Friday, November 7, 2014

How did I get here?

     Recently, my classroom has played host to visiting teachers who are in the early stages of implementing the workshop model in their own classrooms. While these teachers were here, I was concentrating on actually teaching my students something and on sharing as many resources and tips as I could think of with these other educators. It wasn't until today that some of the feedback they gave to me actually sunk in.

  • "How do you get everyone to participate?"
    • Honest response: because you're here watching them and they want to look good. 
    • What I actually said: Having a Workshop Accountability grade once per quarter that is 25% of their grade in the class really motivates some of my otherwise reluctant learners. Also, I try to keep the level of urgency high so students have to engage quickly because we'll be moving on to something else in not much time.
  • "Is this class an exception, or are all your classes this well-behaved and on task?"
    • Honest response: you think this is well-behaved? I can see three side conversations happening right now and I've had to remind them to bring their volume level down at least 6 times already. This is not well-behaved. I'd show you well-behaved but I don't want to yell at my class in front of you.
    • What I actually said: This is a really great group of students. It helps that about half of them had workshop last year as well so they have a bit more stamina than some of the other 7th graders I see in my day. I'm hoping that as we continue to use Workshop throughout the district that stamina in reading and writing will only improve as well as the student's knowledge of and comfort with workshop expectations.
  • "Your presentations really add to the comfortable feeling of the class - it's a cozy feeling!"
    • Honest response: I spend more time in my classroom then I do anywhere else so of course I'm trying to make this be a room I don't mind spending time in. Oh, and I guess the students like ti too. They won't let me put up lights or any kind of "fire hazard" decorations, so I'm doing the best with what I can't get in trouble for. 
    • What I actually said: Google slides has come a long way and I'm so happy there is a way to adjust the transparency of images now so I can make presentations that are a bit more visually pleasing.
And then the best part - questions that I could answer! I felt like Kate Roberts as I shared my experience and philosophy around the workshop model -  it was like I had all the answers. I was on a roll! I shared rubrics for Workshop Accountability and Reader's Notebook Checks and bestowed upon my willing learners the genius idea (that I stole from Kate Roberts) to check notebooks randomly throughout the quarter rather than all 100 of them at one time. 

Add to this one of my co-worker's remarks that my level of workshop implementation is giving him "a complex" because he feels like he can't let me show him up and recognition from my peers for my work in setting up  PBIS for our school this year and I'm feeling pretty good about myself professionally. It's all coming up Katie.

While this all feels really good, I can't help but wonder, how did I get here? Three years ago I had never taught Language Arts and now people are getting advice from me? I'd love to take credit and say I'm an amazing teacher, but anyone in education will tell you that teaching is really just stealing what someone else did that worked really well and I've been collecting ideas religiously for the last three years, including as much information as I could take pictures of and type in notes from the Institutes for Reading and Writing put on by New York's Teacher's College. I'm just a cog in the wheel of the workshop machine.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Importance of Vocabulary Instruction

As I begin my journey towards earning my Wisconsin Reading Specialist License, I've had the opportunity to read extensive research surrounding reading education. Here is my most recent paper, written for one of my classes, that shows the importance of explicit word work as part of literacy instruction.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Keeping Readers Engaged at the End of the Year

Last night/early this morning I woke up in a cold sweat thinking about what was going to happen in my classroom this Monday morning. We have two weeks of school left, and it's getting more difficult by the class hour to keep students engaged in their reading. 

Although I am still requiring students to keep up with their jots, I am starting to get quite exhausted with policing the students who use jotting as an excuse to use their technology for things that have nothing to do with jotting. I'm also pretty tired of the students who claim they have nothing to jot about or don't know what kind of jot chart to make despite the fact that we've been going over ideas for these all year.

Today, I decided to use the modified idea of a "book walk" as a way to keep students interacting with the books they are reading. I also decided to focus this book walk around identifying parts of speech, types of punctuation, and types of sentences.

Here's the document I created for students to use in class. I encouraged independence as students worked through this, giving them the option to look up definitions of terms they didn't remember. This also provided some excellent teaching/conferencing moments as I checked on student work and discussed the choices students made.

I gave students almost a full 80-minute period to complete this sheet. Almost all students were engaged in the process for the entire amount of time.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Top Middle School Reads in Ms. Francoeur's Classes

Reading is a big deal in my classroom, almost as big of a deal as what you happen to be reading. This year, with the introduction of book clubs and my heavy encouragement of getting hooked on series, students are reading more than ever. Some students can't wait to see me in the hallway on their way to their 1st hour class to tell me where they are in a book that we're both reading or to fill me in on a crazy plot twist or even bemoan how "stupid" the main character is or that the next book in the series isn't out yet.

Here are the most popular series being read by 7th and 8th graders in my room this year:

*The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare - this one really took off with the girls at the beginning of the year, but I've noticed a few boys who are also interested in this series. Students have had a lot of fun being in different places in the series, knowing things that other students don't know, and racing on to the next book in the series. The final book just came out and students in my classes are obsessed. From personal experience, let me say that when I had no more books to read in this series I felt hopeless and convinced I would never love another book again (I said the same thing after Harry Potter though). This series has action, romance, weird plot twists, messed up families, and other previously unknown species. I couldn't put it down and neither could most of my students. (Note: When City of Bones came out on DVD, I hosted a movie lunch for those students reading the series and they were outraged at all the differences between the book and the movie claiming vehemently that the books were "way better").

*Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling - I don't know why, but I guess I thought the Potter craze was on the way out. Maybe because I'd read through the series multiple times and figured everyone else had too. However, I truly love getting students hooked on this series because I know how much I've enjoyed reading it again and again. The Harry Potter books seems to appeal to both male and female students and I'm always surprised at how many different reasons my students tell me they love the series. Whether it's the magical elements, the humor, the heartbreaks, the spells, or the Quidditch matches, it seems like almost anyone could find something to like about this series.

*The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins - To be honest, when I first heard about The Hunger Games I was sure I would never read it. The whole premise of the book seemed absolutely barbaric - who sends their kids into an arena to fight to the death and calls it a game? No way would I read that. But as I saw more and more of my students reading all the books in the series, my curiosity got the better of me and I'm glad that it did. As I continue to use this book to teach reading skills in my class I discover more and more depth and complexity to the story including multiple themes of loyalty, sacrifice, and power. I personally love the way Katniss is portrayed as a strong, smart, independent female (who, unlike other heroes such as Frodo and Harry Potter, can actually stay on her feet in the face of danger).

*Divergent by Veronica Roth - I first read Divergent as a reaction to my Hunger Games "hangover" - I was so disappointed with the way the series ended, but I was completely obsessed with the dystopian genre so I needed to find something to satisfy myself. It took me until this year to read the rest of the series. The main character, Tris, annoyed me throughout the series. I just wanted to shake her and make her think through her decisions before acting upon them. In the final book of the series, the author writes from the perspectives of both Tris and Tobias, helping the reader to fully appreciate and understand the motivations of these major characters. The major plot twist at the very end had me somewhere in between tears and screaming. A very exciting read towards the end!

Monday, May 12, 2014

5 Solutions to the 4th Quarter Blues

It's here. It isn't quite the end of the school year - there are still 5 weeks to go - but the inevitable has happened.

Teachers want to cram in the last unit or two (or 3) from their curriculum while scheduling around all those end of the year field trips and parties (that are never really at the END of school, more like a week before, signaling to students that the last week of school isn't really that important since we already celebrated the end of it), want their students to focus and put in maximum effort on end of the year tests (MAPs, Fountas & Pinnell, etc.), and want students to read until their eyeballs fall out of their faces to make sure no one regresses over the summer.

Students, however, just want to have fun. Mother Nature teases them with summer-like days that bring about thoughts of softball and soccer games, pool parties, and not being at school. An 80 minute Literacy block which used to be a sought after time to read, now has become the. longest. class. ever.

Those of us who teach Literacy blocks understand that we've been dealt a different hand than most of the other teachers in the middle school. Ours is the class where long periods of silence are a necessity for students to be able to engage in their reading. Ours is the class that is not often associated with "hands-on" or "active" because then we can't get those reading minutes in the day or won't have enough time to write that 5 page realistic fiction story. And every May, students rebel against this construct, pushing many teachers close to the brink of a full-on meltdown.

In previous years, as a middle school history teacher, I combated this end of the year funk by showing an extremely engaging movie that connected with our WWII unit at the end of the year - Pearl Harbor. Yes, I skipped the parachute hanger scene and yes, students had a graded study guide to be filling out about the actual WWII content of the movie (not the love story), but it was wonderful! I had time to get caught up on all my end of the year grading and room cleaning while my students were racing to my classroom to get the best seats for the movie, whining when they had to leave, and wanting to know if I had more of a crush on Ben Affleck or Josh Hartnett (Affleck all the way). The end of the year used to rock in history class.

Now, in my third year of teaching Language Arts (which is a completely different beast than history), I feel I have almost gotten the end of the year to work for me as smoothly as Pearl Harbor did in the past.

Here are 5 suggestions for easy to plan, easy to assess, engaging activities for 7th & 8th graders to finish the year strong, while not making yourself crazy.

1. Book Clubs - students read the same book at the same pace and come together to discuss several times throughout the story - keeps students reading and encourages talking related to reading - it's a win-win. I like to prepare topics for discussion to keep students on task and using their higher level thinking skills and I also encourage book clubs to work together when jotting about their book using Google Docs. For this year's end of the year Historical Fiction book clubs, I have focused discussion topics around story/plot elements and types of characters. Some of our topics include: Types of characters & support (major/minor, round/flat); character motivations and support; historical elements; historical accuracies / inaccuracies; story elements such as the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution; and discussion of theme. Note: book clubs usually don't go all the way to the end of the year because the library wants their stuff back, but it's a good way to get through the rest of 4th Quarter and keep students engaged in reading.

2. Reading Fair - have students create a visual (we'll be doing digital ones using Google slides) of their favorite books that they read during this school year. This is a great way to have readers reflect on their reading work and share reading suggestions with others (hello, summer reading lists!).

3. Writing Children's Books - we are going to be doing this as a way to show knowledge of a specific genre (realistic fiction) as well as story elements, but I think you could choose just about any purpose for writing a children's book. The good news about these is that they are short, they are easy to write, you can probably get them done in one or two class periods, students can work together (and talk!), and students get to color! I don't know why this is such a big thing, but in our classroom, being able to color is like the biggest treat ever. Also, bonus for the teacher, they don't take long to look through and assess which is a major plus when you have 95 realistic fiction stories sitting on your desk that you also need to read.

4. Blackout Poetry - this is where students are given a page of a book and have to blackout everything except the words they want to use to create a poem. So there's destruction of old books and coloring while challenging students. Again, this can be done in one class period - always a plus since I've noticed drawing things out at the end of the year tends to cause attention problems. Students need a new challenge every day that last week of school, or you'll lose them and the quality of work you're used to getting.

5. Field Trip Poetry - I made that name up. Someone somewhere else probably has a really cool name for the same thing. What this activity entails is leading students on a tour of the school building, both inside and out, with planned stops where you ask students to jot down what they see, smell, hear, etc. It's hands-on, it's active, it's everything Language Arts usually is not! After your tour, head back to the classroom and have students work in pairs (so they can talk!) to create a poem titled, "The Last Days of School." Students can read their poems out loud at the end of class and you can assess them as they share!

We'll see how these things go this year....

Friday, January 3, 2014

Doctors and Pop Stars and Cows, Oh My!

If I were not a teacher, what would I want to be?

I have to think back to elementary school before I can even remember a time when I didn't want to be a teacher. Most of my middle school years were consumed with rather unrealistic dreams of becoming the next pop sensation (Britney, Christina, made so much sense in my head), and high school found me panicking about what I was going to major in when I finally got to go to college. Luckily, my summers spent as a camp counselor led me to my Elementary Education declaration.

In my pre-adolescent years, I think my career interests were few, but varied. At one point I wanted to be a doctor. I wore my plastic stethoscope all over our house and checked the heartbeats of all my stuffed animals. This lasted until I had to go to the doctor and get shots. With needles. From the doctor. I decided I would need a new option.

Our move to Wisconsin spurred my decision to grow up to be a farmer. It was ideal - I could grow stuff and drive tractors and it would be glorious! Since we had just moved to a farm (how lucky!) I got to experience all the aspects of farming from baling hay to picking rocks. I quickly decided that working the earth for a living was not for me.

Then I was on to a new dream of veterinarian. It seemed like the perfect thing - all the wonderment of healing and with animals too! This dream died as soon as we took our new puppy to the vet for the first time and I saw they had needles in that kind of office too. Both the puppy and I were not pleased with this environment, but he chose to show his dissatisfaction by peeing on me. Any hope of resurrecting the veterinarian dream was crushed as soon as I got my first real job at the age of 12 at a milking parlor. After a few years of coming home covered in poo, forcing pills down cows' throats, wrestling calves as I taught them to drink out of a bottle, and assisting in the birthing process, I decided that no matter how much veterinarians got paid, it wasn't worth being elbow deep in the backside of a cow on the daily.

Since my senior year of high school, I've been committed to my role as an educator. But every once in a while, after a rough day, the question of what I would be doing if I wasn't a teacher sometimes crosses my mind. Although I often joke that I'd love the idea of being a professional napper, it seems there isn't a high demand for that profession. I still wouldn't turn down a contract to be a pop star, but the truth of the matter is that despite my griping and moaning on tough days, I love teaching. The only other professions that got me even a little excited were

  • A history professor so I could talk about history all day (Oh, wait...that sounds like a teacher)
  • A staff developer for schools (again...eerily similar to teaching...)
This leads me to believe that teaching is in my blood. I'm not always the most exciting or inspiring teacher that I want to be, but I'm here every day for my students - learning new material, creating lessons that I hope will be engaging, reteaching content when I messed it up the first time - and I love my job. I firmly believe that there is no other profession that has as good of a day as a good day of teaching. There's no better feeling to me then inspiring young minds and watching my students grow, develop, and achieve wonderful things. So I guess I'm really living my dream!