Saturday, August 31, 2013

Special Columbia Edition of How To: The First Rule of Chart Club Is ...

When we first started teaching, if you were to happen upon our classrooms at the beginning of the year, you would have seen beautiful, perfect teaching walls filled with colorful and informative teaching posters. They would have looked a lot like this:

Look at all of those beautiful posters!!!
We filled our walls with everything we knew our students would need to reference throughout the school year. And when parents walked in, they would think, "This is a prepared classroom. My kiddos will do well here." But, guess what? All those beautiful charts adorning our walls, a virtual cornucopia of reference material, and what would happen ...

 Child (oh so innocently): Ms. H, what's the name of this shape?

Ms. H (with infinite patience and nurturing care): Dear child, let me point you towards our chart on shapes and their defining attributes.

Different child, two minutes later: Ms. H, which one of these is a triangle, again?

Ms. H (losing just a bit of her cool): The chart. Check the shape chart. On the wall. The math reference wall.

Yet another innocent darling, just one minute later: Ms. H, is this a circle?

Ms. H (cool is completely gone, voice is at a level of shrill that only dogs can hear): WHY ARE YOU ASKING ME? CHECK THE CHART!!! ... I need to sit down.

While this is obviously an exaggeration, we're sure every teacher has experienced a similiar moment of frustration at some point in their teaching careers. But we learned and we grew as educators, and this is what our classroom looks like at the start of the year now.

Our reading/writing instructional wall as it stands right now ... and as it will look on Day 1.
No, your eyes are not failing you. Those are, in fact, blank walls you're seeing. And yes, they are completely blank when the parents walk in on the first day. And, guess what? They're usually pretty blank during Back to School night as well. Ok, we know what you're thinking:

Those are 2 bad-booty chicks!

That's right - we are rebels, baby!
And while we are pretty bad-booty (though probably all potential street cred that we had just evaporated when we used the word bad-booty), we do it because we know the secrets of Chart Club. We learned them from Teacher Camp at Columbia (here's an entry about us going on our Pilgrimmage to Columbia's Teacher College for your reading pleasure). And we're going to let you in on them too.

The Rules of Chart Club
1. The first rule of Chart Club is you don't talk about Chart Club. If they don't create it, they won't connect it.

The reason that the children were not using our charts in our previous years of teaching is that they held no personal relevance or connection for them. They came into the classroom with the charts already hung up, which relegated them to the status of brightly colored wallpaper in the eyes of most of the children. They are completely baffled by the response of "Check the chart!". What chart? All I see is your fancy teacher decorations.

Dang it!
So how to overcome that response? Well, like this:

Create your charts together.

Now, we know we're supposed to create our charts together, BUT ... We want the chart to look perfect. We already know what we want the chart to say. We want the chart to look perfect ... did we say that already?

Sooooooo ... we would plan our charts out beforehand and even pencil in what we were going to write so we could make a perfect chart right in front of our students' eyes. That's okay, right? Because they're watching it be created, right? RIGHT?

Well, erm ... no. As we learned in Columbia, co-creating a chart means allowing student input and then actually placing it on the chart, even if it was not part of the original plan. 

At this point, you may be feeling a little short of breath. Queasy even. We feel you; we really do. But the students have to feel a part of creating the chart in order to connect to it. And if they don't connect to it, then really, what's the point?

So how can you accomplish this without losing your OCD beautifully organized and perfectionist mind? Well, you can still make a plan for your chart ahead of time. Just be sure to leave room for student input. At Columbia, they showed us a bunch of charts using post-its to add student ideas.

You can also add student examples to your chart.
Or you can use a piece of student work as an exemplar and label it together as a class.
2. Strive for a billboard

Now whaddya mean by that, you might be thinking. Well, this is the part where you have to channel your inner marketing major. You need to think about your charts as highway billboards. They should be advertisements of your teaching. They should catch the eye. Imagine your students zooming by at 60 miles per hour; what would they be able to get from your chart? Your charts should be designed to give information efficiently and effectively. So, what does this boil down to?
  • Catchy headings (think about what would catch your students' eyes as they are zooming around your classroom)
  • Clear headings - It could be a big idea, a question, a reminder ... something to quickly tell your students what the chart is about and how it can help them.
  • Teaching points - Include the language of your teaching BUT just the gist of it. Brevity is key.
  • Always consider the reading level and vocabulary of your students to make the chart accessible. It's not a resource if they can't read it, y'all!
3. A picture is worth a 1000 words

Visuals are where it's at, baby! Visuals are the key to an effective chart. Why, you ask? Well, let us tell you. First, visuals are essential for memory recall. The visual provides a hook for information retrieval within the brain. Second, children develop a strong visual literacy before even attending school. It's our job to capitalize on that. Third, reading levels vary greatly among classmates, but everyone can access a picture. You gotta work with what you got.

So where can you get these oh so essential visuals? You can use photographs, clipart, student work, google images ... you can also draw images. Be sure when you are drawing, though, that you draw in a way that the students can emulate. For example, children draw using shapes so use simple shapes as the basis for your drawings as well.
Example of drawing people that children can draw from
You can also develop icons that you use again and again. For example, an ear might become an icon for listening. Your students will recognize and associate a consistent meaning with the icon. 

4. Get obsessed

If you want your students to use your charts, you have to use them all the time ... we mean, like, ALL THE TIME!!! Touch them often. Refer to them. Have your students touch them while you are referring to them. Think to yourself while you are lesson planning: "How can I use my charts more? What can I reference on my chart for this lesson?" Have your students use the charts for goal setting. Have them write their names on sticky notes and then stick them on the part of the chart that they are planning to work on that week. Move the chart around and make a big fuss about it when you do. Revise the chart. Add new learning. Get creative ... do what you have to do in order to ...

Use that chart!
5. Less is more

While this is true for the quantity of text on your chart, this rule has a broader meaning. It's a reminder that instead of making a new chart for everything that you're teaching, try to make charts that can be added upon or that can span over many topics. Children are more likely to refer to a chart when they've spent a long time working with it. Look for a big idea or theme that weaves through your teaching points for the unit then create a chart around that idea where each lesson adds a little bit to the chart. 

Okay, check in. Real talk, how are you feeling? If you're anything like us after our week at Columbia, you were nodding your head through this entire entry - yes, yes, I agree with that, that resonates with me, I already knew that - but now you're feeling a tad bit overwhelmed about where to start and how to apply this to your own practice. Well, thank goodness we have a wonderful resource to share:

This website is a goldmine for everything you want to know about charts. The authors of this website also wrote an excellent book called Smarter Charts.

The ultimate resource for chart making
Well now you're ready to make your own charts. And remember the first rule of Teacher Club: share everything you learn with anyone who will listen!

Inspired by "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)" by Beyonce

From the limb,

Friday, August 30, 2013

Levity from the Limb #2

So we're having a bit of a weird calendar this year because our school is being remodeled and we are just going back to work for our teacher workdays next week. The kids aren't even coming until September 9th. It's soooo weird; usually we'd be into our third or fourth week of school by then. We like to imagine that we are teaching in the olden days and all of our students are out tending to their fields or something rustic like that ... Anyway, it has been strange having such a late start to the year but we have been following our normal routine of putting a few hours into our classroom here and there over the last few weeks so that it's not a huge stressful rush at the end of the summer (Our room wasn't getting remodeled so we were lucky enough to be able to access it over the summer). We've been working on all the super important things ... you know ... 
  • Hanging up new border
  • Refreshing the paper on the walls
  • Reorganizing supplies
  • Organizing the library
  • Looking through our sticker collection (Yeah, that was actually Kristie and Kristin had plenty to say about that use of time, thank you very much!)
Even though it's not super fun to start working over the summer, our feelings about it are pretty much summed up through this ecard:

Anyone else feel this way?
Anyway, while we were working on hanging some border, we had a funny moment and we thought we'd share in true Two On a Limb comic style, so enjoy!

Kristin was okay and we had a good, long laugh over the irony.

So best of luck to those who are just gearing up for the new school year and keep on keeping on to our dear friends who are already back in the trenches. Happy new school year!

From the limb,

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Special Columbia Edition of How To: Create Teaching Points

There are few things we love in life:  cupcakes, antiquing, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, and Pinterest to name a few.  But one classroom fav. is a strong teaching point.  A teaching point is a few sentences that define what we want our students to learn from any particular lesson.  While writing her teaching points, Kristin prefers to start with good readers do X, good writers do Y, or good mathematicians do Z.  After the Columbia experience, Kristie now prefers to add thinking prompts to her teaching points.  Today's how to is all about our beloved teaching points.  We will address what they are and how to create them to guide your instruction.

Ok, people, class is in session.  Welcome to Teaching Point 101.
At the foundation of all mini lessons is the mighty and powerful....TEACHING POINT.  Teaching points anchor your lessons and give them purpose.  They tell your students what they will be learning, how to apply the new learning, and why it is important that they do.  They help your instruction stay focused and explicit.  Without a crystal clear teaching point, your lesson will just unravel in the wind.

Let's talk about the anatomy of a good teaching point.  One of our small group leaders at the Teacher's College of Columbia Reading and Writing Project (TCCRWP), Alison Porcelli, broke teaching points down into three basic parts:
  1. Skill - what you are teaching
  2. Strategy - how they will do it
  3. Value - why it is important
Here is an example of a teaching point used in one of Kristie's small group sessions with Alison. It focuses on teaching the elaboration technique of twin sentences when writing informational texts:  

Writers can write twin sentences by stating a fact and then asking themselves, "What more could I say?" and writing that down in the next sentence.  We do this so that the reader understands what we are trying to teach.  

Can you identify the three parts (skill, strategy, value) of that teaching point?  

Here is the answer key:
The skill is twin sentences.  
The strategy is stating a fact and then using self-questioning to add more information about the fact. 
The value is using this skill to elaborate in order to help the reader understand what it is you are trying to teach.  

Now that we've covered the what and why of teaching points, let's delve deeper into the how.  Wouldn't it be nice is there was a book called Teaching Points that listed every conceivable teaching point by curricular area and you could use it like a choose your own adventure guide?!?!?!  
Awww memories....
The bad news - consider your dreams dashed because one such magical tome does not exist.  The good news - you have everything you need to make your own teaching points!  Yay!  No?  Still smarting about the teaching point book bit?  Our bad....sorry about that. 

At Teacher Camp (aka TCCRWP), our camp counselors leaders shared tips for choosing teaching points.  Although their suggestions were centered around writing, the basic principles apply across curricular areas and can be used as a guide when developing your own teaching points in any subject area.  Without further ado, here are some ideas for sources you could use to create the skill aspect of your teaching point:
  • Consider your target audience's zone of proximal development.  Ask yourself "What are my students using, but confusing?"
  • Base it on student intention.  You might ask students what they want to do next when conferring with them.
  • Consider their level of independence on a skill or strategy and use learning progressions to determine next steps.
  • Examine student work for patterns.  You could look through the lens of extension or remediation. 
Now that we have reviewed possible sources for the skills aspect, we are ready to write the first part of a teaching point.  Here is the beginning portion of a teaching point that could be used in a mini lesson for beginning writers who are telling a story through pictures:

Writers can use illustrations to tell their stories by....

Next up is the strategy.  How are they going to perform the skill?  What thinking prompts could you give your students to help them use the skill independently?  Unfortunately, there aren't any short-cuts here.  This just takes some thinking on your part and use of strategies and routines from your own professional skill bank.  As we mentioned above, Kristie likes to add thinking prompts to her teaching points.  The addition of thinking prompts to a teaching point gives your students a question to ask themselves in order to remind them how to apply the skill.  A simple thinking prompt that you might use is to ask yourself what do your students need to do in order to apply the skill.  Let's go back to the example skill of conveying information through illustrations.  In order to do that, students need to read their pictures and think about what parts of the story the reader is seeing.  If that were to be added to our teaching point, we'd have:

Writers can use illustrations to tell their stories by reading their pictures, then asking themselves "What more could I add to help the reader see more of my story?" and then adding those details to their illustrations.  We do this.....

The most important part of the teaching point, the part that most often gets left out, is the why.  If we want students to apply the skills and strategies we teach, it is important to give them a reason why they should.  When thinking about the value of a particular skill you want to teach, the best way to determine the why is to ask yourself what value does this add to my students as independent readers, writers, thinkers, etc.  You could also think of it through a different perspective by asking yourself if they didn't do the particular skill in question, what would happen?  A "so what" question if you will.  If we were to consider the example skill of conveying information through illustrations, what would the value be in teaching that skill?  Why should students care about adding to their illustrations?  They might add to their illustrations to make their story clearer or to develop the characters in their story or to give more information than is conveyed by their text.  No one particular reason is more right than the other; it really just depends on the purpose of the lesson and what you are trying to get your students to do more of independently.  If we were to add the "so what" to complete our teaching point, it would read:

Writers can use illustrations to tell their stories by reading their pictures, then asking themselves "What more could I add to help the reader see more of my story?" and then adding those details to their illustrations.  We do this so that the reader can understand the whole story.  

This concludes Teaching Point 101.  The next time you sit down to plan a mini lesson or a small group lesson, think about what teaching point you will create to anchor your instruction.  

From the limb,

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Special Columbia Edition of How To: Make Your Teaching Stickalicious

Have you ever taught a lesson that seems to hit the spot (it was explicit, the students were all engaged, everyone had ideas to share during pair-share)?  Then when you look at your students' work that skill or strategy is nowhere to be seen.  We often ask ourselves, what's the deal?!?  What happens in the short distance it takes them to move from the carpet to the table that prevents the teaching from sticking?  Why, with all amazing teaching, engagement, and participation, is the transference not there?

While attending the writing workshop at the Teacher's College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP), we had the opportunitiy to participate in an assortment of closing workshops that delved into the logistics of teaching young writers.  One of the workshops that caught our eye was geared towards making your teaching sticky: Making Your Teaching Stick:  Methods, Engagement, and Strategies to Lift the Level of Your Workshop Teaching.  Although the session and examples were focused around writing, we think the ideas presented hold true across curricula areas and wanted to share them with you in the event you've ever questioned the stickiness of your teaching.

P.S.  These steps are based on the learning principles in Shanna Schwartz's book, A Quick Guide to Making your Teaching Stick.

P.S.S.  You're welcome for the cliffnotes of the presenter's (Jennifer DeSutter) cliff notes :)

So without further ado, here's how to make you teaching stickalicious:

Stickalicious Strategy 1:  Consider what you students are ready to learn.

This, we feel, is the most theoretical tenant of making your teaching stickalicious.  We have all heard about Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development (the relationship between developmental readiness and instruction), but to super charge the stickiness, it's all about what you choose to do once you know where your students are.  Jennifer DeSutter shared different tips for identifying next steps.  The simplest tip is to look at what your students are using but confusing through observations, their work, and conversations you have with them in small group or during conferences.  Those areas show what they are already trying and areas where they are ready to receive instruction.  She also shared the strategy of considering the progression of complexity for any given skill or strategy.  When you see your student has gained proficency with a certain skill, you can add layers of complexity in baby steps.  For example, if you notice that a student is attempting to show order and transition with "and", "then", or the super combo "and then" throughout their writing to connect their ideas, the next baby step would be instruction around alternative signal words (i.e. first, after, etc.).  Not feeling confident about your grasp of learning progressions?  While you can find learning progressions for any subject online, Lucy Calkin's Writing Pathways book in her new units of study series makes this easy for writing because it has K-5 learning progressions laid out for each genre....just sayin'.

Stickalicious Strategy 2:  The power of movement on the mind.

Utlizing movement is a great way to not only make your teaching stick, but it can also be a powerful tool to help students recall instruction.  For example, you could have your students use acting as a tool for planning (What happened?  Then what happened next?) or revising (What was missing?  What part was confusing?) their ideas.  You could also use movement to approach your instruction in a different way, a way that creates a shared experience.  For example, when teaching about the elements of narrative structure, have your kids act out each element.  Both of these ideas make your teaching stick because they create an experience that serves as a hook for immediate recall you could reference to prompt your students while coaching ("Remember when we learned about a story's setting and we used out bodies to make the setting of The Three Little Pigs?  Every story has a setting.  What is the setting for this story?") or when they are trying to problem solve.

Stickalicious Strategy 3:  Make students famous.

It sounds strange, right?  But we are serious!  How many times have you found yourself on repeat (i.e. every sentence starts with a capital letter..).  But then, one day, John Boy says, "Hey, did you know that every sentence starts with a capital letter?"  You look at John Boy like YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME!?!?!  But then you look out into the audience and you see a class full of minds blown.

From that moment forward everyone is capitalizing letters at the beginning of their sentences.  Kids listen to kids.  Instead of continuing to push rewind and play, change the tape.  Make a kid famous.  To make a kid famous, Jennifer DeSutter suggested telling stories that live inside your classroom.  Stories about John who tried a new strategy, or Jacob who went crazy and added speech bubbles to his pictures, or Jingleheimer Schmidt who helped a fellow student.  Get it?  John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt?!??  Excuse KM while she laughs hysterically...there may have been knee slaps involved.  KH looks on in shame, shaking her head over that nonsense.  

Anyway....anyone can be famous.  Students could be famous for showing their thinking in math, or for using science vocabulary, or telling a juicy story through pictures during writing.  It will make them crazy kinds of proud and confident AND make your point stick.  Who could you make famous in your classroom?

Stickalicious Strategy 4:  Chartopolis, much fancier than Chart City.

If you have every seen our classroom, you would quickly realize that we love charts.  It's a proverbial chartopolis.  Our charts are visual and usually color coded.  Our students learn and retain the most from out charts when we revisit them often and for different purposes.  To make charts more sticky, consider the amount of information you put on them.  Do you have charts that you literally have to sit there and reread because it's filled corner to corner with verbiage?  Be honest.....this is a judgement free zone....we have been guilty of that from time to time.  Our chart sage Jennifer DeSutter put things into perspective when she said you want your charts and tools to act as an ad for your teaching.  You want your charts aimed at your audience (you probably wouldn't have lots of words if you were making a chart for non-readers) and you want them to demonstrate the gist in a 10 second read.  Sometimes 10 seconds is all you get before they start staring off into the distance at some dust ball collecting in the corner.  Powerful charts can help you communicate you point and make it stick.
Excellent resource for making powerful charts.
They also have a website with charts that that will blow your mind.  

Simple process poster depicting the writing process.
Notice the illustrations that accompany each step?

This chart uses students work and key signage
to draw the reader's attention to particular areas of note.

Stickalicious Strategy 5: Rinse and Repeat.

This may be the easiest fix to making your teaching stick but it takes patience and persistence, little grasshoppers....Can't you imagine Mr. Miyagi saying something like that if he were training us to make our learning sticky?

Wax on, wax off ...
Ok....we can't stress the importance of repetition in making your teaching stick.  It takes somewhere between 7 to 15 or is it 1 and 100 exposures???....thanks for nothing google multiple exposures to something before you can internalize and apply the new learning.  That's not to say you have to brow beat them with the same lesson in the same way at the same time everyday.  We suggest using some fancy footwork.  Say you taught a lesson on self-questioning as a clarification strategy during Reader's Workshop (exposure 1), you might:  make a mini chart of it to use during small group (exposure 2), model it in a think aloud read aloud (exposure 3), confer with students in a small group or one - on - one (exposure 4), etc.  The possibilities are really endless, but the point is repetition is key.  Each repetition is another opportunity for your students to revisit, revise, and try.

In conclusion, the next time you question your sanity and feel your blood pressure rise when a student asks "so what's a connection?" after weeks of teaching making connections, take a step back and consider the stickiness of your teaching.  Remember Stickalicious Teaching:  identifies next (baby) steps, uses movement and powerful charts, makes students famous, and revisits concepts frequently to allow students to have the opportunity to revise and retry. Now go and get sticky with it!

From the limb,

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Our Pilgrimage to Columbia's Teacher College for a Week of Learning and Inspiration

So our mamas always taught us that it's not polite to brag, but we don't care because ... guess what?!? ... we got to spend a week at Columbia's Teacher College to attend their professional development on Writer's Workshop (all the cool kids are calling it Teacher Camp).

AND ... Lucy Calkins was there!!!


AND ... Ralph Fletcher AND Carl Anderson AND Pam Munoz-Ryan AND Sarah Weeks AND our new teaching crush Christine Holley ...


We'll just give you a moment to let all that sink in ... is your excitement on level with ours right now?!? We hope so :)

Now to make up for our earlier faux pas with the bragging - friendship! - we'd like to share with you the top 10 things we learned while paying our respects at teacher mecca:

1. If you want kids to do something well, you have to dedicate time everyday to it.

2. Mini-lessons need to be short, sweet, and explicit - everyone should be aware of the teaching point even if they are not yet ready to apply it.

3. Conferring does not have to be one-on-one to be powerful.

4. Your workshop should have a mid-workshop interruption where you recognize a behavior or reinforce a teaching point.

5. Mentor texts are all around us - use them!

6. Posing a question (inquiry) as a kickstart to your mini-lesson can be a powerful tool to co-create meaning and show, not tell, your teaching point.

7. A well-organized Writer's Workshop block can have 5 opportunities for explicit teaching: mini-lesson, small group instruction, conferring, mid-workshop interruption, and sharing.

8. Workshop, while it may have been pioneered in the 70s, is NOT an antiquated and outdated practice. It's a living, breathing, ever evolving vehicle for instruction that some of the best minds in education are devoting their professional careers to. It even addresses, as Carl Anderson pointed out to us, many of the components that we have now identified as the nuts and bolts of 21st century learning: initiative, passion, critical thinking, self-awareness, design, imagination, collaboration, and voice.

Ok, we're all going to need to hold hands and breathe for these last two. It's going to be okay ... we promise.

9. Writing should happen in pen to create a record of students' revisions and self-corrections. Teachers should be able to look at student work and see exactly where they made mistakes and where they noticed and corrected their own work.

10. First graders don't PUBLISH, they "publish". Their final product is not a clean, rewritten, perfect copy. It's full of their self-corrections, revisions, and edits. It reflects their entire work on the piece from the beginning through the end of the writing process and celebrates the journey of the piece over a perfected final product. Rewritten, mistake-free final drafts need not be the published piece until third grade.

See, everything is okay; we made it. You may be having a visceral reaction to those last two. We get it; we did, too. In fact, the whole teacher's college was positively buzzing with it. But just breathe, consider it, let it marinate a little, you might surprise yourself.

We want to leave you with one final thought. For us, teaching is more than a career, it's a calling. It's part of who we are and how we see the world. We know that many teachers feel the same way. It can be difficult to hold onto that passion and commitment in the face of all the challenges that we face with our job; you can start to feel lost or alone or defeated. We've certainly felt that way before. But Lucy Calkins (that's right, we know Lucy Calkins) told us, in Riverside Church no less, that people find happiness engaging with others in meaningful work that is larger than themselves. Teaching is that kind of work and we feel so lucky that we were able to have this unique opportunity to remember that.

From the limb,