Is Your Vocabulary Instruction Common Core Ready?

As I think about the Super Bowl game between the Patriots and the Seahawks, my thoughts turn to the many obstacles teachers tackle on a daily basis. We have students who come into our lives with learning difficulties and in some cases family issues at home. More requirements have been added to our school day as curriculum demands increase. Although there has been an increase in educational research over the years, many of these curriculum decisions have been made by politicians and policy makers with very little input from the members of the team: the teachers in the trenches.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were created to “set clear college- and career-ready standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts/literacy and mathematics.” (Common Core Standards Initiative) I believe having national standards are a good start. As a National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT), I feel that all students in the United States should meet specific learning outcomes that will be recognized countrywide.

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessment was developed to make sure our students were receiving instruction based on the CCSS.  Publishers, websites, my fellow teachers on Ed-Commerce sites, and I have tried to develop resources to help teachers address the topics outlined in the CCSS. In the midst of the discussions about the best ways to address instruction for the Common Core, I was not surprised to see that vocabulary instruction has become one of the important topics.

There was a time not too long ago where teachers taught vocabulary as part of reading instruction. We would introduce new vocabulary before reading a story or novel. I can remember teaching vocabulary to my students as part of reading. Even after 22 years, I still believe that vocabulary instruction is vital to reading success. In fact, if you use published novel units in your classroom, you know vocabulary exercises are still included within the units. Wordly Wise was probably one of the most important resources in every teachers’ classroom, especially in grades 3 and beyond. I can say that I used more recent editions with my Gifted students in grades 2 and 3. Now with the the introduction of the CCSS, vocabulary instruction is more vital for our students’ success with the Common Core and the PARCC assessment.

According to Marilee Sprenger, “…[Eighty-five percent] of achievement test scores are based on the vocabulary of the standards.” (Sprenger, The Critical Words) This means that part of our Common Core instruction and PARCC preparation should include instruction of key vocabulary terms. If you visit Sprenger’s website, you will read the research behind Common Core vocabulary instruction. The vocabulary listed on the website includes the most important words based on the percentage of time they appear in the CCSS.  What does that mean for our current methods of instruction?

It means we need to go back to “Old School Teaching.” It means we need to revisit our instructional tool kit from the past and teach vocabulary to our students. We need to bring our Bloom’s Taxonomy sheet back into the front of our lesson plan book. Now it will not get lost in the newest educational theory-turned-curriculum tool. Seasoned teachers have seen the high frequency words in the CCSS; they are the terms that appear in Bloom’s Taxonomy.

I suspect many of my seasoned colleagues were able to include vocabulary instruction in their balanced literacy block. Now, you can do so out loud and proudly. In fact, your experience with teaching vocabulary in the past will become a coveted skill. Your colleagues who are new to the team will seek you out to get advice and resources. They are entering a territory that has not been discussed  in teacher education programs in recent years.

During a staff meeting, my principal gave us a list of important verbs from the CCSS. Further research brought me to Sprenger’s website. After looking through her website and another website by Bruce Taylor I realized that I needed to offer my third grade Basic Skills students more instruction in vocabulary. Unfortunately our time is very limited. So, I developed a resource that would integrate  CCSS Critical Verb instruction with literature response. My goal was to introduce the vocabulary terms and then have my students apply those terms when responding to literature. I wanted my students to understand that they may encounter questions that include these terms. It is my hope that instead of teaching to a test, I can give my students the critical thinking skills they need to succeed in the future.  So, to my teammates, this is a game where we can succeed using the “Old School Teaching” that helped us to become teachers and helped many of our students become successful. Vocabulary instruction is back and a necessary for our students’ success in our classrooms.

CCSS Critical Verbs: Teachers Notebook

CCSS Critical Verbs: Teachers Pay Teachers 

First Published February 1, 2015

Coding with Code.org: The Journey Continues at ThoughtworksNYC

Trista Lanette Pollard, NBCT coding at ThoughtworksNYC.

When I sat in my computer class learning Basic at Plainfield High School (NJ) during my junior year (1984-1985), I kept wondering why this was a good idea. I can actually say it was positive peer pressure that “encouraged” me to take this course with two math teachers who wanted no part of “computer science.” Actually they did not say this to the class; their actions and teaching methods throughout the course communicated this message to me. I was one of those students who needed you to explain math more than once and, hopefully, a different way than you did the first time. I also needed to understand why specific math concepts were necessary. Unfortunately, throughout high school I had math teachers who believed in the “one explanation, maybe two” teaching method. Now, imagine those same teachers trying to teach Basic.  Their effort encouraged me to be a frustrated student and made me realize the class was a complete waste of time. I got the message loud and clear that Computer Science was not an area I should consider in college.

Almost twenty and some years later, my love affair with computers, gadgets, and coding has grown and has continued to thrive. I spent a wonderful Saturday (November 8, 2014) with enthusiastic educators from New York State/NYC Metropolitan area  at the Thoughtworks offices on Madison Avenue. Two young ladies, Keledy Kenkel and Alana Aaron lead over 60 teachers as we explored the new curriculum from Code.org. Imagine, an entire computer coding curriculum for students K-5! The goal of Code.org and the Hour of Code is to change how students think about computer coding. This curriculum also encourages critical thinking in a new way. All of us were there to learn how we could be the innovators in presenting this curriculum to our K-5 students.

Last year I participated in the Hour of Code with third and fourth grade students.  This year I hope to introduce aspects of this curriculum to the entire school, especially my first and second graders. In the past, primary grade students have been pushed to the side in favor of providing technical resources to upper elementary students. So my goal, my challenge, is to get my entire school involved during the week of December 8th in the Hour of Code experience.

How will that happen? Well, during our discussion yesterday one point that was repeated quite often was how we need to change the attitudes of educators, administrators, and parents about coding. I teach in an affluent community, and based on my experience this will not be a difficult task. These students have access to the latest technology and adults in their lives who are aware of the importance of technology beyond social media. Even with young girls considered an under-represented group in computer science, I was very pleased to see many girls participate in last year’s Hour of Code at my school. Their excitement was contagious. I hope to encourage more young girls this year to participate. The same cannot be said for school districts that do not have access to new technology or the money to obtain resources to encourage coding.

Many Black, Latino, and Asian students and students in less affluent districts are under-represented in computer science. There are some educators who believe it is the family/home life of under-represented students (ex., Black, Latino, girls, etc.) that does not encourage children to pursue careers in computer science. In fact I had a very enlightening discussion with one educator about this topic yesterday. After her 30+ years of experience, she was very convinced that it was the attitude of the family that was the barrier to children succeeding in certain disciplines. The problem is more complicated.

In addition to access to current technology in the home and in some of our country’s schools, there is also the attitude of educators and administrators about the importance of coding and computer science. My experience in high school was not unique. In fact what is even more troubling to me now is that I was a young Black girl open to the possibilities of what I could do in college. My two White male teachers did not see the need to help me succeed in the course, therefore did not encourage me in my journey of exploring possibilities. I should also add that I attended a predominately Black high school. As an educator I have always tried to be aware of the verbal and nonverbal cues I give to my students about their abilities and their possibilities. We may not realize that sometimes our actions can do more to communicate what our students can achieve than the words we say to them on a daily basis.

So the journey continues for me as I explore coding (still working on my HTML/CSS course on Codeacademy.org) and teaching coding to my elementary students. You can start your journey with this year’s Hour of Code. There are many great online and offline activities that you can do with your students. In fact, you can incorporate these activities into your math and science curriculum. Visit Code.org’s Educator Resources page to learn about the curriculum and free professional development.

Happy coding!

First Published November 9, 2014

How the Sushi Monster App Improves Math Fact Fluency

iPad Addition App using Sushi Monsters

Math Apps that help students practice their basic facts are very important in my classroom. When I find one that becomes a favorite, I have to share. I use this app with my second and third-grade math students. It is a called Sushi Monster (ITunes: Free; Ages 9-11). This app was created by Scholastic.

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This game helps students to improve their fact fluency by writing addition and multiplication number sentences that equal a given target number. Watching the monster gobble up the sushi is equally entertaining. Students begin at the first level with basic addition and multiplication facts, then move on to extended facts using multiples of 10.

The goal is for students to apply the strategies they used when solving basic facts to extended or multidigit addition and multiplication problems. The game is timed to help encourage students to improve their speed and accuracy.

My students love this app! Some have even downloaded this game on their iPad and tell me when they have moved on to higher levels. A great way for our students to practice their addition and multiplication. Just wish they had a Sushi Monster app for subtraction and division.

First Published December 21, 2014

Everything You Need to Know About Phonics Tic Tac Toe

Phonics Tic Tac Toe iPad App by Lakeshore

Another favorite IPad App that I like to use with my first-grade students is Phonics Tic Tac Toe Interactive Game by Lakeshore. The game is simple and makes it easy to integrate iPads into my basic skills curriculum. It is also free on Itunes. 

Phonics Tic Tac Toe is a great game for teaching and reinforcing important phonics skills. During this game, the students explore short and long vowel sounds, syllables, r-controlled vowels, and beginning sounds. The kids enjoy trying to get their “three in a row,” especially when they play against me. I usually have my students play as partners. This is very helpful for my students who are still learning how to read. 

Phonics Tic-Tac-Toe is a great app for learning at home and at school.

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First Published October 26, 2014

Who Else Loves the Addimal Adventure App?

Addimal App

During my years as a classroom teacher, I used every opportunity to integrate technology into my classroom. Before IPads and Google Tablets, there was Appleworks, ClarisWorks, and early versions of Microsoft Office. I was able to create Tile Posters and templates as a way for my students to use computers more often. We were fortunate in my district: we had at least 3 to 4 computers per class in grades 3 to 5. Unfortunately, our first and second grades were not as well equipped at the time. They usually received the “hand-me-down” computers that came off-lease when the upper-grade classes received new computers.

Enter the IPadMy goal was to discover IPad Apps that I could use to enhance my teaching and reinforce important language arts and math skills. I had to accomplish this goal during my 30-minute pull-out sessions. One app that my students loved was Addimal Adventure! The app was created by Teachley.

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What was great about this App is that my students practiced their basic facts as they helped Captain Memo and the Addimals restore the golden city of El Sumado and save the world. The game uses models to help teach addition strategies. Teachers can also sign up for a free Teachley account to monitor their students progress. The App is also free! Definitely download this App for your classroom and for your kids at home!

First Published October 18, 2014

Saving Pumpkins and Turkeys: Holiday Persuasive Writing

Ugly Pumpkin, Chalkspot.com

I love the fall holidays, especially Halloween and Thanksgiving. That is the time of year that I am the most creative! As we go through October and November, it becomes difficult to keep my students engaged and excited about learning. That is why I designed two writing activities for my classroom. The first one is Spyderley’s Oogly Pumpkin Patch  Pumpkins so ugly, you need an extra ‘o’ to describe them!


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