Text Mapping Nonfiction


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We’ve been working with nonfiction texts this winter, and so I was doing my due diligence on better ways to teach students how to read and comprehend these texts.

For an experienced reader, navigating nonfiction is not a daunting task, but imagine for a moment what it must be like to see all the busyness that makes up a nonfiction text for elementary students.  Text features – captions, text boxes, maps, labels, diagrams – a less expert reader has a difficult time capturing the flow of text. The difficulty of this really wasn’t brought home to me until I started text mapping with my fourth grade students.

A challenge for my students has been that either the text is so fractured because students stop to attend to the features as they try to read the text or the features are skipped entirely.  For my students, that means they are missing important pieces of information. And in testing situations, students often miss something nuanced that ends up in a test item. I knew I needed some new strategies that would help kids – and me – sort out how to read nonfiction in a more methodical, systematic manner.

And so with the help of Google, I happened upon text mapping, an innovation created by Dave Middlebrook.

One of the biggest advantages to implementing text mapping strategies was that I noticed how almost immediately my students could follow the flow of the actual text. Since the visual and textual features that supported their reading could be segregated away from the flow of words, the whole reading made more sense to them. They were more able to follow the flow of the words and then go back to pick up more information using those visual and textual features. For a more detailed version of the advantages of text mapping, be sure to read this section from the Textmapping Project Page.

We used the scroll strategy in my classroom for several iterations; however, this being test prep season, I’ve moved away from a physical scroll to adapting text maps to the normal page formats. Also, with a nod to prepping for state testing, we needed to invent black and white coding as colored pencils, highlighters, and the like are not allowed.  While some of the impact of coding is lost when color coding features is removed, the supporting features are still called out from the text. And students are still able to follow a logical flow of text and text features.

For elementary level teachers and more ideas about using text mapping, check out Classroom 2.0. 

Private Sector Burnout – This sounds familiar


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I was drawn to this article in the New York Times this morning: Why You Hate Work. Now, there is no way I can say I “hate” the work that I do. There is something uniquely satisfying about teaching even the smallest of skills or ideas to a child. Spiritually, teaching is an incredible opportunity to serve the greater good.

But the current atmosphere surrounding educators and education is particularly toxic.

Which made this OpEd citing conditions for mainly white-collar workers in corporate America kind of interesting.

Employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.

As I read the article, I thought about how similar burnout in a white-collar environment is to burnout in education. According to this article posted in Forbes, 46% of all new teachers leave the professional within 5 years. Boomer teachers, like me, are finding it nearly intolerable to deal with the onerous working conditions brought on by mandate after mandate undermining what was once an honorable profession.

I’m not at all comforted by the fact that those who work in white-collar positions are feeling the same burnout that most educators increasingly experience. I am alarmed. I hope you are too.

It’s the poverty stupid


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Remember when then-candidate Clinton – Bill, not Hillary – had a sign probably written by James Carville that read “It’s The Economy, Stupid”?

Well, to paraphrase in this age of educators-can-do-nothing-right, I’d like to say that as anyone who scratches below the surface of education knows, it’s the poverty, stupid.

The Alternet recently published an article summarizing some recent research concerning the effects of poverty on students. Read it for yourself here. The conclusion indicates that poor school performance is not about poor teacher performance. It is about hunger and trauma and the social ills that come from worrying whether or not your family will have a place to live when you arrive home or how hungry you will be because there is not enough money to buy food. Want to know more? Get your hands on Ruby Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty.

Educators know that we are not the only factor in a child’s academic “success”, especially when that success is defined by those who would quantify learning by the correct number of answer bubbles on a high-stakes test.

So many factors fall beyond an educator’s control and affect our students: medical care, hunger, lack of housing, parents who must work multiple jobs and long hours, and social factors such as the ones mentioned in articles.

This week my classroom has been battling the flu. Teaching children basic cleanliness routines, to use soap and water in fact, is not that unusual. Telling a parent that a child with a temp over 102 degrees that a trip to the doctor (or more likely the hospital emergency room) was in order – not a dose of Tylenol – is not that unusual.

Poverty and trauma affect children at their core. Kids who are hungry, or worried about where they will get their next meal; kids who don’t have a safe, clean environment in which to stay outside of school – those kids are not focused on whether or not Choice A or Choice C is the best answer to a test item.

Unless we as a society are willing to tackle the ugly and difficult issue of economic equality, I fear the stupidity will continue. It’s not just the teacher, it’s the poverty.

Ten #whatifs for You, Mr. Duncan


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On December 30th, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan posed a question to the Twitter-verse:

What if every district committed both to identifying what made their 5 best schools successful & providing those opps to all their students?

I’m not sure Mr. Duncan was prepared for the response he received from U.S. educators. But then, I’m not sure Mr. Duncan is even aware of what anyone outside of his inner circle might think. So, go ahead, Google #whatif and read some of the responses.

I have my own list of educational #whatifs for Mr. Duncan and it goes something like this:

  • #whatif local and state (and yes, even national) education administrators spent at least 50% of their time each week observing in classrooms. Real observations, get down and dirty and participate observations? Unescorted.
  • #whatif educational practitioners had a voice in decision-making? And that voice was at least listened to? Could teachers be trusted to teach and make decisions about how and when something is taught?
  • #whatif lesson planning was less about district-mandated formats and more about creating safe, thought-provoking conversations, experiences and explorations?
  • #whatif January was not “test-heavy”, but “teach-heavy”?
  • #whatif MCAS English Language Arts testing happened at the actual end of an academic year instead of three-quarters of the way through? And by the way, #whatif less time was spent collecting data and more time spent figuring out what kids need through observation and analysis?
  • #whatif school schedules allowed adequate time for play? One 10 or 15 minute break in a 6+ hour day? No wonder students act out!
  • #whatif parents were allowed to leave work and visit their child in school without fear of reprimand or firing?
  • #whatif the Arts were not just an after-thought or prep. What if we actually practiced Gardener’s 7 intelligences and could honor students whose strengths and talents lie in different areas?
  • #whatif teaching professionals had real collaboration time? Not just an hour or so out of class to give a cursory look at a teaching module.
  • #whatif all my students had the basic necessities – food, clothing, a safe place to be before and after school, a roof over their head?

#whatif we all voiced our opinions on this? What would you add?

This Is Why

I got a new student a week ago. One with many behavioral and social and emotional issues. To be honest, reading his IEP gave me a headache. And a heartache.

He was placed in my classroom because there was a rumor that he had an IEP, and I am one of two inclusion classrooms at our grade level. A few phone calls later, the IEP was faxed over from the sending district along with FBAs, token boards, and lots of indications that a pretty standard classroom might not be the placement outlined on his IEP. So, now we wait. We wait for a placement that will better fit his emotional needs, will keep him safe, and will keep his classmates safe.

But while we wait, we are all trying to honor what his IEP says he needs. Each day is a new adventure for me in reaching into my professional bag of tricks and making this work. Some days have been better than others. His engaging grin sometimes appears to mask some other hurts in his life.

Today, he did something so unexpected, that I know when it’s time for that new placement to happen, it’ll be difficult. For both of us.

After making a holiday ornament as a surprise for someone at home, my new found friend brought his ornament to me. “To Mrs. Bisson, From J.”  I even got a hug!

Even when it’s only been a week, never underestimate the power of connections to even the most disconnected child. It is why I do what I do.

Building Student Independence


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I often hear what I hope are compliments when visitors walk into my classroom, and I am able to attend to this new intermission in our day’s work.

DSC_0162It wasn’t always this way of course. Kids are kids.  Their natural inclination is that the moment teacher is distracted it will seem like a golden opportunity to do “something else”. So, when I started reading and researching the Daily Five some years ago, I was  drawn to the idea that the students can be taught to make their own choices, that the kids can work with greater independence and self-responsibility.

Before the Daily Five entered my teaching life, I felt that I needed to whip the kids into shape. I was in charge. All the kids had to do was sit back and comply – and mostly they did. But they didn’t own anything. I’m sure that for most kids, that was not all that motivating.

From the first day, everything – and I do mean every routine – is presented and practiced using the Daily Five 10 Steps to Independence.  For me, along with the brain-based research, this nugget of pedagogy has been the most exciting part of adopting the Daily Five model in Literacy and in Math workshops. When I say everything, I mean every single routine in our day has been practiced with independence in mind – line ups, transitions, emergency drills, finding a spot to read within the room. It sounds and often is tedious, but the end result has been that the kids know what is expected and rise to meet the expectations for increased responsibility.

Learning to trust 8, 9, and 10 year olds to make good decisions isn’t easy for teachers who are held accountable for everything in our current teaching environment. But building that trusting relationship is essential to the human back-and-forth that breathes life into our relationships with kids. And for me, that is worth every moment it has taken to build student independence.

Time shifts


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So when do you know it is time to quit? I still equivocate about whether this academic year should be my last or not. Right now I’m leaning toward all done.  We shall see what those who keep the records say. Sometimes what you think to be true, just is wishful thinking.

At one point this fall, I discovered that a year of teaching I did in 1974 could be counted as a service year toward pension and retirement.  While the school district in which I worked claims they don’t have records reaching back to my service time (3 schools, 3 towns, 12 grades and $6,600), the State of New Hampshire did. Hopefully that will be enough to prove I did what I’ve claimed to do. And will allow me to purchase back that year of service for more than I was paid during that one contract year.

I’m not quite at that point when you know you’re done. Often I have had to stop myself from thinking too far into the future. It’s an odd feeling. When I put aside a unit of study, I’ve usually noted what I would change for the next year. This year, I make the notes, but with an asterisk… will there be another year to “fix” things?

Maybe this post is a little dark and twisty. There’s a dissonance to this school year because of many things. And jumping into a future of unknowns is among them.


The pressure to begin


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Tuesday was our first day of school with the kids.  Unlike last year, I have not looped with these students. This year, everything starts at the beginning. And that is most definitely an overwhelming prospect when we teachers begin to think about what routines need to be taught. When I prepare for those first days, the burning question is “what do I want this to look like in our classroom at the end of the year?”

So much of this first week is not academic; it’s procedural. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Many education experts advocate for building the classroom culture over the first six weeks of school. However, the pressure to start academics weighs on all of us – administrators and teaching staff. When assessments are scheduled for the first month of school, there’s an implication that the academics have become the focus fairly early in the year.

In the Daily 5, reading stamina – the amount of uninterrupted time students read with focus – is built one minute a day, one day at a time.  Starting at 3 minutes, I need 27 school days (5+ weeks) to build reading stamina to 30 minutes daily (a minimal goal for fourth graders).  And when I take a shortcut to get to this goal? Well, that’s when some less-than-ideal behaviors pop up. Building purposeful habits can’t be rushed.

So if all these culture-building steps create a safe and vibrant classroom environment for kids, why don’t we just do it?

The pressure to start curriculum too soon is strong. Even experienced veterans start to feel the nagging pressure to be at a particular spot in the curriculum by a date carved into a calendar.  Am I trusted to assess my own students’ needs, design and deliver the instruction to take them from their entry point to where they need to be at this grade level?

I’m not sure I am.


Bulletin Boards


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When I first started teaching, I changed bulletin boards monthly – always with, what I perceived was a “cute” theme.  Laminated cutouts, tracings from an overhead projector…. I diligently changed the boards in my classroom to reflect seasons and my own idea of what would make the classroom seem cute or homey.

Oh boy, have things changed! Next Tuesday, when my students enter our shared space for the first time since last June, those cute, decorative, perfect bulletin boards will be missing in action.

Why? Several reasons. Over time, I’ve recognized that the perfect, teacher-created bulletin boards can create a dizzying space. While I don’t want the walls to be institutionally devoid of anything, there is a balance needed. Kids don’t need to have more stuff to distract them. So, mainly anything I put on the walls is necessary as a reminder (example: Daily Five I-Charts) and mostly co-created with my kids.

Now I use one color for a background throughout the classroom. Following Gail Boushey and Joan Moser’s lead (the “2 Sisters“), I use a very light pink which is easy on the eyes and not a distraction from what will end up on those boards. IMG_0008_2

Putting up backgrounds is tedious, measuring, pulling the material taut and stapling it to the ugly grey material of the board takes lots of time. When I used to use construction paper, it would fade very quickly. So for the last several years, I’ve “invested” in plastic table cloths from our local party store. This material doesn’t fade, stays up, and staple/pin holes are pretty minimal. And they are inexpensive. Sweet!

Similarly, I use a border that stays in the background, but ties all of the display areas together cohesively.  The black border that I have chosen is a simple, corrugated, plain border which just happens to be reasonably inexpensive.

As you can see, outside of the bare bones of what will become our CAFE board and an alphabet strip, the boards are bare and ready for the students and me to begin creating essential reminders of what we are learning or student work.

We are (almost) ready for the first day.

Begin at the beginning


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How do you define your classroom space?

IMG_1255I like to call mine collaborative classroom design.  As a follower of Responsive Classroom, I know how important it is for students to feel ownership and have a voice in designing the space we share. When I walk into my classroom space for the first time after a summer break, I ask myself:

  • Is the classroom a reflection of me? Or will the students own the walls with their work on display and the tools or charts they need to use?
  • Is there visually too much? Has there been consideration given to create a visually calming space?
  • Are the supplies students use placed so they will be able to access them independently?
  • Is there a purposeful sense to the flow of traffic in the room?

Just four things to consider and yet, these four are so important! I want the IMG_1249students to feel that they have a shared responsibility for the room – for the upkeep, tidiness, and for the feel of the space. I want my students to know they can access needed supplies without asking me where something is all of the time! When it isn’t working I find my kids may not tell me with words, but with their actions that something is working or not working. Believe me, when it isn’t working, it is crystal clear!

This week, I will begin to reset my classroom after its summer cleaning and spruce-up. As I set up for a new year of learning, I will keep my four considerations in mind and prepare to collaborate with my 24(ish) new best friends.



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