Saturday, August 27, 2016

Is Spelling Important?

I wrote this blog two years ago, but I think it's still an important issue that we don't discuss enough at the elementary level.

I loved spelling tests when I was in elementary school.  I was good at spelling and didn't even have to study to get good grades.  So when I began teaching elementary school, I followed the lead of those who had been teaching that grade level for many years as well as what I remembered from my days in elementary school.  We followed the spelling list in the Teacher's Manual for reading.  The kids wrote the words down on Monday, wrote it several times in their spelling book for homework that night, wrote a sentence with each word the next night, alphabetized the list on Wednesday, and studied for the test on Thursday night.  After the test on Friday, parents waited anxiously for the tests to be returned, and we had happy kids or sad kids, depending on how they did.  Sometimes, parents would say, "We studied all night long, and he knew how to spell the word last night.  I don't understand why he missed it."

I began to question the value of spelling tests.  I was concerned that students were scoring 100% on Friday, yet they were misspelling those same words when they wrote in their journal or responded to a question the following week.  When a parent shared that he'd promised to take his son to Toys 'R Us if he scored 100% on his test, I realized that I needed to rethink whether spelling tests were that important.

So I changed what I was doing.  On Monday, the students would take a pre-test, and if a student scored 90%-100%, he/she was exempt from taking the test on Friday.  They still did the homework, but these students didn't have to write the word several times in their spelling book.  At least I was differentiating, I thought, but really, those spelling tests still bothered me.  I also noticed that some students felt defeated; they were working so hard but still not getting the kind of scores they wanted. "Is spelling so important?" I asked myself.  It would have been so easy to abandon spelling altogether and take the heat when parents questioned why.  In the back of my mind, however,  I knew that to be an effective reader and writer, a person needs to be aware of spelling. Knowing patterns and rules does help to decode words and to make connections between letters and sounds which then lead to fluency in reading and writing.

Then I bought a book on teaching spelling, and my biggest "aha" was that spelling is developmental.  (I wish I still had that book because it changed my thinking about spelling.)  The book contained lists for each grade level, and teachers could determine a child's developmental stage by how they spelled the words.  I found it so interesting that how a child spelled a word could determine their developmental stage and influence what and how I taught those children. Recently, I found the "Monster Test" that I remember giving to my students a few years ago. It was a simple way to give students a short test and determine their approximate developmental level for spelling. As I recall, it was really quite accurate and helped me to understand what level students were at and how I could help them get to the next level.

After that, the way I taught spelling changed in my classroom.  We used manipulatives, looked at patterns, and played with words.  One of my favorite memories is when we were thinking of words with "_ar" as the final syllable. (I was teaching first grade at that time.)  I would give a clue, and students had to spell the word with their magnetic letters or write it on their whiteboard.  For example, I said, "This is something you can ride in,"  and students excitedly spelled out "car."  After spelling "far" and "star" and "war," I asked students if they had a riddle for a word that ended with _ar.  I called on Lauren, and she whispered a word in my ear.  "Okay," I said, all the while wondering what her riddle would be.  "This is a place where daddies go after a hard day at work," she proudly shared.  The students had no problem spelling out "bar!"and here I was, thinking of "bar of soap" or "gold bar."

It was those kinds of activities that made a difference for my students.  They began to look forward to the short spelling lessons and for homework, students made lists of words with the pattern we were learning.  Students were delighted when they contributed a word to the list that other students might not have thought of!  Students corrected spelling words in a paragraph or did other fun activities based on the pattern we were studying that week.  We also had a word wall, and students had their own personal Quick-Word Handbook. They didn't have to worry about spelling for their first writing draft but they knew that self-correcting their spelling was part of the writing process, and they had tools they could rely on if they needed help.

Oh, one more thing . . . we did take spelling tests, but now, they weren't taken every Friday.  Sometime during the week when I thought the students had internalized that spelling pattern, I assessed them, and I added in some bonus words for those who wanted a challenge. The students almost always spelled the words correctly, and if they made an error, they were able to self-correct their mistake. Most importantly, though, was that their subsequent writing assignments reflected that they had truly learned the spelling patterns of the words we had studied.

In this age of Spell-Check, is it important for students to learn to spell correctly?  Yes, I believe that spelling still has a place in the classroom.  Being an effective communicator and a quality producer means that the reader's understanding and enjoyment of a piece of writing is not hindered by poor spelling.  How we teach spelling, however, does not have to be mundane or boring.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

"That's the way we've always done it"

For the past three school years, our recess fields have been limited due to our construction project. At the end of last school year, we began to seek input from students and staff about how we might restructure recess and our playgrounds. We were in the process of exploring Project-Based Learning, and we posed a question to our students about what they would like to see in a playground. Students from kindergarten up to fifth grade were excited to share ideas in their classroom or in the library, and our librarian (@Michelle_Colte) shared the process in a slide show called, "Planning Our Playground."

We also asked our staff for their input during a Wednesday meeting. We gave them the topic "Recess for Learning," asked the groups to brainstorm questions, select the ones they wanted to explore more, and then to share their learnings. Every staff member was engaged in their group, and the resulting slide show is evidence of the rich discussions that took place. Not surprisingly, the ideas were more practical and less "creative" than our students' ideas. What was impressive was that in the short time available, teams were able to explore and research their questions and provide links to resources.

After that session with our staff,  a committee of students presented their ideas to administration and counselors. These third graders were passionate and had clearly done their research in an effort to persuade us to consider their ideas. This slide show shares the students' ideas. In the end, they advocated for 4 main changes: a longer recess (they had research to back up their claim that students need more physical activity during the day); to be able to go to other places at recess (different playground areas, going to the library, the drama room, etc.); permission for all grade level students to use the playground equipment (older students felt the rules were too restrictive); and having a landscaped area and do-it-yourself space (rolling hills, gardens, sandboxes, a maze, etc.).Students were also concerned about the fact that teachers seemed to ban activities whenever there was a problem rather than seek student input about how to resolve the problem. "Students were playing rough at soccer so they ban soccer. Students fell down and got hurt during tag so they ban tag. There's  nothing for us to do at recess because teachers keep banning stuff." "So what do you propose?" we asked. "Maybe kids can discuss in class about the rules. Or make the kids who are playing rough find something else to do." The point here is that our students do have suggestions; not all of their ideas are acceptable - we made it clear that climbing trees would not be possible due to safety reasons - but we should give them a voice because recess is their break and they have great ideas.

"So what would teachers think of these ideas?" we asked the students. "Oh, they'll like our ideas," one student replied. "They will think it's important for students to get more exercise." "Will they like having longer recess duty?" I asked. One student thought they wouldn't mind, but another disagreed. "I've heard my teacher when she says, 'I have yard duty.' I don't think she would like it," she explained.  'Empathize' is the first step in the Design Thinking Process, we need to be able to empathize with those who have the problem before we can come up with solutions. Our students need to realize that when they give a suggestion, they need to look at it from all viewpoints, not just their own.

After that, our Leadership Team had an on-line discussion where more questions were asked and more suggestions were made. From there, administrators took all of this information into consideration and came up with a revised plan for recess for this school year. Students were given more choice in which field they wanted to play at, we scheduled a slightly longer recess on Wednesday, and we had mixed grade levels sharing the recess fields. Everything went well, right? Wrong!

The students were happy; they loved recess, and they only had 3 rules to remember: Be safe. Be respectful. Be responsible. The teachers' reactions were mixed, however. Some teachers were willing to give it a chance to work itself out, but others were not convinced the new way could work. They wanted to go back to the old way: "That's the way we've always done it," they said, "Why do we have to change?" After a couple of weeks, we convened a committee to discuss and make recommendations.

We are back to having badges for students to go on the playground equipment. The physical education teachers set out activities each day, and teachers are meeting their students and walking them back to class instead of having them walk back by themselves. I think of this as a next step in the Design Process. We went through the process, designed a prototype (recess for learning where students have more voice and choice), and tested it out. When concerns were raised especially about safety, we went back to the design process and made adjustments. We aren't finished yet; we still want to make recess more student-centric and less teacher-directed, but we need the activities and equipment to make that happen. The Parent Teacher Organization has offered to purchase additional activities for our students to use during recess, teachers are looking in their closets to see if they have resources they can share, and we will continue to tweak what we're doing when necessary.

Recess can be a time for learning; we will make it happen.

Recess on the back field . . .
 . . . . in the front of the school by O-building . . . 
. . . and on the court. 
When the playground refurbishment is completed, we'll have more options for our students.  

Sunday, August 7, 2016

A Positive Start to a New School Year

This is a year of change for us. Our construction project is almost complete, we exceeded our enrollment projection which means additional funds for our school, our new staff members have acclimated well, and we made some changes to our schedule that we think will make a difference for our students.

This year, there are still areas with orange plastic screening to keep us out, but for the most part, most of the construction barriers have been removed. What a difference this has made! The past three years have been like walking through a maze to get from one area of campus to another, and the walkways were dark and narrower than usual.  When the bell rang, there wasn't enough room for students, parents, and toddlers in strollers. Now that those barriers have been removed, there is plenty of room on the walkways for everyone. Yeah! Happy staff, happy students, and happy parents!

It's nice to have covered walkways throughout the campus. Now students can stay dry when they're walking around campus even when it rains.
This school year, we are focusing our efforts on four initiatives. We will continue to address the six priority strategies for our Department, but our main focuses will be on the following:
  • Implement project-based learning (PBL) with communication skills embedded. Literacy skills - reading, writing, speaking and listening - will be addressed throughout PBL, and the use of technology will be encouraged when appropriate. We started exploring PBL last school year, and this year, we will be building on what we learned. This year. teachers set their own goals related to PBL, and we will be placing them into Professional Learning Communities based on what they would like to explore and discover. There will be opportunities to articulate vertically with teachers in different grade levels and to bring back information to the respective grade levels.
  • Continue to develop a writing continuum with sample writing pieces and criteria so students can self-assess and set their own goals. Last year, we struggled with the idea of a writing continuum that would be personalized for our school. Rather than abandon the idea, we will be collecting student samples of different kinds of writing and looking at the pieces more closely. We want teachers to critique these writing samples in their classrooms, eventually coming up with criteria for quality writing. We want students to be able to self-assess and to revise their own writing pieces. The writing continuum is a work-in-progress; it is a process that takes time and honest discussions amongst our teachers and our students.
  • Students learn and apply math for understanding using “Stepping Stones” and other resources; embed problem-solving skills and strategies into math instruction. Our State has mandated the use of "Stepping Stones" as a resource to teach math. Because we did not have funds at the time, we put off purchasing licenses for this program until this school year. I just read an article, "A History Lesson: When Math Was Taboo," and I found it really interesting and applicable. Too often, we teach algorithms, and students don't understand what the algorithm means or why it works. We need to teach math for understanding.
  • Implement Positive Behavior Intervention Support school-wide to ensure success for all students. Students need to feel safe in their learning environment. We have a strong PBIS system in place, but we continue to make it better. We know that building positive relationships with our students is essential, and having students reflect on their actions has been effective in reducing negative behaviors. We made PBIS a priority two years ago, and we believe that emphasis has resulted in pride and respect amongst our school community.

We anxiously await the completion of our covered play court; we will have options for activities before school, during the day, and after school. We have more recess areas and a different schedule that will give students choices for unstructured as well as structured opportunities. We plan to offer after-school or weekend enrichment activities, and when the library opens, our Makerspace will undoubtedly be a popular choice for students to express their innovation and creativity.

As the year unfolds, I will share insights, lessons learned, reflections, and challenges. After one week, I can say that the year has gotten off to a wonderful start!