Saturday, August 23, 2008

My Summer Ends

Were my summer goals met? Well, I gathered a nice big bunch of poems and read the teacher guide book to the Nancie Atwell Naming The World poetry resource book. And I am super psyched to start *doing* poetry with my students each day. I am a bit scared of the performance part of the routine, but I'm convinced it's critical and I'm sure excited to try it out.

I completed a unit plan for Ancient Egypt and I gathered and ordered all the resources I'm going to need for a unit on microorganisms.

I only found a few excellent short stories but I might use some of the stories in the basal we've been given and part of my Donors Choose proposal for literature groups has been funded, so I'm optimistic about having enough resources to run strong small groups.

My other big accomplishments this summer? I took my 3 girls to Yellowstone for their first time. I won The Legend of Zelda on the Wii. I visited my sister in Fresno for a week. I started reading more adult books than I have for the last few years. And I watched every episode of all 5 seasons of The Wire. I learned to enjoy my summer vacation so throughly that I'm actually having a hard time getting my passion for teaching up to its normal levels of intensity. Please don't get me wrong. I still love teaching and I'm excited to be going back to work soon. But I've also learned how to really enjoy my time off. What I'm hoping is that my ability to RELAX well will mean that I'll be able to stay in this wonderful profession for many years to come.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Home Visits

Last year, for the first time ever, I dropped by the homes of each of my students before the first day of school. This evening I finished these visits again, and it's a tradition I'll likely continue to the end of my teaching career. Why? It's wonderful to have such a positive first contact with both my students (who are happy to get their little Welcome Back gift bag,) and also with their parent(s), who like to get the supply list and are most often tickled and grateful to have me stop by, and either introduce myself, or if I already know them, to just say "Hi." There was one mom last year and then another one this year who seemed annoyed---but the huge majority of parents seem to sincerely appreciate the gesture and they make it well worth my time and energy.

And--I guess it goes without saying--I learn stuff about my students that I might not ever otherwise learn; if they have younger siblings they care for, if they live in an apartment or in a house, and sometimes whether or not they have grandparents or aunts or uncles or cousins living with them. I'm about to start my seventh year of teaching and I've spent all my years at the same school. I love the neighborhood where I work and walking and driving around the area helps me feel even more connected to the wider community.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Making Good Use of Volunteers--how??

I had such a thoughtful comment on my last post that I felt it worth throwing another question out into our lovely little cyber-teacher-lounge.

I teach at a Title 1 School and my students have a wide range of abilities and backgrounds. I'm firmly committed to reading and writing workshop models of language arts instruction. For the first time ever, last year, our school had an abundance of adults from local businesses and church groups, who were willing to spend an hour or so each week volunteering. Most of them want to work directly with kids. I wanted them to work with my middle and high readers, but these kids got understandably annoyed when I asked them to read their choice reading books out loud to the volunteers.

What are some of your ideas and experiences in making good use of the time and efforts of adult volunteers (parents or others)? Particularly as a support for reading instruction of older elementary school kids?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Read-A-Thon Musings

Yesterday and today, next to a cool blue pool in sunny California, three friends and I have been reading The Brothers K, my all-time favorite novel. We planned this read-a-thon event months ago, and it is kinda like a dream come true. Reading my favorite book, along side a handful of thoughtful readers, interrupted only to enjoy a dip in the pool, a fruity drink, or a delicious meal--I honestly couldn't dream anything better.

A couple observations---we're all "good" readers. Duh. But we read at very different paces. The big range in our reading speeds has become quite pronounced as we've all 4 been reading the same book. There comes a point, between 3rd and 6th grade, me thinks, when the darn DIBELS booklets ought to be flushed down the toilet. Perhaps they have a very limited utility, but PUH-LEEZE. They are even better than AR tests at obliterating thoughtful reading and beneficial teaching.

I was imagining a lot of rich and exciting discussions between the 4 poolside readers, but I have realized that the joy of shoulder to shoulder reading is more about the companionship of carrying on 4 separate but simultaneous conversations between each reader and David James Duncan. Yeh--it's cool, of course, to read funny lines and nod in agreement at well crafted scenes. But this kinda talk has been about ten minutes of our sixteen hour read-a-thon. The joy of doing it together is just in knowing these characters and this story are dwelling not just in my imagination at this instant, but in Julie's, Lisa's, and Connie's as well. And eventually, I'm sure, we'll feel comforted in sharing the grief of a sad story, and the final joy of a triumphant story--but sharing that sadness and joy doesn't take a whole lot of talk. It's more about sympathetic head nodding and back patting. When we're all finished I'm sure we'll all have some thoughts to exchange. But the true beauty of this experience has been rather simple--reading a good book right next to a friend or two who are reading the same good book.

I know we're expert readers here in California today and what I'm extracting from this as far as classroom teaching goes isn't so much that we don't need small reading groups or literature study. But the focus of these groups and of most of our reading mini-lessons ought to primarily be about how to have that rich conversation and experience with the author and the text. For many books, it's not great use of reading time or that interesting or instructive to have belabored discussions with peers. (Maybe??)

I'm still figuring out how to balance independent, choice reading and individual conferences with small group work. I had a great year, last year, putting into practice Nancie Atwell's Reading Zone model. But I do believe there's a value to small group instruction and I want to get that part of reading workshop down this year. I'm still not sure how I'm going to do it though, probably with lots of short stories and shortish novels that the students read in their entirety before we all get together to talk.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Memoir Monday

My sister Lisa and I were in our early twenties. We both still lived in Salt Lake City and spent time together often. One Sunday afternoon we took a trip together to the the downtown library.

Once inside the library, we went our separate ways. I was working part time at an alternative high school and found myself looking through stacks of books for young adults. About an hour later we passed each other going opposite directions on the escalators. Lisa whistled--a quick high note, a quick low note--our secret signal. I went back down again and we started sharing our book finds.

"There's this one book I really want to read, but can't find," Lisa said, holding up a scrap of paper. Written in pencil were the words, Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson. "I read about it on the internet and really want to read it. The computer catalog says it should be here, but it's not on the shelf."

I shifted the stack of books in my hands and pulled a hard back from near the bottom of my pile. It was the very book she was looking for. "How'd you...." Lisa started with a puzzled look.

"I thought it looked good," I shrugged. We both shook our heads in silent amazement. We've always had our brain waves set near the same frequency, I thought, but this is incredible. Of all the books in this five-story building, we both found and decided to read the exact same one.

Ten years later: she's a young adult librarian and I'm a sixth grade teacher. And we swap book recommendations often.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Ancient Egypt Unit

As per a few kind requests, here's a basic outline and links to resources from my unit on Ancient Egypt.

For this, and all of my sixth grade social studies units this year, my big picture purpose can be captured with this lofty vision:

A knowledge of world history informs our understanding of and our ability to participate thoughtfully in an increasingly global society.

Along side this worthy goal, lifted straight from the Utah State Social Studies Core Curriculum:

Help young people develop civil competence, with the ability to make informed decisions for the public good.

The essential questions for this unit are quite a bit more down-to earth:
  • How did geography influence Ancient Egypt's emergence as a strong and distinct region?
  • What were the main features/achievements of Ancient Egyptian culture?
  • How were the government and economy structured?
In the spirit of backward design, my next step was to think about assessment; the particular concepts I want students to know and the particular things I want them to learn how to do. For this first unit I want them to take some first, solid steps in content literacy and research skills. They'll follow a model they can use later by taking notes on 5x7 index cards, and learn how to put ideas from primary and secondary sources into their own words and how to reference these sources. Rather than written reports or poster presentations, for this first unit, they will give short oral presentations based on their research notes.

The specific vocabulary and concepts that I expect them to master are: archeology, pharaoh, scarab, sphinx, obelisk, sarcophagus, hieroglyphics, scribe, North Africa, the Middle East, papyrus, and cartouche. Grades for this unit will be based on participation in group activities, oral presentations (including research note cards), completion of class work, and a short quiz.

Introductory Activities: A short power point imagining a visit to modern Cairo (Mrs. Frizzle style). Clips from a movie available to Utah educators on Pioneer's eMedia called Beyond our Borders. KWL charts.

"A Day in the Life" lessons straight from PBS, here.

In groups of 4 mummify apples.

In the same groups of 4 students will research assigned topics, using books and internet sources, as well as topic folders compiled from this Primary Source kit. I have some ideas for these topics, but will also base them on the students' interests as demonstrated on their KWL charts.

Final art project (and to break-up oral presentations over three days): make our own 2-D sarcophagi including cartouche and burial masks.

Additional resources which I'll soon have linked on my class web page and might use during this unit:

Mummies of Ancient Egypt
Gift of the Nile
BBC Ancient Egypt (includes two great interactive activities)

Please let me know if this compilation of resources and unit outline is useful. The process of putting a unit together is important, as it forces you to think through the interaction of literacy and content goals as well as sift through lots and lots of resources and activity ideas to select the ones you think will work best for you and your students. Also, feel free to recommend additional ideas or resources.