog" of 40 blogs; each sharing their 10 favorite books. There are many spins and twists on the event that are worth checking out so make sure you go through all 40 steps. Here are a few of the twists you won't want to miss (all are in the jog as well):

A PLN: My Inspiration
We were thrilled that so many of our friends and local bloggers joined the event. This group is always an inspiration to me. They keep me learning, buying books, and trying new ideas. You won't want to miss these: Literate Lives, Raising Readers and Writers, Two Learning Journeys, A Year in Reading, Learn Me Sumthin', Wandering and Wondering in Libraryland, Teaching in the Tech Frontier, Teaching in the 21st Century.

Mandy couldn't have said it better when she said, "Technology is a powerful tool to connect people. Technology is a powerful tool to share ideas." I was completely unprepared for the power of a hashtag, #pb10for10, and my Twitter friends @Saskateach from A Work in Progress, @LiteracyCounts from Room to Grow, @bookblogmamma from Ready. Set. Read!, @mrs_honeysett from The Hive, @tessasdad from Stay at Home Dad in Lansing, @TeachJohnson from Random Thoughts of a Teacher, and @JulieHedlund from Write Up My Life. In addition to many many other Twitter colleagues who helped spread the word. What a wonderful PLN!

Special Mentions
I would be remiss to not thank a few friends who helped spread word of the event.
Thanks to:
@MaryLeeHahn for sharing the information about the event with the Kidlitosphere. This really helped get the event off to a great start. Mary Lee, you rock!

Nancy Ehlrich (@NancyTeaches). Nancy not only passed word along through Twitter, but she also wrote an article about the event at Thanks, Nancy!

Brenda at Choice Literacy (@ChoiceLiteracy). I was surprised to see a link to the event jog on the August 14th Big Fresh Letter. It made my day! I'm not sure how Brenda keeps up with everything going on in the Literacy world, but her site is a constant resource for so many educators. Much appreciated, Brenda!

Special thanks to everyone who contributed (there are so many more!). It was such fun because all of you joined in the conversation. I'm truly honored to be part of this learning community!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The "Final" List: August 10 for 10 Picture Book Event

The Event
It's finally here! Today I am co-hosting the August 10 for 10 picture book blogging event with Mandy from Enjoy and Embrace Learning. All posts will be linked to both of our blogs. Mandy will be putting together a summary of posts, and I've created a jog to allow you to view all the posts from a common link. A jog allows you to page through all of the posts much like turning the pages in a book. When you click here to go to the jog you will be able to see the "table of contents" of posts. We are thrilled to have so many blogs joining the event. If you're looking for new books for your classroom, for your children, or as a gift you'll want to stop here.

Finally, My 10
For days and days and days you've heard me talk about choosing 10 picture books I can't live without in my classroom. You've watched me tweet, tweet, tweet the links (#pb10for10). I've probably driven a few Twitter friends crazy with my event updates and reminders. Consider yourself lucky. At home, my family has watched me collect picture books, rearrange stacks of picture books, and talk about the reasons I love certain books. I've had picture books stacked on tables, across the living room, and on the couch. They've heard me moan and groan because I just couldn't get my list under 15.

So here it is...the moment we've all been waiting for. Was I able to narrow my collection of picture books to 10 "must haves"? (Yes, I'm cheating a bit with the picture. Rules were meant to be broken bent, right?)

Have you ever been to a restaurant and been unsure of what to order? You're wrestling between a few dishes, and decide to just wait until the waitress or waiter comes to make that final last minute choice?? Well, that's pretty much how this choosing 10 books event is going for me.

The List
OK...the moment you've I've been waiting for. Here are the 10 picture books I think are must-haves. This is my list and I'm sticking to it (for today):

1. The Great Gracie Chase by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Mark Teague.

This is the one book I am keeping from my original list in More Than Guided Reading. (Of course, I still love all the others!) Gracie is a dog who loves quiet. All was quiet and well until the day the painters came to the house. That's the day of the Great Gracie Chase.

This book always has my students spellbound. Rylant has a way with words. Words like "ploop-ploop", changes in sentence length, and repetitive phrases make this a book that is fun for the voice. The story begs to be read quickly...then s l o w l y..., then loud, and then soft. Like all picture books, this book should be read and enjoyed over and over just for the rhythm of the words and the meaning of the story.

Later, it is a good book to revisit as a writing mentor and for reading focus lessons. I've used it to talk about repetition, character, and turning points in stories (among other things). Last year, my students decided our reader's workshop needed to be a place that Gracie would come visit; a quiet place where you could hear "the quiet fish going 'ploop-ploop'". Gotta love that!

2. Good Boy, Fergus written and illustrated by David Shannon

What is a list without David Shannon? There was no way my list could be without him. Let's be honest, young children love David Shannon. How can they not? David Shannon is the perfect author for any primary classroom. Like my young writers, David Shannon writes his own words and draws his pictures. I think this is a powerful example. After much debate about all of his titles, I chose Good Boy, Fergus! for my list. Fergus is not a very well behaved dog. If you read only the words to this book, you'd think Fergus was the perfect dog, but when you look at the illustrations quite the opposite is true.

Young children love this mismatch and play between the words and the pictures making it a good book for discussion about inferring. After hearing the story, the books are easy for emergent readers to return to reread over and over again. Another must-have.

You thought #3 would be another dog book, but that would have only worked if I would have chosen The Pigeon Wants a Puppy. Instead I chose this one, Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! I know you've all seen it, but it is a "must have" for children.

In this story the pigeon has a burning desire to drive a bus. Mo Willems, who also writes his own books and draws his own pictures, sets up this story as if the pigeon is directly talking to the reader to get permission to drive the bus. There is a lot of begging and pleading to drive the bus. Will he be permitted to drive it? You'll have to read to find out. (The pigeon also does his own tweeting on Twitter. If you're not following him you should be. Lots of laughs.)

Young readers enjoy the speech bubbles and young writers quickly want to give them a try. This is one of those stories children want to hear over and over again. It's also another book emergent readers can hear and then read over and over again.

What is a list of picture book must-haves without a wordless picture book? There are many good wordless picture books to share with students. Wordless picture books are great for discussion and for language development. (Susan, of The Book Maven's Haven, discusses the benefits of wordless picture books and has suggestions for using them with children here.)

I stumbled upon this book, the most recently published book in my 10, last year. It was a hit in our classroom. In this story, some children go to the playground where they find a bag of chalk. When they use the chalk to draw pictures the drawings come to life. You can imagine the problem when one of the children draws a dinosaur on the playground. This book is perfect for demonstrating to young writers that a story can be told with pictures. As readers, much thinking goes into understanding this book. It provides many opportunities for teaching.

My class spent much time debating whether the events "really" happened in the story or whether the kids imagined it. They loved talking about what they would draw with this special chalk.

I seem to have a collection of books with beautiful language (except the wordless book above, but students create beautiful language for it) and this book is no exception. Kitten is out for the night and sees, what she thinks is, a bowl of milk in the sky. She tries and tries to get the bowl of milk, but with little luck.

Children are always caught by the repetitive phrases Kevin Henkes uses in this book which are characteristic of much of his work. Children chime in on repeated phrases like "Poor Kitten!" and "Still, there was the little bowl of milk, just waiting." repeat throughout the story. In addition to trying repetition, writers like to try the way Henkes uses several frames of pictures on a page to tell about a series of events.

6. Tough Boris, written by Mem Fox, illustrated by Kathryn Brown

Mem never lets down a crowd, and this book is no exception. Maybe it's because I can hear Mem Fox whispering in my ear that if I'm going to read her book to my class I better put my heart and soul in it, or maybe there's something about the arrangement of words, but I swear her books must be magic. Students love them! They love to listen to them being read over and over again. They love to reread them and take them home.

This story is about the pirate, Boris von der Borch. Boris is a pirate like all other pirates, but he has a soft spot in his heart for his pet parrot. This book is one of my favorites because of the see-saw structure of the text. "He was massive. All pirates are massive." This pattern continues throughout the story. It is a pattern readers can readily see, and writers can easily try.

7. Ladybug Girl, written by David Soman, illustrated by Jacky Davis

Students can easily identify with Ladybug Girl. Mom is busy, and big brother has plans, so Lulu is told she'll have to find things to do on her. This is no problem for this imaginative child. Like any super hero, Ladybug Girl, can get through anything. Lulu is one of those strong characters developed exceptionally well by the author which makes this book an excellent choice for character discussions.

Eileen Spinelli is one of the authors I've recently fallen in love with for my classroom. She has such a wide variety of texts of varying topics and varying styles. This book is about a stray cat who has kittens in an abandoned building. Unfortunately, the building catches on fire and her kittens are lost in the heat and smoke. Will they be safe?

This book tops my list for read alouds which make great discussion about various thinking strategies used in reading. In my first grade classroom we work determine the difference between a good citizen and a hero. This book is perfect for helping kids to begin to gain an understanding of heroism. Is this cat a hero?

Of course, my favorite thing about this book is the author's note in the back. Here Eileen Spinelli discusses an article she read in the newspaper about a homeless cat who rescued her kittens from a building that was on fire. She wrote the story to honor the 10th anniversary of this rescue. (Another reason it is perfect for our 10 for 10 event. Sorry, I just couldn't resist.) It is powerful for students to see the connections authors make which give them ideas for their writing. Ideas are everywhere.

On a side note, Eileen Spinelli's website is one of my favorite author sites. Make sure you stop by her monthly poetry post. A delight!

9. The Recess Queen, written by Alexis O'Neill, illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith

This book is one of the best read alouds of all time, in my opinion. In this story Jean is a recess bully. She always got her way, and if anyone gave her trouble she'd "push 'em and smoosh 'em, lollapaloosh 'em, hammer 'em, slammer 'em, kitz and kajammer 'em." Scary, huh. That's how it was on that playground until a new girl named Katie Sue came.

This book, like the Great Gracie Chase, is perfect for reading aloud. Changes in print size and placement cause the reader to slow down, speed up, change volume, and adjust intonation. At one point in the story, Katie Sue stands up to Mean Jean and the other children stop. At this pivotal point the story reads, "No one spoke. No one moved. No one BREATHED." No matter how big the group, this point in the story has always silenced the room. You could hear a pin drop as they wait to see what Mean Jean does.

My friend, Deb, sold me on this book. She actually tried several times. She kept handing it to me, and I kept passing it back. Finally one day, I really needed a book to help one of my young writers. He was a terrific illustrator; drawing trucks, cars, space ships, animals, etc.. I kept trying to help him to take these drawing and turn them into characters with stories, but he wasn't buying what I was selling. That's where I Stink came to the rescue. I needed a good mentor text for making books about cars, trucks, trains, etc.. So, Deb handed it to me again, but this time I really took a close look. I was sold. I purchased a copy of this book, and other books by Kate & Jim McMullin, this summer. Children will enjoy having them in our classroom library.

Stink is a garbage truck who tells about his day on the job. This book has so much voice. You feel like you're chatting with Stink. The author uses text placement, punctuation, and changes in font to help the reader read the book the way it was intended.

A Reflection
Choosing 10 books every classroom must have was a real challenge --- much more than I had anticipated. There are so many terrific authors, and so many well loved picture books. The hardest part was not having a list that is characteristic of everything I think it is important to have in my classroom library. In our library I want students to be able to find a variety of genres including fiction, nonfiction, literary nonfiction, fairy tales and poetry. Our library needs to be multicultural. I want all of my students to be able to find themselves in our library. I work to find books that appeal to the interests of boys, girls, builders, singers, budding scientists, and pet lovers. This list of 10 in no way manages any of that.

Most of the books I chose are books with strong characters and powerful language. I've discussed some ways they can be used in the classroom. Some are perfect mentors for writing, and others are better for anchoring conversations in reading. However, books that are this well written can work for about anything we are teaching in the classroom, especially the myriad of reading strategies readers must use to understand stories.

Most importantly, all of the books listed above are loved by children. I've realized my list are all picture books I love to read aloud, and books students love to listen to over and over again. Mem Fox reminds us, "The literature I heard, rather than read, as a child resonates again and again in my head whenever I sit down to write." (p. 68, Radical Reflections).

So these are my 10 --- for today --- August 10th. We'll see about tomorrow....

Monday, August 9, 2010

Only 10 Picture Books?!?! What To Do??

When Mandy of Enjoy and Embrace Learning and I started bantering back and forth about the 10 books we couldn't live without in our classrooms, I had no idea it would turn into this fun blogging event (Twitter hashtag #pb10for10). Of course, I also hadn't prepared myself for the challenge of narrowing my stack to just 10 books.

I went to school to pick up some favorites. That really did not go as planned! Can you say, OVERWHELMING!?! There were so many picture books I knew my students had loved over the years. There were so many books students took home night after night. I've been updating my library so there are also new books I recently purchased which I am certain will be a success in the classroom. There were authors to consider. How could I have a list of 10 books without Mem Fox, Eric Carle, Eve Bunting, Cynthia Rylant, Eileen Spinelli, David Shannon, Kevin Henkes, Robert Munsch or Mo Willems (among others)? You see my problem.

So, I decided to make a list of criterion for a book that is a must have in the classroom. Surely that would help. I was still struggling. I wrestled with the idea of choosing the 10. Should they be books children just love to hear? Should they be books I like to use for writing mentors or books that work well for reading focus lessons? I chose my books, but you can see

I still had a problem....

So tomorrow you will see if I have managed to narrow to 10 (I'm interested in the result as well!)....

Tomorrow's Event:
We have well over two dozen blogs that we know will be joining us in the event, and I expect others as it wasn't necessary to reply your intent to participate. The collection of bloggers is diverse in many ways so the lists should be useful to many readers. I can't wait to see everyone's "must haves"!! (I'm saving my money for a few new purchases.) After reading e-mails and messages from other participants I know there are going to be some great spins on the lists (can't give those away though). Stop by and check it out!

If you would like to join our 10 for 10 blogging event, we'd love it! There's still time...

To Participate:
Write a post about the 10 picture books you couldn't live without in your classroom. Sometime during the August 10th event, comment with a link and brief description of your post to my blog or to Mandy's at Enjoy and Embrace Learning (no need to link to both). Your post will be linked to both of our blogs. Mandy will be posting in a summary format, and I'll have a jog of all posts.

Join us for tomorrow's August 10 for 10 "must have" picture book blogging event.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Originally uploaded by Catmere
Look what came today!! Last year's students gave me a gift card at the end of the year. As you know, my plan for the summer was to update our classroom library. I've been visiting book stores and following blogs all summer so my cart was getting full. Last week I purchased my books, and have been waiting for them to arrive.

I returned today to find them waiting for me!! When I was in school my mom always allowed us to order books from the Scholastic book order. I loved ordering books, but the wait for their arrival seemed forever. This was much the same. I'm pretty sure I was as excited about these new books for my classroom as I was about the books I used to get from those elementary book orders.

Thank you to my amazing class!! (Next year's group appreciates your kindness.) I'm wishing we could get together so I could share some of these new titles with you. Stop by to see them.

Digital Writing Workshop: Confessions of a Not-So-Techie Teacher

"When we simply bring a traditional mind-set to literacy practices, and not a mind-set that understands new literacies into the process of digital writing, we cannot make the substantive changes to our teaching that need to happen in order to embrace the full potential of collaboration and design that digital writing offers." Troy Hicks, Digital Writing Workshop p. 2

An Ending
Tonight was the last night of our book talk about the Digital Writing Workshop by Troy Hicks. Several teachers, in an effort to think more about the use of technology in our classrooms, have been gathering to discuss the book and its implications for our work with children. The group has been a diverse gathering of teachers with different positions and varied levels of tech experience. Julie, of Raising Readers and Writers, was kind enough to host the summer meetings. The bonus to this is Julie is also quite a cook so we were tempted with delicious treats at every meeting.

At first glance one might think this book is written more for teachers of older children, but I found it to be easily applied to younger students. More than a book about tech tools, this book was about pedagogy. Hicks really made us ask questions about our practice as teachers of writing. Our group found there to be plenty to talk about at each meeting. Throughout the course of the meetings I've realized that my thinking needs to move beyond, "What tools should I use?"

I wrestle constantly with my thinking about technology. I know I should not be thinking about it in a separate way from our curriculum, but somehow I'm always finding myself thinking about it as its own entity. Technology needs to be woven into the learning we do. As I said on Twitter, I'm thinking technology should be developmentally appropriate, match curricular goals, encourage collaboration and inspire higher level thinking. Will Rich perhaps said it best on Twitter when he asked,

@willrich45: When can we stop saying that tech. is a priority in schools? Curriculum is where tech. discussions need to start, right?

A New Beginning
So where am I now? Thankfully our group has decided to continue meeting to discuss how it is going in our classrooms. We've learned we can support one another in this endeavor. Our last few meetings have been like treasure hunts; each person sharing some new "gold". It is pretty funny to see everyone sitting around with their laptops up, bookmarking feverously. I know I can't make these shifts alone. I'm counting on two tech groups, my teaching partners, Twitter friends and our technology support person to hold my hand. It takes a village to raise a teacher using technology!

It's hard to share a post like this, knowing that much of my thinking still needs to grow and change. There's still uneasiness as I wrestle with decisions of what is best for the children in my classroom.

Here are some shifts in my thinking thanks to this book talk:
  • I used to think writing was about putting pencil to paper, but now I know it much bigger than that. Writing isn't just about writing anymore. It's about composing a message for an authentic purpose. There are now multiple ways to compose a message. Writers Composers (what is the word now?) will need to have a flexible knowledge of tools they can use to create a message.
  • I used to think purpose was a lot about what the author wanted to say, but now I think it is about how the author wants to impact the world with her/his message. While purpose has always been important in writing, it is even easier to see how clearly pivotal it is in today's world of media. There are so many formats to choose from when planning a message for others. There are so many ways to communicate and purpose needs to determine the format and tools for communicating.
  • I used to see audience as (sorry to admit this!) peers, families or maybe the school community, but now I see the audience as moving beyond our classroom walls to communicate a message to a much larger community/world. Never before has it been so easy to publish our writing and thinking. It is now possible for students to easily have a voice that is beyond the circle of peers in our classroom.
Now I'm wondering:
  • What about space? How will I set up my classroom differently to allow for more use of technology tools in our learning? Mary, of Teaching in the Tech Frontier, really has me thinking about the way I will design my classroom to allow for greater utilization of technology.
  • What is important to consider about safety and security? As we become more comfortable with web 2.0 tools I think we will learn to think realistically about safety. Students need to learn how to make good choices to safely use the internet (it's their reality), and they also must understand how to create a positive digital footprint. How will I help students with this? What is the balance between getting student voices into the world while protecting their safety?
  • How will I manage all of this??? I'd be fibbing if I told you I didn't worry about the management of technology with my first graders. I'm pretty sure my back-to-school nightmares will involve tech this month. However, I know it is a shift I need to make. I will be implementing some tools into our learning in much the way I teach everything. I will start using them with the whole class in "shared reading/writing" experiences. Then I will begin to use them with small groups, and finally students will be able to flexibly use some applications independently.
  • Where will I find time? You would laugh if you were in our tech group meetings. Everyone is playing with new applications and tools. It's never quiet. People bounce from group to group. You'll hear exclamations of, "I didn't know you could...". Kids need this same opportunity to explore. I have to respect that and find time for it in our day.
  • What applications and tools will be useful to my students? I've been viewing class websites, reading blogs, trying new tools and applications, to see what will work with my students. I'm starting to narrow my list of possibilities. I'll share soon...

When I am thinking about technology in much the way I think about pencils, crayons and markers in my classroom I will know I have finally woven it into the fabric of curriculum. Until then, I will keep plugging away.

Other Book Talk Links:
My wallwisher of quotes from the book.
Julie started a wallwisher of links.