Swimming Without Water

This weekend my family and I went to our weekly swim date at the Y. Unfortunately, I left my trunks at home, so I was relegated to sitting on the sidelines. As I sat back and watched my wife play with the kids in the pool, I wondered what it would be like to teach someone how to swim without water.

That’s weird, right? Why would anyone try to show someone how to swim without actually being in the pool? Yet this type of instruction takes place every day in classrooms. Instead of taking authentic literature and creating a reading lesson that fits with it, students are handed worksheets or a disconnected text that uses contrived language for students to work on, sometimes before they were even taught the concept. Many literacy programs purchased through district acquisition do not allow for reading and writing to occur in their native environment.

Students need to be able to wade into language and play. This require lots of books in classroom libraries to try out their developing reading skills and have fun. Richard Allington found through observing successful schools for a decade that students should be actually reading and writing 50% of the school day. He emphasizes the word actually because he doesn’t include the before and after activities associated with reading, although they can be important. This means that a lot of the activities in science, social studies and mathematics should also be incorporating reading and writing.

Kids learn how to swim in the water. Swimming instructors don’t lecture out of the pool; they bring the kids into the water to model a skill, guide and give feedback, and then allow the students to try it on their own when deemed ready. They are side by side with the students, sometimes taking their hands and making the motions for them. The students are not spending a lot of time talking about swimming with each other. They are not watching a video the previous night about swimming and talking about it the next day. They are not watching someone else swim the majority of the time with only a little bit of time to practice. The students are swimming.

Writing Apps for Principals and Coaches

There are so many apps out there for different purposes when using the iPad. It is exciting and daunting at the same time. Specifically for writing about instruction observed in the classroom, a few apps at first glance seem to be great tools for providing feedback for staff and documenting evidence of learning.

Evernote (free)

What I like best about this tool is a) you can document what you observe audibly, visually and by typing, and b) this information can be accessed anywhere. What would this look like? Maybe you are doing instructional walkthroughs. A checklist of four main areas focusing on teacher and student language could be the template. After checking off what you see, language used by students and the teacher can be typed up to record more qualitative feedback. In addition, a photo of what you are seeing related to classroom dialogue could be taken with your iPad and added to the note. Once completed, the entire note can be emailed to the teacher or shared during a subsequent discussion. Simple instructions on how to create a checklist can be found here.

When you want to find a note, they are organized by notebooks or by tags for easy searching.

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There are a few limitations I see with using Evernote for this purpose. First, I cannot find a way to easily export the checklist data to an Excel form. If you are looking for trends over time, it would be hard to use this data in Evernote’s format. Using Google Forms might be a better tool for this purpose. If there is a way to do this, my guess is either Bec Spink or Rob van Nood would have the answer.

Second, I wish there was a way to actually write using a stylus within Evernote, which leads into…

Penultimate ($0.99)

This app allows the user to write in notebooks using a finger or a stylus (I recommend a stylus such as Bamboo to avoid the smudges on the screen). You can write, sketch and erase plus add a picture in notebooks. Multiple notebooks can be created for individual classrooms. To share and read these notebooks, you can either email them out as a PDF or open them in another app such as GoodReader, iBooks or Kindle reader. More importantly, books or single pages can be sent to Evernote as their own note. What this means is you could combine your writing, text, audio and visuals all in one note on Evernote, albeit with a few preliminary steps. Check out this link on how to export Penultimate notebooks to Evernote using an iPad.

Notability ($0.99)

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If you want to keep things simple and be able to house audio, visuals, text and writing all in one file when documenting classroom activities, Notability is the way to go. What it has that Evernote doesn’t is the ability to sketch and write within the note as well as typing text, adding visuals and recording sound. Also, the layout and controls are more user-friendly than Evernote and Penultimate. Notebooks are color coded and the notes themselves seem to be easier to read.

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What could be improved with Notability is the ability to share notes with others. Right now, you can upload notes to Dropbox, but the audio and the rest of the note end up as two separate files. In addition, to share a note with audio right from Notability via email is difficult because the memory size of the audio may be too large. Evernote is better in this area because you can share notes as a web link. It stays as one file.

Conclusions

If you are just starting out, like me, in documenting learning experiences in the classroom, Notability may be the best choice. I know one school district in Wisconsin uses this app to document the amount of time ELL students are given to talk with peers about their understanding. However, if sharing notes is essential to the walkthrough and coaching process, Evernote + Penultimate would be the best tool. The ability to have access to these notes from anywhere is also key. In addition, Evernote just acquired Penultimate. If these two apps eventually meld into one, it might be the perfect tool for principals and coaches to write on the iPad.

My Students’ Favorite Read Alouds

In a previous post The Principal as a Writer, I described how I used Moleskine journals and a document camera to write book reviews with students. These reviews are based on a book I just read aloud to them. Here were their favorites from 2011-2012:

Best of the Year (five out of five stars)

Love That Dog by Sharon Creech

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Review (4th Grade): “I love that dog?? I love this book! It’s great because there were a lot of good poems to feel happy when feeling bad.”

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Meet the Dogs of Bedlam Farms by Jon Katz

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Review (2nd Grade): “This is one of the best books we have read because the different dogs had different jobs. For example, one dog makes people feel better and another dog herds the sheep.”

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Owl Moon by Jane Yolen

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Review (1st Grade): “Owl Moon is a five star book because the pictures are colored in really nicely. Also, lots of details helped us know what they mean. It was awesome!”

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Pete the Cat by Eric Litwin

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Review (Kindergarten): “We thought this was the best book ever because it was funny. Pete kept stepping in colored things like fruit.”

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A Stranger Came Ashore by Mollie Hunter

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Review (5th grade): “Really interesting, hard to put down. Edge of your seat and intriguing story. Amazing.”

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Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing by Judy Blume

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Review (3rd grade): “This book was excellent because it was funny, like when Fudge ate Peter’s turtle. These funny events remind us of silly things kids do that we know.”

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Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

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Review (4th grade): “The good, rhyming words and his voice made you want to read more.”

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Honorable Mentions (four out of five stars)

Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart by Vera B. Williams

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Review (3rd grade): “We thought it was very good because in the end, the girls’ father came back. The author gave different personalities to each person.”

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The Chocolate Touch by Patrick Skeene Catling

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Review (3rd grade): “I like how the book teaches you a lesson, of eating too much chocolate being a bad thing.”

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The 500 Hundred Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins by Dr. Seuss

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Review (3rd grade): “We thought it was really good because it had math in it. For example, it was interesting when the squire was keeping track of the hats as they fell off.”

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Hate That Cat by Sharon Creech

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Review (4th grade): “It only had Jack’s voice; wish we could have heard from someone else. We liked how he changed from hating to loving cats.”

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The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown

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Our Poem (Kindergarten): “The most important thing about a fire truck is it has a ladder. It is on wheels. It is red. But the most important thing about a fire truck is it has a ladder.”

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Lawn Boy by Gary Paulsen

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Review (5th grade): “We really liked this book because it was humorous. For instance, we laughed whenever the grandma spoke nonsense.”

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Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

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Review (4th grade): “We really like this book. The models of the buildings, the way the pictures described the story, and the way Ben’s and Rose’s story relate made this a unique and intriguing book.”

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Book Reviews as Book Marks

I was recently strolling through my local super department store when I came across these notecards.

They are book mark cards.

 

 

As you can see, they have a flap on top. It allows you to slide the card onto a book jacket or a page.

 

They come in five colors, fifteen cards in each color.

 

 

 

I think these book mark cards would be great for writing book reviews. Students could get blank cards from their school librarian or from their teacher.

Before they had a card in their hands, it would be wise to model how to write a book review. For me, I like to keep reviews short and reveal just enough to tempt the potential reader. Brevity is a virtue.

My present format for a quick book review:

  • I (liked, really liked, loved) the book (the title) because (give reason to support opinion).
  • For instance, (use evidence from the book to support your opinion).

To differentiate for students who struggle with writing, the bolded words could be provided on the cards as prompts.

Here is an example of what a book review could look like on one of these cards, using the excellent Wonder by R.J. Palacio:

 

Books with attached student reviews coud be displayed on the top of the book cases. Featured books could also have their own shelf in the library or classroom. It would be similar to how book stores designate an area for staff to attach reviews for their favorite reads.

How do you a) encourage students to recommend what they read, and b) celebrate your students' writing? Your comments are appreciated!

 

Literacy, Leadership and Walkthroughs

I recently attended the Literacy and Leadership Institute in Madison, WI. It was hosted by Regie Routman, creator of the Reading-Writing Connection professional development series (which my building uses). This may have been the best conference I have attended. Everything was connected to best practices. A lot of what the presenters at this conference shared is based on research and publications by Richard Allignton and Peter Johnston.

Summarizing all that I learned into one post would be like trying to stuff an elephant into a foot locker. Instead, I attempted to synthesize my thinking by creating a walkthrough checklist connected to best literacy practices. It is based on an article published by Richard Allington in Phi Delta Kappan in 2002, titled “What I've Learned About Effective Reading Instruction From a Decade of Studying Exemplary Elementary Classroom Teachers” (a straightforward if not catchy title). I condensed his findings about what exemplary teachers do into twelve statements.

 

Time

  • Students are actually reading and writing around 50% of the time.
  • Students are reading independently, meeting with the teacher for guided reading, and/or reading and writing in the content areas.

Texts

  • Students are reading texts that allow for high levels of accuracy, fluency and comprehension.
  • Classroom texts reflect a broad range of interests, diversity and levels.

Teaching

  • Teacher gives direct, explicit demonstrations of thinking strategies that good readers and writers use when they read and write.
  • Teacher assigns work that is responsive to students' needs and fosters a transition of thinking strategies to independent use.

Talk

  • Teacher facilitates lots of purposeful dialogue – both teacher/student and student/student.
  • Classroom talk is more conversational than interrogational.

Tasks

  • Teacher assigns activities that are substantial, challenging and complex.
  • Students are allowed some choice and autonomy in work to promote ownership and engagement.

Testing

  • Teacher evaluates student work based on effort and growth rather than just achievement.
  • Students take responsibility for their scores with the help of clear and visible academic expectations.

Using this checklist as a Google Form on my iPad, I could walk through classrooms and document how often best practices are occurring. Teachers are already used to me being in the classroom to read aloud or just observe. Is this a logical next step? It was suggested that if a checklist is used to document frequency of best practices, it needs to be sandwiched with positive feedback, probably in the form of a written note and verbal praise before leaving the classroom. I will defintiely need to reference Choice Words and Opening Minds by Peter Johnston often as I begin providing feedback. A hybrid of both a checklist and a written narrative may work best for my staff and me.

If I was the teacher, would this checklist along with a short observational narrative have the potential to help me improve my own practices? Would I feel defensive and nervous, or wonder what my principal's motivation is?

As the principal, will this type of walkthrough give me a reliable set of data to help determine where we are growing and where we need to grow? Could I eventually expect the teachers to use this process and observe each other, using a peer coaching format?

 

I need to sit on this draft of an idea and come back to it later. I would welcome any feedback!

I Read (and Wrote) to the Principal

When I moved into my new office last August, I found approximately 800 green pencils with “I Read to the Principal” printed on them, left for me by my predecessor.

Save that thought.

In my last blog post The Principal as a Writer, I wrote about how I modeled writing for my students and staff using Moleskine notebooks and a document camera. The modeling component of instruction is essential, but so is giving students the opportunity to practice their skills. As I have learned, student work should be authentic and relevant to their own lives.

I hoped that the students would be as motivated as I was to write about books I enjoyed. With that, I purchased one Moleskine journal for each classroom in which I regularly read aloud. Once they had seen me write a review, I handed off their classroom journal, with the following expectations:

1. They only put books in the journal that they truly enjoyed (four out of five stars or better).
2. They had to write to an audience, namely their classmates, their teacher and me.
3. They had to include their name as the reviewer. The idea behind this is classmates would presumably read the book review journal looking for their next great read. When they found a book that interested them, they could talk to the reviewer to get more information.
4. When students completed a review, they were encouraged to read their review to me in my office. Their purpose was to convince me to read the book they liked, as I had limited time to sort through all the literature out there.

Moleskine journals were now available in an opportune place in the classroom. Student book reviews commenced! Some classrooms used them more often than others. When I had not recently received a visit from a room, I again modeled a book review for that class in my own Moleskine journal, then encouraged the students to do the same.

Here is a third grader reading aloud his book review to me back in April.

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This is the book that he was trying to convince me to read through his review.

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He had me at “gruesome”.

After sharing, I gave each student one of the “I Read to the Principal ” pencils. What was nice was that they read to me their own writing. This practice corresponds with a number of my building’s beliefs we unanimously agreed upon as a staff, including:

Young children do not need to know all their letters and sounds before they can write stories and read back their own writing.

Shared writing text involving common experiences are often the easiest text to read.

A Couple of Reflections

– Writing for an authentic purpose is so critical. I couldn’t imagine writing this very post if I didn’t think I had an audience to read it or an opportunity for some constructive feedback. I imagine students feel the same way.
– Book reviews are a form of persuasive writing, an essential skill for students and for informed citizens.
– The reading-writing connection is a concept stressed by Regie Routman and other literacy experts. Reading makes better writers, and writing makes better readers.
– As a principal, this is another opportunity for me to visit with students in a positive context.

“Making meaning is good. Doing meaningful things is better.”- Peter Johnston, Opening Minds

The Principal as a Writer

As much as I love technology, nothing replaces putting pen to paper. I may be revealing myself as a digital immigrant. Regardless, whenever I am in a book store I find myself walking over to the journal section. In the bigger book stores, Moleskine journals have their own shelf.

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The draw for me is each one of these notebooks are a blank slate, new territory in which to be filled up with fresh ideas. With Moleskine, they tailor some of their journals for specific areas of interest, such as recipes, travel, wellness and music.

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Here is the link to the Moleskine website: http://www.moleskineus.com/

As you can see, the sky is the limit for different purposes for writing. For me, I regularly use three Moleskine notebooks to help me document my thinking for later review and to reflect on actions I have made.

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Red Moleskine: Read Alouds

I spend about 10% of my day reading aloud in classrooms. I find it to be a great way to connect with kids, to be more present in the classroom and to share great literature. To help me recall how each read aloud went, I write out a brief lesson plan for the book. I follow the basic format a teacher would use for guided reading: Before Reading Aloud; During the Read Aloud; After Reading Aloud. On the back of each page, I mark which classrooms I read a book to and when, so I don’t repeat (although rereads aren’t a bad thing, especially when the book is good).

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To better aid my organization, I keep my K-2 read alouds in the first half of the notebook and my grade 3-5 read alouds in the second half. I also “tag” the read alouds with special themes on the upper left hand corner, along with an approximate duration to read each book.

Black Moleskine: Book Reviews

Some of the classrooms in my building regularly post student book reviews on their bulletin boards. Great practice! To connect with classroom instruction, after I read aloud a title I write a review of said book in my review journal for the students. I model this type of persuasive writing using the document camera.

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This is not the best example, as this was our first entry and we didn’t actually write a review. Still, these 4th graders had lots of memorable quotes that they wanted to share and get documented in the book journal page we completed together via the document camera. To wrap things up, we voted on how good the book was based on our evidence and thinking. I was not surprised that Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein got five out of five stars.

Moleskine Knock-Off: Memorable Quotes

I got this calendar journal at a local book store around the time I signed up with Twitter last fall. Once I saw the amount and the quality of educational information that this social media helped send my way, I realized I needed a way to curate it before I lost it. It is not a Moleskine, but my wife was kind enough to spruce it up with a Moleskine pen.

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Anything and everything goes into this journal. The only criteria is that it is interesting and important enough to remember. Many of my PLN’s tweets have taken up space in this journal. As with all my journals, I regularly refer back to what I wrote to help current and future writing and decision-making.

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Digital Journals

Moleskine does have a journal app for the iPad and iPod Touch, but it is as bad as their paper
journals are good. I do journal using a variety of digital tools, all with slightly different purposes.

Evernote – Not so much a journal as a tool to store and organize information, such as conference notes with audio. This application has lots of potential for student portfolios.
Notability – Somewhat similar to Evernote, but information is stored via Dropbox. Doesn’t have the same accessibility as Evernote, but you can draw and handwrite within each note.
One Day – A very simple yet effective eJournal app for the iPad. I keep more confidential information here because it is password protected. If anything I write had to be considered a diary, this would be it.
WordPress – No description needed

What’s My Point?

I hope I have not wrote a post without much purpose.

As I reflect on my position as an elementary principal, I can think of a variety of reasons why I write and why all educators should be doing the same.

– Writing is a reflective act. It helps me coalesce seemingly disconnected ideas into one focus.
– All educators need to be modeling writing if they expect students to write. Kelly Gallagher, author of Write Like This, aptly stated that the teacher is the best writer in the classroom. To model this skill, we need to keep our own skills honed.
– Writing is thinking made evident. Concrete thoughts such as goals and opinions are much harder to ignore than thinking alone.
– With the Common Core State Standards, writing is expected to be taught across the curriculum. It’s about time.
– The medium for writing is not as important as the act itself. Some students are more motivated by pen to paper, while others prefer blogging. Ideas are ideas and should be shared regardless of the format. If technology can enhance this experience, I say go for it.
– Writing needs to be regarded with the same level of reverence as reading and math. As an example, many schools (including mine) annually spend thousands of dollars on books but expect students to bring a $1 notebook for writing.
– It is okay that different forms of writing demand different formats and mediums.
– Writing is meant to be shared.

What reflections do you have regarding writing in education? Please share in the comments as I am always looking for new ideas.