Fluency Practice for Beginners

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Fluency Practice for Beginners

Go shopping and you can’t miss the back-to-school aisles teeming with school supplies. Parents shop while their  little ones hold on to the last bits of summer. And, teachers? Those who teach in primary grades, gear up to get their new beginning readers off to a running start. Over the next few months, novice readers will be expected to learn how to decode words, increase vocabulary and develop comprehension strategies.  The lucky ones will become confident, fluent readers.

Some students will arrive at school with strong reading skills, while others  count on teachers to get them started. How reading is taught will affect the trajectory of student-learning in unexpected ways. Shaky starts will cause some kids to lose faith in themselves as learners. Teachers know that confidence building is an essential part of reading instruction!

So, what is a teacher to do for the children who see classmates, zooming through text, while they’re still trying to figure out the phonetic code? Clearly, these children can benefit from explicit phonics instruction. However; the actual practice of reading should not be put on hold until later. Students can begin to read while they’re learning sound/letter correspondence. They can and should have access to learning the other important elements of reading, with the other students in the class.

Equal Access to Learning Elements of Reading

Small group phonics  instruction (which many teachers tie  into spelling and word study)  must be differentiated to meet the individual needs of students. However; comprehension strategies and the acquisition of vocabulary can be opened up to every child in whole group settings.

Comprehension skills can be developed during read and think-alouds, oral discussion and thematic units of study. When you read and think aloud, with kids, you are creating opportunities for the non-readers to interject their thoughts and ideas, on level ground with those who can already decode. Those who decode learn that reading is more than just sounding out words. Reading is thinking. All children are exposed to new books, stories, authors, ideas, vocabulary and genres. Students are invited  into an expanded world of reading.

Fluency for One and All

Teaching fluency is tricky and requires a more individualized approach.   If text is too difficult, students can begin to look at reading as a tortuous endeavor.  Fluent reading is something that the beginning reader doesn’t always get to experience. While others fly, they plod and can become disengaged.  Levelled books that come with reading programs are, often, quick reads with very few words and pages. Once the book has been introduced,  a child can read through one in about 3 minutes. Any discussions of these books are fruitless because of they lack substance. Compared to whole group discussions centered around rich storylines or topics of interest, these books fall flat.

Obviously; the children in these reading groups are in desparate need of some additional options. If you can’t find what you need for these children; create it! Kids want to read and turn pages, so this is what you can do:

  • Pick a story or topic that has been discussed with the class.
  • 01d48e9ef0a81855487659df1829fe77f1f4fcc5c4Type simple sentences in large font.
  • Start each new sentence at the left margin.
  • Insert  vocabulary that has been implanted in their heads, during talks.
  • Use simple sight words.
  • Repeat ideas and sentences.
  • Add student names, if it works.
  • Type up several pages of text, varying sentence structure.
  • Staple it together; like a book.

Watch their faces light up when when they realize that they can read the material!

Simplify if Needed

Find the right level. Start with what a child knows. For example, if Andy knows the words, “boy”, “I”, “can”, “the”, “me” and “see”, then create sentences using his name and those words:

Can you see Andy?
Can Andy see me?
I see Andy.
Andy sees me.
The boy can see Andy.
I see the boy, Andy.

Remember to make the font large and don’t stop at just one page. Type out three or four pages, varying the order of the words so it is not just  one repeated sentence. Let him begin to feel what it’s like to read full pages of text. Prove to him  that it is possible to read. Then; make new books with more words, until he is reading about the same topics that you’re all discussing in class. 0147a01847d6e2023bd815eab12b0084e7436bed16


With all of your students firmly on the path to learning to read; perhaps they’ll be among the fortunate ones who learn to be confident, fluent readers!

Take a Leap: STEM/STEAM Activities in a Primary Classroom

If you want to try STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)  or STEAM (STEM with Art)  activities in your classroom; you need to just jump in and test the waters. Teaching kids to analyze mistakes so ideas can be refined and improved, is integral to the process. So it should be  with teachers. You need to start somewhere! Take the leap, then go back and see what you want to change, keep or improve.  Included in this post is  one week of STEM/STEAM projects that kept first, second and third graders engaged and enthused during our last week of the school year. Photos are attached to show you what it looked like, when the children worked to follow out the tasks with specified limitations.013b10e90c239a9f1e615e12d53145f91aa4eefb12

To begin with; I (the non-expert in STEM/STEAM projects) armed myself with craft sticks, straws, small plastic cups, string,  newspaper, assorted scrap papers,  masking tape and my many years of experience in the classroom.

Their first job was to build the tallest standing tower; using newspaper and masking tape. They were allowed to pick partners (up to groups of 3) or work alone. The tower could be taped to a table or floor but had to be able to stand on its own (not attached to another standing structure or leaning against something). At the end; we discussed what worked, what didn’t and what might work better the next time. In particular; we focused on the bases of their structures. Most agreed that a base; wider than the actual tower was a necessity. We took note of the  many tripods holding up the more successful towers.

The next day, they were given a plastic cup,  a yard of string, masking tape and twenty straws. They were to suspend a cup from the highest tower they could make. It would be tested on how much weight it could hold without the whole structure collapsing. Once again; I gave them the chance to work alone or select partners (up to 3) to work with. After they were done, we saw how many pennies each cup could hold. They found that some of the highest ones collapsed far too soon. The lower, more sturdy structures held more pennies.

Taking the knowledge that we had gleaned from these “warm-up” projects, we launched into what we called: The Amusement Park Project! This work was to span over the last three days of school. A first, second and third grader was assigned to each group. 0139b55588278c91456f88f4438b9eff0f08faf0df_00001 We began by doing a guided drawing of a roller coaster and a ferris wheel. Each child drew their own. As we did the drawing; we discussed the trusses, angles, circles, gravity’s pull of the seats on the wheel and many other features. Then we watched Part One of The Discovery Channel-Engineering Thrills; which was about the physics behind amusement park rides. After these preliminary activities, the children were ready to go forward. Here’s how we organized the task:

  • Each team was given a 18″ x 18″ of cardboard. They were told to build a part of a larger amusement park. Include, rides, shops and anything you think you would see at an amusement park.
  • Bins of materials were set out on a table for easy access.
  • Bins contained craft sticks, straws, cups, string, scrap paper and masking tape
  • I demonstrated a couple of ideas; such as looping a strip of paper and reminded them to remember everything that they had learned about building stable structures.0178cc84faf9030d9550b5d91ab5bdacec8e8d4be0_00001

 The children were so invested in the outcome that occasionally tempers would boil over. When this happened, they were then instructed to leave the project, go to the floor, sit in a circle, and discuss the problem. Then, they could  return to the project when they were ready. That seemed to help defuse most problems. We saw these moments as chances to make the point that adults don’t always agree either but they have to learn to work together.01909f6639afee3926cdb075955429fac3bb02be8d_00001

At the end of each session, we put all of the squares together to create one huge park. We formed a circle around the park to compliment, critique and talk about what we learned. One boy worked on a Port-a-Potty for two days. He had a door that swiveled open and closed. The walls were too short, in the beginning, and he had to problem solve how to increase privacy. Two girls wanted to know where people would wash their hands. The next day, someone on the team pointed out the sink that they built to solve the hand-washing problem.014a66ab098da5961a7732f60960ffe1457af2a283

Throughout the three days; roller coasters, bumper cars, ferris wheels, food shops and  games popped up on the amusement park grounds. One team added a play area for babies because: “moms need breaks!”These were accompanied by lengthy explanations as to why they were necessary additions. Many features were built as a direct result of  a critique that came out during the previous debriefing.

While the amusement park continued to develop, I researched STEM/STEAM publications and observed the children in this highly engaging work. I f you are a teacher who is hesitating to bring these type of tasks into your classroom, I hope that this  might ease your mind.  These ideas may help you to focus your thoughts:

  • Make sure that tasks relate to problems that come up in real-world situations.
  • Insist that, given a limited amount of materials, children work to engineer or fabricate certain structures.
  • Have materials collected and ready to go before you begin.
  • Come up with ways to keep individuals accountable but leave tasks open ended enough to encourage creativity.
  • Require formal ways to record results.
  • Emphasize the cycle of using mistakes to learn from and refine projects.013918c6573ae10757302b0ba84bdb62075a35376e

Now…go ahead and jump in!




Science in the Elementary Classroom: Bugs and Nature Study

When you take a class or attend a training on new NGSS Science Standards, there is a tendency to leave wondering how to fit it all in.    It seems that something has to give. Or, rather0124e39e6b1f9a62791f0c8985b93fa68d1bb8a89b, we need to look at our classroom schedules and curriculum, in a different way. Instead of looking at reading and writing as separate subjects, in our classrooms, we need to look at them as the tools that children will use to investigate and record findings.

We began our Bugs and Nature Study, in my 1-2-3 multiage classroom,  with a guided drawing lesson. We drew and labeled the anatomies of an insect and  a spider. Taking my cue from Albert Einstein’s quote, “Look deep into nature and you will understand everything better,” I believe that once children learn to find different characteristics between species, they remember to notice, explore  and think more about  their natural surroundings. They start off in the world, with those skills; I just think they need to know that we honor that approach in our classrooms. It is kind of a rekindling of that spirit that they’re born with!


My 1-2-3 Multiage class meets with sixth grade buddies, every week. To better understand the different characteristics of arthropods, we had them build insects and spiders using natural materials found in the park, next to our school. As the sixth grade teacher and I circulated around to check on groups, it was plain to see that the discussions were an important part of the task.

To build interest, when we started the unit of study, I placed a imagepraying mantis egg sack into a glass terrarium. As we wait for the arrival of our babies, it is the first place that most of the children look when they enter the classroom each morning. In the meantime, we were able to watch meal worms morph into black beetles. It was a quick way for the kids to witness the process. Of course, the day the meal worm container was dropped on the floor; spilling out the contents on the classroom rug, it was an unexpected surprise. The ones who picked up the larvae to put them back into the container caused great concern for those who would not touch them!

Alongimage the way, we created a Dragonfly Report, together. They all made their own copy, with me modeling expectations from time to time. We included physical characteristics, diet, habitat and interesting facts. When they later chose their own insects to report on, they knew what to do.


Each child chose an insect to write a report on. When they got started the room looked like a busy beehive. They would work; some on the floor and some at tables, with papers strewn all around them. image


In addition to content, revising and editing was encouraged as the reports were finalized. During this whole time, we were adding information that did not pertain to their reports into a “Bugs and Nature Study” folder.

Finally, we brought our unit of study to a close with a trip to Oxbow Nature Study Area, which is run by the National Wildlife Federation. We walked on a trail, along the Truckee River, saw deer, malimageimagelard ducks and ducklings, a woodpecker and a water snake. The tour guide, talked to us about the interdependence between plants and animals.

Afterwards, tubs of life, pulled out of the river, were set up for our students to look for mayflies and other insects. Water droppers, plastic dishes and magnifying glasses served as their tools for exploration.

We’re still waiting for our praying mantis but our Bugs and Nature Study folders went home this week. Attached to the top was a list of contents and grades.

As we work our imageway through new science expectations, let’s remind ourselves  that it is not about; what to give up, as much as it is; how to combine and restructure our approach to teaching. It is about layering subject matter; one on top of the other instead of parceling out time to each subject, as if they are  not related in any way. One of the greatest benefits can be that it’s more fun for students and the teacher!


Oh! And as my friend, Theresa said, in the previous article, “Don’t forget the art! To do the pictures below; they drew bug jars and content with black Sharpie markers. Then they colored some of the bugs and plants inside the jars. Later they did a watercolor wash over them, using random colors. It was hard for me to send them home, so I took pictures!


Fumbling Through NGSS with the Best of Intentions

I’m working my way through the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), as I’ve been doing for the past two years, and man, it’s a tough trudge.  I read it, try to break it all down into smaller, more teachable bite-sized pieces, but it’s a tough slog through scientific edu-speak.

I take a breath, think positive thoughts, and dive in.

At this time of the year in first grade, we are all about plants and animals.  In abbreviated  NGSS-lingo, it’s:

1.Structure, Function, and Information Processing

1-LS1-2. Read texts and use media to determine patterns in behavior of parents and offspring that help offspring survive.

1-LS3-1. Make observations to construct an evidence-based account that young plants and animals are like, but not exactly like, their parents.

We have embarked on a variety of plant projects, kicked off by a viewing of a Youtube version of The Tiny Seed (By Eric Carle) and the directed drawing of a plant (flower).

We started with Sharpies to sketch a soil line, then seed, seedling, and flower. Labels and crayon shading came after. This is a student’s work.



  1. We are growing several plants from seeds.  We planted marigolds for Mother’s Day, just after spring break, then began our bi-weekly observations (sketching, measuring, describing) their growth.  IMG_4229 IMG_2969IMG_4230 IMG_4244IMG_2971 IMG_4264
  2. 2.  We used our previously sorted and counted math beans and planted them in baggies, threw in a wet paper towel, and taped them to the sunny windows.  For comparison purposes, we put similar “bean bags” in a dark place, and left one in the window and gave it no water.  IMG_4248 IMG_4273 IMG_2976







We read Tops and Bottoms by Janet Stephens), and then did a whole group stem study with ribs of celery in blue water.  We observed the changes in celery over several days.

IMG_2972 IMG_2973 IMG_2965 IMG_2959

We also incorporated our plant unit into our snack schedule:  apples, Cuties, celery, radishes, carrots.  Each snack day, we decided if we were eating fruits, stems, leaves, roots, or seeds!  The day we ate radishes, I decided to make a graph of the results, and continue our discussion through math time.










Don’t forget the art!

After a lesson on blending colors, we painted with watercolors.  The children chose their color scheme (yellows, greens, reds, purples, etc.) then painted an entire paper blending shades of colors.  The next day, we cut up and shared the pages to make our own flowers.

IMG_3120 IMG_3134 (Edited) IMG_3133 (Edited) IMG_3132 (Edited)

More to come…!

Dirt Soup, Fairy Bridges and Imaginative Play






Sometimes we forget that imaginative play can play an important role in helping children to construct meaning and understanding of the world they live in.

Recently, I was out on the playground, watching over the children at play. The rain had stopped and I noticed an upturned umbrella lying on the ground. It was protecting  an area for two kids to play. They were working at the base of a huge, old oak tree. I asked the girls what they were building. They explained that they were making a fairy bridge with the sticks. When I asked what the stuff in the rounded indentation in the ground011cf2738e03d62f783c0bddd1b85dedb2bd549f63 was, they said, “It’s soup for the fairies!”

They carefully added dirt and seasoned the soup with blades of grass. They put a little of this, a little of that and topped it off with crushed leaves.  I was reminded of how important this type of play can be. It is work (play) built on imagination; the same place that produces works of art, fiction, poetry and inventiveness.

When I think about our uncertain future and advancing technology; it seems more important, than ever, that children visit this place built on imagination. There, they can learn to create, problem solve and face the unknown; secure in the belief that they can figure it out!

Greetings from a Different Vantage Point



Well folks; I have compiled my 30 years of data and the results of my study are in (free of charge, I might add). My conclusion: Poverty has a negative impact on student learning (of course)! I can tell you that children who are well taken care of, well-fed, have a stable place to call “home”, such things as electricity during the winter and  are not grappling with learning a second language,  tend to score higher on academic tests, with less direct instruction from a teacher.


Theresa and I were masters of infusing joy into our multiage classroom, at the same time that we taught and engaged students in endless academic acquisition. We could turn any activity into an academic exercise. Even an argument between two students would morph into a writing exercise. Our one recess often gave us time to work one-on-one with students (at the same time we ate our lunches). Overcrowding in the school, meant that lunch times were staggered so that kids barely had time to get lunches, sit at the tables, and eat. It became all about hurrying and hammering the academics.

I’ve witnessed many changes in my 30 years in education.  I observed, over the years, the benefits of the ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) which recognized the need to bolster opportunities for disadvantaged students.  I also understood a real need to make schools more accountable when NCLB (No Child Left Behind), a new version of ESEA, was authorized. Then I saw NCLB mushroom into some kind of monster (in my opinion) that became a tool to justify measuring the adequacy or inadequacy of teachers and school performances based on children’s’ test  scores.


Before I came to my present job (working in a parochial school) I had been used to, what was referred to as “bell-to-bell teaching”. This is what we  called  using every available minute to teach. “Walk-throughs” could occur anytime during the school day. These were when principals or others who are in positions to help “improve” education made unexpected visits to classrooms. Checklists included such items as; standards posted on the board, students engaged, teacher instructing whole or small group, etc. When I started my job, this year, with 24 children and a full-time aide; I still had the “bell-to-bell” mentality. I’m sure my aide thought I was a bit excessive! But when I saw all of the music, PE, technology and art pullouts; along with 3 full recesses, I thought I would never have the time to teach. Apparently, I was wrong.

It’s true; I don’t have near the time to teach, now, that I had in the Title I schools where I taught for most of my 29 years in the public school system. The children I teach now get to have PE, Visual ARTs, Technology, MUSIC and recesses, regularly. Those things that are so necessary to round out schooling for kids (addressing the “whole  child”) have been squeezed out of the curriculums in the Title 1 schools. Many in at-risk schools  have been robbed of these activities in order to bring up their abilities to test better in math and reading. Sadly, kids who could most benefit from this “whole child” approach are the ones most deprived. This deprivation compounds the other disadvantages that they already have to deal with.

This year, I’ve learned that I need to relax a little. Recently; the children took a computer test that is given in the public school system I retired from. Even though Theresa and I taught rigorously, tirelessly, bell-to-bell and even participated in after school tutoring programs, our class test scores (on average), on this particular test, never looked as good as the average student scores in my present class. This is not to say that our previous students didn’t have fantastic potentials and our belief that they would get where they needed to be. It is just a reality check that many of them carried burdens that my present students (for the most part) don’t have to contend with.  I swear to God (not to be taken lightly, as an employee of a parochial school) that I did not have nearly the time to teach that I had last year, and the years before. It has occurred to me that maybe less exposure to my teaching benefits these kids! At any rate . . . (to the tune of Amazing Grace) I once was inadequate but now I’m not!

There are other factors at play here. The school is small; teachers and staff know children by names. It serves k-8, so often, out on the playground I see older kids kneeling to tie a young child’s shoe, give someone a piggy back ride or take a little one to the office to bandage a skinned knee. At recess, the kids are rambunctious and play hard.  There is a sense of community, which was the reason that Theresa and I continued to have our multiage class . . . well past the point of the school district being “done with it.” We wanted siblings, cousins and family friends in order to capitalize on those things that raise up circumstances for children who tend to have less of other things.

The newest  version of ESEA  has just been put into law and named the ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act). Time will tell if, through the implementation of this re-write, schools will once again regain a sense of balance, sanity and dignity that will help our children (and teachers) to succeed. I hope so, because I love our public schools and want them to be the best at serving; not just the math and reading parts of children’s brains but the “whole child!”01343a0f5be8dd26f6c94b2dbff67c50c807a42eee

A couple of weeks ago, I was showing some second graders how to make a six pointed snowflake, using 60 degree angles. One of the little boys said, “When you opened that snowflake up, it took my breath away,”

On that note, I’d like to offer a toast  to my friends and colleagues in public schools (given from my new vantage point).  Here’s to public schools, with the  wish that our children, who are most in need, have more moments that will take their breath away  and less moments that are attached  test scores, climate surveys or grades!





The Single Teacher Life

I just survived my first nine weeks working without my team-teaching partner. It’s been just me, alone with 25 six-year-olds, for an entire quarter. I understand that most teachers do this stand-alone gig every day, and I am, after all,  in my 26th year of teaching, but I’ve been spoiled, you see.  During the past thirteen years, I’ve had my sidekick, Paula, co-teaching right beside me, and getting me through the crazy joyful roller coaster ride that is the teaching profession.

Even as a singleton, I haven’t lost my zany edge. After reading Stephanie’s Ponytail, by Robert Munsch, my student and I are rocking our sideways and front-facing ponytails!


This year, with a new school, new PLC, totally different classroom, it’s like being a first-year teacher all over again, kind of. Seemingly simple decisions, like how to set up my new classroom, were all the more difficult because I didn’t have someone to bounce my ideas off of.  When it came to setting up classrooms, Paula was the chief wizard.  We’d position our two teacher tables so that we could observe various parts of the classroom (especially that indoor playground known as the bathroom/water fountain area).  We’d negotiate the positions of the bookshelves, kid mail boxes, various charts, etc.  A few days would go by, and then I’d come in one morning, and Paula would have all the tables rearranged because, suddenly, the table configurations were not to her liking. (We eschewed kid desks for the more group-friendly tables).  I’d just laugh, because, really, table arrangements weren’t ever a deal-breaker.  I’ve rearranged my tables once, just once, in twelve weeks of intstruction, and I don’t anticipate moving them again this year.  Really!  (I can hear Paula screaming “Nooooo!”).

Here are my students during “Power Reading” time, enjoying the same arrangement of tables they’ve had nearly all year!

I’ve had to embrace my inner artist.  (Anyone who knows my skills is cackling hysterically right now).  I never knew how thankful I’d be for  Pinterest and Youtube when it comes to how-tos.  While in no way does it make up for having an in-house aritst-teaching partner, it surely helps. Truly, the biggest aid is the thirteen years we spent teaching in the same classroom, where I’d repeatedly participate with the kids in the art lessons incorporated across thematic units.  Paula would insist we were all artists and we could do it!  Now, when I do any directed drawings, I have invisible her perched, rather annoyingly, on my shoulder, telling me I can do it (and to use a Sharpie and just make a flower out of my mistakes!).  What I have embraced is the “just let go and do it” philosophy, and realize that if I just give kids the opportunity, and show that I am also risking with my crappy artistic sense, they produce some amazing things– which is pretty much the point when you’re a teacher, right?

I had to draw a quick key for a Five Keys to Good Health poster. Sadly, this one is not exactly key-like. Embarassing. No Paula to help me. Pinterest can’t save everything!
The kids’ pumpkins and healthy body artwork turned out much better.

I know Paula is secretly howling with glee at the fact that I now have to do all my own organizing and paperwork.  It’s a scary world out here in accountability land. It was much more comfortable to have a partner who obsessed over data and charts, and analyses; one who loved nothing better than to crunch numbers.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I like those little charts to show kids’ growth and all, but keeping track of all the fiddly paperwork that has to go in actual alphabetized folders or be turned in by a deadline?  Ohhh, that stuff just takes sooo much effort on my part:  it’s not part of my DNA!

Never fear, it’s all going pretty well.  I’ve figured out when I can actually use the bathroom (you are so spoiled when there are two of you!), and have modified my tea consumption accordingly.  Kids are kids no matter where they learn, and families just want their kids to succeed, just like the other schools where I’ve worked.  I am still motivated every day by my determination to understand students’ learning styles, scaffold their goals, and utilize their little idiosyncracies for my own devious academic purposes.  But I miss, oh I surely do miss, my teaching buddy, my devious partner in crime, my quiet tolerant partner (who embraces a lively inner demon that makes her so entertaining to be with). I laugh with co-workers and enjoy the foibles of everyday teaching life, but it’s different when no one gets what my raised eyebrow means, or what it means to make a “collection” (one first grade ELL student’s word for “connection” many years ago).  I miss us reaching the boiling point in our (sometimes too-) noisy classroom, and doing the exact same quiet signal at the exact same time without sharing even one exasperated glance.  I miss reading Junie B. Jones, with both of us trying to maintain our laughter at a joke that bypasses the kids.  I miss sending a child with a “serious” problem, especially designed to make Mrs. Carter laugh, but knowing she will have to keep a straight face in front of the kids.  (Like the time– without warning– she sent over a little stinker to me for a confessional because he had been calling his friends to the boys’ bathroom to look at racy pictures –which turned out to be a diagram of a how-to-do-a-breast-exam that he had stolen from his grandmother’s bedside table).

Our school district had a fall break this past week, but the Catholic school where my “retired” partner now teaches is still in session. Inevitably, I found myself in her classroom, doing a read-aloud.  I looked around as I read, and felt as if I were still in our shared classroom. Some things on the walls were different, but I was comfortable with the familiarly created nooks and crannies surrounding me, as well as the charts that looked like those we’ve always built together with our students.

I took a snap of this lovely sequencing chart in Paula’s classroom. Ordering words with a pumpkin life cycle: brilliant.

We’re still in denial, Paula and I.  It feels like we’re just on a temporary hiatus from teaming, and we’ll soon be able to squash ourselves back into one lively rigorous place of learning, after treading water in our single teaching lives for just a little while. Maybe we’ll be able to find a way back to working together someday.  Surely we haven’t reached the end or our Power Team era, when we have so much to offer children (and each other!).  In the meantime, one sure thing is that I gave up a precious afternoon off to go work in her classroom, so guess whose turn it is to come  do some fabulous lesson (accompanied by fabulous art)  in mine?

Ten Points Gleaned

Last week, Theresa and I took a much needed mini retreat in thetree trunk
Sierra Nevada Mountains. Sitting on a deck, taking in the beautiful scenery and fresh, pine-scented air, we talked about our long, 25+
years teaching careers. We had just wrapped up 18 of those years,
teaching together, in struggling Title I schools in the same neighborhood.

treesThis past spring; Theresa and I looked at the young, energetic teachers we worked with and decided that maybe  it was time to pass our torches. Our persistent belief in the kids we taught had never wavered.  We never lost our joy and interest in teaching. It was the reconciling of our work within the system, while, at the same time, doing what we thought was best for our students that was sapping our strength.

The work in Title I Schools is difficult and  many times undervalued. Teacher turn-over tends to be high.  However; we considered it to be important enough to stay on, for years,  because we believed we had a positive impact on many student’s lives. For those who take our spots and attack the job as wholeheartedly as we  did; our writing will always reflect our continued  respect and support for what you do,

For me; the decision to leave meant retiring from the school district and teaching in a private school. For Theresa; it will be teaching at a non-Title I school for the first time in her career. She and I both know that she’ll most likely return to the neighborhood, because that’s where her heart is.  It is just that we both know that experiencing other situations can help round out a teacher’s perspective of what educating children in public schools looks like.

As we get ready to move on to our new assignments we couldn’t help but  leave our friends and colleagues, ten points we’ve gleaned along the way:

  1. Schools are not the same or equal. Different variables; such as funding, school culture and climate, socioeconomic status, children learning English as a second language,  as well as other challenges unique to each school, make them different.shoe tie
  2. Feeling sorry for students doesn’t help them to overcome their obstacles. Building relationships; showing sincere interest and belief in their abilities and helping them access educational opportunities goes further.
  3. The same curriculum in one classroom can look very different in another classroom; depending on the level of the teacher’s responsiveness to individual needs.
  4. All children can learn but they learn at different rates, they possess different strengths and have different ways of learning. ‘One size fits all’ curriculum does not mean it will meet the individual needs of children.
  5. Sometimes help is not help. It depends on the individual who is coming into the classroom to help. If the assistance is at odds with an individualized approach; it can actually cause unnecessary interruptions and distractions.
  6. The Arts are not something to be tacked on to a school’s monet
    curriculum; rather they are an essential part of developing brains, imagination, creativity, problem-solving and possibilities.
  7. Poverty can and does often have a negative effect on a child’s education… and I am not making excuses! Poor prenatal care, lack of proper nutrition, depressed vocabularies, the absence of outside experiences and limited background knowledge create extra hurdles for children of poverty to jump over.
  8. Some children have a higher capacity to acquire new knowledge Readersthan others. Gifted programs are established for students at one end of the continuum. However, for the most part, educators don’t like to acknowledge the challenges of teaching those who fall on the other end of the continuum.
  9. Work ethic can trump a  higher
    intelligence quotient. Watching many of
    our former students grow up; we’ve noticed that the drive to accomplish goals is one of the most important indicators of future success.Irene
  10. Public schools grow citizens who will, one day, make positive contributions to our country.

Over time, we’ve seen the landscape of public school education change drastically. Some things for the better and some for the worse.  As our present school became seriously more overcrowded; we waited for the problem to be addressed but instead were met with more demands for uniformity in both curriculum selection and delivery. Testing became a sore spot, in that teaching was interrupted and instruction time was encroached upon. Test results then drove the decision making to decide where we had gone wrong in the school, as a whole, and what kind of extra assistance we might need to correct our course.  Assessing and extra help (which equated to more bodies in overcrowded classrooms) meant more fractured days of teaching and learning.

Years in this beloved community had taught us many things about our families and students. We had developed trusting relationships that came from working with siblings and cousins over time. We developed ways to help children seek their potentials, without dishonoring their present circumstances. Armed with our senses of humor, teaching expertise and knowledge of how children learn, we circumvented the interruptions as well as we could, even though we knew things could be so much better for kids.

What I like to call a ‘do what works’ program (humor, rigor, relentless pushing and individualizing) could be exhausting when we needed to show that we were using all the required curriculum, as well. The strain on the staff was evident. We had 4 different principals in 6 years’ time. Assistant deans came and went. Time after time, we saw promising young teachers begin their careers at our school; only to move on as quickly as they could. The work is challenging; as we try to help students fulfill basic needs (i.e. breakfast in the classroom, help with school uniforms, connecting families with community services, extra tutoring). The more we put in, the higher the ante became. It was camaraderie with colleagues and a sincere wish to help our students and families that kept us going. So; to the fine teachers who continue the work… we send our thanks for what you do, and will do. Know that we are, and will continue to be two of  your biggest cheerlleaders!


Dorable Chicks and Family Matters

From, Secret Admirer.
From, Secret Admirer.

On the week before Spring Break the children were bickering; a lot more than usual.  There were recess problems, lunch problems, and unkind things said from one best friend to another. Groups of three were leaving one out. There was eye rolling and, “No you can’t work here,” etc.

Theresa and I worked preventatively and proactively. We pulled table groups apart; giving them all a bit more breathing room. Then we had each child make a little egg pocket, passed out hundreds of little paper chicks and told them to write kind notes to one another. Everyone agreed that the chicks were adorable, so Andy; a first grader took the adjective, adorable to mean part of its name; “dorable chicks.”  new chick2


The children took their “dorable chicks” to their spots and proceeded to write lovely notes to each other. “I love the way you make me laugh.” “Your hair is long and beautiful.” Of course, the kids were ready for spring break, and, like any family that needs a little “quiet or alone time”, we saw some problems continue. We didn’t let it get us down though because we really do think of our classroom as a family; a family that extends well beyond the boundaries of our classroom walls. In that family atmosphere we have tried to provide students with the same quality of education that we would want for our own kids and grand kids.

Sometime during our work with the egg and chicks, Andy leaned his head on my shoulder, and asked, “Did you do these ‘dorable’ chicks with Freddy? Lauro? Aileen? Eric?” and I believe my heart skipped a beat. For him the family connection is something that he holds dear to his heart. Even when he was in kindergarten, he was talking to us as he boarded the bus each day. Years ago, we taught his older brother, Freddy,  who is now set to enter college next fall. We also taught his other brother and two cousins. What that means to Andy seems immeasurable. Sometimes he even signs the names of all of the kids in his family on the top of his paper. It’s probably his way of reminding us that “we are family.”

Theresa and I have both spent most of our teaching lives working in Title 1 Schools. We’ve done so because we both believe that public schools are a critical part of democracy and we want to help our students become positive contributors to our society. Much of our work has been done by working directly with families over a span of many years. However; when a friend recently approached us about teaching in a private school; I have to tell you that my knee-jerk reaction was to say, “Yes!” I’ll tell you why.
We love the community we work with and we believe that our students can succeed. But believing in slow, sustainable measures of success can run contrary to the need for miraculous spikes in test scores. We are required to show immediate results; even when we know, pedagogically speaking, that real progress can take time. The work is seriously demanding and is something like working triage; doing what we can with a whole lot of knowledge and a box of band aids. Even though we receive compliments, off the record, the basic message is; what you’re already doing is not working . . . so, what changes are you going to make next year. No wonder that I took the idea of teaching in a private school as something akin to being air-lifted out of a war zone. In fact, as I write this, I can hear the theme song from the old movie, Mash, playing in my head.

One idea for next year is to discontinue our multiage classroom; which often includes siblings and cousins together in the same classroom (for example: a new first grader might be in the same class as his second grade sibling). For many years, we’ve been accepted as those who didn’t quite fit the mold… sometimes taking on students that somehow didn’t fit the mold, as well. Now, the push for uniformity has seeped its unwelcomed way into our classroom and, this time, it may have its way. We’ve seen the handwriting on the wall for some time now. We knew that it was getting harder and harder for administrators to justify our program’s existence.

As I try to come to term with this decision that I need to make soon; I think of the families that we’re not finished working with and the multitude of interactions we’ve had; from holding their babies at conferences; babies who later become our students… to attending high school graduations … as part of the families. I know that it has been a worthwhile approach even if it hasn’t fit into the norm. Test scores would support that; but there would probably be nothing “off the charts” about them. We like to feel that in working with families, such as Andy’s, we’ve helped lay a foundation of expectations that gets stronger with each family member that comes through. Now; Andy’s brother is  ready to enter college next fall and the others are in line to do the same.new chick

The fact that the ‘dorable’ chicks struck a chord with Andy (as a special experience that he might have shared with his siblings and cousins); would never stand up as a viable measurement to show the success of our family approach. But, you know what? If Andy thinks it has been important; that’s good enough for us!

Connecting with Students Through Writing


We never have enough time.  We’re the worlds’ champion plate-spinners:  circus jugglers got nothin’ on us!

In the whirlwind that is our classroom, there never is enough time to find out about our students’ lives.  Sure, we ask them how their weekend was, how soccer practice was, what they are doing this weekend, but really, aren’t we always surprised halfway through the year when we find out someone’s got a new dog, someone’s brother is a great artist, someone else is afraid of thunder?  And guess what?  I think our kids feel the same way:  they always want to know more about our lives.

Somehow, a few years ago, I stumbled into writing weekly letters to my students.  It started at the beginning of a school year, as we sent home various communications to parents,  and started getting our students used to the routine of homework going out on Monday, and getting returned on Friday.  I sat there one Sunday night, with so much to say to them, and decided the best way to do it was to write a letter.  My letters were short to begin with:  clear information sharing about homework expectations, reading or math expectations, any exciting upcoming events.  I started including a reading response at the bottom of the page.  Maybe something like this:


Slowly, I start upping the ante on their responses back to me.  Sometimes, a reading response, other times a sketch/label kind of activity.


This past year, I didn’t start my weeky letter-writing campaign from the beginning.  I wrote them periodically, but usually, the front page was just a reading response page for the week.  During the second quarter, I began writing longer letters, and increasing the level of response I wanted from them.  Often, I would connect our learning in the classroom to the job.

Sometimes I even use the responses as a quick assessment. (And you can be sure that if students didn’t write down their 5 facts at home, they got time to complete them during recess!)


My weekly letter home is the cover page for their homework packet.  On Mondays, we read my letter home as a group.  One reason I do this is to make sure they actually read the thing!  My hope is that they read it with their parents, so they, too, know some of what’s going on in the classroom.



Because many of our parents are either working, don’t read in English, or are otherwise unavailable, I really do give work that students can do independently.  Therefore, reading through the home letter together helps scaffold their reading when they’re working on their own.

The focus of this letter was a “kick-off to question marks”. They always want to know more about our lives, so I let them ask me anything they wanted. Some kids don’t understand that even though Mrs. Carter and I are team teaching partners, we don’t actually live together and share the same families! So there are lots of questions about why we don’t live in the same house!


The critical part of this whole letter-writing  process is that you take the time to answer students’ questions.  A big part of my goal is actual communication!  I don’t always respond to everything, every week.  Sometimes, it’s just a quick check, but I know that the more I respond to them, the more they will write back to me.  In the case of answering students’ questions about my life,  I knew that this letter-topic was a “high stakes” week.  I made sure to answer all of their questions  either on their homework, or in a whole class discussion, especially for that  oft-asked question,  the ubiquitous “Why you not married?”

By this point in the year, students are used to writing me back. I vary from truly open-ended responses (write whatever you want) to using sentence frames or lists. Really, the format depends on what I see that students really need to practice, or what I want them to try to put together independently, at home.


As the year moves on, students become more adept at a variety of writing responses, and I continue to get a glimpse of their progress, as well as insight in to their lives.

Kids so love Valentine’s Day.  Love, love, love and friendship; what’s not to like?  IMG_2418When I ask students to write about their friends, it’s also my way of learning:

1.  Do they have a steady circle of friends, or have Paula and I missed something.

2.  Are they making good choices with their friendships.

3.  Do we need to do some community -building or friendship lunch bunch meetings to help facilitate and problem-solve.

4.  Are my students writing in complete sentences and making sense?

5.  Are they generalizing their spelling patterns into this independent writing?

6.  Are parents helping them write/edit every single statement?

This response required students to draw/label/write about how they are able to take responsibility for doing their homework. Looking at the drawings gave me a great mental image for whether I needed to help them make better choices for homework spots and time. (Especially for the students who left that area completely blank!)

 At times, I just go blank, myself, and just leave a blank at the bottom of my letter.  Some kids get incensed, and they can’t wait to tell me I’ve forgotten something.  Others just forge on ahead and create their own responses (warming the cockles of my teaching-them-to-be-independent-thinkers-heart!)  I could tell my student below had a great weekend playing with her brother.  I also used her detailed drawing/labeling as a model for other students to follow.

Think about how much you can learn about this student both academically and socially, just by taking the time to look at her writing. I know she: loves playing soccer (never knew that); is very close to her cousins; definitely knows how to label and add important details to a setting; understands how to write short sentences, though her capitalization/punctuation needs help. I also realize that she still needs work on the friendly letter format. So much to learn just from one piece of student work!

Toward the end of the year, I like to have  students take on more and more responsibility for the writing.  Here, Zitlalli takes the opportunity to write me a love letter!

IMG_2397 She writes and writes and writes.  This is actually a great demonstration of how far she has progressed with her English, her ability to stay on topic (Me! Ha!), and her experimentation with juicy language.  According to her, I smell like roses and my singing sounds like a beautiful bread (okay, a bird, but bread is funnier).

At the end of each year, we ask our students –in several formats– about what they liked or didn’t like about the school year, and whether they have any recommendations for how we might change and improve our class in the future.  They always have a lot to say!


One of my all-time favorite responses, though, has to be this one. IMG_2393
It is short, sweet, and very much to the point; like all this student’s writing had been through the course of the year!  Sadly, I don’t think we’ll be able to fulfill his request at content for our future students, but we did ask for an honest answer!

I hope these ideas inspire you to try some open communication with your students.  This is just one way in which we try maximizing our time; learning about our kids, and perhaps our next academic/social/life goals and objectives for them.  It’s a simple process, this old-fashioned format of communication, but it’s one that can pay great dividends.  Happy writing!

P.S.  Feel free to use the letters I’ve uploaded here as guides for your own letter-writing.  They are connected  to our Teacher Pay Teacher store, CC Chronicles and are free of charge. Just search for Homework Letters and Frames:  Writing to your Students

Use them with our blessings!