Friday, September 26, 2008

Partnering with Parents

Parents: evil nemesis or total ally?
The answer can help change (or hinder) your whole school year.
How to get them involved? Some of the things I have used (and will continue to use):
-send home a parent survey asking for insight into their child

-call them or email them every so often with a "good news tidbit" about their child

-invite them in to the classroom; even if they never come, knowing my door is open to them seems to make parents more comfortable with me as a teacher

-involve them in the homework
One example of this that worked really well last year was to send home four questions about courage. The students wrote their answers, the parents wrote theirs, and then they discussed. The students wrote a synopsis of the conversation, the parents signed it. I received so many thank you notes I was amazed! (Got this idea from Janet Allen's Plugged into Reading series)

-invite them in to read with the class
I did this last year, and over 20 parent showed up for a silent reading day!

Parents are the best allies we have. Reaching out to them has made a huge difference in my classroom.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

I've Got a Question for You

Questions, questions, questions. I apologize up front for the length of this post, but I'm trying to write my way through an issue I'm having in class.

I am trying to teach my ninth grade AVID students how to use questioning in tutorial sessions. Tutorial sessions are a cornerstone of the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program. Essentially, tutorials are two days a week. Students form a question the night before tutorial--preferably a higher level question. When students come into class on tutorial day, I group them by subject area. They meet in groups of 7 or less with a service learning student-tutor. Here's a quick sequence of the "ideal" session:

  1. The tutor gets everyone settled in a circle; tells students to take out their textbooks or notes that they brought to tutorial.
  2. The tutor goes around the circle and asks each students reads/shares their question.
  3. The tutor chooses one student to begin.
  4. The student (now student presenter) begins by asking the tutorial group his or her question.
  5. The group members then try to help the student answer their questions by guiding them to the answer with questions.
  6. Everyone gets to be the student presenter and every group member focuses on one presenter at a time, offering support through the questions they ask.
  7. To wrap up we reflect. The last 8 minutes or so of class are spent reflecting on the tutorial (plus, minus, interesting or another reflection strategy).
For example:

While writing the equation on a small whiteboard, the first student might say, "My question is how do you use the distributive property to solve/simplify linear equations like this one: 3 [7-5(x-y)]?"

A peer in the group could respond by asking, "What does "Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally" mean?

The presenter might answer, "parenthesis, exponents, multiplication, addition and subtraction."

The same peer or another from the group could then ask, "What happens when you subtract 5 from 7?"

The presenter would do that step on the whiteboard, getting 3[2(x-y)].

Another peer might ask, "can you distribute the 2 to the x and y, multiplying 2 times x and 2 times y to clear that parenthesis?"

The presenter would try that step on the whiteboard, getting 3(2x-2y).

The peer responds, "What happens if you distribute the 3 by multiply 3 times 2x and 3 times 2y?"

The presenter completes the step, getting 6x-6y.

A peer (or the tutor at this point) says, "is that as far as you can go or can you simplify the equation even more."

It's simplified, so the student presenter has been led to their answer. Here's just the first minute of how it went in class the other day...

Math is easy, or easier to conceptualize. Well, I see how to use the questioning process in math. Equations are neat, portable and clean. AP Human Geography is not--especially not when students are not reading their textbook and when they do not understand what they are supposed to be learning. The tutors and I lapse into telling when students questions break down or when the other students in the group disengage. The students can question me to no end when we are doing a lateral thinking puzzle, or when we are talking about a topic that engages them, but creating questions about their content classes that will lead them to learning is much more difficult.

Part of me thinks that the students don't know enough, much less the answer to the original question, to lead their peer in the right direction. Perhaps questioning--even just the idea of being curious to develop a deep understanding of a subject is abjectly foreign to freshmen. I'm not sure, but I sure need help teaching them how to speak only questions during tutorials. Any ideas?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Creating Classroom Community Through Writing

Part of creating classroom community in the beginning of the year is to learn to more about your students, building the kind of relationships that won’t get you in trouble. My favorite lesson is called “Poem for Two Voices” which I adapted from the AVID English language arts training in Atlanta in the summer of 2004. This lesson uses Paul Fleischman’s poem “Booklice” from his collection called Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices.
Students partner up and use a Venn diagram or a Double Bubble map (Thinking Maps) to learn about each other’s similarities and differences and their graphic organizer also serves as their prewriting for their piece. After they have gathered information about each other, they then divide their paper up into 3 columns labeled Me, Us and You. I avoid the words “Hotdog style” when talking to students about folding their paper. (I think that dumbing our teacher language down deserves another blog.) Students then write 3-5 stanzas that reveal their similarities and differences. I challenge them to rhyme within the body of their stanzas although they don’t have too.
What do I do while they are writing? I am gathering my data from them for my “Poem of Many Voices.” While they are working together as partners, I move from group to group and ask each student to come up with a similarity and difference that we share.
This lesson builds several skills. It fully integrates reading and writing. It incorporates the use of comparison and contrast skills, one of Marzano’s high yield strategies. I extend the lesson by teaching signal words related to comparison and contrast. I also have the students write a paragraph before writing the poem. Students build listening and speaking skills while doing this. I would love to read your students’ work or hear about how this lesson worked for you.

Gotta Go

Have you ever attended a conference, virtually? Progressive and innovative, the K-12 Online Conference invites us to participate. More than 40 sessions will be posted to the conference blog, I'm looking forward to "hearing" the keynote speakers I follow in Twitter like Chris Lehmann, Vicki Davis, Alice Barr, Bob Sprankle and more.
Put it on your calendar and set a reminder. I'll "see" you there!

Lee Ann

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


How do you teach students something on the computer? I usually demonstrate the process and think aloud for students as I show them what to do. This year, the team on which I'm working has set a goal for teachers to keep assignment calendars on Google. Most of us have set up Google Calendars and since I am the AVID Research teacher, responsible for supporting students in all of their classes, it was up to me to teach students how to access, sign up for and print their Google Assignment calendars. Is one lesson ever enough? Not in my world, so I make handouts (Accessing Google) and screen casts. A screen cast is like a digital movie, but instead of showing me, it captures my voice/explanation and what is happening on my computer screen. My favorite screen caster maker is Screencast-O-Matic. There is just something in the "o-matic" that makes the whole process sound easy to me. Here's the lesson I made and posted to our virtual classroom. It's not perfect, but I'm hoping it's an explanation that makes sense. What do you think?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Coming Together

The beginning of the year is coming together time in my classroom. We do team building activities, complete surveys, write narratives and begin to gel as a team. I enjoy this "getting to know you" time with students. The best website I've found for team building activities is From ice breakers to ropes course activities, you can probably find it there. I keep a binder of the directions and support materials for each of the team building activities. As I'm organizing it (or reorganizing it from the year before) each year I plan my sequence of activities. How do you build comfort and trust in student teams? I always wonder at teachers' sequences for team building.

Our beginning sequence takes at least two weeks because in between team building, writing and initial assessments, I have to take care of house business like schedules, the code of conduct and the like. Nonetheless, here's my team building sequence from the first two weeks:
  1. Name Game
  2. 2 Truths & a Lie
  3. Sentence Completetions (I respond/write back that night)
  4. Zoom
  5. Group Juggle
  6. Dear Mrs. S Letter
  7. Media Survey (just one page, we'll continue as the year moves on)
  8. Hula Hoop Pass
  9. Roles & Goals (goal setting)
  10. Steps to Success
I try to sandwich each activity with reading and writing. For instand "True Height" from Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul is paired with the Hula Hoop Pass (pictured above). After the activiy we read it and discuss how the athlete did not underestimate himself; then we connect our experience to our own goal setting.One of my goals for this year is sustained parent communication and involvement. I'd love to hear about one of your goals or even a comment about how you build your classroom team.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Building Teams with Color Jacuzzi

Welcome back to school everyone! I hope you all have great years!

I'm a huge fan of teambuilding at the beginning of the year, for a number of reasons. Here is one of the activities I love. Unfortunately, I don't know who to attribute its creation to, but please know I didn't invent it, I just adapted it to suit my classroom needs.

Color jacuzzi

1. Have a bag full of colored paper strips, one for each student in the class. I use green, blue, red, purple, and orange.
2. Students draw a color strip out of the bag; this is their group and tells them which prompt to respond to. (Prompts listed below.)
3. Students respond individually in writing to their prompts, then share their responses with their other group members.
4. Once all members of their group have shared, the group writes a "We Are" poem that combines information from each of their responses. You can modify an "I Am" poem template, or leave it more open-ended for the students.
5. After "We Are" poems are completed, groups share them with the whole class.

green: If you had unlimited money, what would you buy yourself, and what would you do to benefit at least one other person?
blue: Water and sky. Which is your favorite, and why?
red: Write about a time you were so angry you saw red. Or, if that has never happened, write about things that COULD make you that angry.
purple: You are the ruler of your country. What law would you pass to make yourself happy, and what laws would you pass to help the citizens of your country?
orange: What motivates you? Why?

You can modify the prompts to fit your curriculum. Give a shout if you'd like some ideas.

They're reading, they're writing, they're talking, they're's a great day! (Or, when you have 47 minute periods, a great two days!)
Happy teaching!

Launch Post: About Us

Labor Day seems like the perfect day to launch our teaching blog!

Labor Day is the last holiday before the school year truly kicks in, even for us teachers who start school earlier. Today we’re celebrating the last of summer and looking forward to a rich and rewarding school year by launching Portable Teacher. We are a group of full-time teachers with more than 40 years of teaching experience between us. We juggle district and state mandates with what we know to be best practice. We come from different parts of the country but come together over the idea that all good teachers want students to become life-long learners and readers who will become critically literate, participatory citizens in our democracy.

Our schools and students are different, but the issues we face as classroom teachers are the same. We wanted a place to write about our teaching and to share our ideas informally. Portable Teacher will be that place. A place to jot down what worked for us and a place to write about what didn’t work. We hope it will become a place where conversations that matter start and carry us through the school year. We hope you will take some of the ideas with you into your own classrooms, thus the portable part of our moniker, and then return to comment on how they worked. Portable teachers share portable ideas and may even teach, as two of us do, in portable classrooms. Welcome to Portable Teacher.

Want to know more about who are we? Here’s a brief introduction:

Lee Corey

Lee grew up in Miami, FL where she got a spectacular education in the Miami Dade County Public Schools. In addition to participation in clubs, sports teams, honors and Advanced Placement classes, she had the good fortune to do an internship at the Dade County State Attorney’s office when Janet Reno was there. She also spent a grading period going to school in Israel with the Alexander Muss High School in Israel. These amazing experiences helped shape her view of education and the world, and ultimately led to her decision to stay in education.

Lee is in her fourteenth year in the classroom. She began teaching in 1995 in a middle school which was piloting the Orange County Literacy Project. After four years in Orange County she went to teach overseas in Turkey. While living overseas, she was able to travel quite a bit throughout Europe and Asia, including field trips with theater students to Zurich and Moscow. She taught in Turkey for four years and Darlington, South Carolina for two before returning to Orlando. She has taught language arts in all grades 6 through 12. She is currently in her fourth year at Cypress Creek High School in Orlando, Fl.
Lee has National Board Certification and has served as a Teacher Leader and Department Chair. It is her privilege and pleasure to spend her days trying to connect with teens in order to help them understand the value of education and the joy in reading and writing.

Maurice Draggon

In the book “The World is Flat” by Thomas L. Friedman, there is a section where a parent asks what courses their child should take to become ready for the rapidly changing world they will enter. Friedman recommends finding the best teacher in the school and taking their course, no matter what they teach. The best teachers inspire students to become lifelong learners. Maurice Draggon placed the goal of inspiration into heart of his teaching. Specializing in instructional technology and web 2.0 resources, Maurice Draggon seeks every day to not only teach “lessons” but life long skills that can be applied whether one grows up to be a banker or a bio-chemist. Maurice sums up his teaching and life philosophy in two words: Think Beyond.

Christine Landaker

Christine Landaker teaches 8th grade English in Massachusetts. But she learned to be a teacher in Orange County, Florida with Lee Ann, Lee, and Beth. She has been teaching since 1993, and knew from the moment she set foot in a classroom as the teacher, this was what she was meant to be doing. Originally, Christine taught social studies/history, and she is a Nationally Board Certified Teacher in that area. This year, she is going to work on her certification in English. Keep your fingers crossed for her!

Christine counts herself unbelievably fortunate to have worked with Dr. Janet Allen in her literacy institutes, and she and Dr. Allen co-wrote the book Reading History: A Practical Guide to Improving Literacy.
When she’s not teaching, Christine can be found with her nose buried in a book, her hands digging in the dirt of her garden, or wielding her chef’s knife in the kitchen. She’d love to hear from you with teaching, gardening, and cooking tips and is always looking for another great book.

Beth Scanlon

Beth Scanlon has taught English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), reading, and English for the past fifteen years in Florida. She currently teaches English I to ninth grade ESOL students in the AVID program. She also teaches three service learning classes as part of The Center, Cypress Creek High School’s reading, writing, and tutoring center and works part of the day as the curriculum resource teacher.

She attended the University of Florida and earned her bachelor’s degree in English and her master’s degree in English Education from the PROTEACH program. In 2005 she completed her doctorate at the University of Central Florida. She used autoethnography as an approach to study her classroom. She is certified in English and has earned her ESOL and reading endorsement. In 2000 she earned National Board certification in Adolescence and Young Adult English Language Arts.

She is also a teacher consultant for the National Writing Project at the University of Central Florida. She recently coordinated NWP-UCF’s Volusia County Open Program for elementary school teachers. She came to teaching through her love of coaching although the only coaching she does these days is in the classroom for both teachers and students.

Lee Ann Spillane

Lee Ann has been teaching since 1972 when Mrs. Madigan, her fist grade teacher, gave her the responsibility leading one of the reading groups. She was that kind of kid. The kid that needed to be given responsibilities in the room lest she wreck havoc. She also liked being the leader. She’s been a leader in her own classroom since 1989. After an internship teaching senior International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement and Gifted classes, she felt the need to go back to school. While in graduate school, she taught in the first year writing program at Florida State University. Immersed in English literature (Milton and the Renaissance) and in teaching writing, she decided after being in college for more than 8 years to get some real world experience and returned to Orlando, FL to teach. She returned to graduate school as a beginning teacher and it was at the University of Central Florida where she met and began working for her mentor, Dr. Janet Allen.

As a teacher she is known for her work with high school readers and writers. Language Arts and Nationally Board Certified, she has taught ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth grade English of all levels. If you’d like to learn more about Lee Ann, visit her website at or follow her on twitter (spillarke).