Third Grade Expert Fair & First Grade Gallery

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I’m so excited to share with you all some of the incredible celebrations our classes have been finishing up their nonfiction units with!  Most recently, our third grade teachers and students put together an expert fair.  It was comprised of the information chapter books that students wrote, tri-fold boards where students taught visitors to the fair about something, and their multicultural presentations about their families’ heritages.

I was SO impressed by how professional students behaved while they presented their information to their families and friends.  I also found myself learning about new topics such as Dairy Cows and computer programming!  To me, it exemplifies the power of student choice because you are not only motivating the child by allowing them to research something they care about, but you are also opening up learning experiences for others that they may otherwise never have taken the time to learn about.

I  also could not have been happier to see all the different text structures that teachers taught into and that students decided to use.  We had everything from timelines to bold and highlighted print all the way to maps and text boxes.  It was clear that the students had been exposed to the different ways that nonfiction can be written and made intentional structural decisions as the writers of their own pieces.

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Our first graders also recently celebrated by putting together an Informational Gallery.  Mrs. Castrogiovanni, our art teacher, was so kind to use her time with the students to make portraits of the different animals that each student researched.  Then, we hung our art for display and invited families in to tour our gallery.  Each class added their own flare to the structure (some read the students’ books in the classroom first, some read next to their paintings, etc) and each event was unique and exciting!

It was great to see first graders attaining the Speaking and Listening Standards of the Common Core by standing in front of a small group, reading their piece, and listening to their peers.  Talk about courageous!

So a HUGE thank you to the teachers, students and families for taking the time to put these events together, and to make the time in your busy lives to attend!

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SOL: Spring Rain

I felt myself becoming aware of the darkness around me and the low rumbles from distant places.  Although my mind was just waking and adjusting to the idea of being up, I began to visualize what the sky may look like if I could manage to open my eyes and peer out the window.  I could imagine the electric energy glisten through the clouds.  Not the fierce streaks or bolts of lightning that some storms bring.  I could tell just by the consistent grumble of the thunder that it would be the type of lightning that just glows from around the edges of the night sky.

One…two…three….I laughed as I caught myself counting to see how far away the storm was and soon realizing that I hadn’t made that leap to actually opening my eyes so I couldn’t possibly know when the lightning came to start counting for the thunder.  With that came the slow plinks of rain hitting the metal of the air conditioning unit.  Or was it small pieces of hail?  As it picked up in intensity I could tell that, yes, this was in fact something more dense then the fragility of rain.

As I lay there I contemplated opening my eyes to check the time and calculate how many more precious minutes of slumber I had.  But that was when I felt the pressure of my husband’s shifting body and realized it was much nicer to take in the calming noises of the storm, snuggle up in the warmth of my bed and drift back into sleep-for however long that may be.

Poem in Your Pocket Day

As I prepared to make Poem in Your Pocket Day a kinder through fifth grade celebration I began thinking about what was the take-away that I wanted all of our students to have.  The more I thought about it I realized that most of the curriculum maps I have mulled over treat poetry as the “stepchild” to the rest of literature, with a “We can stick it at the end of the year, and if we get to it it’ll be something light and fun to wrap up with” mentality.  And as I looked over the poems I intended on sharing with the students I realized they are anything but simple and light.  It was with this renewed view and love of poetry that I knew I wanted students to understand that although poetry can break the rules of standard literature it is done with purpose.  I wanted students to realize the structure adds to the meaning and can allow people to read the same poem and have very different ideas and thoughts.

So with the collaborative efforts of our incredible art teacher, Mrs. Castrogiovanni, and creative support from our math coach, Mrs. Speck, as well as our librarian, Mrs. Paolucci, we had every student create poetry trading cards!  Similar to a baseball or Pokemon card, students would pick or write a poem and design a card to keep in their pockets for Poem in Your Pocket Day!  I pushed into the classrooms and shared a couple of poems with each class.  We discussed the ideas and thoughts that were provoked by the poetry, as well as the structure and language that the poet used when constructing the poem.  Then, students either chose one of the poems we discussed or, because they are published authors themselves, they wrote their own poems and designed their trading cards.

On Thursday, April 21st, we all proudly held our trading cards and shared with our friends during class, in the halls and at recess.  It was incredible to see children ranging from ages five through eleven understand, embrace, and reflect on poetry with such excitement and vested interest.  I knew that this was one of those lessons that I would surely pull out and treasure doing for many years to come!IMG_20160421_101104409

SOL Challenge Reflection

I started off the month of March with such vigor and excitement to try the SOL challenge.  I was even more shocked when I found myself thinking about it day in and day out.  And then life happened.  Like a sledgehammer the fates slammed down a multitude of obstacles for me to juggle and persevere through.  Unfortunately, I struggled with and made the difficult decision to focus my attention to the more pressing issues and forego the Slice of Life Challenge.

But I never stopped thinking about it.  As I was overcome with guilt and a rush of emotions at the close of the calendar month I decided to pause and remind myself of why this became such a motivator in the first place.  I wanted to put myself in the shoes of the students and really walk the walk of all that I preached to them and the staff in my district.  I wanted to live a writers life on a daily basis to understand some of the struggles and successes that come with the job.

Before this I wrote in a journal, but that was for my personal initiatives and was very sporadic.  This challenge was different because I wanted to be aware of the process and commit to the act of writing it in a new way, and it was for all these reasons that I was feeling like a failure.

But what I’ve come to realize is that even through not doing the challenge I learned A LOT.  For the first time I can truly feel what some of my students may be feeling when they truly want to write a great piece and they just can’t-whether it be writer’s block or the block from outside forces that they may not want to share with me but nonetheless are requiring more of their energy and mind then they can humanly give to my assignment right now.  I now have a deeper appreciation for having too many responsibilities to juggle and that even if you LOVE writing, you may just not be able to make it your top priority.  So how as a teacher can I take this new understanding and still assist my students in reaching success?

Well, one lucky truth for the life of a student is that the time for writing is carved out of their school day for them.  So finding the time is a little bit less of the issue.  However, having time and being able to maintain focus on your ideas are two different things.  This made me think back to an article or blog (I don’t remember now) that I read which said to have a Think Tank table or area in your classroom.  I thought it was an interesting idea at the time but didn’t necessarily know if I felt it was necessary.  However, now I could make a connection and a strong argument for why every room should have one.  If a student is having a day where they are battling outside thoughts and emotions they may go to the Think Tank table and fiddle with some objects (marbles, stress balls, figurines, etc) or listen to some music.  This may allow them to unwind, fidget out some of their stress and it could actually spark a writing idea.

Most importantly I realized that a part of developing a writer’s life requires compassion.  Not everyday is easily a writing day.  Some days may be a get lost in your thoughts and work through them in your own way.  Because the reality is, I think if a teacher were to show that understanding and give that leeway, in the long run, the students would be more productive, more motivated, and more attuned to the writing process.

Assessing Writing: Integrating Pedagogy & Philosophy

I have many sleepless nights over assessments-particularly in writing.  What’s most effective?  What elicits the best results?  What demonstrates the students’ independent writing abilities?

I have always had a tough time putting a percentile grade to something that is so deeply personal and may have (and typically does) take hours of thought and consideration on the part of the writer.  But I also know, more than once in my life, I’ve had to sit down and demonstrate my ability to write under pressure and time restraints in order to land a job or be accepted into a program.

So it seems to me that when developing a writing program that gives students the tools and confidence to succeed, but also allows teachers to answer to the pressures of a summative grading systems, it’s all about moderation.  I’d much rather create a writing portfolio which shows a growth model of the student’s work, but I also think we need to prep our young learners for the real world where sometimes you need to explain yourself or inform your audience quickly and succinctly.

I read the article, The Ethics of Writing Assessments: Moving from Exclusion to Opportunity” by Norman Allen from NCTE, and I found so many of the points important and great for reflection of our current practices.  He posed some very important questions to consider when looking at your current assessment practices:

  • What are the different methods available for evaluating different kinds of literacy?
  • What is the given assessment attempting to measure?
  • How is the construct of writing being captured through this assessment?

Allen also helped me to think of assessment in a way that I subconsciously was aware of but hadn’t thought of putting in the forefront of our assessment model.  He pointed out the need to look beyond the work and focus on the awareness of the student when reflecting on their own work and their metacognitive awareness of skills that were applied.

It immediately made me think back to the Coach’s Institute I attended at Teacher’s College in the fall.  At PS 128 on the East Side of Manhattan a lot of the bulletin board displays were of students’ work with post-its all over the piece where the student was commenting on their writing.  Now it all made sense!  THESE comments were actually more important for the teachers assessment of what the student had internalized and learned as a writing habit opposed to just regurgitating back a mini lesson at the time they wrote the piece.

I immediately used this information to continue a conversation I’ve been having with our teachers about current assessment practices and how we can enhance them for next year.  It was great to discuss this new mindset of integrating student reflection with portfolio and on demand writing.  It made us all feel more confident that we can continue to build our repertoire of assessments without making everything a testing situation or additional work on our plates.  We know that it is truly entwined in our instruction and should be inclusive of the learner reflecting on their own progress and work.

If anyone has any suggestions of ways that you have built a well rounded assessment model for writing please feel free to share!