Give the Copier a Rest

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So next week is the beginning of No Worksheet Week May 2-6. The concept is not new to our district since it originated here with a blog post by Matt Weld. Even though this is not our first rodeo, it may be helpful to review some How? What? and Why? If you are hearing about this movement for the first time, you can easily participate. Just take slow baby steps by implementing a few alternatives to worksheets in one content area.

Benefits for Teachers

As members of the teaching community, we are sometimes navigating in unfamiliar waters. Technology, curriculum standards, diverse classrooms with larger numbers of students are just a few challenges facing us. We are asked to leave the “old reliable” traditional ways of implementing instruction with lectures and copied worksheets to student choice, differentiated instruction, more evidence of student learning. Some of us are eager to plunge into the deep water while others are clinging to the life jacket sitting in the boat. So here are a few reasons to join the no worksheet movement.

  1. It’s a small step toward innovative teaching with a big impact. You have an opportunity to observe your students’ creativity and critical thinking.
  • Think-pair-share and class discussions
  • Crazy Picture Writing- Laminate “crazy pictures” and students write stories about the pictures and put them in a class book.
  • Science Table- Put shells, rocks, seeds, dead bugs, anything from nature on a table with books about each object. Students write about the object they are researching.
  • Twitter board- post facts/opinions/statements using only 140 characters.
  • Write on something else-iPad, white board, on the desk or table with neon Expo markers to show your work.
  • Writer’s Antithesis- Students take a passage from the text they are reading and rewrite the passage reversing one or more of the writer’s choices: the tone, characterization, writer’s voice, point of view, setting, etc.
  1. You have a short commitment time of one week. Warning: Once you see the outcome you will want to continue using no worksheets until the end of this school year, the beginning of next school year, and on…
  2. You won’t be grading a mountain of papers!

Benefits for Students

  1. Smiles, Smiles, more SMILES!
  2. Students use critical thinking skills, creativity, and innovation.
  3. They are more engaged in the learning process.
  4. Students listen and collaborate with their peers.

Teachers must be willing to take risks just like we expect our students to do. We have to do more creative planning and stretch ourselves in order to become great teachers. Sure we will have failures to learn from, but that is part of the learning process. As we take on the role of facilitator in the classroom and give students choices, we create more memorable learning experiences. Can a worksheet really provide a lasting aah moment for a student?

 

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Slice of Life Tuesday

Cart Madness

It seems to me that all forms of madness should be contained within the thirty-one days of the month of March. One would have a sense of expectancy and be prepared. What am I thinking? Just the words errand day and weekend are enough to create a perfect storm.

The day started with a list and three stops: the bank, the pharmacy, and the grocery store. I should have gotten an inclination of looming storm clouds when I arrived at the pharmacy to pick up my prescription and was told there would be a twenty minute wait. Even though I had received an automated phone call the day before informing me that it would be ready and waiting after 4 P.M. that same day. So I strolled the aisles, purchased my medication, and smilingly walked into the bright, sunny day listening to the birds chirping. I’d checked off the first two stops and had only one more.

Logistically, the plan made so much sense. A grocery store was located just around the corner from the pharmacy. It was part of the chain of stores with the same brand name where I usually shop. Why should I drive further down the road to my familiar grocery store when one was a few yards away? Everything would be the same, and I may finish shopping quickly enough to have time to pick up lunch at a drive- through restaurant on the way home.

As I entered the grocery store, little did I know that I was walking into a maze of frustration and confusion. Come on! Who puts spices by dairy and the Easter clearance items next to the baking aisle? It didn’t help matters that I had a list of items to find. We’ve all been there. You find a new recipe to try with unfamiliar ingredients that send you on a scavenger hunt through the store.   Normally, I maneuver through the store like a robot just picking up the usual suspects. Not today. I was not even sure they sold some of these items here. Let along would I recognize these exotic beauties?

At last, I had all of the items and more in my cart. So it’s time to proceed to the checkout line. Every lane was packed with restless shoppers except the twenty items or less lane. The clerk stood idly. The man in front of me was trying to get a discount for the eight loaves of bread he intended to purchase. The clerk was addressing the matter to no avail and called for the manager’s assistance. All the while, the lady behind me grumbled and mumbled like a volcano ready to erupt. I figured this was just the way things were going on this day after my experience at the pharmacy. Suddenly, the manager said, “We must get these lines moving now.” She grabbed my cart and directed me to follow it to the twenty items or less lane. Just like that everyone with twenty items or less submerged from the maze to this counter. First, I heard SOMEBODY CAN’T COUNT! Now I could have said blame it on new math, but I chose to grovel. That was just the beginning. I apologized, blamed it on the manager, and ate crow (baked, broiled, and stewed). I was a marked woman. It was if a dye pack from a stolen bank bag had just exploded all over me. So I put on my sunglasses and ran to the parking lot pushing a cart with plus twenty items. I just hope that my face is not posted at the twenty items or less lane where I usually do my grocery shopping.

Slice of Life Tuesday

Why Not Give It A Try?

Only a few months of this school year remain. Already you may be evaluating your instructional lessons and contemplating what to include or change for the next school year. So why not try something different now? It’s the perfect time! You know your students’ academic strengths. Your class management program is in place. Your Things to Do checklist is whittling down. You can implement a few simple changes and reflect on them over the summer months, while sitting on the beach.

1.Eliminate or reduce the use of worksheets and packets

I had been teaching for five years when my principal gave me the no worksheet challenge. Could I teach my second grade /third grade class without using any worksheets in all subject areas? The challenge excluded using worksheets for testing purposes. Of course being young and naive, my response was a confident,” Sure, no problem.” It took some planning and collaboration with my colleagues, but I succeeded. My students’ reactions were so enlightening. They actually were more engaged in the learning process. We shared information in discussions, used more crayons and markers, and created models.Need more convincing? Read Are Worksheets a Waste of Time?.  Join the #NoWorksheetWeek Twitter Chat on April 26 at 8 pm Central time with Matt Weld and Rae Fearing. Be part of the No Worksheet Week Movement on May 2-6.

2.  Narrow the length of the skill focus lesson

In his book, Brain Rules, John Medina discusses the fact that the brain has a stubborn timing pattern of 10 (2009). After about 10 minutes of direct instruction, the brain must make a shift to refocus.” Narrowing the Focus and Length of a Lesson to Make It Brain Compatible by Joan Moser. My first thoughts were how I possibly can teach a lesson in 7-10 minutes. Being the loquacious individual that I am, it seemed unrealistic. Since I respected the research, I started the process by stating what we were learning and why it was important. Next, I modeled the strategy using a picture book, short article, or part of a story. Then students were given some time to apply what they learned. This time for practice is so important since it is not effective to teach skills in isolation.  I used this time to observe and facilitate.

Record or make a video of  your lessons to evaluate how much you really needed to say to meet the lesson objective. Time your students to observe when they begin to no longer focus and become distracted. Here is a resource: Brief Focus Lessons – The Daily Cafe Don’t shy away from using a primary level book with older students. The simplicity of the text makes it easier for the intermediate student to grasp the concept.

3. Teach more poetry

“When you immerse you students in rich, lively poetry, you introduce them to intense, concise, skillfully crafted language. They learn how authors convey a maximum amount of thought and feeling in the fewest carefully chosen words. In a way, everything they need to know about reading and writing exists within a poem.” From the book, Guiding Readers and Writers by Irene C. Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell.

It is recommended that teachers spend 90-120 minutes each week or at least twice per month teaching poetry to our students. These instructional lessons would consist of minilessons on creating images with words, personification, repetition and pattern, onomatopoeia, etc. The poetry minilesson can take the place of reading/writing lessons and replace the one time poetry units of the past. We need to make poetry accessible to students, encourage response to poetry, and share student written poems.

April is National Poetry Month. If you want to know more about the Dear Poet lesson plans,  ideas for your classroom and school to use for Poem in Your Pocket Day on April 21, and other information for National Poetry Month click here.

If you still have not found the ideas that make you want to try something new, read Every Child Every Day: The six elements of effective reading instruction don’t require much time or money—just educators’ decision to put them in place.

 

We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths. Walt Disney

# No Worksheet Week

The second annual no worksheet week was celebrated in our school district by teachers and students last week. Students let out a cheer with wide smiles on their faces. Just the words “no worksheets” seemed almost unbelievable to them. The roar of the copy machine was more of a soft hum. Lesson plans were descriptive and creative listing more than a page number.

What about the teachers? These educators were natural facilitators posing thought provoking questions, providing assistance during small group activities,and guiding students in evaluating information and organizing it. Modeling the how to for a skill or strategy and letting students apply it without using a worksheet was not the issue. It was the assessment. How will I get enough grades? How will I show student progress without grades for daily work, homework, and tests?

I have seen a mountain of papers heaped on a desk next to the teacher telling me he or she just doesn’t have any time for trying new ideas. They are overwhelmed with behavior charts, schedules, recess and bus duties, and papers to grade. Yet packets of papers are created to keep student occupied rather than engaged in learning. “It has worked for ten plus years without any changes. Until a new textbook series is purchased, this is the plan for instruction.” So last week one big time thief, grading papers, was replaced. Teachers observed and took notes on the student’s thought process. Performance assessments, student conferences, and rubrics were used to collect data. Homework and daily worksheets were replaced by hands-on activities and students writing.Teachers learned so much more about a student’s progress than from a number on a graded paper. Less time was spent grading, filing, and shuffling papers back and forth to students. Even if one chose to give the assessment test and eliminate or minimize the number of daily worksheets and homework, it was still more productive. Is it necessary to fill every box in the grade book for every subject every quarter to measure a student’s mastery of the content? What is the feedback to students when they see a number grade? Do they even know why this answer is wrong? If you are not a good test taker, do you ever show what you have learned?

Some teachers plan to continue “no worksheet week”. They began writing lesson plans building on this past week’s experience and thinking about new methods. With a little time and practice, it will be  easier to come up with alternatives to worksheets. The prize outweighs the effort. Take the challenge!

Freshen Up or Let It Go

I am sure that you are as excited about the arrival of Spring as I am. Just watching the tiny plants peek out sprouts of green makes me feel a sense of new beginnings. Even though we are winding down the school year. It’s the perfect time to do some spring cleaning and self-evaluation.

What are you teaching?

You developed the perfect unit or lesson plan. In fact, you enjoy teaching the material so much that you have not changed it in a decade. Every year you display the same bulletin boards, copy the same worksheets, give the same assignments for homework and the same project to culminate the unit. The only variable is the students, who may submit the same project their brother or sister did a few years earlier.  You justify that it’s working… for  whom?

A good place to begin is by looking at the Common Core and the NCSS Standards. Is this content taught at your grade level? Do your lesson plans consist of the key ideas and details, the level of text complexity, and integrate and evaluate the content in diverse media formats required by the standards? Are there some students who would benefit from something different?

Sometimes you just need to let it go! I had taught for three years, accumulated a treasure of learning materials from games to posters. Each year I would create something new with the idea that it would be stored since you never know when it may be useful. One day, as I started to turn  my car into the driveway of our home, I recognized  colorful items heaped atop a truck bed passing me on the street. My first reaction was to jump from the car and apprehend the truck, thus retrieving my precious cargo. Instead, I looked to my husband for reassurance that those were not my classroom materials. His words, “You will never miss them.” Funny thing to this day I still cannot tell you what was on the truck. He really did me a favor. Each year was new for my students and me. I never heard a student say, “Oh, my sister did this”.  Instructional content  had fresh materials and was tailored to the strengths and weakness of the current class of students.

How did I do it? I started collaborating with teachers in my building, the district, and surrounding districts. We shared ideas and materials without judgment. If it didn’t meet my expectations, I just smiled and said thank you. It was the connection that was valuable. Now the community has expanded through the availability of search engines, blogs, chats, and so much more. Also, delegate the work load by dividing up the parts of the lesson. I’ll look for media resources, and someone else looks for related reading passages or creates written responses. I will prepare the lessons for Social Studies and another teacher prepares the Science lessons. Share your resources in Google Docs. Use Skype, Face Time, or Hangouts when it is difficult to meet in person. Just find a way to make it work for you.

The time to freshen out lesson plans with new techniques, find something new to replace an outdated unit not meeting the standards, and stretch ourselves through professional development and collaboration with our colleagues is here. “Start wherever you are and start small”-Rita Baily

Have You Experienced the CoLab?

So you may be thinking what is the CoLab? The Cultural Landscapes Collaboratory was founded by Dr. Ralph Cordova in 2003. It’s an informal and nonthreatening opportunity to gain insight into a lesson you plan to teach students. The process has three parts: Prebrief, Lesson Enactment, and Debrief. Now that you have some background knowledge come revisit my CoLab experience with me.

The Prebrief set the tone of the meeting for me. The “thinking partner” was warm and friendly making me feel relaxed. Her job was to interview us, and it was our first chance to talk about the Close Reading lesson to be presented to fourth grade students. Yes, I did intend to use the plural “us”.   A fellow teacher, Matt Weld, attended with me. We collaborated on this lesson which was part of a project based learning unit merged with Daily 5 and Cafe. The “thinking partner” asked three questions:

  1. What do you want to explore in this lesson?
  2. What do you envision happening in this lesson?
  3. Once the lesson has been enacted, what do you want your students to know, your objectives?

As we answered each question, I noticed that she was restating our responses to confirm and clarify our words. No judgements were made about the lesson. It was as though we were just three educators having a conversation over a cup of tea.

It’s show time! The Lesson Enactment provides the opportunity to teach the lesson to attending teachers who participate as students would participate in the classroom. This diverse group of middle school teachers taught language arts, social studies, and band. Through this process, I did see something that I might consider changing during the lesson presentation. It was the perfect venue for determining which parts of the lesson to keep or eliminate, and which parts to improve. Participating teachers were taking notes on specific forms. This practice would give us more precise feedback, rather than random comments.

Talk about a win win! That’s the Debrief. The “thinking partner” began the discussion by asking us to revisit the lesson to determine if our objectives were met. All of the comments from the “thinking partner” and the other attending teachers were articulated in a positive and supportive manner. They used phrases such as, “I noticed….” “I would keep…, because…” ” I wonder if…” Our discussion lead to a beneficial and productive take away for us. The second “win” is for them. In addition to the debrief protocol for inquiry looking into our lesson, the enacting teachers are to envision how they could use our lesson or an included activity for an upcoming lesson in their classrooms. They are further stretched to consider what modifications would need to be made to fit their curriculum or teaching style.

This professional collaboration model is a powerful tool for fostering communication; teachers are actually sharing and articulating their thoughts in a nonthreatening environment. Think of the mentoring relationships that could form as the result of presenting a lesson. The professional growth from observing something new, taking ownership, adapting it to fit your classroom, while assisting a colleague in gaining insights into their lesson and teaching practices cannot be understated. Is it time for you to step out of the box, take some risk, and add a new dimension and energy to the instruction in your classroom?

Kindergarten: Sandwiched Between Curriculum and Differentiation

As they enter the classroom, wide-eyed, huge smiles the size of watermelon slices, each footstep pulsing enthusiasm, your first day leading the Kindergarten adventure begins. Their appearance, actions, and words seem so similar as they take their places around the room. Not so! Emergent readers, who recognize less than half of the alphabet or in a few cases none of the alphabet letters, are scanning the room. The Beginning Readers are pointing to many of the alphabet letters, saying some of their sounds, and reading a few sight words. A scattering of Fledgling Readers are grabbing a book to demonstrate their quick recognition of numerous sight words and their knowledge of decoding and comprehension strategies. Did I mention a parent just stated that their child is reading chapter books?

At the beginning of this school year, an opportunity to work with an experienced teacher, recently transferred to a Kindergarten position, was given to me. She was eager to implement small group instruction into her daily literacy block, and my job was to create and model lessons including whole group and small group instructional activities over the next four days. So I began by assessing letter recognition, matching upper and lower case letters, and letter sounds to determine student strengths. Once the data was analyzed the students were placed into five flexible groups of 3-5 students. Next, it was time to develop the instructional plans. Some students would learn to track print and the developing concept of word, as well as alphabet recognition and production. Other students would work on phonemic awareness by sorting picture cards by beginning sound and introduced sight words. Another group of students would work on consonant-vowel-consonant patterns in word families. A reading passage that best approximates a student’s reading level and running record would be given to a few students displaying mastery of the tested skills. WAIT, I CAN’T INTRODUCE WORD FAMILIES OR THE SIGHT WORDS, UNLESS THEY ARE INTRODUCED IN THE BASAL READER, UNTIL JANUARY! I CAN ONLY INTRODUCE TWO LETTERS AND THEIR SOUNDS EACH WEEK.

Teachers have a curriculum map or guideline which provides a framework for continuity and meeting grade level expectations. It is important to have a curriculum plan, but we must also realize that it’s difficult to pigeon hole students into a one size fits all instructional plan and meet their needs. How can we hold kids to the same standard when they are not all the same? That’s why it is so important to include ongoing assessments, individual student goals, and differentiated small group instruction based on data. Observe where the child is and adjust the curriculum accordingly. Are there one, two, or more students whom might benefit from a different plan of instruction?

What is the instructional solution for Emergent, Fledgling, and Beginning Readers? Make a sandwich! Instead of preparing your sandwich with a slice of curriculum, the Kindergarten students in the middle, and a slice of “this is the way we always do it”, try bringing something different to your plate. Here’s a thought. If you are required to follow a basal text, be selective and build your lesson focused on the reading strategies your students need… not so centered on a theme. Pick and choose rather than including everything suggested. It is possible that the district has not adopted a new reading series for years due to cost. The series selected by a committee was one company for all grade levels-Kindergarten, primary, and intermediate grades. Kindergarten was not the only priority. Your reading series may not include Common Core Standards. Once you know your focus, seek outside materials to teach the focus lesson. Start building your sandwich using the curriculum guidelines, basal smorgasbord, and additional resources for condiments for your whole group lesson as your bottom slice of bread. Next add the special main ingredient, the diverse group of Emergent, Fledgling, and Beginning Readers in your classroom. Finally, a top slice of small group and individual instructional lessons designed to meet goals determined by observation and collected data.

What about the Kindergarten classroom I visited? We spiced up their sandwiches by following the schedule for the Daily 5 and using the Cafe menu for reading strategies. The children are flourishing as they munch away on their learning sandwiches. So what happens now? Some of the students have mastered all of the listed expectations for Kindergarten. Can you guess the answer?