Thursday, July 2, 2015

My Life as a Gamer!







Today I am linking up with Reading Toward the Stars for Book Talk Thursday!  As an end of the year gift, I purchased My Life as a Gamer by Janet Tashjian for my son who just finished third grade.  As many other kids his age, he is extremely interested in video games, but he also loves to read.  When I ran across this book while browsing on Amazon, I knew it would be the perfect book for him!  

http://www.amazon.com/My-Life-Gamer/dp/0805098518/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1435845143&sr=1-1&keywords=my+life+as+a+gamer&pebp=1435845136238&perid=09A5KWKQCVXWFEBWMTQ4





Target Audience

Written for children ages 9-12 years old, the book has a Lexile of 850 and a Guided Reading level of approximately "T".  I would recommend the book for readers in grades 4-6.  



Synopsis

Twelve year old Derek is obsessed with playing video games and is thrilled when he gets the chance of a lifetime to be part of a focus group to try out a brand new video game! With his friends, he attends the focus group each Saturday and along the way he learns much more about himself not only as a gamer, but also as student and as a person.


Why I Liked It

On the surface, the book has an interesting plot, mainly because the characters are believable, as well as an easy to read format. The main characters play and discuss  video games, and some of the action takes place at school where Derek struggles with learning, especially reading. Plus, the reader will be able to relate to some of Derek's thoughts and conflicts at home as well as with his friends. As the story goes on, we learn that the B I G state tests are approaching which causes Derek's circle of friends to worry as much as their teacher does.  Derek's parents hire a tutor to help him prepare for the tests, but he finds the sessions boring and frustrating.  In an unexpected twist, Derek's learns his own best way to learn from playing video games and is able to apply that to his test prep and to school in general.

In addition to theme that everyone learns differently, there are smaller themes in the book such as keeping one's word, the disadvantage of bragging, and how one can overcome an obstacle with a little creativity and thinking "outside the box".  As a teacher, I especially liked the doodles in the margin of the book that Derek draws to help visualize the meanings of new words.  Except for the ending of the book where Derek gets a kiss from a girl in his circle of friends, kids are sure to enjoy reading the book!

There are four other books in this series that I plan to read next!


Have you read any of these books?  What did you think?



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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Learn Like a PIRATE: Peer Collaboration





Section 2 of Learn Like a PIRATE by Paul Solarz is the heart of the book and where the author discusses the six characteristics that promote student leadership in the classroom.  Peer collaboration is the first characteristic, which Solarz considers to be the cornerstone of a student-led classroom.







True collaboration causes us to think differently, access information that otherwise would have been missed or ignored, and combine ideas to come up with solutions to problems.   
(Solarz, p.38)



My Take-Aways for Peer Collaboration
  • Fostering a collaborative classroom community is important for creating a student-led classroom.  The author gives many examples in the book and reminds us that this is not something that happens overnight.  Creating a collaborative community, just like a student-led classroom, must be intentional and done in small, incremental steps.

  • One strategy for empowering students to lead in the classroom is the "Give Me five" strategy.  This allows students to interrupt the class so they can direct, lead, and teach their peers.  Solarz gives specific examples and suggestions for how to teach students to use their power wisely.  In the intermediate and middle school classrooms, I have always included peer teaching, but I have been the one to structure and encourage it. Even in the primary classroom, if I observe that groups are struggling as they are working on a task, I may interrupt the class and have one of the the groups share a question with the rest of the class IF I think the whole class could benefit.  In a student-led classroom, the group would have that "power" and would initiate a "Give Me Five".




  • Active vs. Passive leadership- Active leadership is when someone speaks, teaches, or directs others and expects that they will follow.  Passive leadership happens when someone leads by example or when someone chooses to follow those in active leadership.  In a student-led classroom, students are to be both active and passive leaders.  In both situations, it is all about respect.  Although this is a more complex concept, at the primary level this can be achieved during partner reading, a center activity, or even in a small group where students are working together either independently or with the teacher.  We have all had students with a natural ability to lead.  I can think of a few students who would take the initiative to distribute or collect books and materials for small group reading.  I have had other students who do not feel comfortable in an active role, but are great passive leaders, especially during a partner activity.


  • Partnerships- I especially like the idea of Responsibility Partners where two students can be paired together randomly or by student choice.  These students come together before, during, and after while working on an independent project such as writing.  The author provides great detail on how to use these pairs in your classroom.  Basically, the partners hold each other accountable for understanding the task, staying on-task, and completing the task correctly.  Worried about student conflicts?  There is a section on classroom management strategies.  Choose Kind is one such strategy the author recommends.  The phrase comes from the popular book Wonder by R.J. Palacio, which by the way, is an excellent book to use with your intermediate or middle school classroom when teaching about empathy and when building your classroom community.  In Choose Kind, students are reminded that they cannot always get their own way. To choose someone else's idea or method over your own is being kind and thinking about someone besides yourself.  Let the other person have their way!









This is good stuff, isn't it?  The rest of the chapter is filled with interesting ideas for classroom meetings, more about teaching empathy, and the right kind of competition.

How do you encourage peer collaboration in your classroom? Leave a comment so we can share ideas!



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Sunday, June 21, 2015

Learn Like a Pirate Book Study: Why A Student-Led Classroom is Critical







Happy Summer!  One of my favorite things about summer is that the pace slows, and I have time to dig deep into some professional reading.  As I wrote about last week, I am in the midst of reading Learn Like a PIRATE by Paul Solarz.  You can read my reflections of section one, Student-Led Classrooms, here.  Before moving on to section two, I thought I would share my thoughts and research about why a student-led classroom is so very important for learning in the 21st century.

Actually, if I go back to the 1990's when I was a middle school ELA teacher and reading specialist, student-led activities and active learning were a huge part of our curriculum and teaching expectations. In 1991, my first year at the middle school level, my school district implemented performance based assessment.  In addition, our high stakes tests were performance based and had parts that were collaborative in nature.  So, our daily instruction in the classroom included lots of active learning, peer collaboration, and student-led activities.  Although much has changed in education, some best practices such as portfolio assessment, differentiated instruction, student-led conferences, to name a few, have stood the test of time.


Although I have never had a classroom that was exclusively student-led as Mr. Solarz writes about in Learn Like a Pirate, I have used many methods, activities, and a classroom structure that were child-centered and included and emphasized a student-led classroom.  Whenever I have worked with a class toward a student-led environment, they have never ceased to amaze me!  

Why is a student-led classroom so critical to learning?


  • When students take on the role of the teacher, they personalize their learning and have invested ownership in their learning.  If you have ever used Reciprocal Teaching successfully, you have witnessed this first hand.  I first used Reciprocal Teaching when leading small groups in grades 6,7,and 8 with the Soar to Success reading intervention program.  In short, students take turns being the teacher in a small group setting using four active reading strategies. They take an active role in their reading comprehension and meet in a small group for discussion.  Once you have modeled and after using a gradual release, student groups are functioning independently with some teacher-led direction.  Even my most struggling readers embraced this chance to be the teacher and "shine" as the expert for their reading strategy.  You can read more about Reciprocal teaching here and here.

  • Students need to become risk-takers, make creative decisions, and learn to work well together.  In a teacher-centered classroom, learning and creativity is stifled.  When the teacher isn't center stage, a classroom conducive to active learning can blossom and thrive.  But why is active learning so important? Many of us spent our entire school careers in a passive learning environment and seemed to turn out ok, right?  This was indeed the case for me, even through most of my undergraduate work. It's a good thing I was a motivated student, but I wonder how much more I could have learned and how much more I would have enjoyed school!









Something I haven't mentioned yet about Learn Like a Pirate is Solarz's use of QR codes that are sprinkled throughout the book. I'll talk more about this next week when I reflect on Section 2, but the above graphic was included in a QR code.  See where active learning is?  Can you relate to this yourself as a learner?  I know that I can!  In fact, that is one reason why I am part of a collaborative blog (Adventures in Literacy Land) and why I have chosen to use my blog to reflect on my professional reading. These opportunities allow me to collaborate with other teachers from all over the world! Writing about what I read helps me to process information and to really dig deep into application.  And, it is in the application of what I am learning (the theory, if you will), that will really solidify my learning.  Our students are no different, no matter their ages!


  • The more students are engaged, the more they will be motivated and understand the material, concept, lesson.  We as teachers use active learning to engage our students and it is through active learning that we start to move more from a teacher-centered classroom to a student-centered classroom, and then eventually to a student-led classroom.





I think it is important to remember that Solarz states in the book that teachers of primary students can use portions of the strategies discussed in the book.  Obviously, a second grade classroom is probably not ready (for many reasons) to dive into an exclusively student-led classroom.  However, any time we involved students in their learning, we are setting students up for growth, risk-taking, and effective learning.

One of my goal's in this book study, is to think, reflect, and plan ways to implement more student-led strategies into a K-2 classroom.  I have used Think-Pair-Share, Literature Circles, Editing Buddies, Partner Reading, project learning, and centers where students were independently working, and other collaborative activities, as I am sure you have.  But how many times have I been too controlling, micro-managing my little learners?  How much as I talking versus the time students are talking and discussing?  Who is doing most of the work?  Who has most of the responsibility?  

One little nugget of wisdom that has stuck with me after all these years teaching is that the one doing most of the work is doing most of the learning.  I want that to be my students!






Join me next week as I share my reading from Section 2:  Learn Like a PIRATE:  Peer Collaboration.





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Friday, June 19, 2015

Summer Blog Party Kick Off Hop:Writing Over the Summer




Welcome to my blog and to the summer blog party!  A group of us from The Reading Crew are hosting a summer-long linky party where we will share ideas for literacy instruction. Today's kick-off hop features a FREEBIE for you at each stop along the way to use with your own children or to share with parents of your students to prevent the "summer slide". With a variety of literacy resources, it is our goal to help you prevent the "summer slide" in your children or students.  Then, look for the first linky party next Wednesday!

If you have not started from the beginning of the hop, click the button below to start from the beginning to ensure you receive all your freebies! 







What is the "Summer Slide"?
Although it sounds like a fun amusement attraction, the summer slide is actually something very serious!  This phenomenon was studied extensively by a group of researchers at Johns Hopkins where they examined students from Baltimore Public Schools.  In 2007, a study showed that low-income students' reading skills dipped during the summer months.  On the average, students learning loss falls by about a month during summer, but is worse for lower income students.  In addition, summer learning loss is cumulative and creates an achievement gap over time, according to a comprehensive analysis by the RAND corporation in 2011.

Many teachers can attest to a summer learning loss in their students when they begin the school year.  Many teachers spend a significant amount of time at the beginning of the school year reviewing and reteaching.  For some students that lose two or more months of academic learning, they struggle to regain what they have lost and fall further behind.

So, we know that the "summer slide" is real and very serious, but there are many fun and creative activities to do at home that can combat the academic learning loss. 

I have chosen to focus on writing for this blog hop for two reasons. One, my experience as an English Language Arts teacher and reading specialist has shown that many students do not write at all over the summer and find it very difficult to resume academic writing when school begins int he fall.  And two, for my own children, writing is something that they are not always motivated to do on their own.  All three of my boys are avid readers, but not avid writers!


To "sneak" in some writing over the summer for my eight and nine year old sons, I have created activities that are authentic and real-world writing tasks. Some of the ideas take only a few minutes while other ideas are more involved.  My goal is to keep them writing consistently over the summer.

 Here are a few that we will complete over the summer:




§Make lists- grocery list, wish list for a summer birthday, list of games to play at a summer picnic or party
§Post Cards- write and send to friends or relatives while on vacation
§Write letters to friends and relatives over the summer
§Keep a daily journal- record small and big moments
§Daily journal prompts- keep in a notebook or folder
§Make a lap book to remember your vacation
§Send a thank you card- very easy if you have a summer birthday!
§Keep a reading journal- record the title, author, a plot summary, drawings, a critique of the book
§Create your own recipe
§Create a menu for the day or week
§Make a scrapbook using photos you take.  Write a caption under each picture.





Capture Summer Memories

My FREEBIE for you is a little booklet for kids to create to document special trips, activities, vacations, as well as big and small moments over the summer break.  This little booklet is very flexible and can be used with children in first through 4th grades. By writing captions and a brief description for pictures taken over the summer, students will be using their writing muscles!






How to use:  

Simply print the pages to make the booklet.  A cover page is included (see picture above) that students can color. This coloring project is a work in progress for my rising third grader.  I used a three hole puncher and then we used pipe cleaners to bind the book together.  

The first page of the booklet is a "Bucket List" for the child to complete.



My middle son struggles with writing, but he was very excited to work on this.  It also gave me an opportunity to help him with adding details and being specific.

The next page is the flap page.  You will want several copies of these pages to use as a mini photo album.  This allows the child to capture their summer memories from their bucket list or their "small moments" that they want to remember.  A suggestion:  Copy the flap pages on card stock for extra durability.



In this example, my son wanted to use the pictures I took during our trip to the Gettysburg Battlefields last week.  I printed them using my printer on regular copy/printer paper.  Then, he glued the pictures on the outside of the flaps.

On the inside of the flaps, he started to write a memory from the picture.  He could have written a caption, what he learned, or why he had fun, just to name a few ideas.





I plan to print out a picture or two each week to add to his memory booklet.  By the end of the summer, he will have a visual and a written keepsake of his summer!

Plus, I also included two stationery sheets for you to add to the booklet for students to write a story, a letter, or a journal entry. 

 Click here to download your freebie!


https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B2U0oTImEeV2SG1ZSmFKR0ZONlU/view?usp=sharing




Enjoy making and capturing those summer memories!  Be sure to click the button below to visit Jennifer's blog which is the last stop in our blog hop.  Plus, make sure you enter the TpT gift certificate giveaway while you are there!














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Sunday, June 14, 2015

Learn Like A Pirate: What is Student-Led Learning?




Last summer I was immersed in Dave Burgess'  Teach Like a PIRATE.  What a refreshing and motivational read!  This is one book that sticks with you and the innovative ideas linger in your mind.  So, I was beyond thrilled when I saw that Learn Like a PIRATE had been published and knew that it would be at the top of my summer professional reading!  This book, written by teacher Paul Solarz, takes the pirate analogy and acronym to the next level: that of our students. More specifically, Solarz's focus of the book is student empowerment through the creation of a student-led classroom.  How can our students learn like a PIRATE?

I invite you to join me on my reading journey as I share my learning and reflect on my reading over the next month or so!





Although the student-led teaching technique is not new to me, implementing it in a primary classroom is.  During the 1990's I was teaching ELA in a middle school and later became department chair and then a reading specialist and literacy coach for the school. Throughout my tenure in this school district ( until 2005), cultivating a student-led classroom and using active learning strategies were encouraged and expected. 

Actually, what I did was incorporate activities and used teaching methods that allowed for some student control, but I have not fully handed over the reigns to the students.  I have done the same for students in grades 4-6 at the elementary level.  Some of the active learning techniques, strategies, activities I have used have been: literature circles and literacy circles where students have progressed beyond the task/role sheets and are fully independent from book selection to the end of reading performance assessment, book clubs, reader's and writer's workshops, independent study, Reciprocal Teaching, Jr. Great Books, and student-led conferences.  Book choice and writing topic choice are always a staple in my classroom. Having most recently been a  reading specialist with a focus on grades K-2, the constraints of time and an emphasis on intervention and remediation have limited my ability to offer student choice and voice in our classroom.  But that's ok!

So, after reading section one and reflecting, I guess the bottom line is that I have always been interested in a student-led classroom, and also that this old dog has a lot of new tricks to learn! Furthermore, I tend to use a lot of active learning activities with limited student ownership. The author specifies that teachers of third grade and above should have no problem with implementing his ideas. However, that does not mean that primary teachers cannot use a modified version of PIRATE learning.  That is, teachers can do what I have done and intentionally use activities and practices that give students choice and independence.  I have not finished the book yet, but my immediate thought is that the workshop approach, performance and portfolio assessments,the Four Blocks, and Daily 5, all include student-led components.  We shall see if my prediction is correct! 










                     Section 1 Highlights


  • Solarz defines a student-led classroom as "one in which students make decisions and choices throughout the day without consulting the teacher"(p. 9).
  • Teachers provide mini-lessons, provide feedback for students, and structure the lessons to meet curricular objectives.
  • Does this mean what students are running the "whole show" and that chaos erupts?  No, not at all!  To me, what this means is that the teacher is the guide, the facilitator and that students take ownership of their learning by taking control and  responsibility for their learning.  Learning is active, not passive.
  • Risk-taking is encouraged both for the teacher and the students.  Teachers model authentic ways to deal with roadblocks, detours, and failures.  All of which are real-world obstacles in life-long learning.
  • A spirit of collaboration prevails in the classroom among small groups and as a whole class.  This includes inquiry learning, performance assessment, and problem solving
  • "Students take on most of the responsibility in a student-led classroom.  Your job is to explain your expectations and provide students with opportunities to practice their skills" (p.16).
  • Subject areas are integrated, lessons are given only when needed, and nothing is taught in isolation. Time on task is maximized.  Teachers have the time and flexibility to observe, conference with individuals and groups, provide 1-1 teaching, and can handle an interruption (phone call or knock at the door) without disrupting the entire class.
  • As for the above, if you have successfully implemented the Daily 5 or used book clubs or Literature Circles, you can attest to this!  When small groups of students are working independently, you have time to provide meaningful feedback, observe groups and individual students, and provide reteaching to an individual or to a group.
  • Active learning is the most efficient and effective means of learning.  Solarz provides a detailed explanation of what active learning is and why it is vital for student learning.


Are you thinking, "Ok this sounds all well and good in theory, but what about teacher accountability and evaluation?".  At the end of section one, the author addresses this concern and explains how a student-led classroom relates to the Charlotte Danielson model for teacher evaluation.  It not only relates, but actually student-led learning is an expectation in this teacher evaluation structure.


There is so much more packed into section one.  No word is wasted.  I found every sentence to contain insight, information, and thought-provoking material!  
As I continue reading and sharing with you, I will continue to share my reflections. For me personally, my focus is to learn all I can about a student-led classroom and to evaluate and critique my teaching style, techniques, and practices from how I set up my classroom to the lesson plans I craft, to how I assess students.  
Throughout the next month or so, I will be sharing my learning and insights as I read through the book.  Whether or not you are reading or have read the book, I invite you to share your comments and ideas for fostering a student-led classroom!





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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Boy Who Grew Flowers: A Book Review





Recently, I discovered this gem of a picture book, The Boy Who Grew Flowers by Jen Wojtowicz.  A few months back, I attended a Barefoot Books party and was instantly attracted to this picture book.  After I read this synopsis, I just knew I had to purchase it!



 "This heartwarming story celebrates difference and friendship, as Rink meets a girl with her own secret, and they discover ways to help each other."
(From the Barefoot Books website)



What is the book about?

Rink Bowagon lives on Lonesome Mountain with his eccentric family.  The townspeople "down below" view the family as odd and "a hotbed of strange and exotic talents".  In fact, Uncle Dud tames rattlesnakes and rumor has it that Fat Lucy sleeps on the end of his bed.  Rink's talent is that during a full moon he sprouts flowers all over his body!  He is described as "shy and quiet and different from the other children".

Because he is different, he is ignored at school and isolated, sitting in the back of the class.  Even the teacher seems to ignore him.  He is a sad, misunderstood little boy.  However, all that changes when Angelina, the new girl, arrives in his class.  She is different than the other children, and Rink has an instant connection with her.

Angelina with her beautiful, compassionate heart, befriends Rink, and from there everything changes for Rink.  I won't spoil the rest of the story for you!  You'll have to check out this stunning picture book for yourself to see how it ends!



Themes and Messages

When I first read the book summary on the website, I was intrigued by Rink's character and immediately thought of my eight year old son who has Selective Mutism.  Like Rink, my son is "different", shy, often ignored, and definitely misunderstood.  Throughout the story, several themes emerge:

  • We all have individual gifts and talents
  • We all have shortcomings and challenges
  • Spreading rumors is hurtful
  • Friendship and helping others
  • We have more similarities than what appears 
  • Being different makes us special
  • With a little love and understanding, we can overcome obstacles
  • Courage to move outside of our comfort zone



Why use the book in the classroom?

Because a classroom is comprised of little ones with many kinds of differences and because sometimes these children are not understood, this book makes the perfect story to start the year off and to begin building classroom community.  Whether you have students with learning, emotional, psychological, or physical differences, part of building a classroom community is understanding that we all have special talents and special contributions to make.  And, that even the most shy student craves compassion and friendship.  Being a friend to a person who is different than us can richly bless not only that person, but us as well.  Although Rink was not bullied (he was ignored and deemed an outcast), we can learn about anti-bullying AND not undermining someone's worth just because they are different than us.

As well as the themes of friendship and individualism, the book has several teaching points:

  • Personification
  • Imagery/visualization
  • Compound words
  • Rich vocabulary
  • Comparing and Contrasting characters




This beautifully illustrated story is targeted for students ages 4-10 years old.  I think it would be perfect for kindergarten through 2nd grade as a read-aloud at the beginning of the year.  We should all aspire to be like sweet Angelina.  What a better world it would be if we did so!

Click here if you would like to visit my blogging friend Emily's Barefoot Books site to check out the book.  

 Enjoy!




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