Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Notebook

Kindergarten.  When parents hand their babies over to be taught be a stranger.  I know, most children have been attending a daycare or preschool for a few years already, but that doesn't negate the tears falling from mama's and papa's eyes as they leave their charges with me that first day, week, or month of school.  As the first teacher parents hand their children to, I work diligently to forge a positive relationship.  If all goes well, I set the way for smooth sailing in the following years of a child's education.  

There are many paths to creating a good relationship between school and home.  The spring time registration, letters home during the summer,  as well as an Open House just before school starts have been in place at every school where I've taught.  Yet when a parent wants to know what happens in their child's day to day experience I have found no greater tool than the Home-School notebook.

The notebooks started about seven years ago.  Each child was given a notebook at the Open House just before school started.  I explained to parents that the purpose was to keep communication flowing between us.  Every day I would write in the notebooks and parents could respond, or simply initial what I'd written.  These notebooks quickly took on an individual feel for each child, depending on the needs/interests of the families.  For the shy child, it tracked who she was interacting with, and documenting triumphs at recess.  For the picky eater, it told parents how much snack and lunch was eaten.  For the child with challenges of any sort, it held strategies, plans, and results. As children were given formative assessments I would share the data in the notebook with a quick strategy to work on a few specific goals at home.  Parents would write back how the work at home was going and share what was working for them.  Every notebook was used to record the priceless moments that make a teacher and parent burst with pride.  Together we cheered for the child in the notebook.   

Some parents relished this notebook, writing back every day.  Others would go a few days, then initial all the entries so I knew they'd read each one.  There were times I'd read the notebooks in the mornings to find warnings like, "He didn't sleep at all last night, good luck!" or "She complained of a tummy ache, give me a call if it continues."  Parents would also tell me about the swimming lessons, grandparent's birthday, or book they were reading.  Every morning I looked forward to my ongoing conversations with parents.

The notebooks were a hit, yet they were time consuming.  They were lacking a bit of structure.  My partner teacher isn't as taken with writing as I am and we brainstormed how to streamline the notebooks but still keep the relationship with parents.  The picture at the top of the page shows what we came up with.  Each day we report out to parents how their child did with our Four Expectations.  There is room for a sentence or two to give specific information about the day, and then room for the parent response.  It's tidier and quicker.  It forces me to be succinct. 

When the time comes to provide evidence  of how I work with parents this is my go-to.  With their permission I share pages that highlight our teamwork and how student growth improves through the information shared in the notebook.  My greatest indicator of success with the notebooks is hearing from parents years later that the notebook is a treasured keepsake.  Knowing the value parents give these books keeps me at it, building the partnership one entry at a time.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

My Three Ring Circus

That's how I feel these days in my classroom.  Without the megaphone.  After months of working with this kindergarten I have been reduced to the role of ringmaster.  And I couldn't be prouder.  These children have become independent learners.  They can move from one "ring" to the other, taking charge of their learning as I facilitate small groups.

I've taught reading groups for years.  One small group would get my attention while other children were kept "busy."  The kids were quiet and yes, they learned.  Yet, I felt exhausted after reading groups, tense from trying to keep order.

Enter my partner teacher and her introduction of "The Daily Five."   She turned me onto the idea of teaching the class to become independent through guided practice in reading to self, writing to self, working with words, and reading with a partner.  The kids started practicing each of these for three minutes, gradually building up to 20 minutes.  It was amazing! My little kinders were able to sustain quiet work with an activity for 20 minutes, allowing me time to work with small groups.

Now that I had a reading time that was secure, I wondered if I could also use this format in math and writing.  My partner teacher and I were already sharing kids during our reading time, grouping them based on like abilities.  We gave all our kids a pre-assessment for our next unit in math and grouped them by like abilities as well.  Our math time is now divided into three sections.  Work with the teacher, practice time, and choice time.  My time with each group can now be tailored to meet the needs of different abilities, the practice time is specific to what each group needs, and we squeezed in choice time, allowing us more time in our day to give a shout out to science.  The best part of this time is the kids go to the math board, look for their name and go to the correct area for red, blue or green time.  I no longer have to direct them where to go, saving instruction time.

I was on such a role, I divided my kids into writing groups.  Once again, I had a diverse group of abilities so I divided them into three groups.  After a mini-lesson for everyone the kids go off to write while I work with two groups a day.  This gives me time to deliver instruction just right for my non-writers as well as my novelists.

If you walked into my room, you would likely hear a quiet, healthy buzz of kids working.  Look over to my table and you'll see me with a small group of kids.  It's not a perfect system, we need reminders to be quiet or get back on task.  Yet the expectations are clear.  With a reminder to "check and adjust," students know what they need to do.  I am proud of how my kinders can work in their own ring of our classroom circus.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Open For Business

Last week I wrote about my incredible brainstorm, starting up a weather store.  The best part was putting the kids in charge of the store.  I introduced the thought to the kids and they were thrilled.  We wrote a letter to parents asking for help to stock our shelves with inventory.  When our next Wacky Wednesday rolled around we had bags of good to organize and place.

If you have ever tried to be create a space with a group of 16 kinders, you understand that chaos will ensue. I like to refer to it as controlled chaos.  In order to keep me from losing my mind I set up committees.  As an adult, committees don't typically excite me, but you should have seen the ownership these kids took for their assigned work.  We had the following committees:  sorting inventory, making price tags, creating a store sign, and labeling the categories of inventory.  They were engaged, chatting with each other and making decisions about they best way to create their store.  As our time ended, the kids were thinking of all the different roles they could play in the store:  shopper, cashier, and assistant.  I can't wait to watch them enjoy what they have created.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Snow Gear Scramble

If you teach primary school, you've seen kids looking like this stomping down the hall as they arrive at school.  If you're lucky.  Usually, the poor kiddo is dragging snow pants and dropping mittens like Hansel and Gretel heading into the woods with bread crumbs.  Usually, this kid is followed by fifteen other kids doing the same routine.  Followed by me.  Crying.  I know that I'm about to lose twenty minutes of instructional time to winter gear, then twenty more before and after recess.

It starts easy enough, a few mittens here or there in the fall.  Then hats.  And boots.  Then the black snow pants.  With no name. I beg and plead with parents, "Please, for the love of all things holy, LABEL your child's snow gear."  The next day I get a note.  "Please help Johnny find his black snow pants. We didn't label them, sorry."

Yesterday I declared war on the snow gear scramble.  As my students staggered in, I met them with a chart titled "Snow Gear Procedures." I taught the first four students how to go through the procedure.
1.  Put your mittens in your hat.
2.  Put your your hat in your coat sleeve.
3.  Put your coat on your hook.
4.  Put your snow pants on the other hook.
5.  Put your boots in the bottom cubby.

After the first four demonstrated competence with the chart I left them to introduce the chart and teach the remaining students how to take care of snow gear.

That solved the morning problem, and made getting ready for recess easier. However, when mittens are wet from recess, nobody wants them in a coat sleeve.  So I've asked all the parents to send in a big reusable shopping bag to store all the wet snow gear after recess.  When the students come in from recess to lunch, they can plop their wet stuff in the bag and then easily carry it back to the classroom.  Now I don't have to follow the trail of mittens back to the room.  When dismissal time rolls around, the kids can simply grab their gear bags and go.  Instructional time is saved, and I'm not holding thirty different mittens in the air asking for an owner.  We should be all set now....until mud season.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Setting Goals

Instead of having students come back to school last Monday, we worked with a man from RISC.  He is guiding our school into performance based education. My work wife and I sat close to each other, passing notes of how we wanted to apply what we were hearing to kindergarten.  Then the day was over and the kids came back.  I'm not sure about other teachers, but I will often sit through a day of PD, get inspired to do great things, and then get back to the classroom so swamped and overwhelmed by the daily operations, my flame of inspiration extinguishes. Thanks to Google Drive I was able to combat the dimming of my flame.

When I got home, I picked just one kindergarten Common Core standard, counting.  I made four charts titled with the following "I Can" statements:  I can count to 10, I can count to 20, I can count to 50, and I can count to 100.   As seen on the presenter's slide show, each chart had the child's name in a box under the "I Can" statement. 

Obviously counting to 100 is the end of year goal.  Counting to 10 is something all my kids can do.  I wanted to be sure all the kids were able to meet at least one goal to get them excited, and hungry for a taste of more.  As this was the start of 2015, we talked about resolutions and goals, and then I had the kids color in their names for each "I Can" chart they had already mastered.  Immediately, the kids wanted to color in their names at the next level.  There were no promises of treats, parties or rewards.  All they get for counting higher was the ability to color in their name by the correct "I Can" statement.  I told them I wanted to hear them count to me before school, during snack, whenever we had a few minutes so they could move on up. 

Now they are swarming me to count.  When a child stumbles, I take him right to the number grid, and we count together from where he got confused, noticing how he can overcome the stumbling block.  Most often, another child comes over to help her peer while I listen to a new student count.  

I'm hoping to keep their enthusiasm for counting burning while all kids progress to 100. We shall see how it goes.....

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Building a Winter Store

It always happens over Christmas vacation.  I have a few days of calm, time to think.  Schemes and designs dance in my head as I plan and plot for my kinders in the new year.  The housekeeping area is played.  I'm sick of seeing plastic leaf lettuce languish beneath the table.  It's time to shake things up.  So I ponder and stir.

My math curriculum calls for finding numbers in the environment and recognizing two digit numbers.  My science bend will be about weather and winter.  The kids need to be writing informational texts.  We will be reading pattern books.  How can I create a play area to tap into at least some of these goals?  Then it hits. I am going to create a Weather Store.  That's right.  I will make a store of tools, clothes and other goods one might buy to contend with the weather.

Unfortunately, this brainstorm came to me 24 hours before vacation ended.  There was no time for me to create a visually exciting and purposeful play store before the wee ones returned.  This was too interesting a concept to let go, so I chose to give it over to the kids.  I secured a cash register from a generous colleague and set it up for the kids to see as they came in this morning.  They had  a great time exploring what it would do.  I hinted at the idea of creating a store that would help people deal with the weather.  Then I closed my mouth.

Tomorrow is our "Wacky Wednesday," a day given over to project based learning.  We will create a list of all the types of weather our Earth experiences.  Then we will come up with an inventory list to start up our store.  Kids will need to make advertisements and a banner with the name we decide on for our store.  Price tags will be created.  Products will be sought for with a letter the kids draft to their families.  This will be owned by the kids.  I'm thinking it's going to be far more fun than doing it for them over vacation.  Stay tuned for our progress.