Friday, April 12, 2013

Wordless picture books... not just for little ones!

One of my favorite things to do is read picture books. I love browsing the children's section of our library to find what's new and interesting.

Wordless picture books, in particular, provide many opportunities for parents and teachers to connect with children and young adults in varied ways. 

Even though you may think that true reading only occurs when there are actual words on a page, wordless books actually require their "readers" to comprehend and pay very close attention to visual clues and cues, a skill that many children struggle with and could certainly use additional practice in order to master.

They also level the playing field for struggling readers, or those who may be English Language Learners. What a wonderful opportunity for students to share with younger buddies as well!

Wordless books also place a greater emphasis on a child's ability to follow story grammar (i.e. the beginning, middle, end, problem-solution, setting, and characters). And, the absence of words actually develops vocabulary and language usage at even higher levels than that of printed text - a wordless book reader needs to be able to generate vocabulary independently in order to be able to articulate the story internally or for others.

Inferencing - combining background knowledge with textual clues - becomes an even higher level skill when one is challenged by wordless text. 

What types of activities can parents and teachers pair with wordless texts?

  • Encourage story telling. What a effective method to develop oral language!
  • Practice comprehension in a non-threatening way. Predict, infer, and question away without having to write or read.
  • Inspire creative writing - either by retelling the story or using it as a springboard for telling what may happen next.
  • Developing sequencing and cause/effect patterning and reasoning either through discussion or creating a graphic organizer to capture thinking.
  • Learning how to create and write dialogue 
  • Use the story to create a script or reader's theater and act it out.

Barnes and Noble has a complete selection of wordless books that appeal to the young (pre-k) through adolescent or even high school reader that you can browse HERE

This book would be a wonderful complement to a middle-grade study of slavery

And this looks like it would be a powerful companion for middle or high school students examining civilizations and empires:

My writing classes used the well-loved Chris VanAllsburg book, "Harris Burdick" this week to create their own stories based on the story starters presented in the text. I knew I had a hit on my hands when the students begged me to take their stories home to finish them!

I'd love to hear about favorite picture books from those of you who use them in your classrooms, or parents who share them with your children.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Math fact fluency - what teachers want you to know...

Spring brings birds, daffodils, warm weather, and standardized testing! Along with that comes stress. Parents and teachers want to be sure their children/students are performing at or above standards, and that they are making effective progress. Unfortunately, many students get nervous and wonder if they'll be promoted a grade if they don't do "well", and many teachers worry about the very real possibility that their evaluations will be tied to the results of these assessments (that's a post for another day). 

So, what does this have to do with math fact fluency? 

As I work with my students to prepare them throughout the year for the state mathematics assessment (and more importantly to think and perform like real world mathematicians) I continue to witness how many students' problem solving abilities are greatly impaired because they have not mastered basic facts across all operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division).  

Why is math fact mastery important?

We can only hold so much information in our "working memory" (the part of your brain that stores and manages information for a short amount of time). If a child's working memory is tied up trying to remember a math fact, while also trying to learn how to simplify fractions, or find a common denominator, he or she is likely to become frustrated and give up. In many cases, children start to see themselves as "not good at math" when that's simply not true. A bit of practice can make all the difference!

If we want to teach our children to eventually become competitive players in a global market, we need to give them the skills they need to succeed. In the United States and other countries, there's a recent push to introduce and expand STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). If we want our children to participate meaningfully in these learning experiences, they need to be mathematically literate. Mathematical literacy depends greatly on math fact fluency.

As parents, we get very concerned when our children cannot read - that is decode the text. Yet, somehow, we often do not seem to get as alarmed when our children haven't mastered the basic building blocks of higher level mathematical thinking. We need to be concerned, and we need to do something about it.

How does a child reach mastery? 

You know the answer to this, but I'll post it anyway because it's worth repeating: PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE! The good news is that our children are growing up in a very technologically advanced age. There are myriad ways for them to gain computational fluency without having to pull out the old-fashioned flash cards that many of us used as kids (although there's absolutely nothing wrong with them). 

It's our job as parents and teachers to ensure that children are taking the time daily - yes, daily - to actually practice the facts until they reach mastery.

Here are some of my favorite sites, some subscription and others free, that help children to practice. It's important that the practice have an element of urgency and timing to it. That's what helps students to gain automaticity with the facts:

IXL Math  Is a subscription site that has fact practice and lots of other leveled math problems. Although a very useful site, IXL does not time students in a way that creates a sense of urgency in their fact practice. The site allows students to solve 20 problems free each day without having an account. Yearly memberships average approximately $80.00

Reflex Math Has more of a game-based, timed focus on math fact practice. Home subscriptions can be purchased for approximately $35.00

First in Math  game-based site that focuses on lots of aspects of fact fluency and number sense and many of the games provide a sense of urgency to solve the problems quickly. This site can be accessed for a yearly fee of $30.00.

Xtra Math is a free web-based practice site that also builds fluency through timed practice. Reviews from my students suggest that it isn't as much fun as some of the subscription sites.
The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has created a free game site that parents, students, and teachers can access. It's called Calculation Nation.

There are many iPhone, iPad, and Android apps that also focus on fluency. I'm not going to post those here as you can easily find them by searching for those on your device. 

Once students have begun to master facts, there are many board and puzzle games that can be used to practice and apply the facts in fun ways. All of these are available on Amazon.

CheckMath!, which plays like checkers, was developed by a math teacher to help students with factors and multiples.

For younger students, Sum Swamp, is a fun way to practice addition and subtraction:

The "24" game was developed many years ago by the creators of the First In Math site mentioned above. This problem solving game requires players to strategically combine multiple operations to arrive at an answer of "24".

A favorite in our house is "Shut the Box". A dice rolling game where low score wins:

No matter which method children use to practice, the most important thing is that  they actually make sure there's  commitment to doing it daily. Your child's teacher (and eventually your child) will thank you!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Teaching Tolerance

Do you know about this incredible organization? I first learned about them a few years ago and have been reading their magazine and newsletter ever since. I recently ordered some of their free (yes, FREE!) film kit resources. The materials are most relevant to those residing in the US and Canada. TT is a project of the Southern Law Poverty Center, and as so aptly stated on their website they are: "A place for educators to find thought-provoking news, conversation and support for those who care about diversity, equal opportunity and respect for differences in schools." 

What does that mean for educators? One stop "shopping" for amazing resources to teach students K-12. I just received two wonderfully packaged DVD sets from them today. I'm excited to preview them, and hopefully show them to my students.  

One of the DVD's titled "A Time for Justice" is suggested for use with grades 6-8

 It ties nicely with our recent Civil Rights literature circles in which we broke into small leveled groups and read the books "Glory Be", "One Crazy Summer", and "The Watsons Go to Birmingham". 

The other video titled "One Survivor Remembers" explores Gerda Weissman Klein's survival story and ties in with our recent reading of "Number the Stars".

Given the grades 6-8 ratings, I may have to select excerpts of these videos to ensure that the content is developmentally appropriate. Within the DVD sleeves, each kit also contains CD's with lesson plans and prints of primary sources that relate to the issue and period in history.

Teaching Tolerance's educational kits and subscriptions to its magazine are FREE to classroom teachers, librarians, school counselors, school administrators, professors of education, youth directors at houses of worship and employees of youth-serving nonprofit organizations.

I highly recommend subscribing to the magazine (in print or digital format) as they are extremely well written and contain a variety of articles on themes both contemporary and historical.

If you are an educator looking for high quality resources to supplement your reading, social studies, or history curriculum you should check out the Teaching Tolerance Website

Saturday, April 6, 2013

"One Step Too Far" - adult fiction/mystery

I'm finding that I'm really enjoying UK imports these days, from BBC America television to new novel releases. I just finished reading an advance copy of "One Step Too Far", the page-turning debut novel from UK writer, Tina Seskis.  

Excerpted from the author's GoodReads page: Tina never intended writing a novel. She wrote One Step Too Far over a two month period in summer 2010 and then gave up writing entirely for well over a year, before writing her second novel A Serpentine Affair in autumn 2011. Her third book (working title Collision) is due for completion in 2013, and is the coming together of a key character from each of the first two novels, if Tina can make the plot work. 

You can buy it when it's released, this Monday, April 15th (after you file your taxes, of course!).

This book will likely be the talk of summer beach read circles (although it's writing surpasses what we typically expect from that genre) as it has all of the right ingredients that appeal to its target audience: suspense, drama, and plot twists extraordinaire. 

As the story opens, we meet Cat, a young mother who's in the process of running away from her family. The novel unfolds with a carefully restrained plot that allows us slowly into her secrets and motivations. Seskis deftly weaves characters and their perspectives throughout, allowing us bits and pieces of important clues as the story unfolds.

I enjoyed reading "One Step Too Far", although I did find the conclusion a bit too satisfying. In Seskis' defense, authors can't win in this regard as reviewers either praise them for a solid ending or pan them for leaving us hanging. That said, I thought many times that I'd figured out the twists, but I continued to be proven wrong. That alone made it a fun book to read. 

"One Step Too Far" is definitely worth  reading. You don't need to wait until summer, either! You won't be disappointed and will likely find yourself unable to put it down as you try to find out what could possibly motivate Em/Cat to leave her family.

I received an advance copy of this novel from the publisher. My opinions are not influenced in any way by having received the complimentary copy.

"Real Kids, Real Stories, Real Change" a REALLY great book for upper elementary/middle grades

I found this book (another great resource from Free Spirit Press) and knew that I just had to introduce it to my students. We'll be spending a couple of our reading blocks this week digging into these short biographic profiles of some amazing kids from around the world.

The readability of these profiles is approximately a 5th grade level. It's a very approachable text as the font is large enough not to be daunting (but not so large it feels "elementary"), while there are just enough graphics and maps interspersed to keep it interesting. 

Each of the profiles are categorized into chapters that cover themes such as: Kids Saving the Environment, Kids Standing Up for Themselves, Kids Helping Others, Kids Overcoming Challenges, and Kids Using Talents and Creativity. There's parity between genders, with both strong boy and girl figures represented from around the globe.

The applications for this book are really endless. We'll be examining and reading closely (yes, my new buzzword) to look for similarities and differences between the kids, their skill sets, curiousities, and their causes. We'll also explore the causes themselves and look at the effects of each young adult's efforts.

I am predicting that my reluctant readers will be particularly drawn to these mini biographies for a number of reasons. I would imagine that parents of reluctant readers would want to try this book with their own children. It offers a global perspective, using real-life examples, and delivers text in short, easy to digest snippets. It could easily satisfy independent reading requirements and kids may be sparked to become change agents themselves!

I borrowed a copy from our local library, but it's well worth purchasing for $9 on Amazon.

If you read it with your children or students, please leave a comment and let me know if they enjoyed it!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

"Notice and Note" an amazing book for teachers and parents

With the advent of the Common Core Curriculum Standards teachers are being asked to present their students with texts that are more rigorous. In addition, we are being encouraged to engage students in close reading. No, that's not hold the book closer and read! It's strategic reading of text excerpts multiple times with a focus on various aspects of theme, conflict, characterization, and author's purpose. This isn't necessarily anything new for most teachers, but it does present an opportunity for us to dig a bit deeper and reflect on our instructional practices.

I stumbled across an amazing book that does just that! Not only can teachers benefit from its content, parents who are interested in working with their children to enhance comprehension can use this too.
The premise of the book is that all  of the commonly read literature in grades 2-12 contains "signposts" or signals that good readers attend to while reading. Here's a summary list that the authors created after analyzing numerous fiction texts:

1. Memory Moment - when a character stops and remembers something that happened earlier. This is a great time to stop as a reader and ask yourself why this event is important to the character or the plot.

2. Words of the Wiser - sometimes a character receives significant advice from another character (usually an older/wiser person). Often times this leads us to the themes and lessons in the book.

3. Again and Again - when a reader sees situations, phrases, or statements being repeated over and over, he or she should stop and reflect on the importance. Maybe you'll learn something about the theme, or it could be a foreshadow.

4. Aha Moment - sometimes characters figure something out or realize something that they should have seen all along. Again this leads us to themes, conflicts, and possible understanding of character development.

5. Contrasts and contradictions - characters and situations sometimes aren't as they appeared previously. Pause when this happens and consider why this is significant and what it means to the character and to the plot.

6. Tough Questions - when a character stops and asks him or herself a tough question you often find clues to the themes and conflicts in the story if you pause and wonder about its importance or significance.

If you would like to read more about how to use these signposts in your instruction, find questions that scaffold reader thinking, and see sample lessons, you must buy the book! It's well worth the $20.00 on Amazon.

I used these signposts with my class as a summative assessment for the book "Number the Stars" over the past two days, and I was very impressed with the critical thinking and analysis that I saw as I observed students working collaboratively to find text evidence of these signposts. Even my reluctant readers were enjoying finding and describing the significance of their evidence.

Parents can use these signposts while reading aloud to their children, or as activators to get kids thinking while they do their independent reading. For example, challenge your child to find at least one signpost during their reading time and stop to tell you about it's significance.

Teachers should really consider buying this book and collaborating with grade level colleagues to introduce it to your students. You'll be glad you did!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Blue Orange Games

I have purchased many games from this company and have not been disappointed yet. Our most recent find is "Golden Gate".

It's a relatively quick game, played in 5 rounds. The tin box is sturdy and the cards and chips are high quality. It's for 2-4 players and rated ages 7 to adult. I must say that I enjoyed playing it and so did my kids. The object of the game is to be the first to play all the cards in your hand and earn the most chips in the process.  Players need to sequence cards either by going up (0,1,2,3...) or down (7,6,5,4...) while keeping in mind that green cards are neutral and red cards left in your hand will penalize you at the end of the game. Gold cards earn chips, but a player needs to be strategic in when he or she plays them. The longer you can hold onto and play a gold, the higher score chip you'll earn. Since it's a five round event, you have a chance to make up for a poorly played round. Like many games of this genre, there's a bit of luck and a bit of strategy, which is perfect for those children who maybe aren't ready for "full-on" strategy games. The educational value isn't huge, but children do need to think about whether to count up or down based on their hands, and the count "resets" at 0. That means that a count down from 0 goes to 10, 9, 8 and so on. A count up from 10 goes to 0, 1, 2, 3. Also, at the end, chip tallies need to be added (the values are 10, 20, 30, 40) and that makes for a perfect opportunity to practice mental math. At appx. $12.00 this game is well worth its value. 

Another wonderful and fun Blue Orange Game is Spot It! We have the basic version:

Since purchasing this last fall, the company has come out with a number of themed versions of the game based on sports teams, holidays, and basic shape/number recognition. The idea is amazingly simple, yet so much fun to play. Basically, you're looking for matches on cards (and each card has a match with another no matter what). The images that you are trying to match will likely be different sizes and it takes careful examination to find the right combination. It really levels the playing field between adults and kids.

The beauty of the game is that it has high replay value. There are many variations in the directions and the game is never the same regardless of which way you choose to play. It's quick and easy and lends itself to playing at the beach, a restaurant, or even on a plane. Although this game is fun for all, it's particularly useful if you have a child at home or school who needs help and practice with visual discrimination.