Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Learning Centers: Numbers

I have some very strong feelings about developmental milestones in terms of assessment and education. Developmental milestones serve us by providing a broad picture of the tasks we would expect a child of a certain age to be able to perform. They range from gross and fine motor skills, to social, language and cognitive functioning. The age at which a child successfully passes through each developmental milestone varies with the uniqueness of the child.

Developmental milestones are helpful because they serve as a barometer of sorts. If we know which skills are likely to develop in a sequence, then we can plan instruction accordingly. You wouldn't expect a baby to ride a bike before they learn to walk or ask a child to read a book before they can identify letters. In this way, developmental milestones are extremely useful.

However, I take issue when they are used to label children. When the child who is making progress every single day along this continuum is thought 'less of' than a child who moves through each stage with ease.

Parents can worry and fret that their child is 'behind' and therefore ignore their brilliance.

We have a student this year who is making amazing strides every day. It is a struggle. Identifying letters and numbers is a challenge.

He is fidgety and does not always focus. He prefers 'hands-on' manipulation of objects that involve kinestic and tactile elements.

He stretches our thinking. And today on this snowy, cold day we found an activity that worked for him. It involves paper plates, the number line and a marker.

We gave him 20 paper plates. On each plate was written a number 1-20. We told him to throw the plates high into the air so that they landed all over the rug. He liked this. He was then asked to order the plates from 1-20 using the number line to help him if he got stuck. This required him to go back to number 1 on the number line each time he was looking for the next number because he knows the numbers when he says them in order but not when asked to identify them on their own.

So today we celebrated this milestone. Numbers 1-6 are solid! It gets murky around number 13 but that will come. He'll get there.

The paper plate idea can also be used with students who are learning to use the 100s chart. In this case they are given 100 paper plates to throw up in the air and arrange in order from 1-100. As they place the plates in 10 rows they begin to notice the patterns, which is an important developmental milestone in itself.

By reading down the tens column they count by 10s. They will see that all the 4s in the ones place are in the same column (all the 2s, 3s, 5s, etc.). They learn to navigate rows and columns. What number comes after 20? Before 51? It is surprising how this simple 'game' can bring about so much learning.

I love when that happens!

Thanks Laurie for the idea.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Cohort 8

This past Thursday night I attended the Ennis William Cosby graduate certificate ceremony at Fordham University for cohort 8 in the "Young Readers at Risk" program. The 24 scholarship recipients were recognized for "demonstrating proficiency in providing beginning reading instruction and a sense of social justice and the belief that all children can learn to read".

The Hello Friend/Ennis William Cosby Foundation was established by Bill and Camille Cosby to continue their son Ennis' dream "to help children find the self-esteem, support and learning techniques that would open the doors of accomplishment and joy to them" (taken from Ennis' Gift: A film about learning differences).

Ennis, who was dyslexic, was dedicated to helping children who struggle to read and write and the Hello Friend/Ennis William Cosby Foundation has ensured that his dream continues.

So far, there have been 234 New York City public school teachers who have graduated from this 18 credit program. They have touched the lives of 25,000 children.

I was fortunate enough to have been accepted to Cohort 3 and I can honestly state that this program has not only changed my way of teaching but also my life. It directly influenced my decision to pursue my doctoral studies and opened the door for me to become an adjunct instructor at Fordham University.

It was a night of celebration and reflection. It was also a night mixed with bittersweet emotions because, as of this writing, the foundation has decided not to continue the program when the current cohort (Cohort 9) graduates next January. This means that there will not be a Cohort 10 - at least not this summer. I remain hopeful that when funding is available in the future (or my pleas to Oprah are heard) that the program will pick up again where it left off.

Difficult economic times are hitting us in unforeseen ways.

However, for the moment we celebrate the teachers who make a difference.

We give thanks to the Hello Friend/Ennis William Cosby Foundation and to the Cosby family.

I give my personal thanks to Dr. Joanna Uhry, director of the program at Fordham University (pictured with me during the tutoring practicum) who has done so much for me. Her belief in my abilities and her kindness, both professionally and personally, has been inspirational, motivating and heart warming. But, more on that in future posts...

Congratulations to Cohort 8!

Top picture: Julie Shoemaker at podium. Seated: (left to right) Dr. Joanna Uhry, Cayne Letizia, Gary Wellbrock, Erika Cosby, Erinn Cosby.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Unity Of The 50!

In honor of the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama my friend Laurie and I created a short video of American Sign Language signs associated with this historical event.


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Puppy Dog Tails

What are little boys made of?
Snakes and snails, and puppy dog tails.
That's what little boys are made of.

What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice, and everything nice.
That's what little girls are made of.

The above rhyme puts forth the simple notion that boys and girls are different. It also seems to be making a judgement call while doing so, but the point is clear.  So why in our elementary schools do we continually view boys and girls through the same educational lens? 

Many curriculums require children to write 'small moment' stories. The 'small moment' can be any event or happening in the life of the child that is then focused and expanded upon.  Instead of writing list stories (I went to the store.  I went to the park.  I went home.) they are asked to give a detailed account of one thing that happened at the store.  When they write something like "I went to the Acme with my mom and sister to buy pretzels.  My mom had a coupon for Snyder's pretzels so we got that kind.  I smiled." teachers applaud.  

Girls are generally good at writing these kinds of stories.

Boys on the other hand are more motivated to write when they can write stories involving superheroes or violence.  Teachers try to sway them away from these topics.  

Here is a sampling I took from my class today.

That was written by a little girl about her hair and her mischievous brother.

And the drawing below was done by a little boy. It is a picture of Stewie from The Family Guy holding a knife while reenacting the shower scene from Psycho. He saw this on TV.  It stuck with him.

Books by researchers like Ralph Fletcher who wrote Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices and Thomas Newirk who wrote Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture challenge us to rethink our expectations.  Why isn't it okay for boys to write like boys? Why do we, as a culture, value only one type of writing and dismiss the other?  Reading these books makes me realize how ingrained this way of thinking is and I continue to struggle to alter my perception.  

It's an ongoing thing.

By the way, care to venture a guess as to whether a boy or a girl drew the top picture with the butterflies and the flowers?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

SpiderWeb Game

Games are a huge motivator for young children.  I have found over the years that the activity does not even have to be a real 'game' to engender excitement among the little ones, simply calling something a 'game' is enough most of the time.  At least initially.

By the end of first grade, students are required to know about 110 sight words. These are words that they should be able to immediately identify on sight as well as know how to spell.  They include common words from the Dolch sight word list and are words that children encounter in print on a regular basis.  

Over the years I have found many ways to encourage students to have fun learning how to spell these words.  One crowd pleaser is called The Spider Web Game (cue menacing music).

Everyone sits in a circle and the teacher holds a large ball of yarn in his/her hand.  One hand is holding onto the end of the string while the other holds the ball, ready to toss at the person sitting across from them.  Once the teacher tosses the ball of yarn to the child opposite them they ask that child to spell a word from the word wall.

Teacher: Spell 'over'.
Student: O-V-E-R.

Super.  Then the student takes hold of the yarn so that there is now one thread of the spider web between the teacher and the student. Then the student tosses the ball of yarn to a child sitting across from them.  Again the teacher asks this child to spell a word and when they do, that child tosses the yarn to the next child.

This goes on until everyone has had a turn.  At this point there should be a big spider web connecting everyone to everyone else. 

Then the fun begins.  

One child is selected to be the spider and another is chosen to be the fly.  The 'spider' and the 'fly' hand their thread to the child beside them to hold (if this is not done the web will be destroyed).  Then everyone in the circle lifts their hands so the web is above their heads.  The 'fly' crawls underneath. When the fly is in the center of the web everyone lowers their hands, catching the fly in the spider web.  Then the spider takes action and crawls into the center (on top of the web) to eat the fly.
It sounds yucky but remember your audience!  

Everyone get a turn as either the spider or the fly.  The tricky part to manage is keeping the yarn from getting tangled up when the game is finished.  I have everyone sit holding their yarn as I roll it back into a ball. When they feel a tug they can let go.

Give it a try in your classrooms. It is a lot of fun.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Multiple Meanings

I have become increasingly interested in the reading processes of Deaf and hard of hearing children who use American Sign Language as their first language. When a hearing child is asked to read a passage out loud, the teacher only listens to the words the child speaks. There is nothing inherently telling about the way a child says a word that would indicate whether or not the child understands the meaning behind each word. The word "bat" will sound the same in the sentence "The boy hit the ball with the bat" and "The bat flew in through the window".

In American Sign Language however the word "bat" would be signed differently in each of these contexts. A teacher sitting with an emergent reader would immediately know if the child understood the sentence by the sign the student chose while reading. To me this is an amazing advantage to ameliorate the reading development of young Deaf and hard of hearing children.

Consider the following example:

A five-year-old Deaf student in my dual language (American Sign Language and English) first grade class eagerly walks over to me with an emergent reader text written by Monica Hughes. She takes a seat beside me and reads the title of the book, The Play, utilizing manual communication without voice. Although the word ‘play’ in this context indicates a theatrical performance, she uses the sign meaning ‘to play’ as in having fun. 

Throughout the reading her use of this incorrect conceptual sign hinders her full understanding of the text. It is not until after the reading when I show her the appropriate conceptual sign that the ‘Aha!’ moment takes place. Looking at the cover of the book now her expression changes as the author’s intended meaning emerges. She notices the stage curtain and the masks in the children’s hands and says “Oh!” with the bright-eyed clarity of understanding.

A week later she brings me another emergent reader also entitled The Play and proudly reads it to me using the correct conceptual sign. She excitedly reminds me of our discussion the week before by indicating the distinction between the two meanings of the word ‘play’. 

This time, paying attention to the context of the story and the words that surround it, she chose the correct sign.

These decisions are constantly necessary when reading for meaning. And without meaning, 'reading' is simply an exercise in decoding.

For those of you interested in viewing some examples of this in action, Lauren and I have made another video. In it we chose four words (sign, play, letter, mean) and provide two sentences where the same word has a different meaning based on the context.

The word 'sign' is used in the sentences "If you break a mirror, it's a sign that you will have bad luck for seven years" and "Can you sign this paper?"

The word 'play' is used in the sentences "I enjoy playing with my friends" and "Did you watch that play last night?"

The word 'letter' is used in the sentences "Do you know all your letters?" and "I wrote my mom a letter."

And the word 'mean' is used in the sentences "Do you mean something different?" and "That girl is mean. She is not nice."

For more on this check out these books by Kristin Anderson Di Perri. And of coure, feel free to ask questions (but raise your hand and take turns :)

Monday, January 5, 2009


Everyday on my way to work I walk through Madison Square Park, at 5th Avenue and 23rd Street, where elegant men in business suits are juxtaposed with the disheveled woman in her bathrobe and slippers taking her rather large dog out to do his own morning business.

This little park, which boasts the famous and exceedingly popular Shake Shack, has committed itself to presenting unique and stunning outdoor art exhibitions. Several months ago I noticed that the trees were sprouting little houses. Each day I'd discover another one and it fed my sense of imagination, fun and curiosity. What was going on?

It turns out they are part of an exhibition by Tadashi Kawamata called Tree Huts. There are no visible means of arriving at these little shelters but it did get me thinking about our childhood (and adult) fascination with living in a tree.

The grandest example I suppose can be witnessed by The Swiss Family Robinson treehouse but we are just as taken with those little Keebler elves who make cookies in a tree. At least I am.

Children's literature is teeming with characters living in treehouses.

There are the lovable Berenstain Bears created by Stan and Jan Berenstain who get along quite well in their treehouse.

Most of the characters in the exquisite Winnie-the-Pooh stories live in trees.

The engineering pigs in Arthur Geisert's Pigs From A to Z build an impressive four story treehouse to live in and the kids in The Bear Next Door by Ginnie Hofmann find friendship under a treehouse.

There must be something about treehouses and forts that children love. Perhaps it is the sense of ownership, the privacy, the 'grown-up' feeling of control over your environment or simply a place to go to be alone. A place of peace with a great view and just a dash of danger.

Where are our treehouses now? What do they look like? How do we get to them?

Perhaps we have out grown the need for them but every once in a while wouldn't it be nice to climb up a ladder and leave the world behind, just for a moment?


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