Saturday, November 17, 2012

On a Personal Note

I call this blog My Primary Passion because I am passionate about being a primary grade teacher. I actually have several passions and my family is truly my primary passion. Tonight our adoption group celebrated the 12th reunion of our trip to China to adopt our children. I thought I would share a few photos of my other primary passion.

That was then.... in China. My daughter is on the far right.

This is now... My daughter is in orange.

The parent photo.

Causing Me to Think

I read many tweets and articles online this afternoon and some of them are causing me to think deeply about what happens in my classroom every day. I am not ready to write a full post with my thoughts yet but I wanted to share a few of the items that are causing my thoughts to swirl.

And then there is this article called, What Schools Need: Vigor Not Rigor.

I need to learn to blend the world that I have to be in with the world that I want to be in and that is hard work.

Sunday, November 4, 2012


I do understand that a true balance between my personal life and my professional life is not really possible. There will always be shifts back and forth between where I spend most of my time and energy. Right now though, I can't seem to shift away from spending the vast majority of my time on my work. I know that I need to shift a bit the other way but I don't know how. I know that it is important for my health and that having time away from work will make me a better, more relaxed teacher. I know all of this but I still can't seem to make it happen - there is just too much to do. I am honestly seeking your suggestions and advice on how to improve my balance. What has worked for you?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Mathematical Thinking

The post below was cross-posted on my classroom blog. It was written for parents but I thought it might provide a good follow-up to my previous post here about math.

Mathematical Thinking
We are learning to share our ways of looking at mathematical situations and ways of solving mathematical problems with each other. We are noticing that most of the time there is more than one way to solve a problem or look at a situation. When we listen to each other explain how we figured something out we learn new ways to think about things. This helps us to be mathematically flexible which helps us not "get stuck" when working on math problems. Below are some photos of one way that we look at a mathematical situation - seeing dots on dot cards - in different ways.

We do a short (5 minute) daily activity that involves looking at dot cards. I flash a dot card picture (as seen below) to the crew for a few seconds. After I cover the picture, I ask the crew what they saw. They then tell me how many dots they saw and how they saw it. We have several students share how they saw the dots. Here are a few examples:

One student saw this as the same configuration of dots on a domino. She knew that this was 8 because this is how 8 appears on a domino.

Another student saw this as a row of 3, a row of 2 and another row of 3. He said that 3 + 3 + 2 = 8.

Another student saw the 6 dots on the sides like they are arranged on a 6 domino. She then added the two dots in the middle to get 8.

The next student saw the 3 + 2 + 3 =8 pattern but she saw it in columns instead of rows.

Another student remembered that we had previously seen a 9 dot arrangement on a previous day and noticed that this was the 9 dot pattern with one dot missing in the middle so it had to be 8.

Why do we do this? I explained to the crew that it is similar to reading - we can "sound out" every word we read but that would not be efficient. We need to have a bank of words that we just know so reading can move along quickly. This is true in math, too. We need to have strategies to deal with numbers so we don't have to count every dot to know how many dots there are in a pattern. We become more efficient using numbers.

This activity also helps us be able to break numbers apart into chunks that are easier to work with in our head. This makes us more flexible when adding and subtracting numbers. We will eventually begin to move on from dot cards and to visualizing numbers and basic addition and subtraction facts. Having the dot patterns in our minds can help us make that transition.

One other reason to do this short, daily activity is that it stimulates our creativity. We begin to look at things in more than one way. This helps us be open to finding more than one solution to our problems.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Reaching Understandings

Students who struggle in math often lack number sense.

As students build their number sense, mathematics takes on greater meaning. Mathematics becomes more about reaching understandings than following rigid sets of rules. With strong number sense, children become more apt to attempt problems and make sense of mathematics. It is the key to understanding all math.
                                                                      -Jessica Shumway in Number Sense Routines (p.8)

These words tell exactly how I feel about math and math teaching and learning. The phrase "reaching understandings" is just where our focus should be in math. All too often we go straight to "following rigid sets of rules" and this is where we lose students. The "rules" are complicated and meaningless to most students. We need to be helping students explore their own ways of solving problems rather than memorizing sets of rules.

I compare this to reading instruction. What do we really think matters the most in reading instruction? I think most of us would agree that comprehension or making meaning of the text is our ultimate goal. We have learned that focusing only on the rules (phonics, etc) in reading can and usually does lead to readers who tend to be word callers - those who read words correctly but don't understand what they are reading. We know that we need to focus on the meaning of the story being read along with using some decoding strategies. Often the most successful decoding strategies are based on using meaning - thinking about what the story is about, using background knowledge, using context clues, using picture clues, etc. We need to do a blend of meaning and rule following in order to become readers, but we always need the emphasis to be on meaning.

Having number sense and "reaching understanding" in math is similar to comprehension in reading. We may need a blend of rule following and understanding to become mathematicians, but the emphasis should always be on understanding. Always. While not a popular argument, students will be able to use calculators and computers to do those tasks that fall under the "rule following" category, but they will still need to be able to decide what makes sense in a given situation or if the "answer" that they get from their calculator or computer is reasonable. When students have number sense and deep mathematical understandings they will not only be able to decide if an answer is reasonable but they most likely won't need a tool to help them with the computation very often.

I am passionate about this and have been working to make shifts in my math teaching to ensure that students have time to develop deeper mathematical understandings. Thankfully, there are many books out there to help (written by other passionate math teachers). The picture below shows some of the books I have read that have influenced my thinking. I would highly recommend them all. Who or what is influencing your mathematical thinking right now?

Number Talks by Sherry Parrish
Math Exchanges by Kassia Omohundro Wedekind
Number Sense Routines by Jessica Shumway
Teaching Student-Centered Mathematics by John A. Van de Walle

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Making Connections

I firmly believe this statement that is posted on the wall in my school. It is true that you must develop a deep and positive relationship with each student that you hope to teach. Sometimes, though, those connections can be difficult to make. This year I have two students who I had trouble making a connection with but blogging and Elephant and Piggie came to my rescue. Both students tended to be watchers and not joiners. They both held themselves back or talked about how they didn't like anything that was going on in the classroom. It was obvious that they were scared of what might happen if they let themselves join in an activity. Thankfully two things happened in our room that each of them found simply irresistible. 

One thing that happened was that each student was able to start their own KidBlog. This was the key for one of these students. He loved having a blog and wanted to post all the time. He even posted from home. He loves getting comments and faithfully answers them. One day he even asked if he could stay in for recess and work on his blog. He and I began to have conversations in the comments of his blog and these conversations continued in person each day. Another day, he knew that I had asked him a question in a comment on his blog. He realized that it was not his day to have a turn on the computers in our room so he wrote a book with his answer to my question during our Writing Workshop. I always speak highly of the connections we make through our blogs but in this instance it was not a long distance connection. It was the "way in" for me to be able to reach this student who was right there in the room with me.

The other thing that happened was that we began an informal study of the Elephant and Piggie series by Mo Willems. These books are always very popular with my first graders. This time these two characters gave me a "way in" with a different student. This student was even more reluctant to join in activities than the previously mentioned student. The draw of Elephant and Piggie books was too much for him, though. He fell in love with the books and one day came to whisper in my ear. He quietly asked if he could take one of the Elephant and Piggie books home to share with his parents. The transformation in this student was more subtle than the change in the other student but it was still significant. He began to want to write books during Writer's Workshop and eventually asked if he could put his books in our classroom library for others to read.

Both blogging and Elephant and Piggie books are something that I have always loved and shared with others but after these experiences, I am thankful to them for giving me a "way in" to be able to connect with these students. Now I must go and order the latest Elephant and Piggie book so that I can have it in my classroom when we return from Fall Break.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

How's It Going?

We are six weeks into the school year and I thought it might be time to take a look at the goals I set this summer to see how things are going.

Goal 1: Create a Dialogic Classroom.

I am still in the beginning stages with this goal. I do have a routine set up now that allows students to quickly turn and talk to a partner. We have had a few whole group discussions on bigger topics but I am still leading these. I have some more work to do before we can have whole group conversations that don't have to go through me. We are inching towards this though so I am optimistic that we will be there soon.

Goal 2: Increase student reflection and build a sense of agency.

I am much farther along with this goal. Last year I used questions like "How do you know?" and "How did you figure that out?" often during math. This year I am throwing out these questions all day long. The students are now comfortable answering them (for the most part) and know that my asking this question does not indicate a correct or incorrect response. They know that I will ask it at any time. They are beginning to get better at answering these types of questions. At first they wanted to say things like, "I just know." or "My brain just knows." Now they are beginning to think about what actually happened in their "brain" and trying to explain it.  We still have more work to do here but I am happy with how far we have come so far.

Goal 3: Allow more time for exploration/experimentation/play.

Of course, we could always use more time for these things but this year I have allotted at least some time to them. I have set up a Wonder and Explore center with things like seeds, pine cones, leaves, rocks, shells, coins from around the world, magnets and more. The students are enjoying exploring these things and using magnifying lenses to look at the items.

I have also added a Build and Create center and rotate various building toys and items through this center. We have blocks, gears, buttons, marble towers, art supplies and more. The crew is loving this, of course.

Other Smaller Goals

I had a short, more specific list of goals that were embedded in these larger goals. They were:

  • add Explore and Wonder Center
  • add Build and Create Center
  • don't add more tech tools - use the ones I am currently using in better ways
  • okay, learn to use Skitch, Evernote and Shelfari - think of how these can connect to other goals
  • expand use of ShowMe to include deeper thinking
  • connect more with other classes
  • learn to have conversations
  • have students reflect more
I have done the first two goals and I am working on the others. I do have Shelfari set up on the sidebar of my classroom blog and have added books as we have read them this year. I still need to train the kids to add the books but that will come. I have learned how to use Skitch and have notebooks set up in Evernote but I haven't used them yet. We will begin using ShowMe tomorrow.

The last little goal that I wanted to meet this year was to have students do a thinking activity that I read about in Opening Minds this summer. It is the game where you come up with other uses for random items. You can read more about this here.

So while I have lots more work to do, lots of progress has been made. The best part is that these are goals that I am very excited about so working on them is very engaging to me.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

My Goals for 2012 - 2013

For the last week of our #cyberpd, Carol Wilcox will be hosting a wrap up of the event over at Carol's Corner. Some will share their take-aways, others will share their goals, some will share their language "cheat sheets," and some will share how their thinking has changed over the course of the event. Since tomorrow is my first day back to school for professional development (students come next week), I thought that I should clarify my thinking about my goals for this school year. As I look at my notes, I see that many, if not all, of my goals can be connected to Opening Minds and what I have learned through participating in this event. Many of them are things that I have already been working on but want to improve.

Goals for 2012 - 2013
  1. Create a Dialogic Classroom.
    According to Peter Johnston, "a dialogic classroom is one in which there are lots of open questions and extended exchanges among students." (p. 52) I want these conversations to carry across all content areas and times of the day. I want to teach students to listen to each other, respond to each other and not need the conversation to go "through" me. I want to teach them how to have a conversation in groups that is responsive to the speaker and that alleviates the need to raise their hand to gain the attention of others.

    Why? "Thinking well together leads to thinking well alone." (p. 96)

    How? By having a list of language to use with students that will help facilitate these types of conversations available to me at all times. Possibly try to have one of these conversations with other classes in the building or outside the building using Skype.
  2. Increase student reflection and build a sense of agency.
    My hope is to take more time to ask students questions like: "How did you do that? How did you know that?" (p. 31) to begin to help students reflect more on their own thinking processes and to help them build a sense of agency.

    "This narrative makes what might have been a series of unplanned and unconscious steps into a packaged strategy linked to a goal - a strategic action that can later be invoked for planning and refining." (p. 32)

    By expanding the use of ShowMe to provide another avenue for students to share their thinking and by increasingly using student blogs as a way to share deeper ideas and thinking. Possibly add using Skitch to label a photograph with ideas and thinking.
  3. Allow more time for exploration/experimentation/play.
    I plan to add two new areas to my classroom this year: a Build and Create center and an Explore and Wonder center. The purpose for these new areas is to provide students with time and space to follow their interests and passions.

    This will give them more things to think about and share with others and will sharpen their thinking in less academic areas. I always begin the year having students share what they are passionate about and these passions can fit into these new areas. An added benefit is that students will find these areas fun and engaging.

    I have begun collecting items to place in these areas: rocks, shells, coins, blocks, gears, magnets, etc. I will also ask the students to share their collections and ideas for these areas.
These three goals reflect my most current thinking. I have kept a sticky note by my computer all summer and as thoughts ran through my head I would jot them onto the note:

  • add Explore and Wonder Center
  • add Build and Create Center
  • don't add more tech tools - use the ones I am currently using in better ways
  • okay, learn to use Skitch, Evernote and Shelfari - think of how these can connect to other goals
  • expand use of ShowMe to include deeper thinking
  • connect more with other classes
  • learn to have conversations
  • have students reflect more
So this post has allowed me to take my sketchy goal ideas and flesh them out and really consider how to achieve them during this school year.

I do have one thing that I would like to share with you before I end. While reading Opening Minds, I have been reminded of the book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink several times. I read this book a while ago so I had to go and find the RSA Animate of the book and watch it at least three times during this last month of #cyberpd. I have embedded it below to share with you. There are so many great connections here.

Thanks Carol for hosting this final session. I am so glad to have the time and opportunity to think about these things.

Reviewing the Whole Conversation
If you are just now joining this conversation about Opening Minds, here are some links you might be interested in checking out:
July 11: Chapters 1-3 Hosted by Cathy Mere at Reflect and Refine: Building a Learning Community
July 18: Chapters 4-6 Hosted by me here at My Primary Passion

July 25: Chapters 7-9 Hosted by Laura Komos at Our Camp Read-A-Lot
July 26: Twitter Chat using #cyberPD
You can view all the parts of the conversation in one place at the Opening Minds Jog the Web created by Cathy Mere.  This includes the Wallwisher, all of the participating blog posts and the Twitter Chat archive.

Also, Cathy Mere had a guest post on the Engage blog of the International Reading Association called Professional Learning Conversations: #cyberpd. In this post she gives a detailed description of the entire event, how it started and how it has grown over time.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Learning to Talk, Talking to Learn: Opening Minds Chapters 7-9

This is week three of our conversation about Opening Minds by Peter Johnston. Laura Komos will be hosting our conversation this week at Our Camp Read-A-Lot, so head over there to follow along with the rest of the conversation. Cathy Mere will continue to add all blog posts to the Opening Minds Jog the Web so if you missed a part, you can catch up there. Tomorrow (July 26th) at 7 pm CST we will be having a chat on Twitter using #cyberpd. Please join us for that. Peter Johnston has indicated that he will be there, too. Also, Carol Wilcox of Carol's Corner, had a great idea to add a fourth week to our discussion and ask everyone to share your top ten takeaways, or three things you plan to implement in your classroom, or a cheat sheet of language you may have created. So that will happen on August 1st on Carol's blog. Finally, Peter Johnston has a new blog post up about Opening Minds on the Stenhouse blog as part of the Stenhouse Blogstitute. You will definitely want to read his thoughts as we continue this conversation.

Learning to Talk, Talking to Learn

The beginning of Opening Minds was all about teachers learning to talk in ways that promote learning and the development of a sense of agency and a dynamic learning frame of mind. The last few chapters of Opening Minds were all about helping students learn to use talk or conversation as a way to learn. Thinking about that I can see how powerful it could be if both of these pieces were in place in a classroom. Teachers using language that promotes thinking and students picking up that language and using it to help themselves learn. What important goals to have. These will be my goals as the school year begins soon.

Powerful Quotes to Remember While Working Towards These Goals

"...the experience of thinking together productively in a mixed-ability group actually increased the individual children's measured intelligence." p. 96

" order to have dialogue, people have to listen to one another. I mention this because really listening to a partner is less common than it might seem..." p. 100

"When each person in the classroom community is viewed as able to contribute to the development of knowledge, there is not the typical classroom hierarchy of those who have knowledge, usually the teachers, followed by the "top" students, down to those who don't have knowledge." p. 102

"Listening is the foundation of a conversation and it requires that we are open to the possibility of changing our thinking." p. 102

"Showing the children how they have built on or otherwise contributed to the group's thinking is important." p. 103

"Disagreement in the process of reaching agreement can ensure a better decision or outcome." p. 104

These quotes are important enough to me that I will add them to the notebook that I mentioned in my last post. They aren't actually language that I would use with my students but ways to frame my own thinking as I am teaching. I feel very strongly that I must increase conversations by students and limit my "talk" as much as possible. With first graders, this will be a gradual process and totally worth the time it will take.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Opening Minds ~ Chapters 4-6

The conversation about Opening Minds by Peter Johnston continues today. I must say that I have really enjoyed the conversation so far. It is fascinating to read all of the posts and comments to see what parts of the book have made an impression on others. Thank you to all who are sharing their thinking in this conversation. Reading all of these posts causes me to change my own thinking again and again. Thanks also to Cathy Mere for hosting the conversation last week and to Laura Komos for hosting the conversation next week.

This week's chapters were filled with many deep and thoughtful ideas about how to use language to change the classroom environment. I have chosen to think about how I can use four of these ideas to change my teaching and the way I speak to my students.

I teach at Renaissance Elementary Magnet School (a public school). We are an Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound school. Rather than trying to explain what that means, here is a list of words that we use often at our school: inquiry, discovery, critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, service learning, real world issues, case studies and fieldwork. The ideas in Opening Minds completely connect to all the things that we are trying to accomplish in our school. So this is not really a change in my thinking but a reminder of what I believe in and a push to do it better. I am not an expert in Expeditionary Learning yet but reading books like this inspire me to work harder at my goals.

"It is the perception of uncertainty that enables dialogue. Dialogue, in turn, sustains uncertainty. If there is certainty, or only one view, there is nothing to discuss and nothing to learn. Uncertainty is the foundation of inquiry and research." p. 59
Exactly! This is where I really need to continue to work in my classroom. Last year I read Math Exchanges by Kassia Wedekind and began to change the way my students thought about math. I wanted them to see that there were many ways to solve problems or think about numbers. It was hard work but they gradually improved at talking and listening to each other about the ways that they solved problems. I want to continue to work on this in the coming year and I want to continue to expand this type of thinking to other content areas.

Another way that I want to encourage comfort with uncertainty is to do the activity mentioned on page 60 and 61 of Opening Minds. I want to create a collection of unknown or random items. In the book they used a polygraph pen, a hair dryer attachment and a piece of a dog's chew toy but it could be anything. During morning meeting several times a month, I could pull out an item and ask the students to think about what this item could be used for. This will encourage creativity and openness to new ways of looking at objects and ideas.

"...the more process talk becomes part of classroom conversations, the more strategy instruction will be occurring incidentally, without the teacher having to do it." p. 40
I love this idea of having strategy instruction occurring incidentally in the classroom. One way that I will try to increase this in my classroom is by continuing to use the iPad app ShowMe. I tested this app out with my students this past school year and I was very pleased with how it went. At first, I put the app on the iPads and asked students to figure out how to use it (this was mainly because I didn't have time to figure it out myself but an added bonus was how empowered the students felt by being given this task). After we all knew how the app worked, students created ShowMes to "teach" other students math concepts that they knew well. These ShowMes were then posted on the students' blogs for all to see.  While I like the sharing and learning and assessment (I could see just what each student knew and was able to do) that went on with these, I want to take them to the next level and do some deeper thinking and sharing. I want to move more into problem solving rather than just basic math content and I want to expand the use to other content areas, too. I am also re-framing my own thinking about these ShowMes as a way for students to articulate their own strategy use and that will increase their sense of agency. Below is an example of one ShowMe created by a student last year:

I also love the idea of using the term "feedforward" instead of "feedback," because we are all trying to move forward as a result of this information.

Teacher Language
"The hardest part for most of us is then keeping our mouths shut and not judging what children say." p. 76
I have a little homemade notebook that I have in my classroom and it is filled things I want to remember while I am teaching.

One section of my notebook is for language that I gleaned from Peter Johnston's first book, Choice Words, that I want to remember to incorporate into my own language. I need to add a page now for language ideas from Opening minds. In addition to remembering to talk less, I want to add:
  • yet p.11
  •  "You found a good way to do it; could you think of other ways that would also work?" p.38
  • "Hmmm....." p.57
  • uncertainty markers: maybe, perhaps, I wonder and other ideas from the chart on p.56
  • mental verbs: imagine, feel, believe, wonder, want, like, need, know p. 76
So, as Peter Johston would say, "What are you thinking?" p. 76

(After writing this post, I continued to read other blogs with their thoughts on the first section of this book. Katie Keier wrote about the "cheat sheets" she used to help her learn the language from Peter Johnston's other book, Choice Words. Check out her post for more on this idea: Opening Minds: Summer Cyber PD.)

Please Join the Conversation
There are several ways to join the conversation. You can add a comment to this post or to the Opening Minds Wallwisher. You can write a blog post on your own blog and add the link to the comment section of this post and I will create a list of linked posts in this post as they come in - it is never too late to start. Cathy Mere will also add each post to the Opening Minds jog - a collection of all of the posts from this whole event. You can also comment and share with others on twitter using #cyberpd.

Check back here often to see the list of posts by others. You won't want to miss out on all that is shared.

Next week (July 25th) the final part of the conversation will be hosted by Laura Komos at Our Camp Read-A-Lot.

Participating Blogs
Laura Komos from Our Camp Read-A-Lot shares her favorite quotes in Opening Minds Part 2. This week she reflects on how we discuss our reading with each other as adults and how we should allow students to have the same opportunity.

At Thinking Stems, Tracy shares her vision of how her inquiry workshop will work this year in her post, Opening Minds...Cyper PD... Part 2. Her idea of providing a special time for inquiry gives us all something to think about.

Maria Caplan reflects at Teaching in the 21st Century. This week she reflects on how she makes inquiry, dialogue and wonder important parts of life in her classroom in Opening Minds Ch. 4-6.

In her post, #CypberPD - Opening Minds Using Language to Change Lives  by Peter H. Johnston, on Literacy Toolbox, Dawn Little reflects on her thinking chapter by chapter pulling favorite quotes in along the way. She finishes with a thoughtful list of things she would like to accomplish this year.

Stop by Literate Lives to read Karen Terlecky's thoughts in Opening Minds #cyberPD - July 18. Karen shares her doubts about the language that she had been using in the past and reflects on the changes she plans to make in the future.

Amanda at Snapshots of Mrs. V reflects on feedback in her post, Opening Minds Ch. 4-6. She points out that the goal of feedback is to create lifelong teachers as well as lifelong learners.

LitProfSuz finds a unifying theme in this week's reading at In The Heart of a Teacher is a Student. She points out that the overall focus of the chapters is shifting the responsibility for learning away from the teacher and on to the student in her post, #CyberPD Opening Minds Chapters 4-6.

Drop by Cathy Mere's blog, Reflect and Refine: Building a Learning Community to read her thoughts on feedback in Changing My Frame: Opening Minds #cyberPD (Part 2). Cathy also shares her lists of quotes, questions and language for the classroom.

On her blog, Inspired to Read, Amy Meyer takes a look at the language she uses in her feedback in her post, Opening Minds Chapter 4-6. She has already begun practicing her new language on her daughter and shares her process with us.

Mary Lee Hahn makes a connection to a upcoming picture book in her reflection, Cyber PD -- Week 2 on A Year of Reading. You should definitely check this out. The cover art, title and Mary Lee's review make this book sound like a must read.

#cyberPD Opening Minds: What am I saying?!?  is Tony Keefer's reflection on atychiphobia 2.0 this week. His title says it all as he reflects about the language he uses and the changes he needs to make. His voice in this post makes this post enjoyable to read.

Katie DiCesare of creative literacy considers her use of praise in Opening Minds #2 #cyberPD. She charts the changes she plans to make in her language. A helpful offering for all of us.

Over at Wondering Through 2012, Barbara Phillips focuses her reflection on the inquiry and uncertainty sections of the book in #CyberPD Opening Minds - Part 2. She points out that students have many things that they wonder about and we just need to focus in on those to engage them.

Valerie Ruckes from The Sensibly Savy Teacher realizes that while she is not where she wants to be yet with her language, she is on the right track. You will want to stop by her post, Teaching Them to Teach: Opening Minds - #CyberPd Part 2 and check out the Wordle she created using language from the book.

The blogging duo of Amber and Lisa at FOCUS: Clarity through Collaborative Reflection share another thoughtful post, Bring on the Neauralyzer! Feedforward Here We Come! With a title like that, you just know that you have to read it for yourself.

Rose Capelli of Mentor Texts with Lynne and Rose shares the aha moment she had while reading this section in Reflections on Opening Minds Chapters 4-6. Perhaps it will lead to an aha moment for you. (It did for me.)

Over at Carol's Corner, Carol Wilcox shares how Opening Minds is impacting her as a teacher, as a literacy coach and as a parent in her post, Cyber PD. She also shares one bit of skepticism that provides some good food for thought.

Julie Johnson shares her thoughts about this week's reading in Opening Minds #Cyber PD Part 2 on her blog, Raising Readers and Writers. She leaves us with her list of goals for the upcoming school year.

In Opening Minds...#CyberPD...Part Deux on Miss Sticker, Jacquelyn Sticca shares her three new project ideas based on her reading for this fall.  Her light bulb moment makes this a must read.

Michelle Nero of Literacy Learning Zone shares her dream of having a classroom where students have conversations without her in #cyberPD: Opening Minds - Part 2. She also shares her cheat sheet and other ideas to help make this dream come true.

Over at Two Reflective Teachers, Melanie Swider reflects on the language she uses as a teacher in Opening Minds CyberPD Part 2. She, too, is working on a cheat sheet of language that she wants to incorporate into her teaching days.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Opening Minds ~ Chapters 1-3

It is finally time to read Opening Minds by Peter Johnston. I always reread parts of Choice Words (another of his books) every summer to refresh my thinking about the language I use with my students so I was excited to learn he had written another book on this topic. So far this book has been all that I had hoped for. It is a short book but one that needs to be read slowly in order to provide time for the ideas inside to really sink in and become (hopefully) part of my own speech.

The first chapter sets the stage for thinking about the language we use with our students and just how important every word we use can be. I love the idea of shifting from the negative "I can't do this" to the more positive "I can't do this yet" with just the addition of one single word. This one word has the power to reshape the attitude of the person. While I do work hard to apply this when speaking with my students, I realized that I need to continue to work on applying it to myself. "Using this language does not come easily to me yet."

Chapter 2 explains the difference between the fixed-performance frame and the dynamic-learning frame from Carol Dweck's research and subsequent book, Mindset. People using fixed-performance frame type of thinking usually assume that ability or intelligence is fixed or you are born with skills or abilities in certain areas. Those with the dynamic-learning frame believe that ability or intelligence is always changing and is especially influenced by hard work. The language that we use with our students can put them into one frame or the other. Our goal should be to use language that moves students to the dynamic-learning frame because they will feel more control or agency over their learning and more open to doing things to that will help them learn.

In the third chapter, Peter Johnston talks about the value of change and stability. Understanding that we change as we grow and learn helps students see that they have control over what and how they learn. Stability in the form of a routine (that can be changed at times) is good because students need routine and structure so that they can be free to explore and change their thinking.

Things I Want to Remember/Practice in my Teaching
  • Remind myself that "Using this language does not come easily to me yet."
  • Use language that points out the ways that students are changing. "Remember how we did this at the beginning of the year...", "Have you learned a new way to solve this problem?", "Do you notice how we have increased our reading stamina?", etc.
  • Use language that gives students a sense of agency or control over their own learning.
  • Continue to have a regular daily routine and discuss any changes to the routine with the class before they happen.
My biggest hope is that this type of language will begin to permeate all of my interactions with my students. I am looking forward to reading the rest of the book and the thinking of others in their blog posts or comments.  Cathy Mere is hosting the conversation today. Please drop by her blog, Reflect and Refine: Building a Learning Community to join us.

Opening Minds ~ Schedule of Events
We would love to have you read and chat with us. The schedule for the event is:
July 11: Chapters 1-3 Hosted by Cathy Mere at Reflect and Refine: Building a Learning Community
July 18: Chapters 4-6 Hosted by me here at My Primary Passion

July 25: Chapters 7-9 Hosted by Laura Komos at Our Camp Read-A-Lot
July 26: Twitter Chat using #cyberPD - time still to be determined
How to Participate
There are several ways to participate. You can:
  • post your thoughts about each section of the book on your own blog. Then add the link to your post in the comment section of the host blog.
  • simply add your thoughts as a comment on the host blog (or any of the blogs).
  • share your thinking on Twitter using #cyberPD at any time during the month.
  • add your thoughts and comments to Cathy's Wallwisher page on Opening Minds
  • come up with your own way to participate and add to the discussion.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Opening Minds ~ Book Chat

Last year Cathy Mere, Laura Komos and I hosted an online book chat about the book Conferring by Patrick Allen. We all learned so much by reading together and sharing out thoughts that we decided to do it again this year. After sharing all of our summer professional reading book stacks, we noticed that many of us had the book Opening Minds by Peter Johnston in our stacks. So that will be the book that we will be reading and sharing this summer.

We would love to have you read and chat with us. The schedule for the event is:
July 11: Chapters 1-3 Hosted by Cathy Mere at Reflect and Refine: Building a Learning Community

July 18: Chapters 4-6 Hosted by me here at My Primary Passion

July 25: Chapters 7-9 Hosted by Laura Komos at Our Camp Read-A-Lot

July 26: Twitter Chat using #cyberPD - time still to be determined

There are several ways to participate. You can:
  • post your thoughts about each section of the book on your own blog. Then add the link to your post in the comment section of the host blog.
  • simply add your thoughts as a comment on the host blog (or any of the blogs).
  • share your thinking on Twitter using #cyberPD at any time during the month.
  • come up with your own way to participate and add to the discussion. 

We can't wait for the conversation to begin and hope that you will decide to join us. It is a great way to do a little summer professional development and it is a great way to "meet" new friends and colleagues. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Math Workshop and Explore Time - Follow Up

Math Workshop ~ Follow Up
I thought that I should do just a bit more follow up on how a couple of things that I tried this year went. I wrote about wanting to change my math time into a math workshop time that would be similar to a reader's workshop or writer's workshop here. Then I followed that up with another post on how things were going here. Things have not changed too much since that last post. I did add one more day a week where I veered from the regular Everyday Math curriculum and went more in-depth on a topic or taught it in a different way.

The year ended up with my math block having three days of regular Everyday Math curriculum and content, one day of Math Exchanges and one day of Math Extensions. I am pretty happy with how this worked out. We still "covered" all of the Everyday Math curriculum for first grade but we added so much more - deeper thinking, collaboration on solving problems and looking at problems in various ways to solve them. At this point, I plan to follow the same format next year. We will start the year with Everyday Math curriculum every day and then about mid-year, we will begin to add in Math Exchanges and Math Extensions. I love how my students responded to the challenges of Math Exchanges and Math Extensions. We were all better mathematicians because of it.

Explore Time ~ Follow Up
Another big idea that I wanted to try this year was Explore Time. I wrote about that here. I did manage to have one Explore Time this year  and it went very well but after that, it was just too difficult to find the time. At my school we have so many wonderful "extras" that we do that our days are just packed. Some of these "extras" include Expeditionary Learning, drumming circles, portfolios, Adventure Education, overnight Voyages, All School Meetings, Morning Meetings, Closing Circles and much more. All of these are very valuable but they require a lot of time out of our day.

I know that we make time for the things that we value and I do value giving students choice so I am reworking my plan for Explore Time. I think that next year instead of having a block of time that is dedicated to exploring, I will add an explore center to our center times during the day. During my Readers's Workshop, we have a chunk of time during which we have centers. These are not traditional centers with pre-made activities for students to complete. My centers are a little like Daily 5 work stations where students have different ways to read, write and work with words. I also have a couple of math centers and centers related to our Expedition. I think I will add a new center or two next year. I might add a Wonder Center, an Explore Center and/or a Building Center. In this way, I can give students more time to explore and make choices but within the time frame that we already have set up.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


So this post is mainly just for me because I wanted a way to keep track of these ideas visually and in a way that I can refer back to later.

I am having all of those "ahhhh" feelings that happen to first grade teachers at the end of the year. The students have grown so much that they are sometimes not recognizable. I want to keep track of this feeling and the knowledge of how far they have come to refer back to next year when we are in the middle of the year and we are all working so hard to make this growth happen. This post will inspire me to keep plugging along and working at it.

I am mostly just going to post photos with a few sentences to tell about what growth I see in each photo. There will be samples from all types of writers. I will still see many things to teach each child but I will also see just how far each child has come. So here goes.

This writer is combining things she learned in math, art, our bee study during our Expedition and writing.

This writer used an idea from a book we read as a mentor text and tried fold out illustrations.

This writer used The Salamander Room by Anne Mazer as a mentor text to create this book called, The Frog Room.

This student attempts to add descriptive language to her story to create a setting.

Another writer was inspired by The Salamander Room by Anne Mazer.

This writer was inspired to try a technique she noticed in Ready Freddy books. She added a hidden word to each illustration in her book. She hid the word "life" in each picture because it went with the theme of her book.

This writer was inspired to write his own version of a Fly Guy story.

This writer tried many things on this page - bold print, quotation marks and stretching out a word for emphasis.

This student combined two ideas into a new book of his own creation. He read Wump World by Bill Peet and the play Willy Wonka (that was put on at our school this year) to come up with his own story about The Wonka World.

This writer tried circling words that didn't look right to him and also using all uppercase letters for emphasis.

This student uses descriptive language in his story - "It was a peaceful and calm planet."

This writer had a different way of adding a foldout illustration to his story.

One of our school's character traits showed up in this illustration. This writer shows you what the world would look like with stewardship of the Earth and without.

This writer found his passion in writing. He struggled to come up with ideas all year until we wrote nonfiction. He is working on a series of nonfiction books. So far he has written about worms, bees and frogs. He is taking what he learns during our Expedition and incorporating it into his writing.

Every writer in my crew is not represented here. These are just photos that represent what many of the writers are attempting at this point in the year and will remind me of what things inspire first grade writers next year.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Summer Professional Reading

Even though the school year is not quite finished yet - this will be my last week - I am starting to think about what professional books I want to read this summer. My mind is spinning with end-of-the-year details but I know that soon I will let it all go and be ready to read and think about next year.

Last year around this time, I was on Twitter and chatting with Laura Komos and Cathy Mere about summer reading plans and we decided to have an online book club of sorts. We decided on a book, Conferring by Patrick Allen, and started #cyberPD. For our #cyberPD, we took turns hosting conversations about parts of the book on our respective blogs and had a twitter chat when we finished. Many people joined in and it turned out to be a great experience.

We are planning on doing it again this year. So to get things started, we have decided to share our summer professional reading book stacks and see what we have in common.

You can probably see that I have already been reading bits and pieces of some of these books by the sticky notes sticking out of the top of the books. These are all books that I really want to dive into this summer and read deeply instead of just skimming and scanning them.

I also always reread Choice Words by Peter H. Johnston every summer to really prepare myself for the new school year. This year I think I will add two other books, Math Exchanges and Catching Readers Before They Fall,  to my reread pile because they also really reflect my personal teaching philosophy. 

If you have a summer professional reading book stack, please share it in the comments below or on Twitter using #cyberPD. I am always looking for great books to add to my stack. Cathy, Laura and I will be filling you in on the details of this summer's #cyberPD soon.

Be sure to visit Cathy's blog, Reflect and Refine: Building a Learning Community and Laura's blog, Our Camp Read-A-Lot to see their summer reading book stacks.

Sunday, May 20, 2012


Yesterday I tweeted the following:

Kathy Cassidy responded with this tweet:

I haven't been able to stop thinking about what she said. I completely agree with her that first grade teachers are addicted to that progress and that it is not the same in any other grade. It is certainly true for me. I have taught grades 3, 4, 5, 6, and 8 in addition to 1st grade and I can say that students do show lots of growth in those grades but Kathy is right -- it is just different in 1st grade. The change in 1st graders from the beginning of the year to the end is quite dramatic. I find myself awed when I take a moment to step back and just watch them. I have been able to capture a few of those moments recently.

This moment is the one that I tweeted about yesterday. Cole had a new book from our school's book fair and was reading it to a group of kids during snack time. This happened several days in a row.

Then on Friday, I was conferring with students during Writer's Workshop and just happened to notice how very engaged all of the students were. I jumped up and grabbed my iPad to capture the moment. We have come so far since the beginning of the year. They are all so independent now and have many ideas that they want to write about and share. As I was walking around I also noticed how much their writing has changed over the year - conventions, content, handwriting - all of it is vastly different from where we started in the beginning of the year.

These are the moments we live for as teachers. They keep us motivated and inspired. We need to be sure to take the time to find these moments in each day.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Explore Time

Darn, darn, darn, darn*! I have yet another idea that I can't get out of my head and I think I need to try to make it fit somehow into my day. Darn! I have always (since my college days) wanted to have an Explore time in my classroom but I have always convinced myself that I could never make time for it or that it would be a management nightmare but after recently reading the blog posts below by Katie Keier and Kassia Omohundro Wedekind, I really just can't let go of the idea. I forwarded the posts on to the kindergarten teachers at my school trying to tell myself that if they did this then the kids would have this experience and I would be off the hook but I still can't let it go. I was able to convince myself to let it go years ago when Debbie Miller wrote about it in her book Reading with Meaning by telling myself that there was just no time for it. Then Jennifer Orr posted her Encienda presentation from Educon on her blog and it was all about giving students meaningful choices. She has also written about the value of play several times on her blog. All of these posts along with my own beliefs are forcing me to think about when and how I can add more of this type of Explore time into our day at school. These posts, along with Jennifer's Encienda presentation, have inspired me:


I am thinking that I could have an Explore time as the activity part of our morning meeting - maybe one or two days a week. Darn, I just figured out the "when" now I have to work on the "how".
* I say "darn" but I am actually really happy about all of this thinking that these wonderful educators have led me to do on this snow day off from school.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

New Books Arrived Today!

My new (to me) math books arrived today. They will complement my current collection of math books nicely. I can't wait to start reading. I still have to wait a little while for Opening Minds by Peter Johnston but it should come soon.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Word Work Wonderings

I wonder a lot. Little things can set off a chain reaction in my mind and then I am wondering and wondering about things that I was taking for granted a few days before. This happened recently to me on the topic of phonics/word work/spelling. I had a conversation about these things with my principal and my teammate. The conversation was a good one and we left feeling like we were on the right track but my wondering had been started and I couldn't let it go without more reflection. Here is where my wonderings took me (well, at least so far - I am sure that I still have a long way to go):

Review of Professional Readings on Phonics
My first step was to go back and reread parts of books that I have on these topics. I skimmed and scanned Word Work by Fountas and Pinnell and Phonics They Use, Month by Month Phonics, and Making Words all by Patricia Cunningham. I checked out the Words Their Way series from my public library and skimmed my way through these, too. I browsed the Stenhouse and Heinemann publishing company websites looking for new books or articles on Phonics. This led me to put one more book on hold at my public library - Phonics, Naturally: Reading and Writing for Real Purposes by Robin Campbell. I am still waiting for that book to come in.

Then I did a search of the Internet and learned about a feature that I had not heard of on Google. It gave me a list "personal results." These were links to articles by people I have some connection to in some way on the Internet. Franki Sibberson came up and she had a blog post about this article on books for phonics instruction. I loved this feature and that I got a little bonus learning about how to use Google along the way.

This morning, Choice Literacy's Newsletter came out and the focus this week was on word learning and spelling. I particularly liked the article on Patterns and Punctuation and the link to the Choice Literacy FaceBook page which is featuring a series of posts on Reflections on Spelling Instruction. They have excerpts from various authors on the topic of spelling and visitors can comment and add their ideas.

Reflecting on My Own Beliefs
After doing all of this reading, I began to think about what I believe about Phonics/Word Work instruction.
  • I believe that phonics instruction is most meaningful when embedded in reading and writing instruction.
  • I believe that it can be difficult to only do embedded phonics when class sizes are so large, and therefore a short Word Work time can help.
  • I believe that students should notice words and think about how they work in using an inquiry approach.
  • I believe that I get so caught up in the excitement of reading and writing that I sometimes neglect to catch those teachable moments that are related to phonics.
  • I believe that I have much more to learn about teaching students how words work.
Examining My Practice
My last step has been to examine what I am actually doing with my students to see if it matches my beliefs. My reading workshop includes a daily focus lesson, an independent reading/conferring time, a time for modified Guided Reading groups and literacy centers. After the reading workshop, I have a short word work lesson and then a very short handwriting lesson. My writing workshop includes a focus lesson, an independent writing/conferring time and at times a brief sharing time.

I notice that I almost never embed a phonics topic during either my reading focus lesson or my writing phonics lesson, but that I do embed it in almost all of the other areas.

When I confer with a student during either reading or writing and a word work issue comes up I almost always address it even if it is very brief. This makes the learning very individualized but also very hit and miss. I also embed word work in my reading groups. A recent example is that one group worked on the "tion" word ending because the word "invention" was in their book. That group went on to find more examples of words with the "tion" ending. My literacy centers have several choices that are ways for students to work with words. There is a pocket chart where they work with word families or do word sorts. There are phonics games on the computers and iPads. There are magnetic letters and board games on phonics topics. These are generally connected in some way to the word work we are doing as a whole class. I also have the students use "personal word walls" during independent writing that are placed on each table. They can find many commonly used words on these cards to help them learn to spell them correctly.

The biggest dose of word work comes during our word work lesson. I use the Fountas and Pinnell Phonics series and Month by Month Phonics as the foundation of the lessons that I do during this time. I will add in lessons on topics that come up in our reading or writing as needed. Currently we are working on looking at different ways to spell each long vowel sound.

A new practice that I am trying this year is looking at various sight words during our handwriting time. At the beginning of the year, we focus solely on letter formation during this time but now we are using this time to examine sight words and writing them using our correct letter formation. We begin by doing a "word talk" about each word and noticing what is unusual about it. For example, we recently looked at the word "one". We talked about how we thought it should be spelled "wun" but isn't. We talk about noticing "what looks right" when writing words. I put the words we work on during this handwriting time on a word wall and ask the students to use this to be sure to spell these words correctly from now on.

After writing this (very long) post, I am wondering if maybe we do too much word work in a day. But I know that this is not true. We do lots of word work in very short bursts throughout our day but spend the bulk of our time reading and writing and loving every minute of it.