When Texts Become Our Mentors — Really

What happens when we earnestly look to the text for learning?

I mean, really look to the text.

Not some sterile passage from a basal.

Not the occasional book that seems to coincide with our unit.

Not even the mandated whole-class novel, though I have heard merits on both sides (some pros here, cons here).

I mean full-blown looking to texts as our mentors day in and day out.

Starting out units immersing ourselves in books on every level and topic we can find (our school librarian was a saint in consistently helping me prepare for the immersion stage of our units).

Getting to really get to know the author–his/her style, favorite strategies, even personality — and then talking about what ____ is doing to make us feel or think the way we do?

Setting out each day for authentic discovery within the pages of the mentor text — which, of course, means we don’t necessarily know what our students will find?

Engaging alongside students as we also seek out examples of what we’re trying to better understand as readers and writers?

I have been on both sides of this approach to mentor texts. And I’d like to share a few before/after effects I observed in my students:

Before: 

  • I rarely, if ever, heard students refer to themselves as authors
  • The writing strategies we were trying to learn about usually felt much more abstract with little context.
  • As we inevitably turned to worksheets, our approach felt more contrived.
  • Students looked to me for each day’s literary learning.

After:

  • Students saw authors as people — people who were once kids like them that had to learn and hone their craft in the exact same way we were — which led to them referring to themselves as authors, too.
  • We made it our daily mission to seek out clear context within books.
  • The strategies we were trying to learn about felt much more natural.
  • We all looked to the books for rich, co-constructed literary learning.

We become better equipped to find and share mentor texts when we read as much as we can as teachers. Whole language reading/writing workshops will also include plenty of examples of texts that coincide with each unit (One of the reasons I enjoyed Pam Allyn’s Core Ready series). But of course, there are also plenty of free online resources available, too! Here are a few:

Making the shift toward integrating mentor texts into our daily literacy learning has been pivotal for authenticity. After all, if we say it’s all about reading and writing books, shouldn’t books be our primary companions?

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3 Fabulous Rhyming Picture Books & Their Powerful Impact on Reading

A recent favorite read-along is the beloved classic, “Going on a Bear Hunt” by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury. After just a couple listens, I would find my 3 year old chanting the phrases during make-believe play, marching up and down the halls.

This kind of small adoption into personal speaking and listening have a major impact on literacy development. From fluency to comprehension that words are made up of small sounds (known as phonemic awareness), rhyming and or lyrical books can be powerful for our youngest readers.

Here are three of our recent rhyming reads that have become instant hits with my kids:

A Greyhound, A Groundhog by Emily Jenkins and Chris Appelhans

This delightful tongue-twister immediately had me thinking of Dr. Seuss. I especially loved the gorgeous artwork as brown and grey swirls as fluidly as the wordplay. Incidentally, research shows that such tongue-twisters take the power of rhyming/lyrical reads up a notch when it comes to that above-mentioned phonemic awareness, so go ahead and check out “Fox & Socks” again with your preschoolers, too!

When’s My Birthday? by Julie Fogliano and Christian Robinson

This one isn’t technically a rhyming book, but it is oh, so lyrical. Not to mention on the very topic that most young kids everywhere continually obsess about. “when’s my birthday? where’s my birthday? how many days until my birthday?’ launches a beautiful countdown to kids’ favorite celebration. My kids especially loved the birthday chart at the very end of the book.

Gone CampingA Novel in Verse by Tamera Will Wissinger and Matthew Cordell

This outdoors-loving girl adored this book the moment I had it in my hands. In delightfully varied forms of poetry, follow the story of Sam and Lucy’s camping trip. Individual chapters are particularly valuable as short reads to build fluency with your older students (see a discussion and specific strategies from Russ Walsh here). And of course, the handy reference at the back on rhyme, rhythm, literary devices, and poetic forms makes the perfect companion for any poetry unit.

What are some of your favorite rhyming and/or lyrical reads with your kids?

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Inquiry into Attitudes: Enthusiasm

Enthusiasm comes so naturally for so many kids (especially before they get old enough that it becomes uncool), it can be easy to overlook having a real discussion about it. But I’m pretty sure we could all use more of its rich, sunny, creative goodness in our lives. Enjoy this week’s provocation!

Resource #1: Me and My Cello – Happy Together Cello Cover by The Piano Guys

Another fun video from these guys packed with enthusiasm:

Resource #2: A Pep Talk from Kid President to You by Soul Pancake

Resource #3: Fancy Nancy by Jane O’Connor & Robin Preiss Glasser

Provocation Questions: 

  • What is the connection between enthusiasm and individualism?
  • What are some of the obstacles to enthusiasm? How can we overcome?
  • How does enthusiasm change over a person’s lifetime?
  • What is the connection between enthusiasm and creativity?
  • How does enthusiasm impact our world?
  • How does enthusiasm impact an individual’s work?

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Autonomy & Cell Phones In Class

My scope of experience with kids and phones doesn’t extend past 5th graders. There’s only one real incident I can even recall where a student kept visiting her backpack to check out her phone, which was resolved without much fuss.

But the question of whether teachers should make sweeping bans of devices from their classrooms is highly relevant to teachers everywhere because it speaks to our efforts toward fostering greater student ownership and autonomy over their learning.  At the same time, we do know that app-makers design apps to be as enticing as possible, to which kids are even more likely to fall prey to distraction and time-wasting.

In fact, an educator in this KQED MindShift article compared it to candy: “Don’t give kids unlimited access to “Halloween candy and Christmas cookies while they are still learning to eat a balanced diet.””

For whatever reason, this reminded me of a couple of plates that my dietitian mother-in-law gave to my kids:

I’ve liked these just because it’s easier to pour applesauce and yogurt into the portions. But to my surprise, they’ve also caused my kids started initiating conversations about food groups, portions, and intake balance. We also noticed together the absence of candy and treats as a food group, and have discussed the importance of moderation there, too.

The MindShift article also quoted educators who emphasize the importance of making cell phone use and distraction a direct conversation. Surely, just as there is value in letting kids in on the big picture of dietary balance, there is value in letting kids in on the big picture of balanced cell phone use.

Of course, that does not equate to an automatic green-light on all devices at all times. In fact, having an open conversation is a great way to invite student input on troubleshooting. Questions/discussion points you might ask might include:

  • How can devices enhance our learning?
  • How might devices enhance feedback within our classroom? With learners across the globe?
  • How might devices cause a distraction for ourselves? How might they distract our peers?
  • What does balanced device use look like?
  • What are the possible dangers of unbalanced device use?
  • What strategies or guidelines might minimize distraction while maximizing learning in our classroom?

However we choose to manage the issue, inviting our students to take a more proactive role can help not only mitigate the management issues but empower our students for more longterm ownership over their own device use.

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Preschool, Kinder-Prep & 3 Things Kids Need Most #TeacherMom

It’s January and I have a 3 year-old that will be 4 by September. Translation (according to modern society): I should be in a panic because preschool application deadlines are upon us. And of course, after preschool comes kindergarten, and we’re told that academic success in kindergarten corresponds with future earnings.

No pressure.

Yet, when it comes to all that kinder-prep frenzy, I learned the hard way that that pressure does very little to produce a desirable effect, and I have no wish to repeat the experience.

For the sake of my friends and acquaintances in the same stressful boat who feel their sanity hangs by a thread, I want to share a few thoughts once more on this kinder-prep phenomenon.

First, recognize that as a loving, involved parent, you are enough. The scarcity mindset comes from a place of fear — fear that there’s something out there that we don’t have enough of, and it is the deal-breaker between success and failure (for us and our children). But as Brene Brown wrote,

I thought of this same principle when I saw this lovely post from Kristina Kuzmic:

Of course, this NOT intended to be mean preschool isn’t valuable and even necessary for many families. Programs like Head Start play a particularly valuable role, providing support for children that may not have as many advantages.

What this does mean is that we should never underestimate the impact of a loving and involved parent. As I’ve shared before from one of our local university preschools,

“You parents are already doing a great deal to insure success in kindergarten for your youngster. You read to your children, you go on family outings, you model a love for learning, but most of all you are very involved in the lives of your children. This will make kindergarten a wonderful time for your child, and start him/her on the road to a good education.”

Second, recognize that excessive focus on the future robs us of today’s opportunities.

It’s wonderful to want to ensure our kids can face whatever their futures hold. But sometimes we should pause and ask ourselves: are we focusing so much on the future that we forget to focus on their current developmental needs?

In other words, is it about the developmental needs of a 3-4 year-old, or is it about fear for what they might not be ready for when they turn 5?

This fearful approach might include excessive academic drilling, worksheets, or other highly-marketed programs that guarantee hitting every “kindergarten readiness” checklist item. For the most part, rich social interactions are what preschoolers developmentally need most at this age — playing outside with other kids, helping out with siblings, etc. Incidentally, such interactions are the very things that will best prepare them for future success in school anyway.

Third, recognize the importance of letting your child take the lead. 

If your preschooler is indicating interest in learning to read, by all means, pursue that. But if she is resolute in her passion for dinosaurs, please don’t abandon that because you are stressed about kinder-prep checklists. Follow their curiosity, because that precious zeal for learning will serve them far longer than the ability to identify all 52 upper & lower-case letters on the first day of kindergarten (also, keep in mind that there are about a thousand ways to create rich learning experiences that revolve around dinosaurs).

Following our kids’ lead also involves a greater emphasis on self-regulation. Helping our kids develop skills in stress-management and expressing their feelings will also empower them to take ownership over their lives and learning.

One more disclaimer before closing. Speech delays and learning disabilities are absolutely real and parents should be on the look-out for signs and resources to provide their children the support they need. I just wonder if sometimes we start from a place of assuming there is something wrong if our kids are not yet interested in counting and shapes when they are 3.

As we look toward the beginning of formal education, let us do so in a manner that will cultivate curiosity, joy, and ownership.

Relevant posts related to this topic that might be of interest:

Recommended Books & Resources:

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Inquiry Into Learner Profile: Open-Minded

This is part of a series of inquiry-based provocations for essential elements of the PYP & the Learner Profile. For more, click here.

We often associate open-mindedness as being important among places of great diversity. It may be even more important in more heterogeneous locations. Rather than assuming our kids have the general idea of its meaning and importance, it should be an ongoing conversation in which kids can make connections and come to conclusions for themselves. Which, of course, is the very purpose of this week’s provocation!

Resource #1: Often Do You Challenge Your Biases? by Soul PancakeGreat way to get kids thinking about biases. Could be interesting to conduct a similar experiment via a Mystery Skype-type approach with children from other classrooms?

Resource #2: The Things Kids Carried photo essay by Isabel FattalI wonder what would happen if we asked kids to draw what they think backpacks in different countries look like before showing them the photo essay?

via The Atlantic

Resource #: Perspective by Lauren PedrosaGreat conversation starter about what the word, perspective, means, and how it impacts our thinking.

Resource #4: This Is How We Do It by Matt LaMotheWhat I especially loved about this book was the emphasis that no one family can be representative of an entire country–I remember being very confused by a DK version of this book when I was young. This is a wonderful tool to help us better understand how children around the world are alike and different). 

Provocation Questions:

  • What does an open-minded mindset look like?
  • How can a person’s open-mindedness change over time?
  • What is our responsibility to be open-minded when we are surrounded by people who seem different? Who seem alike?

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Media Literacy, ISTE Standards, & #FakeNews

In the wake of #FakeNews, and, more recently, President Trump’s “Fake News Awards,” it makes me reflect on our role as educators when it comes to media literacy, which has me again pondering the purpose of education. In 1934, John Dewey wrote,

“The purpose of education has always been to every one, in
essence, the same—to give the young the things they need in
order to develop in an orderly, sequential way into members of
society. This was the purpose of the education given to a little
aboriginal in the Australian bush before the coming of the white
man. It was the purpose of the education of youth in the golden
age of Athens. It is the purpose of education today, whether
this education goes on in a one-room school in the mountains
of Tennessee or in the most advanced, progressive school in a
radical community. But to develop into a member of society in
the Australian bush had nothing in common with developing into
a member of society in ancient Greece, and still less with what
is needed today. Any education is, in its forms and methods, an
outgrowth of the needs of the society in which it exists.”

In this unprecedented, exponential, and experimental age of communication, information, and sometimes misinformation, all previous norms and rules start to blur. As online rhetoric becomes more polarized, it starts to seem that our needs as a society are also becoming divided.

But the ability to ascertain truth remains a common, fundamental need of a democratic society, which makes our free press all the more essential. As educators this pursuit of truth comes through cultivating healthy media literacy. The ISTE standards are a powerful resource, as they can all be used to strengthen our students’ capacity to assess whatever information comes their way. Here are my thoughts on what this might look like.

1. Empowered Learner: “Students leverage technology to take an active role in choosing, achieving and demonstrating competency in their learning goals, informed by the learning sciences.”) Helping students learn to identify bias, and giving them the technological know-how to discern among different types of online media (ie, social media posts, blog posts, journalism, etc.)

2. Digital Citizen: Students recognize the rights, responsibilities and opportunities of living, learning and working in an interconnected digital world, and they act and model in ways that are safe, legal and ethical.”) Helping students learn specific strategies for fact-checking, and a general “think before you share” mindset.

via Marshall University Libraries

3. Knowledge Constructor: “Students critically curate a variety of resources using digital tools to construct knowledge, produce creative artifacts and make meaningful learning experiences for themselves and others.”)  Giving our students immersive opportunities to read a large cross-section of sources when embarking on a new unit.

4. Innovative Designer: Students use a variety of technologies within a design process to identify and solve problems by creating new, useful or imaginative solutions.” → Encouraging students to be part of the solution when it comes to misinformation by creating their own carefully-sourced media literacy resources (infographics, videos, etc).

5. Computational Thinker: Students develop and employ strategies for understanding and solving problems in ways that leverage the power of technological methods to develop and test solutions.”) Teaching students the science and driving force behind “click bait,” as well what methods mainstream news outlets use to fact-check.

6. Creative Communicator (“Students communicate clearly and express themselves creatively for a variety of purposes using the platforms, tools, styles, formats and digital media appropriate to their goals.”) Giving students the opportunity to have authentic audiences via student blogs to increase their literacy as online contributors. 

7. Global Collaborator (“Students use digital tools to broaden their perspectives and enrich their learning by collaborating with others and working effectively in teams locally and globally.”)Join a global collaborative platform such as The Wonderment where students can gain a sense of themselves as citizens of a global society, in which their voice matters.
There are many unknowns as we continue to collectively feel our way through this unparalleled time. But we can be certain that media literacy will empower and equip our students and ourselves to better access and anchor our society in truth.
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