How Kindergarten Prep Frenzy Changed My Teaching Perspective

I didn’t think the teacher/parent table would turn on me that fast. After all, not only I had just paused my teaching career in June–I was only back for a few weeks in September to mentor a student teacher–my own kids weren’t even in school yet.

As I sat in the teacher’s lounge listening to all the usual back-to-school lunchtime chatter, I overheard some kindergarten teachers anticipating their new batch of 5 year-olds. One exclaimed how many students failed to identify lower-cased letters of the alphabet in the initial assessments.

I froze. Normally, I’d commiserate a bit, perhaps reciprocating with how many students I had on behavior contracts. But it hit me: MY 4-year old didn’t know her lower-cased letters.  And she showed no signs of wanting to, either, despite the fact that she’d be starting kindergarten the following fall.

It was my first realization that in the school system, I was officially on the parent side of the table.

Preschool Pressure

I finished mentoring and went back to my extended parental leave at home. Over the course of a month or so, the stress in preschool-ing my stubborn four-year old grew.  Frustrations mounted each time she refused to sing her ABC’s or explore some carefully-crafted science station. Those fears finally came to light one evening when I realized that I had been subconsciously–yet intensely–internalizing the conversation from the teacher’s lounge all that time.  I remember actually saying out loud,

“What if she becomes the subject of her kindergarten teacher’s complaining in the faculty lounge next year?”

Once spoken aloud, I realized how silly the words sounded. However, as I began to conduct research to make preschool a more positive process, I also realized that I was far from alone when it comes to fearful parents.

“Preparation” on Steroids?

Wanting to give their children the best advantages, some parents have taken to “redshirting” their kindergarteners.  That is, they delay school a year in the hopes that their children will gain a “competitive learning edge.”

Other parents obsess over the school their child attends.  One article describes how parents went so far as to move to new neighborhoods, create spreadsheets, and attend Kindergarten 101–a prep class for parents.  But these preparations aren’t discussed as excessive, but as possibly helpful, citing a Harvard study that found that academic performance in kindergarten correlates to future earnings.

Top all that with an abundance of academics-heavy kindergarten readiness checklists, it’s no wonder that parents are inclined to worry.

Kindergarten Readiness Tips & Checklists

Kindergarten prep is indeed all the rage these days, especially for those who believe the Common Core standards mandate five year olds to read. But parents and teachers alike would do well to step away from the frenzy and examine what is truly developmentally appropriate for their children.  Below are tips for both to help them regain calm and clarity in learning with their preschoolers and kindergartners.

Parent Tips
  • Correlation does not equal causation. Remember that there are always a lot of possible causes for any given outcome.  Studies that find correlations for later successes are likely just picking up on the simple benefits of involved, loving parents.
  • Consider the effects of rushing your child.  The author of The Hurried Child, Dr. David Elkind, shares research that “students are more likely to have academic success if they are not hurried through their early childhood by parents who overestimate their competence and overexpose them to academic pressures.”
  • Travis Swan
    Travis Swan

    Step away from the workbooks. That’s not to say that if your child demonstrates genuine interest in more academic concepts, you should deny them.  But it’s essential to understand that play is absolutely critical for developing the most basic skills for kindergarten readiness and beyond–including problem solving, passion, experimentation, and more.  As Richard Lewis, founder and director of The Touchstone Center in New York City, explains:

“Play is the great discoverer, and its discoveries are the frontiers and landscapes of our imagining mind.” [“I Made It By Myself,” by Richard Lewis]

Teacher Tips
  • See each new student. Don’t allow your initial benchmarks or any other number to define your opinions of any child. Instead, make it your priority to discover their interests, strengths, quirks, etc.
  • Step away from the workbooks. (see parent tip above).
  • Evaluate what the Common Core State Standards are really outlining. If you are among those stressing about the perceived advanced standards for early elementary, remember that the political agendas and loud voices of a few have skewed interpretations of the standards for some. In our most recent post on the Common Core, we shared J. Richard Gentry’s example of what easily misinterpreted standards really look like:

For example, one contested language arts standard reads, “Read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding.”  Gentry explains that this refers to memory reading in which, “The emergent-reader text is first modeled by the teacher for the students, then joyfully read over and over with the students until eventually the easy book is independently read by the students with great joy and confidence.” (We highly recommend his article, “An Ode to Common Core Kindergarten Standards.”)

Kindergarten Readiness

One of the best kindergarten readiness lists I’ve ever encountered was on a university’s laboratory preschool blog, prefaced by the following:

“Don’t be overly concerned with academics right now…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.”

Here is their list, which I heartily second as a teacher and parent:

  1. Feel capable and confident, and tackle new demands with an “I can do it” attitude.
  2. Have an open, curious attitude toward new experiences.
  3. Enjoy being with other children.
  4. Can establish a trusting relationship with adults other than parents.
  5. Can engage in physical activity such as walk, run, climb (children with handicaps can have a fine time in kindergarten if school and parents work cooperatively on necessary special arrangements).
  6. Take care of their own basic needs, such as dressing, eating, and toileting.
  7. Have had experience with small toys, such as puzzles and crayons.
  8. Express themselves clearly in conversation.
  9. Understand that symbols (such as a stop sign) are used to provide useful information.
  10. Love books, stories and songs and can sit still to listen.

Whether a parent or a teacher, remember to ask yourself the following question:

With what kind of tone do I want to introduce formal education to my kindergartner? 

Photo Credit:

 

Review: Pam Allyn’s Core Ready Lesson Sets for Grades 3-5

If you are thinking of adopting Pam Allyn’s Core Ready series for teaching the Common Core English Language Arts standards, be sure to check out our review based on our experience with the program!


Background

Core Ready lesson sets picAs teachers, we know that it’s difficult to truly evaluate a program until we’ve actually used it for a solid time-period.  At the same time, we also know it’s not often practical just to try out programs, due to financial and time constraints.  For this reason, I’d like to share my experience with teaching using Pam Allyn’s Core Ready books, in the hopes that it assists teachers considering their implementation.  My fifth grade team decided to adopt the series this past year since we wanted a Common Core-aligned reading and writing workshop program.  We had previously been using The Complete Year in Reading & Writing: Year 5 by Pam Allyn with much success, so we had high hopes for the new series.  I was personally able to teach using all of the books this year except The Journey to Meaning, due to maternity leave.

Run-Down

Each of the four books have 1 “lesson set” or unit per grade, which includes:
  • 10 lessons each for reading and writing (reading and writing to be taught simultaneously)
  • 1 Language Lesson (to be taught at some point within the lesson set)
  • Appendix of resources, including graphic organizers and rubrics
Grades 3-5 Books (can be taught in any order you prefer):
  • The Power to Persuade: Opinion & Argument
    • Focuses on strategies on what makes writing persuasive
    • Main published piece for 5th grade: a persuasive text
  • The Road to Knowledge: Information & Research
    • Focuses on how to gather research, note-taking skills, and how to correctly cite others’ work
    • Main published piece for 5th grade: an informational text; topic chosen by students
  • The Journey to Meaning: Comprehension & Critique
    • Focuses on reading poetry & essays to analyze themes, subjects, and author point of view
    • Main published piece for 5th grade: analytical essay
  • The Shape of Story: Yesterday & Today
    • Focuses on various types and components of stories, including character development and conflict, with an emphasis on fantasy for the 5th grade lessons
    • Main published piece for 5th grade: a narrative fantasy story
Other Corresponding Resources
  • Be Core Ready: Powerful, Effective Steps to Implementing and Achieving the Common Core State Standards: Detailed introduction both to the Core Ready series and to the ELA Common Core Standards themselves.
  • PDToolKit: An online resource in which you can access additional resources for the lessons

Pros

♥Common Core-aligned, vertically and horizontally!

This is obviously a major attraction to this series.  Now that the Common Core has simplified the focuses of ELA standards, it can be difficult to revise your current ELA program to be completely Common Core aligned–especially across an entire school!  The beauty of the Core Ready books is that not only is it completely Common Core-aligned within your own grade level, but it masterfully builds learning between grades.

Simple structure in each lesson (Warm up, Teach, Try, Clarify, Practice, Wrap-up)

I enjoyed this framework both because it facilitates plenty of guided student application, and because it allowed me to easily divide up the lessons into multiple days (if we needed to break it up, we would often end with “Clarify” one day, and begin with “Practice” the next).

Fosters teacher authenticity

The series thoroughly embraces the 21st century view of teachers as readers and writers growing right alongside students (rather than as wizened experts or sources of knowledge). A perfect illustration of this approach lies in the fact that as students create a published piece in each lesson set, the books also encourage teachers to do the same.  The benefits here are reciprocal; first, it builds in authenticity as teachers model their own warts-and-all literary process.  As a result, students glimpse the true nature of literary learning: not a neat, manufactured, step-by-step process, but one that is messy, purposeful, and beautiful.

Denise Krebs
Denise Krebs
Student-centered –> Plenty of room for inquiry!

Rather than teachers directly pointing out literary concepts, it encourages students to discover the concepts themselves within texts.  The lessons also constantly invite students to consider their own literary backgrounds, to identify their personal inspiration, and to make purposeful choices as unique readers and writers.

Encourages critical thinking and metacognition

The lessons are designed to continually challenge students to ask, “WHY?”  For instance, any time students are asked to find examples of literary concepts in texts, they are also nearly always asked to locate text evidence that defends their reasoning.  This makes for lively student discussions as they share their personal analyses. Additionally, every lesson set involves student reflection, and I definitely saw growth in my students as they regularly examined their own thinking and decision-making processes.

Flexibility

During a webinar early in the school year, I asked Pam Allyn and Debbie Lera whether 40 lessons would be enough to span the entire school year, as we worried this seemed like more of a supplemental program.  They assured me that many lessons would likely take more than a day to teach, and they were absolutely right; particularly when students gathered research or revised, some lessons took more than a week!  Additionally, our grade kept a couple small units from previous years, which we found easy to incorporate alongside the Core Ready series.

Encourages digital literacy

For the informational text unit, my students turned essays into multi-media blog posts.  For the fantasy narrative, my students created illustrated Storybirds.  The Core Ready books are packed with suggestions for engaging and natural technology integration.

Abundant resources

This is part of the reason that each lesson can be extended well beyond a day.  They include:

  • Ideas for both high-tech & low-tech classrooms
  • Suggestions to bridge concepts for English Language Learning students
  • Suggestions for Speaking & Listening development
  • Concrete ideas for formative assessments throughout the lessons.
  • Fantastic Appendix of resources and rubrics
Few anchor texts required

If you previously used the Complete Year in Reading and Writing books, you understand the financial strain of programs that require many anchor texts.  While this series does recommend a few anchor texts, it more frequently gives suggestions for online-accessible texts!

Cons

♦Time-consuming

Of course, dedicating time for daily reading and writing is essential.  However, this program requires at least 40 minutes each for the reading and writing lessons.  You will also likely want to find time to incorporate guided reading groups, and while it’s been suggested that these groups can be run during the “practice” component of each reading lesson, that simply isn’t always practical.  For one thing, it keeps you from one-on-one interactions available during their practice time.  Plus, that practice time doesn’t happen the same way every day since some individual lessons are stretched over multiple days, which makes it very difficult to predictably schedule guided reading within the reading/writing workshop time.

Language Standards not fully integrated

Throughout the 4 books for 5th grade, some of the Language standards are only covered once–and a couple, not at all (Standards 4 and 5).  While a wonderful characteristic of the Core Ready books is that each lesson masterfully integrates a variety ELA standards, this can also make it difficult to keep track of which areas need to be supplemented if they aren’t included.  For how time-consuming this program is, I found myself wishing that the entire ELA standards were covered so we didn’t feel we needed an additional grammar program to provide complete Language instruction and spiraling practice.

Teacher talk can be lengthy

Each phase of each lesson includes detailed sample teacher talk, which is positive in that it gives teachers clear ideas on the lesson’s intended direction.  However, it can get quite long–the “Teach” component in particular.  For this reason, the lengthy teacher talk only becomes a “con” when teachers don’t realize it’s essential to adapt it to their own timetable and student needs.

Conclusion

The strengths of this series clearly outweigh the few drawbacks.  I would highly recommend these books to any teacher, especially if they are looking for a way to naturally build reading and writing skills in an interdependent, authentic manner!

Photo Credit:

R. Nial Bradshaw (featured image)

Denise Krebs

10 Tips to Become a 21st Century Teacher

Be sure to also stop by our interactive infographic, “21st Century Cheat Sheet” for a great visual!

What does it mean to become a 21st century educator?  Effective technology integration certainly plays its role, but it’s also about accessibility and individual perspective shifts.  Find inspiration in our 10 tips…


Start Small

When we refer to becoming a 21st century teacher, we certainly recognize that technology plays an enormous role in how quality education has evolved.  However, we feel it also reaches into simple attitudes that are shifting.  It’s likely a reciprocal effect: the more technology use and global networking has grown, the more recognition has spread for best practices; the more the recognition for best practices has spread, the more technology has been examined to assist in this innovation.  Still, as adept as many teachers are in adopting 21st century attitudes and strategies, we know many others feel overwhelmed by it all, from first year teachers to veterans nearing retirement.  We feel that starting small, one attitude or strategy at a time, is the best method!

#1: Reject “Content is King!”

A quote from the above video that bears repeating:

“We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist . . . using technologies that haven’t been invented . . . in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.” ~Karl Fisch

If we allow our teaching to exist mostly as delivering information that students memorize, our job descriptions could be quickly outsourced to Google!  Worse still, our students’ limited skills would also be highly replaceable by search engines and video databases like LearnZillion.  21st Century teachers and learners alike must realize that education is no longer about what we’ve memorized, but about how we learn to evaluate and utilize information!

#2: Recognize that Change is Essential!

Ken Robinson has been a tremendously influential voice when it comes to the need to change our thinking in education.  Some of the primary changes he suggests include the way we think about “human capacity,” collaboration, and the “habits of institutions.”  On a similar track, author and educator Shelly Blake-Plock outlined 21 Things that Will be Obsolete by 2020 (reflection post), including current systems of standardized testing for college admissions and organizing classes by age and grade.

A prominent example of current change is the Common Core (see our CCSS article).  Some parents are frustrated that it does NOT involve a back-to-basics, “finding the answer” approach.  (See one example of a parent who allegedly exclaimed on his child’s homework page that the “real world” would favor faster, simpler vertical subtraction over evaluating misconceptions using a visual number line.  We would point out that a calculator is even faster and simpler, if speed is really the highest priority in “the real world”).  In their fear of education looking different than it did when they were kids, these individuals seem to miss that the emphasis is now on critical thinking, a crucial shift when you think back to our tip #1 in particular.  There is a difference between education and learning, and fortunately, the 21st century is moving more toward the latter.  

#3: Develop a PLN

Retrieved: Clouducation (original creator unknown)
Retrieved: Clouducation (original creator unknown)

A PLN (Personal Learning Network) allows you to maximize your professional development as you use social media and other platforms to learn and collaborate with teachers around the world.  If Shelly Blake-Plock is correct about the way school Professional Development is moving toward teachers taking the lead, PLN’s will prove increasingly important for every educator to have in place.  Our article on PLN’s is a great resource for beginners!

#4: Encourage students to develop PLN’s

Caroline Bucky
Caroline Bucky

The above word cloud took shape when creator Caroline Bucky asked members her own PLN what their individual PLN’s meant to them.  If students were enabled to create such meaningful networks, imagine the ramifications that would have on their ability to contribute to a global society (another major aspect of the 21st century)!

#5: View Time Spent Exploring as an Investment

Hakan Forss LEGO recreations of hand drawn originals with unknown authors
Hakan Forss LEGO recreations of hand drawn originals with unknown authors

The above picture pretty much speaks for itself on this one.  Just remember that every effort you make will not only invest in your own future as a relevant 21st century educator, but in your students’ quality of learning as well.  (See one blogger’s insightful perspective on this investment in relation to building her PLN).

#6: Allow Students to Own Learning

For many decades, ideas from student-centered pedagogy theorists like Jean Piaget have taught the importance of this attitude.  In fact, a wonderful Piaget quote on the topic of student ownership reads:

“The principal goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done; men and women who are creative, inventive and discoverers, who can be critical and verify, and not accept, everything they are offered.” ~Jean Piaget

He said this in 1964. Think of the greater importance for students to “verify, and not accept, everything they are offered” now that the digital world provides them with a constant stream of information!  This kind of ownership for learning does not happen when our expectations are limited to students “repeating what other generations have done”–in other words, limited to the content and understanding we bring to the table.  Evidence that we can improve in this regard exists in examples such as the above screenshot we took today.

#7: Be Vulnerable with Students

A frequent 21st century dialogue in education involves asking, “How do we help our students become fully engaged in learning?”  We feel that a large part of the answer to this question begins with our own levels of engagement and vulnerability as learners with our students.  Brené Brown researches and writes on this very topic.  She created a leadership manifesto that outlines patterns from her research on how we truly connect and engage.  A powerful quote from it:

“When learning and working are dehumanized–when you no longer see us and no longer encourage our daring, or when you only see what we produce or how we perform–we disengage and turn away from the very things that the world needs from us: our talent, our ideas, and our passion.  What we ask is that you engage with us, show up beside us, and learn from us.” ~Brené Brown

In short, to prevent disengagement, we absolutely must stop pretending that we know all the answers or that we do not make mistakes.

#8: Examine Your Why

Gavin Llewellyn
Gavin Llewellyn

In our post on Flipped Learning, we reference Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle of beginning with the Why.  To succeed in the 21st century, becoming a life-long, self-motivated learner is not a nicety–it is a necessity.  Cultivating our own Why as teachers and then keeping that at the forefront of our endeavors is an influential attitude simply because we are modeling it for our students.  It helps them absorb the “point” of learning and to begin cultivating their own Why’s.

#9: Pursue Your Needs!

DonorsChooseHave a low classroom budget?  Is 1:1 technology nonexistent in your school?  Are you in need of high quality mentor texts in your class library?  Thanks to developments here in the 21st century, no longer are your frustrations limited to faculty lounge griping.  Tools like DonorsChoose.org allow teacher empowerment as you shop for items you need and write a simple, mini-grant (or project), asking generous donors for help.  Not only can you enlist your PLN to spread the word of your project through social media, but you can also look for help from programs in your area like Chevron’s Fuel Your School, which works to fund as many DonorsChoose teacher projects as possible during the month of October (be sure to wait to submit your project until October 1st to qualify)!  Additionally, you can work with your administration to implement innovative school programs such as BYOD (see our article on 10 tips for Bring Your Own Device programs) if you’re looking for more technology accessibility in your classroom.

#10: Use Technology to Make Best Use of Time

Anna Vital
Anna Vital

This infographic by Anna Vital gives several examples of creative ways to save time, including using keyboard shortcuts!  We would also suggest other simple strategies, such as keeping your  email inbox cleaned up, turning off phone notifications for everything except the things you truly want to interrupt your life (some phones even allow you to turn off notifications or calls at certain times or locations), and utilizing apps to keep your priorities organized.  Establishing such strategies that work for you can simplify your planning and  classroom time, allowing you to focus on what matters most for you personally and professionally.

Related Reading:

5 Teacher Resources for 21st Century Learning

Building PLN’s: Tips from One Beginner to Another

Photo Credits:

Denise Krebs (featured image)

Håkan  Forss

Caroline Bucky

Anna Vital

Gavin Llewellyn

Sources:

Cherry, K. “Jean Piaget Quotes”.

Common Core Standards: Parent & Teacher Resources

With its recent implementation in 45 states, the Common Core has garnered praise and criticism alike.  This article offers a few resources to help dispel some of those worries for both parents and teachers.


 

Resources for Parents

In our experience, worries from parents about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are often due to misinformation from the media.  For example, when my own students’ parents would come to me with CCSS concerns, they were consistently shocked when I told them that the CCSS currently only covers math and English Language Arts.  This is because many articles had led them to believe that the CCSS were requiring sex education (for Kindergarten, no less!) or sweeping Social Studies alterations.  If you, too, have concerned parents at your school, here are some resources to which you can direct them to help clear things up! (Update: Be sure to also check out our newest article, “My Common Core Story, & Why You Should Share Yours, Too“).

→ “CONVERSATION: A THREE-MINUTE VIDEO ON COMMON CORE STATE STANDARDS

 

CCSS logo→ MYTHS & FACT SHEET ABOUT THE CCSS

 

talking-to-teacher-467x267[1]→ ARTICLE: “TALKING TO PARENTS ABOUT THE COMMON CORE
→ FACT VS. FICTION BY STATE:

Of the states that are using the Common Core Standards, about half adopted them verbatim; most of the rest adopted them with modifications.  Click on the infographic below for a clickable map of state fact sheets.

Resources for Teachers

The concerns for teachers tend to be more related to implementation.  Experienced teachers are familiar with the constant ebb and flow of new programs and curricula, and the expectation to repeatedly scratch old material and start over.  While it can certainly be frustrating to tackle yet another new curriculum, there’s great news when it comes to the CCSS: for the first time, teachers across the country are in the same boat!  As such, we can now share resources with one another in heretofore unheard-of quantity and quality.  We believe that this is one of many ways in which the CCSS will increase the quality of national teaching practices.  Check out some of these resources below that are designed for this purpose!

LEARNZILLION:


Teacher Boaz Munro described his experiences as a new teacher in this article, sharing his realization that “All of the lessons I planned started with…a modeling of the skill I was trying to teach—and yet I was not watching enough people model the skills I was trying to learn.”  LearnZillion is a resource that allows you to watch how experienced teachers model and explain CCSS-aligned concepts.  Some features include marking your favorite videos to help you keep track, and a sharing code so that you can easily assign students to watch the videos!

KHAN ACADEMY:


Khan Academy is similar to LearnZillion in that you can set up a class account to invite students, as well as lesson videos in both English Language Arts & Math!  However, it also includes a setup that allows students to practice the skills after watching the videos within the lesson set, complete with hints that model the skills again!  This in turn allows you to monitor student progress!  This resource is filled with visual data!

BETTERLESSON:

BetterLesson is unique in that you actually choose lessons from real master teachers.  These are lessons designed more for you as the teacher than for students, and can be very informative as you work to develop lesson plans in math and language arts.

Related Reading:

10 Tips for 21st Century Teachers

Photo Credit: InThePotter’sHands (featured image)