Friday, September 27, 2013

Back to School

Welcome Back!
It was great to see so many of you at Back to School Night!  I hope that you are as excited as I am about your child's sixth-grade year.  We are going to do lots of reading, lots of writing, and lots of thinking.  While it is my responsibility to educate students for the world they will be entering, I also believe in balance.  Writer's notebooks, pens and pencils, and iPads all have their respective places in my curriculum.

Being with you last night reminded me of my middle and high school years.  On the ride home, I reflected on those teachers that impacted my life.  Ms. Kohnke, my AP English teacher, believed in me.  She trusted me with responsibility and stoked my interests in writing, reading, and good literature.  She was also the first teacher I got to know outside of school.  I remember how surreal it was for me at the time - Ms. Kohnke was actually a human being with a house and a car!  In fact, it was a compact pickup truck.  Picturing her driving that red Toyota still makes me smile!

My history teacher, Mr. Goldman, affected me in a different way.  He was passionate about what he taught, and I enjoyed his sarcastic wit. To this day, I can clearly hear the excitement in his voice as he explained the workings of capitalism, socialism, and communism.  Without any fanfare, Mr. Goldman had a unique ability to get students interested in his class.  Recently, we reconnected and went out for lunch.  It had been 22 years since I had since him last.  Amazingly, he hadn't aged a bit!

These two memories reminded me of the importance of my job.  To be a trusted partner in your child's education is an honor.  While I can never be a Ms. Kohnke or a Mr. Goldman, I am privileged to be a part of an educational community that cares so deeply about your children.  Here's to a fruitful and inspiring year!


Friday, September 20, 2013

The Block Schedule

At the behest of many of you, I have decided to delve into the way the block schedule should look and work in my classroom.  I say 'should' because even the best-laid plans can diverge from their original intent.  Let's face it, there are 21 different minds and 21 different agendas in each of my classes.

The beauty of the block schedule is the opportunity it offers us to dig deeply into what we are learning.  For example, we can look closely at a passage in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry from a multitude of angles and have ample time to do it.  We can explore the background knowledge needed to appreciate the message, analyze the author's intent, think critically about what is being said, evaluate the writer's craft, study vocabulary, and examine structure.  Then, we can start to write.  It could be a response to the passage, a piece in the style of what was read, a deeper exploration of a topic that was discussed, a method for thinking through a difficult idea, or a way to confront personal feelings about an issue. Because of the ability to do all of these things, reading and writing become intertwined, and students begin to see them not as separate entities, but rather as two interdependent disciplines.  Below, is a typical 90-minute block in English.

15 minutes
Self-selected reading
  •     Teacher models reading
  •      Confer with individual readers (monitor texts and progress)

5 minutes
Book Commercials
  • Based on self-selected reading
  • Students must complete two per quarter

10 minutes
     Whole group

Direct Instruction Reading (mini-lesson)
  • Comprehension strategies and skills (based on text being studied)
  • Group discussion (thinking critically, analyzing, evaluating)
  • Reading like writers (Daybook, Story Grammar)

Direct Instruction Vocabulary (mini-lesson)
  • Content-area terms determined by teacher
  • Vocabulary from reading to be determined by students and teacher
  • Marzano and Frayer strategies, games for reinforcement

15 minutes
Reading and Conferring
  • Strategies and skills practice (whole-class novel)
  • One-on-one teacher-student conferences

10 minutes
     Whole group
Direct Instruction (mini-lesson or Read Aloud)
  • 6 Trait Writing
  • Writing process
  • Writing like readers (Daybook, Story Grammar)

Alternate with
Writing Circles
1-2 minutes
     Whole group
Status of the Class
  • Record individuals' plans for writing

20 minutes
Writing and Conferring
  • Teacher and student-driven
  • Conference with teacher
  • Peer response

5-10 minutes
Personal Spelling Lists
  • Practice and assessment

5 minutes
     Whole group
  • Students rotate within 6-day cycle
  • Group acknowledgements 

* Adapted from Nancie Atwell

As you can see, it's pretty tight.  There are days when we get through every part of this schedule, and there are others where we get stuck in a specific area and don't have the opportunity to move forward.  Today, for example, the kids needed an extra dose of explicit instruction in annotating their novels.  This took more than the time I allotted for the teaching of reading skills, so we had less time to work on our writing task for the day.  It's not a setback, just a necessary focus on an immediate need.

I am thrilled to be teaching in the block schedule.  It allows me to dovetail all of the aspects of my curriculum together.  One of my goals is for your children to read and write as much as they can this year, and the 90-minute block will facilitate the integration of the two, naturally and logically.  I can't wait to hear your thoughts at the Back to School Night on Thursday, September 26.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Stars Upon Thars?

White Customers Only!

"But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches would brag, 'We're the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.'"  -Dr. Seuss

This week, we began to read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor.  Arguably the most powerful book we will read this year, Taylor's story describes the struggle of a southern black family, the Logan's, in the Jim Crow era.  For students to fully appreciate the Logan's journey, they needed to develop their background knowledge of the South in 1933.  We began by looking at the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation as well as the 13th Amendment.  Then, students explored a document regarding Jim Crow laws and viewed a slideshow that illustrated the separate but equal doctrine.  They were given time to respond in writing and to share their thinking as they uncovered some painful truths about America's past.

You would think a read aloud from a children's book would provide some welcome relief.  Alas, it was not to be.  Dr. Seuss's classic allegory, The Sneetches, remains startlingly relevant 52 years after its original publication date.  The story takes a complex issue and boils it down with whimsical language and simple ideas.  Due to differences in appearance, one group of Sneetches ostracizes another while claiming to be better.  Kids were asked to compare and contrast the Seuss story with the Jim Crow laws, using a one-sentence summary strategy.  Those sentences served as exit slips, and it was clear they understood the connection between the two.

Next week will kick-off a sharecropping simulation.  Students will get a firsthand taste of what it means to sharecrop and the importance of owning land.  I can't wait to see how they fare!

photo credit: Image Editor via photopin cc

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Sharing Our Work

Slowly, yet surely, the students and I are establishing a rhythm and a routine.  Proof of this is that we have successfully navigated our first A-F cycle! While it will still take some time to adjust to block scheduling, I believe that we are on to something great.  Our 90-minute blocks give us the opportunity to read, write, think, and discuss.  One of the many benefits of this arrangement will be the reading-writing connection.  Students will be taught to read like writers and write like readers. In addition to mini-lessons, guided practice, and application, students will be able to pursue their own writing and reading interests.  At the same time, the kids will be getting a healthy dose of content area instruction as all of the sixth grade teachers will be emphasizing literacy.

Efficient workflow will be part of our rhythm.  While students will be doing the majority of their thinking in writer's notebooks, iPads will be employed frequently in class. The 1:1 program in the Middle School gives kids the ability to create digital portfolios and immediately upload their work.  Using their devices, every child made a folder on Google Drive that they shared with me.  This folder will become a way for them to submit work, receive feedback, and construct a body of writing that represents growth.  

photo credit: Tiger Pixel via photopin cc