Archive for September, 2009

Poetry Friday: Insect Life in Florida

Our editor Bill Varner selected a poem this week from Lynda Hull, a poet who passed away at forty, and who deserves more attention. While we are all back to school, this is a great poem to remind us of the summer that’s gone.

Insect Life in Florida
By Lynda Hull

In those days I thought their endless thrum
was the great wheel that turned the days, the nights.
In the throats of hibiscus and oleander…

Read the rest of the poem…

Add comment September 11th, 2009

Blog watch: A couple of reviews

Several fellow bloggers have written about Stenhouse books in the past couple of weeks. Here is a taste of what they said about the books and how they use them in their classrooms:

At A Year of Reading Franki Sibberson, Stenhouse author and blogger, wrote a review of Jennifer Allen’s new book, A Sense of Belonging. Franki recounts her mentor at the beginning of her teaching career: “She treated me as a colleague–a colleague who she enjoyed working with–from Day One. But more important was the fact that she got to know me as a person.” Don’t forget to join our Ning book study group that will begin discussing Jen’s book Sept. 17.

Another review of Jen’s book is at She’s the Apple of my Eye, where mother-daughter teachers Dayle and Courtney blog about Courtney’s first year of teaching.

Ruth Ayres from The Two Writing Teachers read and reviewed Liz Hale’s book, Crafting Writers. “I started reading and was soon totally immersed in the book and the work Elizabeth was describing,” Ruth writes.

Sarah Amick from Amick’s Articles wrote about The Daily Five and The Cafe Book, both by Gail Boushey and Joan Moser, “The Sisters.” She recommends reading The Daily Five first and gives a chapter by chapter overview of The Cafe Book.

Amanda from Snapshots of Mrs. V read Jeff Anderson’s book Mechanically Inclined over the summer. “Initially, I thought that there would not be a whole lot new as far as background information. I wanted the book for the additional lesson ideas; however, there actually was a lot of additional information as well,” writes Amanda.

Add comment September 10th, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Helping students find the right books

In her book, More Than Guided Reading, Cathy Mere shares her journey as she moved from focusing on guided reading as the center of her reading program to placing children at the heart of literacy learning. In this week’s Quick Tip, Cathy talks about how focused conferences with children help them pick the right books that meet their learning needs and improve their reading skills.

Books, of course, only help children learn to read if they meet children’s needs. Sometimes, as I make a teaching point during a conference, I also talk about books that might be helpful in learning this new strategy or understanding. Jade, for example, was able to read books with several lines of text and more complicated story lines. Many of them contained dialogue, but her reading was mostly word-by-word. During a conference, we talked about fluency. Before I moved on I recommended some titles that might help her to practice reading as if she were talking: books with dialogue that were a bit easier and more familiar and might therefore be good places to practice reading fluently.

I also try to help students learn to balance their reading time. John, a third grader, was busy reading an Eric Carle book as I walked by his desk. This was the second day in a row I had seen him spending all his time with picture books. I stopped to talk with him. “What are you reading?” “The Very Quiet Cricket,” he responded. “I have noticed the last few days that you have spent all your time during the workshop reading picture books.” John explained that he enjoyed picture books and that Eric Carle was one of his favorite authors.

Knowing that I too have a few easy books I like to read, I wrestled with myself about how best to approach this issue. I want students to read books they love, but I also want them to read books that will challenge them as readers. Picture books can challenge a third grader’s thinking, but Eric Carle’s probably aren’t the first ones that come to mind. “Eric Carle is one of my favorite authors too,” I told John, “but I’m wondering how this book helps you to be a better reader?”

By asking the question I hoped to plant a seed that would help him use his time well during future workshops. After I had talked with him for a bit about balancing his reading, he finished his Eric Carle book and went back to another one he had started.

I met Brooke working in a second-grade classroom. Each day, she would place herself right at my feet during the focus lesson. She listened intently as I shared stories with her class and participated in our conversations. When students would begin to read independently, I’d look up from conferences to see her with a chapter book turning pages a little too quickly to be reading the book, and her eyes didn’t seem to be moving from left to right. When she wasn’t pretending to read chapter books, I’d see her roaming around the room, slowly moving from one basket to another. As I talked and read with her I quickly realized that the books she was trying to read were far too difficult for her. She wanted to read chapter books like her classmates, but chapter books weren’t helping her learn to read. We all have students like Brooke in our classroom. The more time they spend reading books that are just right, the better progress they will make.

Brooke and I had several conversations during our beginning weeks together. I was honest with her. “Brooke,” I said, “I understand that you want to read chapter books, but I have noticed that they are still difficult for you.”Brooke nodded her head as I continued, “Reading books that are a better match will help you with your reading, and it won’t be long before reading chapter books will seem easy.” But words alone did not solve this problem. We also talked about books she might like to read. I brought in books I thought would appeal to her interests that looked similar to the books her friends were reading. We even found some books she would be able to read that looked more like chapter books.

My interest in her reading seemed to help. She was always eager to see what I had brought for her. In our conferences we continued to talk about the importance of balancing the reading she was doing. Her teacher, Ginny Ryland, realized the importance of helping Brooke to make better choices and adjusted the classroom library to make easier books available to her. In addition to the basket containing a variety of books that might work for Brooke and for a few other readers in the classroom, she also met with her often to teach strategies for reading increasingly challenging stories and to introduce her to new stories.

Add comment September 8th, 2009

Poetry Friday: Teaching

This week’s poem about teaching comes from Cheryl Pinette, reading specialist at Hillside Elementary School in Berlin, NH.


The days race by with children learning
Each a joy as we work together
Aspirations abound in our classroom
Caring for one another as we learn
Having high expectations for everyone
Is the hallmark of our room
Needing to differentiate for all students Growing together as the year unfolds

1 comment September 4th, 2009

Questions & Authors: Synergy, Socratic Circles, and ‘dog slappers’

“How do I grade Socractic Circles?” This is a question Matt Copeland receives reguarly from classroom teachers. His response: “Well, maybe we don’t grade them.” In his new article in our Quesitons & Author series, Matt, the author of Socratic Circles: Fostering Critical and Creative Thinking in Middle and High School, talks about how he stirred his students away from participating in Socratic Circles just to get more points or better grades, and how he came across an unusual “grading” method.

Not long ago, I exchanged a few emails with a classroom teacher new to Socratic Circles. She was frustrated, both with the strategy and with her students for the lack of depth and quality in their classroom discussions. It’s a topic of conversation I’ve shared with many teachers over the years. And, in many cases, the frustration appears to stem from one concept. Grades.

So, inevitably, my email boiled down to a central question: How are you evaluating the quality of the students’ conversation? The response I received was well thought-out and very detailed in its approach: Students received a homework grade for completing the critical reading of the text before class and they also were rewarded points for the contributions they made to the conversation during class. Statements of agreement earned a point; summarizing what a previous student had said earned two points; posing a question or offering new ideas to the group earned three points; offering a particularly insightful idea or question could earn four or even more points. Bingo.

As gently as I could, I suggested that perhaps students were not engaging the conversation at the level she desired because, in their minds, Socratic Circles and their grades embodied a game: How many points can I rack up in my allotted time? I offered the idea that perhaps holding the conversation without any points attached might help to improve the quality of the discussion. That perhaps allowing the students’ ideas (rather than their grades) to be the central focus might encourage and empower them to engage more fully in the dialogue. It was worth a try.

Her reply came back quickly, “but if I don’t count up points, how do I grade this thing?”

My response was simple: maybe we don’t.

Part of our job responsibilities as classroom teachers is to monitor and document the growth and learning of our students. But, at times, within my own practice, I know I run amuck of the spirit of this responsibility and focus more upon the grades than I do the learning. All too often, in classrooms across this land, points and grades (and test scores) become the “bottom-line” thinking of the classroom.

But my goal in facilitating authentic, open classroom dialogue, I hope, aims a little higher. Through their conversation, I want to instill in my students a love of learning. A love of the collaborative discovery of meaning. A love of one of the bedrocks of our democratic society. I want to see them applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating information. I know their voices contain meaning; I know their voices contain truth. I want them to know it—and feel it—too.

To evaluate true dialogue and true learning in a classroom, we need a better measure than points or grades. We need something that, when added to the conversation, helps to synergize, not something that helps to fragment. If we seek to create that sense of synergy when students are using their whole minds, their whole range of experiences, their whole beings and intuitions, to discuss and construct meaning—to transcend our common core expectations—we need a measure more meaningful. Something more immediate. Something more hilarious.

When I was growing up, my dad always referred to those moments when someone flinched or was suddenly, physically startled as “a dog slapper.” He was notorious for leaping around corners, jumping out from behind bushes, etc. all in hopes of scaring someone half to death just so he could slap his own knee, loudly chuckle to himself, “Oh, that was a good dog slapper!” and then offer his own impression of a yelping dog suddenly awoken from a deep slumber. He’d crouch over on all fours, then spring back up and turn a few full-circles as though he was trying desperately to escape something behind him that we could not see. Barking and yelping the whole time, as though he was a hellhound possessed. And then, after a brief reprieve of silence, he’d almost die laughing. We were never quite sure at what, exactly, he was laughing—the situation, or us, or himself. But, boy, he sure enjoyed it.

My father’s “dog slappers” became one of those quirks of family lore that embarrassed the rest of us immensely (which probably only led to him doing it even more often), but it was also one of those things we came to miss when he was gone. Little did I know at the time, but “dog slappers”—evidently—are also hereditary.

A few years ago, in the middle of one of those synergistic Socratic Circles in my classroom, we experienced one of those eerie yet blissful silences that only occurs when the thoughts being shared have blown away the expectations of everyone in the room. I sat there, watching, numb with glee. My students sat there too, all leaning forward, eyes focused, minds concentrating on the depth and insight being collaboratively created.

And in that pregnant moment of silence, when the cognitive gears of students were kicking into realms we didn’t know existed and everyone in the room contemplated her next contribution, the silence of engaged concentration was shattered as the bell rang to announce the end of period. And, just at the moment that bell shrieked against the concrete wall, I swear half of the students’ rear ends must have lifted two or three inches off the floor. And without so much as an ounce of forethought, I slapped my knee, shouted… (you guessed it)… “Oh, that was a good dog slapper!” and launched into my own impersonation of a yelping dog—yelp, yelp, yelp, yelp—right there in front of an audience of 28 petrified 14-year-olds.

Despite all the commotion between classes in the hallway outside my room, despite all the good conversation and meaning we had created, despite the hungry stomachs that so often dictate learning at the end of the class period just before lunch, my students sat there—motionless, deathly silent, staring at me incredulously. I think some were taken aback by the startle they received from the bell. Others might have been aghast at the perceived suggestion of animal cruelty. Others yet were more deeply disturbed—first—by the yelping and—then—by the school-girl-like giggling coming from their middle-aged, male teacher.

And then, one by one, with these deep, sheepish grins, they each gathered their things and headed off to lunch without muttering so much as a single word to me.

Of course, when fourth hour came to class the next day, it was quite obvious that absolutely no work was going to take place and that the entire world could grind to a halt unless I stopped and explained what exactly a “dog slapper” was and the story behind it.

So, I did what all good storytellers and teachers do. I decided to roll with it. Completely embarrassed, I told the entire story—with, of course, my own impersonation of my dad doing his impression of a caught-off-guard hound. Yelp, yelp, yelp, yelp.

We all had a great laugh. Somewhere my father smiled. And it was one of my students who then asked, “But isn’t a ‘dog slapper’ at the end of a Socratic Circle a good thing? Doesn’t it mean we were all so focused and doing such a good job of listening and thinking and paying attention and collaborating that we weren’t even thinking about school or bells or anything else?”

And I answered absolutely.

To which another of my students—as only teenagers will do and because grades too often seem to mean everything—asked, “Does that mean we can get extra credit for every Socratic Circle that ends with a dog slapper?”

It never went that far, but the students decided to keep an on-going record of how many of them would flinch at interruptions (bells, intercom announcements, visitors, etc.) during our Socratic Circles. So they wrote “DSC” (dog slapper counter) in the corner of the chalkboard and would add tally marks for each student who so flinched during a discussion.

Of course, it took all of about a day before the other classes wanted to know what in the world DSC meant, and I had to launch into the story—and impersonation—for them as well. Yelp, yelp, yelp, yelp.

And from there, a new game was afoot: which class could rack up the most “dog slappers” in a given semester? Although certainly flawed in its own way, DSC became our default measure of those synergistic moments when we knew that both the dialogue and our learning were transcending all expectation. But, thankfully, our tallies never translated to points in the gradebook. Our cart never lurched before the horse.

While I never award points for our dialogue, I understand the motivations of those who do. Each of us must operate our classrooms in a way comfortable, familiar, and effective. In my practice, I certainly award students points for the critical reading of the text they do in preparation for our Socratic Circles and also in the follow-up writing assignments that occur after our discussion. And, as a way to build and reinforce foundational skills, perhaps there is purpose and meaningfulness in assigning points to dialogue for students struggling with creating quality conversation among their peers and/or in struggling to participate at even a minimalist’s level. But, in my mind, those points are only temporary scaffolding that should be removed at the earliest opportunity. In my mind, grades are just a sometimes-unfortunate necessity in the business of education.

Collectively, if we are doing our jobs during the dialogue and striving to reach those higher gears of cognitive synergy, I shouldn’t need to assign points for the conversation itself. The quality of our dialogue will be reflected in that follow-up writing assignment. In this way, our Socratic Circles become a type of collaborative brainstorming session, a transformational strategy (for students and for teachers) that rises above grades and the “bottom line” and embodies all that which education and learning should be. In an authentic literacy classroom—in any classroom—that synergy is important.

And so now, to this day, every time I present Socratic Circles and am asked, “How do you give grades for this thing?” you might see an ornery smirk on my face because part of me is just dying to answer, “That’s easy, you just count up the dog slappers!” But I know that nothing in life—or in the classroom—is ever that easy.

2 comments September 3rd, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Using metaphors to deepen comprehension

This week’s tip comes from Kelly Gallagher’s book, Deeper Reading: Comprehending Challenging Texts, 4-12. Using William Maxwell’s story, Love, Kelly demonstrates how he teaches for effective first and second draft readings, collaboration, how he leads students to meaningful reflection, as well as how he uses metaphors to deepen students’ comprehension.

Students often have trouble thinking in metaphorical terms. To help introduce this concept, I use the following exercise.

1. Explain to students what “intangible” means and then have students brainstorm a list of random intangible items. List these on the left-hand side of a t-chart.
2. Ask students if they can infer what “tangible” means. On the right-hand side of the chart, have students brainstorm a list of random tangible items.

If your students are like mine, their brainstorming might result in the
Intangible Items

Tangible Items
driver’s license
video games

3. Have the students complete the following sentence by selecting one intangible item and one tangible item and then exploring the relationship between these two items as follows:
(Intangible item) is like a (tangible item) because ___________________________.
Here are some of my students’ responses:
Friendship is like a driver’s license because it will expire if you do not renew it.
Nicole, 14
Jealousy is like a backpack because it can get heavy carrying it around.
Omar, 15
Trust is like a video game because there are many levels to it.
Josh, 15

4. Once students have tried this and have shared with one another, I challenge them to extend their metaphors. I change the sentence template to the following:
(Intangible item) is like a (tangible item) because __________________________ ,
_______________________ and _____________________.
Using this new template, the previous student samples are stretched:
Friendship is like a driver’s license because it will expire if you do not renew, it takes skill to obtain, and it requires that you pass a test.
Jealousy is like a backpack because it gets heavy carrying it around, it’s hard to zip up, and everyone can see you wearing it.
Trust is like a video game because there are many levels to it, it requires practice, and it’s hard to repair once it’s broken.

This exercise is a good way to introduce metaphorical thinking. Once students grasp this concept, they are ready to apply it to their reading. For example, think about the love the boys had for Miss Brown in “Love.”How would you describe it? With the story in mind, complete the following
The boys’ love for Miss Brown is like (a) _____________ because _____________.

Again, here are some of my students’ responses:
The boys’ love for Miss Brown is like an old oak tree because it has strong roots.
Karen, 16
The boys’ love for Miss Brown is like a sprained ankle because it hurts a lot right now, but the pain will ease with the passing of time.
Steven, 15
The boys’ love for Miss Brown is like a scar, because although it will fade, it will always be there.
Miguel, 15
When I read these responses, it becomes evident to me that these students understand the story “Love” at a deeper level. They see and feel what the author intended.

1 comment September 1st, 2009

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