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The Empathy Project Update: Explorations into Empathy, Part 2

There are times I hate being a kid. Here I am waiting to see which team will choose me for some pick up basketball. And the decision rests on some stupid game of Rock Paper Scissors.
                                                             -Just Kidding by Trudy Ludwig

Last month, I wrote about The Empathy Project, a year-long action research project that a colleague and I designed (you can read about that HERE). With our school year well under way, we tackled our first book, Just Kidding by Trudy Ludwig.

Before our first read, we set up a page in our reader's notebooks. We wrote the book title and date of our first entry on the first sticky note. Students responded to the prompt, "What is empathy?" I was surprised by the variety of responses students wrote. Some said empathy was knowing how someone felt. One child said that you had to do something to help the other person for it to be empathy. Another student thought it was more like sympathy or pity. 

Then, we completed our first read of Just Kidding.  Students' initial reactions to the text were varied. Some sat, knowingly nodding their heads. Others groaned when the bully uttered the words "Just kidding," the first time. 

This was my first time sharing this book with a class. If you don't know the book, please accept this blog post as my hearty recommendation. D.J. is the main character who is repeatedly bullied by Vince. Vince makes fun of his name, his soccer prowess, his clothing. When D.J. protests, Vince always adds on, "I was just kidding. Can't you take a joke?" This further demoralizes D.J., and he feels confused and doesn't know how to respond. He eventually gets help from his dad, older brother, and his school principal. 

What really makes this book special, is the way D.J. is taught to deflect Vince's statements. He learns to deflect Vince's taunts without meanness, or aggression. By doing so, Vince loses his power over the situation.

In our discussions of the book, my students practiced using the technique that D.J. learns. They really focused on how he is able to turn the situations around. Because I wanted my students to really process the story, I led them in a 4Cs thinking routine from Making Thinking Visible by Church, Ritchart, and Morrison.

The 4Cs thinking routine uses four quadrants, and I think it's one of most powerful thinking routines for reader response. The first quadrant is "Connections." My students talked and wrote about their personal connections to the story. However, I required that they also use evidence from the story to strengthen their connections. In fact, using evidence is my grade level's SMART goal this year, so we worked hard to do that for each quadrant.
The second quadrant is "Challenge." What do you challenge about the character's actions or reactions? Do you agree or disagree?  The third quadrant is "Concepts." What are the important concepts from this story (think: THEME)? And lastly, "Change." How has your thinking about the story changed? We used the "At first I thought...but now I think...because..." sentence  stems for this response. 

We read Just Kidding a total of five times by the time we were finished with the 4Cs thinking routine. We explored one quadrant per day. Because of this, when it came time to meet via Google hangouts with our buddy class, our discourse was rich and deep. 

On our meet up day, we met our fifth grade discourse buddies online right after lunch. Both classrooms of fifth graders had prepared at least two questions they wanted to pose to the other class for discussion. Since it was our first meeting, we met as a whole class so that my teaching colleague and I could make introductions and help facilitate. 

Nancie's students had prepared their thoughts and questions on notecards, while my students had their reader's notebooks on hand. Both of us had discourse stems displayed for our students to use when introducing questions and responding. They were over-the-moon-excited! We discussed the book and shared our understandings of empathy for about 20 minutes. After umpteen million years of teaching, I don't think I've ever seen students more engaged in a literature discussion. After we finished our meet up, my students returned to their reader's notebooks to write a second definition of empathy. We shared how our thinking had changed as a result of reading Just Kidding engaging in discourse with another class. 

We meet again at the end of October. We'll be reading and discussing Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson. This time, however, our students will meet online in partnerships or groups of three for their online book discussion. Stay tuned! I'll be back in a couple of weeks to fill you in!

Interested in learning more about visible thinking? Check out this website and resources:

For other great book recommendations about bullying and empathy, check out the We Teach So Hard podcast. Our newest episode showcases three more books! Click the picture below. 

This month I've linked up with some fabulous Teacher Talk authors. Check out their ideas below!

You are invited to the Inlinkz link party!
Click here to enter

Teaching Perseverance: Powerful Books to Change A Student's Mindset

In this world, we are not perfect. We can only do our best.
                                                                                           -Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah

If I have one goal as a teacher, it's that my students don't dance with perfectionism the way I have my entire life. It's an exhausting dance, and I've tangoed, fox-trotted, and step-ball-changed my way through my entire life trying to learn that my very best is always good enough. It's a crappy way to experience life, always feeling like you're never quite good enough. 

When I talk about perseverance with my students, I always use books. Good children's literature gives kids a chance to vicariously experience someone else's struggle, to see themselves in similar episodes of struggle, and finally to explore ways of working through it. However as an embattled perfectionist, how I talk about perseverance is really important. I teach my students to ask themselves 3 questions: 

  1. Have I done my very best? 
  2. How do I know I've done my very best?
  3. Is there anything else I can try before I feel I am done with this struggle?
A couple of years ago, I stumbled onto a little gem of a book, Emmanuel's Dream The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah. It has become one of my favorite books to use when teaching theme and perseverance. It's narrative nonfiction, which means that's it's a true story that sounds like a fiction story. 

Emmanuel is born with a birth defect. Only one of his legs functions normally. In Ghana, his home country, birth defects are viewed as curses and families are expected and encouraged to kill or abandon their children to the elements. Emmanuel's father leaves, but his mother makes the courageous decision to save her child and raise him. She tells him that he can do anything he wants to do, but that he'll have to work for it, and Emmanuel does just that, in ways that his mother could never have imagined. In the end, Emmanuel becomes a national hero and focuses a spotlight on his country's treatment of its disabled citizens.  Emmanuel's actions are inspiring and remarkable, but this young man is a picture of perseverance.

When I teach theme in reader's workshop, I first review retelling and summarizing with my students. I do this because I want them to be able focus on the character's struggle and resolution. I usually use a story chart to map out the parts of the story. The story chart includes the setting, characters, 3 important story events, the problem, resolution.

After we map out the story, together or in small groups, we turn our attention to the struggle and resolution. What was the character's conflict? How was it resolved? Because I teach fifth graders, it's usually at this point when I introduce types of literary conflict commonly found in fiction and narrative nonfiction: Character vs. self, character vs. character, and character vs. society/nature.

My students usually identify Emmanuel's struggle as "character vs. society."  We use a Making Thinking Visible thinking routine (by Church, Morrison & Ritchart) called "Step Inside."  Using this routine helps us to step inside Emmanuel's shoes to try to think, feel, and perceive the world as he does. You can find out more about that HERE.

I define theme this way:

By focusing on the character's struggles, my kids have an easier time identifying themes. Because of Emmanuel's willingness to do the hard stuff, like hop to miles to school on one leg or travel 2 hours away to the city to get a job to support his sick mother and younger siblings, he was able to overcome society's expectations of him. He showed perseverance when the situation could have overwhelmed him. In our small group discussions, we revisit our 3 questions about perseverance:
  1. Did Emmanuel do his very best?
  2. How do we know he did his very best?
  3. What more could he have done to help the situation?
For our final look at this book, I ask my students to create newspaper headlines that will summarize a theme. This is also a visible thinking routine, and it demands that students "go deep." The headline can't summarize the story. It must summarize the big ideas or themes of the story. 

I love that these theme lessons work with any fiction or narrative fiction book. You need Emmanuel's Dream in your classroom library. It's a testament to the power of one person. Be sure to check out the links below. There are 2 youtube videos about Emmanuel's journey, as well as link to his non-profit website, because he continues to dream...

Like the theme and conflict mini posters in this post? You can grab them for free by subscribing to this blog! They're this month's featured freebie for subscribers!

Don't forget to visit Kathie, Retta and Deann's blogs about other fantastic titles and lesson ideas for teaching perseverance. I'll see you over there!

Or, check out our newest episode of the We Teach So Hard podcast. It's our monthly book talk and we're exploding with ideas for perseverance-themed picture books. Click the picture to access!

I've linked up with some fabulous teacher-bloggers this month. Be sure to check out their posts below!
You are invited to the Inlinkz link party!
Click here to enter

A Classroom Action Research Story: The Empathy Project

I'm writing this on the eve of a brand new school year. My fifth graders will arrive tomorrow morning, and we'll be boogie-ing our way into the new year. Tomorrow will mark the beginning of my 27th year of teaching. Not bad for someone who, after her first day of teaching, told her veteran teacher mom  that "This will not be the rest of my life. It's okay, for now." 

And here I am. I have to admit that when I peel back the layers of crap imposed on us...crap that isn't teaching...I still love my job. In fact, I adore it. I'm still curious. I still approach teaching like a research project. Every year, I investigate a pedagogical question. This year is no different. After listening to Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle at our state reading conference, my colleague Nancie and I put our heads together and asked "What if?"

What if we selected 9 empathy-themed picture books and shared them with our students, one per month? What if we used the picture books to help our students develop a definition and awareness of empathy? What if our students met online across our school district to discuss the books within discourse groups, using flip grid or google hangouts? What would happen to their listening and speaking skills? What if we tracked those skills using WAPT/WIDA? What if our students self-assessed their discourse skills?

Action research makes my heart sing. It always has. I like pondering questions, developing hypotheses, and tracking data. There's nothing like the rush of success or the surprise of unexpected results. 
I've found that when I share my action research with my students, they are genuinely interested. They, too, ask questions and keep up on "how we're doing" with our classroom learning experiences. 

Nancie and I developed 3 essential questions for our students:

  1.  What is empathy?
  2.  Why is it important?
  3.  How does discourse impact your every day life?
These three questions will guide our shared readings and discussions as we collaborate every month across our school district. Students will return to the first question every month, in order to revise their definitions after reading the selected picture book. 

Before our first online meet up, Nancie and I will be teaching discourse strategies. I'll be introducing sentence stems for discussion, engaging in visible thinking routines that foster student conversations, and using open-ended learning investigations. Both of us will introduce Jennifer Serravallo's Conversation Learning Progression continuum to our students, because we want them to be able to self-assess their conversation skills. Later on, we'll be using that particular continuum to do our own formative assessment.
Within the first three weeks of school, we'll be administering the WAPT test to our whole class. We're doing this with the help of our bilingual support staff. We're doing this so we can get some baseline data on the four quadrants: Listening, speaking, reading, and writing. We've found that even when students aren't English language learners, they have weak areas. We want to be able to see everyone's starting points so we can better measure growth later on. 

In addition, during the week of our online meetups, Nancie and I will be using Serravallo's conversation continuum to assess where our students are as they talk. We'll be conferencing with our students about their progress, too. This is our sole focus during this week. Our goal is that by the close of the school year, our students will be at the end of Serravallo's Conversation Learning Progression continuum: 
Thinks flexibly, allowing one’s own opinions to be changed and/ or considering new perspectives and uses empathy to understand others’ ideas, especially when others’ opinions differ from one’s own.
We'll repeat the WAPT again in January and May to measure progress. I'm predicting that we'll see an increase in our students' listening and speaking scores, but I wouldn't be surprised to also see a spike in writing due to verbal rehearsal and expression. Both of these things develop writing skills. 

Nancie and I worked hard to choose the books. We wanted books that honored diversity. We wanted meaty books with strong characters. We wanted empathy-themed books. These are the books we chose:
  1.  Just Kidding by Trudy Ludwig
  2. One Green Apple by Eve Bunting
  3. Be Good To Eddie Lee by Virginia Fleming
  4. The Hard Times Jar  by Ethel Footman Smothers
  5. Ruby's Wish by Shirin Yim Bridges
  6. Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco
  7. A Thirst For Home by Christine Leronimo
  8. Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes & Friendship by Irene Latham & Charles Waters
  9. Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson
I'll be writing about The Empathy Project's progress throughout this school year. Be sure to check back the first week of each month to read more about our progress and findings. We're so excited! Our first book is Just Kidding by Trudy Ludwig, and it's powerful!

Looking for some ways to support your reader's and writer's workshops? You can read more HERE!

Plus, I offer many resources (some free) to help your kiddos take off! Click the picture below to discover more. 

50 is Nifty! Come Celebrate With Me!

It's a nifty fifty celebration and you're cordially invited! We Teach So Hard, my podcast group, is celebrating our 50th podcast episode. We've put together a giveaway in honor of you, our listeners and readers. 

It's an easy peasy kind of giveaway (you don't have to follow 50 million people to enter). There are three ways for you to enter.

Click the giveaway graphic below and …
1. Write one reason you love teaching in the comments of the Facebook post the graphic below directs you to.
2. Tag a teacher friend or two in a separate comment.
3. OR...visit our podcast on iTunes and drop us a comment and rating. You can do that HERE.

Each action you take counts as an entry. The raffle drawing will be help in a Facebook live video on Monday, August 26, at 7:00 p.m. You could win everything pictured in this graphic! What are you waiting for? You deserve it because you teach so hard!

Math Games: Observing Your Students Makes Back-To-School A Breeze

I was in the toy aisle at Target the other day and spied a giant set of dominoes. It was a thing of beauty to behold. I was instantly transported back a gazillion years to my grandma's kitchen table. We sat hunched over the domino tiles. Her left hand cupped her never-empty coffee cup. There was a small plate of windmill cookies off to the side. She used her index finger to sweep up my cookie crumbs while I labored over my next move. My grandma and me, we were fierce domino players. 

Because she was a fourth grade teacher, when my grandma taught you how to play a game, you learned strategy. It was discussed and developed. I learned to visualize several moves ahead. I learned patterns of play. I learned what tiles were best to hold back until the end and which tiles were best to play first.

To this day, I adore playing games because of my Grandma Eller. As a classroom teacher, they are one of my favorite ways to teach concepts, strategy, collaboration, and problem-solving skills.  At the start of a new school year, math games are my absolute favorite way to get to know my new students. 

When I use math games at the very beginning of the school year, I make sure that they are skill review. I don't want to use games that teach new concepts because I want to watch my students interacting independently. If I have to step in to reteach new math concepts, I can't observe. I want to be able to see how Andrew interacts with others when he's losing. I want to know how Bella handles mistakes, or how Tom behaves when he trounces Emily. I also want to see who has a hard time with reviewing concepts. This is a tip off for me that someone may need some remediation.

I have a wheelie stool that I scoot around on the first couple weeks of school as I watch my students play math games. I make sure I visit each group. Students will find me if they need help with concepts, but when they come to me to settle disagreements during game play, I tell them they must solve the problems themselves. This gives me a lot of information about their abilities to collaborate and negotiate. I also look for the helpers. These are students who will try to help a partner who is stuck mathematically, even though it's a competitive situation. 

As I'm scooting around, I carry a pencil and clipboard with an observation sheet attached. I watch, listen and record what I see on my observation pages. I've developed this sheet after years of teaching and find that it helps me hone in on my students who will need some social skills, discourse, or mathematical boosting. After each game play session, I plan lessons to address some of what I saw.  This continues throughout the first month of school, until my students' skills have improved. 

If you'd like my observational pages, be sure to subscribe (via email) to this blog! At the beginning of every month, I send my subscribers updates and a free goodie.  The observational pages are September's freebie!

Game play will always be one of my favorite ways to teach concepts and review expectations for collaboration and discourse. But it is also my favorite because I'm transported back to the taste of almond windmill cookies and the click of domino tiles...and my grandma's laughter, warm and loving. 
If you're looking for classroom games, take a look below. There are a couple of freebies in the line up, too. Simply click on the graphic. Enjoy!                   

This month, I've linked up with some fabulous teachers for Teacher Talk. There are some great back-to-school classroom ideas here! Check them out below!
You are invited to the Inlinkz link party!