Archive for March, 2011

Guest blog: Finding the right reading partner

While reading might be a solitary activity, it is also a social one. Sharing books with friends and talking about great books are all part of a “readerly” life. In this guest blog by fourth-grade teacher Gresham Brown, we find out how his students find reading partners in the classroom through reading partner interviews.

During the first nine weeks of school, our readers’ workshop is focused on one big question – What does it mean to live a readerly life?  We learn that reading is thinking, and we learn how to choose good books.  We learn how to increase our reading stamina and identify favorite genres.  But we also learn that living a readerly life is a very social process.

Readers are constantly sharing their reading lives with others.  When readers experience an incredible book, they want to put it in the hands of a good friend.  They want to talk about it and experience the book with a fellow reader.  Too often, students see reading as a very independent activity.  It’s not.  I want my classroom to be a place where we are constantly talking about books, sharing books, and recommending books to our friends.

To facilitate this idea, I ask my students to find a reading partner — a classroom friend they can meet with once or twice a week to talk about books.  Reading partners may decide to read a book together or simply share their reading lives with each other.  The idea is to find someone who has the same reading interests, enjoys the same genres and authors, and reads the same kind of just right books.  I stress to the students that a reading partner is not always a close friend – a reading partner is someone who is a very similar kind of reader.

First, I ask each student to assemble a stack of books that represents their reading lives.  I then model how to conduct an effective reading interview, how to ask good questions and find strong connections.  When everyone is ready, I give students time to walk around the room and interview each other.

After 30 minutes of interview time, I ask students to write down their top three choices for a reading partner.  Using their suggestions, I match the kids into partnerships.  I’m always amazed at how honest the kids are with each other.  They recognize that everyone in the classroom is a different kind of reader, and they’re honest about who would be a good fit for them.

Reading partners begin meeting once or twice a week at the end of independent reading to discuss books.  I love watching kids during this time.  I hear things like, “You’ve GOT to read this book!”  I see kids adding titles to their “Books to Read” list based on their partner’s recommendation.  I hear kids laughing and sharing about a funny part they just read.  I see kids doing what real readers do – experiencing books with their friends.

The following video clip showcases students having reading interviews with each other.

2 comments March 31st, 2011

Kelly Gallagher takes on Readicide

Kelly Gallagher will be the keynote speaker at the National Writing Project Spring Meeting this weekend in Washington, DC. He is the former director of the South-Basin Writing project and author of Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It.

The National Writing Project posted a long article about Kelly and his book on its website recently, along with a two-part video where Kelly discusses his book. Read the full article and then preview the first chapter of Readicide online.

Add comment March 30th, 2011

Quick Tip Tuesday: Introduction to the Parent Project

In this week’s Quick Tip Jim Vopat, author of The Parent Project, introduces us to the origins of the project and how it helps parents become more involved in their children’s learning.

Welcome to the Parent Project. The Project is a workshop approach to increasing parent involvement in their children’s education. The Parent Project began in three of Milwaukee’s inner-city elementary schools in response to a specific practical need. As Director of the Milwaukee Writing Project, I was at the time working with Milwaukee teachers in an effort to revitalize classroom instruction through the use of journals, portfolios, and workshop structures.

Concerns regarding parent understanding and support for the kinds of instructional changes teachers were making arose with such regularity that I began to search for a means for involving parents in the process. Fortuitously, The Joyce Foundation of Chicago was, during thissame period, determined to support a variety of efforts to increaseparent involvement in their children’s education. Since there didn’t seem to be any available model for the kind of parent involvement I envisioned, The Joyce Foundation encouraged me to work with Milwaukee teachers and parents in order to develop such a program.

What emerged was a workshop approach that focused on what children were learning in the classroom, and how this learning could be supported at home. What emerged was a means to strengthen the relationship between home and school—teacher, parent, and child.

School has changed dramatically since many parents were there and, if the goal of parent involvement is to strengthen the link between home and school, parents need to be introduced to the revitalized school classroom. Many classroom learning strategies experienced by children every day—keeping journals, interviewing, booksharing, cooperative learning, response groups, publishing—are unfamiliar to these same children’s parents. We can’t really expect parents to nurture and support such learning strategies if they don’t understand what those strategies are or how they can be supported.

For example, in one of our initial parent workshops, I invited everyone to write or draw for five minutes in their journals. After we were finished, I asked for comments. Wayne said he knew he had misspelled many words and that he never could spell and it bothered him. We talked about how journal writing didn’t need to be correct and that the freedom simply to express one’s self was one of the advantages of keeping a journal. Wayne’s two daughters (in grades one and three) were keeping journals in school, and Wayne said that when they brought their journals home, the first thing on his mind when he read them was how they were doing on their spelling.

When Wayne was in elementary school, there was no journal writing and good writing meant spelling correctly and nothing more. For Wayne’s two daughters, writing in school had come to be defined so differently that, for them, the messages of school and home were contradictory. As I listened to Wayne joke about his spelling and admit his relief at not having to worry about it when using his journal, I thought about how absurd it is to reform education but then to keep it a secret from parents.

The counterargument often heard is not that school reform is a kept secret but that parents just won’t show up to hear about it. I havea few observations about this. First of all, I am curious as to what happens when the parent does show up and what kind of support structureis in place for follow-up. In Milwaukee, for instance, it has been popular to bring busloads of parents into large auditoriums for infomotivational seminars where they are blamed, tantalized, and talked at. At the end of the day, these parents are bussed home where they have to deal with the everyday problems that have accumulated. And that’s it. There is no follow-up support, only a slightly bitter tomorrow. Instead of this lack of support, what would happen if we called upon the most powerful aspects of school reform to accomplish the goal of increased parent involvement: workshops, journals, cooperativegroups, shared reading, agenda building, interviewing, goal setting, and critical thinking? What would happen?

Through our workshops, we have spent years exploring the answers to this question, working with thousands of parents and teachers in a wide range of settings, including inner-city schools, community centers, affluent and not-so affluent suburban schools, as well as Chapter 1 programs. So what did happen? When I meet with parents and teachers in order to discuss parent involvement and define the advantages of a workshop approach, I usually begin by conducting a workshop itself as a means of coming to understand by doing rather than talking about doing. After a brief introduction of all participants and an explanation of why we are together, I distribute journals. I explain that the journals should be used in ways participants find comfortable—writing, drawing, doodling—whatever will help them remember what they feel is important.

I then ask everyone to pause a moment, relax, and think back to when they were growing up. What influence did their parents or guardians have on their attitudes and feelings about school and learning? Did your parents or caregiver actively encourage you to learn, were they neutral, or did they discourage learning? Does one particular incident from the past come to mind? Can you place yourself back in this memory? Can you close your eyes for a few minutes and try to reexperience this memory, this time and place? Can you close your eyes and go back, into this time and place? [long pause] Journey back into this memory, Where are you? How old are you? Who’s with you? How do you feel? What’s happening? Have your feelings about this memory changed over time? Why do you think this memory has stayed with you? What are the dimensions of its meaning? [long pause]Now, if you will open your eyes and take a few minutes to jot down some reactions to this visualization of your memory. Any words or pictures or part of  images that come to mind. Anything that will help you remember it.What does your memory have to say about the connection between parents, schools, and learning? What can we do to increase parents’ involvement in their children’s education?

After there has been sufficient time for reflection, I divide participants into small groups of four or five people and ask them to share their individual memory with the other members of their group by reading from their journal or verbally recounting what they have been thinking about. When everyone has had an opportunity to share, I ask each group to formulate some observations about what constitutes a positive home environment for learning and to arrive at these observations based on the memories of their group. When the small groups report back to the reformed large group, they usually do so with a combination of moving family history and reasonable, clear educational philosophy.

As we hear these family stories and the resulting observations about how learning can be fostered and nurtured, the significance of parent involvement becomes all the more real. As we listen to the family stories of sacrifice foreducation; of persistence in school in spite of daunting obstacles; ofparents reading to their children, writing with their children, encouraging learning as a sign of self-worth, it becomes obvious that the issue is not whether parent involvement is necessary, but rather how we can all work together to make it more intentional.

Add comment March 29th, 2011

Poetry Friday: April

This is the last Poetry Friday in March and to celebrate the impending arrival of spring in our neck of the woods (it really, really must be around the corner now!) I picked this poem by Alicia Ostriker. Enjoy and happy Poetry Friday!

Alicia Ostriker

The optimists among us
taking heart because it is spring
skip along
attending their meetings
signing their e-mail petitions
marching with their satiric signs
singing their we shall overcome songs
posting their pungent twitters and blogs
believing in a better world
for no good reason
I envy them
said the old woman

The rest of the poem is on the Poetry Foundation website.

2 comments March 25th, 2011

A colorful gallery of images from Object Lessons

In their new book Object Lessons, Caren Holtzman and Lynn Susholtz use a highly visual approach to show students and teachers the art in math and the math in art. Caren, a math educator, and Lynn, an artists and art educator, use everyday objects to create rigorous, hands-on activities that address key mathematical concepts and standards.

We bring you a gallery of selected student work in color from their book so that you can take a peak inside these colorful math lessons.

Add comment March 23rd, 2011

Quick Tip Tuesday: A lesson they won’t forget

In this week’s Quick Tip Ruth Ayres and Stacey Shubitz show you how to shake things up in your writing workshop to make a lesson memorable. This and other great tips can be found in their recent book Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice.

Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me, and I may not remember. Involve me, and I’ll understand.

—Native American Saying

It was a dreary Friday afternoon in early February 2009. Because of a scheduling change, writing workshop was moved between lunchtime and our weekly craft project. A student was having an issue with her peers, which created a disruption. She was dismissed from the classroom until she could regain her composure. Because of the disruption, I was feeling frazzled as my students arrived at the rug for the mini-lesson, notebooks in-hand, waiting to hear what I had to say.

I looked at my lesson, which was printed out and placed inside sheet protectors beside my classroom’s document camera. I looked at the teaching point that said, “Writers often search their writing for lines such as these looking for ways to highlight them, because highlighting a particularly strong line can also highlight a particularly strong idea. One way to make a powerful line stand out is by repeating it here and there across a piece of writing” (Calkins and Chiarella 2006, 181). My mini-lesson was supposed to be an outgrowth of a mid-workshop teaching point on refrains contained in Calkins and Chiarella’s Memoir: The Art of Writing Well. I was set to use an example of the refrain Sandra Cisneros repeats in her story “Eleven,” as well as refrains several of my former students wove into their published memoirs. However, as I glanced over my prepared lesson, I wasn’t feeling it. I looked outside at the gray, rainy sky and still wasn’t inspired. I looked at my students, whose eyes were fixed on me, waiting for me to begin teaching, and I couldn’t go on with the lesson I had planned.

I excused myself from the meeting area for a moment and walked to the other side of the classroom trying to psych myself up to teach this important lesson. I took a few deep breaths, reassured myself that I could to it, turned, and walked back to my class, who were chatting quietly with one another. Once I arrived back at the meeting area it occurred to me that I could deviate from my plan and teach the mini-lesson in a different way. I turned off the document camera and faced my students. My lesson began something like this:

“Writers, many of you listen to music on the radio and hear songs by famous singers. In fact, we listen to a lot of songs when we do our activities at morning meeting. There’s something that most songs have in common with one another, regardless of the singer. Nearly every song contains a chorus or a refrain, which is a part of the song that repeats over and over. Let’s take Beyoncé’s song “Single Ladies,” which most of you have heard. Now, I don’t know if Beyoncé wrote her song or had a songwriter do it, but either way, she wanted to get her point across in the song and repeated the big idea of the song over and over. “If you like it, then you should’ve put a ring on it. If you like it, then you should’ve put a ring on it.” (Some students started to sing along with me until I made a conductor’s “cut” sign.) This phrase is repeated many times in “Single Ladies.” I think she did this because it’s like the woman telling the man who she used to date that if he loved her so much, then he should’ve given her an engagement ring and asked her to marry him. But he didn’t. And now, there’s a song about her new life. See, Beyoncé is smart. She repeated the most important line multiple times. This was done to emphasize her point. Writers do this too.”

And then, I went into my literary examples.

At the end of the mini-lesson, it was evident from their plan boxes that three-fourths of my students were going to try weaving an important line of their writing throughout their memoir. In fact, to keep the inspiration for refrains going, I played popular music softly during independent writing time that day. By share time, I discovered many of my students had a better understanding of refrains, because their drafts now contained beautiful refrains, which reflected the main idea of their piece, repeated artfully throughout their writing.

The following Monday I overheard a group of my students talking in the hallway before school started. They were wondering whether I’d sing Beyoncé for them again during writing workshop. Rather than poking my head out into the hallway and saying, “That was a one-time only performance,” I said nothing. Instead, I relished that they’d probably never forget the day when their fourth-grade teacher taught them how to weave a powerful line throughout their writing by using “Single Ladies” as a mentor text. The refrain lesson was dynamic and engaging. Therefore, the teaching stuck. The objective was met. They will always remember.

Challenge: Shake things up in an effort to get your students more engaged in your mini-lesson. While you’re still going to be the one speaking through the connecting and teaching parts of your lesson, think about ways you can creatively involve your students while you teach so that the lesson sticks.

Reflective Practice:

  • What did you do out of the ordinary today?
  • What was your students’ response when they had a greater involvement or sense of engagement in today’s mini-lesson?
  • What makes you think your students will remember today’s lesson more than others you’ve taught in the past?

2 comments March 22nd, 2011

Um, well, like how well do your students speak?

There are scores of business books about speaking, making presentations, and other essential oral communication skills, but when it comes to teaching the art of speaking, resources for the general classroom teacher are lacking. That will soon change with the arrival of Well Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students.

Erik Palmer came to teaching after a career in the commodity brokerage business, where oral communication was a crucial part of the job. When he moved to the classroom, he incorporated speaking in all the subjects he taught because he saw the lasting impact it had on students as a real-world skill.

In Well Spoken Erik convincingly argues that developing effective speaking skills is worth more time than it usually receives in classrooms, and concisely sets out a framework for teaching speaking that can be used from elementary to high school.

You and your students will find practical strategies for crafting, delivering, and evaluating speeches, with applications beyond formal presentations—from interviews and discussions to debates and answering questions in class. Each chapter includes a list of ideas for discussion or practice and a concluding chapter provides 17 practical lessons that engage specific skills.

Well Spoken will inspire you to elevate speaking as a critical lifelong skill in your classroom, and give you the confidence and knowledge to do so. Preview the entire book now; the print version starts shipping in early April.

Add comment March 21st, 2011

Poetry Friday: Poison Ivy

This week we have another student poem by Trini, a student in Emelie Parker’s first grade classroom. Emelie and Tess Pardini are the authors of “The Words Came Down!” English Language Learners Read, Write, and Talk Across the Curriculum, K-2. Poor Trini had a terrible case of poison ivy and she used the experience during poetry unit and revised her work for several days. Here is the end product:

Poison Ivy

Poison ivy on my neck
Poison ivy on my leg
Poison ivy on my hand
And I don’t like it.

Poison ivy on my finger
Poison ivy on my side
Poison ivy on my ear
Yucky, yucky, yucky

Poison ivy on my other hand
Poison ivy on my cheek
Poison ivy everywhere
And I hate it.

1 comment March 18th, 2011

Teaching the math in art and the art in math

The visual nature of mathematics is often lost in traditional symbolic and procedure-based mathematics instruction…integrating visual arts into math experiences makes the lessons more active, visual, and meaningful. Our students become more focused, competent mathematicians through their visual investigations.

Math educator Caren Holtzman and art teacher Lynn Susholtz show teachers in grades K-5 how visual arts can effectively convey core mathematical concepts and processes in their new book, Object Lessons.

Using everyday objects—flags, shoes, paper, rocks, faces, food, grids, and journals—Caren and Lynn present a rich collection of more than 50 classroom-ready activities that encourage problem solving, developing visual & spatial abilities, and making sense of mathematical ideas.

Each of the field-tested activities focuses on specific math content areas and grade levels, defines math and art vocabulary, and rigorously addresses key mathematics standards, skills, and concepts. Important visual arts methods are brought to life through the ideas and talents of more than 40 contemporary artists and made accessible to all teachers regardless of their art proficiency. And the bound-in CD-ROM provides color images of student artwork, activity reproducibles, and links to relevant artists and Web sites.

Print copies of Object Lessons will start shipping later this month; you can preview the entire book online now!

Add comment March 16th, 2011

Quick Tip Tuesday: Purpose is everything

In this week’s Quick Tip we share an exercise from Cris Tovani’s book I Read It, but I Don’t Get It: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers. In her book Cris shows teachers how to help high school students develop new reading comprehension skills, including how to determine what is important in a text.

Sign up now to receive information about Cris’ upcoming book, So What Do They Really Know? Assessment that Informs Teaching and Learning due fall 2011.

Purpose is everything

A reader’s purpose affects everything about reading. It determines what’s important in the text, what is remembered, and what comprehension strategy a reader uses to enhance meaning. When students read difficult text without a purpose, they express the following complaints:

  • I don’t care about the topic.
  • I can’t relate to the topic.
  • I daydream and my mind wanders.
  • I can’t stay focused.
  • I just say the words so I can be done.
  • I get bored.

Readers behave like this when they don’t have a reason for reading. They pronounce the words, finish the assignment, and rarely come away with a thorough understanding. It is a waste of time; they haven’t constructed meaning and can’t use the information.

According to researchers Pichert and Anderson (1977), readers determine what is important based on their purpose for reading. When I ask students why they read outside of school, they usually have a reason—but they don’t think it counts, because it isn’t school related. When I ask students why they read in school, they say their teacher makes them: “Read chapter 10. There will be a test on Monday.” Or, “Finish reading acts 1 and 2 so you can write a character analysis.” Rarely do students have the opportunity to determine their own purpose for reading. It is no wonder they come to rely solely on the teacher for the reasons they read.

Unfortunately the teacher’s purpose is often too vague to help. Her psychology teacher told Michelle, an excellent student, that there would be a test on the first three chapters in the textbook. When Michelle asked for more specifics, the teacher reiterated, “Just read and know the information in the first three chapters.” Michelle knew she couldn’t remember that much material and didn’t know how to determine what was important. Michelle isn’t an exception. Most students don’t know how to set their own purpose. They tend to think everything they read in a textbook is equally important. As I prepared for my first biology exam as a college freshman, I diligently highlighted anything and everything that seemed remotely important. After all, this was college, and I was reading a college textbook. I felt I needed to memorize the text, and I thought highlighting the majority of it would do the trick. My purpose was too broad. It didn’t allow me to distinguish main ideas from interesting details.

I could have highlighted places in the text that were confusing, but that still would have been much too broad a purpose. I didn’t have enough background knowledge to understand most of what I was reading. A better purpose would have been to find places in the text that were connected to the class lectures. That would have helped me determine what the professor thought was important and therefore what might be on the test.

Students need to be taught why it is important to have purpose and how to establish one. The following passage, from Pichert and Anderson (1977), is a wonderful example to use to demonstrate why it is important to set a purpose.

The House

room. Mark bragged that the bathroom in the hall was his since one had been added to his sisters’ room for their use. The big highlight in his room, though, was a leak in the ceiling where the old roof had finally rotted.

The two boys ran until they came to the driveway. “See, I told you today was good for skipping school,” said Mark. “Mom is never home on Thursday,” he added. Tall hedges hid the house from the road so the pair strolled across the finely landscaped yard. “I never knew your place was so big,” said Pete. “Yeah, but it’s nicer now than it used to be since Dad had the new stone siding put on and added the fireplace.”

There were front and back doors and a side door which led to the garage which was empty except for three parked 10-speed bikes. They went in the side door, Mark explaining that it was always open in case his younger sisters got home earlier than their mother.

Pete wanted to see the house so Mark started with the living room. It, like the rest of the downstairs, was newly painted. Mark turned on the stereo, the noise of which worried Pete. “Don’t worry, the nearest house is a quarter mile away,” Mark shouted. Pete felt more comfortable observing that no houses could be seen in any direction beyond the huge yard.

The dining room, with all the china, silver, and cut glass, was no place to play so the boys moved into the kitchen where they made sandwiches. Mark said they wouldn’t go to the basement because it had been damp and musty ever since the new plumbing had been installed. “This is where my Dad keeps his famous paintings and his coin collection,” Mark said as they peered into the den. Mark bragged that he could get spending money whenever he needed it since he’d discovered that his Dad kept a lot in the desk drawer.

There were three upstairs bedrooms.Mark showed Pete his mother’s closet which was filled with furs and the locked box which held her jewels. His sisters’ room was uninteresting except for the color TV which Mark carried to his room. Mark bragged that the bathroom in the hall was his since one had been added to his sisters’ room for their use. The big highlight in his room, though, was a leak in the ceiling where the old roof had finally rotted.

Hand out a copy of these paragraphs to every student. Then:

1. Ask students to read the piece and circle with their pencil whatever they think is important. (In the five years I have used this piece, I have never once had a student ask me what he or she should circle. They all dive in seeming to know what to highlight.) When I do this activity with teachers, they usually set a purpose for themselves. They highlight the boys skipping school and often ask about the leaky ceiling in the bedroom.

2. Ask students to read the piece again and this time use a pink highlighter to mark places in the text a robber would find important. Students will notice that having a purpose makes it much easier to highlight important points.

3. Have the students read the piece a third time. Ask them to mark with a yellow highlighter any places in the story that a prospective home buyer might think are important. By now, it will be obvious how much easier it is to determine what is important when the reader has a purpose.

4. Ask students what they notice about the three times they highlighted. Point out that the first time was probably the hardest, because they didn’t have a purpose.

5. On a projected transparency, jot down what students think is important for the robber and for the home buyer. Compare the two lists and discuss why each item is important. If an item is on both lists, discuss why both a robber and a home buyer would find it important.

Once students see the importance of establishing a purpose when they read, it’s time to teach them different purposes for reading. Access tools are specific materials and strategies that help students organize and synthesize their thoughts as they read. They make material more accessible. Students of all grade levels can use these tools with almost any type of material. They’ll quickly figure out which tool works best for their particular purpose.

1 comment March 15th, 2011

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