Friday, December 2, 2011

Listen up!

The classroom rule that is most frequently broken is number 5: raise your hand to speak. My kids get really excited about whatever it is that they have to say, and they blurt out, or talk to a friend, or otherwise interrupt the speaker, whether it's me or a classmate.

Today, I nearly broke this rule myself...and am so glad I didn't. Sometimes my students make connections to something someone else said, and then they get off topic when we don't really have time for extraneous comments. It was the end of writing time, and I was sharing with everyone how one of my students had zoomed in on a small moment by not telling about his whole trip to his cousin's house, but instead just about the part where he was looking at videos on Youtube. Another little boy raised his hand and started talking about these movies he saw. It was time to line up, so I was about to interrupt him and tell him to save his movie story for later, but I decided to let him finish. And what a finish it was.

He said, "I did the same thing too. I saw a whole bunch of movies on Saturday, but I only decided to write about the wolf movie, because that was one little moment."

Holy crap.

I have the smartest kids ever. And to think...I almost missed out on this genius little comment because it sounded irrelevant at first.

I will think twice about interrupting my students in the future.

In the words of Ruth Ayres:

Just listen.
Just listen..
Just listen.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

"And I ate it all."

I'm reading Lucy Calkins' Lessons from a Child. And it is blowing my mind. There are so many things that we do, that I do, as a writing teacher, and don't realize the effect it has on my little writers. Quoting M. Donaldson, she says, "...the ultimate aim of control is to render itself unnecessary." The ultimate purpose of a writing conference is to minimize the writer's dependence on me. Rather than doing things with their writing because Ms. M wants them to, my goal is for my students to make writing decisions because that's what good writers do and to make their writing better

I often fall into the trap of giving them prescribed solutions to the problems I see in their writing. If the writing is brief and undetailed, I'll ask them specific questions to draw a story out of them--but they won't write anything that I didn't ask them about. I'll teach a lesson on adjectives and encourage the students to use adjectives in their writing--and they will do it, but I can't honestly say that their writing is significantly better as a result of it. One of my little girls, little R, wrote about ice cream last week. I taught them about using adjectives to help describe what happened, so she wrote that she had vanilla ice cream, and it a was delicious. But the thing is, the best part of her story wasn't the "it was delicious" part. It was the part where she said, "And I ate it all." That one sentence tells me that it was delicious without telling me that it was delicious. And that is the kind of writing I want my students to do every day. 

But how do I teach into that? 

I have to think about why. Why do I want my students to write with adjectives? Why is that important? It's actually only kind of important. Adjectives are used to describe things. Why do we describe things? So that the reader can get a picture in their mind of what the writer experienced. So, rather than teaching my kids to use adjectives because I want them to, I need to instead teach them to describe. To create mental pictures. To help me see what they saw and hear what they heard and feel what they felt. When I told my kids that the juice that spilled in my purse was strawberry-flavored, they started licking their lips and rubbing their tummies and making smacking noises with their mouths. My kids could taste the juice in my purse. And that is exactly the effect that their writing should have on their readers.

Wow...I know what to teach in reading this week. I've got to find some really delicious books. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

I Think I Can, I Think I Can...

                      Picture from


In my class, little D is as sweet as she can be. Unfortunately, little D has taken the concept of learned helplessness and has practically honed it down to a science. Every time I ask her a question, she sits and thinks about it...just long enough to hear someone else's answer and repeat it. If I ask her what 5+3 is, and someone next to her is working on 10+5, she will wait to hear them answer "15" and then immediately repeat, "15". She doesn't realize just how badly she is stunting her own academic growth by doing this, and it's often hard to help children see the error in their parroting ways.

But, gracias a Dios, a perfect moment presented itself today. We were working on extending repeating patterns in math class. To practice, the class had worked with a red-blue-red-blue cube train as a large group while I wrote and drew their answers on the board.. I then gave D a blue-yellow-blue-yellow cube train to work with independently. When I walked over to check her work, I noticed that she'd answered all three of the questions with the word "red", even though there were no red cubes in her train. I glanced up at the example on the screen, and sure enough, all of MY answers were "red" because of the red cubes in our practice train.

I asked D to read me her answers. Then I turned her attention to her train and asked what colors she saw in her train. Though she struggles to name colors at times (yikes...), she did manage to figure out that her train had no red cubes. So I asked her, does what you wrote make sense? She said no. And I told her, "You have a brain in your head, and that brain is very smart. But when you choose not to use it, you end up writing things that make no sense. Use your brain, little D!" So we erased her nonsensical answers and started again, this time thinking about the train she had in her hand. She then correctly answered all of the questions using the colors in her own train. We stopped to check if it made sense, and it did!

Later, I watched her playing a making 10 computer game with M, a friend who processes a little more quickly than she does. I noticed that D had the mouse in her hand, but she was just waiting for M to tell her all of the answers instead of trying to figure them out for herself. I stopped them and took both of her hands in mine, looked her straight in the eye and repeated my previous speech: "You have a brain in your head, and that brain is very smart. Use your brain, D's brain, not M's, and do your own thinking." Then I showed her how to use her fingers to find the missing part of ten. Then I walked away, but I kept one ear open to listen to them work.

And what great work it was: she was independently, and successfully, counting and solving the problems.

Finally, for the first time, I heard little D really try.

It's truly amazing what believing in yourself can do.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


This past week, I started writing my Capstone. It's a little nerve-wracking, because it will be the longest paper I've ever had to write. It's also exciting, though, because it means the end of graduate school is near!

I'm writing my Capstone on conferring with students during writing workshop. I'm really excited about the changes I've already made that have improved my students' writing and my relationships with them, and I wrote about that in the rationale section of my paper. We peer-conferenced yesterday about our first chapters, which was a little nerve-wracking, actually. Chapter one tells your personal and professional journey toward the question you are studying, and it felt strange to hear someone else's voice reading such personal words, my words, back to me.

After he finished reading, my partner commented, "I can tell that you're really passionate about your kids. It really comes through in your paper." As soon as he said that, I started gushing about the wonderful experiences I've had getting to know my students better and how I've seen them grow and learn and smile in the past two weeks, and I was actually moved to tears just talking about it.

I. Love. My. Job.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

*Happy dance*

My absolute favorite thing about teaching is simple: I love it when my kids learn. I know that sounds cliche, but it's true. When I see a student do something that I know they couldn't do before, and the reason they can do it is because I taught them to, it makes me want to do carthweels and backflips (if I knew how to do backflips, which I don't).

I have a student in my class who is just as sweet as can be. He came to me from an English-only classroom, so making the transition to a bilingual one came with its challenges: for one thing, he knew exactly 0 vowel sounds in Spanish, which quite literally makes reading impossible.

I realized today that last time I did a basic skills test with him (part of our RtI) was a month ago, so I thought I'd re-do it and see how he's progressed since last time. I was quite pleasantly shocked! Since September (first test), he's gone from knowing only 9 syllables in Spanish to knowing 30 (out of 36), and from knowing 2/20 sight words to 14. WOOHOO!! I told him how he'd progressed and he grinned from ear to ear, as did his mother when I shared the good news with her.

This kind of news makes me want to get up and dance around. In fact, excuse me for a moment.

*Gets up and does happy dance*

Okay, I'm back now. I am so proud of him! And I have to say, I am proud of myself, and of my AE, and of his mom for helping him get to where he is now. My kid can read!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

"That's not what I wanted it to say."

One of the most important, and often most neglected, parts of teaching is simply listening. As I was reminded by this post, we are often are in such a hurry to teach kids what we think they ought to learn, that we don't spend enough time learning from them. So today, after teaching my kids to write a small moment story, I literally just sat and watched them work. I chose one kid to do an in-depth observation on, and I was captivated.

I deliberately chose a student who I haven't spent a ton of time with yet this year. Sometimes those kids who aren't the squeakiest of wheels tend to fade so easily into the group that we don't realize that we haven't really listened to them until quite some time has passed. I got my kids launched, then I sat on the edge of the counter and just watched him and wrote, watched and wrote.

It is really fascinating to watch a child's writing process. You learn so much about what that child already knows and does by spending time watching and listening instead of talking and modeling. I watched him write, using his finger to leave spaces, then think, then write, then think, then write, then revise, then draw. When I asked him, "Why did you change that part of your sentence?" He said, "Because that's not what I wanted it to say." Then I asked him to read it to me, and he eagerly did so. Then I asked him to read in front of the class, and his sweet little face just lit up. When he was finished reading, his classmates spontaneously applauded him. He just beamed. It was one of the most beautiful moments we've had all year.

It's amazing what we can learn as teachers when we just watch and listen. Wow.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Community Building Week 2: Feelings

Our second week, we talked about feelings. We made a list (complete with pictures) of different feeling words in English and Spanish, and we practiced making feeling faces: happy, sad, mad, scared. We talked about how we can tell how someone else is feeling (eyes up, eyes down, "mouth up", "mouth down", etc.).

Three of my favorite feeling/friendship books:

The Rainbow Fish/El pez arco iris
I haven't bought this one in Spanish yet, but I plan to. It's a great story about this fish who is beautiful with all these shiny scales, but is so arrogant (not that your kids will pick up on that, but you know...) that he's too busy being shiny to have friends. One day a little fish asks him to share one of his shiny scales, and he yells at the little fish to go away. After that, they all shun him (ouch...), and he's lonely (that, your kids will understand). Naturally, he discovers that sharing --> friends --> happiness.

The Scariest Monster in the World
Love, love, love! This book is really cute. The scariest monster in the world runs around scaring the other animals like it's his job (maybe it is?). Everything's fine until one day he gets the hiccups, and can't get rid of them. When the other animals see him crying in frustration, they decide to help him.Turns out that having friends is more fun than being scary.

Yes, We Can!
This is a great one for introducing bullying, and the fact that our actions have an affect on both our own feelings and those of others. In this story a mouse, a duck and a kangaroo start out playing together, and end up making fun of each other. Mama kangaroo comes in and teaches them to encourage instead of tease. Very cute, and a really good jump-off point for discussing how our words and actions affect other people's feelings.

Community Building Week 1: Friendship and Responsibility

The first month of school this year, I decided to try a weekly theme. Each theme is related to building community. Books are fantastic teaching tools, so I thought I'd share some of my favorites.

The first week of school, our theme was friendship. Here's what we read:

Words Are Not for Hurting/Las palabras no son para lastimar
This book is great because it's full of words phrases that are helpful and hurtful, and some things you can say to fix it when you hurt someone or to defend someone who is being bullied.

Together, we made a chart of hurtful and helpful words, and then used it to make a book called Palabras agradables (Kind Words). Each student made their own page, and I put them in sheet protectors in a three-ring binder, which I then placed on a shelf for them to read at will. They frequently pick it up during their free time.

How to Lose All Your Friends
I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this book! Nancy Carlson is a great author, and this is a really fun "opposite" book. Carlson lists 6 or 7 things you can do to scare away any potential friends, among them being a bully and refusing to share. At the end it's clear that having no friends is not much fun.

Of course, we made a chart of ways to not have friends (hitting people, saying mean things, not sharing, cheating) and ways to make/keep friends (be nice, say nice things, share your toys). We made another class book called Como ser un buen amigo (How to Be a Good Friend). Just like the other book, each kid made a least one page and the pages are now in a binder on the shelf for them to read.

It's Not My Job! 
Another one I absolutely love. It's this great story about a family who never wants to take out the trash, because everyone claims it's not their job. Finally, there is so much trash in the house that it's coming out of the windows! Teamwork and responsibility save the day.

I noticed last year that we had some problems taking care of the things in our classroom. There was always paper on the bathroom floor, and the kids completely destroyed their book boxes by the end of the year, which meant I had to head back to IKEA to buy 25 new ones. I've also had problems in the past with kids ripping my books. So after reading this book, we drew and labeled pictures of things we can do to take care of our classroom, and those pictures are now on the wall in our hallway.

Happy school year!

Friday, July 29, 2011

"I'm sorry, friends."

Sometimes, we fail. It's a part of life. But what we don't always do is share our failures with our chiquitines. Today, I learned to share them with mine.

When managing student behavior, it is essential to remain consistent--enforce a consequence every single time a rule is broken, and consistently follow your classroom management plan to the letter. Unfortunately, neither of those things is easy.

The other day, two students kept playing at recess after I blew the whistle, and we all had to wait for them to stop and come join us in line. When we got inside, I told them both that they had lost their recess for the next day. The moment I said it, the boy immediately turned and looked at the consequence chart. I was busted.

Not coming when called equates to not following directions (Rule #5 in our classroom) and the consequence is turning your colored card. It was actually my little girl's second violation of the day, so her consequence should have been a time-out (orange card), not losing her recess (red card).

I was feeling pretty bummed about breaking my own rules (who does that, right? right...), and I went home trying to figure out what to do about it. If I admit that I was wrong, will my students still respect me? How do I tell them? Should I tell them in front of the class? Will they just forget about it? All of these thoughts went around and around in my head. What I decided to do was this: I would address the issue in front of the class, admit that I was wrong, and enforce the correct consequence instead. Scary would they respond?

Not surprisingly, the next day, my students remembered what I had said about the two students losing their recess. I told them, in front of everyone, that I was aware that I had said that, and that that was wrong. I told them that I have to follow the classroom rules just like everyone else, and I should have told them to turn their cards, not just skipped straight to losing recess. So instead, they would experience the consequence that corresponded with their card color. The students all said okay, and we continued on with our day, them with a continued sense of consistency and the knowledge that their teacher is human, and me with my conscience and credibility intact.

Sorry, friends.


Key to classroom management: keeping yourself in a general state of zen.

I recently read a post on Smart Classroom Management dealing with difficult students. I've had some VERY difficult students in the past few years and I wish that I could say I always handled their challenging behaviors with grace, dignity and calm authority--but I would be lying. Staying mentally and emotionally disengaged when a child's whose behaviors and fits are driving you batty is extremely challenging.

During the past school year, I realized that I didn't feel in control of my classroom. I felt like I wasn't commanding the kind of respect that I wanted. Michael Linsin says that you can tell your students don't really respect you if they are constantly making "suggestions" on how you ought to run things, and I felt like this happened a lot, especially toward the end of the year. Yikes.

This summer, I  learned that respect does not have to be harshly or loudly demanded. In fact, those two things will actually decrease your students' respect for you. Instead, be calm, clear and authoritative.

I have one particular student who I've sometimes felt has made it his first grade career to challenge everything I instruct him to do. Some days, it's been quite the headache.

Not so anymore. Now, if he makes a "suggestion" or attempts to find 8 alternatives to doing what I tell him, I simply remind him that in this case, the decision is mine, and his job is to follow instructions. I don't raise my voice, I don't get upset, I just calmly look him in the eye and remind him to go do his job. Calmness for me, consistency for him. Good deal.


Only for elephants.

There is a very good reason pen and paper were invented, and I'm guessing keeping track of information is at the top of the list.

This past year I switched from teaching second grade to first, and the transition was rough. First graders in September are VERY different than second graders in August. Needless to say, I've spent a lot of time recently studying classroom management. My new favorite blog is, written by Michael Linsin. He's also the author of the book Dream Class, which I just bought and am very excited to read.

Last year, I found managing my classroom pretty challenging, and part of the reason was I'd try to keep track of warnings mentally instead of writing them down. I'd constantly forget how many warnings I'd given a student (they are only supposed to get one), so then the kids would count the warnings themselves, and then no one would be sure how many it was, I'd end up giving them 2 or 3 (or none, if whatever they did was particularly annoying and I thought they already had one) and it ended up being quite disruptive.

This year, I just added a warning as the first consequence on my color chart. Problem solved! Now warnings keep track of themselves, and I can focus on teaching. It's much better than marking tape on my wrist (ouch!), or carrying around a clipboard (and forgetting where I set it down), or writing students' names on my whiteboard (which distracts the whole class), or any of the other methods I've tried (that I also can't remember).

Creating effective systems that work for you is one of the most important aspects of teaching, and I'm so glad that I finally figured this one out. Phew...

Do not rely on your memory as a classroom management tool. Unless, of course, you're an elephant.

First post!

They say you should journal about your first few years of teaching, and I totally failed at doing that. However, sometimes, there are moments that are just too cute, too funny, or too awesome not to share. So this blog is the place where I'll post stories full of love, life, laughter and lots of learning. 

Stop by often, and please don't hesitate to comment!