Students Finding Important Answers Through Thinking

The above graphic is created by  and I found it just now on Twitter from KQED.

By following these ideas, teachers are better educators and more importantly, students become better thinkers.

We so often miss opportunities to let the kids think.  Teachers, please stop telling the students in front of you what to do! Let them find the answers.

It does take some different planning.  Many of you are probably already doing the left side of Julie Woodard’s graphic.

You see, if we give them time with a clear learning target that we expressly share with the students at the beginning of class, students have an idea of what they are going to learn. But again, teachers:  Stop and let the kids think. It is not good enough to have teacher-talk objectives on the board and never refer or explain them. Go through the learning target; it’s not just there for show.  As an observer and department chair, I do want to see it, and I especially want to know that every student really understands that target.

When we help make connections to the outside world and between content areas, then students can begin to see why they need to be in classes that they may not like.  And in some cases, they may detest the class.  Let’s be honest, this is true for some.  So, let’s help these young men and women, girls and boys see how their learning is worthwhile.  Then give them time to think and talk with more people than just who is sitting next to them about how the learning possibly could be worthy.

And as John Hattie has explained, clear expectations of where the end is going helps students not be swimming in a rough current without paddles.  Who wants to feel lost and drowning?  Don’t we all — at any age — want to know when I have met the expectation?

We owe our students more than just endless content; they deserve the respect to  give them time to process ideas and have a map with those ideas.

So, rather than planning more, plan to stop talking.  Plan to let the kids have time to think in their own mind– with paper so that they can jot down notes and contemplate Woodard’s questions.  Then time to play with the ideas with a partner, and then with you or the class.

Students really don’t learn from our babble.  Remember, Charlie Brown’s teacher? “BLAH, BLAH, BLAH, BLAH.”  The kids of any grade may not have learned all of our content yet but they have strong brains which we need to give time to eat up the information.

Next time, we’ll talk about how to change the classroom so they are used to this new style of time and thinking.  For now, it is up to YOU.   Teachers, please stop telling the students in front of you what to do! Let them find the answers.

 

Planning Puzzle: Moving from Teacher-Directed to Student-Engaged

Teacher directed to student in mind

There are two parts to this topic of teacher-directed vs. student-engaged, and we are only dealing with the planning part here.  The conferencing part is for another blog.

The graphic above is a portion of a slide projected at one of the many dynamic Great School Partnership/New England Secondary School Collaborative conferences I attended over the past 5 years.  This puzzle of moving away from the teacher to the student is foreign and terrifying to many educators — whether they are elementary, secondary, or post-secondary.  I see it daily.

I equate this puzzle with the person who has never traveled outside of the country:  You need a passport whether you are traveling to the EU, an African country, or a next door neighbor — Mexico and Canada. Seems easy enough to get the passport and all should be good to fly away.  But as many travelers know, a passport is only one travel puzzle piece.  Another piece is standing in line to clear Homeland Security.  The inexperienced traveler puzzles:  Why do some people get to go in that shorter line by showing that other card?  Why am I not in control?  Upon arrival as a visitor, I am coming to spend money and enjoy my time not stand in more lines to clear immigration and then another line for customs! The puzzle continues for the new international traveler.  Coming back to the USA, possibly running late for the plane, and once again there are those 2 lines:  One is short and quick to use that Global Traveler card — the other is endlessly long, possibly opening luggage, answering questions, and time is running out. Why don’t I have one of those cards; the puzzle pieces aren’t coming together. For those who have not traveled it is a puzzle.

Teachers don’t feel in control with the idea of their planning not running the lesson.  “Students need to suck-it-up. I have taught it this way forever, and kids got it!” Have you heard teachers respond this way? It is how some teachers react when I work with them to move the learning to the students.  More often I hear these frustrations when the instructor looks at low assessment results. “These kids don’t work hard enough.” “Why don’t they do their work?” “They don’t get it.”

It’s not a puzzle: That’s not how students learn.

Teacher directed to student in mind

Backward planning is essential.  What do the students ultimately need to know?  And only after fully answering that essential detailed questions, do we decide how to get our kids there through their engagement.  It is NOT about the teacher; it is about the student.  All of the pieces in between are the student-engagement puzzle pieces — not teacher-direction.  Yes, there will be the teacher’s mini lessons which lays foundations along the way.  Yes, the teacher is constantly involved, but the change in the puzzle of teaching is that the student is at the center — NOT the teacher.

With my backwards planning, I have to think through and carefully plan how my students are involved in their learning each day.  They are not passive: Those puzzle pieces don’t put themselves together without help.  If they are bored and not learning, the pieces won’t fit together.  We know from research, that forced pieces break or get bent and are no longer part of the educational puzzle — they drop out. Student engagement doesn’t mean just paying attention; it means they are involved in their learning.

One way to do this is through the Jigsaw instructional strategy.  According to John Hattie’s 2017 updated work, Jigsaw has an effect size of 1.2.  It is within the top 10 most powerful ways students learn.  Not surprising that this strategy is when students learn and are engaged with their peers. Ironically, jigsawing puts puzzle pieces together!

Are you moving students to the center of your classroom? Are you reflecting how engaged your students are? Did you plan the end first or did you plan what you were going to do?

Have you put your student puzzle together?

Wait Time … We Need to Use It More

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.

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NO MORE FAKE READING book review

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!

Why aren’t reading strategies taught more often?

As a young reader, I was totally confused.  If you are interested you can read about my reading issues in a past blog.  But more importantly and on topic for today, my comprehension only turned a corner once I slowly came to realize that if I could picture the story in my head, I understood the book or short story much better!  NO TEACHER HAD EVER TOLD ME TO DO THAT!  I was always told here are the sounds and words, read.  Somehow, Puff, Dick, and Jane were supposed to magically make it all come together.  It didn’t.  Reading was a puzzle that couldn’t come together for me for years and years.

Reading strategies come naturally to good readers, but those are only a portion of the population.  I wasn’t in that lucky community of good readers, and none of my teachers ever taught me any reading strategies.

So once the puzzle piece of visualization took form, I had to constantly  remind myself to “see” the characters.  It was frustrating; I read slowly which often caused me to have to re-read because I missed details.  By the way, that is another misconception by many people:  Re-reading is not the comprehension cure-all.  Sometimes re-reading is useful but not every time.  But when I did live through the frustration to find the detail that helped me visualize a character or location, the story started to become real.  It was amazing how this picture in my head so quickly impacted my willingness to read.  I had no idea that this was what I was supposed to do!

Hence my passion and dedication to teaching all students — regardless of their ability — reading strategies.  I cannot emphasize how critical these puzzle pieces are to reading comprehension.

When I work with struggling readers now, they are frequently stumped that visualizing a text is something they should do.   Most of my students have no idea what the word means let alone how to go about it. When I suggest that some day it can come naturally to them, they think I’m nuts.  So we begin — whether it is grade 6 or 7 or 8 — using markers and paper:  Listening to a short text, I read to them and they draw a sketch of what they see in their mind.  Students are often worried about their artistic ability. I remind them of our purpose:  We are practicing visualizing the text.  As a former co-teacher of mine, A. Warner, told me, “It is making mental movies in your head of what you read.”

Visualizing is probably the most powerful puzzle piece; however, the other 13 strategies are just as important.  The list can be overwhelming, but little by little I whittle away working with my students to help them learn and apply each one.  I have them not only learn the term, but what it means.  If they can’t explain it, they can’t use it.  We practice the reading strategies over and over with independent and class texts — including defining them so students are clear what they are doing.  Some students have already mastered some of the skills so they move on to other strategies.  After all, good teachers differentiate for the needs of the student — even when it comes to the use of reading strategies.

So why aren’t reading strategies taught more often?  One part of the puzzle is that secondary English teachers are not taught to be “reading” teachers.  Reading specialists know to overtly teach reading strategies, but not all students work with the reading specialists.   Colleges don’t emphasize reading strategies in methods classes.  Take a hint universities; this needs to be added! Many teachers are already good readers.  Again, it is true that reading strategies come naturally to good readers — without cognitively working at it, they apply the strategies as they read.  However, in my family alone, I estimate one-half to two-thirds are actually good readers — not everyone.  I am a self-made good reader.  There are more of us out there, but it is a painful journey.

In this new school year, my goal of my second year as a literacy/instructional coach is to help teachers implement reading strategies in their classrooms.  A few instructors were willing to do so last year, and they were impressed with the results.  It is only with the support of the classroom teachers that students will apply the strategies so frequently that they become ingrained and a natural part of reading.  Then the puzzle of reading becomes whole for them too.

The following strategies list is one that I have accumulated over time.   I cannot name any one source; I have adapted it multiple times from what I’ve learned from my own experiences and from working with my students.

READING STRATEGIES THAT WORK FOR ALL READERS (with fiction and nonfiction)

  • Draw Inferences   —  Put clues together to figure out what the author means
  • Create VisualizationsSee the plot or article info in your mind – make mental movies
  • Ask Questions  — Ask why characters/people act the way they do – ask why author included information in the text
  • Determine ImportanceFigure out what is important in the story/article and what is not
  • Clarify  — Be clear about what is going on in the story/article with details & without – Ask am I understanding the story?????????  Be sure you know what is going on before reading on.  Don’t be confused — be clear!
  • Retell and SummarizeRetelling is being able to tell main ideas as well as essential lesser ideas; whereas summarizing is telling just the main ideas of the text
  • Construct Connections – Connect to another text including movies, poems, TV, cartoons, books, etc. as well as something heard about, something in friend’s/family’s life (text to text and text to world)
  • Monitor and Adjust ComprehensionPay attention if you understand or not or if you got info wrong, you correct it
  • Make PredictionsDecide what you think is going to happen in a book based on info/clues you read – making a hypothesis about the book — then you have to clarify if you have correctly predicted
  • Adjust Fluency Rate – Change how fast or slow you read based on what is going on in the book and on your understanding
  • Use Vocabulary — Figure out word meanings based on other words & events in story/article (use context clues) without using the dictionary unless you absolutely have to do so
  • Chunk phrasesRead phrases and chunks of words at a time — not reading individual words which slows down readers
  • Speak with intonationWhen reading, read with emotion not like a robot; read as if you are the character speaking
  • Analyze and critiqueAnalyze the author’s writing and why he or she wrote and created the people/scenes as he/she did; critique how the author’s work and words impacts the story

 

Conferencing with Writers

Nanci Atwell:  The middle school guru who was one of many to revolutionize writing for 6th, 7th, and 8th graders.  I  first learned about writing conferences after reading her book, IN THE MIDDLE.  Her concepts sold me on what was possible with students. The teacher meeting with students to talk about what they were writing, how their writing was going, the pitfalls, the high notes, and the struggles. Wow!  Where could the text be improved as well as what were the strengths?  Was the writing ready to be polished?  Was the voice, tone, and word choice appropriate to the audience? All of this occurred over multiple conversations between the adult and child. I kept thinking if only I had had these opportunities as a student, perhaps I would have been a better student writer!

At the time, I was teaching part-time with adults and teens working toward their GEDs.  Obviously these were not the pre-teens Atwell referenced in her book, but when applied to my own students, the conferencing still worked.  More importantly, it positively impacted my student’s learning!

When I moved to the middle school classroom a few years later, I eagerly applied more of Atwell’s techniques; her book was my “bible”.  It served me well!  The most important puzzle piece that I used from Atwell continued to be the student-teacher conference.

The beauty of conferencing that so many teachers don’t understand — and is now part of my job as a coach — is that the teacher gets to know who their students are.  Writing is a powerful tool; that is a pretty well-known fact.  Students can be verbally shy but willing to write.  However, sometimes getting to know them comes from what you  pry out of them in order to help improve their writing. Each student deals with writing differently.  Writing is a puzzle to many students, but conferencing helps them start to see where the pieces fit together.  For some it takes longer than others; after all, everyone can see the puzzle come together at different rates and in different ways.

I’ve seen teachers silently write notes/comments in a student’s documents without any student interaction and call it conferencing.  Objection!  There has to be a conversation, and these discussions cannot be one-sided or the teacher is not facilitating; he or she is dictating.  The entire point of conferencing has been lost if that is the case.  Everyone has their piece in the puzzle — both student and teacher.

At first I tried to help my writers repair every part of their writing:  Editing and revising.  What a mistake!  A student meeting with me would last for 30 minutes — that didn’t work too well with 25-30 students in a class.  After more research about writing workshop where conferencing is paramount, and reading from experts such as Ralph Fletcher, Jim Burke, Laura Robb, and the other middle school guru Kylene Beers, I learned to fine-tune my facilitating and have students take more responsibility for their work.

In some ways this can feel as if the puzzle pieces are upside down.  Students have come to expect that teachers will provide answers; many kids are not thinking for themselves.  They can’t put those puzzle pieces together:  Not because they are unskilled, but because they are used to parents, relatives, coaches, siblings and teachers, telling them where each piece fits.

My students now chose what 1 or 2 elements they want to talk about based on the rubric.  This was a big change both for the students and for me. Focusing in on a few things in our conference, though and getting them correct, helped those skills follow through to the next writing.  DEPTH NOT BREADTH:  This is the center piece to the conferencing puzzle.

So, here is my writing workshop puzzle amended from the writers named above and many others.  It works for me, and I’ve seen it work in similar ways for my team teachers.

  1. Introducing the writing task based on the literature and have students explain it
  2. Providing a clear rubric that is written so students understand it and can explain it — better yet have the students create the rubric
  3. Planning in some form which works best for each individual student
  4. Teacher tracking — spreadsheets works best for me — where each student is in the writing process
  5. Conferencing
  6. Drafting
  7. Tracking the process
  8. Conferencing
  9. Drafting
  10. Peer conferencing
  11. Tracking
  12. Conferencing
  13. Drafting

Do you see a pattern to the puzzle?

Without a doubt, conferencing takes time, management — for the teacher and the students, patience — for the teacher and the students, the willingness to release control to students, and planning.  It’s messy. But the outcomes are worth it.

 

 

From Classroom to Coaching

Since I last published here, my positions have radically changed.  I taught another year of grade 7 to an amazing group of students with whom I am still in touch.  It is SO gratifying, and a teacher knows she has made an impact when students choose to come visit.

A position opened in my middle school in the spring of 2015:  Literacy Coach.  I had coached teachers a couple of years before for 30% of my time while teaching a push-in literacy class with struggling 7th and 8th grade readers. The position had been a collaboration with another teacher who also cared deeply about helping students learn to read. That had been a great program, but this time, I wanted something deeper and different.  I was ready for more in my career.  There were more pieces to add to my personal puzzle.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved teaching in the classroom; it was the best part of my 44 years of working in a wide variety of jobs and careers.  But I was ready for change.  No matter how many committees I am involved with and how many new strategies I try, at some point, a person needs a change to stay at the top of their game and to feel fulfilled.  It is my strong belief that this is an issue in the teaching profession:  Once people lose interest for their day-to-day job, they need to leave.

I had not lost my passion, but I needed renewal and revival.  Perusing the literacy coach job description, I realized that the position was different in this posting than in the past: No push in, there would be teaching classes, and more coaching.  After talking with the assistant principal, I found she was looking to redefine the position; it didn’t take me long to submit my letter of intent.

The position was not mine immediately:  I was up against a strong contender whom I respect.  We discussed the job, and I encouraged him to apply.  I knew I could work well with him if he became the coach. We look at many educational issues in similar ways.  His classroom energy, ability to engage kids, and co-teaching collaboration are some of what I admire.  It’s a story for another time, but I now call on him to coach new teachers.

Ultimately, I did get the literacy coach position and immediately the questions flowed about my new endeavor:  How to engage struggling readers so they don’t feel bad about themselves and are willing to improve their skills?  How to encourage non-readers to open themselves up to becoming readers even in some small way?  How to get buy in from my colleagues that I can help them in their classrooms?  How do I know what they need help with?

The puzzle pieces were scattering around me, but I didn’t have enough of them yet to put it all together in my new classroom.