Prior Vocabulary Knowledge: What is a Tam Anyway?!

dogChalk this up as another time my own children push me to reflect on teaching and learning. This weekend my daughter, who is in Kindergarten, and I were playing around with words and their sounds. She was having a great time exaggerating the sounds in words… in fact she thought it was hysterical. So hysterical that she rolled off the couch at one point. I loved how she was having so much fun with it all.

So, my teacher hat came out and I thought it was a great opportunity to bring out all my phonemic awareness puzzles and games. We began with a puzzle where you are required to match pictures of words that have the same beginning sounds and fit them together. It was a slow start, as there were many pieces to look through. I helped her out by saying one of the words and having her look for the corresponding picture. We started with rose, she had to find rake.  I could tell she was struggling, so we tried balloon and she found ball right away. This continued and definitely wasn’t as fun as what we were doing before!  I found she struggled with many of them, it actually shocked me how much help she needed.

After a bit, I realized, she was not having difficulties with the beginning sounds of words. She actually didn’t know what many of the pictures were. Now we are a family that sailboatreads a lot, we have hundreds of children’s books all over our house. We take our kids on excursions to expose them to many different environments, people and history. We have many discussions about what is happening in the world and every time our kids ask us questions we try to honour them all. We are doing the things that teachers tell parents to do all the time. We are exposing our children to activities that increase their vocabulary as well has giving them a bank of prior knowledge that they can refer to when they are learning.

But, my kid couldn’t look at a picture of a rake, a tiger, a lion, a zebra, (she confused these animals) nuts, map, can, bug and identify what it was. With some, after I told her she would say, “Oh yeah!” but she didn’t even know what a rake was at all.

This got me thinking, how many activities and assessments are we asking our students to do and they have no idea what the words are? How many students freeze up because oberetf these words. There are so many games and worksheets (sigh) that rely on students having a certain vocabulary bank… I’ve seen some that use the words tam and mast, what?!! When was the last time you heard the word tam or mast?

Words for learning need to be relevant to the students we are teaching. While exposing them to new vocabulary to grow their vocabulary bank, we also need to get to know our students and allow them to show us what they know. We also need to be very careful how we use assessments from generic programs and workbooks that assume that all students know the words they are asking them to work with.

Note: Before I get comments about this, I would like to clarify that I know the rabbit above is wearing a hat that is more like a beret than a tam. I couldn’t find a TAM on Pixabay!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

littleBits and the BitOlympics at Vancouver MakerLabs

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What a privilege it was for Margaret Westaway and I to be able to present about our makerspace journey at this year’s ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) conference. I have many blog posts brewing about ISTE 2015, but in this post I am going to focus on our unexpected encounter with the wonderful folks from littleBits and the Vancouver MakerLabs.

Our students love littleBits, so we had to discuss the role littleBits played in our makerspaces through our ISTE sessions. Problem… we wanted to bring our kits with us, but didn’t have the room to pack them in our limited luggage (we were, after all going to make a trip to New York afterwards for some shopping!). So, Margaret decided to take a chance and fire off an email to the “people” at littleBits to ask them if we could borrow a kit. We were shocked that we actually received a response back! The littleBits people gave us a kit and it was waiting for us at our hotel when we arrived. What a great company!

LittleBits had a booth at ISTE, so we decided to visit to show our gratitude. We had so much fun! The representatives were all gracious, helpful, inspiring and as excitable as Margaret and I are! We had great conversations with everyone. Through one of these conversations, we found out that the MakerLabs in Vancouver was hosting a littleBits Olympics event.

After returning from our trip to Philadelphia and New York, on the first day that I felt recovered from my conference/vacation whirlwind, I dragged the family to the BitOlympics not knowing what to expect. I am so glad that we went! MakerLabs is a beautiful 26,000 sf makerspace that I have wanted to visit for some time and this event was a perfect excuse to check it out.

When we arrived, a number of people were engrossed in using littleBits to make Olympic themed creations. I was a little nervous as there weren’t many children around, but that went away when my 7 yr. old son excitedly expressed that he wanted to build a mini soccer goal net that lit up and buzzed every time a goal was scored.

Now I have to admit that I have seen my children and many of my students use littleBits to create awesome inventions. I have also seen many cool creations posted by littleBits. But, I have never really made a project on my own, let alone with my son. So, I let go and let my son lead the project.

Attempt 1: Motion Trigger

motion triggerhttp://littlebits.cc/bits/motion-trigger

For our first attempt, we tried using a motion trigger. If the ball rolls into the net, the motion trigger would trigger the lights and buzzer. After listening to the buzzer go off about a hundred times, we realized the sensor was too sensitive, it was reacting to every little motion. This resulted in the buzzer continually buzzing deep into my brain. I could sense myself getting frustrated. I wanted to abandon the idea, get some coffee and try something else, “Hey Zain, how about we do a diving board instead?”, but soccer means a lot to Zain. He wanted to continue.

Attempt 2: Roller Switch

http://littlebits.cc/bits/roller-switch

http://littlebits.cc/bits/roller-switch

Next, Zain examined the choices of bits and decided to try the roller switch. The theory was, if the ball hits the roller switch, it would trigger the buzzer for the lights to go off. At this point I begged him to not use the buzzer anymore. Mama had a headache. After a lot of tape being used to keep the switch in place we realized that the ball had to hit the switch quite hard for it to activate, plus our accuracy wasn’t that great.

Okay, now by this point I really wanted to move on. I even went and collected materials for a diving board. “Zain, it would be so cool if we made a diving board, see we can even use the roller switch for it.”

I saw the disappointed look on Zain’s face. He then said, “Mama, you really want to do the diving board, so do it.” I’m going to do my own thing. My seven year old wanted nothing to do with his mama! Ack! No, this was not supposed to happen, I wanted to create something together! So, I pulled back again and watched as my determined son went back to the bits library and pondered what his next step would be.

Attempt 3: Sound Trigger?

soundtrigger

http://littlebits.cc/bits/sound-trigger

Zain brought back a sound trigger bit and said, “I think this is really going to work, mama come on we can do it!”. My inside voice said, “What the heck is a sound trigger going to do? A diving board would be so much easier!” I watched him as he skillfully attached all the pieces together. After decreasing its sensitivity, the sound trigger was just the thing our soccer net needed! The ball rolled into the net and the noise that was created through the ball hitting the bit triggered the lights to go off! Success! We cheered and high fived as though we scored a goal at the FIFA world cup!

Zain Soccer Game

Zain then surprised me and marched up to Nick Weinberg, who was the littleBits rep helping with the event, and asked him if he wanted to see how he finally got it to work. Nick had stopped by a number of times during our process earlier and Zain was excited to show him the successful version. Nick ended up documenting Zain’s project and put it up on the littleBits site (you can see it here). My heart swelled while I watched from a distance my confident my little boy explaining our project and the pieces that were used to make it.

This event proved to me once again how kids will persevere if they are given the freedom to explore their own passions, with few limitations, and when given support if needed. It also shows me how easily us adults give up. Just the slightest glimmer into failure I wanted to abandon his idea. Yet at 7 years old he was able to push through numerous setbacks and eventually succeed. Even more powerful to me was that he was able to stand up to me and not allow me to change the path. He pushed me to keep going. As a mama, isn’t that what I am supposed to do for him?

Thank you littleBits and MakerLabs for providing us with an opportunity to play. More importantly thank you for the message that tech like littleBits in schools and home isn’t essential because it wows and “engages” students. It’s value is not in the products that it enables users to create, it’s value is in the process. Our end product was pretty basic and looked very messy, but it was made amazing because of the journey that Zain and I went through to complete it. Our hacked together goal net, assembled with tape, cardboard and card stock that lights up every time a goal is scored will hold a precious place in our memories. Here is another video of Zain explaining the project, showing how it worked and what we used to make it.

Yes, I am a Minecrafter: ISTE 2014 Made Me Do It


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Hi my name is Iram, I am 39 years old and I might have a little problem called Minecraft.

I blame Marianne Malmstrom’s (@knowclue) ISTE 2014 Session, Minecraft: Learning Blocks for pushing me over the edge.

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Before this session I had no desire to actually play Minecraft. No matter how much my son begged me to, I just couldn’t do it. As I was thrown into the amazing ISTE 2014 experience, I thought I’d dabble in it and learn to play so I can connect with my students and my son. In no way did I see myself ever SERIOUSLY playing let alone ENJOYING it, but who wouldn’t want to try to create an amusement park with farm animal roller coasters, right?!!!

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You know you are fully immersed in the game when you are on a family road trip and you are actually having an animated conversation with your 6 yr. old fellow Minecrafter about all the “biomes” you are driving through, the different types of trees you are whizzing by, what kind of rock the mountains are made of, where we could possibly find coal and diamonds and the government’s role in primary resource management. Also, I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this, but I knew this game playing was getting out of hand when I shut my eyes to go to sleep and all I could see was rock as I mined myself to sleep.

I’m currently on a husband sentenced Minecraft “break” (ahem, rehab)… I should be okay. As anything for adults and kids, it’s all about moderation folks!

Malmstrom hit me hard when she stated,

Minecraft isn’t the ultimate TEACHING tool, it’s the ultimate LEARNING tool.

Sometimes educators unintentionally can ruin a good thing by focussing on what they can make students do. As with any tech we need to be careful to remember that tech enhances learning by acting as yet another tool. It doesn’t magically teach curriculum and it doesn’t magically engage students. It needs to be thoughtfully integrated, but not necessarily integrated. It all depends on your students and their needs and learning styles.

In a recent blog post My Beef With the Gamification of Education, Bill Ferriter writes:

As most of you know, I’ve been arguing that technology DOESN’T motivate kids and that our goal SHOULDN’T be to engage learners for a long time… to suggest that students will only willingly embrace those skills when they are working through “exciting worlds full of monsters and magic juice” is a cop out for teachers and an insult to kids. Imagine how much more meaningful learning could be if kids were failing and planning and strategizing and sharing and collaborating with one another while trying to address a REAL problem facing REAL people in the REAL world?

As Howie Diblasi stated at another ISTE 2014 session I attended,

Gaming and simulations work well where kids can try new things. It’s a safe place to fail and persevere.

I believe that this is where Minecraft can play a role in schools. It provides a safe, non-judgemental outlet for students to learn and practice skills. From this point we can then step forward to link the skills learned from games to real life… to things that are actually going on in this world and to help students to step up and confidently play their part in changing the world.

I was inspired by Malmstrom to play Minecraft because I realized how important it is for everyone involved (teachers, parents and students) to have time to “play” before making judgements. It has been wonderful for my son and I to play together in a simulated world. We worked together to mine for resources to craft tools to survive. The 21st century skills of communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creating were working over time. We got to a point in our game playing to be able to have the rich, real conversations we had on our road trip.

I have learned that Minecraft has connected my own child to real life issues in this world and I plan to help him explore them beyond Minecraft. I also have learned that it has allowed us to connect more and become closer. It has been a winner in my life and I am excited to see what it will do for the students that I work with. Thank you Marianne Malmstrom and Howie DiBlassi for pushing me into seeing that there is more to gaming than meets the eye.

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Kindergarten Orientation: Not Just Another School Event

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Our school had it’s Welcome to Kindergarten afternoon today. I love it when new parents and students arrive through our doors at any time of the year, but the feeling I get from over 30 parents and their children arriving at school at once is even more exhilarating!

I have taught Kindergarten at many schools and the orientation format changes from school to school. Some schools have guests move through stations while they learn about important characteristics of the school and Kindergarten program. Some schools provide children a chance to spend time with the Kindergarten teachers while parents are given an overview of the school and the Kindergarten program lecture style. Some schools only invite parents.

Whatever format your school chooses to do, there are some important things that schools need to remember about this annual event. I get it, it’s a really busy time of year and things are crazy, but we can not risk treating this event as yet another obligation at this time of year to get through. I’d say it’s one of the most important events of the school year.

1) This is your chance to shine, to celebrate why your school is so great! With that you need to put your best foot forward. These parents are entrusting their most valuable possession to you. If you are having a bad day (who hasn’t had a bad day?!), put whatever is bothering you aside for a few hours.

2) Your role is to be welcoming. Be open to answering questions, and be patient with new parents who, most of the time, only have their own schooling experience to reference. Some parents and children may be overwhelmed with this new experience.

3) Use this opportunity to get to know kids and their parents. Covertly make note of “issues” children are displaying; however choose another, more private time to ask parents for more details.

4) Keep the teacher talk to a minimum. Share stories of your own kids and/or students. The best response I have received is sharing that I taught Kindergarten for over 10 years and when my own son entered Kindergarten I was a wreck! I needed to know every detail. If I didn’t have to be at work, I would be one of those moms hovering and peeking through the windows.

5) Don’t let them leave empty handed. Give them things to work on over the summer like a pair of scissors, play dough, a list of math and literacy games, etc.. Oh and, of course, you have to give them a tasty snack (healthy choices optional!)!

Kindergarten orientation is such an important event on so many levels, don’t let it go by without some thoughtful planning and discussion.

Yes, Genius Hour in Kindergarten!

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I have been reading a lot about Genius Hour and have been inspired by my own district’s Gallit Zvi and her journey with integrating it in her classroom. The teacher of our Grade Five buddy class went to a workshop that Gallit ironically spoke at and decided to integrate it into her class.  Wow, am I ever lucky that our classes are buddies!  Her Grade Fives have been doing amazing work during their genius hour time.

So, as January came to a close and we noticed that the kindies in my class were becoming more independent and fully capable of using iPads, we set them to work with their buddies in our first Kindergarten Genius Hour project. Because this was our first time, we had to put some parameters around it. I know, I know, less direction the better when it comes to Genius Hour… but you have to give us some credit for loosening most of the strings!

Our kindies thought of something that they would like to learn about and brainstormed some questions about the topic. The topics and questions that my kindies, yes FIVE year olds, were thinking of were beyond my imagination. They were vibrating with excitement at the possiblity of actually controlling what they were going to learn about. Some of the topics that were decided on were cowboys, cars, dresses, birds, and owls.

Then the magic happened.  The Grade Fives paired up with their Kindergarten buddies and off they went.  Engagement, conversation, collaboration, and critical thinking just happened… and we, the teachers, were minimally involved.  After meeting every Friday morning for a few weeks, the kids were ready to present their finding in a Keynote presentation.  I was so proud!  Our kindies confidently presented with their big buddies beside them helping them along the way.

IMG_0500I am excited to further explore Genius Hour more in our class, with the assistance of our big buddies. We will now be changing the name of “big buddies time” to “Genius Hour”! I also can’t wait to show the parents how much we are learning, once agian, from playing around in Kindergarten!

If you would like more information on Genius Hour, Gallit Zvi has some excellent posts on her blog here: Integrating Technology: My Journey

Below is a sample of some slides from a priceless presentation on Ninja Turtles.

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Great Literacy and Numeracy Apps for Early Learners

As a part of our school’s tech team I am often asked questions that begin with, “Do you know any good apps that…?” So here are some early learning apps that I use in my class regularly for literacy and numeracy centres. Now, I don’t really like recommending apps because I know that apps can be learner and teacher specific.  What works for me and the learners in my class may not work for you and your learners.  Most of these do not cost that much (with the exception of the first one that I talk about, but it is so great that I can’t not talk about it!). So, play around and keep an open mind!

literacy appsSmarty Pants School allows you to assess students’ reading abilities then opens up fun activities for them to do related on areas that they need extra practice in. This app focusses on letter recognition, letter sounds, recognizing sight words, and spelling sight words.  You can enter many students in the app and it saves each of their progress.  Levels are not opened up until students master the level before it.

Endless ABC is a charming app that was created by the creative team at Callaway Digital Arts. It introduces children to the meaning and spelling of fun words like bellow and flop.  As you drag letters into their appropriate spaces, the letters come alive and repeatedly speak their sound.

Syllable Awareness Animals is a simple app that flashes animals and asks you to tap out how many syllables the animal name has.

Word Wall HD encourages word recognition and word building through simple games that highlight word families. This app allows you to set up the games for different reading levels.

numeracy appsBugs and Buttons is another app that covers many areas and can be suited to varying levels of abilities. Visually stunning images encourage users to practice skills involving sorting, patterning, number recognition, subitizing, problem solving, and basic ipad gestures.

Friends of Ten: There aren’t many apps out there that use ten frames at an early learner level.  I found this app does a good job of providing practice using ten frames for counting objects to ten, subitizing, counting on from a higher number, partitioning of objects to make 10 and recognizing more and less.

Adding Apples is a motivating app that provides practice solving addition questions from 1+1  to 9+9 and counting from 1 to 18 both visually and verbally. Students can earn trophies for the number of equations they answer correctly.

Animals Counting Writing Game is a very simple app that students can use to practice writing numbers, counting, and recognizing number words.  There are many apps that do this, but I liked that this one had the number word associated with the number.

Happy Mother’s Day!

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Mother’s Day is just around the corner! Are the gifts that my students are making going to wow, the moms? Well, the marigolds we planted are mostly dead (I should have just done the tried and true hearty bean plant instead). We also painted hand print flowers (yawn)… but, here’s the clincher, I’ve got one thing that will make moms cry!

Every year, we write a letter to our moms, walk to the mailbox and mail them. What a surprise it is to get a letter from your own 6 yr. old child! One year we were on a field trip at the beach, minding our own business when all of a sudden there was a lady running towards us crying. I soon realized that she was a mom of one of my boys. She ran to us with tears streaming down her face, picked up her son and told him that she got his letter in the mail. She could not stop hugging and kissing him. She got his letter 30 minutes before, jumped in her car right away and drove all the way to the beach to let her son know that she got his letter in the mail and that it was the best thing ever. She then went off to buy him some well deserved ice cream.

This boy had FAS, and had struggled in his short school career. You can imagine how much guilt this mother had as a result of the roulette she played while she was pregnant. We even caught her helping her child cheat on a spelling test once by writing words on a hidden cheat sheet (note: spelling tests, I don’t give ’em anymore!). This letter showed his mom for the first time that he was actually learning how to write. Mom told me later that after reading his letter, she knew she could relax. With all the support he was getting and all the love he received from the staff at our school, he was going to be okay.

I don’t know how any other mother has reacted to receiving their Mother’s Day letter in the mail, but this one reaction has encouraged me to keep doing it year after year. These kids are learning how to write! What an amazing process! I also love doing it because you get so much insight into your students’ relationships with their mothers and what they love about them.

Here’s a printable of the letter that I sent out this year. Depending on the grade level, you can add more questions or take some off. I also get them to draw and colour a picture of them and their mom on the back and decorate the envelope we send them in.

mothers day pdf printable

One more thing, I know many of you are planning Mother’s Day teas. I myself have participated in many over the years. This year, though, I have a son in preschool… my son’s Mother’s Day tea was this morning, and because I work at school I could not go. My son was the only one whose mother was not there. My husband went in my place, but it was not the same. I’m hoping that my four year old just rolled with it, as most four year olds usually do, but I can’t help feeling guilty and sad that I wasn’t there with him. I missed a special event with my son. It’s hard enough being a working parent; missing this was heartbreaking. Now, I know I’m going to be missing a lot more throughout the years, but it upsets me that special school events more and more these days are not being held outside of school time. Parent teacher interviews, Christmas concerts, Mother’s Day teas… Many of us got into this job knowing that it was not a regular day job. We work before and after hours prepping, meeting with parents, meeting with colleagues, and planning and attending events. I’m afraid of the new “normal” that is sweeping across schools. What kind of a community are we creating when working parents have less and less opportunities to connect with schools through these events? Don’t we want parents to be “involved”? These events are a way to get parents in schools plain and simple.

So, I will not be having a Mother’s Day tea this year and I will never, ever have one during school time. Now, someone get me some tissues!

Happy teaching!
Iram

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