Thursday, March 31, 2011

Reading Levels Jump 5 Months in just 2.5 Months!

The reading levels of my students have increased an average of 5 months in the last two and a half months.  I am thrilled!  How did it happen you ask?  Metacognition.

The BrainSMART courses I am taking are chock full of fantastic metacognitive strategies.  I feel like I’m opening a present every time I start a new course.  Seriously!  I’ve been blogging about my experiences, so some of this will be a bit of a review.  But after seeing the jump in reading scores…I just can’t keep my mouth closed!!

How it Started
This fantastic increase in reading came together when students started learning thinking for reading skills.  These skills include: inferring, schema, visualizing, questioning, monitoring understanding, noticing, etc. (See this post for more details: Good Readers)
Students even made a video about their favorite thinking skills here:  Once we had a firm grasp of our thinking skills, we chose great books.

Choosing Books
I have learned that choice is an important metacognitive strategy.  Students will be much more likely to read if they are actually INTERESTED in the book!  I talked to my students, found out their interests, and brought books in targeted to those interests.  It worked.  I saw two of my boys who are reluctant readers reading during RECESS this week!  I saw another reluctant reader sharing the book he was reading with a boy in another class.  Wow.

Students choose what book they want to read, and who they would like to read it with. We have book clubs for students reading the same book.  All students take part. They read for 20 minutes every morning.  As a group reads, they stop occasionally for discussion and utilize their thinking skills.  I walk around and eavesdrop on the conversations, and sometimes ask questions of my own.

The books must be at an appropriate reading level.  We use the five-finger test to check for readability.  Turn to a random page towards the back of the book, as the student reads he holds up a finger for every word missed. If a child can read the entire page with no more than five errors, then the book is a good read for them.

Checking for Understanding
Now that the kids are reading and discussing, how do you know they really understand?  Thinking stems are the answer! I was introduced to ‘Thinking Stems’ by Angie Rumsey.  In a thinking stem, students use their thinking skills (see the Good Reader poster at the top, left of this page) to share information about books they are reading.  Here is an example from my class:

I am reading Gullivers Travels by Jonathan Swift. In my story Gulliver is taken care of by GIANTS! I’m thinking about how Gulliver will get back in a world HIS size. I’m curious about what will happen next. I’m glad I started reading this book!   ~Ethan
I have students write about one thinking stem a week as they work their way through a book.  I have a rubric for my thinking stems here: Thinking Stem Rubric.  Students choose what thinking skills to include in their stem (more choice). 

Once they finish a book, students write a summary.  They have the option of blogging the written summary, making a video summary, or doing an ‘Oprah Winfrey style’ interview (more choice).  Here is my written summary rubric: Written Summary Rubric.

Needless to say, my students writing skills have gone through the roof as well!

Yes, blogging.  My second graders are proud international bloggers. ( I discussed the impact of blogging in my last post.  Comments are very motivating for students of any age.  The comments give them an audience, so they try harder!  They are very proud of their blogging accomplishments.

Putting it all Together
Thinking skills are crucial.  The skills help students learn HOW to think rather than WHAT to think.  Students learn to analyze, critique, and synthesize (see the good reader poster at the top of the page).  Daily reading, choice of reading material, choice of reading buddies, weekly thinking stems, summaries, and a blog audience.  These factors combined have brought my students reading levels up an average of 5 months in just two and a half months! (Prior to this, students were showing a month growth per month.) Give it a shot in your class.
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Sunday, March 20, 2011

How and Why to Get Your Class Blogging

“I don’t want to do this.” The second grader looked at me with determination.  Her mind was quite made up.  I was surprised to find this little island of resistance in my sea of excited students. 
“Do your parents not want you to do this?” I questioned.
She flashed me a bored expression.  “Nah, I just don’t want to.” 

How it Started
This all began with our blogging experiment.  We all have students who don’t like to read or write.  I wanted to change that, but I needed to find a solid motivational tool.  Something that would spark student interest and keep them coming back for more.  The answer I found was blogging.
I blogged about the beginning of our journey here:

Since then, we’ve blogged about thinking stems, summaries, math, our snow days, and about an egg-drop we did during brain-awareness week.  Students are always excited to go check for new comments.  Which leads me back to the student mentioned earlier.  She put her thinking stem on the blog that day.  That evening she received several comments from around the globe.  She was so excited; she created her next blog post from home, on her own time. 

I have seen a marked improvement in use of thinking skills, fluency, and writing throughout our blogging journey.  Students respond to comments, which improves their written communication skills.  Blogging is a powerful tool.  Here are some ideas to help you get started.

Which Blog Service to Use
There are many tools available.  For this blog, I use  I didn’t think it had the functionality I wanted for my 2nd graders though, so I chose  It has proven to be the perfect tool for my class.  It is easy to use and update even for an early elementary child.  Setting up a class is quick and easy even for the technologically challenged among us.  It also has versatile security settings.  If you want comments from outside sources though, make sure your settings allow anyone to comment…but choose the option to approve comments before they appear.  Other blog options include Classblogmeister, Wordpress, Edublogs, ClassBlogs, and Typepad, among others. 

Introduce it to the Class
I introduced blogging to my class by showing another class blog that was already underway.  We read some posts and even left comments.  Then I showed them their very own class blog and demonstrated the steps to make a blog post.  When we went to the computer lab, there was still some confusion but most were able to proceed without much additional help.  We took our pre-written thinking stems to the lab with us that day to post to the blog. I wanted them to be able to focus on the process of making the post rather than the writing process at that point.

What to Blog About
I see student blogs being used in many different ways.  Some are publishing stories, yet others are discussing physics.  It’s up to you.  I recommend blogging about things you want them to practice and/or have a deep understanding of.  Remember they will be motivated to do good work because people outside the class will be reading and commenting on what they write.
Getting Comments
Receiving comments is a key to maintaining student interest.  If you don’t have a Twitter account yet, now is the time to create one!  Once your students have their posts up, sign on to twitter and say something like:

             2nd grade bloggers looking for comments! #comments4kids

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...Image via CrunchBase
 #Comments4kids is a hashtag.  That means that anyone who follows that particular hashtag will see your post. (Hashtags always have a ‘#’ in front of them.) Don’t forget to include the link to your blog.  Several fellow twitterers will retweet your post to their followers.  Be sure to comment on others who are asking for comments as well.  You’ll soon find yourself with several blogging pals. 

Leave your blog address at to hook up with other classroom blogs.

Also be sure to send the link out to parents, who will probably forward the link onto grandparents and other family members.  They love to leave comments.

Leaving Comments
Students will be excited to respond to comments left for them and to leave comments for classmates.  You will want to set clear guidelines on commenting.  Here is an awesome video to share with your students about commenting:

Student blogging is a remarkable motivational tool.  If you have students you are struggling to motivate, give this a try.  My student mentioned earlier is still blogging happily away and is quite animated in her discussion about her blog.

Note: If you have not discussed Digital Citizenship with your class yet, please do that first.  Check out this post: Digital Citizenship in the Classroom

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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Our Fun Brain Awareness Week

The Dana Foundation and BrainSMART helped my class celebrate Brain Awareness Week (BAW).  They provided cool pamphlets, brain erasers, and BAW pencils to add to our BAW fun!  We want to say THANK YOU!

We had a fun week learning more about how our brain works.  Early in the week we went over the senses of our body brain system.   Students experimented to see what it would be like to have to rely only on their sense of hearing.   They were amazed at what they could hear when focused.  Next we tried to plug our ears and close our eyes to ‘feel’ a loud sound.  Some enthusiastic students even tried plugging their nose while eating to see what happened to their sense of taste.  We read about Helen Keller to illustrate how the brain ‘reroutes’ information to make up for a loss of sight and/or hearing.

Students could not get enough of the optical illusions provided by Pro Teacher at:  The kids were fascinated to see how the brain could interpret the same visual information differently.

Students saw pictures of brain scans to learn how different parts of the brain light up for different tasks and why.  We talked about bizarre examples of what can happen when the brain is damaged.  This led into a discussion about the importance of protecting the brain and wearing a helmet.

Protecting the Brain
To illustrate the point, on Friday we held an egg drop.  Student had two days to create protective ‘helmets’ for their eggs.  Friday morning dawned cool and windy.  Students were anxious to try out their creations.  With a supportive audience of parents, we dropped the eggs from about 10 feet.  Of 18 eggs, only about 5 broke.  Then we dropped an egg with no helmet.  That egg made a resounding SPLAT to a chorus of student cheers!  The kids got the point about helmets.  Students ended the day blogging about their egg drop at Stop by and leave a comment!

Why it is Important
Our brains are amazing.  It is our very own command center!  Learning how our command center works enables us to use it more efficiently.  Protecting our command center is equally important. Be sure to share these important lessons with your students.  For more information, visit The Dana Foundation.  Visit BrainSMART to earn your masters degree in Brain Based Teaching.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Demonstration of Metacognitive Thinking 2nd Graders!

I've learned through the BrainSMART program that one of the most powerful tools you can give your students is thinking skills. When you or I read (or do math, science, and even everyday life situations), we automatically make predictions, inferences, questions, schema, etc to help us understand and make decisions. Most of us weren’t explicitly taught these skills…we simply figured them out over time. Just imagine the advantage we would have had if we learned these skills early in life! Thinking skills are remarkably easy to teach and learn. My second graders can prove it!  We created a video discussing and demonstrating their favorite thinking skills. (While watching the video, keep in mind that students wrote all their own introductions.)  If second graders can do it…all grades can (and should) do it! 

Even Better
To make things even more wonderful, I received this email from a parent:
"My daughter assigned the family reading groups this evening. She is putting your lessons into practice at home. :)"
Mom also sent along this picture of her daughter with a poster  the daughter made for her family.  Notice the thinking skills she wrote on her poster. What a great student!  She has internalized the thinking skills and can teach them to others.

In our next video we will demonstrate how we learned each skill. Stay tuned, and remember...if second graders can learn and use these skills, so can upper grades!

If you would like a copy of the "Good Readers" poster seen in the background of the video, click the 'products' tab at the top of this page.

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