Saturday, January 24, 2009

More books for more boys

This week I sat down with William and introduced him to the collection of books I'd gotten for him at the public library. I put them all in a bin in his classroom that I labeled "Miss Brave's Books for William" and told him he could choose books from that bin to read during our independent reading time. During lunch that day, William's teacher came to my office and reported: "Whatever's in that bin, he loves it. He keeps walking by it and peeking over and asking to take from it."

Which brings me to Jonathan. Jonathan is in my reading group along with William and in perhaps an even more dire situation. He has also been held over at some point in his life (I think in first grade), and he is still reading at level F. That's maybe middle of first grade level. It's very low.

Jonathan hates reading and is probably less motivated than William. He's also a total drama king and very easily spirals into tantrums and angry outbursts during reading. If someone accidentally steps on his books on the way to the mini lesson, for instance, he'll react in an angry huff and pull his sweatshirt over his head. If he is playing with something during the lesson and I ask him to please put it away, he will first (1) deny he was doing anything wrong, (2) blame the wrongdoing on someone else, and then (3) retreat into a corner behind a bookshelf, where he will put his hands over his ears and pull his sweatshirt over his head. Jonathan is always the victim, always the wronged party, and always full of excuses as to why he isn't making good choices. (Jonathan also became a big brother this year after eight years of being an only child, and the transition has not been easy, to say the least.)

Jonathan was absent the day I had the "what do you like" meeting with William, and as it turns out, he was hugely jealous of William's stockpile of library books. In the twenty minutes it took for me to figure this out, during which time I was futilely attempting to do guided reading with another group, Jonathan had destroyed two book baggies ("Why did you rip apart your book baggie?" "Because I didn't like it") and was working on a third. "I'm not going to read my books until I read them books," he told me, resentfully gesturing to William's books.

Aaaargh. So I resolved to have a meeting with Jonathan. It wasn't easy, because as I didn't want to reward him for ripping apart book baggies rather than approaching me maturely about the problem I had to wait until he made a positive choice in order to pull him aside for the meeting. (Side comment to my administration: Issues like this are why it's virtually impossible to do one guided reading group and one strategy lesson per reading period in addition to the mini lesson and the share, because hello, when children are having total meltdowns I sort of consider that an important issue to address.)

"What would you like to read about?" I asked Jonathan.

"Motorcycles, bikes, airplanes..." Surprise! Sound familiar? In addition, Jonathan added to the list football, basketball, ice skating (...I think he meant ice hockey, not figure skating), dogs, trains, cars, buses and virtually every other form of transportation.

So off I go, back to the public library. This actually dovetails nicely with our next unit on non-fiction, since our school library is so pitiful in the non-fiction department anyway. Now I have to hope I can find non-fiction books on the appropriate level...

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Today, while I was covering a kindergarten class (don't even ask), I was showing the kids how I taught last year's kindergarteners to shape letters with their bodies. (Funnily enough, this morning while I was covering a first grade class -- again, don't even ask -- I saw many of my friends from last year's kindergarten, who were eager to reminisce about how we used to shape letters with our bodies!)

I stretched my arms all the way out to their sides and started out with letter T. "Look!" I said. "Don't I look like the letter T?"

And then a little voice piped up with these exact words: "You look like Jesus when he was on the cross!"

And even though I was miffed that I lost two instructional periods due to coverages today, it may have all been worth it for that comment.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

My reading goal is to remain calm

Because I'm such a winner (well, also because it was in the single digits outside and I didn't feel like leaving my apartment for the evening), I spent most of Friday evening rephrasing my students' goals into kid-friendly language. Their goals are lifted right from the state standards, but it's not like I can expect my second graders to walk around saying, "My goal is to check the accuracy of my decoding using the context to monitor and self-correct." So this is what I've come up with to "translate" their goals:

Check accuracy of decoding using context to monitor and self-correct.
My reading goal is to sound out tricky words and then ask myself: Does that sound right? Does that make sense?

Blend sounds using knowledge of letter-sound correspondences in order to decode unfamiliar, but decodable, one-syllable grade-level words.
My reading goal is to use what I know in Fundations to help me sound out tricky words.
My reading goal is to practice reading tricky words by looking for chunks of letters I already know.

Increase background knowledge by elaborating and integrating new vocabulary and ideas from texts.
My reading goal is to use words from the story to help me talk about my books.

Answer simple questions (like how? why? what if?) in response to texts.
My reading goal is to practice answering questions about my book, like: How did that happen? Why did that happen?

Use comprehension strategies (such as predict/confirm, reread, self-correct) to clarify meaning of text.
My reading goal is to read my books over to make sure I understand the story.
My reading goal is to stop and make a prediction about what will happen next and then read on to find out if I am right.
My reading goal is to listen to myself read the story to make sure all the words sound right.

My tentative plan is to print all these goals out on big labels that I can stick right on their book baggies. Of course, all the kids break their book baggies by swinging them around, so I was considering getting them all new, durable book baggies (and by "book baggie" I mean they cram all their books into a flimsy Ziploc bag, so I was going to buy durable Ziploc bags, and between those and the labels I am looking at spending a fortune of my own money, since the copier at school is still broken and I have been using my own paper and ink to print and make copies at home on my own time, thank you very much Department of Education).

I'm still on the hunt for high-interest/low-readability books. Most of the ones I've found online are for upper elementary or middle schoolers reading at a second or third grade level, but I'm looking for late first grade or early second grade readability. If I can find good ones, I'm going to look into doing a Donors Choose grant, so please send any suggestions my way!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Books for boys

Today, last period, I sat down with William and asked him a question I hardly ever get to ask my students in our stressful world of labels and checklists: "What do you like?" I wrote his answers on a post-it: motorcycles, bikes, cool cars, airplanes, skateboards, scooters and the New York Mets (especially Carlos Beltran).

"Wow," I said as I surveyed the list, "you really like things that go!"

I wanted to encourage William to ask a grown-up at home to bring him to the public library and sign him up for a library card. I told him -- in a sort of "keep this on the DL" kind of way -- that even though in school we tell him he can only choose books from his "just right" level (which has now flown all the way up to I!), at the public library he can take out any books he wants, and it's free! William frequently says things like, "I want to read M books," so I suggested that he ask a grown-up at home to read a chapter book with him.

But William seemed dubious. He said something about how his mom thinks that the library will ask you to sign something (I might try to get in touch with Mom and see what I can do). I told him that I would go to my own library and see if I could find some books about motorcycles, bikes, cool cars, airplanes, skateboards, scooters and the New York Mets (especially Carlos Beltran).

When I got to the library, though, I was really disheartened. The library has plenty of books about motorcycles, bikes, cool cars, airplanes, skateboards and scooters (not so many about the New York Mets), but I could tell at first glance they were far above William's reading level. And he's not my only friend in this predicament -- I happen to have other male students who, because they've already been held back at some point, are in second grade but going on nine or ten years old and still reading at a mid-first grade level. They are boys who want to read chapter books, M books, books about motorcycles, bikes, cool cars, airplanes, skateboards, scooters and the New York Mets (especially Carlos Beltran). But instead we make them read these boring books that are, frankly, total snoozefests! I was trying to help one of my frustrated I readers shop for books the other day and I was completely horrified at the selection in his classroom library -- I wouldn't want to read any of those books either!

After William and I talked about what he liked, we talked about one of his new I books, Small Pig by Arnold Lobel. It's about a pig who's looking for some good, soft mud. I could tell William was enjoying it. Pig, mud, what's not to like? That got me thinking that it's not reading that William dislikes; it's reading books like Biscuit. (No offense to Biscuit, but when you're a nine-year-old boy? You're kind of over him.)

Why, why, why aren't there more low-level high-interest books for struggling readers? Books about motorcycles, bikes, cool cars, airplanes, skateboards, scooters and the New York Mets (especially Carlos Beltran)? The public library actually had Dick and Jane books in the Easy Reader section. Dick and Jane! Are there low-level high-interest books out there that I don't know about? If so, please please let me know!

Friday, January 9, 2009

The alphabet marches on

Running record time is here again! I'm actually really pleased at the progress my students are making. Several of them have moved up not one but two reading levels, and our favorite friend Azul has moved up to -- get this -- E!!!! (So you would think he would want to be an F next, right? Well, no, according to Azul, because there are no F books in his classroom library, logically he should jump right from E to G.) I have a few students who came into the year reading at F (sample text: "We're going to the car wash. Wash it, wash it, here we go!") and are now reading at J (sample text: "One winter morning Peter woke up and looked out the window. Snow had fallen during the night. It covered everything as far as he could see").

On the other hand, though, I do have a few students who are either making frustratingly slow progress or no progress at all. I have one little guy who was held over in first grade -- which makes him a year older than his classmates -- who is still reading at D. He's been reading at D for almost a year. And that's after going through first grade (which you're supposed to leave at I the first time around) twice. Compare him to Azul, who only just arrived in the country less than a year ago and has already passed him. It's such a puzzle to figure out why some kids are making such great progress and some aren't progressing at all; obviously something isn't working, but we need to figure out why that is. I honestly feel like I can't even take credit for those F-to-J jumps -- it's like for those students, something just clicked and now they've blossomed like Leo the Late Bloomer.

Of course, even my J students are still below grade level, and at this point I'm starting to worry that some of my lower kids aren't going to catch up. I have one little girl at a G who is one of my sweetest and most hard-working students; unfortunately, she is struggling a lot and has extremely low self-confidence. Her brother tells her that she is stupid and won't make it to third grade, and I'm genuinely concerned that she won't make it to third grade -- not at a level G -- and that will totally destroy her. I'm convinced she has a learning disability -- she has really severe letter reversals -- but by the time the referral paperwork goes through, she'll probably be on her way to repeating second grade anyway, and I just think that will totally crush her. She's one of those students who just kills you because she tries so hard but it just doesn't click. I so don't want her to be held back. It's just that all my students need so much, how can there ever be enough time in the day to help them all?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Of interest

This evening I was, as always, watching NY1, when the host mentioned a website: See Through NY. If you visit it and click on "Payrolls" in the lower left corner, you can find out the exact salary of every single city employee. Which, of course, includes Department of Education employees.

On the one hand, this makes me deeply uncomfortable. I do not want anyone visiting it, putting in my name, and finding out how much I earn. (In fact, if you read this blog and you happen to know me personally: please don't!) But on the other hand...I totally spent the evening finding out that my principal earns a substantial 6-figure salary that is more than twice what I earn.

Of course, the Department of Education salary schedule is already public knowledge, so if you know how many years someone's been in the system, you can take a reasonable ballpark guess as to what they earn. But to have it all warehoused in a database? Dangerous, very dangerous!