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Applying What We Know About Workshop Teaching to Instruction in Mathematics

This session, led by Shana Frazin, was one of the most inspiring sessions I attended during the Saturday reunion. We often view (or at least I do) literacy and math as two completely separate subjects. We focus on how to help our students create independent, rich reading lives for themselves; how to become critical readers and thinkers, and how we as teachers can expand our students literacy repertoire. However, it seems to me, that I want all of these things to be true for my mathematicians as well. So why not approach teaching mathematics in the same way we approach teaching literacy? Below are some of the tips Shana suggested for math instruction, that we already do in our literacy instruction:

  • math center (manipulatives, games, and books) organized by strand just like the library is organized by genre or level
  • math tools just like students have book bags, folders, post-its, etc. for reading
  • charts of math strategies
  • engaging math warm-up
  • math partners
  • guided practice – “Think it, write it, show it”
  • student choice of what to do when finished
  • view mistakes as information (like miscue analysis!)
  • math conferences

These ideas seem obvious to me after they were stated, but it really inspired me to think about math in a different way, especially to view mistakes as information rather than simply errors that need to be corrected. By taking a similar stance to mathematics instruction, we can help students develop into critical mathematicians (critical readers) who can do more than basic operations (more than just read the words.)

One question that I’m left with is how to fit this type of math instruction into a mandated curriculum. Certainly making some of the above adjustments in my classroom will not be difficult, but I think that adjusting my view and practices of math instruction while trying to stay within the mandatory curriculum may be more challenging. However, there is no doubt that this session left me inspired to create the kind of math atmosphere that is already in place for literacy.

11/24 Calendar day w/ Natalie Louis on small moment writing (as part of the TC Reading and Writing Project curriculum)

The big idea that we discussed through the day was the ‘teacher’s orbit’ that consisted of 4 activities that they are expected to all the time:

1. Assessing

2. Reflecting

3. Planning

4. Teaching

Assessing should take place as soon as the first term starts, in spite of the fact that this is not explicit in the curriculum. It is of critical importance for the teacher to know where her children stand with relation to letter-sound recognition, representational drawings, etc., in order to plan her units accordingly. Assessing must take place with the child and without the child. In the first instance, the child is asked direct questions by the teacher or asked to describe what they are doing as they do it. In the second case, the teacher examines products made by the child, along with their observations of the process in which the child was engaged while making that product.

During assessments, teachers should be conscious to begin with thinking about what they see in the child’s work first, instead of being quick to pass judgments and criticism.

An interesting discussion followed on the use of dictation by teachers in order to record the comments of the children on their pieces of work, so that it could be referred to by parents or even the teachers in the future while looking through the child’s journal or portfolio. Some teachers present at the workshop went on to argue reasons for why they believe dictation helps – to honor the child’s work, to capture the richness of exactly what they say, etc. However, others were of the view that teacher recordings on students’ work also sends the clear message that ‘our way is better than yours’, and some even felt that a better way of revisiting and assessing the child’s work is by asking them to retell the story whenever needed (instead of just putting a post- it with their previous comments on the work). Such retellings also assist the child’s recall and focus skills as they describe their work. One solution to the dilemma is that teachers could keep private notes of their observations in their own diaries, but of course, this would not be possible to do with every page on every piece of writing done by every child.

Reflection takes time and commitment from the teacher, and that might be one reason why many of us don’t do it often enough. Instead, we must include it in our system of regular practices, and schedule specific time allotted to this all-important activity. Reflection is necessary in order to make inferences from our observations of students’ work, and think about the direction and measure of progress being made by individual students and the class as a whole to inform our unit and instructional planning – in terms of individual and small group conferring, and mini-lessons.

Teaching was discussed mainly in terms of how writing workshop could be used for small moment writing exercises. While discussing the curriculum’s expectations for most Kindergartener’s to read by the new term in January, Natalie emphasized the critical role that writing workshops play in realizing this goal. She also went on to discuss how more teachers need to be committed to the use of ‘storytelling’ as a significant part of their daily class schedule, especially at this point in time when the next two units of the curriculum go back to exploring narratives.

Interactive storytelling can be conducted in a large group even, where the whole class makes a story together of an instance that they experienced (e.g. fire drill at school). Further, focus in writing can be explored here by asking the children to break into their small groups later and write about the same incident from a different perspective (e.g. what was happening on the outside of the school while the drill was going on).

An effective activity to introduce small moment writing is ‘interactive drawing’. Here, an oral story is produced first which will be analyzed and used to ‘zoom in’ to create small moment writing opportunities. The teacher should model this process by showing the students a drawing (story) she has made (that looks like it is at the child’s level so that they relate to it). The story may be on a topic that contains many subtopics in it, for example, a story on the park with slides and swings can be broken into the subtopics of slides, swings, and lawns. Once the teacher demonstrates this ‘zooming in’ she goes on to say how she will now draw stories on only one of these subtopics, for example, she will make a story on slides only. This helps the students work on a story whose pages all stay within the same setting and take place over a shorter period of time i.e. small moment writing. This exercise, where the children choose one aspect over another in their bigger story, helps them think about the reason behind their choice more deeply and the importance of showing meaning in their work. Once a specific topic has been chosen, say ‘slides’ in our example, then the children work together on a chart paper in a large group (just as a pen would be shared in interactive writing). While a few children might be working on a page, the others are asked to think about other aspects of the story and drawing such as lines, angles and views, shapes, emotions, etc. Once this activity is completed in a large group, the children may be asked to break into their smaller groups and work on individual pieces based on another incident they might have experienced with slides (taking our example again). The teacher can go around conferring in groups now.

Natalie also advised against emphasizing too much on one-to-one conferring in Kindergarten, keeping in mind the fact that the rest of the class may be totally lost at this time. Instead, she encouraged the teacher to confer in small groups more for this age group specifically, allowing the teacher to maintain overall discipline and prevent losing any child’s attention.

Towards the end of the workshop, we discussed the fact that parent’s understanding of ‘good writing’ must be expanded to include the skills of structuring and organizing, detail and elaboration, control over focus, use of voice and sound, and semantic consistency, in addition to the one they tend to focus disproportionately on – the use of writing conventions. This way they would appreciate their child’s writing more.

Natalie closed by mentioning that at the end of the day it is important not to get lost in the details of instruction and activity; due importance must be given to the bigger issues of whether or not the students feel loved, enjoy school, and adopt and practice moral/ethical behavior, etc.

Incorporating Science

I attended Learning to Learn: Trees, Birds, Bugs, and Clouds Can Teach K-1 Children What It Means to be on Fire with Learning, a TC Calendar Day presented by Heidi Mills. Throughout the workshop, Heidi spoke about how teachers can start with a science unit (for example, leaves) and then create a unit of study incorporating literacy, math, and social studies. While the idea of writing cross-curricular thematic units is a great idea, many of the teachers at the workshop expressed that they just simply don’t have enough time in the day. Most schools at the workshop follow the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project curriculum and must use their writing workshop time to study small moments (or whichever unit they are in). This reminded me of many of our own reactions to The Girl With The Brown Crayon. We wondered how Vivian Gussin Paley had the time to study just one author. I agree that it is hard to find time to incorporate science into the curriculum, but I think it can be done in schools where children have choice time every day.

As a kindergarten teacher, my children have forty minutes of choice time each day. Recently I implemented an apple study, as many of you do, over the course of a week. During read aloud, I read apple books and during choice time, students explored apples further. There were five stations and each child went to a different station throughout the week. At one station, there was a math game. At another, children tasted different types of apples and rated them. There was a word study apple game, a writing activity, and a reading activity. I think if a teacher is lucky enough to have this extra time in his/her day, choice time is a great way to incorporate science units.


Personal Passion Projects

In her workshop Learning to Learn: Trees, Birds, Bugs, and Clouds Can Teach K-1 Children What It Means to be on Fire with Learning, Heidi Mills spoke about Expert Projects. She explained how in the real world, children develop expertise in an area. Heidi talked about Personal Passion Projects where children share something with the class that they know a great deal about. Through this project, a child teachers the class about their identity/who they are.

Children pick something that they are interested in and, at home, design a presentation for the class. The teacher is responsible for teaching the children how to design a presentation. Heidi suggests using both primary and secondary sources (for example, an object as well as a poster).

Because their expertise is connected to what they are doing at home/their identity, they must bring in resources from home. It is important to teach parents how to support their children with their project. It must be their child’s own work. Children have to be able to read their work.

Before presentations begin, the teacher can teach children to talk like a teacher with authority. They are the experts and have to teach the class! At the end of the presentation, the child could ask if anyone has any comments or questions and try their best to answer.

I love the Personal Passion Projects idea. I wrote a vague outline because I think a teacher needs to tailor it specifically for his/her classroom. While I was listening to Heidi explain the projects, I thought of Cynthia Ballenger’s work, as well as other researchers who write about how important it is to incorporate children’s home culture into the classroom. This seems like a great way to get to know your own students and for students to learn about new cultures.


Critical Literacy and Classroom Talk

Tiffany Worden
Blog Post # 2

On Wednesday, November 5th, I had the opportunity to attend another Teachers College Reading Writing Project professional day – a calendar day with Peter Johnston. His workshop was entitled, “Threads of Learning, Resilience, Community and Comprehension in Classroom Talk.” I connected this workshop to the idea of critical literacy that we discussed in our last class.

We can develop children’s text analyst / critical literacy skills by showing children how to examine the position of each text. One way we can do this is by inviting children to examine everyday texts and pop culture that surround them. Likewise, Peter Johnston’s work invites teachers to take a critical stance when examining their everyday teacher talk/language. Peter Johnston offers teachers ways to change their talk. This change in teacher talk actually can promote children’s critical literacy.

During the calendar day, Peter Johnston investigated classroom talk as a thread woven into every classroom event. First Johnston explored how certain types of talk patterns can rearrange power in classroom. Often classroom talk privileges the teacher-student power hierarchy. Changing the way we interact and speak with students can reposition us as learners alongside our students. Our talk can reposition the children as fellow experts in the classroom.

Peter spoke about how teacher language can promote democracy among students. Peter defined democracy as “people disagreeing in a productive way” and actually using this disagreement to grow learning together. It is important to teach children how to talk and think in this way with one another, helping them consider multiple perspectives. Peter called this “dialogic interactions.”

Peter Johnston gave us practical ways to begin shifting our teacher talk. One example Peter discussed was shifting our language during as conversation about literature or read alouds. Many times teachers unknowingly have the conversation funneled through them. We choose a student to participate, the student directs his/her response to us, we restate the idea and field another question to the class. Peter says we can set up a conversation in which we encourage kids to speak to one another. The teachers role is shifted from being the gate-keeper of conversation to facilitating participation and active listening among children. Johnston gave us several phrases which can promote this type of conversation:

1. Encourage children to make their own meaning by using phrases such as I wonder…maybe…perhaps…how could we check?

2. Encourage children to see multiple perspectives by using phrases such as: Are there other ways to think about this? and Are there any other opinions?

3. Promote symmetrical power relationships among teacher and students by using phrases such as Can we look it up in a book? and Is that fair?

4. Encourage the children to build ideas together through conversation by using phrases such as We can build that idea bigger and I notice Laura jogged your mind with her comment.

I like the way Peter’s work challenges me to take a critical stance in “reading” my own classroom. After attending his workshop, I began thinking how my teacher talk privileges certain voices or ideas. Also, in making simple shifts in my language, like using the phrases above, I can create an environment that naturally encourages children to develop critical literacy skills.

Reggio Emilia Conference

October 26-28 I attended a Reggio Emilia conference in Denver, CO. I work in a Reggio Emilia inspired preschool and attended the conference to visit a well-established Reggio inspired school in Boulder, CO and an exhibit. (For anyone unfamiliar with the Reggio Emilia approach, the idea comes from the town of Reggio Emilia, Italy. Much of the approach focuses on “The Hundred Languages of Children” or the many ways children can express thoughts and ideas and explore their world. Marjorie helped me make the connection between Dyson’s work with multi-modal literacies and The Hundred Languages of Children. If you are interested in more info on the Reggio approach, I have a couple of great books.)

The exhibit I visited, “The Wonder of Learning-The Hundred Languages of Children,” was made in Reggio Emilia, Italy, and began its touring of the US in Boulder, CO, early in the summer. The exhibit documents several inspiring projects completed by children in Reggio schools. As I looked at each project, I really began to connect much of what we have read and spoken about in class to the Reggio approach. Each project included many modes of learning. For example, one portion of the exhibit documented children’s exploration of sound. The children noticed sounds their shoes were making as they went down a stairwell. The children described the sounds to the teachers. Then, the children drew the sounds they heard as their friends went down the stairs. The children then recorded the sounds made by their shoes. They downloaded the recorded sounds to computers and composed a piece with all their recordings. It was amazing to me that what started as a simple task of going down stairs, generated interest and many different ways to explore sound.

Another portion of the exhibit documented one group of children’s writing. The exhibit showed several papers with one letter written on each. Each letter was written in a different way (size, shape, color, and font were all different). Next to each letter was a description of what the child said after writing the letter. For example, one paper had a fancy looking ‘A’ with a scrolling base and gold and silver dots forming the letter. The description next to it read, “It’s an ‘A’ in a wedding dress getting married.” Another paper had one very tiny ‘s’ written in the center of a paper. The description next to it read, “It’s a shy ‘s.'” As a pre-k teacher, it was amazing to me the stories and thought that went into the formation of the letters.


I too left feeling inspired after Saturday. I plan to begin working on storytelling Monday morning after attending “Storytelling is not just for September.”

Some quick suggestions to follow each day of the week…

  1. model storytelling an event the class experienced together with rich story language across 5 fingers.
  2. class gathers to retell the same story with a storytelling partner. Teacher coaches students to remember characters names, say what the character said, etc.
  3. sit in a circle and retell the same story as a class. “Today we are all going to share the fire drill story as one storyteller.”
  4. while children tell the story, teacher sketches the pictures across pages
  5. teacher writes the words on the last day and students have time to tell their own stories with partners.
How it relates to this class: Rather than drawing the pictures for the story, take pictures of 5 quick, consecutive events for children to tell the story from. Children can document stories themselves using pictures they take in sequence as well.