Narratives, Personally.

Right before break, I spent some time giving my students some background knowledge on personal narratives to set them up for a project they’ll do in Spanish after Christmas. It’s Monday night and I’m on winter break, but I’ve been meaning to share with you what we did!

We started with exposure to personal narratives. I read multiple personal narratives through the course of a week and we discussed the important vocabulary we need to know to understand personal narratives. These words made it up on our word wall and include not only pictorial representation, but TPR hand motions, too!

"Experience" is supposed to be a scout badge..oops?

“Experience” is supposed to be a scout badge..oops?

Once students had the vocabulary and exposure to what a narrative is, we discussed key elements of a narrative — essentially, what makes a narrative a narrative?! To make things a little more interesting and aesthetically pleasing, I decided to run this activity using sketchnotes. Students told me what the elements of a narrative are, and I wrote them down and sketched a drawing to match our words.

Our narrative sketchnotes!

Our narrative sketchnotes!

From here, we engaged in an interactive writing kind of activity, which is called a Language Experience Approach (LEA) activity from the Biliteracy Unit Framework (BUF). In an LEA, you look at an experience that is shared by every child in the classroom so that you can write together about it. For this particular LEA, we wrote a personal narrative about our class field trip to the Morehead Planetarium (this worked as a great extension from our solar system and space flight unit we finished a couple weeks ago).

The next day, we looked at our LEA again. This time, students had to work in pairs and revise our personal narrative by adding details to make the narrative stronger. I gave each partnership a copy of the story, and they worked together to add and subtract pieces to the writing. At the end of the class period, we shared our new narratives and discussed the importance of details!

All of our learning in one place in our classroom!

All of our learning in one place in our classroom!

Samples

Samples of student work revising our class narrative.

Reasons why I would do a lesson similar to this again:

  • Engagement: My kids really enjoyed working in partnerships to revise our class narrative. It was amazing to hear some of the details they remembered, and it also made for a great teaching point — when we add details, we make it so that the reader is on the story’s journey with us! I didn’t have to redirect one kid during their time working together on this activity, which is always a plus!
  • Relevance: I’m really big on making learning relevant for my kids, and this narrative-writing experience really did just that. We looked at an experience that the kids had, one that they enjoyed, and we wrote about it. There were so many connections we were able to make in discussing narratives, too (like they can be real or imagined, and we see examples of narratives in fiction and nonfiction (biographies), which opens up a completely different door for student learning.

How do you build background for students when introducing a new topic? What successful activities have you tried this year that you’ll do again in the new year?

The Benefits of a Break.

Teacher friends, we’ve done it: we’ve made it to another winter break. The days were long and the kids were crazy, but we did it!

I enjoy winter break for many reasons. It’s nice staying up late at night watching movies or binge watching the TV you missed all semester because you were busy grading papers or attending student basketball games. I love not having to set my alarm for 5:45am (does anyone actually truly enjoy that?). Spending time with people I care about is probably at the top of my priority list of things to do when I’m not in school (sleep is a close second), and I really like having the time flexibility to do anything whenever I want.

There have been multiple people in my life who tell me I can’t turn off work. I admit that I have my workaholic tendencies (like that time I went to a Mipso show and brought letters to write to my kids), and I promise that I can engage in a conversation that is about something other than education and its current policies or “my kids.” The catch for me is this: why would I want to turn something off that I love so much?

I’m a firm believer that teaching is a calling and so much more than simply a career. A huge benefit of break for me is that I have the time to really process things. For me, break is a time of reflection and a time where I can finally develop myself professionally by reading books (my favorite books right now are about smart kids and teacher brains and young educator encouragement) and articles (hopefully those articles are still wildly innovative after being on my “Read Later” Google list for months) so I can harvest new ideas to test in my classroom; because of this, I’ve compiled a little list of things that we can look forward to in 2015 from Room 40:

  • Blended Learning: In one of my reading classes (I teach two sections), I am going to engage in a blended learning project. I’m collaborating with the literacy coach, media specialist, technology specialist, AIG teacher, and my ESL co-teacher on this one and I couldn’t be more thrilled to get the ball rolling with this at the end of January to kick off third quarter! We’re looking at thematic book clubs for every child, constant small group instruction, and lots of informational reading practice in both English and Spanish. We’re taking the traditional Reading Workshop and putting it on its head!
  • Genius Hour: This thrills me to no end. If you don’t know about Genius Hour, I encourage you to find some resources and be prepared to be blown away (why don’t you start here?)! I haven’t quite worked out all my logistics, but I’m trying it in my PBL blocks. We already have a social studies Wax Museum/Biography project set up for when we get back from break, but our Plants unit after that shows great Genius Hour potential!
  • Flipped Classroom Elements: I plan on flipping a bit in my aforementioned blended learning project. Since I’ll be pushing out a lot of assignments using Google Classroom and I’ll be 1:1 with ChromeBooks in my class, it makes sense to give this a shot. Ideally, I’d love to look at my literacy data from state-mandated benchmarks and do some videos on how to write about what we read. It’s small, but it’s a start!

What are your ideas and goals for your classroom in 2015?!

Meeting the Workdays.

This week has been a hard one. It’s been a week full of meetings, trainings, and classroom setup. It’s Thursday and I’ve already worked 40 hours this week at the school (this doesn’t count my out of school time preparing materials). This week has also been a time of great stress and anticipation — I was given the task of reorganizing my classroom library per district standard (they’ve required all 2nd-5th grade libraries be categorized by genre and not reading level now), and doing this with over 600 books is rather daunting. The stress of completing that monster task on top of all the other little things that needed to get done made my blood pressure fairly high, of that I’m certain. Despite all this, I have to say this week has made me incredibly grateful to the handful of friends who made my classroom setup a success — without you all, I would have been so behind and so much more stressed (y’all are SAINTS and I love you immensely). Lastly, this week has been a time for reflection and reminders about just how much I adore this job.

Tonight was my third Meet the Teacher Night. My heart still beats a little faster when I hear a tap on the door when the first family arrives. There’s something so special about the first connection I get to make with a child — it’s one of my favorite things. I introduce myself and shake his/her hand, and we proceed to talk about the things that are exciting about third grade and all the wonders that the year holds for us and our learning. Parents tell me a little about their child, and their insight is (usually) appreciated. I particularly enjoy hearing things like how parents want their child to grow in confidence and public speaking ability — I really like when parents see that their child can grow more than just academically. Then I get comments about children being reluctant readers and parents wish me luck with their child this year in reading class.

Oh, your child is a reluctant reader? Let’s see if that’s still the case in June.

[Sidenote: Actually, some of my favorite kids to work with are the reluctant readers. They’re the ones who help me realize how I can make literacy something every child wants to access.]

This is the first time I’ve been in a school where I was there the year prior. I’m in the same room, have the same things, and will teach the same content areas. This also means that this is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to have previous students visit me.

I don’t know if my heart has been more full upon seeing about a dozen of my students from last year come by to visit me tonight on their own accord. The first boy who came to see me was just absolutely thrilled — I asked how his summer was and if he had been down to fourth grade yet, and his mom interjected that he HAD to come see me first before going downstairs. Another student came by and told another student while in my embrace that I was an “awesome teacher” (cue tears). Another student, one of the ones who many teachers had trouble with last year, also came to visit. We pinky promised that we’d work out some lunch dates this year while he’s in fourth grade so that we can still talk about our favorite Gary Soto books (but seriously, cue the tears right now because I am just a hot mess).

Child after child came by, and my heart felt closer and closer to exploding with each snuggle.

Between seeing my babies from last year (because yes, they’re forever my babies even if they’re in big fourth grade now) and meeting all the new minds I get to mold this year, I’m one exhausted, excited, and very happy teacher.

The Switch.

Every year around this time, I experience a switch. I go from not wearing a watch and being utterly clueless as to what the date is to having my days meticulously planned out in my pristine XL Moleskine planner with color-coded pens. I go from sleeping in and watching The Office in my pajamas until 1pm to waking up at a reasonable time, putting on real clothes (the *NSYNC concert tee just isn’t meant for the public eye), and drinking coffee from my World’s Best Boss mug while I head out the door to be productive.

This switch happens because it’s August, and we all know what that means for traditional school calendar teachers: it’s back to school time.

The summer after my first year teaching was so great that I had a really hard time relinquishing my freedom. I had a long, challenging year in Durham, and I wasn’t quite ready to get back to school…until I got my key. Something so small and simple threw me into a spiral of school supply purchasing and organizing out of excitement (do people not organize because they’re excited? Oh, that’s just me?).

This past summer, I didn’t really have a summer. I didn’t take a long beach vacation like I have every summer prior since I was working with the North Carolina Science Festival for my fellowship. By the time I ended my internship with them at the end of July, it was time to start thinking about first week of school plans and getting my classroom organized. I dragged my heels, trying my best to hold onto the last fleeting days of summer, but yesterday I picked up the keys to my classroom and felt it again.

The switch.

Something just flips on when I get the keys and step into the classroom; the butterflies are already building a home for my stomach for when I meet my kids and their families in a week and a half at Meet the Teacher Night. Getting my keys, setting up my classroom, finding out the names of the precious lives I get to influence and love this upcoming year — these things make the switch real. Yes, summer was great, but the ten months I have with those kids are far greater.

We got class lists a lot earlier this year than last — just a few extra weeks for me to get excited about these children that will soon no longer just be names on a paper, but little humans I get to interact with and learn with on a daily basis. I’ll see 39 kids this upcoming year, and I love them each to pieces already.

This is one of my favorite times of the year — the anticipation of the first day and the first week of school itself. Seriously, it’s on par with Christmas.

There’s this amazing energy (which I know could be read as a mildly lame and vague term) surging about when this switch happens — it’s the feeling you got when you rode your bike without training wheels on your own for the first time, or when you experienced the Ghiradelli chocolate/sea salt caramel swirl with chocolate sprinkles in a waffle cone at Yopo your freshman year at UNC. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say it might even be the same feeling you got when you found out Lebron was going home to Cleveland (it’s about dang time, y’know?).

It’s magic.

The switch is magic.

Thankful that the magic is real and has yet to fail me.

The Month of May in Review.

I told myself I was going to take time and write more, and here I am updating this for the first time in about a month.

Oops?

Despite the fact that my updating has been lackluster, you’ll be pleased to know that there are wonderful things you are about to read. Well, at least I think they’re pretty wonderful.

The end of May has come and gone. The mCLASS benchmarks are finished, EOGs are now complete, and we’re doing our best to tie up all our loose ends. I can’t believe how quickly this month passed. Time really does go by faster the closer you get to summer.

This is one of my favorite times of the year, though not for the reasons you may initially think. I admit that I look forward to a little break, especially at this point in the year, but my vacation isn’t what excites me. What really gets my heart rate high and my blood pumping fast through my veins is watching how much these kids grow in a year’s time.

I’ve seen so much growth from my kids this year — all 56 of them! They’ve grown academically, but what’s more is that they’ve also grown so much emotionally and socially. It’s amazing watching a child reading far below grade level get on target with where he should be reading (I haven’t heard of a child climbing nine reading levels until this year — how unreal). It’s equally amazing watching a child who experiences bullying issues overcome those issues and make peace with the child who instigated meanness within the classroom. Some students made turn arounds with the assistance of correct medicinal dosages, others made turn arounds on their own accord. Students came to me with minimal passions for reading, and now they’re leaving with hearts full of stories.

Third grade is truly magical. I’m sure I’ve said that before at some point in the course of this blog’s five year history, but really, it’s sheer magical bliss. You get these kids coming to you who are at the prime age of impression — they’re sponges. They still love their teacher and aren’t afraid to hug, yet they’re searching and yearning for independence in and out of the classroom. It’s a beautiful thing to watch students take ownership of their own learning, and I am humbled every day realizing that I get to be an active participant in these kids’ lives.

The Power of Poetry.

I’ve always loved poetry. I took two creative writing classes in college devoted to poetry, and I started writing songs in fourth grade (…the lyrics were ridiculous, but they were songs nonetheless). My first favorite books were those of Dr. Seuss, who is a poetic master through and through. There’s just something about the rhythm of the words in every line that draw me to the genre.

Last week I introduced poetry to my classes. The boys groaned, the girls squealed, and a few students seemed completely uninterested. I assured them that poetry was fun and interesting, and I even brought in some poetry books I have that I enjoy reading (Billy Collins, FTW). When they saw that I read poetry for fun, they seemed to start buying into my lesson about what poetry is, but I could tell I didn’t have them hooked yet.

After exploring the genre by perusing an array of poetry books by various authors, I got to teach them the TPR for our unit. We discussed poetry, rhyme, line, and stanza. The kids got really excited doing this, like they always do. After we reviewed our vocabulary, we jumped right in and looked at a poem. I chose to first show them the poem “The Nerve You’ve Got, Minerva Mott!” by Jack Prelutsky. We looked at the stanzas and figured out the rhyme pattern, and then I told the kids I would read it for them. We were all really excited, and then I started reading…

…and I read it horribly. I read it slow, I made mistakes, and I repeated lines more than once. Some of the kids laughed a little, some of them tried to correct me. I finished and asked them what they thought, and WOW did they have suggestions for me:

  • You need to read it FLUENTLY.
  • You have to FLOW with the poem.
  • You have to read it with FEELING.
  • You are supposed to read a poem with RHYTHM.
  • You should PRACTICE reading it.

How brilliant are these kids?! I took their advice, practiced the poem in my head and with my voice, and then tried it again — needless to say, my kids were quite pleased with my second reading of the poem.

Little do they know that they’re hitting the Common Core Speaking and Listening Standards right on the head!

I gave them a poem to practice and try with their partners. They had fifteen minutes to work with their partners to read and reread the poems, and then at the end of class during our share time, students had the opportunity to share. This is where I witnessed magic.

Many of you know that I teach in a Spanish bilingual program, and I have a handful of students who came into the school year labeled LEP, meaning these students have Limited English Proficiency and are newcomers to the United States. For the most part, these students spoke little to no English entering my classroom.

Last week when my students were practicing poems with their partners, I saw every child participating. When it was time for our share time, I had LEP students volunteering to read the poem to the class. One student in particular volunteered and read the poem, and my eyes welled with the happiest of tears listening to him, in his very best English, recite another Jack Prelutsky poem.

I’m so excited to continue our poetry unit this week and into next. Tomorrow we’re writing a poem about the states of matter together, and then students will have the chance to write their own matter poems as the week progresses. Following this Biliteracy Unit Framework has been really incredible, and I’m seeing so much meaningful participation as a result of it.

Cheers to the power of poetry! You can bet that we’ll be celebrating William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday on Wednesday — will you?

Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.

We’re back from break and we have nine straight weeks of school.

Nine. Straight. Weeks.

If this doesn’t make me glad about having my whole week of spring break, I don’t know what will. My break was so greatly needed that I ran into another educator friend from out of town and all he could say was I looked “recharged.” Holla. Praise.

No workdays, no breaks, no delayed openings — just nine straight weeks of powering through the rest of curriculum, taking EOGs, and celebrating another year of school completed.

(Yep, batteries needed recharging to handle all that.)

Last week was the first week back and it was a great week. I was absolutely thrilled to start a new biliteracy unit I’d been working on, integrating states of matter and poetry (because who knew THAT could go together). I spent all of last week doing science demonstrations and hands-on activities with my classes, and the kids LOVED IT.

Go figure, kids love science and actually engaging in what you teach them!

One of our opening activities before starting any of the demonstrations was simply brainstorming everything we knew about solids, liquids, and gases (this is review science content from second grade, which was helpful). Here’s what my brilliant babies came up with:

Our States of Matter science content board, complete with word wall words, a color coded chart, and a sentence starter!

Our States of Matter science content board, complete with word wall words, a color coded chart, and a sentence starter!

 

Here's a close-up of the chart -- each color represents a different one of my classes.

Here’s a close-up of the chart — each color represents a different one of my classes.

 

How awesome, am I right?! Love keeping those kids accountable for their learning, and they love showing what they know! It was especially great since I saw some of my second language learners having great success with this when they drew pictures of what they knew to be solid, liquid, or gas.

The demonstrations we did were so fun (and educational, of course). I felt so alive teaching these kids science and entertaining their millions of questions — I’m such a sucker for their questions, and I honestly love when we get off on tangents because I truly believe that’s where some of the most authentic learning happens! A kid asked me what state of matter fire was last week — what a great question! And kids started asking about lightning, too, so of course we talked about PLASMA for a hot minute in class, and how rewarding it was to see their eyes light up learning something they wonder about in class. Moments like these remind me that teaching students and their learning should never be constrained to the strands of a standard, but rather be completely open and vast and full of curiosity.

I mean, how fun does this look!? Melting a Hershey's kiss in your hand & learning that your body is a source of HEAT?! Yes, there were many poop jokes in class that day. Worth it.

I mean, how fun does this look!? Melting a Hershey’s kiss in your hand & learning that your body is a source of HEAT?!
Yes, there were many poop jokes in class that day. Worth it.

Learning the difference in applying heat to a solid -- the closed hand makes the kiss melt while the open hand doesn't see as much melting. So many questions about why and how, so little time! Led to great class discussion :)

Learning the difference in applying heat to a solid — the closed hand makes the kiss melt while the open hand doesn’t see as much melting. So many questions about why and how, so little time! Led to great class discussion 🙂

We closed the week last week with a Bill Nye the Science Guy video about the states of matter and my kids loved it so much they BEGGED me to send the video to them on their school Gmail accounts. Naturally, I obliged.

Eight weeks left and this week has provided its ups and downs and it’s only Tuesday.

Yesterday we did an interactive read aloud about states of matter using the book “What Is the World Made Of?” by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld. The kids enjoyed the book and it was a nice way to start bringing together our knowledge of the states of matter. Today, I tried my hand at an LEA to wrap up the science portion of the biliteracy unit. The first class grabbed our shared experience activity and RAN with it, and I couldn’t have been more excited to see this happen. We synthesized information (because yes, you can use these words/phrases with eight-year-olds), I wrote what the students said word-for-word, and they corrected their own errors. One student even asked me if I had had my coffee this morning since she was concerned about the spelling and grammar mistakes I was making. Bless.

The first class also was really excited about revising the collective writing piece. They got to work right away and were so focused — it was absolutely beautiful!

The second class struggled a little more, and I sometimes wonder if their sheer level of intelligence gets in their way sometimes. This particular group of students is, by data standards, the highest performing group I see every day. Once they got the hang of the LEA, they caught on with coming up with sentences to bring their knowledge together after the turn-and-talk to help them recall their learning. When I gave them the assignment to work on revising the writing piece, some of the kids complained that the task was hard.

GOD FORBID STUDENTS MUST USE THEIR BRAINS SOMETIMES. (GASP!)

I smiled upon hearing this and simply said, “Good!”

…does that make me the worst? I explained to them that sometimes it’s good for things to be hard so that they can stretch their brains and grow in their learning, just like they do when they become taller. Once they knew I wasn’t planning on backing down with the assignment, they got to work and started enjoying fixing the writing on their own terms. It’s so cool watching kids take ownership of their learning — “Miss Stewart, there aren’t any PARAGRAPHS here, what are we going to do?!” — “Well, that’s a great observation, you brilliant student, you! Why do we even HAVE paragraphs in writing?!” — “To organize information!” — “EXACTLY. Now, make that happen with what we came up with on the board!”

Boom. Educated.

My last group is my smallest class and, by data standards, the lowest-performing group I see. The time is after lunch and recess, and it’s a bit of a shortened period since the students dismiss at various times at the end of class.

It’s funny, because so many people think that the smallest class should hypothetically be the easiest to manage and teach since there are fewer students. Honestly, I hoped that earlier this year. Too quickly I found out that it doesn’t matter how many students are in my class, when the needs are as high as they are in this class, the job will always be a little more difficult.

Trying my hand at the LEA with this group proved much more challenging. I was observed by the literacy coach during this time, which I was beyond okay with considering my first two classes went so well. I started the LEA activity and felt like things started unraveling before me by the time we were just a few sentences into the writing piece. Students were losing focus, students weren’t giving their best work on the carpet, and some students just seemed completely lost, even with guidance. This was incredibly frustrating and disheartening for me, especially since I had someone I respect watching me teach.

Upon reflecting and discussing with the literacy coach, she told me there was good in the lesson. Of course I’m always going to be my toughest critic, but it was not easy for me to find good in that 30 minutes. I found there were three good things about the lesson:

  1. There was high student participation — I heard from some students who rarely volunteer their ideas, and that was really incredible to see how excited they were to share what they knew about solids, liquids, and gases.
  2. My students were actually USING the vocabulary we spent so much time learning and talking about and experiencing, and they were using it properly. Seriously the coolest thing hearing a third grader say, “To change a state of matter, you need to apply or take away heat.” I guess all of the TPR worked — yay, success!
  3. The students all picked up on the errors I presented in the writing piece. I intentionally misspelled some words or forgot commas, and in this last group was the only student to comment that I forgot to indent my first paragraph. Brilliant!

Now, I also learned three very important things from this lesson:

  1. The LEA activity seemed to be a little long for this group of kids. Some were getting fidgety and some were just generally losing focus. If I want to reach these kids, I need to make the activity pack a punch and have it be short and sweet and to the point.
  2. Maybe I should try to use picture support more with this group during the LEA. This particular class has 11/17 students who are second language learners, so the pictorial support might be something to make our learning transitions smoother.
  3. Contemplating whether or not a partner work component during the LEA would be effective. We started the activity with a turn and talk to rev up their minds about states of matter, but maybe this group needs more than that to be successful.

I was really kicking myself this afternoon about this lesson, but after stepping back and really looking at the way things went, I think there are positive take-aways from it. Grateful for those who help me step back and realize that.

The rest of this week we’ll work on poetry, which I love. I can’t wait to have these kiddos get their hands on some poetry tomorrow! They’re exploring the genre tomorrow and working in groups to brainstorm how poems are different than other genres they read, and later this week they’ll get some experience reading poems with different rhyme patterns. I also have to mention that I’m super excited to teach some new TPR. TPR is one of my favorite ways to teach kids vocabulary, and they love every minute of it (seriously, I have kids wanting to make up TPR moves for EVERY.SINGLE.THING)!

Like I said, I had a really lovely spring break, and I’m beyond thankful that I had a whole week to relax. I mean, how often do I really get to sit outside with a coffee and a crossword? Answer: not as often as I’d like.

Even though we have a full seven and a half weeks left of school, I’m legitimately looking forward to what those weeks hold. This part of the year sometimes seems to inch by day-to-day, but the weeks certainly FLY.

Before I know it, I’ll be hugging 57 third graders as they leave my classroom and become fourth graders. Ain’t no stoppin’ us now, it’s fourth quarter of third grade and we are about to KILL IT (no spoon).