The Importance Of Oral Language Across The Subject Areas

Through Twitter, I’ve had the opportunity to communicate numerous times with Carmel Crevola: a leading authority on oral language and the author of the Let’s Talk About It kit that I’ve used in my class for years. Carmel has really pushed my thinking when it comes to oral language in the classroom, and thanks to conversations with her, Angie Harrison (@techieang), and Heather Jelley (@team_jellybean), I’ve really made a more concerted effort to provide my students with more oral language opportunities with a very specific purpose in mind.

Today for math centres, one group of students had to create screencasts or videos sharing what they knew about three-dimensional solids. We’ve been working on this topic in math for a couple of weeks now, and students have had an opportunity to explore different three-dimensional solids and learn about their properties. From an oral language perspective, I wanted students to communicate ideas clearly, coherently, and using appropriate organizational patterns. If they were working in partners, I also wanted them to demonstrate active listening as they listened to what their partner was sharing and responded appropriately to the ideas.

The students did not disappoint. Below are all of the screencasts recorded today:

As you can hear, the children clearly formulated their ideas, shared what they learned, re-examined what they initially thought as they orally formulated their ideas, and questioned each other, as they developed new learning as well. Thanks to these screencasts, I have some great examples to show tomorrow, where students can further the discussion as they look at which students are correct and why, and as they share their own knowledge about these three-dimensional solids.

I’m finding that the more often students record their thinking and orally discuss their ideas, the more they share in their explanations and the more they question what others share too. This is helping them further develop their understanding of the subject area, which leads to a higher quality of what they write as well. Yes, for years I’ve heard that this is true, but watching and listening to what happened in my class this year, really helped me see that this is true. This was my a-ha moment!

Have you had this moment as well? What impact do you think that oral language has across the curriculum areas? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!


Giving Time!

I’ve done a lot of presentations over the years — both online and in person — and at almost each one, at least one teacher asks me, “How do your students adjust when they don’t have these same opportunities the following year?” I’m going to say here what I always say then: we may all be at different points in our comfort level with using technology, but students will advocate for themselves, and change does happen. I really believe this too! This week I was convinced more than ever.

My class is very fortunate to have weekly reading buddies with Anne-Marie Tipping’s Grade 8 class. Anne-Marie is a wonderful teacher that is always thinking of new ways to support her students so that they all meet with success. She’s very creative, differentiates a lot in the classroom, and has her students producing some amazing work. Anne-Marie also thinks a lot before she does anything. I respect this! I love how she carefully considers what she’s going to do, why she’s going to do it, and most of all, how it’s going to best meet the needs of her class.

Since September, Anne-Marie and I have had numerous conversations about using technology in the classroom. While my students have access to a pod of computers to use, Anne-Marie only has a single computer in her classroom along with the computer that runs the SMART Board. Her students go to the computer lab once a week, but there’s not necessarily enough computers for all of the students. We spoke about options for the one computer classroom. I even shared with Anne-Marie a presentation that I did a couple of years ago on this topic. This helped! After viewing the presentation, she came back to me with more questions, and we worked out some options together.

Then came the BIG change: in the new year, Anne-Marie spoke to me about blogging. Anne-Marie doesn’t have her own blog and is new to blogging, but she was thinking about getting her students on The Commons: our Board blogging site. We thought that it would be a good idea to get Jared Bennett, our cluster’s consultant for 21st century fluencies and the creator of The Commons, to come in and talk to Anne-Marie about her ideas and about using this platform. As always, Jared was amazing, and quickly agreed to come in and help. The two of them sat down and talked about all of the options.

This was very new for Anne-Marie, and was maybe even a bit overwhelming too, but just like with everything that she does, she took some time, asked lots of questions, and really figured out how to use this platform to best meet the needs of her students. Jared was there to support her at the Board level, and I offered to help out any way that I could at the school level. Once Anne-Marie got started though, she really needed very little support.

Yes, the first time was hard. All of the students didn’t give Anne-Marie the quality of responses that she was looking for, and their comments weren’t as well thought out as she thought they could be. I shared Linda Yollis’ Quality Comments Video with her though, and we spoke about ways to model this form of writing with the class. Blogging really is a writing form, and just like with other writing forms, students need to be taught the process.

Anne-Marie didn’t give up. She believed in her students, and she supported them throughout the process. Then on the Monday following the March Break, she saw me during reading buddies and said something I thought I’d never hear: “Aviva, I think we’re ready to go public with our blog. The student responses are amazing! Others need to see what they’re doing!” Yeah!! If Anne-Marie’s students were writing these kinds of quality responses to each other, imagine how they’ll respond to a global audience. I can’t wait to see!

This was a process. It was a HUGE change for Anne-Marie and for her students. Change can happen though. I especially love stories like this one, as the focus for Anne-Marie was always on how to use this tool to help her students learn. Her students are definitely doing this, and they are highly engaged throughout the process. So please check out what Anne-Marie’s class is doing here, and maybe even leave them a comment or two, as I know that they would love to continue the discussion with you.

The next time that you worry what will happen the next year, I hope that you think of this story and that it gives you a different perspective. What other success stories can you share? I’d love to hear them!


The Importance Of “Sharing”

I teach at a really large school. With 750 students and about 40 teaching staff, it’s hard to collaborate and plan with everyone. At my school, we often meet and plan in grade teams. This is great, and it’s definitely helpful to work as a group, but this week, I realized the benefit of expanding this group.

At lunch time on Tuesday, I was having a conversation with one of our great Grade 3 teachers, Mary Barton. Mary was talking about Grade 3 math, and she mentioned how hard it is to teach the Grade 3 students about balancing equations. The students believe that an equation always has to be written as ___ + ___ = ___. She mentioned that when she showed students an equation that was ___ = ___ + ___ or ___ + ___ = ___ + ___, the students were easily confused. Mary said she knows that this concept is largely developed in Grade 3, but it’s definitely one of the harder ones for students to understand. Just as we were getting ready to go back to class, I said to her, “would it help if we spent more time on this concept in Grades 1 and 2?” Even if the expectations develop more past then, I still need to teach addition and subtraction in Grades 1 and 2, so why not spend a little more time showing the students balanced equations? 

Mary loved the idea, so that afternoon, I did this mini-lesson with the students:

I started by writing 6 + 4 equals _____, and the students told me that the answer was 10. Then I asked them if it was also true to write 10 = 6 + 4. The students looked at it for a minute, and then one student raised his hand to say, “yes.” He explained that 10 = 6 + 4 is the same as 6 + 4 = 10, except that the numbers are reversed. I got the students to think about this for a minute, and then I asked them another way to write this equation. One student came up with 10 = 4 + 6, and one student came up with 4 + 6 = 10.

The students were really getting into this, so I pushed things a little bit more. I asked students one way to make ten. One child gave me 7 + 3. Then the equations kept coming from there. I wrote a long list of all of the ideas. When one student suggested 11 – 1, the students started to see new options, and all of a sudden, their mental math skills were hard at work. After generating 14 different equations, I asked the students what all of these equations had in common. The students quickly replied, “They all equal 10.” I used this as a new starting point. I then wrote if they all equal 10, then is it true that 7 + 3 = 10 + 0? A student explained that it was because both sides equal 10. Then I got students to give me other true statements using our long list of equations.

Students quickly moved forward from here. I had students experimenting with adding and subtracting to total various amounts. As a follow-up to this mini-lesson, students were asked to go back to their desk, get out their journals, and write some of their own balanced equations. They could use tools in the classroom to help them figure out the addition or subtraction statements. I just wanted to see what they could do.

During our math congress, six students shared what they did. Below are videos of them talking through the process:

Yes, I had students circle and write down what they did because I wanted everyone in the class to visually see the process. I also purposely kept this activity open-ended, so that my students could work with equations at their comfort level. This was an introductory lesson, and I thought it was important to first see where the students were at: what do they already know? What do I need to spend more time on? And no, all of the videos aren’t perfect. After the first video where I’m trying to teach, question, and record, I learned to hand off the video camera to a student instead. 🙂 Oh, the power of reflection! 🙂

This activity served its purpose though. It had my students look at addition and subtraction in a new way. It helped them see that there are many different ways to write an equation, and it helped them understand each way too. This was a great introduction to the balanced model! This was also an activity that I would have never done — especially with my Grade 1’s — if it wasn’t for Mary and our conversation.

I think that teachers need to know the strengths and needs of the students as they move to the next grade. I think that we need to use this information to inform our teaching practices. The conversation at lunch on Tuesday reminded me about the power of sharing: we need to know what’s happening in each other’s classrooms.

What are your thoughts on this? How do you “share” with teachers in different grades, and how do they “share” with you? Do you find this to be a beneficial process? Why? I’d love to hear about your experiences!


I Wonder …

Just before the March Break, our math facilitator, Kelly McCrory, came into the classroom to do a lesson on three-dimensional solids. At the end of her lesson, she taught my students a game: one student would close his/her eyes and another student would put a three-dimensional solid in his/her hands. The student with the closed eyes would feel the three-dimensional solid, describe the properties of it, and identify the solid, all without opening his/her eyes.

Students loved playing this game, and it was a great way to get them to use mathematical language in a meaningful way. Over the March Break, I was thinking about this game, and I thought that it might be fun to have the students write down their clues. Then they could continue to develop their writing skills while also developing their math skills. At the end of the day today, we gave this a try.

Students worked in partners, and they wrote at least three clues about the three-dimensional solid that they chose. Then a couple of partner groups shared their clues with the class. The other students had to listen to these clues, think about what the students said, and choose the correct three-dimensional solid from the pile. Here are two videos of this activity in action:

It was really interesting to watch, as even the students that chose the correct three-dimensional solids, had difficulty explaining why they made their choices. They couldn’t bring their answer back to the clues. This got me thinking: I wonder why. I’m starting to think that this activity would have been more successful if the students put their written clues under the document camera, and then the other students in the class would have a visual to refer to when explaining their thinking. Maybe the students can apply what they’ve heard, but they’re still not fully comfortable with the language yet. Maybe they still need more time being exposed to this vocabulary and using it within the classroom setting, so that they can use it easily in a game such as this one.

I’m going to continue to use the language as we talk about three-dimensional solids in class. I’m also going to have the students talk about these three-dimensional solids even more in partner groups as well as in a full-class environment. Maybe we can even try a Skype call with another class where they give us clues about three-dimensional solids, and we guess them and explain our thinking, and then we can give the clues, and the other class can guess. (If you’re interested in giving this Skype Math Game a try, please leave me a comment here and let me know. Then we can set something up.) I also think that Kelly’s shape game is a great one to play more often in the classroom, so that the students can become even more comfortable using the correct mathematical terms. I’m going to try the written version of this game again, but have the students put their writing under the document camera, so that their peers can refer to it when explaining their thinking.

What do you think of this plan? Why do you think that I saw the results that I did? What would you have done differently? I’d love to hear your thoughts!


Change Is Good!

Students Reading Together During Our New Literacy Centre Rotation

Friday, February 17th was a PA Day (Professional Activity Day), and it was one of those days that changed me as a teacher. In the afternoon on the 17th, the Grade 1 and 2 teachers at my school and another local school had a Skype call with Angie Harrison (@techieang). She spoke to us about her writing program, but in the midst of doing so, she also showed us how she structured her literacy block. This really intrigued me!

Please don’t get me wrong here. I loved the way that my literacy centres were currently structured, but I wanted to have more time for guided reading and to conference with students. With my current system, we were spending 10-15 minutes a day reviewing old centres, and this was taking away from time on task. This bothered me. I was also struggling here because I didn’t just want the literacy centres to be “practice time.” I wanted to create meaningful activities where students would be thinking and problem solving as well as practising. If there was a practice component, I didn’t want it to take up the whole 40 minute block. I also wanted to increase the amount of time that students were reading each day. There was always a reading component to my centres, but I found that the follow-up activities were so intense, that the students would spend more time on them than on reading. Students need to continue to work on fluency, and to do so, they need to read.

So when Angie started her Skype call with a video of how she gets her students to plan their own literacy block, I was mesmerized. I knew that this was the change that I needed. Since I have a split class, I do integrate most of the science and social studies through literacy, and I wanted to continue to do so. I decided to use the Listening to Reading centre for this. Yes, I pick the story that they listen to, but I don’t pick how they respond to this story. I also leave some of the Nelson literacy books and other science and social studies resources and storybooks out for students to read during Read to Self or Read to Someone times. A few students have even accessed them during Word Work. It’s great when they choose to use them, as then they are creating their own integration opportunities as well!

Thanks to this Skype call, I had some fantastic conversations with people on Twitter, including Karen Lirenman, Celina Brennan, and Carmel Crevola, and I was able to make the change that my students needed. I created some laminated pages of suggestions of activities for each centre (free choice independent work stations). Students don’t need to use these suggestions, but this provides some structure for those that need it. I also made bookmarks with the centre names on them that students use each day to select their centres. They have a pocket chart (created using Ziploc bags, magnets, labels, and Bristol Board) where they put their two centre selections for the day. If they go to guided reading, I put this in for them, and then they only get to select one centre for the day. I also made a tracking sheet, where students write down the date and check off the two centres that they went to. It is their responsibility to make sure that they go to all five centres over the course of the week. Students choose where they work, and they choose if they are working alone or with a partner. They are accountable for their learning though.

Choice Pocket Chart

At the end of literacy centres, a couple of students share what they did during the day, and they reflect on what they did well and on their next steps. The other students in the class provide suggestions as well. Students are offering quality descriptive feedback to each other, which is a school goal of ours right now too. Thank you, Angie, for this suggestion!

Yes, I’m a teacher that likes control. I like to feel as though the classroom is organized and I need to ensure that the students are learning. I was sure that this could only happen if I was the person making the decisions. I think back to my concerns with the Full Day, Every Day Kindergarten model, and my biggest concern was that the students would never learn anything if they were in charge of their own learning. How would the teachers ensure that all students were reading and writing every day? How would they know that conversations were on topic and demonstrating learning? Can students this young really be in charge of their own learning? I now know that students can be in control if we believe that they can make these good decisions, and if we model how to do so. Students love choice, and they love when they have this choice of where to go and what to do. All of my students made it to all of the centres throughout the week, but with them deciding when they would be going where, they were all much happier to go to the centres and all far more engaged while they were there.

Change is good! With this new model, students are continuing to develop their reading and writing skills, and I have way more time to work with the students on their individual reading and writing needs. I just wish that I had tried this out sooner, but with 3 1/2 months until the end of the school year, I still have lots of time to see success. Yeah!!

How have you changed your classroom practices thanks to ideas that other people have shared? What were the results? I would love to hear your stories!