Preparing the Lesson Plan
Planning for Common Core
Well, I am lucky to be in the site where my principal is actively involved in Common Core within the district. She believes it. She knows the importance of teaching concepts, concept development. And my instructional coach also believes that we have to move from surface teaching to depth. And the difficulty is how.
And so as I've come from Baltimore and every Friday when I come back or every other Friday when I come back from one of the meetings, they know I'm energized. I may be tired, but I'm energized. How does this look? What are we going to do that's going to make a difference? And we are, like I mentioned earlier, we're the only intermediate school in the district three five, three through five. We have a sister school that's K, one, two. And so I do know that our principal wants to implement Common Core across third, fourth, and fifth because that makes sense.
And so talking, finding that time. And one of the biggest pushes that I think I come with is that teachers have to have ownership because of the cadre. If we don't own our work, then it's again what it's done to us. That's the way I think of it instead of owning it and being passionate about what we're doing.
And so I come back and I talk about time. And some do know that I've been working on a lesson plan for over nine months and that can be daunting. Like, "How are we going to get this work done?" And it's not that we are going to spend nine months on a lesson plan, it's the process. All of this has been process for me and so I take that back.
As I think about professional development at our school and we are thinking about that, "How does this look? What should be included?" is I think first of all we need to see what we are doing currently. And we need to see what is in place and what is not in place and that would be a starting point. What are we doing that's right? And we are doing things that are right. And talking about as I think of Common Core is that it is an interweaving of fiction and non-fiction.
So as we develop these units, really looking at texts. You know, what would benefit our students? That would be one thing. Also, the integration of writing because writing and reading I think are equally balanced with the Common Core. And it hasn't been that way in the last ten years. So I believe that would be a real big, that would be a mixture. That would also be, that would be included with our English language learners and that would be collaboration would also be a big piece.
But the most important part is time for teachers to collaborate so that these different pieces can be worked on together, not in isolation. Because I am fearful that it's, "Oh, we've done this before." We haven't done this before. It is a deeper, it's much more in depth. I do think that the idea of looking at the scaffold, what does that look like, scaffolding, look like in our classrooms?
And I also really think that opening our doors as we begin to experiment because I really believe it's going to be - we're charting unknown waters and so that that trust amongst the teachers is real important as we began the process. And I also believe it cannot be top down. We teachers have to be involved in this. We have to want to be involved.
Our teaching I feel for myself has become very linear. Cover what's on the test. And luckily I'm at a site with a principal who's not only an instructional leader but an instructional manager. And so she has a very sound background on instruction so she's been an asset also to help me develop what, and she has scripted my language in the classroom to see if I'm moving students toward the more critical thinking.
But I think that progression is difficult. And for English language learners it's hard to gauge their understanding because my kids are passive. My students are passive learners and they'll bob their heads. And so if I don't come in, you know, in another direction, I will miss, they will form misconceptions.
With text complexity I have throughout the year been — I've been very cognizant about what I'm doing to help students access what is being taught through a fourth-grade text. And I'm often surrounded by, "Well, we have to use kid-friendly language. We have to bring it down. We need to use a lower level." And throughout the year and throughout my conversations, that's not what we want to do because my students won't make it.
They won't be able to enter more difficult conversations when they're in middle school, when they're in high school, when they're in college. And I know that I try to keep it at a higher level, but I also know that the instructional part has to come from me. That's the, I'm the knowledgeable other at this point, which is shifting because my students are now assuming that knowledgeable other.
So that text [unint.] I've been spending a lot of time thinking about that and also implementing, you know, as I do small groups, you know, as my students are involved in small groups or when I'm getting ready to teach a lesson, I am making sure I'm not bringing it down. And one of the things that I've told people, one of the things that I've told colleagues, I've told colleagues is, "Oh, they're not getting this. They're not getting this. What do I need to do?" Well, that's hard. The text is hard, but I don't want to change the text. And so just the other day I run down, I was with, this is one of my struggling groups and we were talking about a certain question that was more of an open-ended question.
And my students know when the progression that I start them with when the answer is right there and they know that that's very easy, but then when I shift it to where it's the author and them and the piece is in different parts of the text, we came across a very difficult question and I caught myself trying to not paraphrase but to say it in a way that made it — that gave them — that was — that would tell them they didn't have to work as hard.
And so I had the opportunity to run down the hall and go to my instructional coach and say, "Okay. I'm starting to understand this." And so she was able to say, "What do you mean text complexity?" And so we had this conversation because she's at the level of — she's an instructional coach and she's also talking a lot with teachers with Common Core about what does this mean and especially for our population. Forty percent of my students are proficient and I'm in an intermediate school, third, fourth, and fifth.
And these students will be going to, I mean 200 of them will be going to middle school next year. And so she understood that.
The shift from just using fiction to the combination of using fiction and non-fiction is very important. I believe our new reading program has that balance where there's fiction, non-fiction. But to use authentic non-fiction is going to be a push. I have found that, we talked about motivation today. A lot about student engagement, motivation.
Students, I find, students get motivated when they can connect it, when they can connect it to the world. And so bringing that outside piece in of it being authentic is going to be, I think that may be a shift.
But I know for myself I've always balanced fiction and non-fiction. I like kids to get fired up. I like them to be, I like them to know about their world. And they do know about their world. It's just the place to where it can be voiced and it's a motivator. It's motivating for them to have a place to share that. I do see that we need to do this. We need to push this to have the merging of fiction and non-fiction, because especially as we move up through school as students continue to move forward.
Well, let me tell you what I'm playing with. We do have a core reading program within our district and so I do use that as a springboard to get my students fired up about a genre. We currently just learned about the elements of science fiction within this text, a fourth-grade text. And so as my students started to learn that it had to do with robots and aliens, which they all love, and with this particular story time travel.
And once I did that, I went ahead and opened it up to where we did a class read. It's called The Green Book by Jill Paton and short book, but that book fired my students up because the boulders were eggs and out emerged moth people. And I did that as a whole group only because of the, I want the discussion to go back and forth. So that was a success.
I started the year with Stone Fox by Reynolds and that had to do with — it had to do with a young boy whose father, grandfather became ill. I try to really incorporate a lot of different genres in the classroom. I can't really think of all the titles that we've used, but we do chart them. I currently have three of my students who are involved in battle of the books and I'm sponsoring that.
It's the first time our school will be going to represent, will be represented on Saturday. And these students have read 20 books, over 17 hundred pages. And so they're fired. They're excited. My students have books stacked on their desks that they can't wait to get to. I have students writing me letters about please pick up the sequel to one of the books that they're — that is missing in our class library.
So my background helps my students to love books. "Oh, I know that book. Hatchet, that's a really good book." And will talk. We have that conversation. And so that's really nice to see with my kids and to hear from other teachers 'cause this is only my second year at this site. But to hear from teachers who had my students, "Oh my goodness. They know literature." And that really - that fires me.
I do have a class. I do believe in students acquiring voice because like I mentioned earlier, my students can be passive learners. And they have a voice to the point where they don't want the guided readers anymore that go with the text. They want to be in literature books. And so I recognize that.
Advice for ELL teachers: Get to know students
I would say get to know your students. Pay attention to your students. Student knowledge I think is the foundation of our classroom of instruction. And not to get overwhelmed with strategies or be burdened that they have to try so many different things in their classroom, but to find — develop — find something that they're good at and then begin to incorporate a strategy.
Because I do work, I've had the opportunity to work with new teachers at my site. And it can be hard to try to figure out a teaching stance where you fit in with mandates and pressure for student achievement. And I do think we lose sight of students and so I think to me that would be the first thing is get to know your students and be a kid watcher. Pay attention because you'll find out which kids are not picking it up.
And then, of course, at the other end you find the kids that are. And to know the dynamics that takes place in the classroom. I've always said the magic's in the classroom. That's where it's happening. And so that's what I would talk [ph.] to a new teacher. And a teacher specifically working with ELLs is really paying attention to what — if they are — if they are or are not picking up, if they're not learning. And, of course, that would be, you know, developing instructional strategies on how to make that happen.
After the Lesson
The lesson on Cinderella followed an author study by Chris van Allsburg. And in this author study we studied fantasy and we also noticed, students also noticed that it was a merging of also science fiction. And during that author study we studied literary elements like setting, plot, theme, character analysis. And so taking it to the next level, which was we wanted to look more at fantasy, it naturally came up to looking at a character in depth.
And by looking through, after looking through several resources, Cinderella seemed the best fit and it also integrated into what we're doing in social studies, learning about the world. And so we took several – took one anchor text, Cinderella, and spent time looking at the character. Who was this character? And at the same time starting to build from our prior knowledge on the elements of a story.
Our anchor text was real important and that was by Barbara McClintock. Rough-Faced Girl is going to be one of our other versions. Another one will be Cinderlad. Turkey Girl, which is a Zuni tale and there's also Adelita. These versions are carefully chosen because it represents the cultures within the classroom.
We started with Jumanji and at the very beginning they didn't know what to look at. And I started with some of the work by Serafini. And in the book in his work he talks about impressions, connections, and wonderings. And so I decided to start bringing those words up with the kids. What do you notice? What do you connect to? And what do you question? And so that's what we really started to look at as we looked at, listened to the writing and looked at the illustrations.
We completed five books. The fifth book I had multiple copies so students were actually able to read it together and compare and contrast that tale to the Jumanji. My students were hooked. The more that they found that they were noticing, they couldn't stop it. They noticed patterns within the illustrations. They started to learn a little bit more about the language because we uncovered that he used similes.
And so when we shifted to the Cinderella story, I couldn't get them away from looking at, "Oh, there's a dog," or, "There's a cat," or, "The table – the legs of the table look like an arm," or they couldn't move yet because they were still looking at the book as if they were looking at the text by Chris van Allsburg in which there were multiple patterns. And so that was actually quite funny. I had to, "Okay, kids, we're moving to a different kind of looking at story." And so that was – it was funny.
Finding evidence from the text is when students are able to return back to the text to use the words in the text to answer the question. I found when we first did the lesson when we were saying, "Well what is your evidence?" I found that students were giving very simple answers. And it was Dr. August who kind of said, "They can go more, they can go more in-depth." And so that was I believe the question with the similarities between Cinderella and the two step-sisters.
"They were all girls. They wore all dresses." That wasn't really going back to the text. That was what they were noticing. And so that I think – that is going to be – that's a shift. That's definitely a shift.
There's an important need, when we talk about the elevating of literacy skills, that it progresses. And this week with the level of questions in section one and the movement in section three really raised the bar. And it went toward what is the evidence? What is the evidence? And going back to the text.
The mini lesson on idioms I thought was a very – was a natural segue into the read for that day. It was the third read. And in that third read of the text, that's where there was more noticing of the structure of the language. And so using the PowerPoint, which was a little bit different for me was – it added.
The third section of the story that was to be read that day, the mini lesson really prepared them for the language that was going to be represented. Having it visual, a visual for them was perfect because my learners, my ELLs need the visual and so watching them begin to understand words like or phrases like "arm-in-arm," "with all my heart," and also see them chuckle that wait, it does have a different meaning. So the mini lesson definitely added to the understanding of the text once we began to read.
The mini lesson on context clues was also another addition to the read in that I've always said, it's a, it was real interesting because I talk and I mean I've taught mini lessons before but we're using the context clues but having it – having it done visually was very different in that well, it was exciting for one thing because the kids got to see the movement, the underlining, the circle, the circling and also how the clues can help to determine the unknown word.
And so that will be one that I will continue spending a lot of time on because it's not just a one-time deal. It needs to be repeated in different contexts and how do we use this – how do the clues help us to determine the unknown? But not only the word – not only the clues in the language but also the pictures because my students were really starting to do that. The idea that they were investigators, they were detectives and they're looking to figure out the unknown. That was perfect.
There's a few things that surprised me. At first I did not know how my boys were going to respond. I did not know. I thought okay, they're going to think this is too, is it going to be for girls only? I never received that reaction and that could be because we talk in our classroom about how we rotate stories during our read-aloud between the different genders. It's a male who's the lead character or a female. Also, a big surprise for me was the understanding of the text with most of my students and also their patience and their willingness to continue to try to understand.
We had an interesting conversation surrounding the phrase "chatting with the ease of old close friends." At first I had questions because I remember one of my students saying, "Well, what does ease mean?" And so they were starting to question, which is great because there was a time in the classroom where there were no questions. And I saw them start to struggle a little bit with it, "Well, what does it mean?" And I kept repeating them. I did not back off. Most importantly, I did not simplify it.
And so "chatting," they didn't know what "chatting meant," but then once they – once the understanding of what the vocabulary meant, I had one student who completely understood it, because they were comfortable with each other.
And so watching that part, replaying that part in my head, it reminded me of the need to stay with complex text, the importance of not simplifying it because there's a part of me that believes that students tune us out because they know we're going to repeat it in a simpler way. And so I – once they got it, it was okay. They really are understanding.
At first I couldn't understand where this piece on magic came in. They knew there was transformation because of what happened with the fairy godmother, but why did it come in at the beginning? And then what happened at the end, there was a – he couldn't quite understand that.
Later on I had a student who said, "Well, if it's magic and everything went back to the way it was, why were the glass slippers the same?" And there for a while I was – I had to stop and think because they were really pushing, they were really understanding, and most importantly they were questioning. And as I read the reflection letters – they wrote reflection letters yesterday about their understanding of Cinderella – many of them had that same question about the glass slippers and about the magic.
And I also had a couple of other students read three other versions and they were starting to find the similarities and differences. And to me just that idea that they're starting to question the structure tells me that they're moving into beyond just recall. What was – who was the main character in the story? What happened? And so that was real – real good.
Not in isolation
As I continue my understanding of the Common Core and the implementation of this lesson, it taught me that I have to have – there has to be content. It's not in isolation. And so when we, when I taught complex text, it's not just the Cinderella stories, it's also that movement into the geography, into the informational text. And so that is cemented for me.
And not only because of Common Core but also because the needs of my students. And for them to become stronger in their skills it has – or to raise the bar, I – that integration would help them see those connections not in isolation.
I am going to share the importance of the close read. I'm going to also share how that we – that asking questions is a really good way to do the comprehension checks and also share how I integrated the vocabulary, how it wasn't separate and that it was from the text.
And but most importantly is the engagement of my students and so that's what I will share and that this piece is the beginning of a unit. It's not the entire unit because Common Core is broader than that. There's so much more that needs to be in place. But this – this style fit the needs of my students and that's the important part is that I know that – I know that they understood. I know that they were engaged. And it wasn't just an activity.
We're going to be a different type of an elementary school in that it is a magnet school and a demonstration school for ELLs using Common Core. And so that's quite a bit for a school. And also with the fact that many of us are new to this school and learning the school culture. So understanding Common Core is only one part but also realizing that the use of EL, English language, the strategies for ESL is another part, has us kind of, I know that I'm a little uneasy. I know that within the teaching, my own teaching, I know I put a lot of visuals up. I try to have as many points, entry points for kids to enter the teaching, the learning.
We are also going to be receiving support within the, from the district to help us ground the strategies to work with our ELs. That's a big component of our school. And so the district is now going to be also providing support for us.
We're undergoing a lot of changes, not only Common Core but here's this other component of working with the ELs, working within a school that, you know, our proficiency rates were at 14 percent in reading and 8 percent in math. So we're still – we're trying to merge it so that we do it well and that our students get benefit.
And people are passionate at our school. There's a, I joke with some of the teachers down the other the opposite hall. I call them the night crew because they are there 'til 10:00 at night. And it again is wanting to do a really good job, wanting to understand what we're doing, knowing that we're doing something that has not been tried before in an elementary school. There have been magnet schools, but we are a magnet and demonstration school.
And so we know that we want to be the best that we can be and in order to do that, that takes understanding. And I know for me that understanding is working with my peers. Every significant change I've made in my classroom, it has not been done in isolation. It is because of working with my colleagues. We are all starting at the same place so that conversation can be kept alive. Well, what are you doing? Well, how are you doing it? And so that opens the doors.
This is written into our contract, the idea that we have PD on a daily basis and that we actually have an extended contract. That was something we all knew going in. And so that is pivotal because the amount, not the amount of work, it's the kind of work that we have to do. If we didn't have the time to do it, it would just be something else. It'd be another thing.
We are not a 6.5 hour a day. We're a 7.5 and we started school an entire week before the rest of the district did. And the one thing that I notice about my principal is she is not hesitant to bring in resources, at all. She will bring us resources. And so now it's taking this information and implementing it.
Using Power Point
Using the PowerPoint was an unknown strategy for me. At first it was – I felt a little – it was the unknown. It was the unknown and I believe it's not because it frightened me. It's because I like the proximity to kids because I can feel their engagement. I can get, you know, I can really tell if they're engaged. And so I felt it was a separate move for me. But I also noticed that they were very engaged and that they responded, which is always something that I'm paying attention to. And so it's something that I plan on incorporating.
My students and I have begun this journey about ten weeks ago. Day one, I will never forget this, tardy bell, I heard the tardy bell and I had about six students in the classroom. I thought, "What's going on here? This is different." And then they all started trickling in at different times. And so I thought, "How..." And I watched this, you know, for the week I watched it and I thought, "There has to be some way that we get to, that we form a community."
And during that time I also watched behaviors, the behaviors of not knowing how to put a name, their name and date in the right-hand corner, organizing their paper, talking over me, talking during the lesson. So it was the schooling that had to be addressed. How do I get them to realize that they're students? But I also felt the need to get them involved in science. I wanted to use a content area. I believe in cooperative learning. And so that's what I did.
And as I look back, we practiced a lot, but it was not practice without modeling. And I always say, "Who would like to be an actor? Who would like to be an actress?" because that's how the practice took place. What does it look like if someone peeked into our classroom and they saw students working, what would it look like? What would it sound like?
We did that for a long time. I knew that I needed to not, I did not want to have me in the classroom all the time directing. There were other formats that I wanted my students to be familiar with, which is working with me in a small group, working with a partner, and working with each other. And so those were rehearsed every single day, but it was done within the content. And capturing when they were doing it, what did it feel like? And so that confidence has carried over into almost everything that we do, but most importantly is my class learned to be a community and that they know that they are expected to be students.
It was real, very important that our, that we became a community, a community of learners. And I saw that happen daily. And so I also saw that they became more confident, but there's something else that I also noticed. I still have to go back and practice with them. What does it feel like? What does it mean to be to school on time? And so it still takes practice because their habits have set in, but I see that they are, they want to learn.
Behavior I was bringing them back from a pullout and I saw some of the kids actually crawling on the floor. And what I did on that day – it's – I mentally rolled up my sleeves and said, "Okay. We have to get this done." Another structure that I put in place was class meeting. Well, what does it look like? And what do we – we want to go on field trips.
We, you know, putting it on them and trying also at the same time to have them be active learners because my class at the beginning was quiet. They were passive. They were waiting for me to tell them what to do all of the time. And so it took consistency on my part and also recognition that when I saw it, when I recognized it, I articulated it. And then also them also realizing that the classroom was a classroom of – it was a safe classroom, but it was also a place where they were students.
I really think my students were in shock because I started day one with them and I have a wide selection of picture books that talk about character, that talk about creating a community. And so at first there was no participation and or even moving toward the front. There was reluctancy to move toward the front.
And some people might say, "Well, they're fifth graders. They shouldn't be moving to the front." No. That proximity is good for any grade level. And so I would just pose questions as we read a text about, "What did you notice about the character? What did you notice was happening between the characters?" And so I must have read about 20 books and then we began to make a chart, behaviors that build a community and behaviors that destroy a community.
And it is that anchor chart that we come to all the time, but and then more and more they knew the ringing of the bell meant come to the carpet, come up, move forward and there's no reluctancy. There's more engagement. There was a couple of times where I didn't read. They began to question why so I knew that they were hooked.
They like to be – they like me to read out loud. The mini lesson at the beginning of the day is only one read-aloud. I actually have two. I have that mini lesson where I hold the book and then there's another time during the day where they all have a book and it's a chapter book. And so that I, if I could, I'd try to put it in at least another time because I model for them fluency. I model for them that even think-alouds, this is what I'm thinking because to teach thinking, well, I mean how do you teach thinking unless you model it?
I'm wondering, "What is this character saying?" So those think alouds was another way for me to encourage, to teach that thinking and reading go hand-in-hand. And so I, I've pulled them in, but it took time. It took many books. We must have read, it's ten weeks of school, I'm going to say we've read about 40 books and that doesn't include the three chapter books that we've already finished. So reading is pivotal in our classroom.
I think it's really important to know from the onset, from the beginning of the school year is I don't start with a library that's already intact. Every book in the library has been touched by every student. And that is that we categorize books. We look at characteristics about books and then the genres are formed. So that's a really important step and so at that time at the beginning of the year we talked about fantasy as we looked at picture books and novels that fit that category.
And so they now knew that fantasy was make-believe. It was those talking animals. It was the magic. It was the godmother, the fairy godmother, the fairies. Some students have read fantasy, but I found that they make that transition easier when we do a genre study when we actually build our library together.
Another characteristic with the class is their loyalty to each other. They care about each other. And yes, they will argue, yes, they will, you know, cause situations will happen on the playground, but I see a real caring about each other. Somebody will trip, "Are you okay?" And so that's another thing in the, another aspect that makes our classroom very interesting is that that encouragement or even the touching. The, you know, the boys will hug each other. And so that's definitely, you know, they like that community feeling.
So far I've lost five kids. Five students have left. Some of them out of state. And so I don't know what to think of it. I've never had students not come back.
And so that was hard yesterday. We are aware of it at our school. I know that they talked about trying to keep the families – trying to keep the kids at the school even when they move. And so the talk of even a bus that brings them back, which involves money but the idea of keeping kids in a stable environment is something that we think about all the time. And I know where they go I mean to a couple of them. And so but that's very new for me. I'm not used to this many kids leaving.
I think there are success stories every day. Every day I think there are success stories. And there's this particular success story with this one little girl that I have. And she's tardy every day. And I thought, "How am I going to get her to come to school? What do I need to do here?" And so I first of all wrote a note home to her mom letting her know that school started at 7:43 and that when her daughter comes in late, she is rushing.
Sometimes breakfast has already been served. And just that idea of missing out on morning preparation, the settling in for the morning, the connecting with other kids.
And so I mentioned to the student that it was really important. And so the next day she was on time. And then the next day she was on time. And so it was becoming a habit and so that was a success story and most importantly she knew it made a difference because that rushing in when we're already – when we're transitioning out of that morning preparation into the mini lesson is hard when you're running from home straight into the classroom no time to unpack.
And so I thought that was a success story.
Another huge success story, this is for our entire school. One of my colleagues hosted a career fair. And so we had professionals from all – we had people from all different professions. We had a runner, a world-class runner; a pharmacist; jewelry designers; policemen. We had quite a selection.
To prepare students for this we talked about writing interview questions. How do you interview someone? What do you want to know? So that generated a conversation. The day came for the career fair. They were excited. And I see that excitement. They went up to the different people and they were asking questions, but when I read their excitement is a whole different story. One of my students said, "I talked with people who went to college. I got an autograph. This was one of the best days." And so those experiences are real important and that's success.
Brian is a very interesting student. He does not hesitate to ask questions. He is an active learner in the classroom. He is from the community but not from the school. He had been going to another school prior. I think he's been at our school for about maybe seven, eight weeks already, but he – he takes care of his needs as a learner so he poses quite a few questions. Brian also finds a way to get near me.
And that partly is because of hearing loss. And so that he is understanding, but he makes the move. And so when I was reading the book or, you know, I was reading the book, he moved in front of me and I believe the word was reveal or revealed and that had been one of the words, vocabulary words. And so he took it upon himself, did not understand, but he asked me to read it over so that he could understand it. And then he took the time to interpret it to make sure that he owned it. That was – to really to be honest, that is ownership. And so it was a really good demonstration to watch him put that into action.
Get to know your students
My advice is to get to know your students. Know that they are bringing something with them. They have knowledge. They have learned. And so the trick is to find how to get that, how to develop them to be confident learners who participate in the learning environment. The participation to me is the most important because that's when they become confident knowing that they can do that. And we can learn strategies. I can learn, I can tell you ten different strategies, but to me the most important is knowledge of students and knowing that they come to school as thinkers. They're learners. It's just done in a different way.
Science and social studies
Two years ago I transferred to a different part of my district and I didn't realize that many of the schools had stopped teaching social studies and science. Now, I was lucky to be in a school that was a restructuring school where the – our principal really wanted that to be taught. And so I'm still able to teach science and social studies, but having moved to Emerson, I had heard that they had double dose. This was called double dosing where they had reading twice and they had math twice during the day.
Well, in order to do that, something's not going to happen. There's a part of the curriculum that won't be covered and it is science and social studies. So when I first started with the kids, you know, they didn't know we're going, you know, "What is...? Science. Yay." They were jumping up, you know, "We're going to have science." But at that point I really, I guess I didn't quite understand that they really had not been taught and these are fifth graders. So I set up an experiment and it bombed only because how to handle the tools, how to handle the equipment, how to – what to – what do you do with it.
And so taking that lesson, we repeated it. Very – had to be very clear about the roles that they had, a material manager, a recorder, a reader. And once I knew that I was starting to really, they were starting to understand what that meant and that they took turns and that they actually work together, then it began to flow. But that was another difficult time because when students don't have accessibility to hands-on materials and then we put them in situations where we're going to – we're going to actually have a science lesson, there's some prior knowledge that they need to have.
And so it, once they got that, once they began to understand, that became a lot easier. And then I was able to move from the hands-on into requiring something written. So again it was gradual. All of these steps were gradual as I added them in and then someone from the group was going to talk about what was – what they learned in the group, what they learned in the experiment.
I'm very fortunate to have been chosen to participate in a program with the U.S. Wildlife Service and that they're going to give us cutthroat trout. And so we are going to – we're going to get 25 of them in our classroom and we are going to have a 50-gallon tank.
I'm going to be working with two other colleagues and we decided that all three classes, one is a dual language class and the other are TESOL, the ELL classes, that we are all going to work together on this project. So the 50-gallon tank will be in one classroom, but we're going to make partnerships with three, one from each classroom as they record what's happening with their fish. We get our fish in January, but the project actually starts in November.
So that we set up the tank. The kids are actually going to do real problem solving so to me it's real in that it's the application of what they've learned. At the end we will go, we will travel to Pilar, New Mexico and we will release the fish. And so it's embedded with a lot of different content areas. And it was interesting because today as I was sitting there, I kept thinking, "Wait, this is the unit."
Because we're still trying to figure out what does that unit look like so it doesn't just become surface teaching, so that it's more in depth. Wait, we can tie in the books from Jean Craighead George and we can pull in the informational text and so all of us were just 'cause we were all – we all showed up today and it was very exciting. We can add this kind of writing piece in. And so, and my students know this is going to happen. So they're really excited about wow, we're going to get fish. We're going to raise fish. So it's exciting.
I think it was last week we were talking about we're moving forward in our math journal and it was using the protractors. And so they couldn't wait. Anything new, and I know that they've used protractors, but it's just that newness. They get very excited. And when I think about my students, they have so many strengths.
Whoever says, you know, "Well, oh, they haven't been exposed to this or they've missed out on," you know, a certain adventure, I don't look at it that way because I believe that they all walk in with experience. And one of the things is hands-on. They can maneuver protractors. They can maneuver the compass. They become masters at it. And it's that hands-on that I find real interesting.
The most important thing is my kids wanted science. "Are we going to do science?" First thing they would say when they came in the morning. First thing. It didn't matter if it was a simple science experiment, it was they were doing it. And the beauty of it is many of them wanted the materials to take home to show their parents.
During open house one of the activities is that the kids had to set up a simple circuit. And so out of – I had 21 kids at that time. I had 16 parents, grandparents, brothers and – I mean 16 families show up that didn't include the grandparents and the siblings and they were able to show their parents how to set up a circuit.
And so but now we're moving into – well, because of the unit on Cinderella, the lesson on Cinderella, we're moving into geography.
And that again was well, where are places and why does it not only talk about place, but what is the impact on people? And just the misconceptions. We can't let kids, we can't stop teaching social studies and science. They need to know who, where they are in comparison to the world. And so again they started with the maps. And, yes, California is a state. It's not a city.
I have taken all of my students' test scores all the way from third grade on the standardized and also on our benchmark testing.
They are all over the place. They – I mean they're high, they're low, they're all over the place. And so what I did with the first score, the first benchmark assessments or back – I want to back up. When I knew the first benchmark assessment was taking place, I talked to my students. And I talked to them about test-taking strategies, but I didn't do it in isolation of my content.
It's not an isolated thing to teach. It's in the content. Okay. "Let's go – let's look at the answers. Let's look at the choices. How do we narrow it down? How do we approach it?" And so they've heard the language and so when they took their first benchmark assessment in both reading and math, they, according to their past scores there was improvement. And I shared that data with my students.
And we talked about how well what's important and what is it? What happens when you come in at beginning steps or what happens when you get this score and I felt I could be real honest with them but at the same time say we have a year and the year is to make sure that you walk out being a confident fifth grader going into sixth grade and that the testing is there but that I felt that their approach to the test, I felt that they weren't nervous and encouragement.
I'm aware that the scores have an impact. I'm not oblivious to that. But I'm also not going to stop teaching what I think, what my students need and it's not isolated testing strategies or, you know, spending hours and hours drilling them. It's embedded in what we do.
I am a firm believer that parents need to be involved with their children's education. I tell the kids it's a triad. It's me, you, and your parents. We all have to be in on this. A few years ago I had read an article or book written by Lucy Calkins and in it she had talked about asking parents to form a partnership. And at that time I thought, you know, I'm going to try this. And I didn't know what I was asking for at first.
But it was profound. I learned things about my students that I would never have known. And again it performed, it asked parents to become that partner. Well, in my new school I also decided to continue with the parent letters. It's another way for me to see engagement from parents. And so the difficult is I didn't always translate them because it was okay, how many translations do I need?
So I talked to the kids and I said, "Okay, kids, this is what's going to happen. I'm going to send home this letter to your parents and I'm asking them to do homework." And they looked at me like, "What are you doing?" And I didn't know how many letters I was going to get back and I received quite a few letters. And again, it reaffirms for me that parents want to be involved. That was a theme throughout all of the letters. They know their children. They want their children to do well.
And parents have knowledge about their children that I won't have. And so I ask parents to fill – to share what they know about their child with me. And some of the things that they share is how they see their children as learners, how they see their children maybe as risk takers or not. And so it's like that information. It's information about their child.
And I do have one father who is just learning to write in English. And when his daughter did bring it in to me, she said, "My dad's just learning English, but he wrote this." And it was a short sentence telling me what he wanted his daughter to do well in. And again, that tells me there is that level of engagement, that wanting for their children to do well.
I think sometimes we have misconceptions about certain areas or about certain population. And so when I read the letters – I mean I even did that. I thought well, of course they're communicating in writing. Look at this. Very fluent, very clear about what they want for their children. And so I always have to do that check and balances. Is this going to be a misconception? Or, you know, and if it is, I have to change it because my parents sometimes don't know how to be involved.
And so whenever that door can be opened, I really try to open that. The hardest thing that I have to do at times is the honesty, is say there's a lot of work here that has to be done, a lot of work. And so now that we are going to be offering tutoring at our site, that's how I'm going to frame it for parents because that support is really important for our kids.
Parent Letter #1
This parent does tell me that her son, "is very independent. He's very respectable. He loves to play football and interact with other children. He's helpful. He's smart. He loves math and reading and science. He's funny. He's humorous and a fast learner. Pays attention well, gets along with others. He loves to eat all types of food, especially burritos, LOL." Laugh out loud. So there's that humor in there.
"I love him. I hope throughout the school year that he does well and he progresses on to sixth grade." And again, is wanting student – wanting their children to do well.
Parent Letter #2
This one I thought was interesting because she – she wants to be the girly-girl in school, but in here she loves to, "she's a tomboy. She has been her whole life and in the letter she talks about there is the competitiveness. She shows interest in learning about her culture. She loves animals and would like to be a vet when she grows up. Oh, and she's a visual learner. If you show her or have her do it while explaining, she will catch on."
So again, knowing – knowing their child and so that's – those are the ones I'll share with you. And this is the letter that I sent to families.
Parent Letter #3
What was really interesting about this letter is the mother gave me so much information about this child – about her daughter's background. She's Native American and told me exactly what pueblo she came from and then also told me what her nickname is and what it means. So she gave me a lot of that background. In here she tells how she describes her daughter's relationship with her family and her friends and, "she plays fair very observant to how children play.
If she sees and feels comfortable, her heart is talking out loud. And this is this little girl. She is mommy-like, meaning she's the next person in line to – in charge when big brother is not home." So that also tells me that she has a lot of responsibility, that her mother values her. And the last paragraph she says, "Is there anything else I think you should know about her?"
And she answered ten questions. She actually formed these in questions, but she says, "Is there anything else I think you should know? She wants to be an art teacher. Last year in her school her art teacher chose her drawings and they are on displayed. Her drawings are at the Indian gallery museums at the state fairgrounds. She loves to dance and that's why she wasn't here during the filming. Excellent at making positive choices. She's our next 49er football player and she's my honey bunny gal.
"She's very shy around people, but she's the most fun girl when you get to know her. She loves to fix her hair and that's very true 'cause she does come in with hairdos and she's the love of my life."
And again, you can see where parents are saying things that really help in the classroom. This young gal is extremely bright and she says in here, "She can get easily irritated by noise or by others, which is true by others. She plays well with others. Her interests are learning. She loves school. She is a fast learner but does not like taking risks." That identifies her beautifully. And at the end, "Thank you for sharing your knowledge with my daughter. Have a wonderful school year."
I told the kids, "Kids, parent conferences are coming up and so I'm going to have you sign up." And I have – I use humor. I really use humor and these are fifth graders. And, "I'm going to give your parents three chances. Now, if they can't come, tell them I will be willing to go to your home." And the kids look at me, "You can't come to my house, Mrs. Espinoza. It's dirty." And I said, "No. Tell your parents to have a cup of coffee for me and we'll sit at the table." And, you know, they – but they "You're going to really come to my house?" I go, "I want to meet all your parents, kids. I'll be here before school, you know."
To better understand the CCSS, I had to delve into how they organized reading skills into a kind of grid. It is a grid that offers a set of skills for readers of every age, and for both fiction and informational. As I read across the grades, I've noticed that the specific expectations for the skills grow.
I also notice what the standards value and devalue in reading comprehension — deeper comprehension and higher level thinking skills — but what skills in particular? By looking at what they give repeated attention to and what they leave out I can better judge what the standards value. For example these phases are repeated:
- "demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text"
- "refer to details and examples in a text"
- "quote accurately from a text"
- "compare and contrast"
These phrases are not in the Common Core: make text-to-self connections, access prior knowledge, explore personal response, and relate to your own life. In short, the Common Core deemphasizes reading as a personal act and emphasis textual analysis. In focusing on textual analysis as the primary means of comprehending and interpreting texts, I have realized the Common Core puts aside theories of reader response.
This is a major shift for me since Rosenblatt, who states quite explicitly that the meaning of texts resides in the interaction of the reader and the text, has influenced my work. If I have two readers reading Charlotte's Web they can't and won't see the same things in it because their own experiences partially shapes their interpretation. Even the same reader at different ages will see different things in the text.
My plan is to assess my student's current reading practices. I'm going to ask them to discuss a story and find out if they veer off into discussions of their own experiences. I know they will continue to need more support with academic, text-based responses.
Helping ELLs meet high standards
Note: Clara describes her work as part of a different Common Core teacher work team in this entry.
Before our work began each participant was asked to identify his or her own experience with CCSS. I had to admit to myself that, yes, I had read the standards and was currently developing a lesson based on a standard — but I really didn't have the background to be able to make meaning of the standards.
The structure wasn't clear to me until after the 3 days I spent with this teacher work team. I began to better understand the 3 components of text complexity and how teachers will need to scaffold students' comprehension of complex texts. I practiced crafting text dependent questions. I was able to examine students' writing samples and identify evidence that students are making progress towards or have met the writing standards. In other words, I was immersed in the work that is crucial for all teachers as they begin to understand how to design and implement lessons.
Throughout our discussions, many teachers asked how ELLs and struggling readers and writers would be able to access the CCSS. Of course, I also had the same questions. I strongly believe that all students should be able held to the same high expectations outlined in the CCSS, but I also know that these learners may require additional time, appropriate instructional support, and aligned assessments that give them the opportunity to demonstrate proficiency.
Most importantly, to help ELLs meet high academic standards in language arts, it is essential that they have access to rich oral and written language, meaning they need to read a lot and be involved in literate conversations in literacy-rich classrooms. I found myself questioning why personal response and student connections were left out of the standards. Working with ELLs, I have learned that they need many opportunities for classroom discourse and this interaction has to be well-designed to enable them to develop communicative strengths in language arts. As I provide feedback to guide learning, I need my students to first feel comfortable about sharing their stories.
A student approached me last month and asked if I would refer her to the "Gifted Program." She is a very intelligent bilingual student who is extremely conscientious about school. As I sat with her and her mother during parent teacher student conferences the issue of nonfiction reading (Scholastic News) once again came up. She continues to struggle with this type of reading. She quite frankly admits she doesn't understand how to read the graphs and maps and often gets confused with the columns.
During our conversation, her mom tells her that knowledge is good and having knowledge will help her to be more informed. She begins telling a story about the day she received a small paper bird for her birthday from a co-worker. She admits she didn't know why she was given this particular bird but graciously accepted the gift. Once she arrived at home she showed her daughter her present. Her daughter shouted, "It is a paper crane & it means good luck." She immediately tells her mother about the story of Sadako & The Thousand Paper Cranes and how Sadako got leukemia because of the radiation her mother was exposed to when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima during World War II. Her mom gently touched her arm and told her she had obtained "knowledge."
As I reflected on this conference I was reminded that the CCSS stress the importance of informational reading. The grade level specifics for informational reading follow the same logic as those for literature. The difference lies in the kind of comprehension involved. It was evident my student had knowledge about the cause of Sadako's illness. Her understanding of the time period was due to the fact that she had researched World War II.
As I think about how the standards focus readers on the work of analyzing the claims texts make, the soundness and sufficiency of their evidence, and the way a text's language and craft may reveal points of view I am reminded the CCSS for reading literature demand extremely sophisticated reading practices. In other words these standards invite readers into a highly analytical mode, where the reader must read for much more than information. I honestly admit this is new reading work not only for students but for most teachers.
All around me teachers are preparing their students for the upcoming Standards Based Assessment (SBA). Students are given drill sheets, quick mini science lessons, revisiting the RACE rubric for reading and math, etc. Part of me begins to panic and I ask myself should I too be preparing my students. This sudden doubt was quickly replaced with the urgency to plan for our upcoming field trip to the International Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe.
None of my 24 students had been to this particular museum and some students hadn't been to Santa Fe. They were excited! They had the opportunity to learn about Folk Art from the Andes when Patricia visited our classroom during her pre-museum visit. Students touched the artifacts from the Andes and asked countless questions about where the Andes was located and what was Folk Art. They were fascinated with the handmade masks. As we heard that our bus had arrived we quickly packed up lunches, coats, and backpacks and headed to the front of the building.
As we exited the front entrance we saw a charter bus parked by the curb. Students asked hesitantly, "Is this our bus?" Suddenly someone shouted it is a "Party Bus". Needless to say we traveled to Santa Fe in both style and comfort. Once we arrived Patricia, the educational resource teacher greeted us as we walked through the doors of the museum. Students quickly glanced around as we were ushered into the lunchroom to place our belongings.
The first part of this field trip was to work in the studio. Students quickly gathered around Patricia as she explained the step -by- step process needed to construct a mask. Students were excited about the array of materials they could use. They asked questions about the process and eagerly shared their knowledge. They moved around the studio with ease, laughing and talking with one another. I watched and listened to them. Suddenly I realized I was preparing them for the upcoming SBA. They planned their masks, demonstrated a strategy to achieve their final goal, expressed their thinking verbally, and most importantly they applied the skills they were taught from a demonstration.
It is important to note that the emphasis in the Common Core is on students learning to read and write complex texts independently at high levels of proficiency. Most of my students are becoming independent thinkers but they'll need more nudging to move to CCSS work.