Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

When I started teaching in 4th grade 24 years (ack!) ago, I was introduced to this great book by Chris Van Allsburg---The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.

Every year I would bring the book out and share the mysterious circumstances of its creation.  Then I would have the kids imagine what the "undiscovered stories"were--and each would choose one picture and craft a story of his/her very own.  I loved reading those stories and the kids loved hearing each others.  I scooped up the "portfolio" when it was released so that the kids could see all the pictures at once.  However, the first year I moved to 6th grade, I had many of the same kids and, when I pulled Harris Burdick out, I heard "We did that in 4th grade."  But we trudged on, and they wrote their stories--but they were uninspired and unmemorable.  And I was deflated.  And sad.  Maybe they were just too old for the magic of Harris Burdick.  And so the book went onto my bookshelf and sat there.  For years.

This summer, as I was deep-cleaning my room, I came across the book and as I looked it over,  I was transported back to that time of my early teaching--when every thing was new and fresh, and I was bubbling over with enthusiasm for learning.  I remembered how I felt when they rejected the book--but with a different perspective.  They wanted to be grown-up and when they did the same activity, with the same teacher, that they had done 2 years earlier, they rebelled.  I didn't see it then.  But time often brings clarity, and I could see what went wrong that year.

So, a month ago, I lowered my voice as if I was getting ready to spill a secret, and told this new crop of 6th graders that I had something incredible to share with them.  A book that has been around for years--a mystery that has yet to be solved.  And I read the story, and shared the pictures.  And as I heard them excitedly chattering about the pictures and saw them getting up out of their seats to "get a better look," I realized that the magic was still there.  For the next 40 minutes, you could have heard a pin drop in the room--and there were groans because we had to stop writing (it was lunchtime.)  Upon returning to the assignment the next day, I heard one girl tell her friend, "I really don't mind doing this" and I had to stop myself from running a victory lap around their desks.

Their stories have been turned in.  And many of them are inspired.
If you have never had the pleasure of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, I encourage you to check it out.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sunday Scoop

I thought I would try linking up with the Teaching Trio for the Sunday Scoop.

I actually thought I would try this weeks ago, but it took me a while to figure out how to get my text into the graphic and back into a post.  (Thank you to the iphone photo app Over!)  I am torn between feeling good that I figured it out and feeling sad that it took me so long!

Enjoy what remains of your weekend!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Spark Student Motivation Saturdays: Wacky Buttons

Time to link up again with Joanne at Head Over Heels for Teaching!

I love teaching 6th grade---secretly I am scared that it is a great grade level for me because I have a personality that meshes well with an 11-12 year olds.  Yep.  There are so many things to love about that age--but one thing that tickles my fancy is that many of them "think" they have seen it all and know it all.  Of course they do--they are the big kids on campus, after all.  (Such a rude awakening they are in for next year when they head off to junior high.)

So finding ways to reward them that are novel is a lot of fun.   I do believe in rewards and I think they can be motiviating--I think it is mainly because I have always loved getting prizes--always.  I remember carefully choosing tiny dolls after every dentist appointment, collecting good behavior cards from my 2nd grade teacher, "buying" a cool pencil case in 5th grade with my "classroom money," etc.  I still love carnivals and going to arcades (do they call them that anymore?!?!) and collecting tickets to get prizes (and spending way more than the prizes are worth.)  A former principal used to give us duty passes as rewards---I amassed quite a few (which I never got around to using before she retired--argh!)

A few years ago I stumbled on a website called wackybuttons.com.  It is really easy to use and the buttons are quite affordable (if you purchase 50 of one design, they are about $0.25 each --a little more after factoring in shipping and handling.)  I give them out for a variety of reasons (completing all assignments for the week, being kind, helping out, putting forth effort, etc.)   I
design my own by grabbing images off the Internet.  Some of the buttons are inspirational, some are of current pop culture, some are instructional.  You are only limited by your own imagination and size (I buy the smallest one to keep costs down.)  I also learned the hard way that, for designs that aren't simple, ordering one as a sample is better than taking a chance and ordering 50.  I store them in jewelry organizer boxes that I found at Jo-Ann's Fabrics.

The kids figure out ways to display them--most put them on their backpacks.  Some use them like accessories and wear different ones every few days.  This year one kid is choosing the same one over and over again--he wants to see how many he can get.  Crazy!  They suggest new designs in their secretive 6th grade way (yesterday I heard "Wow...there are so many to choose from--too bad there aren't any Star Wars ones--that would be awesome.")  I guess I am going to get to designing!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Red Ribbon Week

Red Ribbon Week has arrived once again.  Our PTA  asked us to make a banner for the front of the school--and they wanted it to be "spooktacular!"  It is difficult for me to take time out of my packed schedule (especially because I feel like I am already falling behind,) but it is hard to say no.
So we diligently crafted it today...the kids were quite happy with their finished product and I am quite happy it's done!  :)   They looked at clipart on the Internet to get ideas of how to draw monsters--that was a lot of fun for them.  One of my girls is rather concerned that she probably won't get her Frankenstein back (it is the cute little guy with the brown outfit on the right hand side.)  I hope she doesn't somehow manage to sneak it off the banner when it is hanging outside.  Another kiddo had the idea of having a human escaping from the monsters, so I told her to draw it and I have to say that it really increased the cute quotient of the banner.   Their creativity can be so amazing.

Sunday, October 19, 2014


I have finally admitted that I have a love/hate relationship with Common Core.  I was indifferent for a long time.  I figured it was just a new set of standards--ones that were supposed to make a little more sense when compared to the old California state standards.  It would be something new to teach--a challenge, if you will.  And I like new challenges--within reason.

Inherently, the concept of a set of nationwide standards is logical and a step in the right direction.  It never made sense to me that politicians and the media compared the test results of tests that were not the same.  Honestly, I don't even like it when test scores are compared of schools that are not similar.  Having taught in a school with at-risk students for so many years, I have a definite opinion that poverty is the biggest obstacle to learning--and it is an obstacle that affects generations.    I like the fact that the standards "establish what students need to learn but do not dictate how teachers should teach." (corestandards.org)  And I love that teachers from all over the country can share ideas that are specific to their grade levels.  The varied ideas and perspectives can only help make my teaching stronger.

However, there are three things I hate.  The first thing is that there are not enough examples and materials.  I have spent the past week grappling with "Use punctuation (commas, parentheses, dashes) to set off nonrestrictive/parenthetical elements."  Figuring out what it meant took some research, and then figuring out how far to go with it is a major problem.  Do I have to teach the difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive elements, for example?  I don't know.  That ambiguity is frustrating.  So very frustrating.  I will figure it out...and as I teach it, I will figure out what I need to improve upon.  But finding the time to figure all of this out is exhausting--and I am sure that I am not the only teacher feeling this way.

Another difficult thing is when someone tells you "that is not common core."  I think we are all stumbling around in the dark trying to find our way and it is going to take years to get our bearings (yes, years!)  A colleague was recently told by a teacher on assignment that there should be no more worksheets in the classroom, and she would know because she has been to many more trainings and so she has a greater understanding of it.  Mind you, they had just finished creating a multiple-choice assessment using a "one-stop system" that the district has purchased.  Balance...teaching is a delicate balance that uses a variety of resources and techniques to help students reach an deep understanding of the myriad of concepts that they are expected to learn.  

I am also upset that my students are going to have major holes and gaps in their learning.  That was predictable, but it doesn't feel good.  So I try to plug them here and there, but it reminds me of some of those impossible Cutthroat Kitchen tasks (like making a cake in a colander.)  When the end of the year rolls around, you want to feel good about sending them on, not worried.

I know that my frustration will pass.  I remember feeling like this before when the old standards were introduced.  And, in time, I figured it out.  That is something that we always need in education--just more time.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Spark Student Motivation: Picture Books

Linking up again with Joanne from Head Over Heels for Spark Student Motivation Saturdays!

I remember thinking when I first moved to 6th grade 16 years ago that I was going to have to get "more grown-up" with my teaching style, book selections, rewards, discussions, etc.  But, after a few years, I realized just how wrong I was.  These little 11-12 years olds, who yearn so badly to be grown-up, are just little kids deep inside.  Stickers--they love them.  Tiny toys for prizes--they collect them.  Tell them that they can twirl around on the grass at the end of PE, and you have 30 6th graders falling to the ground in a dizzy delight.  And listening to picture books--they sit spellbound and ask to hear the story again.  You would think the "big kids" would turn up their noses and sniff "That's for babies..." but they don't. 

Over the last few years, I have incorporated using picture books as mentor texts into my reading instruction.  I teach skills with the simpler shared stories so that they can grasp the concepts more easily.  Picture books are more non-threatening to them than the longer novels.  The pictures help them make meaning more easily,  and they only have to follow about 32 pages to see how an author builds theme, or to examine how characters undergo change.  They are fun to listen to and seem to motivate their discussions (in fact, my class this year can barely keep themselves from shouting out as they are listening to the story.)
Usually, I will teach the skill first, and then we will practice using it with the picture book after that.   And later on we will apply that knowledge as we are reading novels.  A kiddo who can't recall how to find theme can head back to his interactive journal to see what it is and how we practiced it.   It is also a good way for me to make sure that my students who head off to Read180 during our reading block are at least exposed to the standards.  I also integrate them into other areas, such as writing or art, as much as possible.

The hardest trick is finding stories that are new to them.  I know that they wouldn't mind hearing an old favorite, but the novelty is part of the magic.  
Here are a few titles and the reading skills that I teach with them:
Martina and the Beautiful Cockroach: Plot
Mi Abuelita: Figurative language
The Cloud Spinner:  Theme
The Dead Family Diaz:  How characters change
The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore: Comparing a book to a film

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Spark Student Motivation: Get them talking....

I love linking up with Joanne for Spark Student Motivation Saturdays!

Sixth graders, in general, love to talk....they talk with their friends, they talk with their enemies.  They talk when they arrive to school in the morning, while they are standing in line, when they should be working, etc.   I think the only time they don't like to talk is when their parents ask them "What did you learn in school today?"--the answer to that is always "nothing."  So I have made a conscious effort this year to use their gift for gab to my advantage and I have them talk to each other all the time---about what we are learning.

A few years ago we were trained in Kagan active engagement strategies and I try to use the ones that get them up and moving.  I really like to use a modified version of inside/outside circles to have them share responses with each other.  In previous years, I would have to go outside because of a lack of space---and getting them organized into two facing circles was a nightmare.  This year I set my tables up into two longer rows to accommodate this strategy.  The students on the outside move and the students on the inside stay put.  And if I want to change it up a bit, I just have the two inside rows swap seats before we start.  Kids love it, and I love that it is more controlled and wastes less time.

I do have some students who have a hard time talking in groups---you know the kind--super shy and/or scared of looking "dumb" in front of their peers.  After they have written a response to a question (or questions) that I have posed, I will have them break into groups and I will plop a container of centimeter cubes down in front of each group.  I tell them that every time they speak, they need to take a cube.  I set a goal of everyone getting a minimal amount and also caution them to be aware of monopolizers.  It is interesting to see how each group encourages participation.

I also have been using many of the task cards that I have purchased over the years a bit differently.  I print out multiple copies and have them work on them in small groups.  For example, this week we were working on inferences.  I have some inference task cards that I have used for intervention previously.  This year I printed out a few sets of some black and white copies, quickly cut them apart, and handed them to each small group.  I told them that I knew that they would easily be able to come up with the answers---in fact, it would probably be too easy for them--but the goal that I had for them was to explain how they knew their answer was correct--I expected to hear "the text evidence that proves we are right is..." and "my background knowledge that leads me to this inference is..."   And not only did I hear them using the words, they complained when I stopped the activity.  It was one of those moments that fills your teacher's heart with joy.  And then it got better--they completed an independent practice worksheet on inferencing right after, and all but two supported their answers with background knowledge and text evidence--best results ever.  

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Spark Student Motivation

I'm linking up with Joanne over at Head Over Heels For Teaching for her Spark Student Motivation Linky.  

One way that I try to hold the interest of my 6th graders (which, if you know 6th graders, can be quite challenging---friends are so much more important than learning in the 6th grade) is to incorporate little bits of my life--or my made-up life--into my teaching.

I have two Boston Terriers who have made their way into math problems, practice with sentence types, compare and contrast essays, etc.  I reward them by letting them listen to a recording of my littlest dog screaming in rage because my husband has the audacity to dance in the house.   I have a small stuffed Boston that will get to spend the rest of the day on the desk of a student who blows my mind with something that they did or noticed, such as an act of kindness or a remarkable math connection.  I even have one of them featured on one of my good behavior cards.

I will tell them that when I was younger I had a hard time with a common trouble spot of whatever difficult concept we are currently working on.  For example, two weeks ago we were working on dividing with decimals---so many places to make mistakes!  I told my group that struggles that I had trouble remembering the zeros in dividing decimals, so I learned to put boxes over each digit in the quotient to remind myself that I need something in each place.  Now I can't recall whether or not I had trouble with this math concept--but as one of my students said to me "I didn't know that teachers had trouble with learning too, " it nearly broke my heart.  They have so many unspoken fears about their abilities.

Making things personal has really paid off in ways that I never even imagined.