Moving Abroad... Again!

One decision can change your life. Of course, many considerations lead up to that decision, but ultimately one decision has the power to transform your life, your perspective, your way of thinking. For me, the biggest (and best) decisions I've made have been to live and work in different countries. I consider myself very lucky to have a job I love, and one that enables me to make a decision like this. Not everyone is so fortunate, and I never want to lose sight of that.

This summer has passed in the blink of an eye, and the new school year is here already! No matter where you are in the world, this time of year can be overwhelming and full of mixed emotions. To top it off, here I am, a new resident of Riga, Latvia. When I told most people about this move, I received a lot of blank stares and questions about why I chose this destination in particular. Most didn't even know where to find Latvia on a map. But the moment I was offered a teaching position here, I took it. I wanted to be back in Europe, and I wanted to live in a place that would provide new travel opportunities. I'd never stepped foot into the Baltics, and the region fascinated me. To top it off, the school seemed to be exactly what I was looking for: smaller than where I'd been in the past, but big enough to offer a diversity of students, admin, and peers. It just seemed to be the right fit.

I've lived in many places, and in doing so, have attempted to call many places home. (Some are easier than others.) Whenever I move, invariably someone reminds me about the honeymoon period, the time when that new place seems so perfect and that nothing could ruin that bliss. I'm not sure why, but for some reason I completely skipped the honeymoon period of other transitions abroad. But this time... well, I'm actually feeling it. Completely unexpectedly, I have secretly fallen in love with this city. I'm realistic enough to know this could wear off, that I simply could be enjoying the honeymoon period for the first time. But that's okay with me. I will enjoy it for as long as it lasts, and then push myself to find ways to appreciate what I have, to look for ways to learn and grow from new experiences. After all, isn't that what we ask of our students? :)


Great Holiday Books to Read Aloud

One of my favorite opportunities to connect with my kiddos in the classroom is by reading great books to them. I always try to choose books that will reach students on different levels, both academically and emotionally. Read alouds give me a chance to show students how much I love to read... The weaker readers have a chance to enjoy a book they can't read themselves... The stronger readers have a chance to think more deeply about a book as I guide them. They all get to enjoy a text being read with accuracy and expression. But there's something even more magical that happens with these read alouds during the months of November and December. This time of year is already filled with excitement for students, and I love to select wonderfully illustrated books with powerful messages of friendship, triumph, humor, and just a little bit of magic. ;)

Here are a few of my favorites that any elementary-age student will enjoy:





What are your favorite winter books?

Five for Friday {November 6, 2015}

It's already the first Friday in November, and it's been too long since I joined the Five For Friday linky. I have some fun things going on in the classroom, and I'm trying to ride the wave until the pre-holiday crazies hit!


I've created a few music play lists for my students to enjoy, and we've been using then mostly during independent writing. The students love it! I was a little nervous about whether it would distract them at first, but it seems to be doing the opposite! They have been quite focused. One student even thanked me today after class and told me that the music helps her focus while writing. Love.


Enemy Pie and Rosie Revere, Engineer are two of my FAVORITE read alouds. This week we applied what we've learned about partner talk (agreeing, disagreeing, and adding on to an idea) by using Chat Stations. Similar to a Four Corners activity, I create four questions I want students to discuss after any read aloud. I give a few minutes for discussion so that everyone has a chance to participate, then ring a bell for students to rotate to the next station. If you're interested, you can download the discussion cards and expectations/goals here: Chat Stations


Each year as I plan writing units, it's SO helpful to pull favorite books and see at a glance how I've used them in the past. I love using the same text for reading and writing lessons whenever possible, so I really benefit from this system of jotting down possible teaching points on sticky notes and taping them to the back of the read aloud. Not very fancy, I know. But it works!

I have a few students who are working with an occupational therapist, and they find writing extremely challenging... But they have amazing ideas! So I downloaded this free voice recording app and now the students can step into the hallway and record their stories. Not every story has to be written down. It's all about communication of ideas. As soon as I introduced this voice recorder to a student this week, his face lit up and his demeanor changed entirely. What a difference this has made for his self esteem and enjoyment of "writing". Little by little, he will be able to write down more of his ideas. And this is a great first step!

Our parent teacher conferences are next week, and I will provide parents with this handy guide to reading behaviors at each level. It's also great for you to use as the teacher throughout the year as you confer with students during independent (or guided) reading. Be sure to click on the pic above to download out the freebie!

Wishing you luck with your own conferences... or a few moments of well-deserved rest if you've already finished. ;)

Trying to Perfect Word Study

I've definitely taught my fair share of spelling programs. When I first started teaching, most teachers at my school gave students the spelling list on Monday and tested on Friday. Every kid studied the same list of 20 words, no matter their proficiency in writing or spelling. The words on the lists (for the most part) had no commonalities. Someone--somewhere--had simply decided kids should know how to spell these words. (These spelling lists weren't derived from Dolch sight word lists, or any other high frequency lists as far as I could tell.) What bothered me most about this practice was that we weren't teaching students how to use spelling patterns. We didn't show them the magic of these patterns to figure out how to spell new words, bigger words, more difficult words. They were just endless lists of words.

Enter Words Their Way. There are many things I love about this spelling program. Mostly because it's dedicated to word study, and not simply "spelling". But my biggest difficulty with Words Their Way is the HUGE amount of time it takes the teacher: Preparation, assessment, grouping students, copying, organizing, and choosing & teaching sorts for each group. Even though I believe in the effectiveness of this program... it's a lot. 

I've worked very hard over the last few years to minimize the negatives and really make the most out of Words Their Way. Here are the issues I've tried to remedy. I hope these tips are helpful to others using this program.

Issue: Too many words (time consuming to sort)
Most of the WTW sorts contain 24 words. And not all of them follow the pattern. Therefore, students are studying the words that follow the rules, and the "oddballs". This is a lot of words to sort and write in the 15-20 minutes we have to spend on it. I have decided to give students 15 of the words in each sort. This allows them practice with the spelling feature without overwhelming students with words.

Issue: No school-home connection
Again, this program leaves this piece up to the teachers. We work on learning and practicing spelling features in class at various times of the day, including morning meeting, reading, and writing. About once per month, I have students take home their most recent words to show their parents after we finish studying/practicing with them. This gives parents an idea about what kinds of words and spelling features students are learning.

Issue: Lack of specified word sorts
This is a big one, because it means the teacher has to create routines for word sorts, and spend quite a bit of time teaching these (in addition to the actual word meanings, working with groups, etc.) So, I've created a set of posters to use with students throughout the year that identify each word sort and the steps to complete them. {Click on the pic below}

Issue: Grouping students
One of the benefits of Words Their Way is that it's differentiated according to students' needs. Therefore, students will be put into a group to study exactly the types of spelling patterns s/he is not yet independent with. However, this could mean up to six groups (levels) of students in any classroom... especially in a second grade classroom. But here's my advice: Decide which three groups your students most closely align with according to their WTW assessment AND what kind of spelling they're doing in their writing. Keep an eye on them to make sure words aren't too difficult or too easy.

Issue: Assessment
I assess at the beginning of the year to get an idea of what kind of speller each student is. Much can change in second grade (and quickly!), especially once kids begin reading frequently. Students have four days of different sorts with the pattern they're working on, and on the fifth day I give students the next group of words. After about eight weeks, I take a close look at their writing and give an assessment to decide who needs to work at a different level. I usually move 2-4 students to a different level every eight weeks.

I hope this is helpful for someone looking for word study tips or options. And if you've been using Words Their Way for a while, I'd love to hear about how you've made it work for you! :)

Currently... October!

Fall is in the air, October has arrived, and that means it's time for this month's Currently!

Listening: I've been feeling a bit nostalgic these past few days. Maybe it's the change of seasons, or that I'm still trying to settle into a routine with my students, but I've really been enjoying some old Friends episodes.

Loving: I'm loving the cool weather, and yesterday it actually rained. It was a brief shower, but the students had their first indoor recess of the school year. It was cloudy all day and I went home right after school, put on some comfy clothes, poured a glass of wine, and turned to some old Friends (see above).

Thinking: Normally I don't dress up for Halloween (I know, I know, EVERYONE dresses up for Halloween except me). But this year I think I'll go all out. There are a few costume shops nearby, so I'm going to check them out to get some ideas.

Wanting: I want to plan a weekend getaway. I have a week off this month, so I'm trying to choose a destination... Somewhere outside California... Somewhere I've never been... Maybe Denver?

Needing: I had to think about this one for a while. I think the only thing I'm missing right now is some time with friends. I have friends scattered around the world after living abroad for so long, so it's hard to see them regularly... much less get everyone together at the same time.

Boo-tiful: I love travel. I mean, I wish I could just quit my job and travel the world. I can always find the beauty in other places, and there's so much of it to see in the world. If you could go anywhere, where would it be?

Dolores Park, San Francisco
(As much as I like to get away, I know how lucky I am to call this beautiful place my home.)

Don't forget to check out some other great blogs by clicking on the blog button below!

Five for Friday! {September 25, 2015}

I'm happy that I'm finally getting back into the school routine again! I'm waking up a few minutes later and leaving school a few minutes earlier than I was at the beginning of the year.

I'm really happy with my new bulletin board. I laminated the speech bubbles so I could leave it up for the entire year and update them according to the most recent reading and writing lessons!

We've been learning all about how to express ourselves by referring to these posters (available HERE in my TpT store). I've made them 2 per page so they take up less space, and I love adding these to students' notebooks so they can refer to them during reading or writing time. They make conversation about characters much more interesting! Plus, I always get so thrilled when parents come to me with stories about how their children are using words like "elated" or "distraught" at home. ;)

This week I saw the need for a little discussion about how to choose books from the school library. It can be quite overwhelming for these young kiddos to select a few books from thousands! I made my own selections and then talked with students about what I look for in a good book. (Of course I had to make a little mini anchor chart. ;))

I started the week with my favorite treat: Chocolate Chip Cookies. The original, homemade version from Toll House is the best I've found. And I've tried a LOT of cookies. ;) Dunk these babies in your morning coffee, and the day is off to a sweet start!
Favorite Chocolate Chip Cookies

I stumbled upon a book that is just perfect for bringing science into our morning meeting discussions. It answers scientific questions in a very kid-friendly, straightforward way and includes fun illustrations too!


What about you? Do you have any fun morning meeting routines?

The Homework Myth

As a teacher of many different age levels through the years, I've always struggled with homework. Not just giving it, but also grading it, keeping track of it, differentiating, and assigning relevant work to do after school hours. After reading Alfie Kohn's book The Homework Myth, I felt vindicated, relieved, and more than a little frustrated with the homework situation in most schools (and certainly in my own).

I've struggled for years with the homework dilemma. Most parents think it's a necessary "tool" to ensure their child is keeping up with a certain workload, or even helping that child get ahead. From kindergarten through grade 5, I have heard many arguments for homework, but not one of them has changed my mind into believing it's healthy and important for our children to do school work outside of the classroom at such a young age. I don't blame parents for not being familiar with the research, but it's a delicate subject that deserves attention and more than just anecdotal justification.

Since we all know the arguments for homework, I will list three arguments against it. (These are relevant for elementary-age students.) You can read more about the following arguments in Alfie Kohn's book.

1. Homework provides "practice" that is either too easy or too difficult. If it's easy enough for students to breeze through, why do they need to practice that skill? They already know it. If it's too difficult, why are they being asked to do it outside the classroom, where they are more likely to struggle on their own or to begin practicing incorrectly? Not to mention the feeling of dread that ensues from the school work being too difficult.

2. Homework doesn't foster independence or responsibility. It fosters obedience, maybe, but not responsibility. Responsibility means students have a choice... in what they're doing, when, and how. Let's face it, most homework assignments don't offer any of these options. Not to mention, if homework truly helped students develop independence, we would see fewer incomplete, forgotten, misplaced, or mangled homework as the year progressed... right?

3. Students spend the entire day at school, for the most part doing as they're told and following the instructions of someone else. When they leave the building, they should be doing the things they choose. After all, why am I so presumptuous as a teacher to tell anyone what they should be doing outside of school with their family and friends? We all need down time.

Having said these things, I do acknowledge that some practice outside of school can be beneficial... and even necessary. For example, reading outside the classroom has a positive impact on fluency, accuracy, expression, and comprehension. Although I encourage a love of reading throughout the school day, I also provide books for students to take home and read. Reading is similar to playing the piano or practicing a sport--the more often you do it, the better you get.

I know homework is a very controversial topic, and we're constantly striving to meet the needs of all of our students. I'm only suggesting that we take a close look at our practices and have discussions about the types of homework we assign (if we must). I would love to hear your thoughts!