Surrounded by Nonfiction

In my first year as an elementary principal, one of the many nice things I inherited with my new school is a drive by staff to utilize every minute for instruction. This is evident as I observe classrooms during instructional rounds.

Taking this philosophy another step, what about student down time when kids aren’t in class? An opportunity arose from what at first seemed like a problem. When students arrive at school in the morning, they are directed to the cafeteria whether they are having breakfast or not. As you can imagine, this time has been mostly crowd control and not the best way for students to start their day. See Example A:

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Being an educator, you may have noticed that the panels on the bottom of the wall are totally being underutilized (what 20% rule?). To fill this gap, metal magazine racks were ordered from Amazon at $13 a piece. They are what you might normally see hanging in a bathroom. Keith the custodian put them up in a jiffy.

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Next step was to order the books. Knowing that time was limited to start a novel, nonfiction easy readers were purchased from Scholastic. What is nice about nonfiction is kids can pick them up and read them in short bursts, perfect for the morning wait time. Also important is that most reading students will do as they get older will be nonfiction.

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*This side of the cafeteria is where all K-2 students sit. Books displayed are at their reading level.

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*Grade 3-5 level books displayed by the older students’ side include biographies and history.

Before I even had time to announce the new materials to the school, students were asking me, “What are those metal things for?”. Having the books displayed at their height caught their attention right away, similar to how grocery stores shelve all the sugary cereal at the bottom. After explaining the concept of reading during down time, students forged ahead:

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For around $500, we created a nonfiction library in our cafeteria. Next step: Little Free Libraries

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.

The Writing Principal?

As an elementary school principal, I conducted my first writing activity with a class. It was a poem that piggy backed off the book I read aloud to one of my kindergarten classes, The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown. I had already read them this book at my prior visit, so I followed up with The Little Fireman by the same author to start the writing lesson. This was good on two notes. One, we were able to point out how the author uses patterns when writing her books. Plus, she collaborates with other writers to make new stories. Second, the fireman book gave some inspiration for the kindergarteners to come up with ideas for a topic for our Important Poem.

One of the more active students suggested fire trucks, so I jumped on that opportunity to praise him for making a text-to-text connection. I used my Moleskine book journal to model how to write the shared writing poem, with the help of the document camera. (At first, I thought I could also give the kindergartners a template to try these poems on their own once modeled. Their teachers showed me the errors in my thinking). We used the same format as the author did to write this poem about fire trucks:

The most important thing about fire trucks is that they have a ladder.
They are on wheels.
They are also red.
But the most important things about fire trucks is that they have a ladder.

I provided the majority of the sentences, with the students helping me come up with words to describe the fire truck. Once we were done, we attempted to take a picture of the poem we wrote using the document camera. Between the teacher and me, all we have is the picture below. I’ll have to do it the “old fashioned way” and scan the poem to print off. The teacher will have that poem in one of her literacy centers for her students to reread. I had a lot of fun writing with the students!

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My First Blog Post

An email response from Jim Trelease, author of The Read Aloud Handbook

Dear Matt,

Thanks for the email and the photo. Terrific!

I am presently working on the 7th and my final edition of the Handbook, so
your email was a vote of encouragement that I needed this morning.

I just finished the technology chapter (who’d have ever though such a
chapter would have been in the book 30 years go when I started) and I’m
attaching it here as a preview. The book probably won’t be out until Sept.
2012, so this is well in advance and will probably have some revisions due
to changing technology between now and then. But there’s enough to bite into
here with some sobering stats, including the stuff about where the silicon
valley folks send their kids to school and the candid conversation between
Gates and Jobs just before the latter died and their views of education
software.

Keep me posted on your experiences during these early days as a reading
principal. I’m very interested.

Best, Jim