Well, spring has finally sprung! Today in the South it was 80+ degrees. Flowers are blooming, and the grass and trees show renewed life. For teachers, springtime begins to signal that we're at last moving into the "home stretch." We're down to the final two months--more or less--of school. In some ways that seems such welcomed news! In other ways, however, pressures begin to mount. In some districts, it is testing time, which always sends cold chills down our spines. Besides the testing pressures, we also have self-imposed pressures. We have just two months to complete the task that, in the beginning of the year, seemed so very far away. Have we done all that's in our power to help our children--each and every one--grow to their potential? Have we been careful to listen to our children and watch them to know what they need? Have we been fair and thoughtful in the decisions we've made? So many questions! So little time now to organize ourselves for the final countdown.
This week, let's look at our 4-Blocks classroom to see where we are at this point in time. Let's consider what we might still need to accomplish in our blocks and what we might to remind ourselves about towards accomplishing our goals. Let's take each block, one by one--
Guided Reading Block
Know that there is flexibility. At this point in the year, some teachers begin to struggle to keep the balance of grade-level and easier pieces of reading over the course of the week. Text selections have become longer and are difficult to cover within the 3 day grade-level and 2-days easier guideline. Teachers should be reminded that the 3/2 plan is just a guideline and that there is flexibility. As long as the offerings for students alternate between grade-level and easier, the intent will be met. The text will still be manageable for most, if not all, students in the class with the appropriate support.
Experience the variety available in the model. If you've tended to get into a rut with the format for reading selections, try to be a bit more adventurous, and add some variety to the menu. Many teachers hesitate to try the different formats, and then regret not doing so at the end of the year. So, give playschool groups, Book Clubs, partners, different whole group methods (choral, shared, echo) a try and see if the varied levels of support revive your and your students' enthusiasm.
Prioritize your curriculum to ensure that your students get what is needed. Often our American curriculum is criticized for being a mile wide and an inch deep. Be sure that you have adequately taught the essentials of your curriculum. In Guided Reading Block, the mini-lesson in the "before reading" part of the block is the appropriate place to teach many of the necessary skills and strategies that deal with comprehension. Take a close look at your curriculum while there's still time.
Prepare your students for tests. If standardized tests are on the horizon or if your students will soon be taking end-of-year benchmark tests, prepare them for the sometimes strange formats and rules of tests. We don't want to teach to the tests, but we do want kids to feel comfortable with them. It might be time to integrate short response or test-like items in the closure or after-reading portion of your Guided Reading Block. (Note: Lucy Calkins' book, A Teacher's Guide to Standardized Reading Tests is a must! She speaks in plain language about standardized tests and gives creative, innovative, practical ideas to prepare students for testing. She suggests teaching test-taking as a separate genre, just like poetry, fiction and non-fiction. Makes sense! And, this could easily be included in the Guided Reading Block.)
Self-Selected Reading Block
Rethink your management in SSR Block. If many or most of your kids are now reading chapter books, you may want to organize a bit differently. Book baskets may not need to rotate as often. Students might need to keep their chapter books in SSR pocket folders in their desks or on a reserved books shelf. Be sure, though, that you're still meeting the needs of all students without labeling them.
Use conference time more effectively. From now until the end of the year, gather all of the information during conference time that will help you plan for individuals, small groups, and whole group instruction. Plan to focus on those things that need attention that you have observed during conference time.
Encourage kids to stretch. With just two months left in school, let's strongly encourage kids during our conferences with them, to stretch all that they comfortably can stretch in the books that they choose to read. We need to know which books to put in their hands if they aren't choosing the appropriate ones.
Connect kids to just the right books. If a child in our room hasn't been "turned on" to reading yet, we have just two months to get them motivated. We must let them leave in June with a hunger to read during the summer. During the conference book chat, commend their efforts this year and start talking with them about what they'll want to read during the summer. Perhaps you could start suggesting summer reading lists during your conference. You need to be familiar with many tradebook titles.
Stop introducing new Word Wall words in mid-April. Your challenge from that point until June should be to ensure that you review the 110-120 words that are on the wall so that every child in your class will know all of the words before being promoted to the next grade. Find fun ways to review the words--Wordo, Be A Mind Reader, and many, many others.
Don't remove words from the wall, if at all possible. Some states require that teachers remove word lists from their walls before standardized tests are administered. What a shame! But, if you must remove the Word Wall words, please, please know that they are important enough to return to the wall. If all else fails, continue to review the Word Wall words by using a portable Word Wall, designed for each student. That way they can still be held to the same expectations--that they use the words correctly even in their rough draft writing. They can also take home the portable Word Wall this summer to keep reviewing the words.
Plan activities to meet the needs of students. Be particularly mindful of the word level skills your students still don't apply or understand as you observe them during SSR Block conferences, during their Guided Reading practice, and in their writing.
Vary the activities in this block. Try a new activity for teaching spelling and decoding that you haven't tried before. There are so many good ones! (Resources: Phonics They Use, all of the grade level Month by Month Phonics books, The Teacher's Guide to the 4-Blocks, among others)
Be sure that everyone has had ample opportunities to publish. They all need to experience the feeling of being an author. Publishing builds their confidence and allows them to see themselves as writers. Consider an Author's Tea between now and the end of school. Invite parents and/or guests and have the collection of published books on display. Celebrate!
Add some student publications to the SSR Block book baskets. This helps students to see themselves again as writers.
Encourage every child to stretch to his or her capacity during your individual conferences. Pinpoint something that will make them a better writer and communicate that to them.
Encourage the use of dictionaries and other appropriate resources during your conference with them. Set up a revision and editing center apart from the publishing center so that after working with you during the conference you can give them direction about which resources they might consult to improve word usage, spelling, etc. Then let them develop independence with the resources by sending them to the resource center before they copy over their final copy in the book format.
Have kids write to a prompt if your state test requires that. Simulate this for them so that there will be no surprises on test day. In the "real world" we all have to write to prompts. So, occasionally we must have our students do that as well. Free choice writing, however, is still the mainstay of the Writing Block.
Revive the Editor's Checklist if kids have stopped using it. Remind them at this point in the year that they should be using it, even with their rough draft writing.
Be more attentive to Word Wall words that have been misspelled in compositions. Mark "WW" beside those that you find misspelled and insist that students correct them. These two months are your last chance to have kids know and use these words.
Experiment with peer revising and editing is you haven't tried this yet. This gives students more responsibility for their own work and helps them to develop a keen eye.
I hope that considering these options and heeding these reminders will help you as you head down the "home stretch" towards the end of the school year. Also, if you've had a year of 4-Blocks implementation, I hope by now that you've noticed a significant difference in the academic performance and confidence of your children.