Tag Archives: elementary education

Quick Start to Comprehension

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O.k. So the title of this blog may be misleading. Teaching students to deliberately and conscientiously use strategies to understand and remember their reading better takes time. My goal as a curriculum coach, however, is to help simplify information and give teachers a place to start. I created brochures on each thinking strategy to share with colleagues at my school a couple of years ago. Today I would like to share them with you. If you are interested in adding a shared reading component to your day where you teach students to make connections, ask questions, or synthesize information, this is a place to start. The content is inspired by Debbie Miller and her work “Reading with Meaning.”

*Click on a link below to find the strategy you are looking for. FYI-I created these brochures on my home computer using Microsoft Works. Since we do not have that program at school, I scanned each page in order to share them with you.

metacognition brochuremaking connections and visualizing brochureinferring and asking questions brochuresynthesizing brochure

Reflection and Engagement

Reflection time…that’s what today offers me. The last month has been bursting with new iPad applications and my students have been loving it. I have been loving it. Our first snow day was the first week of December and I couldn’t help but feel let down. After the roads were plowed and school was back in session, I was greeting my students in the hallway at 8:15 a.m. “Mrs. Rengo,” one little boy said. “There was no school yesterday.” “I know,” I replied. “It was a snow day.” The boy went on to say, “I was so disappointed.” I could relate and that is when I knew that technology not only increases student engagement but teacher engagement as well.

What has been happening in my classroom to keep me so engaged? The answer is simple. AR (Augmented Reality). I had the privilege of attending an iDesign workshop by Naomi Harm. As usual, she delivered a rich presentation. (A link to her blog is found in my blog roll.)

As a first grade teacher, I am accustomed to teaching a skill to a group of 6 and 7 year olds and having some of them “get it” the first time and some not. (Some need even a second, third, or fourth exposure). Aurasma is the perfect remedy for this. I learned that I could transform my word wall and math vocab wall and make it interactive. My students could record videos of science experiments, word work lessons (anything really) and watch them again later.

Once you understand the process, Aurasma is simple to use. It involves capturing a short video, pairing it with a “trigger image,” and then publishing it to a channel to later view on demand. I began by making my own Aurasmas and then moved on to teaching my students how to make their own because I just couldn’t keep up with the demand. Teaching my students how to make their own was one of the best things I have ever done (instantaneous ownership).

Another favorite app of mine is Layar. Layar allows me to take posters that I create using the app Pic Collage and move beyond 2-D. I can add links to YouTube videos and pictures to reinforce a concept.

What was the first thing I made with Layar? Several years ago I made a poster to teach different letter sounds to help students understand bossy e, double vowels, etc. in reading. It was a hodgepodge of hand drawings and clip art but I was pretty proud of it. I thought “What a great way to teach sounds in reading.” That was then and this is now. Now, my students take the amped up version of my sounds poster and use Layar to view different YouTube videos that show reinforce the spelling rules though song. How engaging!

The bottom line is that I now have the tools to help my students practice important skills independently (making the best use of their time AND mine. Yeah!)

(Pictured below: A sound chart and reading strategy poster that I created using Pic Collage on the iPad. I then used Layar to add various videos to illustrate important concepts.)

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Teaching Time Words

Time Lesson Plan

Time…we are all bound to it. As teachers, we know every minute counts. Two minutes left in our prep? We can get a LOT done in that two minutes! Some children have an understanding of time, and some, to put it plainly, don’t. How do you teach time words? The new CCSS require students to be very clear in their writing and put to use descriptive words. With so many different time words, how do you teach them to children so that they truly understand them? “The Word Lady” has shared her lesson plan with us. No matter what she teaches, she tries to give children something to hold. Watch the video below to see how it is done!

Facilitating Asking Questions

All the great reading gurus talk about questioning as an important comprehension strategy that individuals use to help them understand their reading better. We teach students to generate questions before, during, and after reading. We teach students to search the texts they are reading for answers. Sometimes our answers are found in the text itself and others are found in outside sources.

Children are innately curious. My daughter is a prime example of this. She probes me with questions every opportunity she gets. Her questions are insightful at times and borderline weird at others (such as “What are toenails made of?” or “What would happen if you had no lips?”)

Our goal is for children to think deeply and to stretch themselves. We want quality questions which require higher order thinking and so we teach that not all questions are created equal. We draw an analogy between a sandwich. “Which of your questions are thick? Which ones are thin?” we say. (Thick questions require us to dig deeper. The answers are not found right there in the text. Thin ones, on the other hand, are “right there.” “How does questioning help you as a reader?” we probe.

Despite our best efforts, we sometimes have students that struggle with generating questions. They may write down a telling when they are asked to record a question that they have. What do you do then? “The Word Lady” has the answer.

It is actually simple. Take a box. Place an object inside. (Don’t let the students see what you put in.). Say to the class “I have something inside this box. Ask me a question to try to figure out what is inside.” This is where the fun begins! Your first question may be “What is it?” This is where you work your magic as a teacher. You help shape student responses and mold them in to questions. Based on student responses, you might say things such as: “Ask me a where question. Such as “Where is it found?” Ask me a how question. Like “How do you use it?” You can build a concept of categories and teach students to ask if it is an animal, a type of clothing, or a plant.

This is a fun activity that you can use while kids are lining up or during snack time. Give it a try. You will be amazed at the transformation and the types of questions your students begin to generate!

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Numbers Numbers are Everywhere!

*This is a third installment in a series of posts about vocabulary and language learning from Speech/Language Pathologist, Jill Negrete, from the Grantsburg School District.

Numbers are Everywhere Lesson Plan

All math teachers can relate to teaching a new concept and later finding that students didn’t really “get it.” Learning by rote memorization does not stay with a student and they soon forget what it was that you tried to teach them. Sometimes concepts are abstract from the start and students need something to connect their new learning to for it to sink in.

The Word Lady teaches number words in a dynamic way. As teachers, we may describe objects with words such as “pair,” “few,” “several,” and “many.” If we look at it from a student’s perspective, what do these words really mean anyways? It is possible that students with language difficulties are sitting through our math lessons feeling dazed and confused.

Jill Negrete has shared her lesson plan for teaching number words. It is a must read for any elementary math teacher to see how you can take real world objects and put them in the hands of children to help them truly understand numbers.

Laney Sammons talks about helping students make “math-to-self,” “math-to-math” and “math-to-world” connections in her book “Guided Math.” Speaking from experience, I have found that students do not automatically see how one math concept is similar to another. Students also tend to view these concepts in isolation and do not see how the concepts are similar to things in the world around them or in their own lives. Children first need to be taught that these connections exist, and then need guidance making connections before making them independently.

As you look at Jill’s above lesson plan, you will see that she helps kids make connections naturally. She holds up a boxed cake mix (a familiar sight to many students) and goes on to talk about how numbers are used to measure both time and temperature to cook it. Kids listening immediately make a “math-to-self” connection since many of them have cooked with a loved one at home.

After The Word Lady’s lesson on numbers, my students spent the week working on “Numbers are Everywhere” book using Book Creator on the iPad. These books are not only bursting with six year old personalities, but they are chock full of mathematical connections. The end result is a deeper mathematical understanding.

*For more information on the different types of mathematical connections, please read my previous post “Have you Chirped Today?” from December 11, 2012.

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Making the Most of Brain Breaks


Students and teachers alike have well over a month of school under their belts. With so much of our beginning of the year testing behind us, it is now when we teachers feel like real learning is happening in our classrooms. With a new set of students each year, we feel like we are starting from scratch on many levels. This can be exciting because each child is like an empty canvas waiting to be painted on. It can also be a daunting time of year because so many students need to relearn how to listen. It takes time to teach, but it cannot be overlooked. Good listening is the groundwork for a year’s worth of learning. An amazing lady at my school, Jill Negrete, (aka “The Word Lady”) has shown me how you can take simple listening exercises and turn them into a brain break during the day. The authors of “The Daily 5” and “The CAFE Book” talk about the brain research behind the concept of brain breaks. In this video, Miss Jill gets kids up and moving to help them understand the importance of waiting/listening to the end so that they don’t get something wrong in school. In the video, she plays a type of “Simon Says” game and teaches concepts such as high, low, far, and near. She starts off with one step directions in the beginning and moves on to three steps shortly. The class is having fun, yet they are learning to “tune in” rather than sit passively while the teacher is talking.

Growing Vocabularies

As a first grade teacher and mother, I try to immerse my students and children in a language rich environment. I love reading and I love words. The only thing I may love more is watching a child light up with excitement as they discover this love for themselves.

Nearly half of all the students in the Elementary school where I teach qualify for free and reduced lunch. Over the past few years, I have noticed more students in my class with limited vocabularies. I explicitly teach word solving and comprehension strategies to help my students become proficient readers. One of the beginning accuracy strategies I teach is for students to think to themselves “Does it look right?” “Does it sound right?” “Does it make sense?” The authors of “The Daily 5” and “The CAFE Book” coined the term “cross checking.” Those students that have limited vocabularies have difficulty cross checking because they do not have the vocabulary words for many of the words I am trying to teach them to read. The result is frustrating both for me and my students.

I began to wonder what I was missing. “What am I not teaching?” I would ask myself over and over. There were many nights where I went to bed feeling a bit depressed only to wake up feeling more depressed. That was until I met “The Word Lady” at my school. Jill Negrete is the Speech and Langusge Pathologist in my school and she listened politely as I told her my frustrations after one of our back to school in services. It turns out she has noticed the same thing. Children are coming in to school with limited vocabularies. One of the contributing factors is TV. Children are exposed to a lot because of it, but it lacks interaction. The TV doesn’t rival the give and take conversations (teachable moments) between a parent and child.

After talking to Jill, I learned that all is not lost. There is hope. There are things that I can do as a teacher during those empty moments in school (such as waiting in line). To give me a better understanding, Jill has been visiting my class each Monday morning during breakfast to provide language rich opportunities for my students. Eventually I will be applying these strategies in natural ways throughout the day.

Jill has taught me a lot since meeting her one short month ago. It is my privilege to be able to pass some of this knowledge on to you.

Here is where you can begin. Students need to know the parts of a whole. What this means is that they might know what a car is, but they don’t necessarily know the different, smaller parts, that go together to make up the car.

Here is a great example from Jill. The first time my students met her, she came in to the class with a box. Hidden inside the box was a mystery. She gave clues and allowed students to try to guess what it was. It ended up being a piece of corn on the cob complete with the silk and. In the hallway, she had an actual stalk of corn and she ended the lesson by teaching the kids the different parts of it (ex. the tassel, stalk, corn cob, and roots).

The next week, Jill brought a plethora of strange, unusual, and awesome vegetables from her garden. She told about each one and talked about how the new vegetables were similar to ones that they already knew. She included little tricks to help them remember some of the weird names like artichoke and okra.

When she left my room, my table was overflowing with the bountiful harvest. She placed 2 butter knives on the table. “Cut them open” she said. “Let the kids not only see them, but let them feel them and smell them as well.” It has been a great week as my class has been following her directions. We ended up having our reading groups on the floor so as not to disturb the wonderful gifts she gave us.

I am indebted to Miss Jill in many ways. She not only has begun to unlock the mystery for me as to how I can help my students with language issues, but she has planted a seed, a love of words, in the hearts of my students. A seed that is growing right before my eyes and putting a smile on my face.

Thank you Jill!

*Watch the video below to see the word lady in action!

Communicating Mathematically

I am a learner. I am always striving to see what is new in education. As my school is going 1:1 with iPads, I am especially driven to see how technology can enhance the learning experiences of my students. I know that children are more engaged when they use technology and so it just makes sense for me to look for ways to use it more.

As I began this school year, I remembered what my former principal, Katie Coppenbarger, taught me when we began implementing iPads in our elementary school. The goal, she explained, is to find ways that you can use tech to do things that you normally couldn’t do. Instead of merely replacing an activity, (ex. doing the same thing but just on the iPad), we should be looking at things from a different angle and providing opportunities for students to do new and awesome things.

The technology should also enhance the lesson, rather than hinder it, and we should start simple. Making things too complicated from the start will cause confusion and inhibit independence. (You also won’t want to stick with it and are more likely to abandon your attempts.)

In math, the new Common Core State Standards require students to communicate how they solve problems rather than just arrive at the right answer. Our new math program gives students ample opportunities to explain their thinking in writing and tell what strategies they used. This is our first year doing the program and so I know that my first graders aren’t accustomed to doing this. Rather than handing the class their math journals and saying “Here you go. Explain how you solved that.” I am using the app “Screen Chomp” and am modeling how to communicate mathematically.

Steve Dunn, a former teacher, principal, and current literacy educational consultant, once taught me that something needs to be in a child’s oral language before it can be used in their written language. “Screen Chomp” is great because it allows you to draw and record your voice at the same time. You can play it back and listen to what was captured and it works really well for students to be able to explain their thinking. I modeled the process several times and then began to release the responsibility to students in the class. (They love to be the one who gets to record their thinking and share it with the class.) Now, after some time, students are writing their thinking in their math journals. They have a better understanding of how to explain the processes they used.

The first time I asked my students to explain what it meant to add, I was greeted with the response “14.” Rather than throw my hands up in the air in exasperation, I tried to think of how I could use technology to help my students be more successful. It is a process that I work at each day. The results are exciting!

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Picture: A screen capture of a student’s work as they explain what it means to add.

Getting Right Down to the Basics

Are you a new teacher faced with the daunting task of setting up your classroom to teach reading to a group of active children?  Or, are you an experienced teacher but interested in knowing what best practices say about teaching reading so that you can quell that nagging feeling inside which prompts you to ask yourself “Am I missing something?”  I love reading.  I love teaching reading.  I love talking with others about teaching reading.  And, I am the teacher that I described above.  That was until I did a lot of reading about teaching reading and found what the experts had to say on the subject.  This slideshare presentation is a synthesis of what specialists such as Regie Routman, Debbie Miller, Donald Bear, and Gail Boushey and Joan Moser say is integral in helping children grow as readers.  I hope it helps you get down to the basics and put any worries you may have to rest.

Inquiry Learning

comprehension and collaboration

I have had the privilege of working with a wonderful team of teachers. I am in the home stretch of my tenth year of teaching and I often will look back to my first years. I marvel at how little I really knew, but then feel blessed that my fellow colleagues had freely shared best practice instructional strategies.

Now, several years later, and a lot wiser, I understand the true purpose behind what we did. For example, in Science, our team leader developed a wonderful unit about the sun, Earth, and moon that required students to research self-selected questions and communicate new learning. Kids loved doing this then and continue to this day!

“Comprehension and Collaboration,” by well known authors Harvey Daniels and Stephanie Harvey, helped me understand the purpose, and rewards, of fostering collaboration in our classrooms. Reading this book came at just the right time for me since Wisconsin educators are looking at the new “Smarter Balanced Assessment” that their students will soon be taking. High school students will be expected to research a topic together and will be assessed on the outcome. I couldn’t wrap my head around it initially. (I was always one who did well on tests and I loved to demonstrate what I learned. My grade was in my own hands and this was reassuring to me.) That was until I read this book. The truth of the matter is that is what employers are looking for. They desire individuals who can collaborate and work together towards a common goal.

As a literacy coach in my district, I have led traditional book studies with teachers over the last few years. This year we went the non-traditional route. Our study was designed around the inquiry circle format to give teachers the experience of selecting questions they wanted answered about reader’s workshop, and then researching and collaborating to find the answers. This is just what students would experience.

What did the group decide to research about reader’s workshop? They wondered how to best structure their reader’s workshop block to meet the needs of all learners. They also wanted to learn more about about the schedules other middle school teachers from different districts have.

The last step in the process is “taking the learning public.” This isn’t really different than what we have done in the past. (O.k…well it is really different if you relied on question/answer type worksheets to assess student understanding…) Students are given the opportunity to choose a way to synthesize what they have learned and share it with those around them. Their audience could be fellow classmates or even the public. This crucial step prompts them to take what they learned, put it into their own words, and then gives them the freedom to choose a format that fits well with their learning styles. Tech savy kids can create videos or blog posts, visual learners can show of their creativity by making a poster. The possibilities are limitless.

Oh, and did I mention the number of Common Core Standards that inquiry learning addresses? It’s astounding. Because I don’t believe in everyone re-inventing the wheel in education, I am sharing the inquiry timeline/format that I created for the study in my district. I am also including some sample response options. Some are ones that belong to my students and others are ones that I created myself because I never just talk with others about something when I am presenting something new. I try it myself. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions about the inquiry process.

Narwahls (Click on the link to the left to view an example of how a first grader synthesized her new learning and answered her guiding research questions.)

The above video is an example of how a visual learner might exercise their creativity and put together a project that outlines a reader’s workshop block to help viewers visualize the concepts being shared.

Sample Response Option Journal (Click on the link to the left to see another response option.  This one is a journal entry in which I reflect upon how I have implemented reader’s workshop and how my understanding of reading instruction has developed and been refined over the past several years of my teaching career.)

2013MiddleSchoolBookStudy (1) (Click on the link to the left if you are interested in studying the book “Comprehension and Collaboration” by Harvey and Daniels and are interested in trying inquiry learning for yourself.)