Monday, October 27, 2008

Monday Monday

Feeling fed up on a Monday is never a good sign for the rest of the week.

My frustration has been growing lately because I feel like I spend more time doing paperwork than actually teaching. When I meet with my students for a mini lesson, I have to fill out a checklist where I note whether they have "mastered, attempted or not attempted" the strategy I am teaching that day. When I meet with my students for guided reading, I have to fill out a checklist where I note whether they have "mastered, attempted or not attempted" a list of about 15 behaviors. I also have to fill out a sheet where I write down what I observed, what I coached them on, what focus question I asked them before they read and what teaching point I left them with after they read. When I meet with my students for strategy lessons, I have to fill out a label where I write down what I taught them and what I observed. This is besides all the data from our assessments and running records, which we're starting to do again next week.

I absolutely understand that keeping data is a necessary part of teaching, but it's really hard to fill out all these checklists and labels and teach at the same time. If I'm meeting with four kids in a strategy lesson, and I'm trying to write down everything that's going on, some of my attention is being taken away from those students.

My frustration is also coming from the fact that I don't actually decide what I'm going to teach my students. All of the teachers on my grade got together and planned our teaching points based on the Teachers College curriculum. Some days, as I'm teaching, in my head I'm thinking, "I hate this teaching point and I find it completely irrelevant to my students' actual needs." We're trying to get permission to use teaching points from other grades -- for instance, I'm teaching second graders, but all of them are reading at a first grade level, so doesn't it make sense for me to use the first grade teaching points? That's not dumbing it down; it's just tailoring the curriculum to their actual reading levels. For example, next month's unit is all about characters, and one of our teaching points is something about noticing when the characters in our books "go on internal journeys." Like, am I really going to teach these kids who are reading C level books (sample text: "I kick the ball. I pass the ball") about their characters going on internal journeys? How on earth are they going to apply those strategies to their own texts?

But anyway, for right now I'm using these ridiculously high-level teaching points. And then if my kids don't master the skill -- which they don't because some of the skills I'm teaching them are totally irrelevant to their particular needs -- I have to base my strategy lessons off the checklist I completed for my mini lessons. Which means I'm spending all this time trying to make sure they master the skill of, say, "capturing their ideas on a post-it," when what they really need is, like, "how to get our mouths ready to say the first sound in the word." Grrrr.

Meanwhile, while all this is going on I keep getting pulled from my classes to do coverages of other classes, so my actual class time is becoming all fragmented and choppy and I can't keep track of what I'm teaching when or what I'm teaching to whom. Next week we're starting running records again, which is nerve-racking because (a) it's taking away more instructional time, (b) TC just gave us all new running records, which means I killed 8,000 trees making copies of the old running records that I can no longer use, and (c) I have a sinking suspicion that most of my kids aren't ready to move up, and my administration always gives the whole grade a list of which teacher's students made gains and whose didn't. Glargh.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Does testing equal teaching?

It's been a while! This is mostly because I spent all week grading my students' TC assessments. One month ago, they took these new Teachers College spelling assessments. We were told we would eventually get together as a grade and go over the procedure for grading them (it's not as simple as "correct" or "incorrect"; they actually get points for various word features like initial consonants and short vowel sounds).

The giant pile of assessments sat on my desk for a month, until Thursday, when we had our meeting where we learned how to grade them and were informed that our administration would like us to finish grading them by Monday so they can be plugged into the computer. Excuse me? We sat on this for a month and then we're given three days (two of which, I might add, are weekend days) to get it done? Most of the teachers I work with had fewer than 12 to grade; I have 51 students. Two lists of 25 words each equals 102 spelling tests on which I had to analyze every word and then add up the number of "feature points" per word. Plus, the grading grid is naturally microscopic, as to fit all the information in, so I was hunched over my desk all day yesterday trying to fit the numbers in my tiniest handwriting. Not to mention the fact that my students cannot spell, so I had a lot of deciphering to do to make sure they were still getting credit for all the "word features" they did include.

Allegedly, all this data is going into a computer that will spit out oodles of fascinating information about exactly what my students need to work on (I can tell you right now: most of them have their consonants down cold, but those long vowel patterns like the o-e in hope and the i-e in shine? Ouch), but what's killing me is that November is a week away and we'll be starting running records and this assessment again. Are we really going to see enough of a seismic shift in a month's time that it's worth taking away our instructional time to administer this blasted thing again, not to mention our personal sanity to grade it? I mean, we haven't even looked at the data yet, let alone made any attempt to use the data in order to drive our instruction, so it's highly unlikely that we'll see any why are we wasting our time?

Part of the assessment is sitting with one kid at a time while he or she reads eight lists of high-frequency sight words. It's easy to do -- they (hopefully) just shoot down the list, all "the a and he she it they will" without stopping to take a breath -- but it takes forever, and meanwhile no one's getting a guided reading group or a strategy lesson or an individual conference that day because I'm checking off sight words. I'm thinking it'll take at least two weeks to finish all my running records and these assessments, especially in the midst of all the other stuff that goes on that precludes reading, so that's two weeks where I'm not actually, you know, teaching reading, and then our administration wonders why our kids aren't improving, like they're supposed to learn these reading strategies by osmosis or something...unless they think that testing actually equals teaching?

Monday, October 20, 2008

(More) guidance for guided reading

Recently someone commented on my post about guided reading, hoping for more information on what it is and how it works. I am by no means an expert on guided reading, but I will do my best!

So, first there's the defintion of guided reading provided by this handy little article I found on What it means in my day-to-day teaching life is that I gather up all the students in my group who are reading at a certain level -- say, E -- and we get together to read a book that's a level F. So it's more challenging than their independent level, which is why we work at it together and I give my struggling readers lots of support.

Personally, I love guided reading. I really get to see every day how it helps my struggling readers -- it is scaffolding at its best. When I meet with my really low readers to do guided reading, I do a lot of scaffolding. First we talk about the book without even opening it -- what do we notice about the cover, etc. I try to connect their prior knowledge to what the book will be about. For example, with my E level readers we just read a book called My Haircut, so we had a little conversation about who cuts our hair and if we ever had a bad haircut.

Then we take a little "picture walk" through the book -- we slowly turn through the pages and notice things about the pictures, making predictions about what might be happening in the story. As we're going I point out some tricky words that I know will give them trouble (either because they're hard to sound out or because they have an unfamiliar meaning), and I have them put their fingers on the word and repeat it.

Finally before they start to read I give them a "purpose for reading" -- this is fancy Teachers College talk for a comprehension question that I plant in their minds before they read, like, "While you're reading today I want you to think about how the boy is feeling when he's getting his hair cut."

Then they start to read the book independently. While they're reading (theoretically they are reading "with the voice in their brains," but most of my readers are still reading out loud), I listen in and "coach into" them. So if a reader is stuck on a word, I might prompt them to try a certain strategy.

Usually my low readers make it through a book pretty quickly, and then we come back together to have a discussion -- first we talk about the comprehension question I asked them before we started, and then I choose a teaching point to leave them with. For instance, if I noticed that all the readers in my group were stuck on words where they could have used the picture to help them, I might show them how next time they can try to use the picture to help them tackle a tricky word -- I give them a quick chance to practice that strategy, and then off they go!

My commenter asked how guided reading can be effective when children don't have exposure to phonics. I think the answer is -- it can't! Everything works in conjunction with everything else. Our kids get the majority of their phonics work not during Readers' Workshop but through a program called Fundations (which I also happen to love). I try as best I can to integrate that phonics work into guided reading -- for example, today in a guided reading group, we talked about the "oa" vowel team and how "when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking." In another guided reading group today, I coached a girl who was having trouble with the word "morning" -- when I asked her to look at the end of the word, she immediately recited, "i-n-g, ring, ing," which is straight out of the Fundations script.

I have even done some successful guided reading groups with really low-level readers -- kids who don't speak a word of English. In that case, we all kind of read the book together and I modeled reading techniques like one-to-one correspondence and matching pictures with words. In that case, of course, guided reading isn't going to be the thing that teaches them how to read. But along with word in phonics, it can be the thing that bumps them up to a higher level!

I hope this was an adequate response!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Workin' hard for the money

How much work should teachers do outside of school?

This weekend was a three-day weekend. So on Friday I met up with some friends for dinner and a movie. On Saturday my fiance and I went to his office's company picnic, went for a run together and ordered takeout for dinner. On Sunday I ran for 4 hours (as part of my training for the NYC marathon in November, I was doing my last 20-mile run) and spent the rest of the day passed out on the couch. Today I had a doctor's appointment, and then I went shopping.

In short, it was a delightful three-day weekend, except that I did zero work or planning for the next week (unless you count the few minutes I spent lying in bed this morning planning my mini lesson for tomorrow).

This isn't to say that I'm under-planned. In fact, I'm reasonably confident (I say "reasonably" only because it's gotten to the point where I'm a tad scared to open up my plan book) that not only do I have my teaching points all lined up, but my guided reading groups and strategy lessons are all put together as well. That's because I generally work my butt off during my hours in school; I get to school a full hour before classes begin and I'm busy every second until the end of the day, including the few precious moments when I'm shoveling my lunch into my mouth. I do all this so I can leave school as soon as it's over and get in my marathon training run and still have time to shower and eat dinner and relax.

I bring work home from school every night. But I only do that work at home maybe three or four nights out of seven. And the other three or four nights? I feel guilty.

How much work should teachers do outside of school? How much work do you do outside of work?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Falling into place

There's nothing like hitting your stride! Last week as we wrapped up our TC assessments, I finally did some lessons that really seemed to click with my struggling readers. At the end of the period they were all coming up to me wanting to share strategies they had been using to help them figure out tricky words. They all want to know when I'm going to "test them" so they can move up to a higher reading level. (Ack -- I can't believe November running records are right around the corner!)

One thing that bugs me about the very structured workshop model is that no matter how well I plan in advance, I always seem to come up with a better way of teaching a strategy when I'm in the middle of teaching it, so I adjust my teaching accordingly. Of course there shouldn't be anything wrong with that, but I'm afraid that if I get observed and this happens, it'll just look like I didn't have a plan.

I'm gearing up for observations soon because my AP followed me around the school all day. By that I mean that she was observing all the second grade teachers during reading -- so I saw her in each second grade classroom every period. My lessons were going so well that I almost wish she had been observing me!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Bugging out

Welcome to October! We still have no word on whether guided reading for the lower levels is supposed to last two days or three days. We have no word on how to grade our latest TC assessments (which are piling up like hotcakes in my office). What we do have, however, is roaches. Big roaches! Baby roaches! And all the roach sizes in between!

Apparently they are living in our chart paper, and when our custodian visited our office (mostly to laugh at us silly, roach-averse women), he offered to throw it away. I practically lunged at him and pried it from his hands, since we've already been told that because of budget cuts, we won't be seeing any more chart paper for a while. "It's a school!" I screeched. "We need paper! We can't just throw all the paper away!"

Then a monster roach scuttled out of one of the pads. Ick.

So now I have a new title around the office: Miss Brave, roach exterminator extraordinaire. Like most normal people, I do not enjoy roaches, but I don't have a problem killing them, either -- so when one of my colleagues spies a roach lurking in the vicinity, she need only squeak out, "Miss Brave!" and I go running for a paper towel in order to facilitate the big squash. We have already spied a cluster of dead roaches underneath our (broken) computer and printer, so we know that someone sprayed at some point, but it's really the live ones I'm more concerned about; there's nothing like starting your morning with someone telling you, "Um, Miss Brave, you have tentacles waving at you from underneath your desk." I come to school a full hour before first period starts -- when the only ones in the office are me and the roaches -- and I used to be able to use that hour to get some work done, but now I use it to kill roaches.

Apparently if we want to get some roach motels or something, we have to do it on the sly. Because there's nothing like using your own money to pay for bug poison for your place of work.