I’m going for a variety of genres and time periods this summer!
People are amazed that with 21 of 30 required credits toward my doctorate — yes, I stopped working toward the degree because the university was unrealistic with the real world — that I wasn’t able to comprehend until I was 16 years old. It is a sad reality.
Grammar and sentences were part of that understanding. A few years ago Constance Weaver from Eastern Michigan University came to my attention, and I fell in love with her ideas. They instantly made sense. I had heard so many teachers making students learn all different types of verbs and thought, “WHO CARES, IT’S A VERB!”
Weaver reminded me of the somewhat convoluted but real situation: I had really learned grammar once I learned Spanish. I know that seems like a piece from another puzzle, but it isn’t! Still today, I work to convince educators that students can sometimes better learn English through a world language. It is an amazing puzzle. And sometimes it isn’t true because EVERY ONE LEARNS DIFFERENTLY. We are all pieces in one big puzzle.
If you have not read her book, Teaching Grammar in Context, by Heinemann, 1996, it is timeless and relevant — regardless that it is almost 20 years old. Weaver emphasizes that if students can understand the basics of grammar and punctuation, then they can write. And therefore they improve their reading comprehension. I know this is true for myself and from my work with students.
Her essential ideas to know:
- Comma in compound sentence
- Comma splice
- Sentence fragment
- Subject-verb agreement
- Run-on sentence
- Independent clause
- Dependent clause
- Parallel grammatical constructions
- Active vs. passive voice
- Pronoun-antecedent agreement
- Homophones and homonyms
- Sentence end marks
- Colon and semicolon
- Parentheses and dash
- Quote marks and apostrophe
Aren’t these what GE, Microsoft, Berkshire Hathaway, Apple, Ford Motor, and other big companies want their employees to know how to use in their writing to represent them well? Grammar doesn’t have to be a puzzle.
Recently, one of my students, let’s call him Jim, kept telling me that he didn’t know how to write a conclusion. By the way, his name has been changed. I tried conferencing — which if you have read this blog — you know I strongly believe in this strategy. However, as with all strategies this time it didn’t work.
When my students chose their topics of what they needed to focus on, several said paragraphs and elaborating. So we broke down the writing as a whole class. Beginning with a mini lesson and then sketching out the intro, body, and conclusion. However, the only way any student can write is to EDIT and REVISE which means including CONSTANCE WEAVER’S Teaching Grammar in Context.
There, conferencing comes in to the puzzle again. Reinforcing, Weaver’s simple ideas, student’s are able to better understand where they need to repair their work. No need for major confusion. “Does this make sense?” “Is this a sentence?” “What is the subject?” “What is the verb?” “This is how you use a colon and this is how we use semicolons.”
After three practices, Jim told me in a writing conference that he was feeling more confident about his conclusions because of how we had broken down the paragraphs. Yeah! The scaffolding had worked. A different piece made it into the puzzle.
Grammar doesn’t have to be complicated. Punctuation doesn’t have to be a mystery. Why do educators go into such detail that no one understands it!
How much time is spent in your classroom spent THINKING?
When we give students time to THINK, then they can process their ideas. So often, teachers rush to move on. Students can’t always move that fast! Many brains need time whether it is to answer a question, THINK about a text or to THINK about a math equation. I hate that I cannot remember where I found the graphic below because it is great! I believe tells us so much. If you know, please leave a comment so I can give them credit.
If we think about ourselves, how frequently do we wish that we had THOUGHT before we spoke? We need to give that same courtesy and teach that ability to our students.
This past week, I was reviewing assessment-taking strategies with 6th graders. During two- 35 minute sessions, four students raised their hands before I had even said the main idea of my question. We have indirectly trained our kids to answer right away. And THINK about this puzzling question: We wonder why students don’t put the pieces together in our content! The simple answer is they can’t because they haven’t had time to THINK.
We do have to remind our students to pause to use their brains. Like I wrote above — these boys and girls — were eager to participate even though they didn’t know the specifics of what they were going to have to answer. For many years when I was carrying a full-load of 5 classes a day and 120-135 students, there were two signs in big bold letters: Reading is THINKING. Writing is THINKING. The signs weren’t there for show; I used them as a frequent message.
Before asking a question, I remind my students not to raise their hands until I ask them to THINK about my question or statement. When hands are up, students already have an idea in their minds; they are not THINKING. When hands are up, they believe they know the answer to the puzzle we are asking. They can’t put the pieces together because they haven’t THOUGHT.
I have believed in THINKING for a long time because I was one of those learners who could not answer right away. I was intimidated by questions. And because of my auditory processing, lots of times I hadn’t even heard or had misheard the question being asked. Therefore, how could I answer the question right away? I needed time to THINK! Usually I had to figure out the puzzle of what had been asked and then put the pieces together. I wasn’t a strong student and was told that many times. The longer I took to answer the more impatient my teachers became. The instructors didn’t give me time to THINK which I needed.
Don’t be that restless teacher that is eager for an immediate answer so you can move on. In the long run, the information stays with the student when they have the opportunity to THINK.
So the next time you are in front of the class, whether you working with a small group, or conferencing one-on-one — give the student time to THINK. It will take practice and retraining those arms and hands that want to pop into the air. But it is worth it. You will be amazed that although you might not see immediate improvement, over time, you will see great results.
Getting students to the point where they talk about deeper topics than who did what or where can be a challenge. For less than confident readers, they don’t trust that they do know how to put the puzzle of a text and their thoughts together.
In her Book Love adult summer book club, I learned from teacher, author, and literacy wonder-woman, Penny Kittle a simple and powerful question that she says is her favorite. “What’s worth talking about here?”
Initially, some of my eighth graders were confused — there weren’t any of the familiar words in the question. Where were the words author, text, evidence, character, infer? Lots of blank stares came up to me as students filled in their reading log via Google Forms. I knew this was a new type of question for them, and I also knew they were ready for it. Purposefully I had not given a mini-lesson on how to answer this. I was intentionally using this question as my formative assessment.
Individually, I framed the question, “What’s worth talking about here?” from the idea that if he or she was leading a small group discussion, what would be the topic the student would begin with. This was enough for some to go on and answer. And as should be true — since all of our students learn differently — some students needed more explanation so we talked through his/her text using character, setting, and plot. As anticipated, some did not need any explanation which is what I found while conferencing with each student. A few of my middle schoolers had been able to respond to the question on their own without my help. And based on their reading conferences, as always I monitored and then adjusted the puzzle of my lesson and timing for the day.
Regardless of how quickly each student caught on, it’s true, this is a great question! Whether it is used as a written reflection about their independent choice novel or during a class discussion about an article that we read together, this deep question gets kids thinking. As a teacher, “What’s worth talking about here?” tells me who understands the fiction or nonfiction they are reading.
Sometimes it is the simplest words that give us the most information and the pieces fall together more easily.
First, let me say that this book review is unsolicited. I have had the honor to work with author Berit Gordon, and it has been an enlightening two years!
I am lucky enough that my school district partnered with Berit, and I am looking forward to another year of being able to work with her. In fact, my assistant superintendent has made it possible so that I’ve personally been able to work with her to learn how to coach teachers regarding independent reading as well as reading workshop.
Her book, NO MORE FAKE READING, should be on every English teacher’s, literacy coach’s, and administrator’s reading list.
Berit Gordon is authentic. Lots of experts have not been in the field for a long time, but Berit has been. For example, when she goes into our classrooms she is willing to not only work with our students, but she works with our teachers and with our students too. She is a teacher. She was never just a consultant — it hasn’t been long since she was in the classroom. Berit is a teacher’s teacher.
So Berit has that experience that is so important to all of us. She is not an ivory tower person who claims to be an expert but has been too long out of the real day-to-day experience that we all face with our students learning to read and write.
This is not just a middle school teacher book nor just a high school teacher book. It spans the spectrum. That’s what I use it for since I work with grades six through 12.
As teachers we all face of variety of puzzle pieces every day. Whether it is the puzzle of our students minds or the puzzle of how we put together today’s lessons or the puzzle of how to get our students to understand a text — the puzzle pieces need to come together for us. This book helps with many of those pieces.
Berit repeatedly explains that book choice is what is going to entice our students to want to read and grab their interest. We have to give our students that time in the classroom to read. It is that volume of reading both at school and at home that will increase their comprehension as well as their desire to read. Berit endorses choice reading by far. However, she does acknowledge that the classics have a place in the classroom and is very clear about that in her text.
One of the things that Berit reminds us is that at the beginning of the year, modeling reading with our students is important. And then after a few weeks — the teacher needs to stop reading while the students continue. Students get used to the model of the moment they walk in the door, they begin reading. Perhaps, the teacher chooses to finish the last 20 minutes of class with independent reading. The problem with that is, as Berit explains, the last 20 minutes may not be there after all of the lessons and tasks of the day.
However, students reading in the classroom is an expectation they get used to! I’ve seen this happen in sixth grade, ninth grade, and AP classes! It’s amazing once the expectation stands: The kids are reading whether it is a regular classroom or my Tier 2 classes — the students read — and ask to read when the schedule is out of the norm — because the expectation has been set.
As Berit explains in her book, while students are reading, the teacher has the opportunity to pull students aside to have short conferences and rich conversations about their reading. Asking students about their interests and getting to know students more deeply because we get to find out about what the kids like tells us a lot about the students we work with. This is one of the points she clarifies in her book. Besides, as Berit explains, it opens the door to what our students understand and where we need to work with them individually to improve their comprehension.
This is a very usable text. Teachers don’t have time to read endless pages, and we want something we’re going to be able to turn around and use tomorrow in our classrooms. That’s what this book does for us. Whether it is the book buzzes, the resources at the end of the book, or how to set up a classroom library, there are a variety of immediate ideas to use. It doesn’t need to be read chapter by chapter because there are so many good ideas. The ideas flow from chapter to chapter and at the same time the pieces can be picked up at any point.
I also like that she actually gives real examples where she has worked in classrooms and shows ideas that teachers have shared with her or where she has used things that have worked. So these are not supposed ideas she is throwing out. They are concepts that really do work with our preteens and teens in the English language arts class.
To get the full concept of all of her ideas, you need to read her book. It’s from Corwin Press. I can’t express enough what a fabulous impact Berit Gordon has had on my teaching and the revelations she has created in so many educators I work with. Don’t lose this opportunity!
One of the puzzle pieces in the classroom is finding effective units to teach students so that they can learn a skill, and teachers can still provide rigor while engaging students. I wrote this unit of study for close reading to be used in grade 7 or 8 a few years ago when I worked with LearnZillion. One of the things I love about this unit is that it uses the short story named A JURY OF HER PEERS as well as the play version titled, TRIFLES. The author, Susan Glaspell, created an interesting alignment between these two pieces of literature which in turn creates a good example for compare and contrast.
I read a few years ago that if a student can compare and contrast and then move into writing the same, they are able to adapt their writing skills elsewhere more efficiently. This seems to be true from my own experiences. Getting students to understand compare and contrast, however, can be somewhat difficult. Using my unit of study with Susan Glaspell’s writing creates that reading and writing scenario.
Kelly Gallagher, a respected researcher and educator, has written extensively about “writing through the literature.” This entails writing throughout the time of reading and not just waiting to write after students finish a text. Often this lack of writing through literature is a puzzle piece that is missing in the comprehension for many students. This is where compare and contrast comes in. It is not just an organizer looking at the two parts of comparison and contrast, it is looking at how the parts come to the whole in a piece of writing — even a short piece of writing — similar to how the pieces of a puzzle start to make the puzzle look like the entire picture. Comparing even a little bit at a time and then adding contrasting a little bit at a time all the while reading the literature is what is helpful for students.
So by using this unit, teachers can accomplish multiple skills and goals: Close reading, compare and contrast, and writing through the literature. Of course, most importantly what comes out of this unit is that students improve their reading comprehension as well as their writing.
These texts are not easy, and at first I was questioned as to whether or not 7th and 8th graders could access this fiction. One of the shifts from the CCSS — of which I am a Connecticut and National Core Advocate — is the expectation of rigor and depth not breadth. The A JURY OF HER PEERS and TRIFLES unit was written with the idea that this required teacher instruction and guidance in order that middle school students can deal with the advanced stories and depth of knowledge. Before publishing, LearnZillion requires all work to be vetted; in fact this formal unit is based on one that I used in a five-level differentiated classroom. You will see the scaffolding within the written materials. And for clarification, LearnZillion vets all of their writers prior to accepting them as part of the LearnZillion team.
The last piece of the puzzle in any classroom is to keep the student’s interest. If a student is not interested, they are not engaged. Although the stories take place in the early 1900s, and some people would say present students cannot relate to that time period, but Glaspell’s characters are rich, and the plot is full of twists and turns. My students really enjoyed the readings.
So I provide you with a piece of the puzzle for your classroom!
Slide courtesy of Great Schools Partnership
Before I moved out of the classroom to become a coach and RtI instructor, I had “data grades.” My students got used to the idea that these numbers in the grade book didn’t count toward their final grade for the trimester but were information for both of us — the student and me. Little did I know that actually I was recording formative assessment data! I just knew that this was helpful information that let me understand whether or not my students grasped concepts and who I needed to re-teach, who needed review, and which students could move on. Ahh — light bulb — another form of differentiation!**
To many educators, data has become a dirty word; I don’t happen to think so. I see the value of how it gives us information — good and bad — and how it also sometimes doesn’t add up. That’s where formative assessment comes in — another piece of data.
Not all formative assessments have to be recorded. A quick show of hands, listening to student’s conversation, reading student work, 3 minute teacher-student conferences, or an exit ticket don’t have to be formally graded. This idea of not grading everything is often a hard idea for teachers to get used to.
In the past, everything was graded! If we didn’t grade it, what use was it. Students still ask, and it drives my peers and me nuts, “Is this graded”? I frequently hear, “If I don’t grade it, they won’t do a good job.” I disagree. Once students get used to formative assessments, they help them too, then “our kids” will put forth equally strong effort whether the task has a mark in the grade book or not. Key here is sharing the formative assessment with them. When students know the purpose of their learning, why they are doing a task, and how it leads to the end, we teachers get buy in.
I have been lucky enough to be part of my school’s committee for a partially funded grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The purpose of the grant, through the New England Secondary School Consortium and managed by Great School Partnership, is to further the implementation of mastery-based grading and personalized learning in our school. What I have learned over the past 4 years working with Great Schools Partnership is that instruction goes nowhere for our without formative assessment.
In my Tier 2 RtI classes, I give mini lessons and then a formative assessment. For those of my students who get it, they can move on to show their knowledge through practice, and for those who need more help, they work with me until the concept clarity is stronger. It works the same way in the regular classroom: Instruction moves forward according to the formative assessment. Throughout the period/block I am assessing whether or not my students are learning. Formative assessment doesn’t just occur once a day otherwise the kids could be working down the wrong path. It is my job as a teacher to help them stay on track and keep their learning on target.
By using these formative assessments, I am meeting the needs of my learners whether it is in a class of 25-30 students or in a room of 5-8. The children reflect on their learning and measure their own comprehension, share it with me, and I check it.
My plan for the next minutes and days are based on the progress students have presently made. I cannot forge ahead if students are not learning the present skills, and that is what educators have done for years: Keep moving without checking knowledge. Periodic quizzes and unit tests have their places, but only when students are ready for them, and that may very well not have been when the teacher thought it was going to be.
We have to pay attention to our students; we can’t move on with a unit plan if they don’t get it! And this all leads to personalized learning a topic soon to come. In the meantime, put formative assessments into action.
**If you are interested, below is the link to a professional development session I put together as Chairman of the English Department for our teachers to connect differentiation and formative assessment.