Saturday, September 27, 2008

Elvis and Olive

I thought this was a fantastic book. I loved the characters: book smart, lives-in-her-mind, socially reserved Natalie, and "feral cat" Annie (Natalie's description). The opening scene is their very strained but hilarious first encounter. They become fast friends and immediately form a secret club, with secret names (Elvis and Olive) and the secret mission of uncovering as many "good" secrets about their neighbors as possible. The two girl spies are good at their self-assigned task and manage to uncover some secrets that lead to tricky situations and more power than they know how to responsibly handle (including secrets about each other). The lessons they learn about friendship and privacy and community are rich and are very well earned by the careful story development and true to character writing. Stephanie Watson zooms in on what it's like to be a 10-year-old girl with that same sweet accuracy as Jenny Han does with her 12-year-old characters in Shug.

I hate that this great book about ten-year-old girls will be a rather hard sell with my eleven-turning-twelve-year-old students. Sixth graders are fussy like that. I think I can make the hard sell, and I'll put some serious effort into it because the reading level of the text is right at the "enjoyment level" of my students, because it's a story I think they'll delight in, if they give it a chance, and because I think it's far better written than those silly vampire books that my students can't get enough of.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

7 Things I Adore About this Class

It will take me a few years of teaching straight 6th grade classes to tease apart which of these are attributes of generic 6th graders, and which are simply unique traits about my current class, but here are my 7 favorite things, so far, about my current students:
  • They can work in small groups, for 40 minutes, with no major hitches. They can work together to complete at least a full page of written instructions.
  • They are already readers and writers.
  • They have a lot of self-awareness. They know what kind of books they like and what kind of writing pieces they prefer to work on.
  • Most of them know all of their basic math facts.
  • They're brave. They've already shared things during our Community Circle time that fourth graders would never share until December (specific fears and hopes).
  • They have "good student" habits, like returning homework and studying their spelling words.
  • They're very compliant and easy to manage. Nobody's had to go to another class for "think time" yet and minus a couple of small ADD issues, there are very few interruptions related to poor behavior/choices.
We've been reading Tangerine as our first read aloud and it's going well. I wish the plot was faster at the beginning, but we're already past that initial steep slope and we're currently enjoying the very thoughtful main character and complex themes.

I've been scrambling a bit to find enough new choice reading books for all the students who I had as fifth graders. That will be my fun, on-going challenge this year.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Teaching Priorities

Teachers are constantly getting pulled, stretched, and worked over, just like the salt taffy made back in the day by the Utah pioneers. " Squeeze in this new reading program." "Integrate the arts." "Teach 180 minutes of language arts each day." "Can we come talk to your students about a haiku contest? about their dental health? about safety around power lines?"

One way I manage to feel less stretched and calm, despite all these well-intentioned efforts to steal away my teaching time is that I have very clear priorities. In no particular order, here they are:

Math--everyday---no matter what. I'll shave off some time, if needed, but we "do" math every day, usually for an hour.

Poetry---this is a new one for me, but I haven't missed a day yet and I am luvvving the Nancie Atwell "Naming the World" model.

Independent Reading---between 30 and 50 minutes, every day. Every day. All year.

Writing---at least 4 days a week I make sure my students have a 50 minute writing workshop.

There are other things that I do each day, like spelling, vocabulary, and "punctuation practice", but they're not on my list of things I can't ever skip. I also teach science and social studies, but I like to do three week units and alternate between the two; we're still learning about Egypt, but by the last week in September we'll be studying microbes during that same hour each day.

I was raised in a religious culture with an expectation that certain daily practices would become habitual and so intrinsic to my identity that I wouldn't ever miss a day. Well, I'm not such a devout mormon these days, but independent reading, writing workshop, and math are such high priorities of mine that I do them each day with religious devotion.

What are some of your teaching practices that spring from beliefs so deep and powerful that you never skip or cancel them?

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

full throttle

When will I feel completely caught up and able to relax deeply and not start "to do" lists every time I sit down long enough to think? Oh yeah, that will be next June.

But, despite the stress and fatigue, things are good. I have 29 students, but none of them need to be given a Private Office to do their work, and as long as the count stays under 30, I'm feeling okay.

The new literacy coach was so impressed by our DIBELS scores that she's anxious to come and see how I do reading workshop. I really like our old coach, so this makes me a bit nervous.

I'm moving back and forth between the Lucy Calkins Units of Study narrative books and the mini lessons from Nancie Atwell's Lessons that Change Writers. So far--this weaving is working well.

I have shared a poem everyday and this is a goal that I think I'm gonna be able to meet (one-a-day everyday all year) because my students are so INTO the poems. Their enthusiastic responses are fueling my motivation. The best part of the model (from Nancie Atwell) is having the kids "rate" the poems after we're done with them each day. When I forgot this final step today, they were quick to remind me.

I'll try hard to share more detailed and specific stories later. For now---yes---things are going well.