Sunday, March 11, 2012

Bending the Rules....Nonfiction Text Features

For the past couple of years, I've chosen to work at the Saturday tutorial program at my school.  My principal invited about 100 of our at-risk students to this program, which is geared toward FCAT Reading and Math test-taking strategies.  This year, I am the Reading teacher for two rotations of 40 4th graders.  (So much for small class size, huh?  We have more needy children than we do teachers able to work on Saturdays, so we try to make it work.) 

Here's a moment of honesty: sometimes (many times), we Saturday teachers yearn to be back under the covers, catching up on much-needed sleep.  We take a very deep breath before entering the building, and we hope for a jolt of motivation and patience.  Our Saturday students may not be the MOST behaviorally challenged people in the school, but they're not exactly wearing halos.  A small percentage of them are pleased to be there, they try to stay on-task, and they do participate and produce work.   Yes, there have been Saturdays on which I, with complete exhaustion, return home and climb right bad into bed.  

For the past several weeks I've followed the program's recommendations, and I've done FCAT-formatted worksheets. My intro segment has always been pretty solid - handful of visuals, some technology here & there, and some discussion (many seemed to be in a vegetative state during the I'm still in the getting-to-know-you phase, I'm trying to suss out if this is due to ELL, slow processing, or a pattern of apathy).  Well, the next segment has always involved the FCAT-formatted worksheets.  At that point, some kids entered a catatonic state, others began to chit-chat or start shenanigans with classmates, and a handful dramatically pretend to have a bathroom emergency.  I'd circulate the room, mustering all of the positivity that I could find within my frustrated self, and I'd encourage them to keep working through the mock test.  

Well, last week was a tough one, and I didn't want to dread going into Saturday tutorial.  I was determined to put a positive note on the end of the week.  Plus, I know that the kids are there for a reason - I know that their parents, regardless of their level of involvement, are really hoping it makes a difference in their academic progress.  I know that I am responsible for pulling off something and, in the words of Tim Gunn, "making it work." 

I tackled this past Saturday it in a completely different way.  I threw away the multiple choice worksheets and my too-high expectations.  I taught a lesson on non-fiction text features and started with a slideshow of the features that the 4th graders need to know.  Along with my slideshow, I taught this lesson with the help of a really terrific (free!) activity sheet that I found on teacherspayteachers (thank you to the author, ZMcCauley!).  And I finally made use of all of those non-fiction books that were left in my classroom's closet when the previous teacher had moved out.  To get more student buy-in, I told them that they were just doing "detective work" on the books; they didn't need to read the books cover-to-cover.  I could hear their sigh of relief.  The thought of being detectives seemed to really motivate them, and they got right to work. I circulated around the room and made sure to tell them that it was okay if they couldn't find every single text feature in their book. "That's the reality of books -- everybody's might be different," I explained.  One student raised his hand and said, I found a timeline about corn farming.  I know timeline isn't on the activity sheet, but I wanted to let you know I found one -- I know what it is!"  They were getting it!  At the beginning of our lesson, I had taken extra time to explain the difference between a table contents and an index (often confusing to them).  During the activity time, they were all able to identify both of those things and explain the difference between those two features.  They were even excited to use scissors and to help me collate and staple their new text feature booklet.  Finally, I had tapped into some motivation inside them.  Were they all perfectly angelic students on Saturday?  . But just like any other day I use my classroom management so--but most of them never are.  However, even the most difficult students ended up with a product of their learning and an ability to explain what they had learned in class. 

I drove home from Saturday tutorial realizing that something had finally worked.  The students found a way to be motivated, and in return, I had also.  I had proven that sometimes, although it's not popular in a testing state, the best thing to do is break the monotony of multiple choice.  The students broke through the boredom and actually got a real understanding of what text features are, what they look like, and what their purposes are in the books that we read.  Did I make a big point about not doing a multiple choice test review?  No, I didn't.  I was satisfied in knowing that my classes had experienced authentic teaching, authentic learning, and authentic assessment.


Sunday, March 4, 2012

I Love Free Stuff!

Everyone loves free things, and I think teachers especially love freebies!  I used VistaPrint to create my "branded" items for my local tutoring business.  I also hit up VistaPrint and InkGarden for free business cards that I customize for my class.

Yesterday, I was so happy to receive my latest freebie!  Thanks to an offer from VistaPrint , I now have a stack of 250 business cards that I'll use for my rewards and recognitions.  I've got a tough group who will really have to make some changes in order to meet all of the behaviors on the STAR card, so I've got to really pump up this new item.  Some teacher modeling will be built in to the introduction of the STAR cards.  If a student earns this, they'll get an instant prize from me plus one of our school-wide lottery prize tickets. I'm praying that this boosts motivation in my classes because these kids are really fizzling!

Recently, I made my Valentine's Day treat bags with these adorable business cards from InkGarden  The template was from the "wedding" you might have to browse some unlikely categories to get your inspiration!


Monday, February 27, 2012

Writing with Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch

Tomorrow is one of the big testing days for Florida's 4th graders: FCAT Writes.  At my school, we've come to grips with the fact that the majority of this year's 4th graders struggle with Writing. Along with Oral Language weaknesses, they have not mastered the basic mechanics of writing. Many of us have been pulling a lot of rabbits out of our hats!  I've had some success using color-coded highlighting (capital letters in yellow, punctuation in green, etc.).

To reinforce corrections of the most common errors, I created these two posters featuring Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch.  I know that Sesame Street is a little young for 4th grade...but it's an attention-getter, and those are "safe" characters that they know (I'm not a fan of smart-mouthed Spongebob).  The Oscar the Grouch poster says, "This Garbage Makes Me Grouchy!" The Cookie Monster poster says, "This Makes Me Hungry For More!"

Well, it has gotten their attention...and some of the students have fixed their errors while telling me, "Oh yeah, that's on Oscar's list."  So, you might want to give it a whirl with your students.  Just pinpoint the most common errors your group makes, use Google images for the pictures, and write some basic examples.

(Sorry the light is reflecting off of the lamination!)


Sunday, February 26, 2012

Learning Scales for Kids

My school district has adopted the Marzano evaluation system, and we teachers have had to whip up more "things" to hang on the walls.  I'm anti-sensory overload, so I'm very choosy when it comes to deciding what warrants a big anchor chart.  One of the necessary items, as per the Marzano system, is a visual of the overall rubric (called "learning scales") for academic tasks.  I knew that I didn't want my learning scales to be boring, and I didn't want it to be wallpaper.

So, I created a Snoopy-themed set of scales that can be easily hung vertically from the top of my whiteboard down to the ledge.  I plan to get smallish magnets and put the kids' names on them.  As a recognition, a student who has met a 3.0 or 4.0 will get to move their magnet to the appropriate position on the board.  (A move to 4.0 would definitely get a hand-clap, too!!)

Here's the link to the PDF on Teachers Pay's my first post, so it's FREE!