Back in the classroom with the Daily Five

For the past few weeks, I’ve gotten the opportunity to partially step back from my role as a school principal and teach 5th-7th graders at summer school.  I was very excited and a little nervous, but am glad that I took the plunge.  It not only gave me the chance to see the world through the eyes of a teacher once again, but it also gave me the chance to teach using the Daily Five and Six Traits writing that we plan to implement in the fall along with Words Their Way developmental spelling.  Although it has only been a short time, it was an eye opening experience that taught me and has left me thinking about and looking forward to next year.

Here are some of my initial observations (good and not so good):

1. Making individual conferences and small group instruction a regular part of instruction allows you to know students on a whole different level.

I loved having the opportunity to individually conference with the students and got to know them very quickly.  After an initial conversation with the students and survey, I was able to connect students quickly with books that matched their interests. Using the public library, school library, and my generous mother in law’s basement (she is a teacher and book collector) I was able to offer students a wide variety of choices. Although the results weren’t perfect, students who hadn’t read 1-2 books this school year read 1-2 books during 3 weeks of summer school.  I was able to work with small guided reading groups daily and integrate in some science and social studies reading material during that time.  During this time, I could quickly assess where students were at and make needed adjustments to my instruction daily. Even in a small summer group I found it was easy for certain students to blend in to the woodwork. With daily opportunities individually or in a small group, students were forced to engage and respond much more regularly than they would have in a traditional whole group setting.

2. Student choice is powerful, but easier said than done.

I found that it is easy to say you believe in student choice/voice, but much harder to do it in practice. I gave students many choices of books and topics for writing, but it was hard to not step in too much. When a student would pick up a Diary of a Wimpy Kid when much better books (in my opinion) were right next to them, it was hard not to jump in and guide them to where I wanted them to go. When I did start to take too much control at times, I could see engagement/cooperation go down. It took continual reflection to achieve that balance of giving students the coaching/guidance they needed to progress without taking away choice/freedom. For students to truly become life long learners, they must stop seeing education as something being done to them and they must see the value in participating and engaging.

3. Building routines/stamina is so important

It was especially tempting in a short summer school session to plunge right in without building routines, but I found it absolutely essential to focus on the behavioral expectations first. Many students are not used to working independently even by the 6th or 7th grade and have formed many bad habits to avoid tasks that are difficult for them. Teachers put a lot of pressure on themselves to be pushing harder/moving faster, but it is absolutely essential to build effective routines and develop that sense of urgency in students to get them to buy in to becoming better readers and writers.

4. Daily Five is differentiated for all students

When I think of the span of needs in a standard general education classroom today, it is truly staggering and my multi-age summer school class was no exception. When I was teaching the class whole group, it was very difficult to make it relevant for all the students. As I scanned the eyes in the classroom, they ranged from, “Are you done yet? This is ridiculously/insultingly easy” to “Are you still speaking English?” I always felt like someone wasn’t getting what they needed. When given the chance to individually conference and work in small groups, the knowledge I gained was invaluable for differentiation. Taking writing as an example, I had one student who could write for long periods of time with many ideas, but basically wrote it in one never ending run on sentence. While I praised them for the content, we quickly began to work on the trait of “conventions” and checked in frequently to make sure her ideas could be understood by her readers. While other students could write complete sentences, they would often tire out after a paragraph or so and couldn’t develop ideas in greater detail. While praising the clearness of the writing, we began working on the “ideas” trait of how their ideas could be developed into fuller pieces more appropriate for the expectations of their grade level teachers. For another student, they got so into the flow of their writing at times, it was easy to see that interrupting them for an individual conference would have been the worst thing I could have done. The overall quality of writing they were producing was outstanding, so I would read their writing and give written feedback or questions on sticky notes that they would apply the next day. Daily Five made it easy to differentiate and meet each student where they were at.

5. Difficult kids are still difficult kids

Although I am a big fan of Daily Five and using it in my summer school classroom made me a bigger fan, it isn’t magic. As much as I would like to say that every reluctant middle school reader in my summer school class became a voracious reader and writer, that wasn’t the case. Although I saw some really great responses from individual students, there were students who it was a struggle with daily. The most difficult thing for me was getting kids to write. Several either lacked many prerequisite skills or had a strong distaste for writing that was difficult to overcome. As we move forward with Daily Five, I am excited that students will make writing a daily habit and they will have greater opportunities to develop their writing skills and find their own voice.

6. Daily Five was easily my favorite part of the day

I really enjoyed the time with my students and Daily Five created a very laid back, relaxed time of the day. I didn’t feel the same pressure to fill every moment with me talking at the front of the room. If I needed a quick minute to review my notes or get my train of thought, I could do that without students sitting around waiting on me or starting to goof around. I even made it a point to spend a short time silently reading myself in class each day and had students respond to one of my blog posts just so students could see me model my life as a reader and writer as well. We can’t underestimate the power of being a positive role model as a reader, writer, and learner for our students.

What have you found are the most important factors in launching a successful Daily Five implementation? I would love to hear from you!

P.S. When I first starting investigating this topic outside of exploring the books, I found Jessica Johnson’s (a terrific principal and blogger from Wisconsin) posts really helpful. For more on her school’s journey, click here.