Monday, October 28, 2013

Numb Skull

It's not nice to call yourself a numb skull, but that's what I am right now.

I spent the day with Jeff Wilhelm.

Well, not really just me and him...but I spent the day at the MCTE Fall Workshop with Jeff presenting, and truly, my brain is awash with possibility, questions, new information, empathy for my students when they feel overwhelmed.

It's nice to immerse yourself in the familiar, to hold the handrails of security, and there were numerous times today when I felt like I was trying to ride a tricycle...and I don't think they have training wheels!

Jeff is a dynamic presenter, and he is full of information, statistics, real classroom application, so it was a day well worth it...AND he's left me a bit catatonic; lots to try, lots to read, lots to investigate.  The morning half was all about argument, and as a 7th grade English teacher in our building, I don't have much experience with argument and persuasion as a teacher (sure...loads of it as a human!!) so much of what he was talking about didn't fit onto any coat hook of my brain.  It was NEW, and it felt uncomfortable.  But in a good way!  I tried to jot down and then type some of his ideas and observations to help myself remember what I want to investigate now that the day is over.  I wish I had a week to unpack my brain, to discuss, reflect, plan, plan, plan with colleagues...but back at it tomorrow with O. Henry! No rest for the wicked. Or middle school teachers :)

The afternoon was about informative writing, and again, new information!  Jeff focused mainly on definition, which although such a basic of our life was quite thought provoking.  Again, I had to barter with my brain to start shelving new information, to apply it so I'd remember it, to try to glean everything I could from him.  This is tough work, blog readers!! Jeff Wilhelm talks at LIGHTNING SPEED!

So as I unpack and learn from him, I'll share here.  He has done and is doing incredible work. He's now up there in my mind with Lester Laminack and Ralph Fletcher.   My literary and teaching heroes...

The take-aways I can remember right now:
1) I distinctly felt like a learner, and that is a good thing!  I need to remember when I am teaching to be even more patient when kids aren't getting something. And inquiry truly is exhilarating!

2) The WHY has begun to click.  Several years ago, we were told by admin/the district we needed to post target goals and essential learnings.  Not having much of a history with these things, I didn't really get it.  I mean I always explained what we were doing for the day with the kids (that was good enough, right???,) but I didn't always have it posted.  Now...I get it, at least a little bit more!  For so long, we/I taught without standards as our/my guide.  We started with the literature and the assignment.  As our district has been shifting to inquiry based learning and the Common Core, it makes so much more sense to begin with the standards, the when Jeff talked today about essential questions, it clicked into place a bit better than it had been.  I'm starting to see how the pieces fit together. And we came up with some great essential questions for A Christmas Carol :)

3) Ranking examples of the type of writing you are doing...I'll elaborate on this in a different post, but Jeff had us rank examples of definitions and then figure out what criteria we would list for what makes a strong definition.  It reminded me of an activity I used to do with our getting-ready-for-the-7th-grade-writing-assessment-on-demand-essay-unit where I had kids rank three essays that previous kids had written.  We are planning on using this activity between research and writing the research paper in January to kids can take an active role in discovering what constitutes a strong thesis, intro, paper, conclusion, etc.  This all vs just attaching an example of a well written paper at the end of the packet.  Still in the works. I've incorporated some of this with narrative non-fiction after reading part of Heather Lattimer's work (Thinking Through Genre.) I'll write about that later in the year, too.

To be fair to Jeff, so as not to blame him for all my cranial confusion tonight, I have also been reading Pathways to the Common Core so I can learn from it as well as intelligently discuss it with my ELA Lead Teacher group; we met today after the workshop from 3:30 - 5:00.  Great discussion on take-aways from the workshop (loved the phrase urgency vs patience,) great work on norms for our group (in progress). I'm humbled to be part of such a forward-thinking and courageous group of teachers. It feels good to do this work. It feels good to engage in educational transformation. It feels good to work toward betterment.  And I love being in a group with people 6-12, general ed and special ed.  WE are learning through inquiry, and for the first time ever, I am somewhat ok with not having all the answers, not having a set, set plan for a unit, with getting messy and trying new things, tweaks on strategies, definitely daily and sometimes hourly!!  The work we are doing is good. It is engaging our students, and we feel like they are becoming deeper thinkers. Most days anyway ;)

I'd love to know what you think about professional development you've been engaging in lately, what you think of the CCSS, what work in the classroom you've been trying out. Feedback, comments, questions all welcome :)

Happy teaching!


Sunday, October 13, 2013


First of all, I want to share an absolutely awesome TED Talk by Shawn Achor on the Happiness Advantage.  I've watched it at least four times and intend to watch it some more. I love what he has to say because I often find myself rationalizing: If I can only get more of this school work done now, I'll be more settled at home. I am trying to challenge myself to take more time for joy at home, and I also want to incorporate his steps to rewiring our brains :) I love the parts about gratitude, exercise, and random acts of kindness.  Anyway, check it out, and see what your take-aways are...

I first saw it this August at teacher workshops, and then we shared it at our 6-8 ELA Pro Gro session this past Friday.  

Speaking of our Data Day, it was my lead teacher team's first go at running our grade level meetings, and I think they went pretty well.  We showed another TED Talk that really tackles the WHY of inquiry based units of study:

And we read the book ISH:

And we watched two videos from Love Esther Wu!!


And I gotta my 7th grade colleagues!  We also talked a lot, a lot, in between all that video-ish stuff.  We have important work to do this year: continuing on with writing and revising inquiry based units of study, revisiting our priority benchmarks, discussing and hopefully coming to some sort of conclusion on how to best integrate the language standards, looking at how we have bundled the standards and revising if need be.

A cool thing for me is that I got to hold the 7th grade meeting in my very own classroom!  There are six middle schools in my district, and the ELA morning meetings were at my building.  I set up the classrooms and tech, so of course I chose to be in my room.  My area/pod (used to be called house) is the closest to our big meeting area, too, so it made sense.  

Anyway, my room is always a work in progress, but here are a few photos of its current state.

The last three are of an idea I got this week from Pinterest.  It combines character traits + vocabulary + text evidence.  I forsee a new TPT product in my store   :)

Anyway, time to get some sleep; I'll write about where we are curriculum-wise soon.

Happy teaching,


Friday, October 4, 2013

Thursday Throw Down: Dipping into Socratic Seminar

Ed.  I totally missed Thursday Throw Down at Erin's I'm Lovin' I'm linking now.  She has a great lesson on beefing up your students' responses to literature. Check it out if you haven't already!

It's Friday, and I'm tired, but all is well!  Our foray into the Socratic Seminar with my 7th graders (for the first time this year) went well, and the picture book project is moving right along!

Tuesday, I went over a quick Socratic Seminar PPT, and stressed that the main goal of our Socratic discussions this year will be to help them understand the text more deeply, to strengthen their voices, and to help them work on backing up their arguments/reasoning. After the PPT, I handed out the seminar preparation sheet.  We had read Salvador, Late or Early as well as the article on siblings babysitting their siblings, and our main questions had to do with whether or not teens should baby sit their siblings and if they do, whether they should expect to get paid or if they should do it because it is a part of their family duties.  

Wednesday, I perused the PPT again, and then talked about how we would be working on language to use during a discussion.  I handed our quarter sheets with discussion starters for them to look at.

Then I had them pair up, choose one person to be an A and the other to be a B.  The As had to sit in the inner ring in a circle, and the Bs had to sit on the desks/chairs behind them in a second circle.

First, I decided to have a NONSENSE discussion, first and foremost so the kids had some experience sitting in the circle and HEARING their own voices. Students in the inner ring chose a discussion starter (I agree with what _____ had to say. I also think.....; Can you tell me more about that, ___?; I understand what you are saying, but I also think....; etc.) I chose a volunteer to start, and s/he said a starter with another kid's name (from the inner ring only) in it, in effect "tossing" the conversation to that student. That student chose a discussion starter to read and did the same thing, so the conversation sounded something like:

"I agree with Lauren." "Great, Alex! Can you tell me a little more about your idea, Sam?" "Sure Mahammed. I also think that..., Siri."  "When I read made me think of..., Brady."  "I was surprised to read that....Sydney." and on and on.  

After they finished the first time around, I opened the floor to the outside ring and asked them what tips they would give to the speakers in the inner ring.  Each class made their own list, and the lists usually included something like 1) Speak loudly; 2) Make eye contact; 3) Be ready to go when someone calls on you; 4) Sit up; 5) Learn the names of other kids so you know who you are picking.  After making the list, I challenged the inner ring to do it again, keeping the tips in mind as well as trying to go faster.  They usually went a little more slowly, but that's ok...practice time :)

After the inner ring's second try, I had the outer ring do the same thing.  When they were done with their first round, I opened the floor to the inner ring and asked them for traits of a good/active listener.  We made a list for each class, and most of the lists included things like 1) Listen up; 2) Don't have side conversations; 3) Don't fidget.  And three classes added: "Don't read a book while the conversation is going on!!!" They got irritated when several classmates thought that would be an appropriate thing to do :)

The outer ring then got their second chance at the nonsense discussion after a reminder of the tips they gave on being a good speaker.

After that, the inner ring had a chance for a guided try at their first Socratic discussion.  I always give the first three speakers extra credit, and the first speaker has the opportunity to choose the question to focus on. Even though this one wasn't for points, I still had good volunteers in each class who wanted to start first. Working off of their yellow discussion preparation sheets, they got a taste of their first in depth Soc Sem discussion!  It always takes some time for them to get used to not raising their hands but reading other kids' body language for cues as to when to jump in instead.  I did some coaching with using a discussion starter + their opinion + supporting textual evidence, and overall, it went well.  Carly, Robin, and I are so excited to be starting the year with a dip into this type of class activity, and I am really looking forward to having them know the routine much earlier this year.

Listening to students engage in a Socratic discussion always reaffirms my belief that 7th graders have a lot to say and have some pretty awesome thoughts about the world.  I'm excited to see how they progress.

Thursday, we started in with the final activity of our unit, a picture book project. The goal with our first unit (Teaching the skills and routines of 7th grade English using short texts as the vehicle) was just teach the kids the skills and routines they will be using all year so they have a bit of experience with them before we run into them again.

This summer when we were planning and were thinking about how to assess this unit, we knew that a regular test wouldn't cut it.  We thought it would be awesome if they could demonstrate their knowledge of the skills and routines using a picture book.

So Thursday, we began.  First I handed out the directions sheet.  I gave them two minutes to very quietly read over the sheet on their own.  Their task was to star what looked important and mark what they had question about. Then, when it looked like most were done, I had them pair and share....telling their neighbor what the project was about.  After that, I opened it up whole class and asked what the project was about, fielding questions as well.  At that point, I did a quick run-through of the major points.

After that, I handed out the picture book preview sheet.  The books we chose to offer (and then sent for from the other libraries around the district) are:
   The Day the Babies Crawled Away by Peggy Rathmann
   Night Noises by Mem Fox
   The Paperboy by Dav Pilkey
   A Bad Case of the Stripes by David Shannon
   Hello, Harvest Moon by Ralph Fletcher
   What You Know First by Patricia MacLaughlin
   Night of the Gargoyles by Eve Bunting
   Old Turtle and the Broken Truth by (don't remember off the top!)
   River Friendly, River Wild by Jane Kurtz
   Great Northern Diver, the Loon by Barbara Esbensen

I went through the blurbs on the sheet, holding up the book as I went and discussing quickly lexile level and the focus for each text. (Each text has a skill focus and a routine focus, ex: Those who chose A Bad Case of the Stripes focus on imagery as the skill and Socratic Seminar--writing a "big picture" question and writing talking points (pros and cons) about it.)

Then, I had them self-select their own groups of 3-4 kids (some went with pairs), talk over their choices, and finally come up to the front to pick a book or two that they were considering.  

Once they got their book choice solidified, I wrote down their names and choice, and they went to the hall, the computer area, outside my room, or inside my room to read the book.  And that's all that fit into Thursday!!

Today, I walked them through getting a Skills page and a Vocabulary page in their notebooks (these pages will be graded, and I wanted them to have the date, the page, the entry in their table of contents, a heading and sub heading before they went into group time.)  Then they reconvened in their groups and worked on their skill work and vocab work. Each group is different in terms of skill.  They can come up with something on their own or take the direction from the explanation sheet.  For example, for sensory language, they can do what we did when we read Have You Been to the Beach Lately? by Ralph Fletcher, which was tracing their hand, writing the five sense words on the finger tips, and writing in things the characters saw, smelled, tasted, heard, etc.  For connections, they can either list and label connections they made while reading or make a three column chart, etc.  If their focus was connection for the book they picked but they weren't able to make a whole page of meaningful connections, I had them fill the rest of the page with their choice of inferences, a summary, etc.

For the vocab work, they need to select five strong vocab words from the book they have, define them, and look up two synonyms.  

Most groups were pretty on track today.  Some, especially toward the end of the day when we have our co-taughts, were fallin' off the tracks, especially since it was a dreary Friday with the big rivalry football game looming in the evening!!

Monday, I'll go over the "routines" options...things like writing questions that follow Costa's Levels of Questioning, writing a big overarching question that applies to the text and coming up with talking points, completing a one pager...

Tuesday, we'll play it by ear to see if they are done, and then I'll have them share a synopsis of the book as well as the work they did with another group.  After that on Tuesday, we should be starting in with notes on the Elements of Fiction!! Back to some semi-regular territory!

Well, I better get off the computer and into bed.  My sister is getting married tomorrow, so we have a big day ahead!

I'll leave you with some photos of kids working on the picture book project!

Have a great weekend,