Reading Between the Lines

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Classrooms are filled with a variety of students with different abilities, background knowledge, languages, skill levels, and personalities. All of these factors effect and play an important role in students’ abilities to comprehend stories, information, or articles that they read. With our highly diverse student population, my school and teachers were finding that our students lacked the background knowledge and vocabulary skills to understand, what some may deem as, simple stories. Over the last few years we focused on reciprocal teaching as a way to increase students reading, but also to make students think while reading. We want them to make connections to the stories they read, be able to ask powerful questions, clarify unfamiliar words or phrases, predict character actions, and summarize in their own words what happened and what the most important parts of the story are.

Here’s a student made video briefly explaining how reciprocal teaching works.

Although the ultimate goal is to have students working on these skills independently, at the grade four level, I still find that much teacher intervention is needed to order to ensure the process works effectively. I have found that having props handy makes the role play that much more exciting for the students.

Today, my AP and I were discussing how to improve my students’ reading comprehension skills with our current reading resources available and the ability gaps between students. We brainstormed and came up with the idea of a variety of novel studies happening in my classroom at one time. I haven’t attempted this before but feel it would be a great scaffold for my students, a perfect merger for reciprocal teaching, and the promises of a good concept. But how this would look and how it would function efficiently, well I am still unclear on that. I have the idea of having books on iPads or a way for the students who need to listen to a story, to have that available for them, but I am feeling that I’m still missing key concepts for this to work.

As an educator I am always trying to improve the learning environment for my students, allowing them to be successful and develop the skills necessary. I’m reaching out to other educators now, who can share their experiences with me. Has anyone tried this personally, and if so, what did you find worked and did not work? What were your challenges? What advise can you give to another educator?

Help

Here are a couple resources on reciprocal teaching for those wanting more information:
Reading Rockets
Read, Write, Think
Reading and Learning Strategy
Why Reciprocal Reading?

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Everyone Needs a Hand

Did you know that “In any given year, one in five Canadians will experience a mental health problem or illness,” (Mental Health Commission of Canada, 2014). January 28, 2014 marks the fourth year of the Bell Let’s Talk campaign. It’s an opportunity to start a discussion around mental health issues, reduce the stigma associated with them, and offer support to those who need it. #BellLetsTalk was evident all over social media, especially Twitter. Here are some of the tweets people were sharing:

Being a teacher, we are immersed in classrooms that can be filled with children and adolescents with mental health issues. Some are more obvious than others, but each case is unique in itself. Do you feel that you have the knowledge and training to support these students? If not, what do you do to learn more?

Today, the Toronto School Board pledged to create mental health teams in each school in their district. As report by The Star here are some of the standards that they have pledged to uphold.

Requiring all schools to have a mental health team.
Training and professional development for all school staff on youth mental health.
Increasing the number of schools with programming that raises awareness about the stigma attached to mental health issues.
Increasing the number of partnerships with agencies/charities that provide mental health programming,
Better informing parents about their children’s emotional well-being.

This is such a great step in the right direction to create an awareness among society, but also provide educators with the help and knowledge that they need to be effective in the classroom with all students. I believe as teachers we do our utmost best to ensure inclusion in the classroom, but at times without the background knowledge it can be difficult. Thank you to those who go out of their way to learn more, and thank you to the Toronto School Board for taking this step, leading, and encouraging the rest of country to do so as well.

iPads, No Wifi, and 26 Students

Every year sometime during term 2, my school has student-led conferences. It is a way for students to showcase their work and explain their learning to their parents. As a way to introduce this concept to the parents, I asked my students if they would like to create a movie trailer, using iMovie, to entice their parents and to get them excited about this great learning opportunity. My students loved the idea, and after two periods (2 hours), created these fantastic projects. I was blown away by the creativity, level of confidence, and abilities that my nine year old students have.

As my students began to upload their videos to Showbie (the platform my district has adopted), I was inundated with questions, raised hands, and shouting out of my name. Turns out our iPads were not connecting to the wifi network, which made this project quite challenging. We also had some issues with Showbie not accessing the photo stream, and overall I felt like this lesson was a mass failure.

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Using technology can be frustrating at times. You have great days where everything goes as planned, and then you have the other days which make you reconsider even using it. I consider myself to be a tech savvy person, but other teachers are new to it and still learning. What would happen if they had planned a lesson like this and it did not go according to plan? Would they have the tools and skills to know what to do? Would they be discouraged from using technology again? What kind of system do we need in place to support teachers and technology? These are some questions that I myself am struggling to answer. I believe that we need a support system, but am unclear of what this would look like.

I feel that as educators we teach our students the skills of perseverance and determination. Students also learn these concepts through observations and role modeling. I think that if you can take a stressful and frustrating activity and show your students how to manage it calmly then that in itself is a great learning opportunity.

Give Children the Tool of Technology

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At my school we have an iPad cart, with a set of iPads that can move from class to class. This has proven to be a little challenging, and we had many hiccups along the way, but they finally seem to be up and running consistently. I brought them into my class yesterday, and as a fun activity wanted my students to create a movie trailer for their parents, for our student-led conferences next Thursday. Prior to starting the activity I questioned how many students had used iMovie before, to which I was shocked by the surprise of only 3! I went through some minor instructions, but thought it might be best for the students to play around with it themselves.

After the first 5-10 minutes of constant questioning, “How do I do this? How do I do that?” it was incredible to see their abilities with a tool they had never used before. It was so intuitive for them to discover how to use it and their level of engagement was significantly high. They were out of their desks, collaborating together, mentoring other students, and fully appreciating the task at hand.

I think sometimes as teachers we over think our lessons. Our perfectionism and desire for control over takes the voice and ability of our students. I think we’re scared sometimes to let go and let our students lead. This proved to me, that if they have the tools necessary, the technology to enable, their voices and skills are apparent. Being a teacher in the 21st century, we need to be able to give control to our students over their learning and allow them to shine.

My class thoroughly engaged in their iMovie project.

My class thoroughly engaged in their iMovie project.

Technology: How Did We Teach Before It Existed?

IBM

In my class, we are currently reading the short story, Koko’s Kitten. In case you are unfamiliar, it is about an incredibly talented, sign language-speaking gorilla and her unusual friendship with a kitten. My students absolutely loved this story and empathized in the sad moments with the gorilla, and rejoiced in the incredible friendship that developed. I learned through this story the true meaning of engagement in reading: When students enjoy and are curious about what they are reading about, their memory, knowledge, and endless questioning evolves.

As we finished the story one student asked me if Koko was still alive today. I knew she was, so responded accordingly, but that opened even more questions.
“Where does she live?”
“How old she is?”
“Does she still have a kitten?
The list goes on and on.

I turned on my smartboard, and opened my good friend Google to see if some of these questions could be answered. Solving the math equation, we learned she was 44 years old, and many other interesting things. I came across a site with numerous videos of Koko today. Videos of her eating, signing, playing, celebrating, and much, much more. We spent a good amount of time watching the videos and finding out more information about Koko than I ever knew prior. The questions were endless!

Later, reflecting on my day of teaching, I started thinking about this “unplanned” activity and how the internet had taken my students to places I did not even expect. From reading a simple story, to gaining a full understanding of the character and how she lives. What did we do before the internet, before computers, before technology?

I use technology everyday in my classroom without even thinking about it. Volunteering in different places in Africa really allowed me to realize how lucky we are as teachers. We have all these tools at the tips of our fingers that allow us to be the best teachers we can be. Sometimes I forget about how lucky we are, and how easy it makes our lives. Although some days it can be frustrating, inconsistent, and does everything you ask it not to do, we still need to be grateful for it. The ability to connect to others, solve problems, and ask questions opens areas for investigation and inquiry for our students. Would you be the same teacher without it?

Who Needs a Dictionary When You Have Google?

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“I don’t even understand why we have dictionaries. All you have to do is type a word into the internet and boom, you know what it means.”
“I know, right? It’s so much easier. Any time I don’t know a word, I just type it into my app and it tells me.”
“So true! I wonder why they even made them.”

This was a conversation that I overheard today as my students were eating their snack. I of course had to jump in on the conversation to find out more about how great google or apps are and how obsolete dictionaries are becoming. I asked the group of students a few questions more about how they search for words and how they look words up, and they responded, “You just type in the word and it tells you the answer right away.”
“How do you know it’s right?” I questioned.
“It’s the internet!” They responded, synchronized, as if planned and rehearsed.

It is interesting to think about the children that are growing up these days and the technologies that surround them. With a click of a button they can easily find answers to questions that would have taken us minutes or even hours to find. Is this a better way? Some would say yes, and I would agree. Why spend all that extra time when it seems our time is always limited? Why spend hours when you can find answers in seconds?

This had me thinking about how we use technology today, and if it is limiting our skills or improving them. In terms of the dictionary, without it do kids know how to organize things alphabetically? Are they able to use guide words to help them? These are skills that I would deem important, but are they? When do we use alphabetical organization today?

I often flip and flop in my mind between fundamental skills that technology inhibits, but the ease and access to things that were never possible prior. In order to gain a benefit in one area do we have to sacrifice something else? Or is there a way to balance?

As educators, I feel that we each have enough knowledge and pedagogical skills to make our own decisions. If a target is in your curriculum, obviously you need to cover it, but I suppose the extent into which you delve is your decision. I think we need to remember that some skills are important to us, because it is the way we learned and in the era we grew up in. But things are changing, and children are adapting. I believe it is our duty to adapt as well.

Extracurricular: How Much is Too Much?

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Checking my students’ agendas before they left for the day I came across a note in one that said, “Do homework first, watch t.v. after.” I asked the student if her dad had written the message as a reminder and she said no, that she had for herself. I questioned why and she replied that she needed the friendly reminder to help her out, as every night of the week, except one, she has an extracurricular activity that she participates in. Monday and Wednesday she goes to karate, Tuesdays and Fridays skating.

All of this had me thinking about one thing: What is the purpose of extracurricular activities? To socialize kids with others? To develop leadership skills? To give your son/daughter opportunities you didn’t have? To increase self esteem? To teach children about time management and prioritizing? I think the list could go on and on.

How much is too much? If a child has only one day a week to relax at home and enjoy life is that enough? Does it create a stressful life? I read an article online from Psychology Today, titled “Are We Pushing Kids Too Hard?” and here’s a valuable snippet from it:

Even in ordinary situations, stress is not always bad. Hans Selye, M.D., one of the pioneers in stress research, believed that moderate amounts of stress are actually good for us. He described two kinds of stress: eustress and distress. Eustress is the pleasant stress we feel when we confront the normal challenges of life. A child who enjoys soccer, for example, may thrive on the pressure associated with practice and games. Distress, on the other hand, occurs when we feel overwhelmed. The same child who thrives on soccer may become overwhelmed if he is also involved in four or five other activities.

Recently, it seems as though having a constantly busy and on the go life is the norm. If people aren’t busy, they feel something is wrong. I often find myself feeling this way on the weekends. When I have down time, I almost feel guilty that I’m not doing something. This seems to be the way society is heading, but is it healthy? Should we be raising our children this way? Don’t kids need time to be kids? Although I believe good intentions are always there, I think it’s important that there is a balance in children’s lives. Life is hectic and they need down time just like we do. They need that time to play, to build relationships with their family members, and to develop self awareness. They need time for themselves. They need time to be a child.