Tuesday, February 28, 2012

International Reading Association Award

I found out today that I was selected to be the recipient of the 2012 Eleanor M. Johnson Elementary Teacher Award!

This award "recognizes an outstanding elementary classroom teacher of reading/language arts. It honors Eleanor M. Johnson, founder and editor-in-chief of Weekly Reader, who died in 1987. The award includes a monetary prize of US$1,000 supported by a grant from Weekly Reader Corporation".

The award will be officially announced on Monday, April 30 at the First General Session at the Annual Convention in Chicago.

I am pretty psyched and thankful to my Principal Dave, AUSSIE Literacy Consultant Lisa, coteacher Lauren and my student's parents for their beautiful nomination letters of support.

It looks like I am going to Chicago!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Learning Centers: Onsets and Rimes

A component of literacy development and reading instruction for young children involves the ability to break words into smaller units.  This skill falls under the umbrella of phonological awareness which is a broad term encompassing phonemes, rhymes, words, syllables and onsets and rimes.

An onset is the the initial consonant(s) sound of a syllable (the onset in the word cat is c-; of string, str-).  A rime is the part of a syllable from the first vowel onwards (the rime of cat is -at; of string, -ing).

In my first grade class I created a game for my students to deepen their understanding of onsets and rimes while having a bit of fun.

I made cards for each of the 49 common onsets and  37 common rimes, and gathered an hourglass timer, a spinner and some paper.  Students, working in teams or individually, spin to see if they will pick an onset card or a rime card.  Once a card is chosen, the timer is set and students write down as many words as they can that start with the selected onset (ch-, d-, etc.) or end with the rime shown on the card (-at, -ake, etc.).

It is fairly straightforward and simple but extremely engaging.

It can also be adjusted depending on students age and ability.  In kindergarten I generally include only onsets with one letter and simple rimes such as -at, -an, -it.  In first grade onsets include digraphs and blends while rimes include vowel teams and silent /e/ syllable types.

I have included a sample student sheet (click to embiggen) but it works just as well for students to use a blank piece of paper once they understand the task.


Monday, February 20, 2012

Is Handwriting Important?

Ah, technology!

It is changing the landscape of education.

Once upon a time handwriting was an art-form, taught and practiced in schools with a rigor that was borderline obsessive. Friends, of my generation, who attended Catholic schools tell tales of strict ruler-bearing nuns who would not hesitate to rap them on the knuckles for illegible penmanship.

Today we still teach children how to hold a pencil and form letters properly but we also teach them how to use a keyboard.  In fact, state standards require children to publish their writing using digital technology.  Less importance is placed upon handwriting - the days of the artistry of quill and ink are gone forever.

This shift has brought about the handwriting debate.  Should we even teach it anymore given the emphasis on and ease of computer-based technology?

Is handwriting important?

Several research studies suggest it is because the act of writing, forming letters with a pen rather than a keyboard, influences academic development and performance.

For young children it aids in letter recognition because it adds a kinesthetic component to an otherwise abstract concept and provides repeated opportunities to solidify learning.

In general, writing by hand has an impact on composition skills.  Some studies found a correlation between handwriting fluency and writing achievement and this influence continued on past the primary grades.

And poor handwriting, no matter how brilliant a paper may be, negatively influences the reader. Presentation is a huge part of the equation. Research also supports the conviction that children with better handwriting are also more adept at using proper punctuation, capitalization and grammar.

There may be a time when pen and paper are obsolete but for now I can attest to the fact that there is nothing like getting a handwritten note in the mail.  It beats an email or a text every time.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Visit From Tad Hills

Charming New York Times bestselling children's book author and illustrator Tad Hills made a joyful visit to our wee school recently to share his talents with our eager students.

To quote Sara, our librarian, Tad was "masterful" in the way he engaged and entertained the students throughout his 45-minute presentation.

From the start it was evident that Tad Hills enjoys being around children and has the experience to create an easy flow that allows for student input (sometimes at inopportune moments) while constantly stimulating their imaginations and funny bones.

I was really psyched for his visit because I wanted to meet the man behind How Rocket Learned to Read. Rocket is a book I discovered late last year and I was impressed with how it supports children's literacy development in phonological awareness and phonics as well as promoting the joy of reading.  It was the perfect book to share in the reading course I taught last semester at Fordham University.  Plus, the main character is a dog and who doesn't love dogs?

His visit to PS347 led me to discover some of his other titles such as Duck & Goose, Duck, Duck, GooseWhat's Up Duck? and Knock, Knock! Who's There? (Tad killed 'em with this last title!  Sample line: Knock, Knock! Who's there?  Ken. Ken who? Ken you hear me? (Of course I can! I'm right here.) And if you know me at all you know that this is exactly MY kind of humor! And the kind kids experiment with all the time to much hilarity.

In addition to reading from several of his books, Tad engaged the children by showing them how to use different shapes to create a character and then he answered questions while painting a picture of "Duck"(which he generously donated to our school library!)

After the presentation I shot up to introduce myself and thank him for visiting.  He autographed two books for me (Rocket and Duck & Goose) and one for Lauren's precious Levi.  And before I escorted my class out Tad posed for a picture with me.

But, in my haste I neglected to realize that I was holding the book backwards (that's the back cover of Duck & Goose in my hands).

Ah, well!  A little bit of mistakery in an otherwise flawless morning.

Thank you Tad for visiting! We hope to see you again when Rocket learns to write!

Teaching Sensitive Issues

“Would you teach about the civil rights movement?”

In response to this question, twenty-eight teachers in my Master’s class silently moved en masse to the right side of the room to signify that they would indeed teach this subject to their elementary students.

In fact, most considered it negligent to ignore this historic movement that brought about the end of segregation in our country.  Familiar stories were shared about Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, the march on Washington, D.C., “I have a dream”, Ruby Bridges and peaceful protests and demonstrations.  Each educator felt comfortable with this discussion and seemed well versed on how to approach the topic in the classroom.

The unanimous feeling in the room was that the civil rights movement was a good thing. Children should be taught about it.

This question and the ones that follow were couched within the framework of the six elements of social justice education, which range from self-love and knowledge to taking social action in the face of injustice.

“Would you teach about the Holocaust?”

Most of the teachers stayed where they were but several moved to the center of the room to indicate that they were not sure.  The uncertainly stemmed from the age of their students not from resistance. Everyone agreed that it should be taught. But when? How would one approach this subject with younger children?  Would they understand this heavy topic? Would it frighten them too much?

One teacher offered up the book Terrible Things: An Allegory of the Holocaust by Eve Bunting as a way to start this conversation with first and second grade students. In the end, everyone agreed that it was a subject that could be tackled in elementary school and one that should be started early.

“Would you teach about gay marriage?”

There was a great deal of movement in response to this question.  For the first time a group of teachers moved to the far side of the room to express that they would not teach about gay marriage.


In New York gay marriage is legal. But teaching this law becomes a sensitive topic because some teachers equate teaching about equal rights for homosexuals with either support of the law or with uncomfortable discussions of sex between couples of the same gender. The topic of gay marriage and gay rights in the classroom should never be about sex. It is about equal rights and perhaps about love. Love is the reason two people want to get married in the first place.

As the teachers in my class shared the reasons behind their reluctance it became apparent that, for them, equal rights was not the main focus.  One woman stated that she teaches at a Catholic school and is not allowed to talk about gay marriage or gay rights issues. Another shared that even if she were allowed to teach the subject, she would not because it goes against her personal beliefs. And a young man said that he would teach about it but would not know how to approach it.

All of them expressed concerns regarding parental outrage and personal choice. It was deemed simply too controversial to address in our schools.

Throughout this discussion I couldn’t help but imagine how this conversation might have echoed a similar one heard 40 years ago in regards to the civil right movement.  There will always be sensitive topics to address in a fight towards social justice, equality and tolerance.  The question then becomes, who will stand up and make a difference?

Note: This was my third post published by Teaching Tolerance and it can be found here in its edited form.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


We have the Solar System hanging in our classroom! In this picture you can see the Earth, moon, Saturn, Sun and the faint outlines of Jupiter and Mercury.  
Divine student interest has led us into an exploration of our magnificent Solar System!

While engaging in this nonfiction unit of study,  I thought it best to bring up the issue of plagiarism with my first grade students because I noticed that many of them were copying information directly from their books.

So today during writing workshop we practiced reading a passage about the Sun, closing the book, discussing what we just learned and then writing it in our own words rather than simply copying passages from a book.  After the mini-lesson, I sent them off to give it a go.

About 10 minutes later one happy girl hop-skipped over to me eager to share how she internalized this lesson stating, "I didn't copy from the book!  I changed it so it wasn't the same."

"Oh! That's great.  What did you write?"

"Well, the book said it takes the Earth one year to travel around the sun.  But I changed it and wrote it takes two years!"


I sit there with my mouth hanging open wondering how I am going to handle this one.  I guess it's back to the drawing board.


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