Saturday, March 5

I had another idea...

We have a standard spelling program from a reputable publishing company. It is a pre-set part of our curriculum and all of the teachers are required to use it. Each week the students complete different pages of a workbook and then take a test. Some teachers spend part of their teaching day doing these pages. In my fourth grade classroom, I don’t!

Each week’s lesson has a “rule” and through various activities the students practice the rule. I do not devote any of my class time or instructional minutes to these four pages. Each week I assign it as homework and tell them to finish it by the end of the week. (We are required to assign a certain number of homework minutes each night.) The students do it without complaint and easily finish it. Most weeks every student gets a perfect score on both the workbook pages and the test. Would I rather have them reading for pleasure, you bet! If I have to do the spelling program, I would rather it be something they can breeze through at home so I can concentrate on real learning in the classroom.

I have a few students who each week score 100% on their spelling tests and they are the worst spellers. Their talent is in memorizing! I’ve tried to explain this to parents and have been met with disbelief. A weekly spelling test is a memorization test – not authentic learning.

Some parents eagerly embrace the spelling work and weekly tests. It is familiar to them and something tangible that they can readily measure each week. I’ve stressed that it shouldn’t be used as a barometer of their child’s school performance or success.

At this point, you may wonder why I even use the program. When I wanted to change from our basal reading program to Reading Workshop, I had to fight hard. After hours of persuasive arguments and research, I won, which means the students won! In every great negotiation, you have to leave something on the table to get the most sought after prize. I left spelling on the table.

You may ask if I am one of those teachers who embraces “inventive” spelling. The answer is no. I teach spelling all day long, every day. Whenever I am working with students we discuss spelling rules: prefixes, suffixes, root words, doubling rules, vowel diagraphs, etc. Throughout each area of the curriculum, we discuss it and apply it as needed. Each student in my room has learned the dangers of relying on “spell check” on the computer and learned editing skills. When we construct paragraphs, we let the words flow and fix spelling during editing. All of my students keep a handheld spelling ace with them for checking words. We use peer editing to check one another’s work. I’ve taught them the old trick of reading your work backwards since your eye can sometimes miss words that you spelled wrong. Spelling is a part of every lesson.

I envision my students sitting for their SATs and attacking the writing section. I imagine them using the prewriting techniques I’ve taught them to organize their ideas. Then, I envision them constructing their paragraphs. Finally, I see them editing and fixing their spelling. They will successfully compose not because of workbook pages, but because they learned to apply rules innately and in context.

Tuesday, March 1

The Academy Awards for Academic Excellence

In honor of this year's Academy Awards...
A return to one of my favorite posts!

This year my classroom theme is “Hollywood” where every student is a star. With the Academy Awards approaching, I was looking for a way to integrate this theme in a meaningful way. Boy, did I find it!

As a way to model and reinforce comprehension strategies, I am reading the novel Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson to my class. This historical fiction book is one of my favorites and provides a wealth of information about Philadelphia during the yellow fever epidemic that decimated the city in 1793.

As I read the novel, the students complete a variety of collaborative tasks and project based learning activities. Most importantly, this novel inspires even the most reluctant readers to read more.
The main character has big dreams for her future. She yearns for a life that is filled with excitement, travel, and she describes how she will change the world. Of course, this segued to the students composing multi-paragraph essays that described their hopes for their future jobs, families and how they would contribute to society. We spent a great deal of time on their essays with lots of peer editing and revisions. The end results were astonishing: an idea was born.

Since these essays were so amazing, I wanted the students to share them. What better way than to turn them into speeches? I was so proud of their writing that I decided the students would share their work with the other students in our school. We would have the Academy Awards for Academic Excellence. This wasn’t a competition, but a celebration of their hard work and their dreams.

Once I shared the idea with my students, it snowballed! Suddenly, we were decorating and creating our Oscar stage, planning a banquet, making wardrobe decisions and discussing the importance of speaking slowly and making eye contact during a speech. Then, the big day arrived!

The end result far exceeded my expectations. We invited younger grades to come to our special ceremony. Many of the students’ former teachers needed tissues to dab their eyes as they observed the students giving their speeches.

I love when a spontaneous idea develops and the end result is a meaningful experience that the students will remember.

Here's a look at the introduction and our first speaker.