Literature Circles

As a result of a conversation on Twitter, part of a recent #mbedchat, I’ve made the resolution to blog more frequently.  In this post, my first in nearly a year, I will write a bit about the Literature Circles reading/discussion group that we will be getting further into in the coming weeks.  Lit Circles are far from groundbreaking but, at the same time, they can be a great way to get students thinking about and discussing what they are reading.  They can be great.  They can also be very formulaic and ineffective.  Here’s hoping ours is not.  With the help of a few of my colleagues at my school, I’ve attempted to avoid being formulaic by tweaking some of the Lit Circle jobs.  The students seem to be excited.  Step 1, success.

As a class, we have discussed what is expected of the students in their Lit Circles.  We have introduced the five “jobs” or roles that will drive our Literature Circles, as well as the connections students will be writing about what they are reading.  We have used picture books to do the jobs as a class.  We have modelled the connections and have had the students write their own.  As a class, we read a novel and the students got a chance to write each of the different connections and do each of the roles on their own.  With a bit of review over the next week or so, the students should be ready to go off into their five person Lit Circle groups to try it all out more independently.

At our once-per-cycle Lit Circle group meetings, each student will be given one of the roles.  The jobs we will be using are: Illustrator, Reporter, Word Sleuth, Blogger, and Question Creator.  I am most excited about the last two roles.  Blogger, which was most definitely not my idea, is one that has a lot of potential.  For this job, students take on a key character’s point of view and write a blog post.  Not only does this require the students to write from within the mindset of one of the book’s characters, it also exposes them to blogging.  Since we are going to be starting some class and individual blogging later this term, this role becomes doubly useful.  In our whole class reading of Bunnicula, by James Howe, the students got quite into the Blogger job.  It will be very interesting to see how it will play out when the students work on this more independently.

The other role I am excited about is Question Creator.  Question Creator asks students to come up with questions that will help drive the discussion within the group meetings.  This is very similar to the traditional Discussion Director role.  At the same time, though, we’ve made the explicit decision not to expect the Question Creator to be the one and only leader of the group discussion.  This may be asking for trouble but, with our class, I think that natural leaders will be able to help lead and it will, hopefully, become more of a group effort – rather than having one person lead the discussion. 

In order for QC to work, the students needed a lot of pre-teaching surrounding question-formation.  This will be an ongoing teaching area for us, but one in which I feel we have a solid start.  One of the early steps taken to teach this questioning explicitly was the use of one of our bulletin boards as a Wonder Wall, a place for students to be post questions or to write out “I wonder…” statements.  We also discussed the importance of different levels of questioning, from what we called “Starter Questions” to “Solid Questions” to “Thinker Questions”.

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Our Wonder Wall, prior to the posting of questions.

As we get ready to head back to school after the break, the possibilities of where we might go with this are exciting.  While it can be hard to gear up after two weeks away, it is an activity like this, one with potential and possibility, that make it all the better.

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#etmooc – Introduction

Starting this week, I will be taking part in a MOOC – a massive open online course – on educational technology and media.  For those who have arrived at this blog from #etmooc, allow me to introduce myself.  My name is Lawrence Cohen and I am a grade 4/5 teacher in Winnipeg, Manitoba.  I am in my 5th year of teaching and have taught grade 3/4 up to grade 8.

I am excited about taking part in #etmooc because I know that technology has much to add to my teaching, to enable me to teach and engage my students in ways that are simply not possible with tradition books, pencil and paper.  I also know that I have much to learn in this area and, as such, I welcome the opportunity to take part in #etmooc.  I look forward to the learning and connecting that will be part of this experience.

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A Little Structure Goes a Long Way

As we were finishing up our first full week back at school earlier today, I realized that already, this early in the year, I’ve learned a thing or three from my class.  The biggest thing I’ve learned is that we have a long way to go to get to where we need to be.  The exciting thing, though, is that we have some really solid tools in order to get there.

I’ve realized, once again, that we can’t rush things.  So what, if we’ve made it 8 whole minutes in our Daily 5 Read to Self?  We’ve only done it once.  We usually get to about 4, maybe 5 minutes before one or two of my students loses focus.

We were really struggling earlier in the week.  We had talked about what Read to Self should look like and the kids had all the right answers.  So much so that I was confident that I could allow them to sit where they wanted right from the beginning of “building our stamina” with our silent reading.  While the kids loved the freedom, they loved sitting on the floor or in one of our beanbag chairs near their friends, they also really struggled with it.  They would get 2, maybe 3 minutes of decent reading and then eyes would wander and they’d be done.  I realized that while the ideal is that the students choose their space, they needed a little more pre-teaching/learning before that would be successful. Somewhat disappointed (but not really, in hindsight), I had the kids all sit at their desks and do their reading from there.  Right away, we saw more success.  We didn’t get to where I had hoped, but it’s getting there.  A little structure goes a long way, especially at this time of year.  Onward and upward.

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Two Days In

We have now had our first two days of school and we’ve gotten off to a solid start. This year marks a few changes for us. Last year, my classroom was in another wing of our school, beside our other grade 4/5 class but sharing the hallway with our junior high (gr. 7/8) kids and our IPSA class (a program for students with autism). This year, we are in another part of the school, with our grade 5/6 class, and we are the only 4/5 class in the school this year. We are in a part of the school with 4 classrooms but only 2 classes, which means that both the 5/6 class and my class have the luxury of having 2 rooms at our disposal. This is a really positive change. It will be interesting, as the year goes on, to see how we use our spare room. Right now we have some rectangular tables in the room for group work, a horseshoe table, a standing desk, and enough chairs for about 10-12 students. Lots of opportunity there, I think having that room will be a huge positive for our class. The one thing, I wish there was more of was technology, ie. computers… We are still waiting on the installation of a desktop computer in that room at some point, though we do have access to the netbooks to share between students in my class and the 5/6 class. They can be slow as molasses, but they’re better than nothing.

For my students, this year is a big change. None of them have been in this part of the school before. Most, if not all, have had classes on the first floor of this wing, but not in the specific spaces we’re in. This is a positive, in my mind, because they aren’t used to it being used in one way or another. We can make it what we want, it’s like a clean slate in a way.

Another change for my students is that it’s the first time most of them have their own desk. Our primary classes use tables and I used tables in my class last year. This year, because I have more students and a (slightly) smaller room, I don’t have room for the tables without sitting 3 students at each rectangular table – which, in my opinion, loses the advantage of tables for middle years (or almost middle years) students. Thus, we have desks. It’s an interesting challenge, as it requires much more by way of organizational skills from the students and, by extension, more explicit teaching from me about how to learn those skills. We have spent much of our first two days starting to get organized. I can already tell that it’s going to take a lot of work from all of us. It’s going to be something that I have to keep in mind throughout the year.

During our first two days, we’ve seen some really positive things from the kids. The top three things I’ve noticed so far:

1. They help each other. The kids seem genuinely interested in working together and helping each other. This is great. It’s setting a tone that will help us as we go through the year.

2. They like to read. We started our first introduction to Daily 5 on Friday and learned about and practiced Read to Self. It looked like the majority of the class was really getting into the silent reading. I’m not going to delude myself into thinking that all 27 students are going to be perfect readers right from the get go, but I’ll take what I can get. It’s definitely a credit to the teachers who have taught these students before me…

3. We don’t implode during indoor recess. Our first day of school was a rainy day and we had indoor recess. I was happy to see that, with some coaching, everyone was able to find an activity they were happy to do and it seemed like we had enough of a variety of things to do to keep everyone interested. While this might be challenged when we get a string of -35 days in January that keep us inside for a week straight, it’s a start.

On that note, bring on the first full week. We’re ready.

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Getting Ready, Setting Goals

We are now, officially, in Back to School mode. Tomorrow is our first official day back, filled with meetings and some planning time.  On Wednesday we see our students for the first time, albeit not as a whole class.  Wednesday is a our Opening Day Conferences day, a chance for us to connect with both the kids and their parents.  It’s a nice welcome, particularly for the kids who might be new to the school, or those who struggle with transitions.

I try to use these conferences to connect with both student and parent.  While short (only 15 minutes long), we are able to share basic information.  More importantly, though, I incorporate some goal setting into the meeting.  In my welcome back postcards that were mailed out mid-August, I asked each student to think of 2-3 goals they might set for the upcoming year.  My plan is to talk about these goals at our conference.  We will be working with the goals and putting them down on paper on Thursday and Friday and posting them on one of our bulletin boards on Monday.  Responsive Classroom calls these goals Hopes & Dreams.  I am still undecided as to whether I will call them goals or hopes and dreams… Regardless, they are the same thing, no matter what we call them.

The idea behind these goals is that they become the motivation behind setting our classroom rules and expectations.  Our rules and expectations arise from the question “What do we need to do, as individuals, and as a class, in order to make sure that we can achieve our goals/realize our hopes and dreams?”  These goals, while individual and personal, become a part of our whole group fabric, our classroom community.  It really is a great process, allowing us to get to know each other, work together and develop the sense of community that we will count on throughout the year.  Let the fun begin!

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A New M.O.

As I sit here, we are just over a week away from the start of a new school year.  It is my hope to use this blog as a place not only to share ideas, but also to hash them out, to get feedback.

As teachers, we often encourage our students to share their work but we often ask them to share only their best work, their final products.  An idea (not my own) that I want to try more is to use sharing as part of the creation process, instead of waiting to share only the final product.  I figure that if I am going to try this new modus operandi with my students, I might as well try it on my own as well. Thus, my blog, a space to share, to put forth ideas and a place to learn. Welcome.

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