Saturday, October 8, 2011

Active Listening in Content Areas Part 1

“The first prerequisite for listening to music is so obvious that it almost
seems ludicrous to mention, yet it is often the single element that is
absent: to pay attention and to give the music your concentrated effort
as an active listener.”

-William Schuman

Are you one of those people who can’t get enough of music, and when you think of elementary school, you have fond memories of music integrated within your classroom?  No?? Oh good, neither am I.  However, that makes me sad when I think about it.  While growing up I never had a strong musical influence within my school community.  I was terrified of my elementary music teacher, Sr. Ruth (she wasn’t even a nun (-: ).  Music class was my most dreaded class, which did nothing to foster a love for music.  My only memory of music being incorporated into the classroom was in fifth grade.  Our math teacher would bring in his guitar in and we would sing Elvis songs, but only if everyone earned a 100% on their math tests (that happened maybe twice).  As you can tell, music was not something that was integrated into teaching, when I was in elementary school.  Therefore, I have never attempted to integrate it into my teaching because I was never sure how. 
   During this past summer, I saw several people tweeting about RSCON3.  My interest was piqued, so I started to browse the schedule.  There was a presentation titled Intergrating Music with Literacy to Help Struggling Readers by Elizabeth Peterson (@eliza_peterson).  Don’t laugh, but I seriously thought this presentation was going to be about playing background music while students were reading or passive listening.  Thank goodness, I was VERY wrong with that assumption.  Within the presentation, Elizabeth did a phenomenal job explaining how reading and music are a parallel process.  After participating in this presentation, I started to explore Elizabeth’s website, , where she explains in greater depth the connection between music and literacy.  

            Since the beginning of September I have been slowly integrating music into my 5th grade student’s classroom.  The student’s and I discussed active listening, and what it means to be an active listener.  After brainstorming ideas about active listening, the class decided that being an active listener means listening to something in a way you never have before to learn something or connect to something new.  I thought this was a pretty good definition by fifth graders who have never really discussed active listening, in the context of music.  We then discussed how to be an active listener while reading, even if you are reading to yourself.  Once  students were given a background on what it means to be an active listener, I played a song for them to practice active listening.  Like when reading, listening to a song multiple times will only help the students pick up on new information they may have missed the first time.  Because of schedule constraints; I play the same song two times per week for two weeks.  This gives the students time to reflect and make connections with the song that I am playing.    Since I am teaching at a school that is guided by IBPYP principles, I try to select a song that goes fits within the unit of inquiry that is currently being taught.

            When selecting my first song, I randomly happened across Ghost on theCanvas by Glen Campbell.  After doing a little research I discovered that Mr. Campbell chose to sing this song because of his recent diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.  I thought this fit in nicely with the Who We Are Unit’s central idea of a healthy lifestyle requires a balance of many factors and decisions. Using active listening, the students would be able to use the lyrics, that they orally decoded, to decide how Alzheimer’s disease relates to wellness.  I provided students with the background information about Glen Campbell and his diagnosis, before they listened to the song.  Here is a reflection from one of the students, after his second time listening to the song: 

“A place between life and death.  He’s alive literly, but figritivly he’s dead.  Ghost on a Canvas.  the ghost is he’s Alzheimers, but it’s there.  Ashes to ashes we all fall down.  I’ve got alziemhers and that will make me fall.”

I loved how this particular student was able to interpret the deeply figurative language used in this song.  This is something that he probably would not have been able to do if the lyrics were provided to him out of context of the song.  When the students study figurative language, I plan to use the lyrics from this song, as well as many others that we have listened to, in order to have the students make an authentic connection to figurative language in the world around them.  

       The next song I choose was because of the recent ten year anniversary of September 11, 2001.  The students had spent some time discussing the events and the impact it had on people’s emotional health.  For the active listening song connected to this idea, the students listened to NewYork Times by Everclear.  The following student’s reflection was written after listening to the song one time.  He was the only person to make the connection between the song and September 11, 2001, after listening just one time.  

“you like new york times befor the twin towers claps because new york changed because osama bin laden or before when the twin towers stood”

This student struggles with reading comprehension, but was able to actively listen to a song and make a deep inference about the lyrics, that the rest of his classmates were unable to do until at least the third time listening to it.  Before students listened to New York Times, the final time, I told them to use their schema about September 11, 2001, when listening to the song.  That little bit of information gave many students the “A-ha!” moment and they were able to connect their previous thoughts about the song, to their schema associated with September 11, 2001.   

         The third song, which I used with students, was one that I heavily debated about using.  The current unit of inquiry is How We Organize Ourselves with a central idea of governmental systems can promote or deny equal opportunities and social justice.  The students are going to be focusing on three governmental systems; dictatorship, democracy and monarchy.  My goal was to find a song that would describe the inner workings or effects of a dictatorship.  As you can imagine songs about dictators aren’t the most upbeat.  I decided to use the song Symphony of Destruction by Megadeth, which even though it is considered a heavy metal song the lyrics accurately and appropriately describe a dictatorship.  I displayed pictures of four, unnamed, dictators and told the students to think about the connection between the song, the pictures, and the current unit of inquiry.  Dictators have not yet been studied, and I was using this song to introduce the topic.  When the students first heard the song, their eyes got big and they all just looked at me like I was crazy.  However, they quickly started to use active listening with a song unfamiliar to most. I have been most impressed with the connections to this song, considering the student lack of instruction over dictators and the genre of song.  Here are a couple examples of reflections, after hearing the song only once:  

“Syphony of destruction Day 1-3 I think this song is about people who caused much destruction, lives and the world.  What they did or tried to do.  What happened, what it felt like.  All of the people in the pictures caused much distruction.  Heads a roll-the dead people  Top left – Hitler Bottom Right – Osama Bin-Laden”  

“All people that destroyed our world a few times like Hitler is up there O.sama bin laden maybe even Jim Jones.  They took control of our world for a while and messed up our government.  It’s weird that they’re all men.  Dance like a marinet The earth starts to rumble”

        Overall I feel that the students not only enjoy integrating music into the curriculum, but they are quickly learning how to use active listening and apply it to the content in their units of inquiry.  It is my hope that as we continued to use music, associated with the units of inquiry, that students who may be more musically inclined will be able to make a deeper connection with a central idea because they have a song that they can listen to or fall back on to help with comprehension.  Students who may struggle with reading, like the one who reflected about New York Times, will now have a venue to practice active listening without having to worry about text getting in their way.   

       A side note for teachers that may be concerned with their lack of knowledge in musical terms, you do not have to have a background in music to be able to use music within the classroom.  I know nothing about tone, rhythm, beat or whatever other musical term there may be.  That doesn’t mean I can’t integrate music into literacy.  However, Elizabeth Peterson's book Inspired by Listening has helped me become for cognizant of musical terms. 

Please don’t forget the “art” in language arts.  Music always has been and always will be an art that we can learn from. 

Recommended resources:

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

PLN Blog Challenge – Compare and Contrast

I love the idea, that is being passed around, of a PLN blog challenge.  The directions are simple:  choose two pictures and compare and contrast them.  

I'm cheating (sorry!) and using three pictures.  I love going back and looking at pictures of my three favorite people; Gavin, Autumn and Evan.  For those of you that know me, you know who they are.  For those of you that don't, can you figure out who they are and how they are related by looking at the pictures?  They are all the same age (7 months) in each picture.  




Who do you think these people are?
Why do you think they are important me?
What do you think the three pictures have in common?
What do you think is different about the three pictures?
What are the characteristics that make them the same/different?

For those of you that are new to the blogging/twitter world, this would be a good ice breaker!!  Are you ready to take the challenge?

Others who have taken the challenge:  

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Please Power Down: Unless You're in the Hallway

There have been many positive changes in my life, since I last posted.  Previously, I was at a place in my career where I was frustrated and becoming burnt out as an educator.  After the most difficult interview I have ever been though, I was offered an intervention specialist position with an amazing district.  Of course, I quickly accepted the position.  My new principal is amazing!  I can bounce ideas off her and receive candid, helpful feedback.  It was our brief conversation, today, about cell phones within schools, that has inspired me to write this post.  

Students in this day and age have been raised in a world that has always been plugged in.  They have always had technology and instant resources at their fingertips.  Well...unless they are in school.  They must then power down and unplug.  This is something that I like to refer to as welcoming the Jetson's kids into the Flintstones' school.  (Watch this TEDTalk by Jeffrey Piontek to hear more about this idea.) 

Oh, but wait, you say, "many schools are being more open minded about the use of student's personal technology devices in school!"  I have heard of many schools changing their cell phone policy by permitting students to have cell phones out in the hallway and cafeteria. (Newville, PA, Camas-Washougal, WA) offense, but you're kind of missing the point of using cell phones in school.  I'm not advocating for the use of cell phones in schools, so that students can use them to text Johnny, Evelyn, Nedra, mom or dad.  I'm advocating for the use of cell phones in schools, so that students can use them for educational purposes, within the classroom. 

"They will cheat!!" shout the masses.  Newsflash...if a student is going to cheat, they are going to do it with or without the use of technology. However, an idea I do not advocate, is using cell phones to cheat to find answers.  Students can use cell phones to save time and communicate with others over Twitter, blogs or internet searches to help them understand and analyze information provided to them within the classroom.  While we're on the topic of cheating on assignments.  It's more difficult for a student to cheat if the assignment is authentic and is based around critical thinking skills (think opposite of the state standardized tests the students are required to take).   If students have to use critical thinking skills, they will not be able to text Dorothy for the answer.  They also will also not be able to do a Google search for the answer.  They will have to apply the knowledge they were taught, within class, and gathered while using their own personal technology devices. 

Basically, what I am saying is that if schools are going to make an acceptable use policy for cell phones.  They should start by having students use the phones in the classroom.  As that policy expands and students understand proper use of technology in a school environment, then it could be considered that cell phones be used in hallways and the cafeteria.  Administrators and teachers should be embracing technology, specially cell phones, first as a personal learning device and not primarily as a personal communication device. 

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Inviting ALL Students into the Writing Process

I have never been confident in my writing and editing abilities.  While attending the All Write!!! Summer Institute, I had the wonderful opportunity to hear Jeff Anderson speak.  In his keynote presentation, he made me think about my history, as a writer.  Sadly, it has not been a very positive history.  I came from the world of writing that was returned to me, looking as if it had just lost a very bloody battle, with a red pen. Quickly, I became discouraged and unsure in my abilities as a writer.  This is something, I do NOT want any of my students to experience.  I just have never been sure how to make that happen.  As Jeff stated, in his keynote presentation, "a writer in motion, stays in motion."  I just now need to find a positive way to set my students in motion.

After listening to Jeff Anderson speak, I knew that I would be purchasing several of his books.  The first book, of his, that I read was Everyday Editing: Inviting Students to Develop Skill and Craft in Writer's Workshop.  This book is a simple, common sense read.  I have such a better understanding of myself, as a writer.  I am beyond excited to get back into the classroom, in August, and start using these techniques with my students.  Everyday Editing is about inviting students into the writing process.  Students should be editing their own work, my red pen should not be doing all of the work.  

Throughout the process, of this book, Jeff Anderson discusses how to teach serial commas, colons, capitalization, apostrophes, simple sentences, appositives, paragraphs, compound sentences, and dialogue.  I don't know about you, but my students seem to struggle with all of these concepts!  The students are able to identify the errors when completing the redundant Daily Language Reviews, but in their own writing, they will continually make errors.  Jeff Anderson does a great job explaining how to get students to own and understand all of these writing conventions.

For students to understand writing, they need to own the process. Forcing students to make corrections, that  they don't understand, is not going to help them own the process.  Teachers should be inviting students into the writing process.  Jeff talk about several steps to use, when inviting students into this process.  Teachers can use all of the steps or just a combination of steps, depending on the needs and processing of the students.  

These are just a few of the invitations that I think my students will greatly benefit from.  Invite students to notice by using real examples, from forms of literature the students are reading or have read.  Don't use examples where students have to find errors, but where students tell you what they notice correct.   Invite students to imitate the examples that they have just noticed, by repeating the pattern in the examples.  The final invitation, that I wish would have been done while I was learning to write, is to invite students to celebrate by sharing examples in their own writing or books that they are reading.  Again, these are just a few of the invitations described by Jeff Anderson.

I highly recommend that every special education and language arts teacher reads this book, to learn how to invite students into the writing process.  Students need to own the process, and I truly think inviting them into the process will put them on the path to owning their writing and becoming confident, life-long writers. 

Friday, June 24, 2011

Adventures in Graphica - A Review

I had the privilege of meeting and listening to Terry Thompson speak at the All Write!!! Summer Institute, this past week.  Terry is the author of Adventures in Graphica - Using Comics and Graphic Novels to Teach Comprehension, 2-6.  I have never used graphic novels or comic books, in my teaching experience.  However, Terry made this process seem so common sense, that I would be a fool not to try it, especially since I work mainly with struggling readers.  Listening to Terry speak, as well as reading his book, he had my full attention with his sense of humor and common sense information.  

As stated by R. Sylvester, "emotion drives attention and attention drives learning."  That's exactly what graphica does for some readers.  It grabs their full attention and introduces them to literary conventions, that they may struggle to grasp in traditional novels.  Terry Thompson, in Adventures in Graphica, says that, "because comics are engaging they often can perk up our passive readers and offer them the experience of what it feels like to be an active participant in the reading process - a feeling that regrettably, many of them have never had before."  

I would just like to mention a couple aspects of this book that I found the most beneficial, for me.  Having never read a comic before, in terms of using it for teaching, I was nervous about using them with students.  In this book, Terry does a great job of explaining the parts of a comic and how he had used them in supplement with other texts.  He does not recommend using graphica as a replacement text, but in a supplemental integrated way.  In my experience, many students seem to struggle with the concepts of  summary and inferring.  After reading this book, I plan on using graphica to teach those concepts that tend to be complex for struggling readers.  The narrative boxes, in graphica, provide a pop-out way for students to understand the summary of what they are reading.  As for inferring, the white space between each panel, the gutter, is where they students practice this skill.  Terry does a phenomenal job of going into detail about how to teach those two skills, as well as many others, while using graphica. 

Another aspect of this book, that I found beneficial were the "translate the transfer" boxes.  Terry goes into detail on how he used graphica for many different reasons in his classroom (struggling readers, vocabulary development, ELL students), but after the graphica lesson he explained how he would translate that lesson to a lesson using a traditional novel.  I love how he makes the process so simple and user friendly! 

If you are one of the "on the fence" educators in regards to using graphica, I highly suggest you to read this book!  Terry had me hooked after the first 30 minutes of his presentation, and this book had me reeled in after the first page!  This book also addresses the history and downfall of graphica, sites and publishers to access graphica and so many other common sense practices with the use of graphica. 

Here's just a list of a few graphic novels I plan on purchasing for my classroom:
Owly by Andy Runton
Babymouse by Jennifer Holm

A final recommendation, please review all forms of graphica BEFORE using them in your classroom.  Terry Thompson goes into greater depth about this issue.  Some forms of graphica are wrote for a more adult audience, using not only language, but pictures not appropriate for all ages. 

Thursday, June 23, 2011


I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Lester Laminack speak at the All Write!!! Summer Institute in Warsaw, IN, this past week.  He was the closing keynote speaker, and inspired me beyond what I ever thought was possible, to open the world of reading and writing for my students.  I plan to recap the conference in upcoming posts, but I wanted to take a minute and share Lester's dream for schools.  I share the same dream as Lester!
[Delivered first in May 2008]

I dream of schools where children’s art hangs in gallery spaces filling the hallways

And children gather in clusters in the mornings before class to hear books and poems flowing on the voices of teachers

I dream of schools that host conversations about books in the corridors and in alcoves throughout the building

Of schools that post poems and quotes in public spaces where children wait for lunch, queue up in line for water and restrooms, to enter the library or wait for buses.

I dream of schools that feature teachers’ favorite books face out throughout the hallways and in the office

Where children don’t know what AYP means, and don’t know where their class ranked on any test, and are greeted at the front door each morning like family returning from a long trip.

Where children are treated with the same respect afforded the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

Where mistakes are seen as evidences of valiant attempts.

Where kindness is spoken with sincerity

Where collaboration and cooperation trump competition

Where all people are deemed worthy simply because they inhale and exhale

Where everyone is assured of both physical and emotional safety

Where your last name, country of origin, skin tone, sexual orientation, gender identity, language facility, economic status, politic views, religious traditions have no bearing on the attention you receive from teachers and others in the school

I dream of schools where days are not scripted by those who could not find the Post Office in your town

Where time spent engaged in inquiry, reading, making art, writing, interviewing, dancing, problem solving, dramatizing is more highly prized than time spent filling in bubbles, choosing the right answer to someone else’s questions or logging on to prove you read.

Where libraries will be as important as stadiums and auditoriums rival gymnasiums

Where children are eager to arrive and reluctant to leave

Where devotion to time for reading and writing can rival attention to the lunch schedule

Where teachers read aloud with the zeal of a street performer and the frequency of a birdsong

Where principals lead by example, know children by their successes, place books over bus schedules, teachers over test scores, students over stanines, communication over control

I dream of schools where teaching is judged by the character of the students leaving, their treatment of others, their concern for humanity, and their ability to think and reason with clarity and compassion

Where a teacher’s knowledge is the map used to chart the course of learning and his/​her heart is the navigator directing the journey

Where learning “how” is more important than learning “what” and knowing “when” and “why” are as important as getting the right answer

Where trying is more important than triumph and successive approximations are valued as much as success itself

Where children sit in small clusters for lunch gathered around a book discussion, a quote of the day, an issue to resolve in the classroom community while dining in a civil setting

Where children learn to engage in open dialog, respecting the ideas of others, entering and exiting a conversation in civil ways without raising a hand to be given permission to share their thinking in a free, civil, democratic society

I dream of schools where teachers do not feel forced to turn the pages and do what comes next in a program they do not believe in

Where teachers are treated with respect and professional courtesy, where their voices are listened to and trusted

Where hallways are read, viewed, puzzled over, seen as bearers of clues to riddles and brain teasers found throughout the building

Where walking in straight lines, and raising hands are less important than caring for classmates

Where writing is evaluated more on what is said, how it moves a reader, stirs an emotion, evokes a response, causes one to pause to think or change than on how many sentences were in a paragraph or how many paragraphs are in an essay

I dream of schools where readers are asked what they make of a text rather than asked to log on to give the correct answer to someone else’s questions

Where children are found discussing the actions and motives of a character instead of recording the details of that character’s home or clothing

Where children are more familiar with poets than NFL players, more familiar with authors than actors, more familiar with illustrators and artists than with athletes, more familiar with inventors and social activists than the names of video games, more familiar with mathematicians and scientists than sit-coms and March Madness

I dream of schools where children know they are cherished and trusted, where they feel safe to risk being wrong in order to learn lessons more important than arriving at the right answer

Will you join me? Will you stand up for the children of this nation? Will you take a stand on the issues that matter most to the preservation of their one, precious childhood.

Lester L. Laminack
Asheville, NC

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Tools of the Trade

As a special education teacher, I work in six different classrooms daily.  My daily struggle is being able to use my tools to help students learn.  If you're a special education teacher, what's the first thing someone says to you when you tell them that is your job?  "Oh, you must be soooo patient!"  Too often that's the general education teacher attitude that I encounter. 

"Just work with these students, using my teaching methods, at a more PATIENT pace." 

I'm sorry, but special education DOES NOT work that way.  Students are in special education because they need instruction designed for them (hint....INDIVIDUALIZED education plan).  I want to be able to use tools that best help all students learn, but that does not mean all students need the same tool.

Let's put this into perspective.  I come from a family of people who love to cook, as do I.  One of our favorite shows is Top Chef .  I remember an episode where the chefs had to cook using only one tool.  The chefs could not make any dish they wanted, because they had a limited use of resources.  Isn't that the same in education?  Students will struggle to achieve all that is asked of them, if they are only given one tool.  

This is not just limited to special education students, but to all students.  Think about those "disruptive" students, that never miss a day of school.  Are they disruptive because it is in their nature, or are they disruptive because we are only giving them one tool to cook with?  

 As an educator, I am making it my goal to introduce at least one new tool, into each classroom I teach in, each day.