Monday, March 22, 2010

A Different Point of View

When readers say “huh,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are completely confused. There are increments of “huh” that range anywhere from “I don’t get it at all” to “I get it a little bit” to “I get it but I have some questions” to “I get it but there’s this one little thing I don’t understand.” In order for kids to know which strategies to use to fix the problem, it is important that we help them to see the subtleties in their understanding.

This week, I introduced some second graders to a tool I call the understand-o-meter® that illuminates these subtleties in a way that makes sense to eight year old readers.

After this lesson, Nick, a bright second grade reader picked up Andrew Clements Dogku from the chalkboard ledge and said, “You see this book? I read it the other day. It is definitely a one.”

This was such a curious statement to me. I was surprised Nick saw this book as challenging. With only three lines of text on each page and only a handful of two syllable words, I couldn’t understand why he found it confusing. My gut reaction was to say, “Oh, you can read that. Surely you understand it better than you think you do.” But I held back and looked again at the book—this time through the eyes of a second grader.

As I read Dogku, I noticed that it is told from the dog’s point of view. It is also written in haiku (hence the title). Clever as it is, it does demand a certain level of sophistication, or instructional support, to be understood by a transitional second grade reader.

As I sit here writing today, I am reminded that in order to be the best teacher that I can be, I need to step past what I THINK kids need to know and listen to my students. Only they can tell us how to plan and what to teach and when we do that, we go from being good teachers to being great ones.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Generation B

Have you ever asked a child what he thinks of a book? Did he shrug his shoulders and mumble, “I don’t know.” Or, did he just say, “Good.”

Over the years, I have heard the term “Generation X” used to describe the children of the baby boomers. As we’ve begun to age, I’ve read about the next generation—Generation Y. I don’t know which letter the media is up to now, but I propose we’re looking at Generation B. B for boring.

“Good” and “I don’t know” are not thoughts. In fact, they are completely thought-less. Children can say them without using their brain at all. Yet, when it comes to classroom conversation, “good” and “I don’t know” seem to be what children say most and as frustrated, impatient teachers, we accept it. When they don’t know, we tell them what they should know and move on. Then, we tell them it’s time for literature circles.

Over the last couple of months, I have been working with some fifth grade teachers on establishing book clubs. Typically this process begins with learning roles—Harvey Daniels dubbed terms like “Word Wizards” and “Literary Luminaries.” My feeling is that until we teach children the art of conversation, there isn’t going to be much wizarding and illuminating going on.

Our book club work has begun with conversation. What is an opinion? When someone shares an opinion, how should we respond? Conversations happen when people agree and say more, disagree and say why, question, connect, and share these responses. The reason we have discussions around books is to help us go deeper into the text and walk away with new understandings.

Our fifth grade work has had its ups and downs, as you can well expect; however, some of our lessons have been really effective. If you’re just starting book clubs, these lesson plans,"Sustaining Conversations" and "Finding our Opinions" your students have better book discussions.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Reconsidering the Importance of Publishing

In Writing Workshop, I have long downplayed the importance of publishing. My work with children has always emphasized what writers do to get words down on paper, how writers change their words and grow their ideas. I’ve always felt that people who write for a living don’t publish everything, so why should we have the expectation that our young writers publish absolutely everything?

These days, I find myself rethinking the importance of publishing. At the New York State Reading Association conference that I attended this past weekend, I saw Kay Gormley and Peter McDermott from the Sage Colleges present on using technology in the classroom. I watched as they demonstrated how children could publish their writing on websites like StoryJumper and Blabberize. As I watched, I couldn’t help but wonder how these programs would motivate reluctant writers to want to write more. And then, I realized. Digital savvy, polished end products wouldn’t motivate only reluctant writers, they would make ALL children want to write to the finish. Not only that, it might make them value the whole process differently. I know I write differently when I know people will see my end product.

Kay and Peter definitely left me thinking hard about the importance of integrating digital technology into our literacy frameworks. The possibilities are endless and will surely better prepare children for our fast-paced, technology-driven world.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Spelling Maters

Did you catch my mistake? When you saw the word “matters” did you think, “Oops, how did Kim let that one slip?” Or were you far more critical, thinking, “How careless. That was dumb.”

For the record, I misspelled “matters” intentionally. This week, spelling has come up again and again. One of my colleagues spelled the word “address” with one d. One of the parents in my son’s class spelled “writer” with two “t”s. I must confess. I was hard on these people. I was thinking things like, “These are professionals. They should know better than that.”

On Monday, my first grader brought home his writing folder and as I sat sifting through the contents, my older son looked on. Matthew loved what Nathan had written about Great Wolf Lodge and wanted to add to the written responses that Nathan received during his in-class writing celebration. He wrote: I think you put a lot of effort into this book. Your awesome.

I couldn’t let it pass. I seized the opportunity to tell him about contractions and pointed out that what he is really saying is “you are,” therefore it should be written “you’re.” Instead of being gracious, he curtly replied, “So. Does it really matter?”

Does it really matter? I was shocked when he said this. I began to wonder if my son’s attitude represented the attitude of other children. And if it does, where did they get this idea?

Over the years, children seeking the correct spellings to words have been the bane of the writing workshop teacher. Echoes of “how do you spell…” bounce from one side of the classroom to the other and we just can’t keep up. So what do we say? “Don’t worry about the spelling. Just write.”

I am wondering now if those words have inadvertently taught our young writers that spelling isn’t important. I’ve been conscious of this issue for some time and have been making a concerted effort to change my language. Now, I say things like “spelling is important, but right now your ideas are more important.” Or “Right now, focus on your ideas. Draw a squiggly line under the words you are unsure of so we know what to look at when we edit.”

Spelling matters. Spelling matters because it is a communication conduit. When I can read the words that you have written on the page, I can understand what you want me to know. When words are spelled correctly, I don’t have to work extra hard as a reader. The less I have to work, the more inclined I am to read what you have to say. And finally, accurate or not, people make snap judgments about our intelligence based on how we spell. If we want to leave readers with positive impressions of us not only as writers, but as people, spelling matters.

So, in answer to Matthew’s question, “So. Does it really matter?” I say this: If you’re going to be respected, you’re going to need to listen to your mother: Of course spelling matters!