Using the Document Camera for Reading Aloud

(Thanks to Tia Henriksen, @henriksent, for better post title suggestion)

I left the classroom in 2007 after seven years as an elementary teacher to become a dean of students and athletic director at a junior high school. At that time, the overhead projector was the tool I used to display anything visual. SmartBoards were just starting to be installed. The only hands-on part about overheads was when a student had to run to the main office to get a replacement after the bulb burned out mid-lesson. In fact, that was one of my students’ classroom jobs. How technology has changed in such a short period of time is amazing.

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With all of these choices, it can be daunting to decide which device best supports the instructional needs in a teacher’s classroom. Focusing on reading aloud, I find the best technology to be the document camera. Used in concert with a voice amplification system, the document camera has taken this essential part of a balanced literacy program to a whole new level. It is a key tool for teachers to model the learning process, an essential step in Regie Routman’s Optimal Learning Model and similar frameworks for instruction.

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While I am still trying to figure out where this technology tool belongs on the SAMR ladder, I have found that the document camera can augment read aloud time in the classroom.

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Reading Aloud Becomes Interactive and Shared at the Same Time
Rather than having different literature and separate times for reading aloud, for shared reading and for interactive reading alouds, a teacher could combine all of these practices into one activity. I often place the picture book or novel under the document camera so students can see the text as I read. Students can ask questions about text features as I read, even coming up to the book or SmartBoard to point out the specific item they wanted more information about. For example, a 2nd grader asked what the little symbols between paragraphs meant while reading aloud Tumtum and Nutmeg by Emily Bearn (to switch scenes during a chapter). These teachable moments can be documented by snapping a picture of the page to review later.

Previously “Unread-aloud-able” Books Can Now Be Read Aloud
I am referring to the books that you would love to share with students, but cannot because they do not work when just reading the text. A perfect example is Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick, a book I read aloud to 4th graders this school year. Prior to document cameras, I would have had to hold up this bulky book and display the pictures when the narrative transitioned from Ben’s story (told through text) to Rose’s story (told through illustrations). My arms hurt just thinking about having to do this. Instead, I was able to lay the book down and take my time as we perused the pictures. What’s even cooler is I can zoom in on certain parts of the illustration or text when we notice something important, which previously only a student reading alone could do.

My Thinking Becomes More Visible

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I have always tried to use a lot of reflective language while reading aloud and identify the spot in the story that caused me to think. Now with a document camera, the potential is there to make the thinking in my head while reading more concrete. For instance, I use Post-it notes while reading aloud books at the primary level to document my thinking. Before reading, I state my purpose for reading a book, whether just for pleasure or to gather information. Sometimes it is the same book read twice, once for each purpose (see: Mentor Texts). Owl Moon by Jane Yolen worked great at 1st grade. After reading it aloud to enjoy the story, I came back a second day to highlight some of the great descriptive language to help me with my own writing. After modeling this with Post-it notes, students raised their hands to share their picks for great examples of descriptive language in Jane Yolen’s book. I acknowledged their input by writing down their suggestions on a Post-it next to mine, for later reflection at the end.

Reading Aloud Becomes Instantly Differentiated
As a colleague of mine was apt to state, you could through a rock out in the hallway and hit someone with attention deficit disorder. While recognizing this as hyperbole, I would agree that many students lack the stamina and practice of listening to the written word spoken aloud. What the document camera does is give that visual in addition to the auditory.

I don’t always use the document camera when reading aloud. In fact, most chapter books I read aloud at grades five and up are from a comfortable chair with zero technology. But when a book begs to be supplemented with a technology tool that enhances the read aloud experience and allows the student to better attend to its message, why not use it?

Not to sound redundant…the document camera is a great technology tool for all areas of instruction. I recommend the following resources for using the document camera in the classroom (you may notice a theme):

58 Ways Teachers Can Use the Document Camera

50 Ways to Use a Document Camera

25 Ways for Students to Use Document Cameras

Dial 811: It’s a Poetry Emergency!

Have you noticed that the call number for poetry books is 811? And that it is similar to the more familiar number 911? Neither did I, until I became principal at Howe Elementary School this year.

One of the many cool things that occur in my school is the concept of a “Poetry Emergency”. Developed by Liz Ottery, reading resource specialist, and other Howe staff five years ago, the school spends April recognizing National Poetry Month. Before the month begins, Liz asks staff members not teaching in the regular classroom to “adopt” a grade or class. I snapped up 5th grade, which happens to be the former grade level I taught before I entered the principalship.

During this month, we were expected to spontaneously pop into our classrooms and read aloud poetry. Liz gives us a sign in red; on one side it has the numbers “811”, and the other side reads “Poetry Emergency”. Before reading aloud, we hold up the sign and announce “Dial 811: It’s a Poetry Emergency!”. We then share our favorite poems with the students. In my case, I chose to read aloud Judith Viorst’s If I Were in Charge of the World and Other Worries to my 5th graders. These poems speak well to this audience, hitting on topics such as peer pressure and making friends.

During this time of the year, the classroom teachers also teach a variety of poems to their students. They can range from diamanté in 2nd grade to free verse in 4th. What I enjoy as I walk in the hallways is reading all of the students’ poems hanging on the walls. Taking time to celebrate our students’ efforts is so critical in building the idea that everyone can be a writer.

At the end of the month, Liz sets up Poetry Cafe in the cafeteria. This is an opportunity for students to read aloud their favorite poems to their classmates, teachers and families. As you can see, Liz creates a great environment for this parent involvement activity.

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Once classrooms are signed up to present, family members are invited to school to listen to their children read aloud poems they either discovered or wrote themselves. In this photo, a second grade teacher kicks off the cafe.

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This idea for promoting poetry writing in school is just too good not to share.

How Do You Eat an Elephant? Reflections from Grant Writing

I feel like I have been neglecting my blog lately (because I have;). Besides all the normal spring duties of a principal, it is also grant writing season. I don’t profess to have all the answers in this area. In fact, I won’t know until later this spring if any of our grants will be awarded (our school has three applications out there and one more to write). What I do know has been discovered through trial and error plus listening to others more knowledgable than myself.

Consider the Building’s Needs

I don’t ask for funding or resources just because it is available. Throwing money at something does not necessarily improve student learning, which should be the focus of any school improvement initiative. For me, I am a new staff member in my school this year. I needed to watch, listen and talk with everyone for a good six months before I really had a strong understanding of our needs. For Howe, we could use support in math intervention, technology, parent literacy education and collaboration.

Apply for the Grants You Think You Can Win

If your inbox is anything like mine, you are bombarded with emails from consultants announcing new grants available. While I appreciate this service, the types of grants can range across the educational spectrum. Knowing the needs of my building, I can now filter through the sea of opportunities and select the grants that best meet the needs of my school.

I also apply for grants closer to home. Half of our applications are for opportunities in my own county. The other two are through my state’s department of instruction. We can put a name with a face with the organizations offering resources. At the very least, I can make a phone call to the funding coordinator with questions about the grant. When they receive our application, the hope is we will stand out because of the personal contact we made.

Ask for Permission Rather than Forgiveness

The resources we are requesting will affect everyone involved with my school. Not being in the know can make others upset, even if the request is for something as benign as more books. I recently made the mistake of not informing my staff about pursuing a large grant before I put myself on a school board agenda to receive approval. To fix this, I now announce any intentions to my staff prior to pursuing a grant. If there are any reservations, communicating with other grant recipients about the pros and cons has helped.

During the grant writing process, I give unfinished drafts of the grant to those interested in reading and revising it. For larger grants, I do this once a week. Their suggestions are invaluable because it provides multiple perspectives. Once completed, I throw a copy of the application in the staff lounge for faculty to peruse. We also share our pursuits at PTO meetings with parents. The buy-in is better because there has been a process for everyone to provide input.

Pace Yourself

The grant opportunities that have been popping up lately have a shorter window for writing them. What has helped me “eat the elephant” is to complete the application one bite at a time. For example, if there are 30 days to complete a 30 page form, simple math says how much to complete per day. When does this get done? I either block some time during the school day or bring the laptop home. I also try to get these applications done ahead of time. For one grant, I set a deadline one week before the actual due date. This allowed for time to add district codes and get appropriate signatures.

Read the Fine Print

I am only guessing, but I would bet a number of applications that get denied are because the writers didn’t follow directions. For example, one grant asked for four copies of the application when submitting it. To help, most grants have a companion guiding document. I refer to it often. Some guides even provide the rubric the grant approval team will use when deciding which schools receive funding. I read each section of the guiding document before completing the corresponding section of the grant application. Very similar to showing our students a rubric before starting their writing in class!

Use Key Words and Phrases

Reading and discussing the latest topics in education, thanks to Twitter and other forms of social media, has helped me stay current with best practices. Many of the grant reviewers are also looking for these same practices in initiatives to be funded. Here are examples along with the key word or phrase translation:

Collaborating with Families = Parent Partnership
Increasing Math Understanding = Numeracy
Integrating Science and Technology = Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)
Making Learning Relevant = Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Budget for a Coordinator
Most grants have lots of paperwork required. I don’t plan to clone myself, so I budget for a coordinator to handle the administrative tasks associated with the grant. This person should be organized, a self-starter and someone not working in my school. Having a teacher or office staff member handle this load along with their regular duties may lead to burn out. In one school we have been communicating with, they hired a capable parent as their coordinator. They state this allows the faculty to focus on the learning activities that is supported by the grant.

These ideas are not original or necessarily my own. Again, it takes a team to crank these out and considerable buy-in from staff for a possible grant award to lead to success in school. I’ll revisit this post at some point in the future, revising my thinking as I continue to learn on the job.

An Open Letter to Judy Blume

*This letter was written by one of my fourth grade classrooms as a shared writing activity. As a school, we have focused on modeling writing for kids regularly. In this case, the class is responding to a book by Judy Blume. I told them I would share their writing with Judy Blume via Twitter. If you could, please comment on this post as the students would love feedback, even if your name is not Judy Blume!

Dear Judy Blume,

​We are fourth graders from Mrs. Sonnenberg’s class at Howe Elementary School in Wisconsin Rapids. Our class really liked your book Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. Earlier this year we also read Freckle Juice and The One in the Middle is the Green Kangaroo. Your books are funny and entertaining.

​In Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing we thought Fudge was very hilarious. Especially when he ate flowers, played with socks, ate Dribble, and didn’t eat his food. He seemed like a normal two year old boy at times though. Like when he was banging on pots and pans. We did enjoy the ‘Eat it or wear it!’ part very much.

​Peter tried to act all mature. There were many times Peter wished Fudge was never born. Boy, we had a lot of connections with that. One time Peter was really annoyed when Fudge was lost in the movies.

​The book was totally awesome. We have a few questions for you.

Why did you decide to have Fudge eat Dribble?
How did you come up with all those good ideas?
Do you think you could make a 6th Fudge book?
​Can you write back to us?
Why did you make these books into a series?
When did you want to become a published author?
How many books have you published?

We thought your book was the best. We wish you could come over to visit us.

​​​​​Sincerely,

​​​​​Mrs. Sonnenberg’s Class