Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Summer Writing Project: Blogging

The end of the school year is imminent. Just three days and the kids are out for the summer. For about the last month, I have been priming my own children for what they will be doing besides going to the beach, lazing around, and hanging out with their friends:

• Reading for no less than five hours a week
• Practicing math facts
• Learning how to type

Over the years, this has been standard practice so Matthew and Nathan seem okay with this plan. But in the back of my mind, I had been toying with yet one more thought for Matthew. Last week he came home with this great little piece that he told me he jotted off the top of his head one afternoon in school. He called it, “My Little Instructions on Life.” On this list of twenty ideas, he included things like:

• Do not kiss your puppy if he does not have a flea collar.
• If the worm is eating the bird, run away.
• If you see an eyeball in your soup, do not eat it.
• Do not name a cat Dog, Monkey, Shark, or Charles.
• Thomas Jefferson did not write Percy Jackson.
• Do not buy lotto tickets because you have a 1% chance of winning.
• Do not smoke because you can get heart disease if you do!
• You will find your long lost piece of cheese when you least expect it.

When I read it, it felt very blog-like to me. So, as I once again reviewed his summer responsibilities, I surreptitiously plugged the idea of a blog. I didn’t know what to expect. I wasn’t sure if he’d roll his eyes and complain about me giving him one more thing to do or if he’d warm up to the idea.

At first, he had a lot of questions. What was a blog exactly? What would he write about? Who would read it? People could really comment on what he was thinking? Hmmmm….

He thought about it for most of the afternoon and kept coming back with questions and ideas. He’d say things like, “You know what, I could write about how to deal with an overtired little brother.” A little while later he’d come back and say, “I could write about how I’m trying to figure out how to get past this one level on my Lego video game. Maybe people could write back and help me out.”

By the end of the day, he had come up with at least ten things he could write about and said, “Can we start this right now?” followed quickly by, “how often do people blog? Could I write like three times a day?”

The idea of blogging has opened a floodgate of possibilities for Matthew. It’s got him thinking like a writer. He’s considering potential topics and making plans about how and what and when to write.

I know that one of the things I need to do more of as an educator is consider how to harness the potential of digital media. For me, Matthew’s blog feels like a big experiment. The first note I have made is that it generates a lot of enthusiasm. Matthew loves the idea of having a place to put his ideas and the potential of a real audience. But I find myself wondering, will this be the sort of project that will start out with a lot of energy and lose steam? Or, will it be the springboard to great thinking, an online writer’s notebook of sorts? I guess only time will tell. As the summer wears on, I promise to keep you posted.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Top Picks for Reflective Professional Reading

Summer vacation is right around the corner. If you’re like me, you probably look forward to June and July as a time for catching up. I have a stack of books and journals that have been piling up in my office that I am very eager to crack open…just not yet. When the school year ends, I need a little time to meander. Before I delve into the hardcore “how-to become a better teacher” stuff, I must have something to help me reflect on the year that just was.

If you’re looking for some great books that help you put your year in perspective and think about education from a different point of view, these are my top three picks:

Outliers: The Story of Success (Amazon affiliate link) by Malcom Gladwell

What makes some succeed and others fail? As teachers, we can never understand this phenomenon too well. This book was fascinating and cast success in a whole new light for me. Whenever I talk to teachers about teaching reading, I ALWAYS think of the 10,000 hour rule.

(And if you like this book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Amazon affiliate link) is my absolute, personal favorite Malcom Gladwell book.)

A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future (Amazon affiliate link) by Daniel Pink

I don’t think Daniel Pink intended this book for educators as much as he intended it for business people, but his thinking most definitely extends to what teachers need to know about thinking differently about how people learn. I love the idea of thinking outside of the box and whenever I read this book, I find myself wondering what we in education can and should be doing differently in order to affect great change.

Who Moved My Cheese?: An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life (Amazon affiliate link) by Dr. Spencer Johnson

This book is about two mice and two little people on a hunt for cheese—on one level. Really it’s a parable that tells the story of change. If you’re looking for a book to help you put things in perspective and give you a springboard for evaluating what you want to do differently, this is it! In fact, I pulled my copy off the shelf and think I might begin my quest to reflect here. It’s an easy and short read that keeps you thinking for a long time afterward.

What helps you to reflect? Please be sure to share your favorite titles!

Monday, June 7, 2010

What You Know Without Being Told

Look at this picture.

What can you guess about the character that it belongs to?

This is exactly the question I asked a group of second graders and when I did, they astutely called upon their background knowledge to tell me some very smart things. The character is a boy because girls don’t wear swim trunks. The character is not a grown-up because the trunks are not big enough to fit someone older than seven or eight. The notebook is small and portable (they really used that word) so the character carries it with him. The character must be at the beach because you use a bucket and shovel to dig in the sand.

So, do you know who this stuff belongs to? What boy character in the neighborhood of age eight carries around a notebook? Being able to answer that question requires having some background knowledge about children’s literature which given that this character comes from what is popular with the second grade set, they saw that there were only two choices: Jack from Magic Tree House or Nate from Nate the Great. When I added a bottle of maple syrup to the mix, they knew right away. These items belonged to Nate and Nate was going to the beach to do some detective work.

In order to draw this conclusion, these second graders had to infer. Most teachers recognize inferring as an important, higher level comprehension skill but feel stuck when it comes to knowing how to teach it. When we started here and pointed out that inferring is when you take information and put it together with what you know from your prior experiences and draw a conclusion, somehow, it seemed so much easier than it had in the past. As we began to read the Nate the Great and the Boring Beach Bag together, we stopped every so often to talk and think about what we knew without being told and it was amazing how the students could “see between the lines.”

What do you do to help teach your students how to infer? Join our discussion or leave us a message here. We’ve also been doing some work with visualizing to help kids arrive at inferential thinking. If you’re interested in seeing how we did that, click here.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

To Assign or Not to Assign? That is the Question

It seems that no matter where I go, I enter into the debate about “assigned reading.” In elementary school, it goes by another namesake, “the whole class novel.” Either way, handing out class sets of teacher selected books, assigning chunks of texts to read, and answering questions about the text is fiercely defended by its proponents as a constructive and effective means for teaching children how to become better readers. For those who believe in teaching this way, I always ask one simple question: How much do your students read?

When I talk to teachers about the amount of time that they spend with a whole class novel, most of them tell me that a book generally takes a month or better to complete, depending on how many chapters are in it. At that rate, students finish somewhere around eight to ten books a year. That falls significantly short of the twenty-five book a year standard required by New York State, not to mention my own personal standard of making sure kids finish at least three books a month. When I mention this, I often hear the voice of exasperation, “You think my students should be reading more? I can barely get them to read that much.”

Though it doesn’t sound highly scientific, reading a lot is one of the tenets proven by research to help children become more proficient readers. If kids aren’t reading a lot, we need to question the validity of our teaching practices and wonder out loud and talk to EVERYBODY about what we can do to change this.

Does getting kids to read five to eight hundred pages a week seem like an unattainable dream? If you think yes, I urge you to gather some colleagues together to watch this video. When it’s over, think hard about next year. What can you do differently to rekindle the passion for reading and help your students read more pages, more often?