Primary Preoccupation

A grade one teacher inviting the world into her classroom

Primary Preoccupation - A grade one teacher inviting the world into  her classroom

Changing Face of Early Literacy – Why Digital?

Brown Bear, Brown Bear“Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see? I see a red bird looking at me,” chanted all of the children in my classroom as they participated in a shared reading time in my classroom. Shared reading, in which all of the children regardless of their reading level read aloud from shared text, has long been considered to be an important part of a balanced early literacy program.

In the good old days, not so long ago, all of the shared reading in my classroom was from books (including ‘big’ books whenever possible) and from poems and chants that I had purchased or carefully printed on chart paper so that the entire class could see.  While I still use these resources when appropriate, much of our shared reading is now digital. We read a variety of digital texts, but most frequently we read tweets written by classes or others we follow on our class Twitter account or we read comments written on our classroom blog or on the blogs of one of the students. We also read blog posts written by classes or students far away.

What Does This Look Like in the Classroom?

Shared Reading of Twitter

During our shared reading, I project either our class Twitter account or our blog comments onto a board and together, we read these tweets or comments aloud.  At the beginning of the school year my students are still pre-readers, so I point to the words as we read, but I turn this job over to my students as soon as it is possible. After reading each tweet, we talk about what we just read. What did we find out? How is that similar to or different from what we have done/studied/know? Do we want to reply to this tweet or comment? What do we want to say?  Since my students are slow typists, at the beginning of the year, this task usually falls to me as they tell me what to say, how to spell words (we stretch out the sounds together) and remind me that we should always re-read a tweet before we press “Tweet”. At this point, the shared reading has turned into a shared writing lesson.

When we read a comment together, we follow a similar pattern. Is this a good comment, something we want posted on our blog? If yes, we click “Approve” and then discuss whether the comment needs to have a response.  If it does, we follow a similar procedure to the one just mentioned.

Why Read Digital?

Why have I made the switch from only traditional text to including digital in my classroom?

1. Much of the reading the students will do outside of my classroom and as they grow up will be digital.  It seems appropriate to begin to acknowledge this right from the start of their reading education.

2.  High interest Students are excited to read text that has been written by other children and classrooms. They like to “get to know” other classrooms by reading what they are up to on Twitter or reading a comment by someone they have never met. They wonder aloud about these people and if appropriate, we respond. We often get responses in return. Never in all of my teaching have I had that kind of authentic engagement with any of my chart paper poems.

3. Personalization Much of the digital text we read is written directly to my class or to one of the students in my class. It is hard to argue against the efficacy of personalization in any kind in learning.

4. The students are able to respond to the text. As I mentioned above, the digital text we read allows for an immediate means to respond. While written response to traditional text is certainly possible, the ability to ask questions and to have them quickly answered by the text’s author (whoever that author might be) is certainly not.

Can you see why I love using Twitter and our blog comments as part of my literacy program? I’m not quite ready to throw out all my charts with poems, songs and chants just yet. They still have value. But it is hard to beat the benefits offered by digital text when doing shared reading.

You Can’t Teach Literacy With Skype, Can You?

We Learn Best From People

I have a few grade two students in my classroom this year for the first time in half a dozen years. Since the last time I had a grade one/two split, the curriculum has changed.  Naturally, I have spent time reading through the grade two curriculum. But when I have specific questions about what my seven year olds need to know, I don’t usually try to find the answer in the curriculum.  I just walk across the hall and ask the grade two teacher. She explains it well and gives me the practical information that I need.  She is also likely to add a few things I had never thought to ask that will help me to be a better teacher of that concept. Learning from her is much richer than the answer in the curriculum guide.

My students learn best from people as well. When some of the students wondered aloud about what it was like to move, I had some picture books handy, but the learning was far deeper when we asked a student in my class who had actually moved. Even the best book or digital program is no match for  personal contact.

I’ve noticed this online as well. People often ask a question on Twitter that can easily be googled. I’ve done this myself.  Somehow we feel more confident in an answer when another person is directly involved. We like to be able to question and push back. Simply put, we learn from best from people.

Because I want this best learning, we often use Skype as a learning tool.  Skype connects us to people. I made the following video for my about-to-be-published book to show some of the ways we use Skype in our classroom. As always, my students say it best.

OK… But Literacy?

Skype is also one of the tools in my literacy instruction. The listening and speaking components of Skype are obvious ones, and we use it often that way. We learn about similarities and differences and ask and answer questions with others from far away. But, we have used Skype for more traditional literacy activities as well.

  • Many times, teachers or others have taken the time to read my class a story or poem via Skype. These experiences have introduced us to books and authors we would not otherwise have encountered and enriched our learning as a result.
  • People have been willing to listen to my students read via Skype, helping them to increase their confidence and their reading fluency.
  • We have done Reader’s Theatre with a class from Alabama.
  • We have shared reading strategies with another class, marveling that they used the same strategies that we did when working to improve their reading skills.
  • We have made reading connections with various classrooms. “Hey, we like that book, too!” or “we have a books by Robert Munsch in our library!” We have even learned a special silent hand sign to show we had made one of these links from the Kinderkids in New Hampshire. (We make a signed y with our fist and rock our hand back and forth in front of our chest—it saves a chorus of comments like the ones previously mentioned.)
  • Later this week my class will be making up some nonsense silent e words to see if some students in South Carolina can decode them. They’ll do the same for us.

Can you teach literacy with Skype? You bet. We learn best from people, and Skype connects us with people.

The Power of Hashtags For Me AND For My Students

I have had a classroom Twitter account for several years. We have used it to share what is happening in our classroom, to find out what is happening in other classrooms and to have conversations with those other classrooms. Parents and others have followed us to watch what we are doing and  to be part of our learning. We have never been a “tweet every day” class, but went in fits and starts, much like my own Twitter use has sometimes been. Using and following hash tags has made a big difference to my own Twitter experience, and as always, if something works well for me, I think about the educational implications it might have. As I thought last summer about the things I wanted to explore with my grade one/two class this year, making better use of Twitter hash tags was one of them.

The first time we used hash tags this past fall, we were learning about the writing trait of ideas.  We explored many sources of ideas ourselves, and then asked the people who followed us on Twitter to tell us where they got their ideas,  using the hash tag #ideasforwriting. Classes and individuals responded, giving my students many more great sources for “what should I write about?”

On this, as on every other occasion, the giving nature of others on Twitter continues to astound me.  My students were thrilled that people they had never met would help them with their writing and we eagerly added their suggestions to our classroom list of where writers get their ideas.
It was getting closer to Christmas by the time we revisited hash tags, and this time we were working on the writing trait of voice.  After reading the story The Gingerbread Man, the students took pictures of their gingerbread men around the school and then tweeted about what the Gingerbread man might say using the hash tag #SaystheGBMan. A couple of other classes joined us, and the students laughed and joked as they set up their pictures, created their own tweets and read tweets created by others. Interestingly, during the process, the phrase “GBMan” became a saying in our classroom and the students now use it instead of saying “gingerbread man” in most of their speech. Along the way, all of the students showed me that they could meet the curricular outcome of writing using a different voice.

 

The week before the Christmas holidays, several classes from #1stchat were tweeting about Santa’s secrets–that is, things people generally do not know about the jolly old man. This was the brainchild of Karen Lirenman, who has done a paper version of this with her class for many years.    What fun to make up humorous anecdotes about Santa and  to see what ideas others had! Again, my students were fascinated to be part of a group of students who were all composing and creating tweets with their own ideas. (And meeting yet another curricular outcome at the same time!)

As with every form of technology, it is not the technology itself that improves the learning, it is the way that the technology is used. Harnessing the power of hash tags has really revolutionized my ability to learn on Twitter professionally, and now I know it can do the same for my students.

Free Books for Kids

As a teacher, I value choices for my students in both how they learn and in how they demonstrate that learning. I try to give my students choices about as many things as I can each day, including whether to use technology in their learning or to use more traditional methods. Because I am fortunate enough to now have a classroom set of iPads, I am able to offer the choice of using technology much more often.

Our iPads have apps for math, writing, arts education and many literacy activities, but it bothered me that these devices did not have a good choice for just reading. There are apps available that contain leveled books of some kind, but these books are always a bit contrived. There are also some good “listening to reading” apps available that read stories to the students. The best of these highlight the words as they are read. I appreciate the value of this as part of my literacy program, but I looked in vain for quality books that the students could read on their own.

Finding the Solution

Back in the spring, someone on Twitter shared a link to onehundredfreebooks.com.  This site has a constantly changing list of books that are currently free at Amazon. When you click on the link to a book on this site, it takes you right to the Amazon page selling that book and you can then purchase the free book. Because I had the Kindle app installed on my iPad, I could view all of my purchases there. I loved this site for myself. I could try books from authors I had never heard of without spending money on something that might not be as good as I had hoped. Last summer, I noticed that there were sometimes children’s books available. This intrigued me. I wondered about using these books in my classroom. Could this provide me with some choice for my students who like to read on the iPad?

I set up an account and tried it on my student’s iPads, only to discover that a book can only be viewed on a maximum of five devices. After five children had downloaded a book, the other children could see the book in the Kindle app, but not read it. The other children were more than a little disappointed when the Halloween book they wanted to read was not available to them.  So I started over.

Making it Work

This time I set up four different accounts. Since all of my iPads are numbered, I set up four gmail and Kindle accounts– accountname1, accountname6, accountname11 and accountname16. I put the Kindle account from accountname1 onto iPads 1 – 5, the account from accountname6 on iPads 6 – 10 and so on.

Then, I started watching for good books on onehundredfreebooks.com. Now, when I see a book I think might interest my students, I first check it out on Amazon. I have a look inside (Amazon provides this option) to see if it is an appropriate reading level, whether the illustrations are good ones, whether the illustrations are supportive of the text—in short all of the things I look for in a paper book. I have learned to NOT purchase any books that do not give you a look inside at the first few pages. If I think the book is worthwhile, I get my student’s iPads that are numbered 1, 6, 11 and 16. These iPads always have their Amazon account open. (This has never been an issue and saves me a lot of time). I choose onehundredfreebooks.com in Safari—and purchase the book on those four iPads. When my students next open their Kindle app, the book will be available to all of them.

I try to check the site a couple of times per week, and if I see something interesting, the whole process takes me about two minutes. Books on this site do disappear without notice, though. More than once I have found an interesting-looking book that has been taken off the site by the time I got to the iPads.

Here is a screenshot of what their Kindle app currently looks like. We have books from a variety of genres and reading levels.

Onehundredfreebooks.com has recently added genre selection to their home page, so I now go directly to their children’s books page and browse all the titles available there.

I appreciate the variety of books I have been able to provide for my students. Now, all of the students have access to a variety of books on their iPads as well as in their self-chosen bin of paper books. During our “read to self” time, the students can choose paper books or digital books. Some choose to read on the iPad every day, some rarely do and some switch back and forth. My students have another choice.

A Team Approach is the Real Treasure

Today, still at the Saskatchewan Reading Convention, I wore another one of my hats, that of a literacy team member at my school.  We have worked very hard over the past few years to improve the reading levels of our students, and we have been very pleased with the results we have achieved.  (Check out the graph on slides three to nine.)  Shelley Hager, our primary Student Support Services Teacher and I did a presentation about what we have done at our school to accomplish what we have so far.  The audience was great—we could feel their energy.  They asked helpful, clarifying questions and they put up with us rushing through the last part of our presentation.

 

[slideshare id=350010&doc=a-team-approach-is-the-real-teasure-1208040210406314-9&w=425]

 

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