Join us on Monday, August 31, starting at 9 p.m. EST for a live Twitter chat with Diana Neebe and Jen Roberts, authors of the recent book Power Up: Making the Shift to 1:1 Teaching and Learning. Diana and Jen will be online to answer your questions about using technology in the classroom, including time management, assessment, and lots of useful tips for all of your technology concerns! Come and join us and share your ideas!
After the chat we will raffle off 3 copies of the book. Follow #PowerUpEd to join the conversation!
The authors of Well Played sat down with us recently to talk about how puzzles and games are not just fillers and not just a way to practice math. Combined with the teacher’s questioning and assessment, real math learning happens, classroom talk is enhanced, and students become “co-teachers” who support each other. Listen to this conversation with Linda Dacey, Karen Gartland, and Jayne Bamford Lynch and then head over to the Stenhouse website to preview the book online!
Sarah Cooper is back this week with a post that examines how writing can help students clarify their thinking and bring them closer to the historical event they are writing about. Sarah is the author of Making History Mine and has been a regularcontributortothe Stenhouse Blog.
In History Class, Writing Means Thinking
By Sarah Cooper
This summer I’ve written ten response papers for two history graduate classes, a process that has sometimes felt like walking through molasses.
Here are some questions that ran through my head:
Do I care about the topic?
Is my thesis clear?
Am I supporting the thesis with evidence?
Am I paraphrasing enough not to plagiarize?
Do the topic sentences support the thesis?
Is this paragraph too long?
Is my writing any good?
Needless to say, I’ve become newly empathetic toward my students as writers.
I’ve remembered how difficult it can be to synthesize information, especially in anticipation of someone else reading and evaluating my writing. Is this argument original enough? Am I incorporating the information accurately, giving enough weight to each source?
I’ve realized that assignment length can dictate depth of thought. A paper with a maximum of 1,200 words required more sustained analysis than one of 800 words. The longer length also meant I could take byways that seemed less plausible in the shorter papers.
Writing these essays has also helped clarify my thinking. Reading through margin annotations to refresh my memory of a text is one thing, but pulling together these annotations into a cohesive argument is another.
What surprised me most, though, was something I knew long ago but had somehow forgotten:
The act of writing made the readings more interesting.
Here’s an example: In reading about John F. Kennedy’s foreign policy, I initially found the suspense of the Cuban Missile Crisis much more interesting than the disastrous missteps of the Bay of Pigs invasion.
But then I started creating a thesis about what the Bay of Pigs showed about the Kennedy presidency – and realized that the debacle could be considered a case study for how presidents learn on the job. For the importance of surrounding oneself with advisors who offer conflicting opinions. And for what strength can look like: admitting we are wrong and fixing our mistakes the next time.
Writing about the readings forced me to connect personally with them, to find a place where my interest in psychology and leadership coincided with historical events. And suddenly the history became more memorable.
Implications for Teaching
Especially for middle schoolers, engaging with history can mean an acrostic, pair-and-share presentation or diagram just as easily as it can mean a serious written piece.
In my desire to make history exciting for students, sometimes I think I’ve given short shrift to the power of writing to ignite such excitement. I certainly ask students to write – but I had forgotten that writing can be an example of Seymour Papert’s “hard fun.”
There’s an alchemy to putting words on the page, as UCLA history professor Lynn Hunt says in an excellent piece about writing and radishes: “Something ineffable happens when you write down a thought. You think something you did not know you could or would think and it leads you to another thought almost unbidden.”
This is the magic I’ve felt this summer, much as it made my brain hurt. And this is the magic I’d like my students to feel when writing about history.
How do you encourage your students to find the personal connection in their own analytical writing?
In this fun guest post from Tracy Zager, you can follow along as her daughter tries to figure out just how much older some of her friends are, and as she does, you can get an excellent insight into how Tracy guides her mathematical thinking. Tracy’s new book Becoming The Math Teacher You Wish You’d Had will be published in 2016.
Ask any elementary school teacher, and she or he will tell you that comparison problems are much harder for most kids than operations with other actions. For example, fourth-grade-teacher Jennifer Clerkin Muhammad asked her students to draw a picture of this problem from Investigations:
Darlene picked 7 apples. Juan picked 4 times as many apples. How many apples did Juan pick?
Her students are pros at representations and skillful multipliers, but we saw a lot of this:
Kids who were used to thinking of multiplication as either groups, arrays, or repeated addition had some productive, furrowed-brow time ahead of them. How can you represent comparisons? How is this multiplication? How do you draw the 4?
Then they started to get somewhere.
With each representation they discussed, Jen asked the excellent question:
“Where do we see the 4 times as many in this representation?”
Seriously. Jot that one down. It’s a keeper.
Jen and her class played with a series of problems involving multiplicative comparison, (height, quantity, distance, etc.). For each problem, she asked student to create a representation. And then she’d choose a few to discuss, asking, “Where is the ______ times as ______ in this representation?” Lightbulbs were going off everywhere as students broadened and deepened their understanding of multiplication.
Teachers often see the same struggle with comparison situations that can be thought of as subtraction or missing addend problems, like:
Marta has 4 stuffed animals. Kenny has 9 stuffed animals. How many more stuffed animals does Kenny have than Marta?
If kids have been taught “subtract means take away” or “minus means count backwards,” then this problem doesn’t fit the mold. And if kids have been taught keyword strategies, they’re likely to hear “more,” pluck those numbers, and add them together.
Knowing this as I do, I jump on opportunities to explore comparison problems with my own kids. I want them to have a fuller sense of the operations from the beginning, rather than developing too-narrow definitions that have to be broadened later. So, subtract doesn’t mean take away in our house. They’re not synonyms. I actually don’t worry about defining the operations at all: we just play around with lots of different types of problems, and I trust that my kids can make sense of them.
Yesterday, I was talking with Daphne about a neighbor visiting tomorrow. Our neighbor has a little girl, whom I’ll call Katrina. She’s about 2. We also have more awesome girls who live across the street. Let’s call them Lily, 15, and Gloria, 13. Gloria helps out once a week, and my girls idolize her. Here’s how the conversation kicked off:
Me: “If Katrina’s mother comes over to help me on Sunday, could you play with Katrina for a bit so her mom and I can work?”
Daphne: “Yes!!! We love playing with her. And she loves us. She cries when she has to leave us. We’re her best friends.”
Me: “I think Katrina feels the way about you and Maya that you and Maya feel about Lily and Gloria. It’s fun to hang out with older kids. You learn a little about what’s coming for you.”
Daphne: “Yeah. But for Katrina, Lily and Gloria would be TOO old. Like, she’d think they were grown-ups because they’re SO much older than she is. We’re older than Katrina, but we’re less older than Lily and Gloria are.”
So there’s my opportunity. She was comparing already. With a little nudge, I could encourage her to quantify and mathematize this situation. I thought I’d start with the simplest numbers so she could think about meaning first.
Me: “How much older are you than Katrina?”
Daphne: “I think she’s 2. So…”
There was a pretty good pause.
Daphne: “Are we counting on here?”
Me: “What do you think?”
Daphne: “I think so. Because I want to know how many MORE. So, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. I’m 4 years older than she is. Yeah. That makes sense.”
Me: “OK. So how many years older is Maya than Katrina?”
Me: “You didn’t count on that time. What did you do?”
Daphne: “Well, I knew that I was 4 years older than Katrina, and Maya is 2 years older than me, so 4, 5, 6. Because Maya is OLDER than me, I knew they had to be farther.”
Me: “What do you mean farther?”
Daphne: “Like, it had to be more. I was starting with 4, and then it had to be more farther apart.”
Me: “Oh! So you were trying to figure out whether to go 2 more or 2 fewer?”
Daphne: “Yeah. And it had to be 2 more, because Maya’s more older than Katrina than I am. I mean, I’m older than Katrina, and Maya’s older than me, so she’s more older than Katrina than I am. It had to be 2 MORE.”
Daphne’s life might have been easier right here if she had some tools she doesn’t have yet. I’m thinking about number lines, symbols, and a shared mathematical vocabulary including words like distance or difference. Those tools might help her keep track and facilitate communicating her thinking to somebody else. But I love that we were able to have this conversation without those tools, while driving in the car where I couldn’t even see her gestures. Her thinking is there, and clear. The tools will come as a relief later on, when the problems are more complicated.
We kept going.
Me: “OK. So you’re 4 years older than Katrina and Maya’s 6 years older than Katrina. I wonder how that compares to Gloria? Is she about the same amount older than you two as you two are older than Katrina?”
Daphne: “Well, she’s 13. This is gonna be hard.”
Daphne: “She’s 7 years older than me.”
Me: “How’d you figure that out?”
Daphne: “I went 6. 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13.” She held up her fingers to show me.
Me: “So how much older is Gloria than Maya?”
Daphne: “Umm…so Maya’s 8…umm…5. She’s 5 years older than Maya.”
Me: “How do you know?”
Daphne: “Because Maya’s 2 years older than me, so it’s 2 closer.”
This is the kind of problem where kids lose track of their thinking easily. Do we add or subtract that 2? In the last problem, she’d added. This time she subtracted. And she knew why!
When I glanced at Daphne in the rear view mirror, she had this awesome look on her face. She was looking out the window, but not seeing what was outside because she was so deep in thought. I wish I could have peeked inside her mind, and seen what she was seeing. Because, to use Jen’s question, where do we see the 2 years older? How did she see it? There was no time to ask, because she was onto pulling it all together.
Daphne: “So, Gloria’s a little bit more older than us than we are older than Katrina, because Gloria is 5 and 7 years older, and we’re 4 and 6 years older. But it’s pretty close.”
We pulled into the school parking lot on that one.
In our family, we count and manipulate objects all the time. Counting more abstract units like years, though, gives me a chance to open the kids’ thinking a little bit. In this conversation, Daphne was both counting and comparing years. Tough stuff, but oh so good.
The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and the Common Core State Standards encourage a balance of informational and literary texts in K–5 classrooms and expect teachers to help develop students’ literacy skills through learning science. However, many elementary teachers are more comfortable with fiction than nonfiction resources and often lack extensive background in science.
As both the library coordinator and scientist-in-residence at Jackson STEM Dual Language Magnet Academy in Pasadena, California, Mavonwe Banerdt knew she was in a unique position to help teachers thoughtfully integrate science and literacy lessons. When district elementary literacy specialist Alyson Beecher suggested that they focus professional development on Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction & Nonfiction Books to Teach Life Science, K–2 (Stenhouse, 2014), Banerdt said it took about five minutes to determine that the book was “perfect for what I wanted to do.” Authors Melissa Stewart and Nancy Chesley “go into each standard and what it’s trying to accomplish,” Banerdt said. “They talk about how, over a period of time, teachers can use fiction and nonfiction, how pairing fiction and nonfiction [with science] is great because you can reach the kids who are into each. But I feel the book has an additional bonus in that it presents a bridge from the ideas in the classroom to the real world around us.”
Perfect Pairs starts each lesson with a Wonder Statement, which is designed to address an NGSS Performance Expectation, and follows with a Learning Goal, which details the knowledge students should gain from the lesson. Matching appropriate fiction and nonfiction books to the science concepts enables students to investigate and reflect using experiments and engaging activities, as well as Wonder Journals, Science Dialogues, and Science Circles.
During the 2014–15 school year, Banerdt and Beecher began modeling demonstration lessons from the book for teachers in kindergarten through second grade. They chose three of the lessons for each grade level, trying to match the focus of the lesson to what Jackson’s STEM teacher had planned for weekly science pullout labs. Because about 80 percent of Jackson’s dual-language instruction is in Spanish and the Perfect Pairs lessons were in English, Banerdt and Beecher provided additional vocabulary study and made sure to include both oral and written language activities and extensions. For example, to help English language learners with limited vocabulary, they made color-coded cards that the children could use to match the correct words for animal parts to corresponding pictures. They also found a short video and played quick games to help students who had never visited a beach understand how hermit crabs move.
“We knew the authors had great lessons, but we had to make adaptations to our situation and students,” Beecher said. “Part of it was helping teachers think differently about how they use a book and integrate stories into the classroom curriculum, that it can be really tied into your goals. Then looking at science standards and how they can use stories, writing, collages, and physical activities to help reinforce those concepts.”
Beecher and Banerdt had only one class period, not the full week of classes the authors intended to develop each lesson. So the regular classroom teachers helped to prepare students by reading aloud one of the paired books prior to the demonstration lessons. For a second-grade lesson about how wind, water, and animals disperse seeds, teachers read Miss Maple’s Seeds by Eliza Wheeler and Planting the Wild Garden by Kathryn O. Galbraith. They also used discussions, dramatizations, art, and writing to deepen students’ understanding of the science and reading concepts.
“There are a number of great ideas in the book and one was to print out examples of burrs,” Beecher wrote in one of her blog posts about the sessions at www.kidlitfrenzy.com. “This was especially important for our students who are English language learners. Since we were unsure how familiar they were with the concept of burrs getting stuck on their socks and shoes, the visual examples helped. The students loved looking at pieces of Velcro and learning that it was invented by Georges de Mestral, who was inspired after a walk through the woods.”
Because they had to shorten the Perfect Pairs lessons, Beecher and Banerdt weren’t sure if the students would retain crucial information. They were thrilled when the school’s STEM teacher reported that students were so well prepared for science lab sessions that they could move more quickly through the content. For example, first graders who had engaged in a lesson about how an animal’s body parts help it to survive could richly contribute to the conversation about that topic.
“That was the defining moment when the school really bought in. Once they see it in action, they want to be part of it,” Beecher said. “We’ve definitely showed people this [high-level instruction] is possible and how exciting it can be.”
In addition, because scheduled parent visits to Jackson coincided with the demonstration lessons, many prospective families got to see the impact of the Perfect Pairs instructional approach. School and district administrators also observed some classes and later shared the ideas with other schools. Beecher invited faculty at other schools to see demonstration lessons at Jackson, and several have asked her to work with their staff during the coming school year.
Banerdt also discussed the professional development initiative at Jackson with elementary librarians throughout the Pasadena school district. One librarian obtained a grant to purchase copies of Perfect Pairs for every teacher in her school. Now Banerdt and Beecher are eagerly awaiting the grades 3–5 edition of Perfect Pairs that Stewart and Chesley are currently writing.
Stewart said she has been pleasantly surprised by the way librarians around the country have responded to the book. Recognizing that many elementary schools have limited classroom time for science instruction, they have seized the chance to help teachers integrate children’s literature with science concepts.
“I think one reason the librarian community has sort of embraced it is because they trust my reputation,” said Stewart, the author of more than 180 books about science. “I think it’s showing that Perfect Pairs has an appeal beyond the audience [of classroom teachers] it was intended for.”
Banerdt agreed. She bought additional copies of Perfect Pairs to share with Jackson’s staff, and plans to use funds from a STEM grant to buy many of the fiction and nonfiction resources the authors recommend pairing with science texts. She encouraged other educators to be open-minded about the careful choices Stewart and Chesley have made. For example, she said she initially thought some of the recommended poems were too sophisticated for second graders but saw in practice that the selections were just right. By contrast, Swimmy by Leo Lionni seemed too simple for first graders, yet it proved a perfect match for a lesson about how animals protect themselves. Banerdt said she considered the alternate fiction and nonfiction sources that the authors included with each lesson but ended up believing that the primary pairings were best.
“I just thought it was a remarkable book, how accessible it is for any teacher,” Banerdt said. “It has so many ideas and is so well researched. In California, lots of teachers are struggling with how to work with the Common Core and NGSS, and that piece is laid out crystal clear.”
OK, I admit it: we, at Stenhouse, get a tiny bit giddy when we see a new book cover design. And then we get even more giddy when after long, long months of work, we get to hold and read the finished product. I think the only person happier than us at that point is the author.
Last week we received two cover designs for two upcoming books by Ralph Fletcher and Paula Bourque. We are sharing them here because they are beautiful and because we think you’ll be excited to hold these two gems in your hand soon! To sign up to be notified when the books arrive in our warehouse, visit our website!
Another summer — woosh! Gone! We hope you were able to read our 2015 Blogstitute series and that you will start the school year energized and full of ideas! Here is your chance to catch up on what you missed:
Here it is — the last day and the last post for our 2015 Summer Blogstitute. It comes from Brenda Overturf, coauthor of the new book Vocabularians along with Leslie Montgomery and Margot Holmes Smith. She outlines how to nurture learners who acquire and use new words with confidence. She believes that when students actively engage in learning vocabulary in creative ways, they enjoy their experience with words and remember them.
Active and Creative Vocabulary Practice in Grades 5–8
By Brenda Overturf
For the last few weeks, I have been taking an acrylic painting class. Although I loved art when I was in school, I have not attempted this type of work in many, many years. So I was a bit startled when the teacher, a career artist with a master’s degree in fine arts, left us with this homework close to the beginning of the course: “Get your supplies and begin painting!”
At home, I laid out paint, brushes, and the other things I had purchased from the list. Then I eyed the blank canvas. Where to begin? Of course, like any modern person, I flipped open my laptop for some helpful tutorials. But I was quickly confronted with a number of unfamiliar terms. Linear and aerial perspective. Positive and negative space. Blocking. Tinting. Shading. I vaguely remembered my teacher saying some of these words, but I certainly did not know enough to approach the canvas with confidence. It is only now, with my last class coming up, that I can read the same websites and not only better understand the terms but also envision myself engaging in what they mean. I’m the same learner, but now I have tried creating linear and aerial perspective and positive and negative spaces. I have blocked, tinted, and shaded. I am more confident and can use these words with ease. The only difference in my knowledge is that I know some words that are important for understanding and now have a bit of experience to connect the meaning.
Teaching Vocabulary in the Middle Grades
Vocabulary learners need rich experiences with words and their related networks (synonyms, antonyms, homophones, etc.) in order to develop word schema and truly make new words their own. Dutifully looking up words in a dictionary and copying the definitions doesn’t count (in fact, it may even hurt). All students need to learn individual words and word-learning strategies, and to develop word consciousness, within a literacy-rich environment.
Research tells us that we need to experience a word seven to twelve times to truly remember it, so vocabulary learners also need multiple exposures to words over time. The structure of most elementary classrooms enables teachers to provide experiences with targeted words throughout the day. However, this is not so easy to do at the middle level. With compartmentalized classes and specialized disciplines, teachers must have an intentional plan to provide vocabulary instruction that helps kids learn.
In Vocabularians, I describe a process for teachers of middle grades students to plan vocabulary instruction together within a school, team, or professional learning community:
Carefully select a small number of words important to understanding upcoming lessons in different classes and that students will see in text. These words will be designated for deep study for each two-week vocabulary cycle.
Introduce each selected vocabulary word in context. Encourage students to infer the meaning of the word and engage them in discussion that allows them to explore the context in which the word is introduced. Reinforce these words across the team or grade level.
Invite students to create a “vocabulary exploration” of each word selected for deep study. Add the vocabulary exploration to a journal or section of a binder to be used as a reference.
Flood each classroom with other words important to content or that students discover in reading.
Teach morphological awareness as multisyllabic words are introduced for deep study or as they are encountered in text.
Provide opportunities for active, engaging vocabulary practice that include movement, discussion, art, drama, music, writing, technology or media, and test-taking skills.
Assess vocabulary in ways in which students will be tested. Include words that students have studied previously so there is a cumulative effect. Provide ways for students to self-assess and monitor their own progress in vocabulary development.
Students need “thick” vocabulary experiences—where they really wrestle with words—to help them develop deep knowledge. Step number six of this plan emphasizes active and creative practice as part of learning vocabulary. It is no secret that students are more motivated and learn at higher levels when they are doing something they find interesting. The Association for Middle Level Education agrees. This organization has outlined five characteristics of appropriate curriculum, instruction, and assessment for early adolescents, one of which is that students learn best when they engage in active learning. Physical activity and projects using the arts can be highly motivating to young adolescents who need to move frequently and enjoy social interaction. Active learning can also help meet the needs of students who learn best through multisensory instruction to develop visual, auditory, and kinesthetic-tactile pathways to language learning.
Active vocabulary practice can also help students meet standards. For example, the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts include a number of references to determining the meanings of unfamiliar words and phrases. They can be found in the standards for reading in literature, informational text, history/social studies, and science and technical subjects. They can also be found in standards for writing and are implied in speaking and listening, but the emphasis on vocabulary learning is in the language standards. When a science teacher calls out “Prove it!” and challenges his seventh-grade students to find evidence about a word’s meaning from the context of the science passage or from the meanings of the affixes and roots, students are hard at work on reading in science and technical subjects standard four, language standards four and six, and speaking and listening standards. To the students, it is first a game to find the clues.
One of the active practice strategies that students enjoyed in Vocabularians is called Illustrated Vocabulary. In this strategy, students write one of their words for deep study on a sheet of paper. We ask them to write it neatly and make it dark, using block letters. Then we ask them to create an illustration using the letters as the foundation of the drawing, adding details to establish the definition.
When I first showed middle grades teachers the kind of thinking that elementary students had produced with this activity, they were impressed. For example, David illustrated the word nomadic, a word from a social studies lesson. He turned the lowercase “n” into a Native American boy. The “o” became a basket. The “m,” which he drew larger than the others, became mountains with arrows that indicated movement over them. The “a” became a buffalo, the “d” was transformed into a teepee, the “i” was a tree, and he made the “c” into another Native American. As he explained to me, “Some Native Americans were nomadic. They had to cross mountains to go to another village to find food.” Does David understand the word nomadic enough to use it in his speech and writing? Will he remember it the next time he sees it in text? It is obvious to me that this word belongs to David forever.
Middle grades teachers who tried this strategy for themselves were pretty impressed by its complexity. When their students tried it, teachers were even more impressed. It is a deep-thinking activity, causing students to plumb depths of knowledge as they creatively explore the meaning of a word. Math terms became fire engines, ladders, and bouncing balls. Social studies vocabulary transformed into ancient Roman ruins. Words from Shakespeare turned into a fight between feuding families. All kids, including English language learners and underachieving students, could participate enthusiastically.
Create a Community of Vocabulary Learners
Mark Twain once said, “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.” Providing opportunities for active, engaging vocabulary practice that includes movement, discussion, art, drama, music, writing, technology, or media can help students experience carrying that metaphorical cat. We want students in grades 5–8 to become vocabularians who can acquire and use new words with confidence. When students actively engage in learning vocabulary in creative ways, they enjoy their experience with words and remember them.
This is the last week of our 2015 Summer Blogstitute and I am excited to bring you this post from Mark Overmeyer (Let’s Talk), who has some wise words to share as you reflect on the past school year and prepare for the next. We have one more post coming to you on Wednesday, so this is your last week to look back on previous posts and leave a comment for a chance to win 12 free Stenhouse books. Follow us on Twitter using #blogstitute15.
Reflections on another school year
By Mark Overmeyer
Teachers often create goals for the summer: they plan to work in their gardens, finish house projects, and try to get to those books they set aside earlier in the year. I am the same way, but I also spend the early part of my summer reflecting on what I learned in the previous school year.
Perhaps because I have lived my life in school years since the age of five—moving from school to college to teaching to graduate school to consulting—I tend to reflect more in the summer than in January, the traditional time for resolutions and reflection.
Here are three lessons I learned during this school year that have helped me reflect on how I facilitate writing workshops:
Conferences are important, but writing time is more important. Conferring plays such an important role in our work with readers and writers. The opportunity to talk with a student one-on-one is priceless. However, what if a student needs time to write more than he or she needs the chance to talk with you? I ask this question because of my many interactions with primary students in writing workshops this school year. On at least three separate occasions this year, when I began a conference with the question “What are you working on as a writer today?,” the response was “I am working on my writing. I don’t need help.” One kindergarten writer told me, “I need to get my writing done. I need to work alone.” Most of the students who tell me they need more time to write are under the age of seven. As writing teachers, we have so much to learn about independence and agency from our youngest writers. Because of so many students asking for more time, I often start a conference now with something like this: “I would love to have the chance to talk with you about your writing. Can you talk now, or do you need to get some more work done before we talk?”
Love the resisters. We have all taught resisters. They might sit passively during the first few days of writing time, hoping you don’t notice how little they produce. Or they may actively resist writing early in the year, saying something like “You aren’t going to make us write a lot this year, are you?” These resisters are so good at what they do: they avoid, they wander around the room during writing time, they keep saying they don’t know what to write about, or they just sit. Instead of being frustrated with resisters, I learned this year to find them fascinating—and to love the resistance. Fourth-grade teacher Sandy Mulligan in Colorado Springs has helped me to see resistant writers in a different light. Sandy actively decides to love her resisters. When she meets a fourth grader who hates to write, she doesn’t worry at first about why. She just says, “I am so glad you are in my class! This is your year! We are going to figure it out together. You are going to LOVE writing with me. I promise.” And she is right. It takes a while with some of her students, but when I have visited her classroom in May the past two years, I have asked students what they think about writing, and they love it. All of them. I merely ask “What do you think about writing?,” and they spontaneously yell out “We LOVE IT!” Sandy has students just like yours: Some come to her classroom with struggles in life and struggles in learning. Some come to her classroom ready for whatever life brings them. Sandy is relentlessly positive about writing, and her workshop is filled with joyful work. It is not a place filled with chaos, or with the message that everything written is wonderful. She has high expectations, and she provides scaffolds and safety nets when needed. From what I have witnessed, in classrooms where the writing workshop has meaningful purpose and is filled with joy, resisters stop resisting. Not always at first, but I have learned to never give up. I have learned from Sandy—and Elizabeth and Keith and Cheryl and Shelly and Monique and so many other teachers like them—that if you love your resisters, slowly the walls of resistance will break down and writing will happen. And happen. And happen. At some point, you won’t be able to stop them from writing, which brings us to my next lesson . . .
In effective classrooms, writing is its own reward. I have felt this way for more than twenty years, but I was reminded of how rewarding writing can be in so many schools this year. I witnessed students clapping in at least ten classrooms when writing workshop was about to begin. I heard many students groaning when writing time had to end, begging for more time to write. Anne Lamott would be proud of the teachers in these classrooms. My favorite quote about writing is from her classic book Bird by Bird (Pantheon, 1994):
Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward. (xxvi)
One of my teaching goals every year is to hear students ask for more time to write. Sometimes I intentionally go past our writing block to see if anyone notices. When students are lost in writing, whether they are five or fifteen years old, they don’t want to stop. In the most effective workshops I visit, students are not rewarded for writing more, and they are not punished if they are not quite ready to write on any particular day. Teachers in these classrooms set up rituals and routines the first day of school that allow and expect writing to happen. If we avoid writing early in the year by setting up notebooks for a week, or if we skip writing a few times a month because of assembly schedules, students may think of writing as difficult, boring, or unimportant.
As teachers, our feedback comes not just during conferences but throughout each day. The longer we wait to start writing workshop, or the more quickly we end it before the school year is over, the more likely some unintended feedback might sneak in—the message that, somehow, writing is inherently unpleasant and should be avoided. Why not start Day One, Minute One? What better way to get to know your students than to start with, “I am so excited to meet you! We aren’t starting with rules. We aren’t starting with putting away supplies just yet. Let’s get to know each other a bit. I can’t wait. I am going to share something I wrote so you can learn about me, and then I am going to invite you to think, talk, and write a bit so I can get to know you. This is going to be a great year.” When we start with rules and supplies, our message is “School is a place filled with rules and school supplies, and these are of primary importance.” When I start with writing, my message is “I want to hear from you. I care about you. I want to know what you think. This is a place where we will learn from each other through writing.”
I wish you all a summer filled with relaxation, rejuvenation, and reflection.
We have the amazing Janet Allen on the blog today, with an inspiring post about the power of words and how to make vocabulary instruction a part of everything you do in your classroom! Janet’s latest book is Tools for Teaching Academic Vocabulary. We have one more week left in our Blogstitute and we’ll hear from Mark Overmeyer and Brenda Overturf! I hope you will join us again and follow us on Twitter using #blogstitute15!
Words Still Matter Janet Allen
I was working with literacy coaches last week when one of them sighed and said, “What a year.” It was quiet for a moment, and I could literally see others stopping to personalize her words to the school year they had just experienced. Three simple words had given us pause not because of the complexity of the words but because, for each of us, those words called up hundreds of other words and images. And, while I hadn’t been in my own classroom for many years, I certainly had many experiences that reminded me just how much words matter.
When I left my classroom in Maine in the early 1990s, I filled my van with boxes that contained my students’ words, my teaching journals that were filled with my reflections and resolutions, and my favorite books. Other, less-significant items were left in the hands of movers. Today I’m in the messy process of moving again. This will be my fourth home since moving to Florida and today, as with all other moves, I packed my books, my journals, and my students’ words. I think it is because I know the power of words that I have spent so much time writing about vocabulary instruction. Unfortunately for my students, it took me a long time to find effective strategies to help them become inquisitive word learners and powerful word users.
As with many of you, for me summer was always a time for teaching resolutions. Or, it was once I hungrily read one book after another—books I wanted to read and not ones I had to read. One of the most common summer resolutions for me was to figure out a way to teach vocabulary more effectively. A teacher from Ohio once shared with me a fourth grader’s words from a self-assessment of his handwriting. He wrote: “I don’t think my handwriting has improved because I have been doing it ‘half fast.’” On reflection each summer, I felt as though my teaching of vocabulary the previous year could have been described in the same way. In spite of my resolutions, each year I fell into the trap of seeing vocabulary as something we did but not part of everything we did. I now know that teaching vocabulary has to be a part of everything we do.
When I decided to write Tools for Teaching Academic Vocabulary, I had already written two books focused on vocabulary: Words, Words, Words and Inside Words. In each of those books, I focused on an array of teaching strategies and graphic organizers to support students in learning a variety of words across all content areas. In writing Tools for Teaching Academic Vocabulary, I set out to clarify that word-learning depends on a variety of factors—purpose for knowing the word, how it differs from similar words, and how and when to use the word. I believe the instructional tools we use depend on how deeply we want students to know a word. I used Graves’s (2006) research and organized the tools based on four components of a comprehensive vocabulary program as a reminder that a focus on words that lead to academic success needs to be addressed in all activities and in all classes. In fact, a district where I worked required that teachers use this tool to ensure they were focused on words from informal conversation and reading to direct instruction.
I don’t want to keep you from that summer reading for too long, so let me just highlight something about each of the four components.
Rich and Varied Language Experiences
Rich language experiences mean that students will have opportunities to encounter interesting words each day. These encounters should be so varied that the words draw them into learning many more words than you may have intended. As I was writing this, I received an e-mail from Joy Hakim (author of A History of US and The Story of Science) sharing her new e-book, Reading Science Stories. I was immediately so engrossed in reading these narrative nonfiction pieces that I had a hard time stopping to continue writing (and unpacking). I laughed out loud at her engaging use of language:
Most priests and teachers and ordinary people have a hard time dealing with the astonishing idea that the universe does not revolve around us. Copernicus’s discovery leads to another idea that many find hard to accept (and a few find exciting): if Earth is not the center of the universe maybe the universe was not made just for us. (2015, 123–124)
While you may know someone who still doesn’t understand this concept, there is no doubt in my mind that readers will learn a great deal of academic, domain-specific words when they are embedded in a text with such rich language.
Teaching Individual Words
Teaching individual words is where you would be very likely to use a graphic organizer, concept map, or academic vocabulary cards. These words are typically related to the content or text students will encounter; they are so important, they deserve the extra time and attention. I receive lots of e-mails with humorous accounts of students attempting to write sentences with words they have looked up. Often the dilemma is that they didn’t know the target word and they also didn’t know the words used to define the target word.
In this section of the flipchart, I focused on four types of words necessary for academic success:
General academic words (such as analyze, hypothesize, and paraphrase)
Domain- or discipline-specific words (such as factor, integer, and rational numbers)
Topic-specific words ( such as argumentative, menacing, and gregarious when writing a character analysis)
Passage-critical words (such as strain when used in a completely different way—e.g., in talking about a flu or other illness)
One of the most difficult aspects of this component will be choosing the word or words you want to teach. Remember, you can’t teach students every unknown word in any text. This is a good place to think about how deeply students need to know a word in order to support comprehension and communication.
Teaching Strategies for Learning New Words
Given that most teachers can teach about 350 new words a year through direct instruction, teaching strategies for learning unknown words independently is critical. Stahl and Fairbanks summarized the problem: “Since a vocabulary teaching program typically teaches 10 to 12 words a week or about 400 a year, of which perhaps 75% or 300 are learned, vocabulary instruction is not adequate to cope with the volume of new words that children need to learn and do learn without instruction” (1986, 100). I decided to focus on the three strategies that have been shown to have the greatest impact on learning new words independently:
How to Use Internal Context Clues: Prefixes, Root Words, Suffixes
How to Use External Context Clues to Learn New Words
How to Use Resources to Support Learning New Words
Knowing how to create an effective strategy lesson using a hook, direct instruction, guided/independent practice, and closure is critical to this component of a comprehensive vocabulary program.
Fostering Word Consciousness
In Jennifer Donnelly’s book A Northern Light (2003), the narrator reminds us that interesting words embedded in interesting texts make words more memorable:
I tried to put my mind back on Paradise Lost, but it was hard going. Somniferous was my word of the day. It means sleep inducing, and it was a good one to describe that dull and endless poem. Milton meant to give us a glimpse of hell, Miss Wilcox said, and he succeeded. (60–61)
I love that one of the components of a vocabulary program is heightening students’ awareness of words. Riddles, games, political cartoons, interesting texts, lateral thinking puzzles, and hundreds of other activities help students become more conscious of language. Two of the characteristics I look for in this component are inquisitiveness and risk-taking. When students start to question a word’s meaning or attempt to use words other than safe words, you know they are developing word consciousness. I will always remember three boys who hung out in my room so much that I sometimes forgot they were there. When the principal stopped in my room after school to talk about a department issue, one of the boys decided to jump into the conversation. I gave all three my “teacher look” and ushered them out of the room. As I closed the door, one of the boys said to the others, “We wouldn’t have gotten in trouble if you hadn’t been earsdropping!”
Words Still Matter
Words do indeed still matter. Many of you have folders with notes from students with words you want to keep forever. Others of you have words you have kept to tell your story. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that words are about more than a standard or checking off an instructional requirement. And, since I believe that words still matter, my hope for you is that this summer will be your summer to spend time with words—reading, writing, sharing, and storing. There is no doubt in my mind that effective instruction is critical, but I believe that our love of words is also critical. I wish each of you a word-filled summer as you anticipate supporting others in growing a love of words. Nearly 100 years ago, Horace Mann said, “When growing things, one former is worth a thousand reformers.” I don’t know about you, but those are words I needed to hear.
Donnelly, J. 2003. A Northern Light. New York: Harcourt.
Graves, M. F. 2006. The Vocabulary Book: Learning & Instruction. New York: Teachers College Press.
Hakim, J. 2015. Reading Science Stories. E-book, published by author.
Stahl, S. A., and M. M. Fairbanks. 1986. “The Effects of Vocabulary Instruction: A Model-Based Meta-Analysis.” Review of Educational Research 56(1): 72–110.