Hour of Code Reflections

Hour_CodeThis is the fourth year I have had my students work through a basic course in coding.  We have used the activities created by code.org for our practice. Last year, we did the program in the designated week and had some great volunteers help our students work their way through the coding challenges.  This year, I went it on my own with my class, and I waited a week so that the students work would be saved in the system.

The code.org activities are very engaging for my students.  The program is challenging, but presented in a way that is very motivating for students.  Though the program appears to be self guided for kids, supervision and guidance will make the activities more understandable and lead to greater success in future coding challenges.

In the past I have had kids work through the challenges with a partner, but I took the advice of one of our volunteers in fall 2015 and had each student work on his or her own challenge.  This was really important to ensure each kid really understood what they were doing and how to get to the next level. I also set up usernames for each student.  The usernames and secret pictures were very easy for the students to remember and it ensured that I could see what each student had completed.

As each student passed a level, the button for that level turned green.  I learned that dark green meant they passed the level with the correct number of lines of code.  If the button was light green, they passed but used too many lines of code.  I had the light green students go back to correct their coding, and once my students knew about the number of lines requirement, they began making sure they really passed the levels.

Motivating the students to do the work correctly was quite easy, giving them clear feedback about what was expected made them willing to go back and correct their work.  Usually I would experience more requests for mercy and leniency, but with coding, the students wanted to do it correctly.

All this would be much more difficult to include in our program if we did not have Chromebooks in our classrooms for regular use.  My thanks go out to our Information Technology Department in San Rafael City Schools for supporting our use of Chromebooks and to our School Board for approving the expansion of our Chromebook program.

Reading Challenges and Opportunties: Part 4 of 4

In Reading Challenges and Opportunities part 3, I described what my colleagues and I call the internal resources of our most successful students. Successful students are overcoming challenges to become proficient readers. Internal resources we observed in these successful students include: family loyalty, curiosity, and the capacity to persist in the face of challenges. In this post, Reading Challenges and Opportunities part 4, I will seek to explain how we used the program Scholastic Reading Counts to help all our students develop these internal resources.

Scholastic Reading Counts has helped our students build reading comprehension skills by rewarding them for regular practice reading real literature. Scholastic Reading Counts has quizzes to test how well a student has comprehended thousands of books. Students read books at their current reading level and take a quiz on the book.

Students are motivated to read more as they pass quizzes on the books they have read. Students like to keep track of how many quizzes they have passed and how many words they have read. Each of our classrooms has a large wall chart where we track how many quizzes students have passed and how many words each student has read. Students compare their own progress other students’ progress. We also track the number of words our whole class has read.

We have conferences with our students about their reading progress on a regular basis, ideally once every month. In that conference we review the quizzes they have passed, their growth in reading fluency and every two months their growth in reading comprehension as measured by the Scholastic Reading Inventory (SRI). In these conferences, students see the relationship between the number of quizzes they have passed and the trajectory of their SRI – reading comprehension score. Students who are making upward growth on the SRI are the same students who have been reading and passing SRC quizzes regularly. Students whose SRI scores have not grown review the number of quizzes taken and the difficulty of the books they have read and set goals to read more books that will help them increase their SRI score.

So, you may ask, how does the program help students develop the internal resources you identified? The internal resource of family loyalty and pride is developed because students like to show their parents how many quizzes they have passed and their growth in SRI scores. The program also helps parents be more motivated to encourage a regular reading habit as parents can clearly see the growth their child has made.

The internal resource of curiosity and love of learning is developed because students read more. As students read more they begin to be motivated by an enjoyment of learning, not just seeing the number of quizzes they have passed.

The internal resource of persisting in the face of challenges is developed, as the rewards for students’ efforts are so clearly evident.

Using the program regularly allows us to identify students who need more support to develop as readers. There are always a handful of students who struggle to pass quizzes, despite reasonable efforts. The program lets us know who needs more of our attention and gives us one more piece of evidence to pass on to reading specialists.

Thank you for reading this four-part post called, Reading Challenges and Opportunities. I began writing it with the intention of explaining how we use Scholastic Reading Counts with our students. As I wrote, I realized the program has been more than simply a reading quiz program. The program has helped students build internal resources that will help them be more successful in all areas of their lives. These internal resources will help them overcome the challenges they face as English Language Learners with low socio-economic status and low parent education levels.

Reading Challenges and Opportunities: Part 3 of 4

In Reading Challenges and Opportunities Part 2, I explored the challenges our students face that contribute to their difficulties with reading comprehension. These past student experiences are things that we cannot change. Our job is to determine what we can influence. What can we do that will support student learning today, in our classrooms? We know that some of our students overcome challenges and make gains in reading comprehension by the end of fourth grade. We chose to examine the “internal resources,” or character traits and habits of our successful students. We wondered if we could help other students develop the same habits and recognize their own internal resources.

The internal resources we observe in our most successful students include: family loyalty, curiosity, and the capacity to persist in the face of challenges. This post will explore how we define each of these internal resources and how we try to draw out these internal resources in our struggling learners, and all our students.

What do we mean by family loyalty? This loyalty is shown by our most successful students for their families. Students regularly share stories about their parents and siblings. Students proudly bring their parents to parent nights and their younger siblings to meet us during recess. Older siblings return to help interpret for parents at conference time. Older siblings are seen attending the soccer games or music concerts of their brothers or sisters. We view this loyalty as an internal resource that helps students recognize a purpose for their learning. A good education will make their family proud, and help them contribute to their family’s wellbeing in the future. We draw this internal resource out in our students by taking the time to get to know them as individuals. I make time for monthly lunch dates with small table groups for example, and have short conversations with students during recess. In class, we ask them questions and have them write about their families. We ask, “what do you want to be doing in twenty years?” we ask parents to consider, “What do you want your child to be doing in twenty years?” We also emphasize to both parents and students the importance of learning the home language.  Second language learning can be confusing for students in the short term, but in the long term it will benefit the students to know a second language.  We believe that connecting with students in this way has made a big difference for them academically and socially, it helps them identify their inner resources.

Another internal resource students possess is curiosity, or a love of learning. I see this most clearly when we go on field trips in nature and when I include hands on activities to explore math, social studies, engineering or science. These activities encourage conversations with classmates, and reduce the usual caution about making mistakes in oral language that can occur in more formal classroom discussions. When my students seem to be getting discouraged with learning a topic, I strive to include an activity that will allow them to build a physical representation, to explore the topic in a hands-on way. These activities seem to reignite students’ curiosity and increase their readiness to tackle academic language and concepts.

The third internal resource we have identified is the ability to persist in the face of challenges. Many of our students share a room with their immediate family in an apartment. The apartment is often shared with other people. Students live in cramped living situations, but most find a way get their homework done and do their nightly reading. Families find a way to contribute school supplies and money for field trip busses. Parents find a way to take off work to help with field trips and volunteer in our classrooms. We emphasize to our students that these are all signs of persistence and that this character trait will help them learn in the face of challenges.

Clearly, it is too late to make up for language deficits that our students experienced before they came to school. We cannot assume that our students mastered all the phonic elements and reading comprehension strategies that they were taught in the lower grades. However, we can help them recognize the internal resources they already possess and show them how those characteristics and habits will help them as they build reading comprehension.

In my final post on Reading Challenges and Opportunities (Part 4) I will describe our use of the Scholastic Reading Counts program to help our students build their reading comprehension skills through regular practice reading real literature, and the reward of seeing themselves pass quizzes on the books they have read.

Just a Classroom Teacher?

I began my teaching career in Spring of 1992. Prior to teaching I worked jobs that required me to use computers on a regular basis, so I was considered a relative computer whiz. I was quickly pulled from the classroom to run a computer lab.

It turned out I was pretty good at helping students and teachers learn how to integrate the use of computers in meaningful ways for learning. I continued to serve education in this way for the better part of 15 years, at school sites and at the district level. Over time however, the role of technology support at the district level became more and more focused on implementing assessment systems with little time spent helping teachers and students use technology to support multi-modal learning, creativity, writing and critical thinking. I grew less excited about my work; what I believed was great about technology for students had gone missing.

When the funding for my support role dried up, I chose to remain in my district and become a classroom teacher. That same year I completed an educational doctorate with an emphasis in Educational Leadership. I am often asked why I stay in the classroom, when I could be a principal or teach at the college level. Initially, the move was most expedient for me and my family, but now I believe the classroom is the best place for me to be. In the classroom I am able to do the kind of action research that is needed to find the best ways to implement new technologies in education.

As a technology loving teacher, I am always looking for ways that learning can be enriched by new technologies. Teaching fourth grade is an excellent incubator for this kind of study. My students are engaged by things as simple as digital audio recorders, which they use to practice reading fluency. This past year I began using Edmodo, which looks like a social media site, where students can interact. As teacher, I set up folders where students could view science videos and work with interactives. I linked to Voicethread slideshows with pictures from our science field trips. After viewing and playing I had students comment in the forum, take quizzes, do polls. I counted the use of Edmodo as a success from the first day when I logged in and students had logged on to work in the class forum from home. Even now, over summer break, I am finding students have logged on to Edmodo to use the learning platform.

So, I don’t consider myself to be “just a classroom teacher” and I hope none of my colleagues in the role do either. Every teacher I know is conducting “Action Research” whether or not they call it by that name. Our goal is always to improve our teaching, make learning engaging, fun and help all our students reach their learning goals. I will continue to refine the use of technology in my practice to enhance the learning experiences of my students. My goal is to write about my experiences with the hope that others find inspiration, and to counter some of the images in society about teachers.

Using the Web with Fourth Grade Students

Decisions_clipartIt is probably obvious that sending elementary students off on an Internet search is not a really good use of class time.  First of all, a student on an Internet search will get links for millions of websites.  Rocks and Minerals, the topic we were studying at the time of this post in April 2012, got 3,670,000 links at the time of my search!

I regularly search for appropriate websites and then use links on my class website to direct my students to them. What are some guidelines for choosing appropriate websites for students?  I ask myself the following questions as I review websites for use by my students:

  • Is this website readable by my students?
  • Is the content appealing and engaging without too much advertising?
  • If there are interactive activities (aka games) are they educational or just distracting?
  • Is the information accurate and from a reliable source?
  • Do the activities work on the computers where students will be using them?
  • Will the activities require me to provide a lot of assistance to the students or can they figure things out by themselves, or with a peer helper?

Teachers don’t have to do all the work of previewing sites on their own, thanks to other educators who have begun the vetting process for them.  I use some of the following websites when I search for Interactive learning games and other online research resources for my students.



This BBC site offers some of my favorite science experiment simulations.

Room 6 – Mrs. Zykanov’s class website

An Experiment in Flipping a Lesson

An experiment in flipping a math lesson.  Most of my students would not be able to access flipped content at home, but they would be able to preview and review class lessons at school on our classroom computers or in the computer lab.

It’s worth a little test drive! Continue reading

Facebook for Teachers

This post is a revised version of a post I wrote in January of 2010.

Though there may be some positive outcomes from connecting with your students online, there are also hazards. Every teacher should consider the potential unintended consequences carefully, before becoming online “friends” with any student.  I offer one warning and three suggestions asking you to keep in mind that this blog represents my own professional research, experience and opinion.  Teachers should be aware of their district’s policies on employee and student Internet Use.
Facebook is an example of a popular website for social networking.  Many high school students are regular users, and since 2009, many other Americans also discovered the site.  The site provides a place to connect and share information and photos with relatives and friends. Though the age limit for Facebook use is 14 years, many students in the elementary grades have set up accounts for themselves.  Parents should be aware of their child(ren)’s Internet use and have ongoing conversations with them about Internet Safety, privacy, kind and courteous online conversations (netiquette) and digital reputation creation and maintenance.

But this post is meant to address issues teachers face as they consider the use of Facebook or similar social networking sites with students. (more…)

The Challenge of Change

Courtesy of TypCut

I have titled this post, “The Challenge of Change,” in reference to the difficulty of creating sustainable change in instructional practice.  In my experience, as a teacher and support teacher in elementary schools, there are many factors that make changes to instructional practice difficult to foster.  I believe the path to real change and adaptation will come from building our faith in practicing teachers, teacher expertise and encouraging and supporting teachers to share expertise.  This approach is not commonly embraced by politicians, academics and some administrators.  There is often a thinly disguised anti-teacher sentiment, a sense that teachers are stubborn and unwilling or unable to accept guidance to improve instructional practice.  These people tend to believe that outside consultants and professional developers should guide instructional improvement. Continue reading

Sarah Z’s Edu-Techno Ramblings – 2012

I called my original Blog, Sarah Z’s Edu-Techno Ramblings because I have second thoughts about publishing on the Internet.  In effect, when I post to this blog I am posting writing that has not been reviewed by my peers.  Use of the word, “ramblings” acknowledged that what was written was my own untested thoughts.  I believe it is important to have others review our work and test our thinking.  It is especially valuable to have others who are also knowledgeable in a given field contribute their thoughts on the subject.  In these days of the open web, we must learn to monitor our own reading and writing, doing our best to avoid bias, imprecise logic and baseless theorizing. I challenge my readers to question and test the logic of my ideas, and add their ideas to mine in the comments, in order to create a more robust picture of the subject at hand.

Clearly, we are not going back to the days when writing was presented solely in peer-reviewed journals and reviewed by editors and publishers.  We are living in an age where anyone can start a blog and share his or her ideas with the world. It is up to the audience and those posting to take responsibility for sharing ideas of value that contribute to a better world, and a brighter, stronger, more intelligent populous.  Lector Caveat!

Hello world!

After years having a blog hidden away on my me.com website, it’s time to start fresh.   Many posts will focus on my experiences working with my fourth grade class, as I seek to infuse technology in meaningful ways that enhance student thinking, learning and creativity. Last year I taught kindergarten, my emphasis was on finding ways to make assessments of student learning easier to gather and analyze.  I created a  simple Google Form that I used to track student alphabet, letter sound and High Frequency Word learning.  Using the form on my iPhone allowed me to quickly collect and manage student assessment data.   This year I am teaching fourth grade. I use my document camera, online video and online activities regularly to give students more ways to wrap their minds around the topic at hand.  But as the second half of the school year begins, I am using available resources to allow my students to build their skills and creativity as writers, reporters, and presenters.

I also work with credential candidates, helping them learn how to use technologies as they enter the teaching profession.  Ideally, this blog will help me share my work with elementary aged students with my adult students.