Category Archives: Upper Grades

Über Books for Upper Grades 2

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For me, books have always been a trusted friend.  A friend that is just like me, the complete opposite of me, or me transformed in another world.  Books are mirrors or windows (I think I’ve said this before).  In books, we see ourselves or through to something else.

Reading realistic fiction with my students, picture or chapter books, has always provided opportunities for connections in my classroom. Honest questions are asked, discussions are had, and at times – tears are shed.  And if we are lucky, a student falls in love with a book.  Magic.

A couple weeks ago, I blogged about some of my favorite historical fiction books.  Today, I hope you add some of these realistic fiction books to your classroom.

9780142405444_p0_v1_s260x420 bird by Angela Johnson

A sensitive story of a girl trying to keep her family together.  Bird is thirteen and cannot accept the fact that her stepfather has left.  She follows him to Alabama to try and convince him to return to Cleveland to rejoin her family.  In searching for security, she becomes security for two young boys with problems of her own.

9780399239892_p0_v1_s260x420 feathers by Jaqueline Woodson

Two things led me to pick up this book at the bookstore – the author (one of my favorites) and the main character’s name (characters never have my name!).  Woodson is one of my favorites because she speaks to readers with honesty, compassion, and understanding.  Her books tackle difficult topics such as race, gender, and relationships.  In feathers, Frannie begins to view the world around her in new ways after hearing a quote from a poem at school – “Hope is the thing with feathers”.  A powerful read aloud or book club selection, Frannie helps readers realize the beauty of looking deeper.

9780689866968_p0_v1_s260x420 deaf child crossing by Marlee Matlin

This book is a window for most students.  The perspective of a deaf child is a rare one in children’s literature and Marlee Matlin does a beautiful job.  Megan and Cindy become fast friends when Cindy moves into the neighborhood.  They are inseparable.  As summer approaches, their friendship becomes tested when they go to camp together.  Matlin explores friendship and all its facets through the eyes of two young girls.

9780064472074_p0_v1_s260x420 Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman

I love a book that is told from several different perspectives.  Some readers find it difficult to follow, bouncing back and forth from character to character, but I enjoy getting the whole story from all those involved.  Seedfolks uses a vacant lot to connect neighbors, stories, and lives together in an inner city neighborhood.  Two years ago, a group in my fifth grade reading class chose to read this book together.  I had to make a judgement call.  I knew some of the content was heavy (pregnant teenager), but I also knew where my students were coming from.  I knew why Valerie connected to it after skimming through the pages (pregnant sister).  I knew Eric would idenifywith Kim’s optimism. I knew that Seedfolks was going to be a mirror and a window for my students. Just as the characters saw promise in the soil, I saw promise in this book.

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Chasing Vermeer, The Wright 3, and The Caulder Game:  A trifecta of awesomeness!  Although considered more mystery than realistic fiction, Blue Balliett’s series sends readers on journeys through art and architecture, friendship and hardship, trials and tribulations.  Secret messages and codes are woven into each story with pentominoes, riddles, mazes, and more.  Readers are exposed to the art of Vermeer, the architecture of Wright, and the sculpture of Caulder while following friends as they investigate mysteries throughout Chicago and England (Caulder Game).

Maybe you have already read some of these with your students, maybe you’ve never heard of them, but I hope you give them a chance.

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Filed under Literacy, Read Alouds, Reading Workshop, Upper Grades, Writing Workshop

“Spacing” Out With Blokify

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Spatial thinking is often an intelligence (literacy) we neglect to address in our schools. It is one of those things we consider ourselves to just not be so great at – “I’m not that great with depth perception” (guilty) or “Geometry and measurement has never really been my strong suit”.

This week, after reading a post by a mentor of mine, I suggested to a colleague we download the app Blokify for our student iPads. It is addicting to the children, especially if they have played Minecraft before, and it is addicting in a good way. The level of engagement is outstanding.

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Blokify offers two modes for users to create 3D images. Images can be built according to a pattern, or using free play. Hints are given for the pattern, telling the user where to place blocks and of which type. The less hints used, the more diamonds one can earn. The diamonds can be used to “buy” additional types of blocks or worlds to create with. All in one app, my students are building, creating, collaborating, visualizing, and problem solving. It requires a level of spatial reasoning that can be difficult for our kindergarten minds at first – as this is a developing intelligence. Together, students and teachers, we are learning through trial and error and perseverance to become more skilled.

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Today, we shared a Skype session with another kindergarten class with the creator of the app. Jen was incredibly helpful and patient with our questions, answering each one. We learned about improvements that are upcoming for the app (as it is very new) and how images created in the app can be produced with a 3D printer. In our classroom, we know to ask 3 friends before coming to the teacher. Each person is an expert at something. It was amazing to be able to communicate with the ultimate expert of Blokify and ask for more information.

What does building with 3D blocks have to do with good ole “traditional” literacy – the reading and writing of it all? Well, more than you may think. Increasing spatial intelligence can have an impact on reading and reasoning skills.

In my own research this week, I discovered a plethora of knowledge regarding spatial intelligence and children. On the parentingscience website, Gwen Dewar, Ph.D. writes about the importance of spatial intelligence and improving these skills within children. Evidence from studies suggests that simple practice with spatial activities heightens one’s abilities in later spatial tasks. This training also closes gender gaps that are often seen between men and women performing the same spatial exercise. Students who have a foundational knowledge of spatial vocabulary perform even better. Familiarity with shape and position words increases understanding of spatial relationships, which then in turn increases a student’s ability to visualize, manipulate, and problem solve efficiently. In a 2011 study, students who heard more spatial vocabulary, used more spatial vocabulary and scored higher on tests. We all know how a child’s working vocabulary directly impacts reading ability and in turn writing ability. My personal belief regarding this research is that the skills students build upon – problem solving, visualizing, and perseverance – have the greatest impact. Our struggling readers and writers often give up at the first hint of a challenge. By cultivating confidence, we can help all students succeed.

So if you are looking for a way to address multiple intelligences, increase engagement, collaboration and problem solving; I highly recommend Blokify. It is a free app available in the iTunes App Store.

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Über Books for Upper Grades

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“Our Land is alive, Esperanza…This whole valley breathes and lives…He picked up a handful of earth and studied it. Did you know that when you lie down on the land, you can feel it breathe? That you can feel its heart beating.”
― Pam Muñoz Ryan, Esperanza Rising

If a stranger glanced at my book shelves at home, he or she would never know that I currently teach kindergarten.  An entire shelf plus a row of the next contain chapter books – Multiple copies of the Harry Potter series, Lois Lowry, Jerry Spinelli, and Christopher Paul Curtis wave to me each day.  They are old friends from previous teaching years who have the privilege of being on my shelves at home.  Their spines are worn, well loved, by children and by me.  Occasionally, one finds its way back into my hands to be read once again.  Even better, one is loaned out to a teacher friend to be shared with students once more.

When teaching fourth and fifth grades, I would often stray from the traditional guided reading approach and use literature circles.  With practice and support, these groups would become amazing environments for reading and learning.  They could function independently while I worked with other students or I could sit in and participate as a reader as well.  Being an active participant in the groups meant that at times, I could be reading 3-4 chapter books at once.  I found the juggling of multiple characters and story lines to be worth it in the end though.

As a student, I liked learning about history, but in a round about way.  I enjoyed documentaries, first person artifacts, journal entries, and – most of all – historical fiction.  My love for historical fiction carried over into my teaching.  If you have ever paid attention to the span of time upper elementary school teachers and students are expected to cover in one school year, you know it is absurd.  Yes – students will hear the material again in future years.  Yes – students will go more in depth in future years.  But the fact still remains that an expectation to cover 200+ years is there.  Exploring history through historical fiction proved to be a savior for me.  We could cover content material and students could (hopefully) identify with a character and enjoy themselves along the way.

Some of my favorite historical fiction titles:

Watsons1963Christopher Paul Curtis is, by far, one of my favorite authors of all time.    He has an amazing ability to connect readers with issues of long ago in a relatable, non frightening way.  In The Watson’s Go to Birmingham, 1963, we are transported into the Watson’s home and travel with them to Birmingham at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.  Many teachers I know, use this as a read aloud in order to edit some of the content and language (few curse words).  I made a judgement call, and used this for a literature circle group two years ago with fifth graders.  I’m so glad I did.

6702075-MWhen teaching about World War II, I find it important and beneficial to share as many experiences as possible.  Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes  tells the story of a young girl and the impact radiation from the bombing of Hiroshima has on her life.  She uses her knowledge of a Japanese legend to bring hope to herself and her country.  Without fail, each year I read this, we made paper cranes.  I discovered that origami is not really a strength of mine – but there is always a student who excels and helps others fold the cranes.

51zqk1y72TLJust add Laurie Halse Anderson to the list of authors I am obsessed with.  I love how she dives into history and creates strong, dynamic, female characters that are heroines any student can identify with and admire.  Yellow Fever does not usually get much attention in elementary history books.  However, it is a fascinating piece of our history.  I read Fever 1793 out loud to my students.  We then connected it with the nonfiction text The American Plague.  Through the eyes of Mattie, we learn about the spread of the fever and how no one (not even famous historical figures) could escape.  Anderson writes in such a way that keeps readers on the edge of their seats.  Fever 1793, is part of her historical fiction trilogy.  Other titles include Chains (amazing) and Forge (on my to read list).

weedflowerFollowing the attack of Pearl Harbor, the lives of Sumiko and her family are thrown into turmoil.  Once flower farmers, they are separated and sent to internment camps.  Sumiko is sent to a camp in Arizona on Mohave land.  Readers are able to gain perspective of two other groups during World War II through Weedflower.  Cynthia Kadohata writes with genuine emotion and addresses very complex issues while still leaving room for readers to make connections.

51YxIHMJa1LThe Great Depression affected all parts of this nation in the 1930’s and 1940’s.  In elementary history texts, attention is mainly placed on the stock market crash, Hoovervilles, and the New Deal.  In Esperanza Rising, Pam Munoz Ryan brings us a “riches to rags” story of a Mexican family forced to flee to California after a tragedy.  Once part of a wealthy family, Esperanza becomes a migrant worker.  Poetically told through the growing seasons, with Spanish intertwined, our heroine’s story takes us through different ethnicities and the organization of labor during the Great Depression.

UnknownThe spring after 9/11, I chose this book as a read aloud for a class I was student teaching in.  I was teaching in a rural area, where closed-mindedness still had a home.  Students were making comments about middle eastern people that they didn’t really understand.  My hope was to show students another view of a side of the world completely foreign to them.  The Breadwinner is one of three books by Deborah Ellis that tells of Parvana, a young girl living in Kabul.  After her father’s arrest, Parvana puts her life at risk to take care of her family.  Ellis spent several months with refugees researching young girls’ experiences in Afghanistan.  Parvana is a hopeful, strong, and determined heroine.  Her voice shows that even in oppressive climates, humanity can shine through.

al-capone-does-my-shirtsDiscussions of the 1930’s always led to students becoming intrigued by Alcatraz, Al Capone, and the original “gangsters” of that time.  Gennifer Choldenko created an entire series around Moose Flanagan and his family’s experience on Alcatraz Island.  The spirit of the era shines through Al Capone Does My Shirts and acts as an additional character.  The characters are well rounded, developed, and relatable.  Readers close the pages and immediately want to do research to learn more.

Stay tuned for more über picks – up next, realistic fiction!

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All Work and No Play (pull out your soapbox)

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An article featured by the Washington Post has been making its way through social media lately.  The article, “A Very Scary Headlines about Kindergartners”, can be found here.

What this article, and the several (listed later) it references, brings attention to is the effect Common Core and academics has had on kindergarten in recent years.  This is my second year teaching kindergarten.  I am teaching skills and strategies that I remember from my first grade lesson plans five years ago.  Expectations are high.  While that can be a good thing – students always surprise you with their capabilities.  The negative side to high expectations is that five and six year olds begin experiencing the “stress” of school from the very beginning, possibly fostering a dislike for school and altering their academic careers.

I love what I do – absolutely, positively.  But, let’s be honest – teaching kindergarten is a HUGE responsibility.  More often than not, my classroom is the first experience children have with the public school system.  My classroom is their first chance to “do school”.  Many come from day care programs, but they are not the same.  Their little brains become overwhelmed with routines and socialization – and then we throw academics on top of that.  I sincerely believe that kindergarten in my classroom can factor in to how a child feels about school.  I take that to heart.  I want my students to LOVE school!  I want them to feel successful and confident and proud.

After some days, I wonder if every child left feeling that way.  Fountas and Pinnell have had to change their reading level chart.  What was once considered on or above level at the end of kindergarten (level B) is now considered below level after the second nine weeks.  To be on grade level at the end of kindergarten, Fountas and Pinnell (and my school system) say that students should be reading at level D.  You and I both know that some kiddos just aren’t ready to read in November, December, or January.  They may jump on the reading train in March and as a teacher, you’re ecstatic.  And as students, they are ecstatic because they can finally read all by themselves!  But some of that joy gets stolen when at the end of the year, all of their hard work still doesn’t seem good enough.  They end the year at level B and you’re worried they will struggle in first grade.  Common core says teach them how to decompose numbers into tens and ones.  Well, Sarah can only count to ten with confidence.  How will she feel after a day of working with numbers larger than ten in a complex way?  High expectations are not all bad, but what gets pushed to the wayside is the developmental appropriateness of standards.

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The designers and writers of assessments and standards do not seem to take into account the age of the child – and where he or she is at developmentally – when putting forth requirements.  One of the first classes of my teaching program was on child development.  Obviously, this stuff is important!  For example, five and six year olds are very egocentric still.  Everything is about them, their families, their lives.  The entire world is their world.  Anything outside of their bubble is foreign.  So if Piaget and others taught me this in undergrad, why am I being asked to expect my students to understand the concepts of states, countries, and continents at ages five, six, and seven?  Do I love to teach about these concepts?  Do we love exploring about other places?  Of course!  The difficulty lies in ASSESSING these developmentally inappropriate skills.  I could go on and on about this – but I’d rather focus on play.

Play is losing its place in our kindergarten classrooms.  We all try to play.  We play to learn.  My students have voice and choice in the classroom and learn through a variety of ways.  We go off on tangents to answer questions.  We play hands on games, explore, ask questions, research, build, create, use iPad apps, write, color, stamp, cut, sort, and experiment.  Currently, I’m making a conscious effort to provide more opportunities to play for play. 

We play at recess, yes.  In the past couple weeks, I’ve hung up my “whistle” and loosened the reins a little.  Unfortunately, I have been worried about injuries on the playground and have come to realize I was making recess less fun – for me and the students.  “Make safe choices” is our new philosophy on the playground.  So if a student is running up the slide or throwing sticks – he might get hurt.  If he gets hurt, then we will have a discussion about the safety of his choices.  My reflections on recess and play led me to see that recess was not always a break from the classroom if I had to continue redirecting behaviors on the playground.  Tattling has decreased and students are getting more energy out.

We are also fortunate enough to still have “nonacademic” centers in our classroom.  Students are able to invent and pretend in the home living, block/cars, and art centers.  The kitchen is a kitchen, a barber shop, a store, a house, an animal shelter.  Students are moms, dads, babies, and pets.  Blocks become airplanes, rocket ships, bridges, ships, and roads.  Construction paper transforms into robots, hats, gifts, and decorations for our room.  The noise level during choice time is louder than other times in our classroom.  This is an adjustment and also a fine line.  Our class if filled with friends who take a mile when you give them an inch.  We talk about procedures and what being at a center looks like and sounds like.  We sit in time out when we can’t respect the space of others.  We make messes – and then learn we need to clean them up.

Through play, for the sake of playing, we take care of our emotional selves.  We develop life long skills that will make us happy human beings, successful human beings.  We form friendships and develop talents.  We find out our likes and dislikes, our strengths and some of our weaknesses.

We gain so much – and none of it can be assessed.

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How do you incorporate play into your day?

 

Referenced articles:

http://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2014/01/kindergarten_test_results_a_so.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/02/01/the-trouble-with-calls-for-universal-high-quality-pre-k/

http://curry.virginia.edu/uploads/resourceLibrary/20_Bassok_Is_Kindergarten_The_New_First_Grade.pdf

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Filed under Lower Grades, Uncategorized, Upper Grades

Rime and Reason

I finished the standardized assessment for kindergarten today and I am ecstatic!  While it was great to get to know another teacher’s students, I’m glad to be back with my own kids and our normal schedule. Before administering this assessment, we were given training by our assistant principle.  There are multiple sections to this assessment and a couple of them left us guessing… What is the point of this section?  What is it really assessing?  The conclusion was reached that we just needed to stop questioning it – and do it.  This assessment is a requirement of the county, we have to administer it – not pick it apart.  Honestly, that was very hard for me.  The last school district I was in we focused a lot on data and making sure we were appropriately assessing our students.  Yes, we gave standardized assessments such as benchmarks and state tests – but every other assessment was so carefully thought out.  Now, I think of every assessment in this way.  Which is the way I should? Right? Let me get to the point of this post – reviewing the book I posted a couple weeks ago in Straddling the Line. 51To7VhjTrL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX225_SY300_CR,0,0,225,300_SH20_OU01_ I think it’s safe to say I’m in love with the possibilities this book presents.  The author, Sharon Zinke, outlines lessons  (not just for kindergarten) that can be used to quickly work on decoding so a teacher can focus the most of reading instruction on constructing meaning.  The book  comes with a DVD that has printables to make any flash cards you may need and videos of the lessons being taught.  To me – the DVD makes it worth 14.99 (which isn’t bad to start).  I am a visual learner.  I like to see how it is done, then tweak it for my own purpose. Zinkes makes so many valid points (and affirming some of my own beliefs) – I can’t possibly list them all here with out copyright issues.

My wordle: http://www.wordle.net/show/wrdl/6714176/Decoding_Solution

Here are some key points:

  • Reading fluency isn’t about speed, but rather about appropriate rate.
  • Even some fluently reading adults have trouble segmenting words into their individual phonemes (and I just assessed K students on this).
  • Our brains love patterns!  This is why we teach word families, onset,  and rime.  It is intuitive.  Our brain functions as a pattern detector, and we find it much easier to detect patterns than to apply rules (Goswami & Bryant).
  • Reading is all about constructing meaning.  Letters and sounds should be presented in context.  When students realize much more of the story can be found in the words and outside of the pictures, they learn much more about the grapho-phonemic cueing system.
  • Immersion rather than mastery is the goal (with the Rime Magic sequence).

I plan on trying some of the techniques with a group of emerging readers before the year is over and during the summer with an individual student.  So I’m going to hold on to my reading star and press forward! star

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Look for the helpers

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This blog is a result of me just having to grab my computer and type – type about dealing with tragedies that happen in everyday life and then carry over into the classroom.

With everything that happens in this world, we all need support.  We all search for answers.  Our students especially search for answers.  I hope that when I go to work tomorrow, none of my students will ask about the tragedy in Boston today. I hope that I won’t have to try to explain the inexplicable.  Why do bad things happen?  Why would someone do something like that to people who are just running a race?

When the tragedy happened at Sandy Hook, surprisingly, none of my students came to school with questions.  More often than not, our little guys are exposed to the news.  They see things, they hear things, they wonder.  So I came to school ready to calm fears and give massive hugs.  I squeezed my kids so hard that Monday, but answered no questions.  Not a one.

So tomorrow, I’m hoping for the same thing.  I’m hoping just to hand out hugs and not answers about tragedy.  But not every teacher will have that luxury.  If you teach upper grades, the bombings in Boston may be the hot topic of conversation.  And, being the literacy person I am, I have some book suggestions that could help with conversations.  Some are vague and can be translated across events.  Others are more explicit. I also can’t help but feel that this is the perfect time to revisit community helpers in primary classrooms.  Let’s reiterate the roles of police, fire, and rescue workers in our communities – and their valuable contributions, especially in times like these.

A book about friendship, loss, change – Our Tree Named Steve by Alan Zweibel

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Dealing with worrying – Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes

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Poems dealing with loss – What Have You Lost? by Naomi Shihab Nye

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Violence and war – Why? by Nikolai Popov

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Helpful links:

http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/library-books-to-help-kids-cope-with-newtown-tragedy_b62488

http://dclibrary.org/helpingkidscope#children

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