Thursday, January 24, 2013

It May Not Look Like Much

But this picture just made my day:


We've been talking about this topic (can you guess what it is from our picture?) for about a week now, and I wanted to check in and see where my kids were in terms of understanding the process. So I gave each one a blank piece of paper, put a list of 6 key words (water, leaves, solar energy, carbon dioxide, chlorophyll, glucose) on the board and said, "Draw me a picture of this process. Be sure to include each of the key words, and be ready to tell me about your picture."

At the end of about 15 minutes we gathered together, and I said, "Okay - somebody get us started." One of my very outspoken girls hopped up and drew and labeled the sun in the corner. Then, a tiny little hand rose in the crowd. When I say tiny, I'm talking a little friend who is smaller than my coworker's 5 year old son. She doesn't talk and rarely participates so when I saw her hand I immediately asked if she wanted to add to our picture. She drew the entire flower you see in the middle of the picture, and as she drew the different parts her teammates were saying why they were important to the process.

After that I was pretty much out of the picture. She picked the next student to come up to add to our drawing, and the students were explaining to each other what they were adding, why they were adding it, and correcting any items that needed to be fixed. For example, the arrow for carbon dioxide first pointed to the stick person, but the kids (respectfully) explained why that needed to be changed.

Every single one of my students participated in this drawing in some way: drawing, labeling, explaining or discussion. They added many more things than the original 6 vocabulary words that were required, and just from quickly looking over their personal pictures I can tell that everybody has a basic understanding of this information, and many of the students understand how it is a larger part of the cycle of life. They also demonstrated that they understand how it's connected to the water cycle, our last topic. I didn't need to give a paper / pencil test to see that. I could tell just by watching everybody today.

So this picture may not look like much, but it definitely made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Regions Project, Part 2

The final part of our regions project was for the kids to put everything together (synthesize, if you'd like) and explain how the regions were the same and different. Probably every teacher and class has used the popular Venn Diagram to compare two, three, or even four different things, but I wanted to do something a little different - something a little more structured for my kids.

When comparing, younger kids tend to go with the "tall / not tall" or "fiction / not fiction" comments, and I really wanted my students to think differently about comparing. My goal was for my students had two parts:


  • To describe the specific characteristics of each individual item before beginning to compare
  • To use an organized paragraphs to explain the similarities and differences of 4 of the 5 regions of Pennylvania


As I mentioned in this post, I really believe my kids are capable of anything with the proper modeling and guidance so I started this part of the project by modeling the steps needed to meet my goals with a topic very familiar to my kiddos: me and my two teammates. I created a chart with our names, started with some basics and allowed the students to add their own ideas. The ideas did not tell how we were the same or different, but the kids explained how they would describe each of us. I'll add that finished chart here when I get to my other computer.

Next I said to the kids, "Great, so now what do we do? How do we explain how the three of us are the same or different?" The kids talked about whether or not it would be better to talk about similarities or differences first, and they decided that we should go with the similarities because there were fewer of them so it would be easier to manage. The students came up to the Smartboard and highlighted each characteristic that was the same for all three of us, and they decided that they wanted to use check marks for those that were the same for two of the three of us. (I'll add this picture, too.)

After the kids had identified the similarities about the teachers, they worked together in their regions groups to identify the similarities about the 4 regions they studied. Each group checked in with me to make sure we had the similarities. There were several great discussions about whether or not "in PA" could be a similarity because the regions were all in different parts of Pennsylvania. All but one group decided to wait and use the locations and a difference instead of a similarity. One group highlighted it, but they also decided they would use other details first.

Once all of the charts were highlighted, we worked together using a graphic organizer (main idea, three details, and a conclusion) to put the items we highlighted into an organized paragraph. We talked about the purpose of the main ideas, which details we wanted to use, how we could "show" people what we were saying instead of "telling" people the details, and how we could wrap it up. Our paragraph ended up reading like this:

     Mrs. Bair, Miss Conrad and Mrs. Towsen have a lot of things alike. The teachers are very funny. Sometimes they prank call each other on their phones during the day. That makes us laugh. All three of them like to go to the beach and have some relaxing time. Our teachers are also kind of crazy! One morning when we came in to school Mrs. Bair jumped out of Miss Conrad's room because Miss Conrad and Mrs. Towsen were doing karate! As you can see Mrs. Bair, Miss Conrad and Mrs. Towsen have a lot of things the same, just like the Three Stooges.

While some teachers may be offended at being labeled crazy, funny, or one of the Three Stooges, this made my heart happy. My kids understand the joy that the three of us bring to learning. So judge if you will, but I love this paragraph and wouldn't want it any other way!

Now that we had worked together to write a similarities paragraph, I thought the kids were ready to go. As always, I offered the kids the chance to work on their own or with me. The 6 chairs at my table filled up, and extra friends were seated on the floor around me. We talked about the main idea, it's purpose, and the important ideas we needed to include:
  • 4 regions of Pennsylvania
  • some things are the same
I wrote those two things on the whiteboard and was so excited to see what happened. This excitement quickly turned to frustration for me and the students. Many of my students simply copied the two phrases as their main idea sentence. So as each child showed me their work I went over complete sentences: "Let's read this out loud. Does that make sense? Does it sound like a whole idea that you would walk up and say to somebody?"

Some of my kids were able to say that it didn't sound right, others answered with a, "No???" You know, the one that is their answer that they *think* I want to hear. I tried for about 10 - 15 minutes to help my kids, and finally we just had to put our papers in our folder. I had to admit defeat. As we talked they could tell me what we were trying to do, and they could show me the similarities on the chart. But putting it into their own words and putting those words onto paper was a true challenge.

As successful as most of this lesson was, I felt like I failed as a teacher because my students struggled so much with the writing portion of it. I talked to each of the kids who had difficulties with that part and asked them what made it so hard for them. 7 of the 12 kids said they just didn't know how to write what they wanted to say, and 3 couldn't verbalize for me what was so hard. My struggle now is, "How do I help my kids create sentences from their ideas?" My teammates suggested more modeling and the use of quality mentor sentences, which we do often, and I also asked our building's speech and language teacher for any suggestions she might have.

So it's back to the drawing board with the writing portion of this activity. I will continue to search for suggestions or recommendations about what I can do differently to help my students share their ideas. But until then, we push on... because 4th graders MUST write four-paragraph pieces, whether they are ready for it or not.



Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Oh Yes They CAN!

As disgusting as it sounds, there are teachers who laugh when the kids can't complete a task. Who are condescending as they talk to the students. Who don't provide the support the kids need to be successful. As a matter of fact, they don't even make an effort to get to know my kids' names.

They say my kids can't. "I couldn't even do _____________ with that group. I had to change my plans around. They can't do it."

I know, I know... you don't even have to go there. I've gone there. We're waiting to see something happen. But while we wait, I would like to call shenanigans on all of those people who say my kids can't. Follow this link to see Exhibit A - Our Pennsylvania Region projects.

Prior to our holiday break, I modeled for my students how I would use questioning, reading skills and technology skills to research our physical region of Pennsylvania, the Piedmont Region, and create a Google presentation to teach the world about where we live. While researching and making the slideshow, I also showed the kids how to use Tagxedo, Vocaroo, Ookaboo, and how to search for and cite images that are free to use or share.

One day per slide - I modeled, they watched, and asked questions, lots and lots of questions. After the holidays we finished up our model slideshow, and the kids selected their top three regions that they would most like to learn about. I grouped the students based on their interests, and by some miracle everybody got one of the their top two choices.

The groups of 5 or 6 had three days to work together and use books and technology to complete research and record their notes on a graphic organizer. The four required topics were location, landforms, natural resources, and climate of their region. Once those topics were completed the groups could research any other question about which everybody had an interest.

After the three research days we watched a video about Disney's use of storyboarding, and we had some pretty cool discussions (Those kids can't discuss stuff - they need to focus on the basics and memorize what's on the test... ugh!) about how storyboards are still used today. Each group developed their storyboards for their slideshow and spent the next three days creating their projects.

Each group needed reminders about how to save and add their Tagxedo project or their Vocaroo to the slideshow, but beyond that the work that you see linked above is their own work. I didn't do any editing, I didn't tell the kids to revise their work, and I didn't present the slideshows to the class. They stood up today and presented the slideshows themselves. Every student was responsible for the research and creation of at least one slide, and every student had to speak about one slide during their class presentations.

Oh, and did I mention that half of my class is identified with specific learning disabilities or other health impairments?

Don't tell me my kids can't. They've already proved they can!