One of my favorite Kindergarten teachers, Pam Mayer Kosove used to celebrate her students' birthdays by having the celebrant's parent come to the class and tell the story of the child's birth. Parents were encouraged to bring baby pictures and to tell the class how the child got his/her name. The celebrations were wonderful! Kids so looked forward to having parents come and share these unique stories. It was a great way to build community. And with this kind of party, who needs cupcakes?
My son's Kindergarten teacher has a wonderful way of inviting parents in to read aloud to the class. She asks parents to sign up to be a Mystery Reader on selected Fridays. Parents are instructed NOT to let children know when it's their turn. On the scheduled day, the parent gets buzzed down to the class, but has to wait outside. Inside the classroom the students stand. The teacher greets the parent (who remains unseen to the class) asking, "Is your child a boy or girl?" When the Mystery Reader answers, children who don't fit the description sit. The teacher then asks, "How many children are in the Mystery Reader's family?" Mystery Reader answers and more children sit down. The teacher asks for the child's first initial, and more children sit down. The teacher asks questions until only one child is standing--the Mystery Reader's child. What a fun, interesting way to make another home-school connection! The kids absolutely love it!
When I taught ESL, I always started my classes with a segment called "What's New?" For the first few minutes of class students could talk about whatever they wanted. In the beginning of the year, I would lead us off by showing something--a leaf I'd found on the way to school, a new book I'd bought. Or I'd tell a funny story about something that had happened at home. At first the kids would be shy. Nobody would have anything to say. After a few days, they'd start to open up. After the second week, if I didn't start the class with "What's New?" they'd let me know it. Even the most beginning students wanted to say something, or would comment on what others shared. It was a great, natural way for me to get to know them, an authentic way for them to practice speaking and provided kids with instant writing topics.
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Don't Fight It!
Laura Ketchum, a sixth-grade teacher in Bogota, NJ, knows that when kids go away for extended holiday breaks, they need time to transition back to school. Early in her career she would try to force kids to get back into work mode right away. She'd have an assignment ready to go first thing in the morning and kids had to do it or else! But it never worked and the whole day would feel off with kids not paying attention, fooling around, not staying on task. So now, when kids return to school after being away for a week, she gives them the first twenty minutes in the morning to talk. She starts the conversation as a whole group discussion, then lets kids get into partnerships to talk more about...whatever. Kids appreciate the time to catch up with friends and Laura's first days back are much smoother and more productive.
When Little Kids Don't Remember Their Stories
In Pre-K and K we spend a lot of time telling our stories orally. But sometimes students forget their stories between the telling in the meeting area, and when they get back to their seats. So how do we get our students to remember their stories so that they can write them down? One strategy is to have students tell the story to a partner, then tell it to themselves. So even before they've left the meeting area, they've already told the story twice. Then, when students go back to their seats, teachers give students one more chance to tell their stories across pages. So students tell what happened at the beginning, what happened next and so on in their stories, as they touch the pages. Teachers do this BEFORE giving out pencils, watching students touch and tell. Once students have told their stories three times, they rarely forget what they wanted to say.
A Strategy for Kids Who Don't Stay on Task During Independent Work Time
I often confer in one spot and kids come to me during reading or writing workshop. I trust that while I'm conferring, the rest of the class is engaged in meaningful work. But what do I do about kids who don't manage independent time well? They keep me company during my conferences. I am very explicit with these readers or writers. I tell them that I notice that when they're sitting alone they have a hard time getting started, or staying on task and that I'd like them to sit with me for work time. I make sure they know I'm not punishing them--I'm helping them to get work done. Keeping a student close helps me keep an eye on him/her, and allows me to nudge him or her toward meaningful work. Sometimes I ask my "visitors" to join in on a conference if I think they might gain from it.
Steve Mahalic in Glen Cove, NY uses this strategy to teach kids better listening skills. At the beginning of partner reading time, Steve writes down a "secret listener's" name on a post-it. Each student is instructed to listen really well as a partner shares about his/her reading. At the end of partner time, Steve reveals the secret listener's name, and that student is called on to share details about the partner's reading. The kids love it and it really helps them listen.
I used to be afraid to model a process share. What would the kids say? Would they sound smart? Would they sound like they had learned anything during reading or writing time? Now I love doing a process share. Why? Kids say the most surprising, wonderful things. The other day, a fifth grader, who was brand new to writing workshop said, after twenty minutes of working independently, "At first I didn't have an idea, but once I started writing, the ideas kept coming and coming, like they were inside my pencil!" We learn things about kids that we wouldn't know otherwise. I love learning that a Kindergartner wanted to draw a better penguin so she asked her friend for help. The other day a first grader, new to the concept of "making a movie in her mind" (visualizing) told us during the process share that she "movied it" and a new phrase was born.
To get the process share going I usually ask, "What did you learn about yourself as a reader/writer today?" For kids who haven't ever done this kind of sharing, I"ll model it by saying, "Josh learned that he could..." The process share gives us a way to get into kids' heads, and encourages kids to be reflective about their learning.
Act it Out
The other day in Bogota, NJ, in Pat Candelaria's fifth grade class the kids had a ball acting out scenes from the fiction they were writing. The kids had good story ideas and had created story arcs, now we wanted them to create scenes. I read them a sentence from my story mountain, then acted out the first part of it. The kids then had the job of acting out the rest. How would an 11 year-old show fear? How would her face look? What might she say? The kids were a little shy at first and I thought maybe they didn't get it, but with a little prompting, they picked it right up. They showed the girl shivering and her eyes popping out. When I sent them off to write their own scenes, I told them they could act out the scenes with a partner if they wanted. I thought they'd go back to their desks as usual, and create the scenes mentally. But they surprised me! They formed partnerships and threesomes and it was like an acting class in there! The kids had a great time and their writing was wonderful. Characters came alive. The dialogue sounded real and there was voice. So if you want your student writing to shine, act it out!