Friday, August 29, 2008

Learning Journey

Next week we will be having a Learning Journey at our school. Learning Journeys are a bit like an open house, where parents come in to see what their children have been learning. The difference is that the children plan what they will show their parents, and reflect on their learning prior to the visit. For teachers, the most difficult part of the Learning Journey is the preparation - on the actual day, it's all up to the students to run the show.

So, what do we teachers do to prepare?

If the school also has portfolios for collating student work, the portfolio is generally 'on display' for the Learning Journey. This allows students to access this information to show their parents as well.

All the relevant work that students have done needs to be displayed attractively in the classroom, and usually labelled with a poster outlining the task of the activity.

Parents don't want to spend an hour wading through their child's bookwork. They want to explore learning with their child. This means making sure that there are some hands on activities for parents and children to get involved with. These might be Maths or Literacy games you use in class or Science experiments.

As many of our classes now have Smart Boards, we want to make use of these during our Learning Journey. Teachers may need to update their "MyClasses" page or prepare a slideshow of digital photographs taken during the year. This helps parents to see their children in "action" on an ordinary school day.

Marking Books
If students finish showing their parents all their work early, they may want to show them some of their bookwork. For teachers, this means checking that the marking is up to date. Some activities are easier to mark as you go along than others. Marking books can often be a tedious and frustrating job to catch up on. A nice idea is for students to annotate their best work in their books with a star post-it note. This is a great tool for helping students to reflect on their learning.

Prior to the Learning Journey, it is important for students to make invitations for their parents and take these home. It helps to have an RSVP slip somewhere on the invitation so that you can monitor who will be coming. Some follow up is usually necessary as the day approaches to ensure that all students will have someone to share their learning journey with.

Learning Journey Map
My students usually create a plan of what they will show their parents when they arrive. This is a list of between 5 and 8 things that will help them get started. Once they have explained these items, they can go over other items they would like to show. I usually choose a few items from each of the Key Learning Areas and allow my students to choose one one of these items from each KLA. This way, students have some choice in what they would like to show.

Practice Run
I usually find some time for my class to run through what they will do in their Learning Journey. If you have an older buddy class, this works really well with them. It helps students to think about what they would like to share, and gets rid of any pre-day jitters.

As much work as they are to prepare, it feels great to see it all happening on the day. I get my camera out and snap shots of my kids as they talk their parents through their learning. It's great to catch them explaining what they've learnt, and to realise that it has actually sunk in! For the rest of the day, the kids feel great. They are proud of themselves for all they've learnt, and they have enjoyed showing it all off to their parents.

Teaching Spelling

When teaching spelling, I use a spelling inventory to assess the sounds that my students need to work on, and then build weekly wordlists around these sounds. I currently have 5 spelling groups. All students begin with the same 5 core words (taken from a high frequency spelling list) and then 5 focus words on the sound they need to practice.

This week for example, my core words are: happy, he, her, his, him.
One student is working on tricky Olympics words relating to gymnastics: gymnast, gymnastics, gymnasium, routine, apparatus. One student is working on 'ew' words; 6 are working on 'oa' words; 5 are working on consonant blend beginnings with digraph endings eg. crush; and 7 are working on short vowel sounds with the 'ub' family.

During the week my students talk about strategies to help them remember how to spell these words eg. 'his' is just 'is' with an h at the start. They practice writing these with appropriate letter formation, and we build sentences with these words. Toward the end of the week we have a quiz where students are grouped in mixed-ability groups and compete with other groups to spell the words I call out. I give each group a mini whiteboard and marker and I encourage them to help one another with the spelling. I number students off so that everyone gets a turn with the marker. I try to ensure that my weaker spellers all have the same number so that I can given them an easier word. On Friday I test students with their words to determine whether they have learnt the new words.

This seems to be working for me with the group I have this year. In the past, I have gone for completely individualised lists for all students, but I found this took up A LOT of my time, and I found that kids with the same level of ability generally struggled with the same words anyway! At other times the spelling lessons have been less teacher-controlled, which was nice, but you need to consider how much direction/freedom your students require. It's often great to have kids explore their words with playdough or magnetic letters - again, do what works with the group of kids.

Please comment with any of the activities you have found useful for helping kids to learn graphophonics and spelling.

Teacher Sick Days

I'm having a sick day at home today, having fought with an incoming cold for all of the week. I find it really difficult to keep going with teaching when a head-cold hits.
I usually notice it first by how tired I feel at lunchtime. Then my throat starts to get croaky, and I have to work twice as hard to keep my class on task. I also find that I start messing up everyone's names! Before I know it, I'm feeling completely incompetent at my job and stressed out by the whole thing.
So why do we teachers do this to ourselves?
Sometimes, I think we feel that our program is too important to miss a day, and that no one but us can present the program the way we have designed it.
Sometimes we love the lessons we have prepared too much to hand them over to someone else. WE want to be there to see how they turn out!
Sometimes we feel that a day off will disrupt the class too much and they will riot, and be hard to refocus on our return.
Sometimes we have too much administrative stuff to get through, and don't feel we can afford to take the day off - too much to prepare (for interviews, reports, assessment, learning journeys etc).
What are your reasons for going to work when you are on death's door?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Book Week - CBCA Awards

Many Australian schools celebrate Book Week in the week following the CBCA's (Children's Book Council of Australia) announcement of the Books of the Year.

At my school this year, we did this through a day of book related activities. Each of the teachers in years K-2 chose one of the nominated books and prepared related activities to last a total of 45 minutes. Students in these grades were divided up into mixed-grade groups. We ran two 45-minute sessions before lunch, and one after lunch, followed by a sharing and reflection time in own class groups. This meant that each teacher taught the same lesson to three different groups, and each student experienced the lessons of three different teachers.

The talk amongst the teachers at lunchtime was all very positive. We enjoyed the opportunity to meet and teach kids from other grades. We had a chance to polish our teaching through the repeated lessons. And we had fun, developing lessons around the chosen text.
The reflection of the students was also mostly positive - focusing on the enjoyment of working with different people for the day. The negatives were mostly about not getting the teacher they wanted or being with the kids they wanted.

I tried out a circle time for the mode of mine, and again it worked really well. I found it actually worked particularly well in this setting because it seemed quite normal for everyone to be "Checking In" by saying their names, and this served a valuable introductory purpose for the group. One of the things that really stood out to me was how quiet and settled everyone was compared to my usual group! I felt almost as though I needed to tell them that it was okay to talk to each other and get to know everyone.

For those interested in the actual lesson, it went as follows...

CHECK IN: Hi, my name is _________ and I am from class ______.
MIXER: Students lucky-dipped a bookmark and found someone with a matching bookmark. They sat together while they coloured-in their bookmarks. This was also how I formed the pairs for working together later as well.
ACTIVITY: I read the story "Parsley Rabbit's Book about Books" by Frances Watts. (As the title suggests, this is a book about books!) We then discussed favourite books, and students filled out a worksheet about their favourite books. Their partner helped with spelling etc. If they finished early, they could choose books from the displays to read with a partner.
DEBRIEF: Students told their favourite book.
ENERGISER: We danced to an old song about a rabbit. (Sorry, but I don't remember the title. I recorded it back in the days of cassettes!).
CHECK OUT: Hi, my name is ________ and I like to read books that ________.

We have a Maths day coming up in a few weeks, and I think I will use circle time again - this time to teach concepts in Chance and Data. I'm really looking forward to it.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Fitness Challenge - Beating Obesity

Today I would like to look at how regular physical activity and 'health breaks' can be used in the classroom to promote a healthy lifestyle.

One of the challenges of teaching is balancing all that needs to be done in order to create well-rounded students. We're in the business of educating students for life beyond the classroom. Part of this involves teaching them how to make lifechoices that will help them maintain health and fitness. I know from my experience teaching, that this is an area often pushed to the side in order to ensure that the kids can read and write properly, or complete the Maths program.

In recent years, I have seen the 'fruit break/health break' idea being used more regularly in schools. As schools commit to a 2-hour literacy block in the morning, they are finding that students (particularly the younger ones) are getting hungry, and losing focus before they make it to the first scheduled meal break. Many schools have found that by taking a break mid-way through this morning session (for a piece of fresh fruit or vegetable, and a drink of water) students are exposed to healthy eating and are able to continue for the rest of the session. I have been aware of this being done in a couple of different ways:

20 minute Health-Break/Fit Hit

The first 10 minutes of this break is devoted to the eating of fruit/vegetable. On completion the scraps are collected into a compost bin or worm farm container. The second 10 minutes are used for physical activity of some description - a run, kid-aerobics, skipping, or another game.

Shared fruit Health-Break

Students bring in a piece of fruit on a given day. These fruits are cut up and shared amongst the class while students continue with work at their desks. (This strategy has been particularly successful with students in grades 4-6.)

Fruit Break with Stories or Show and Tell

Students bring their own fruit snack and eat it while the teacher reads a story, or while their classmates share their Show and Tell.

Fruit Break and Independent Reading

Students bring their own fruit snack and eat it. They then read a book independently or with a partner until the end of the fruit break period.

Another important aspect for the health of our students is regular exercise. The easiest way I've found to manage this, is through daily exercise as soon as the children arrive at school. I've tried walking and running for this, but I've also seen teachers set up a number of aerobic activities for the classes to rotate through. Not only does it teach students the value of daily exercise, but it also clears their minds and somehow helps to settle them for the rest of the day. I often find myself tearing my hair out more on the days where I had to skip the run for one reason or another!

Daily Walk

In the first term of the school year, I use this time as a walking time. We walk around the school yard, returning to class at the end. Each student takes a turn at the front of the line, chatting to me, and then goes to the back of the line to talk with their friends. I find this helps me to get to know the children in my class, and helps them to realise that walking is a social thing - a way to chat with others. I have a fairly simple script to get the kids talking. I start with "Hi ___. What would you like to tell me today?" and finish off with "Thanks for chatting with me. Have a great day." Of course, there will be variations on this, but this helped to get me started.

Daily Run

As I am a bit of a runner myself (though I've never come first in a race in my life!) I thought it would be beneficial to get my class running. It's another easy physical activity that has great health benefits and doesn't require any equipment. Every day I take my class for a run of one kind or another. My goal is to keep them moving for 10 minutes. Sometimes we have short fast races, other days we go for longer laps. Some days students run with a partner and decide the destinations together, other days they tag team with one student playing on the playground while the other runs between two sets of goal posts. Sometimes we set up cones and sprint to one, skip to another, walk to the third, and jog to the fourth - students choose which cone they will move towards and then return to the starting point.

When I remember, I attach a watch with GPS, to one of the kids so we can get an idea of how far we have travelled. You might prefer to use pedometers as these are more easily attainable.

For Older Kids

When I've taught older kids (grade 3) I spent the first term teaching my class a number of different games. Once they were familiar with the games and understood some of the elements that make an effective fitness session, I chose weekly leaders who were responsible for running the activity for the class. The kids loved the responsibility and gained leadership skills which could help them attempt sports leadership in later years. A couple of times I even found them starting up these games in their lunch or recess time.

Whatever you decide to do, remember that your goal is to get kids motivated and moving toward a healthy future. Think through your own areas of interest and strength and use these. The more interested and motivated you are, the more likely you are to keep it going regularly. Kids are motivated by your enthusiasm.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Olympic Scandal

I came across another little gem during the week. As you might have heard, there was some controversy behind the child singer at the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony. It turns out that the girl on stage (Lin Miaoke) was actually lip syncing to the voice of another girl (Yang Peiyi). Apparently the real singer didn't quite have the physical appearance and stage presence that the officials were after, so they got a slightly older, prettier girl to go on stage. I found some YouTube videos to show to my class about this, and asked their opinions. These are the links I used:
China Olympics Opening Ceremony girl was lip syncing,
China Olympic Media Doctoring - Girl Lip Sync .
I actually began with one that just showed Lin Miaoke singing (syncing) on stage with no English commentary, but I can't find this link anymore. I tried to give a completely unbiased approach, so that I could see what my students really thought. I was surprised by the outcome. About a quarter of the class thought that it was unfair and said that the real singer should have been on stage because it is about how well she sings, not what she looks like. The other three quarters felt that it was a fair decision. Some said that it was good because both girls got to do something special in the Olympic Opening Ceremony. Others said that it was good because the syncher was prettier, or older. I was AMAZED!

A Challenging Week

This week I really struggled with the behaviours in my class. I've put so much energy into making things fun, relevant, interesting etc that it really gets to me when my class won't listen, or boos at my activities. As I don't tolerate this sort of behaviour, I find I have to deal with all this rubbish before I can get to teaching and inspiring them. Of course, it's not the whole class, and generally, I don't think that they do it out of spite. There are just a number of children who don't think before they speak and can often appear quite rude and disrespectful.

Early in the week I had to call off a Circle Time because more than a quarter of the class were making a joke of it. Maybe I could understand it if the kids were 11 year olds, but these are 6 year olds! Feeling discouraged, I only did one more circle time that week and I included lollies and balloons in the lesson as an attempt to win over the kids who were starting to revolt! I also had them apologise to the class for having spoilt the previous circle time.

After explaining an art activity this week, one of my boys yelled out, "That's STUPID". I sent him to another class for the afternoon with a Maths worksheet instead. I hope he will think twice before insulting my lesson again! Later in the week a boy got frustrated with his wombat origami and yelled "This is so dumb!". Sticking to my new plan, he missed out on the rest of the activity, despite his repeated begs to join back in. Like I said earlier, I just have some very vocal students who let EVERYONE know if they don't like an activity.

On the positive side, most of my wombat lessons and activities were well-received by the class (see my previous blog for more details). They seem particularly excited about our new 'pet' wombat who they will get to take home for a night and write about his visit in his journal. The assessment tasks I set showed that most of them had learnt new facts about wombats during the week and could make the links between Jackie French's own experiences and the stories she wrote.

Next week I will be out of school for a couple of days, co-convening an Athletics Carnival, and on Friday we will have book week. Hopefully, that will give me a little time to recover from the tough week with my class, and renew my love for teaching them! Hopefully.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Author Study - Jan Brett and Jackie French

At the end of last week I concluded a 3-week author study on US author/illustrator Jan Brett. There were similarities to the author study I ran with my New York City kindergarten class, but as always, I made a few adaptations. Whilst in New York, I had much easier access to all of Jan Brett's books, and could even get multiple copies of some for use in small reading groups. Here in Australia, I can't access her books, but I have much better computer access and so have made better use of Jan Brett's website. I really enjoyed using her resources on the Smart Board in my classroom. I really recommend her site to teachers - particularly those in the US - as she does absolutely everything she can to share her work with children. There are great Newsnotes that show how the stories took shape, regular newsletters (in audio format) for children to hear what she is up to and be inspired, and even video snippets where Jan Brett takes children step-by-step through how she draws her characters.

So, having said all that, this week we began an author study of an Australian author - Jackie French. In many of Jackie French's books, the main characters are animals, and more specifically Australian native animals. Jackie French has a particular interest in wombats. So today we began with one of Jackie French's wombat books - Smudge. And prior to reading, we thought of all the things we know about wombats and listed these on a fish-bone chart under the headings: food, characteristics, appearance and habitat. As it was, my students had a great prior knowledge as their starting point. I found some really great internet resources to expose students to wombats visually. Flickr had this great set about Wally the Wombat, and You Tube has some videos of wombats in action. I particularly liked this one about a wombat getting comfortable. Later in the week we are going to read Diary of a Wombat, and then my students are going to take turns to take home a stuffed-toy wombat and write in his diary. I think (and hope) that they will be very excited about this idea.

I'm now a big fan of using author studies in the classroom to motivate students to read and inspire their writing. (And I had fun finding all the web resources about wombats!)

Update: I now have a way of making some teaching materials available to you. These are for use in the classroom, not for commercial purposes. Please contact me for further information. I am happy to email worksheets that are not compatible with Google Docs.
Jan Brett Author Study Overview
Jackie French Author Study Overview
Jackie French Worksheets: My Facts About Wombats

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Circle Time

Last Thursday and Friday I attended a Professional Development course on "Circle Time". My previous knowledge going into this course was that circle time is a touchy-feely way of dealing with the social-emotional aspects of classroom learning. This course, however, took it beyond the emotional literacy aspect, to explore it as a strategy for teaching all areas of the curriculum. This idea really got me going.

Circle Time is generally run with the whole class (including the teacher) sitting in a circle in chairs. For me, this means rearranging the room each time - moving the desks to the edges so there is space for the circle. My class is getting much better at this.

There are 6 key parts to Circle Time:
Check In - This is where each student says their name, and completes a sentence as pre-determined by the teacher. eg. "Hello, my name is Sarah, and I can spell the word frog." An object is usually passed around the circle to indicate whose turn it is to speak.
Mixer - This is essentially a game of some sort that gets everyone to move about and end up at a different seat to where they started, and preferably with people they don't usually work with (hence the name - Mixer).
Central Activity - This is where you teach the content, and have students work on a task related to the content.
Debrief - Students report back/share the work they completed.
Energiser - This gives everyone a chance to move around and shake off all the concentration they've just had to apply. Any game or activity that achieves this can be used. I try to find a way to link it to the theme, if possible.
Check Out - This is much like the Check In, except that children share something they learnt from the session, or suggest an application of the new knowledge.

So far this week, I have run a circle time each day.

On Monday, we had a Spelling Circle Time. The Check In, Energiser and Check Out were all spelling focused. For the Central Activity, students were given their new spelling words and worked with a partner to discover strategies to help them remember how to spell their words. For example, one girl pointed out that for 'cart', you just spell car, and then add a t. Another said that 'down', is own with a 'd' at the start. As it was my first circle time, I was pleasantly surprised to hear back what students had gained from the session, despite how wriggly they were.

On Tuesday, we had an Integrated Inquiry Circle Time. The Check In, Mixer, Energiser and Check Out were all related to The Legend of Nian (a Chinese dragon), which the students read last week. For the Central Activity students worked in pairs to colour a dragon head and design the body using scraps of coloured paper. We looked at some pictures of dragons on to get some inspiration. Again the students were engaged and enthusiastic about their new learning. (By the way - this ties into our Olympics unit of work as we are exploring the culture of China.)

Today I ran a Maths Circle Time. The main concept was Position and 'the garden' was its vehicle. For Check In, students described their own gardens at home. The Mixer was some flash card practice of adding 9. During the Central Activity, students did an interactive activity I'd made on the Smart Board where they followed instructions to add clipart pictures to photos of gardens. Then, in groups of 4, students made plasticine gardens, within the constraints of a list of instructions that I gave them. For example: Put some fish in a pond. Put some rocks around the pond. The Energiser was a ball passing activity where students passed the ball using the positional terms - over, under, through, around etc. Finally, during the Check Out, students said what they learnt from the experience, and there were a lot of great comments about the value of cooperation.

So far, I feel that this is a successful strategy because ALL my students have been engaged and excited about the central activity. They have been working cooperatively with people they don't usually choose to play with. Secondly, every child is getting a chance to voice their thoughts and ideas. Usually I have about 4 students who insist on being heard, and I miss out on hearing what other students are thinking. Thirdly, I get excited by the whole thing. It's a much more interesting way of structuring lessons, and I finally feel like I'm remembering to conclude my lessons properly!
On the down-side, I'm not sure that it is time effective yet. As it is early days, and we are still getting used to the process, I expect that we will get quicker with time. But at the moment, I find it hard to get through the whole circle time within an hour.

Please contact me if you want any more information about 'Circle Time'.

Something to Contribute

Hello and welcome to my blog. I've been really challenged in this past week with how I am currently using the internet. Up until now, my use has been limited to that of a consumer. I go online, take what I want/need and then leave. I realise that it is probably crazy that it has taken me this long to clue onto what I am doing, but I guess that's just the way it is. And, now that I realise, I feel I should do something about it.

The effectiveness of the internet relies on the contributions of people with various expertise. I think that in the past, I felt that I had nothing of value to contribute to this web of knowledge. Everything that I know has come from somewhere else, and I don't particularly feel like an expert at anything. In fact, I feel that I always have something new to learn. I have been teaching now for 8 years and still continue to review and adapt the content and strategies I use in my teaching every day. I thrive on new ideas and opportunities to try something different in the classroom.

So... this blog is going to be my reflections on the things that I am trying in my classroom, and my views on their effectiveness. Of course, I can't give specific details on students in my class or the school I work for, but I will do my best to give you an understanding of the situation within these limitations.

My hope is that you will gain some insight from some of the challenges I face, AND that you will post some comments to share your opinions/expertise and open things up for further discussion.

If you find this blog useful, feel free to pass it on to other people you think may benefit from it's contents.