Archive for January, 2009

Poetry Friday: Flight to Limbo

John Updike died this week at the age of 76. This week’s poetry selection is in honor of his life and work.

Flight to Limbo
by John Updike

(At What Used to Be Called Idlewild)

The line didn’t move, though there were not
many people in it. In a half-hearted light
the lone agent dealt patiently, noiselessly, endlessly
with a large dazed family ranging
from twin toddlers in strollers to an old lady
in a bent wheelchair. Their baggage
was all in cardboard boxes. The plane was delayed,
the rumor went through the line. We shrugged,
in our hopeless overcoats. Aviation
had never seemed a very natural idea.

Read the rest of the poem

1 comment January 30th, 2009

Questions & Authors: Getting parents of ELL students involved in the classroom

Parental involvement and support plays an important role in the success of every student — and teacher. But what is the best way to get parents involved in their children’s lives at school — especially parents who might not speak English? What challenges does this mean to teachers? Robin Turner, author of Greater Expectations and Academic Literacy addresses this important question and suggests ways for teachers to break through the language and cultural barriers when reaching out to parents.

This struggle is a familiar one to anyone who works with underrepresented students — and to be honest, there’s no easy answer.

Bringing parents in to the educational experience despite language barriers requires a reexamining of what it is we want them to do and what their role is in the overall academic process.

Often, what we want is for parents to be enforcers of our assignments, to ensure that their children have materials, attend school with punctuality, do homework, and treat their instructors with respect.

It’s a fairly limited and somewhat menial set of expectations to which we too often limit parents of underrepresented students. It seems to me that, while these facets of parenting schoolchildren do matter, they certainly can’t be the sole functions of the mothers and fathers and guardians of our students. Their relationships with our students are so much deeper, and the benefits of working with those relationships are enormous for all involved.

For instance, much research reveals that underrepresented students rarely see their worlds, their neighborhoods, or their heritages represented in academic classes. The more we teachers get them thinking and writing about those topics, though, the more they develop their composition skills through an intrinsic motivation AND the greater their ability to think reflectively becomes. Through these writing experiences, the parents and families of our students can be great resources, regardless of language.

In my sophomore English classes, students interview parents and/or grandparents in order to research how their own family made the trek to the United States. These conversations often become precious memories for my students and create a sense of academic purpose for the parents.

Often, their role becomes magnified, as they move from simply monitoring their kids’ completion of homework to ensuring that the family history is told accurately. They know that their children’s papers will be read by other members of the family, and thus they frequently become enmeshed in the academic process.

Likewise, when I have students interview their parents about leaving home for a distant university, the resulting conversations can be powerful, and in many cases, it frees up parents usually divorced from the university experience to share their fears and hopes, their pride and their anxieties, and have an authentic conversation — beyond “did you do all your homework tonight?” — about the importance of school. As a first-generation college student, I can attest to the power of these talks.

Parents don’t need to be experts on the academic world in order to contribute to academic success. But we educators need to strategic in making the overall academic experience as rich and powerful for our underrepresented students as for our students that come from a background of collegiate achievement, which means expecting more than just ensuring good behavior and consistent attendance.

How do you reach out to your students’ parents? Share your ideas and thoughts in the comment section!

1 comment January 29th, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Connecting movement and comprehension

In Chapter 4 of their book, Starting with Comprehension, authors Andie Cunningham and Ruth Shagoury examine how using movement, mind pictures, and metaphors with young learners can help improve their comprehension. “Many young children still struggle with speaking about what is going on in their minds,” the authors argue, so movement is a natural way for children to express themselves, to reenact scenes from books, and to communicate what they know.

Comprehension Through Movement

My students don’t always use drawing and writing to comprehend texts; they also benefit from using their bodies and movement to make meaning. Many young children still struggle with speaking about what is going on in their minds. When students use movement to express ideas, we eliminate the need for fluency with words and allow them to communicate what they know using a different language. It is my job to guide my students to find ways to help them unlock and articulate what they want to say and how they want to say it – to find a voice in our literacy work. Reading comprehension through movement is an integral part of my reading workshop.

Years ago, when I was still teaching physical movement, I realized that body language is a crucial communication tool for young learners. I saw that for some young learners, speaking can be a tremendous challenge. In an attempt to understand those learners better, I also explored what a movement workshop might look like in physical education. Designed with intentions similar to reading and writing workshops, I connected movement with comprehension. In our twice-a-week classes, I read short picture books, then invited students to make sense of the book with their bodies and draw what was most important to them in their movements.

In the midst of my exploration with the comprehension strategies in the movement world, I had an enormous aha: I realized that students speak a language when they move. In my kindergarten classroom now, we use physical movement to make sense of what we read; it’s another tool as valid as conversation, visual representation, or writing. I still see students speaking a language when they move, just as I did when I was a physical education teacher.

Here are some questions I ask myself that help me make informal assessments as students move in response to a text:

  • What parts of the story are children drawn to?
  • Do they understand and respond to each other’s movements during sharing?
  • Do they move to something in the book or something unrelated to the story?
  • How does the moving seem to affect their understanding?
  • Who is not moving and what is keeping them from doing so?

The Castle Builder is one example of using our bodies to make sense of text. Although I do not incorporate movement with each read-aloud, once or twice a month I offer an opportunity to move like the book. Depending on the strategy, the book we are reading, and the mood of the class, prompts might include the following: “Look carefully and see which picture you’ll move like.” “Move like a piece in the book.” “Move to your questions about the book.” “Move to the part of the book where your thinking changed.”

I usually pick one prompt and use it over and over again in the beginning of the year to make sure they understand what I mean. For instance, “move like the book” was the perfect invitation for one class of students. When I said this prompt, they all stood up and moved, excited to join their experience of reading the book with moving their bodies.

I find that some students — and some classes — connect more with the movement piece than others. Some books work better than others. To find a good “movement” book, I ask myself what parts I would move to and how. For instance, when reading The Castle Builder, I noticed a dozen ways that I would naturally move to the text. However, when reading The Hickory Chair, a book I love, I realized that moving to it would be difficult for me. It is not the quality of the story that dictates how “moveable” it is. Rather, the action communicated through the story is the crucial element. When the book lends itself to physical movement and we are genuinely interested in the book and its message, our physical engagement is much more significant.

Add comment January 27th, 2009

Now Online: What Every Elementary Teacher Needs to Know About Reading Tests

If teachers knew more about how reading tests are made, how standards are interpreted, and how students can apply their knowledge of reading to the items that appear on reading tests, then teachers could spend much less time trying to figure out these tests and could feel less like servants to the dictates of their state assessment.

In the past decade, Charles Fuhrken has worked with hundreds of teachers who were asked by their state departments to review the tests that he helped write. Conversations with those teachers inspired his new book, What Every Elementary Teacher Needs to Know About Reading Tests.

This practical guide dispels myths about test making and test taking, gives you a thorough look at the content of test items for the most commonly assessed reading standards, and offers over 30 print-rich, easy-to-prepare reading activities to build and assess student skills.

What Every Elementary Teacher Needs to Know About Reading Tests will empower you to overhaul your approach to test preparation and free up time for your core curriculum. Available later this month, you can preview the entire book online now!

Add comment January 26th, 2009

Blog special: Submit your boy writers’ work

Do the boys in your class sometimes turn in writing that seems to push against the boundaries of good taste or that you’re just not sure how to respond to? Do you have trouble finding a balance between supporting the boys’ creativity and endorsing questionable material?

Stenhouse author Ralph Fletcher has spent years working with boys on their writing—and exploring these questions with teachers. He discusses his experiences in the book Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices and in the new video “Dude, Listen to This!” —where you can see Ralph collaborating with a group of boy writers and a teachers’ study group.

Now you have an opportunity to get feedback from Ralph on some of the writing the boys in your classes are turning in. Pick out some quintessential boy writing from your students and submit it to this website (instructions below; limit of four pieces of student work per teacher) and Ralph will select a handful of the examples to comment on. We’ll also select the 10 most interesting submissions and send a free copy of Boy Writers to the teacher who submitted it. (Note: In order to be eligible for posting on this site and for the free book, you must obtain and submit a signed permission form from the student’s parents.)

So what kind of work are we looking for? Here’s how Ralph describes it in Boy Writers:
“In addition to violent humor (or humorous violence), boys love to write satire and spoofs, writing that deliberately insults, challenges, raises eyebrows, shakes up our staid perspective. On occasion a teacher may have to draw the line when a student uses offensive language, or writes about something revealing, sexually explicit, or gruesomely violent.”

How to Submit
1) E-mail or fax the signed permission form to Zsofi McMullin at, (800) 833-9164.
2) Sign up for the Stenhouse Publishers network
3) Wait for your membership to be approved (you will receive an e-mail)
4) Return to the Stenhouse Network page on Ning and click the “Join Boy Writers” link to join the group
5) Add a comment and upload your student samples with the comment by clicking on the white sheet icon above the comment box

Ralph will look at entries beginning February 20 and will post his comments soon after.

If possible, submissions should be scanned copies of student work so that we can see any artwork that accompanies the writing. If you retype a student’s work into Word, please preserve the original spelling and grammar – we are looking for authentic, unedited boy’s writing.

20 comments January 23rd, 2009

Poetry Friday: Boston Year

During this week’s inauguration ceremonies, Elizabeth Alexander read her poem, Praise Song for the Day. This week’s poetry selection is another one of her poems, Boston Year.

Boston Year
By Elizabeth Alexander

My first week in Cambridge a car full of white boys
tried to run me off the road, and spit through the window,
open to ask directions. I was always asking directions
and always driving: to an Armenian market
in Watertown to buy figs and string cheese, apricots,
dark spices and olives from barrels, tubes of paste
with unreadable Arabic labels.

Read the full poem

4 comments January 23rd, 2009

Hope for education

Ann Marie Corgill’s first graders at Riverchase Elementary School in Hoover, Alabama, put together this video about their – and their teachers’ – hopes for a new era in education. They will be sending it to President Obama and to Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Watch and enjoy!

1 comment January 21st, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: A look at essays

In her book, Less Is More: Teaching Literature with Short Texts, Grades 6-12, Kimberly Hill Campbell argues that shorter texts – essays, poems, memoires – often provide a way into reading and literature for reluctant or struggling readers. She shares her discovery of the power of short texts to support her students’ skills as readers, writers, and students of literature. In this week’s tip, Kimberly talks about how she uses essays about politics and current issues in her classroom to help students become critical readers.

Essays About Issues and Politics
Essays designed to inform and persuade are part of our culture, and I want students to spend time reading and analyzing examples of these essays. My long-term goal is for students to make the reading of these essays a routine part of their reading lives. My short-term goal is for students to see how language can be used to convey a specific message.

Teaching Strategy: Reading to Hear the Message
To emphasize how we “hear the message” of an essay, I use a speech for our first whole-class reading. There are a number of speeches available. In selecting a speech to use I try to find one that allows students to hear and see the speaker on video. I begin our exploration by asking students to watch and listen for key themes in the speech’s message. They are to note these themes in their literature logs. I then play the speech for them once. Students share their initial thoughts regarding theme identification with a peer.

We then watch and listen to the speech a second time, this time with a written copy of the speech. I invite students to add to their theme identification notes. Again they do a pair-share with their original partner.

I then ask each pair to select a quote that illustrates a key theme. I hand butcher paper and felt pens to select pairs and ask them to write their quote as a starting point for our class discussion.

The butcher paper quotes are posted in the front of the room. I reference these in asking questions about the speech and its message. We then use the quotes to examine the literary craft techniques used in the speech. In Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech students noted the way he repeats, “I have a dream.” More important, they noted the way he used his voice to emphasize his words. Seeing and hearing this speech impacted my students more than I would have imagined. I could see they were invested in this message of dreams, so I stopped our discussion and invited students to list their dreams. The students then asked if they could share their dreams. When the bell rang at the end of the class, none of the students moved until everyone had shared his or her dream.

Teaching Strategy: A Close Look at Essays Written to Persuade
I build on this exploration of hearing the message by asking students to read essays that address student issues. I find these essays in magazines and newspapers, particularly in student newspapers. The essays we have explored address such topics as the school dress code, requiring school uniforms, raising the age for driving from sixteen to eighteen, standardized testing, the fairness of the SAT, college admission procedures, grade inflation, and cafeteria food.

I keep a file folder on hand, and the Web is also a rich resource. In addition, I invite students to bring in essays on topics that matter to them. I use a survey to glean student interest in essay topics. On the survey I list five to seven topics for which I have essays. I ask students to rank these topics based on their interest in reading more about them and then use this survey data to select a class essay topic and create essay literary circles.

For the class essay topic I select the most preferred topic and provide students with an essay on it. Ideally, it will be a topic on which I have two essays with differing points of view. I begin our class session by asking students to write on the essay topic themselves. In support of this writing I provide a prompt that encourages students to take a stand. For example, if the topic is school uniforms, I ask students to write in response to one of the following prompts:

School uniforms are good for high school students
School uniforms are not what high school students need

I then do a quick poll of the class as to which side of the issue they supported. In the case of school uniforms, most of the students write about why they do not support uniforms. I then ask students to spend five to seven minutes writing on the opposite side of this issue. The groans are audible. Typically when I check in with students, I find they have struggled to write on the topic from “the other side.”
This is why we need to read essays that wrestle with topics that impact us. We need to consider the issue from a variety of viewpoints. The goal is not to change our minds, but to push our thinking.
Before I hand out the essays to be read, I ask students to generate a list of questions that will support their reading. We build on the reading strategies discussed in the first chapter of this book. Students have developed the following questions:

What is the topic of the essay?
What is the author’s stance or opinion on the issue?
What evidence does the author provide in support of his or her position?
If I were interviewing this author, what question(s) would I ask the author?
Now that I have read two essays with different viewpoints on this topic, how has my opinion changed?

Students write responses to these questions as they read the two essays. I then put students together in groups of four. I select these groups based on students’ essay preference survey. The foursome will explore the class essay we have read in preparation for the literature circle reading the following day.
I ask the students as a foursome to share their responses to the questions on each essay and be prepared to defend to the class which of the two essays they read made the stronger case and why. As students share, I circulate and eavesdrop. My hope is that students will differ in their opinion as to which essay is more compelling.

I call on groups to present their preferred essay and their rationale for such. As our debate and discussion continues, I note on the board the reasons cited by each group. We then examine this list to see what elements we found compelling. Class lists usually include some of the following:
Grabber lead
Personal connections
Appeals to our emotions
Uses specific examples
Attacks the other side
Powerful conclusion
Passionate about the topic
The following day in class students regroup with their foursome from the previous day. Their task is to analyze a new essay or essays using the previous day’s questions as well as the list of essay elements we generated in class. The questions and list are provided to each group along with essays on the topics in which they showed interest on their survey. I ask students to select a volunteer reader to read the essays aloud first, and then I indicate there will need to be quiet time for a second, silent reading. The initial reading is loud, but I find students lean forward and focus their attention on their group. The second, silent reading allows students to see the essay again. I have to be honest: this second reading also provides me with a few minutes of quiet time. It is amazing how loud a classroom can be when students are involved in group work.

Providing students with questions and elements to focus their attention, allowing them to work in groups, and focusing their efforts on essays that address a topic in which they are interested all support differentiation. Using a literature circle to read different essays on the same topic also supports reading ability. I tell students I am providing them with more than one essay, as we did in class the day before, to explore more than one point of view.

Each literature circle is then asked to present their essay(s) to the class. I ask them to use the questions and elements in support of their presentation as well as to select passages from the essay that illustrate the questions and elements. Listeners are required to note a “key learning about essays” they heard from each group. I have learned the hard way that if I don’t build in a required listening component, some of my students are less than attentive during group presentations.

I also ask each student to complete a self-evaluation of his or her literature circle group and presentation. Use the self-evaluations and the student listening sheets to assign a grade for this activity.

Add comment January 20th, 2009

Poetry Friday: Blood

Bill Varner took inspiration from the news this week when selecting his poem.

Naomi Nye is well known to teachers for her wonderful poems and speeches. Here is one that draws on her Palestinian heritage, and given the context of the horrible developments in Gaza and Israel these days, I found it especially poignant.

By Naomi Shihab Nye

“A true Arab knows how to catch a fly in his hands,”
my father would say. And he’d prove it,

Read the rest of the poem…

1 comment January 16th, 2009

Blog tour: Get a sneak peek at Kelly Gallagher’s new book

We are launching our first blog book tour to introduce Kelly Gallagher’s controversial new book, Readicide: How Schools are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It.

ReadicideKelly defines “readicide” as “the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools.”

In Readicide, Kelly argues that American schools are actively (though unwittingly) furthering the decline of reading. Specifically, he contends that the standard instructional practices used in most schools are killing reading by valuing the development of test-takers over the development of lifelong readers; mandating breadth over depth in instruction; and requiring students to read difficult texts without proper instructional support, among many other issues.

Now you can get a sneak peek at this groundbreaking book and participate in a five-stop blog book tour with Kelly. Each of the following blogs will post either a Q&A with Kelly, or a review of the book, or will give you the opportunity to submit questions to Kelly. We will post a podcast with Kelly on this blog at the end of the tour. So browse the book and then check out all of these blogs in the coming days and discuss this important topic with your fellow teachers/readers.

Blog tour dates and stops:

1/20 – A Year of Reading

1/22 – The Tempered Radical

1/23 – The Dream Teacher

1/26 – The Reading Zone

1/28 – The Book Whisperer

Add comment January 14th, 2009

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