Word Work vs. Spelling Packets

(I was asked by another building administrator my opinion regarding using word work in classrooms rather than tedious spelling packets. Not having an extensive reading background, other than I taught reading at the elementary level for seven years, I try to tread lightly when giving my opinion in this area.)

Tedious spelling packets are just that, tedious. In Chapter 4 of Teaching Essentials (Focus on Meaning First), Regie Routman stresses making curriculum and standards relevant and authentic. I cannot think of anything more irrelevant or inauthentic than a packet of worksheets. Word work such as word sorts are the opposite. They are visible everywhere, in the Jumble puzzle in the daily paper to board games such as Scrabble. Today, they are fun apps to play on mobile devices such as Moxie and Words with Friends, all using the framework of sorting letters to make words. People pay money and spend hours doing word work (including me). Would anyone buy an app or a board game that asked them to complete worksheets?

The thinking required to complete worksheets is pretty low level. Read the question, find the correct word on the list, write the word in the appropriate space, repeat. Word work, on the other hand, encourages students to compare/contrast, categorize and make new connections with word patterns, all on the upper level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Word work may not be limited to the 10-20 words given to the student in a spelling packet, none of which are chosen by the student. As well, word work promotes independent learners, another focus of Regie’s, because they depend on the student to create the words, not the worksheet. Students working on spelling packets are compliant but probably aren’t as engaged.

I could go on, but it would be me just venting because I used spelling packets almost exclusively for seven years as a teacher. I think I knew better at some level, but I never took the time to reflect on my own practices and ask, “Why I am doing this?”.

The caveat is, if the district expects teachers to use spelling packets because it is part of the board-approved language arts program, then spelling packets should be used in classrooms. They are not terrible, and probably do help students at least remember and maybe apply the word pattern of focus. That said, could they be taken home for parents to do with their child? Done together on the document camera? A workaround like this could allow the teacher to use better practices such as The Daily Five during the literacy block.

Speaking of which, there a number of good resources out there to help teachers develop more effective practices when teaching students spelling and vocabulary. Besides The Sisters’ resource The Daily Five, I recommend having a copy of Teaching Kids to Spell by Gentry and Gillet on your shelf. Although it is almost twenty years old, it contains some creative ideas for differentiated spelling activities to use with students. Janet Allen talks about work banks for older students in her book Yellow Brick Roads. Debbie Diller’s resource Literacy Work Stations has an appendix thicker than some novels filled with reproducibles for word work stations. What is a favorite word work resource of yours? Please share.

Getting Started with Student-Centered Coaching

Diane Sweeney (@SweeneyDiane), author of Student-Centered Coaching, is working with reading staff and administrators in my district on how to coach teachers to improve instructional practices. It is not that anyone is necessarily deficient in an area; my understanding is this process is a different way to improve our own practices. Although we were asked to take things slow because we had only been trained for one day, we decided to try an activity out.

First, she recommends that whenever you work with staff members with the purpose of improving instruction, you look at current practices. The grade level that the reading staff and I regularly collaborate with had previously constructed a nice rubric to assess their students’ writing. We took that rubric and cross checked it with the Common Core State Standards to see if they aligned. They did! It was a good way to start the discussion, to show everyone that their current practices are effective. Between this meeting and the next, teachers are expected to take this rubric and pre-assess each student in a common genre of writing. In February, the classroom teachers will bring back these writing samples to prompt discussion about current reality with their students’ writing skills.

Next, we brought up the idea from our coaching training of breaking down a writing standard into bite-sized tasks. For example, within the narrative standard students are expected to have a beginning, use details when describing a scene, and close out the story. These tasks or skills are should be put into kid language and listed on a checklist. Teachers can then teach each skill through the use of mentor texts, shared writing and writer’s workshop. Using the checklist of tasks/skills, teachers can note whenever a student has shown proficiency in a skill area during writing conferences. Once the teacher feels her class is ready based on the formative assessments noted in her checklist, she can give the post-assessment for the same genre of writing. They would use the same rubric to assess their students’ writing and compare the pre and post assessments to check for growth.

After today’s initial collaboration with staff, I realized this coaching process is going to take some time. As I headed back to my office, I thought about how we would break down the narrative standard and who would be involved. By luck, my ESL teacher stopped in at the same time and volunteered to start this process with help from a classroom teacher. Later on, one of my Reading Recovery teachers emailed me, requesting to work on another genre of writing and develop a skills checklist. These actions tell me that our first experience in student-centered coaching was a good one.

Just looking at the list of standards for 1st grade in writing is daunting. I can see why Diane cautioned us to to take things slowly and focus on one thing at a time. Speaking with staff, their first impressions were generally positive with regard to this method of collaborating with colleagues to talk about students and instruction. I am looking forward to seeing how our next gatherings will go, especially after working with Diane again. Even more, it is exciting to know where our students are heading because now we have an end in mind. Seeing learning made evident is one of the most rewarding parts of my job.

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Free iPad Apps for Online Educators

I just received an iCapsule Keyboard and Case for my iPad 1 from my brother. It’s pretty cool. Of course, I want to do something with it, so what better way than to write a blog post!

Recently, a friend of ours received an iPad 2. She teaches medical terminology to undergraduates looking into a career in healthcare. The university bought it for her because she teaches online, and she asked me what are the best free apps out there for this purpose (of course, they didn’t provide her with a budget for apps). Loving everything techie, I was only too happy to oblige.

Below is a list in no order for what free apps I would recommend to online teachers. I myself have not taught a course online yet, but plan to with my teaching staff next semester, all via iPad. If you have an opinion or suggestion about this list, please share it as this may be the blind leading the blind.

Teacher Tools (Free)
Edmodo – Host a class, like Facebook only for teachers and students
Mail – Assign your email to this app to instantly view messages & sync Calendar
Evernote – Take notes and record voice, with ability to share info many ways
Twitter – Connect with other like professionals, host chats and share information
Google + – Hold video conferencing with students
Google Docs – Work on a document with others at the same time or asynchronously
iBooks – Read textbooks as eBooks, highlight and share text, easily search for specific information
Safari – Use the “Reading List” feature to save articles online for later reading and sharing
WordPress – Write and share blog posts, plus track data about how often people read your writing. Can also add comments to people’s posts, nice way to provide feedback for assessment.
Pinterest – Create boards for different areas of professional interest, and allow others to pin like interests to your boards
Dropbox – Sync documents, pictures between iPad and personal computer
neu.Annotate – free PDF reader that allows you to write comments on it and save it as is in Dropbox, or send out to others via email
Flipboard – Subscribe to several news outlets, media and blogs and read information in a magazine-style format
iTunes – Download or subscribe to free podcasts about many things education and learning related
Shutterfly – Take pictures, then post them for others to see on the Share Site
Prezi Viewer – Make a Prezi on a computer then present it on this app
YouTube – Take video, then post it online for others to watch

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