Skills, Rigor & Interest for our Students…Another Part of the Puzzle

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!

https://ctcorestandards.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/CTDT_Gr_6-8_A_Jury_of_Her_Peers.pdf 

Formative Assessment — Why Don’t Teachers Use It More Often?

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.

Formative Assessment as Differentiation Part 1

 

 

 

The Other Part of the Writing Process — The First Part

So many times teachers wonder why kids can’t write.  “We’ve taught them.”  “We’ve showed them.”  “They just aren’t doing it.”  “Why don’t they get it?”  As a teacher coach I frequently hear these comments not only from English teachers but from social studies, science, and even math educators.

The problem  is students aren’t given enough time to think and process before writing.  Yes, we give them pre-formed organizers, but those don’t work for every student.  Let’s talk about that in a moment.

The bigger issue as I was discussing this week with a literacy-minded science teacher — and those are hard to come by — is that students need to be able to think and play with a topic in their minds on their own before we ask them to put pen to paper.

We push them into writing without trying to grasp ideas on their own. Thinking gives the brain an opportunity to get adjusted and absorb some of what they have just heard or read.  

Students are so used to immediately being ready to respond that in my own classes or when I’m modeling for other teachers I frequently have to remind students to wait and think.  When arms are in the air thinking has stopped. In a world of immediate action, our students are used to fast action.  Hands up right away means kids are only thinking about what they are going to say — they are not still playing with the concepts in their minds.  They are missing that depth of thought.  Teachers need to push for depth; only if we push them will they become used to thinking and searching more deeply for answers — not the first response that pops into their head.

After that minute or two of thinking and even jotting  a note or two — not sentences — about the topic, students need to further process.  

Then when students have the opportunity to turn & talk, speak with their elbow buddy, or share with a partner or or small group, this interaction provides an opportunity for validation and hopefully an “aha” moment of concept realization.  It adds additional thoughts to help them think through their own conclusions. But they have to have that moment of introspection  or they just rely on the others for answers.  

Share-outs are perfect formative assessment time.  The teacher gathers information on each student’s contribution — or lack thereof — as well as the insight that is shared with their peers.  

For the student who struggles in a subject area a sentence starter might help them think on their own.  But  they still have to have that deliberation time to consider  the subject.  We do our learners a disservice when we force them into writing before they are prepared.  

 

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.

 

 

 

My Literary History

Today as I was updating my LiveBinder for my seventh graders, I was thinking back about my literary history which I always share verbally during the first week with my students.  You see, John Jakes novels were really the end and yet the beginning. I had lots of books around as a child. My father and mother loved buying me books.  The problem was that I was so literal: I knew that Pooh bears did not speak to little boys in the forest, and fish did not jump out of the fishbowl as Dr. Seuss said.  I had all of the books and dolls from Joan Walsh Anglund.  I loved the dolls without their mouths — only eyes and noses — and with my own mind, I brought them to life speaking for them.  I loved sleeping with them;  they created a safe feeling for me at night.  The books had beautiful thoughts about how wonderful the world was. But in my very realistic mind, I knew no one could speak without having a mouth!

 So unlike what research tells us, conversation with high vocabulary at dinner and lots of books will lead to a high literacy ability — as was the norm in my house — I was the exception.

 

Sharing this information as part of my literary history with my students is essential. I teach very different levels of students, but often have students who are not able to comprehend well since I understand that type of student very well.  After all, they are what I was. And yet, every year I have been able to help so many students recognize that reading really is not terrible. 

As all middle schoolers do, my seventh graders come into the classroom at the beginning of the year suspicious. Not only do they not know me, but they are preteens recognizing that they don’t know how to yet trust the world. Yes, there are students who come through my door who like to read — but sadly, they are the exception. Only after I share with them what I went through to become a reader and that now I carry my Kindle around with the 40+ books as well as the two in my purse every day, do they recognize that maybe I will understand them.

 In 1997 at NYU as a graduate student, I thought the professor was insane when she asked my peers and me to write our literary histories.  I had never done this before. And yet, this is what ultimately helps my kids connect with me so much! I wish I remembered her name because I would have to give her a big thank you now. When students understand what we have gone through personally, and they realize that we are very sincere in our words, they then can start to accept what we say as truth.

 

 I became an English teacher because I don’t want kids to go through what I did. Not comprehending for so many years hurt self-esteem, hurt my feelings, and made me feel left out and different.  Sharing my literary history helps putting the pieces together for the kids as well as it is still putting the pieces together for me to become that better teacher/facilitator.

The next step in putting the pieces together

When I returned from The Netherlands entering high school as a junior, I was still a very non-confident reader.  However, I had realized that there were literary possibilities.  Luckily, my high school offered quarter classes in English, and I was assigned to the short stories class.  The teacher introduced me to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and again, I found with a lot of work, I could get lost in a story!  It was by no means easy, and many times I wanted to give up.  But somehow, my brain kept remembering the great stories, and that was the encouragement I needed to give myself. 

I still read the end of the book before the rising action, so I had a direction.  In fact, I only stopped this strategy 40 years later.  Knowing the end didn’t feel like I was missing anything; it helped!  I knew what to look for, and my entertainment was in figuring out how the characters would reach the finale!  This is not a strategy I teach nor do I encourage it, but I have met other non-readers who have found some success by reading the end of the book first.  They too are putting the pieces together.

Little by little, I was gaining some confidence with my reading.  But think about it:  I was 16 years old and only then did reading make sense.  I think my sister probably went broke buying me romance novels, but it was worth every penny.  Escaping into a story away from my own life was a wonderful adventure — the exact adventure I want my students to have. 

You see, I was such a literal learner and reader, I needed a map, and I created it on my own.  My house was full of books, but no one had ever helped me find a book that would engage me.  Maybe that is why I was meant to be an exchange student — to exchange my attitude toward reading.

Now, finding books that will engage every one of my 100-130 students is my goal from the first  day of school in August.  We spend a lot of class time putting the pieces together to figure out which books fit just right for each one of my 7th or 8th graders.  Many of my students experience the same trials and frustration I did, but we work at it together.  My students discuss what concepts help them choose a book, and sadly, many kids say “nothing” helps.  But we slowly start putting the pieces together and discuss concepts that many kids have never considered.

  • Look at the cover – Is it appealing?
  • Choose a genre that has been enjoyed before
  • Choose an author that was previously entertaining
  • Read another book in a series that was great the first time
  • Think about:  Is this book too easy or too hard??
  • Consider the book length – Is it too long or too short????
  • Read the book’s summary – Does it sound interesting?
  • Read a few pages in the book — Intriguing??
  • Get a recommendation from another reader
  • Read the back of the book – Appealing???
  • Check book reviews – Helpful?
  • Any awards earned? These are signs people thought it was a good
  • Check the font & number of pages – Does it fit??

No teacher ever took this time with me to help me understand these factors for choosing a book.  I thought reading was too hard, I was different from everyone else, and reading just didn’t make sense.  I couldn’t even consider there was a science to finding books! 

So I have to be sure that is not what my middle schoolers experience.  For some kids, it will take months for them to find the right book, but we keep talking about fiction and nonfiction as a class, in pairs, and every size group imaginable. Buy-in can be slow with my pre-teens, but peer interaction helps.  My reading conferences with each student are great for helping suggest novels, but I’m still  — even as an experienced teacher —  putting the pieces together to improve those conversations too.