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Querencia: A Space for Simplicity



querencia is a place the bull naturally wants to go to in the ring, a preferred locality... It is a place which develops in the course of the fight where the bull makes his home. It does not usually show at once, but develops in his brain as the fight goes on. In this place he feels that he has his back against the wall and in his querencia he is inestimably more dangerous and almost impossible to kill.

Writer and poet, Georgia Heard, introduced the concept of querencia to me. Ever since, I've thought of querencia as a metaphysical space where I am home... a space I sometimes hold for myself in my environment, or a space that I hold within me. To me, querencia means sanctuary. I think we all have these places.  My poet friend from Potatohill Poetry, Andrew Green calls them "sacred places." When he first described one of his sacred places to me, I knew exactly what he was talking about. And while he described Vermont, my mind was already drifting to the shores of Whitefish Point on Lake Superior. 


But, I think that querencia doesn't just mean a physical place.  Any spiritual practice can be a querencia. Sometimes, I sit on the couch with Gracie my chocolate lab/pointer mix, and I breathe. I think querencia can also be inside yourself.  Have you ever engaged in an activity where you are "out of your mind?" Like Ferdinand, the little bull from Spain, I lose myself when I sit in the garden and smell my flowers. I used to run long distances, and when I ran, my mind shut down. I never listened to music while running.  My foot fall, my breath, my heart...I didn't think. I just was.  I may have begun my run feeling like a monster, but by the end of it,  I felt peace.  It was my sanctuary. 


Recently, I started paying attention to my querencia again.  Over the last couple of years, life has been tumultuous. I've lost sight of my sanctuary because of the physical and emotional clutter that has crept in.   So I began a Simplicity Challenge. It began with closets. Then moved to a journaling practice. It expanded to cleaning out my refrigerator and paying off some bills. I let go of old love letters. I made a "Not-To-Do List" for the week, and listed ten things I was not going to let get in my way of feeling human.  I even left my teacher bag at school. GASP!


I began by picking a card every day.  I read the challenge of the day and completed it by the end of the day.  If the challenge seemed too hard, I put the card back and chose another one. Then, I charted it on my Simplicity Challenge Chart.  I journaled about some of the challenges, when they called for it. But I also began to ask myself, "What do you want?" 


Have you ever done that?  My answers surprised me.  Then I asked, "How will you get what you want?" and "How will you know you've gotten it?" And finally I asked, "What will you do if your plans fall short?"  It's okay, go ahead and chuckle.  I just used SMART goals 101. But, it's working!
What happened? I'm smiling more. I'm enjoying my students more. I'm eating better. I feel like I'm accomplishing more on my to-do list, because I'm paying attention to my querencia. I'm procrastinating less.  I'm more focused. New goals and ideas are forming because I have taken better care of my physical and emotional querencia. I smelling the metaphorical flowers.

So, I challenge you this January. Try a Simplicity Challenge. Track your progress. What have you got to lose? Ferdinand and I are waiting for you under the tree. We'll save some flowers for you.




Click the pictures below!


A 30 day challenge to get you started!


A little organization to start your new year off right, these calendars are renewable for the next two years! That means, you purchase them now, and you'll have a calendar for 2018-2019 and 2019-2020! They update for the next two years!


The Mini-Lesson: A Natural Scaffold for Struggling Learners


For many of our students, climbing the various learning ladders we construct for them in our classrooms on a daily basis is daunting. Some stand at the base of the ladder with sweaty palms and can't bring themselves to even to climb the first rung. Others are like me on a real ladder. They climb halfway up, look down to where they've come from, and are seized with a sudden terror of heights. 

Mini-lesson structure is a powerful tool to combat those fears. 

Now, I'm not talking about centers, guided groups, strategy groups, center schedules and rotations. Hear me out. I'm talking about the first pedagogical practice in any workshop: The mini-lesson.

A mini-lesson should not last longer than 15 minutes. If you're using a mentor text (reader's or writer's workshop), the reading aloud of that text is not part of the 15 minutes. Save that for another time. 

I choose a passage or section that serves the purpose of my teaching point. The teaching point. Notice how there's no "s" at the end of that sentence? Focus your lesson on one teaching point. 

Tell your students about the teaching point. They aren't in a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys mystery, so they shouldn't have to be learning detectives. Write an "I can" statement in kid language. Don't copy it right out of Common Core. Common Core language is meant for teachers, not students. If you use Common Core language, you've already crippled your students. Be transparent. 

Here's an example of a teaching point and "I can" statement that I shared with my students just this past week:

Teaching Point- Readers synthesize new information with information that they already know. This changes their thinking.

I can notice new learning and think about how it changes my thinking or connects to what I already know.


The connection is the hook. Educational and brain researchers say that we learn only when we can connect the new content to our experiences. That's why building schema is so important for our students. 

In the connection part of the mini-lesson, you hook your students with a story, a video, a song, a passage read aloud, a joke...anything that engages them and makes relevant what they are about to learn.

For example, in my synthesis lesson this week, I showed my students a clip of the Swedish Chef from the Muppets. We talked about how a chef has separate ingredients (separate pieces of learning), and that when they're combined, they make something entirely new and different. That's what happens to our minds when we learn new information and think about how it connects to our previous ideas. Hopefully though, we're more organized than the Swedish Chef! 🤣

This is the meat and potatoes of the mini-lesson. In this part, you directly model the strategy you want your students to learn. 

In my synthesis lesson, I read a passage from the informational book on Native Americans I'm sharing with them. I chose this book because the text is suited for my informational text unit, and because I wanted to support our current social studies unit. It was an intentional choice. That's important. Mentor texts should be intentional. 

After I read the passage, I did a think aloud. 

"I noticed that their marriage ceremonies were different from what we usually see today. I think, though, that they show that marriage was still important in their cultures because they held ceremonies. We hold ceremonies, too."

Then, I did it again. 

"I noticed that they have ceremonies for when children grow into their teenage years. I think that's like a Bat Mitzvah or Bar Mitzvah, a Quinceanera,  or a religious ceremony in churches, like Confirmation. I think our cultures have similarities."

I asked my students what I did with both of my responses. They identified the "I noticed... and I think..." response stems.

Active engagement is my favorite part of the mini-lesson, because it really supports students. Think of it like guided practice. Before your send your students off to practice the new skill you've taught them, they practice it right in front of you.

In my synthesis lesson, my kids brought their independent reading non-fiction texts to the carpet. They turned to a passage in their books that they had already read. They reread it. They thought to themselves, "I noticed...I think..." 

Then, they turned to their talk partner and shared their responses. I was able to eavesdrop. I could tell immediately who got it and who didn't. Because of this, I was able to reteach, and we could openly discuss our errors in understanding. 

Imagine what it would've been like if I had sent them off to practice on their own with out practicing with a partner and me beforehand?  I know what it would've been like...A HOT MESS.  I've experienced it before. 

Think of the link as independent practice time. Before I send my students off to try the new skill on their own, I ask them about their "Be Sure To's." A "Be Sure To" is when a child identifies the errors in their understanding or the place in the strategy where he or she can see themselves falling off the learning ladder, and they write a reminder to themselves in their notebooks or on a post-it. For example, "Be sure to remember that thinking 'this info is cool' is not the type of thinking that I'm trying out."

I ask my students to rate their level of understanding. If they give themselves a 1 or a 2, I send them on their way. If they give themselves a 3 (a "whatchu talkin' bout' Willis?) rating, they stay with me, and I help them a bit more. Then they go off to try on their own. 

In my synthesis lesson, students returned to their seats to practice "I noticed... I think..." using their non-fiction books and post-its. I began to pull reading groups. If I still had students who couldn't do the strategy, I checked for understanding and retaught in my guided reading and strategy groups. 

The share is often overlooked, because it happens long after the mini-lesson is done. Here's a "Be Sure To" for you: Be sure to remember the share at the end of your workshop block. It's powerful, and it holds learners accountable. 

At the end of my workshop block, I call students back to the carpet for two minutes. We discuss how the strategy went. We tune up our understanding. We discuss our thinking. It gives me an opportunity to remind students of the learning goal. 

In my synthesis lesson this week, I tacked on an additional piece for my students to try. It was a sneak peek into what is coming next. I changed our response stems to this: 

I noticed...
I think...
At first I thought... now I think...

One Last Tip

As with any new pedagogical approach, you've got to practice.  As a literacy coach, I worked with many teachers who wanted to focus on developing their mini-lesson scaffolding. The strategy that worked the best for them was to use a mini-lesson planning sheet for 10 days. They chose a subject, wrote out their lessons for 10 days using the planning sheet. It seems laborious. However, at the end of the 10 days, every teacher reported that their teaching improved, and that they were not having to do as much reteaching of concepts. Why? Mini-lesson structure increases the opportunities for authentic formative assessment. 

Think of it like this. Would you rather go to the doctor with an illness or see the undertaker at your autopsy? I don't know about you, but I loathe learning autopsies that could've been avoided had I known there was a learning illness.

To hear more about mini-lesson structure, consider joining Michelle Williams and me tonight in the Teaching Tips for Struggling Learners Facebook group at 8:00 p.m. EST. 

You can grab the mini-lesson planning sheet below. Just click on the picture. It's free!


PSSSSST! By subscribing to my blog, you're guaranteed a monthly freebie! You don't want to miss this month's freebie...you REALLY don't. Subscribe today for January's freebie in your email box this week. 


This month, I've teamed up with some fabulous educators. It's Teacher Talk time! Snuggle up with some hot cocoa and start reading. 






The Quiltmaker's Gift: Anticipation, Generosity, Reading Lesson Ideas & A Freebie!


Is it weird to admit that the season of advent was my favorite time of the year when I was growing up? Most of my childhood friends looked forward to Christmas or their birthdays, but I loved the anticipation of Christmas,  more than I loved Christmas.  One of my favorite things about advent was watching the lighting of the advent candles on the wreaths at school and church.  We also had an advent candle at our house. We would light the candle each night and burn it down to the number for the next day of December. It was different from what we did at church and school, but it built up the anticipation of the season in the same way.

Advent always makes me feel nostalgic.  In my classroom recently, we were reading The Quiltmaker's Gift by Jeff Brumbeau. I was telling my students about the time my sister and I unwrapped our big Christmas gift that my parents had hidden underneath their bed. VCRs were new technology, and we were finally getting one! We slyly re-wrapped the box and eagerly awaited Christmas day. When the day arrived, our parents were so excited for us to open the big gift. We were racked with guilt that we had ruined their surprise...their act of generosity. We faked our surprise. I don't think they ever knew what we had done. But we did. And we were sorry.


In The Quiltmaker's Gift, an unhappy king, who has all that he could possible need and want in the world, tries to force the Quiltmaker to give him one of her quilts. She refuses. She only gives her quilts to the poor and downhearted. She never gives them to the rich. She never sells them. When he tries to force her by putting her in threatening situations, her kindness and generosity turn the situations into positive encounters.

Eventually, the king agrees to give away all of his earthly possessions in return for one of her quilts.  He struggles to part with his treasures, even though they don't really make him happy. He perseveres, and in the long run he discovers that his acts of generosity and the impact they have on the world are what bring him joy. 

I read this book to my students every year. This year, we read it in order to tackle three learning goals. Keep reading to see how we unwrapped the gifts this book has to offer. 


Before reading, I introduced several vocabulary words from the book. My students predicted their meanings, and we discussed other words that they reminded us of and recorded our responses on chart paper.  This is a gorgeous book with gorgeous language, so there's "good stuff" for this kind of work. 

Then we read the book, noticing when we saw the words we had talked about. After reading, I showed my students the words in context. I had prepared some quotations from the book, with the words bolded. We used these quotes to learn about how we can use context clues to understand vocabulary words that we don't know. We revisited our predictions and compared and contrasted our before and after thinking about the vocabulary words. 


Our second learning target was to build on my student's knowledge of THEME. I also wanted to build controversy, because we are working on persuasive talk and writing. 

First, I introduced three basic types of conflict that exist in fiction: Character versus character, character versus the environment, and character versus society. I gave them basic definitions, and we used those definitions to discuss the type of conflict they saw in The Quiltmaker's Gift. My kiddos decided that it was character versus character. 
Then, I introduced the terms antagonist and protagonist. They decided the king was a protagonist and the quiltmaker was the antagonist.  When I've done this with other groups of students, they often think of protagonists being "good," and antagonists being "bad." This time I was careful to discuss with them that it isn't about good versus evil. 



So if I'm teaching about theme, why did I teach about conflict and story vocabulary? Because I teach students to pay attention to the conflict of the story and its resolution in order to begin thinking about theme. If a theme is a lesson about life that the story or author teaches us, then thinking about the conflict is the first big step in understanding theme. I introduced that definition of theme, and my students worked in discussion groups to unpack their thinking about theme. 

Together, they identified four major themes: Greed, generosity, kindness, and the common good. I challenged them and asked them to narrow it down to two themes that they thought were the strongest out of the four they found. They narrowed it down to generosity and kindness.  Finally, we were ready for the tug-of-war challenge. 

We made a tug-of-war line on the wall by our bulletin board. We placed one of our themes on each end of the line. Students wrote their names on post-its and placed their post-its on the theme side that they thought was the strongest in The Quiltmaker's Gift. Most of my students thought generosity was the stronger theme. 
They broke into discussion teams, Team Generosity and Team Kindness. Their goal was to discuss the text, find evidence for their stances on the theme, and prove their positions with an oral presentation in an effort to convince students from the other side to cross over to their side on the tug-of-war line.
One interesting thread of discussion was how generosity and kindness are related to each other. However, my students thought that kindness was a more general "big picture" kind of word, while generosity is a specific type of kindness.



After the teams had met and prepared for battle, they presented their arguments to each other. Afterward, students were allowed to move their post-its if their thinking had changed as a result of the tug-of-war. Two students did move from the generosity side to the kindness side!

I modified this approach from visible thinking routines (Harvard's Project Zero) research. It was a HUGE success. Everyone was actively engaged!
Our final lesson was about making a personal connection to the story. Material things don't bring us lasting happiness. How do we apply the generosity theme to our lives? We decided that having a spirit of generosity does not mean that we have to spend money. Giving is often equated with money, but giving from our hearts has a more lasting impact.

We created a Generosity Challenge for ourselves, our grade level, and anyone else in our school who wants to join us. We colored quilt squares for each school day in December. Underneath each quilt square, we place a coordinating generosity challenge for the day. We reveal the challenge square every morning. Then, we have the day to complete that challenge. Our challenges include things like, "Apologize to someone whose feelings you have hurt" and "Write a note to someone you care about and tell them why they are important to you." 

Everyday that we complete a challenge, we color in a quilt square on our Generosity Challenge Data page. This page is our personal record of our acts of generosity. Yesterday, as we discussed the new challenge, one of my boys reported that it feels so good to plan something nice for someone else. His classmates nodded in agreement. I'll admit it, I had to blink hard and swallow the lump in my throat. Mission accomplished.

If you're interested in the ideas here, you might want to check out the product below. It has everything you need for this book study and includes all the lessons I shared here. It's about 4 days of reader's workshop goodness. AND... This book is not specific to Christmas. It can be used year round, as can the resource I've created for you. 

There are a few other resources to get you through December. They are tons of fun, but RIGOROUS! My favorite combination. Psssst! THERE'S A FREEBIE HERE, TOO!






DID YOU KNOW? If you subscribe to this blog, you'll receive a featured freebie every month? They are exclusive for my followers!

This month you can check out the other Teacher Talk Authors for some great ideas to sustain you this month. Happy Holidays!






Stamina in the Math Classroom & The Twelve Days of Christmas


On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, twelve drummers drumming, eleven pipers piping, ten lords a-leaping, nine ladies dancing, eight maids a-milking, seven swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying, five golden rings, four calling birds, three french hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree!
Have you ever stopped to think about how much that poor lady received by the twelfth day Christmas? Year after year, my fourth and fifth graders have decided that the guy wasn't her "true love" based on the amount of fowl he bequeathed on the poor woman. 
I would've called the cops!
                                                     Fifth grader

Math investigations like this are huge amounts of fun, especially when we're winding down toward winter break. The kids are a little crazy. You're very tired, and everything around you is a bit manic. 

But, we still have to teach, don't we? Yes. We do. 

Marilyn Burns, math guru extraordinaire, has a wish list for math investigations in the classroom. Like Santa doing his list checking, I tried to check off Marilyn's when I designed my 12 Days of Christmas problem solving venture. 

Day One:Setting the Stage

We began by viewing some funny online versions of the song. They can be found on youtube. We watched a modern-day video performed by two men who acted out every animal in the song. 

Then, we viewed a wordless version, set in Victorian times,  that humorously pointed out just how ludicrous the gifts are in the song. We talked about the history of it (it's really old), and then we sang the it. We even wrote our own modern versions.

My students come from different backgrounds. Not all celebrate Christmas. That's okay. We talked about how it's a counting song for the Christmas season. It was a history lesson, not a religious holiday lesson.

Finally, we asked our math question: How much did she receive by the twelfth day? 

Math is Creative

Math is creative. There are many ways to investigate the same problem.
                                             - Ms. Willis
On day two, my students worked independently to devise a strategy for answering our question from the day before.  We used the Claim-Support-Question visible thinking routine to support us at this point. Some drew pictures. Others used tally marks. A couple of kids noticed a numerical pattern. Two or three students tried making a data table. I kept a close eye on my special education students and allowed them to work together on this part if it was necessary.  

I would not confirm their answers yet, because I wanted students to focus more on the process they were developing.  At the end of the session, they met in groups of four to share their strategies and the thinking behind them.  They were not allowed to share any answers. 

Your Brain Isn't Fried

Once tried doesn't mean your brain is fried!
                                                                                                 -Ms. Willis
By day three, most of my students had solutions.  Many, if not most, were incorrect. They wanted me to give them the answer. I refused.  Why? Because problem-solving stamina is important.  Our kids need to develop this.  We don't give up at the first sign of challenge. No. We. Don't.  They went back to their strategies. 

I asked questions to help them with their thinking. That is how I supported them. Students who had a correct solution were given the challenge of finding another way to prove their answers. Just like scientists who repeat experiments over and over again to justify their research, mathematicians search for other proofs, too.  This was an "a-ha!" moment for many students. 

The special education students I worked with also developed strategies.  Depending on the strategy they used, the amount of math it required, and their IEP goals and accommodations, I allowed some to use a calculator.  


Group Sharing & Celebrations


Finally on day four, students met in small groups to share solutions and strategies.  We identified the correct answer. We also created a mentor chart of the all the strategies tried. We named them after their authors. For example, "The Charlotte Strategy." We took a step back from the problem to discuss the type of thinking we engaged in. We use Ron Ritchart's Cultures of Thinking and Making Thinking Visible approaches at our school. Many students thought we were "uncovering complexities." Others thought we were "reasoning with evidence." The coolest part was discovering that we had traveled around the entire Understanding Map with this one math investigation!

Students ended day four with taking the song lyrics and math question home to their parents to challenge them to solve it. Their parents had homework to solve, and my students got to coach them on math strategies. 

I think Marilyn Burns would be proud of us. I know I am. 
The resources I used for this math investigation are below. You can try the Claim-Support-Question routine for free!




Psssst! Hey, yeah you! What does the Fox say? He says, "Be sure to follow Wild Child's Mossy Oak Musings. If you do, you get a monthly freebie in your mailbox EVERY MONTH!"

4 Ways to Balance Reading & Writing Instruction




Nicki pinned me to the sky, like Mrs. Brown pinning our constuction paper snowmen to the classroom bulletin board. I gripped the handles tightly while my legs dangled uselessly from the teeter totter seat. 

"Put me down!" I ordered. 
"Make me!" she sneered. 
I began to bounce on the seat and swung my legs wildly.  But, it was no use, I was at her mercy. I hung there and plotted my revenge. When I got the chance, I left her dangling in the air and let her down with a huge bump on the ground. 

Teaching language arts is a lot like the playground teeter totter torment that filled our recess time in grade school. There should be a balance between our reading and writing instruction. But with recent laws that focus on reading performance and student retention being enacted around the United States, the curriculum focus has shifted to reading instruction. Regardless of what research on language arts learning tells us, retention laws and the curriculum mandates that follow are not in the best interest of our students. 

What we know is that reading and writing skills develop hand-in-hand, and that as soon as we teach them in isolation or ignore one to give more time to the other, we cripple our students thinking skills and language development. In fact, it's imperative that we feel the same urgency with writing instruction as we do with reading. "How?" you ask. Your teaching practices need to be equitable. No subject should be left hanging in the air on the language arts teeter totter. You need to strike a balance. The teaching practices you implement in your reading block should be implemented in your writing block.


Guided Reading/Guided Writing

In reader's workshop, we teach guided reading and strategy groups. If you have equitable language arts instruction, then you also teach writing in small groups.  In order to do this, you have to know your writers. Here's how I do it:
  • I give a writing pre-assessment for the unit we're on. We use Writing Pathways by Lucy Calkins, but you can do this with any writing rubric or scoring initiative your district mandates.
  • I create a "nugget sheet." This is a simple spreadsheet on which I list my students in alphabetical order and the writing goals of our current unit at the top. I enter their scores for each writing goal (elaboration, conventions, development, structure, etc.).
  • I highlight areas of concern on the spreadsheet.
  • I group students by those areas of concern. 
  • I either meet with them one on one, or I call them together for a guided writing/writing strategy group lesson. This takes place after the mini-lesson of the day, and it usually lasts about 10 minutes. 
Guided writing helps me differentiate for my students and gives me another chance to watch them while they practice.


Suck It Up, Buttercup

Write With Your Students

For many teachers, one of the scariest parts of teaching writing is that you must write with your students. Every day in reader's workshop, you probably read aloud to your kids. While you read aloud, you stop and think aloud. You make comments. You ask questions. You model what readers do when they read.

Do you model what writers do when they write? Young writers need to see their teachers writing aloud.  They need to hear the thinking their teachers are doing while they make writing decisions, while they make writing mistakes, and while they make writing revisions. In order to do this, you gotta suck it up buttercup and do what you are asking your students to do. NO EXCUSES. This practice is too powerful to ignore.


Copycat Your Favorites 

& Bridge Both Workshops

This requires some thinking and planning on the part of the teacher, but WOW! Does it work! When we teach reading, we teach students about figurative language, idioms, proverbs, puns, and descriptive language. In fact if you ask, many teachers will tell you that these are some of their favorite lessons to teach. They are fun, aren't they? 

But are you teaching students how to write these? One of our huge fifth grade writing goals is for students to develop writer's craft. During reader's workshop while I'm reading aloud, I'll stop and identify sentences where the author has used figurative or descriptive language. We'll talk about why the author chose the words she did. We'll write the lines down on chart paper and talk about how they help us visualize and understand what we are reading. 

Then later, in our writing block, we'll go back to those lines on the chart paper. We'll pick a lackluster line or passage from our own writing, and we'll try to copy what the author did. We don't use her words, but we use her strategy or technique. 

If you do this enough, use your mentor text as a bridge between your reading and writing instruction, you'll begin to see your students thinking as writers. Which, by the way, develops analytical thinking, one of the deepest forms of comprehension. 

Make the connection between reading and writing visible.


Stamina: It's Not Just About Reading

As teachers, we put so much energy into building our students' reading stamina. We want our kids to read at home. We provide independent reading opportunities in our classrooms. We graph our minutes read in data notebooks. We send home reading logs. But what are we doing to build our students' writing stamina?

One of the ways I help my students "train" to increase their writing stamina is by assigning 20-30 minutes of free writing a night. It's funny, but as soon as I say the words "free write," there are gasps of delight. My students know that they will be able to share their writing at the end of the week. This, alone, is a HUGE motivation for them.

At the beginning of the year, I set the routine of using stamina journals. One week, I ask my students to read every night. The next week, I ask my students to write every night. They reflect on their writing stamina every morning, from the night before, using a stamina reflection chart. They graph their writing minutes in their data notebooks. They discuss the quality of their writing sessions. We talk about what writer's do when they lack focus. We brainstorm ways to help ourselves write stronger and longer. This type of problem solving is something we do in reader's workshop. But guess what? It works in writer's workshop, too.


I hope this blog post has given you some take-aways to enrich your language arts instruction. Some of the resources I use in my writer's workshop are below. They're a great place to start if you're wanting to empower your student writers. Some are free!



                                     

         






This week I've linked up with some FABULOUS educators for our monthly Teacher Talk focus. Check them out below!