Archive for November, 2014
We continue our series of blog posts about teaching social studies by author and teacher Sarah Cooper with this thoughtful piece where Sarah wonders about teaching depth and breadth, helping students become experts on a topic, and helping them make arguments that will stand up outside of the classroom.
How Expert is Expert When You are in Eighth Grade?
By Sarah Cooper
What obligation do we have to make our students experts on a topic before they give opinions about it?
Or, said a different way: are we being irresponsible if we encourage our students to tackle big questions before they have enough information to address them? What constitutes “enough information,” anyway?
Recently I’ve been wondering about the balance between exposure and depth, between familiarity and expertise. The questions above filled my head at the end of our recent unit on the American Revolution in eighth-grade history. In addition to the 1760s and 1770s, we also discussed current events: a United Nations summit, the fight against Islamic State, the spread of Ebola, the California drought, and other articles students brought in.
The unit’s culminating assignment was a debate on Wednesday, which students knew would also be their essay prompt for a test on Thursday. The question for both the debate and the essay was this:
Given what you have learned in the Revolution unit (about freedoms, rebellions, etc.), how much do you think the United States should be involved in world problems, and why?
I hoped students would see connections between the freedoms the colonists fought for and the opportunities that people in countries around the world are fighting for today.
Students were assigned to groups of interventionists, isolationists, and moderates. Every idea they brought into the debate had to be supported by a fact, either a historical one or a current event. The goal was for the debate—and the two days of preparation for it—to serve as brainstorming and prewriting for the test essay.
Debating did allow them to practice their thoughts before writing them down, as well as borrow ideas from their classmates to help their case. In their essays, students cited evidence they had heard in the debate, from France’s becoming an ally after the Battle of Saratoga in 1777 to the need for the United States to address its nearly $18 billion national debt before helping out other countries.
Yet I realized as I read the essays that the excitement and intensity of the debate may have oversimplified things. Here’s an example of a strong argument from one of the essays:
If you don’t have the steady base it will be imbalanced and fall. The United States is that base that starts a new creation. . . . Like in 1775 we met again for the Second Continental Congress for discussing war against Britain. We also continued to fight, and created a Declaration of Independence for what we wanted: freedom. Taking these actions and fighting for what we wanted led to a victory. From then on we have had the obligation to intervene and help solve world conflicts. I believe this is right, because it is the moral choice.
I liked the building logic of this essay’s argument, and the vocabulary is excellent. The student is thinking. This excerpt contains a specific and accurate fact from 1775, and it gives commentary on the Revolution that links history to today.
On the other hand, there’s a big part of me that feels negligent because this writer has leaped over 200-plus years of history—with almost zero knowledge of 1783 to 2014—and ended with a grand, sweeping statement about the United States’ “obligation to intervene.”
Many other essays took a similar leap, with some attempting to land on World War II in the process. We had studied that time period only through FDR’s “Freedom from Fear” speech from January 1941, in an attempt to relate his freedoms to the Revolution’s ideals, but many know about World War II from their parents or popular culture.
One writer put it this way in another essay:
Even though we did not want to get involved we soon learned our lesson, and learned that we have to [get involved] after the Pearl Harbor attack. This attack shows the idea of us just being an open target for attack if we are trying to stay out of conflict and not defending ourselves. . . . The example with World War II is similar with our involvement in Ebola. This is because Ebola is a deadly disease that Africa does not have enough money or supplies to cure and if the US does not help stop it the disease will eventually spread to the US and kill several American people just like World War II would have if we did not jump in and help.
Again, the cause-and-effect is good. The analogy, as far as it goes, is a decent one. Yet there’s a part of me that thinks I’m encouraging students to oversimplify, to believe they have something to say even when their analysis would not stand up in the world beyond our classroom.
Maybe the key lies in welcoming the imperfect. As I often tell my students, the answers to the questions we’re asking could fill books. Maybe I need to accept that they’re going to take a reasonably informed stab at the idea and, ideally, get excited while doing so.
David N. Perkins, founding member and senior codirector of Harvard’s innovative Project Zero, suggests that “ways of knowing can come in junior versions,” as meaningful entry points to historical or mathematical thinking.
In Perkins’s book Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World (Jossey-Bass, 2014), he describes a teacher in Australia who tackled number theory with her third graders: “The conjectures were not very sophisticated and the ideas about proof and evidence not very fancy, but the point is that these students were making a start, and doing so with some enthusiasm” (160).
Despite my reservations, the middle schoolers last week were definitely “making a start” at solving the world’s problems. Now I think I’ll make a start, during the rest of the year, at filling in some highlights between the end of the Revolutionary War and the second term of the Obama administration!
November 25th, 2014
Even after modeling and guidance on how to critically respond to reading, many students still open their reader’s notebooks and write what resembles the traditional book report. The skills they need when writing on their own are different from those used in whole-class and small-group reading lessons or when responding to teacher-generated prompts.
In her new book, Readers Writing, Elizabeth Hale offers 93 practical strategy lessons that focus on the specific skills that kids need to write independently in response to reading. Organized by narrative and informational texts, the lessons follow a simple structure that works well with students of any ability level.
Chapters on comprehension, independence, conferring, and assessment support teachers in implementing the lessons within any reading curriculum. The appendix includes numerous book suggestions and how they can be used with the lessons, as well as correlations to CCSS ELA Anchor Standards to support strategic lesson planning and curriculum design.
Readers Writing will improve not only your students’ comprehension but also their critical thinking about reading and writing. You can now preview the entire book online now!
November 18th, 2014
I hope you had a chance to visit all of the blogs during our week-long blog tour talking about Jeff Anderson and Deborah Dean’s new book, Revision Decisions! Today is your last chance to leave a comment on any of the blogs — including this one — for a chance to win a free copy of the book!
Here are some highlights from the tour:
The Two Writing Teachers
Jeff Anderson and Deborah Dean have a new book that deals with revision in grades 4 – 10. Revision Decisions: Talking Through Sentences and Beyond is a professional book that will help students realize that reseeing, reformulating, redesigning, rethinking, recasting, reshaping, and retweaking isn’t so scary. In fact it can be fun! (Yes, I wrote FUN!)
Writing is messy. As teachers we need to provide our students with opportunities to see our struggles as writers. When students see us revise (i.e., rewriting, throwing out chunks of text, adding new parts), they’ll come to understand that revision is a natural part of the writing process.
Great writing usually doesn’t pour out in first drafts. All writers need time and space to revise sentences, paragraphs, or whole pieces of writing multiple times to get it right.
The Reading Zone
Q: In a school system where standardized tests only value quick, rough drafts, how do teachers help students value revision?
Jeff: Great question. A few things come to mind. This same conundrum faces middle and elementary teachers as well as your high school students. First, when we revise often, our first drafts get better each time, right out of the chute. So, the playing with sentences we call for in Revision Decisions lessons, prime our writers best craft to the surface. In exploration and discovery of how sentences can be put together, young writers minds are opened to possibility. These possibilities eventually get applied (sometimes with our nudges). As the Writing Next report (2007) concludes sentence combining is a proven pedagogy for improving student writing in grades 4-12. So there’s that. But also most standardized writing test have a test on revision, editing, and grammar. To pick the best sentences, students need practice at this kind of evaluating, and this is just the kind of practice they’ll get in Revision Decision lessons.
Deborah: We’ve had quite a few teachers ask this question; there is so much concern about testing! But we both believe (and our work with student writers seems to show) that this kind of playing with sentences improves even students’ one-shot writing, which is often all they have time for on tests. After this kind of playing around with sentences and paragraphs, they have more ways of using language effectively stored in their heads, so they can use it spontaneously as well as in situations where they have time to revise and craft more carefully.
The Nerdy Book Club
When Jeff told me that he was working on a new book with the brilliant Deborah Dean, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. If these two thought leaders had something new to teach me, I wanted to learn. Revision Decisions: Talking Through Sentences and Beyond pushes our thinking as Jeff and Deborah introduce a framework for teaching students how to revise. By framing and naming revision techniques in ways we can model and practice with students, Jeff and Deborah help teachers understand the revision process and move students forward as writers and thinkers.
Focusing on the importance of sentence combining as the foundation of good revision, Jeff and Deborah offer a framework that supports writers first, then their writing. Trust, practice, risk-taking, play—without these fundamentals it’s difficult to engage students with revision.
From this supportive foundation, Jeff and Deborah move teachers step-by-step through model lessons that show young writers how to examine mentor texts, reflect on techniques, and hone in on targeted changes that improve their own writing.
Rich with resources, Revision Decisions offers lesson sets, anchor charts, authentic sentence models from children’s authors like Sarah Albee and Albert Marrin, and conversations from students as they ask questions and learn to revise.
Digital Writing, Digital Teaching
Q: How do you balance teaching “revision decisions” with authentic pieces of student work against these constraining types of test questions? In what way are we able to have students transfer their knowledge of grammar from their “revision decisions” into the reality of test prep?
Jeff’s Response: The cool thing about the concrete acts modeled and experimented with in Revision Decisions is that they are based in a sound research-based instructional methods and help prepare kids for test. Sure, it will work best for critical thinking, revision, and sentence combining questions that students are sure to encounter. It’s not so much about editing; however, since we only use grammatically correct sentences to play with and combine, they are getting exposure to correct texts as they reformulate and revise.
Thinkers. That is what we want our students to be in our classroom, in the world, and even on tests. Thinkers. Thinkers evaluate what best communicates and idea, analyzing, testing it. This is all built into the lesson cycle or progression in Revision Decisions.
November 14th, 2014
It is that time of the year — in a week we are heading off to NCTE in National Harbor, MD. We hope you will stop by booth #215 to check out our crop of new books, find out about upcoming titles, and meet our authors in person. If you are on Twitter, take a photo of yourself in our booth and Tweet it to @stenhousepub for a chance to win a free book for you and a friend!
We will be offering a 25% conference discount and you can take home one of our lovely Stenhouse tote bags as well! Print this handy guide to see when Stenhouse authors are presenting at the conference and when they will be signing at the booth (see signing schedule below).
See you soon!
Noon: Lee Ann Spillane
1 p.m.: Melissa Stewart
2 p.m.: Anne Goudvis and Stephanie Harvey
9:30 a.m.: Lynne Dorfman and Diane Dougherty
10:30 a.m.: Georgia Heard
Noon: Janet Allen
3 p.m.: Kelly Gallagher
4 p.m.: Jeff Anderson and Deborah Dean
9 a.m.: Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris
10:30 a.m.: Dorothy Barnhouse
November 13th, 2014
In their new book Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction and Nonfiction Picture Books to Teach Life Science, K-2, authors Melissa Stewart and Nancy Chesley help teachers think about teaching life science in a whole new way by marrying fiction and nonfiction picture books. In this blog post the authors explain why it makes so much sense to combine language arts and science instruction and how their book can put ideas into action.
Science and Language Arts: A Perfect Pair
According to a recent study, scientists spend 60–70 percent of their time reading, writing, and communicating. Literacy is an authentic part of science.
—Bill Badders, past president of the National Science Teachers Association
The secret is out: there’s a deep and critical connection between the process of doing science and what we generally think of as ELA skills. So doesn’t it make sense to combine science and language arts instruction? Not only is it effective, but it’s also a great way for time-strapped teachers to sneak science into their busy school-day schedule.
How can you put this idea into action? You can start with Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction & Nonfiction Picture Books to Teach Life Science, K–2. This resource includes twenty-two lessons built around award-winning picture books that you or your school library may already own.
Studies show that some children connect more strongly with nonfiction books whereas others gravitate toward fiction. Coauthor Nancy Chesley and I have paired thematically similar fiction and nonfiction children’s books and developed innovative activities that simultaneously teach age-appropriate science concepts and cultivate such ELA skills as identifying key details in a text, building content-area vocabulary, understanding the relationship between words and pictures, comparing texts, writing expository texts, and participating in shared research and writing projects.
For each lesson, we started by developing a Wonder Statement that incorporates a science concept typically taught in grades K–2. Examples include the following:
I wonder what plants and animals need to live and grow.
I wonder how animals protect themselves from predators.
I wonder how a rain forest is different from a desert.
After a fun, engaging introductory activity, teachers read the two featured books aloud and work with students to build data tables that organize information from the fiction and nonfiction texts. This part of the lesson models an important skill students will need later as they gather research for reports and extract information from reading passages to answer questions on assessment tests.
At key points in each lesson, students use pictures and words to record ideas and insights in Wonder Journals. Finally, they participate in a fun inquiry activity that helps them synthesize what they’ve learned.
The lesson about what plants and animals need to live and grow pairs two very popular books: The Salamander Room by Anne Mazer and From Seed to Pumpkin by Wendy Pfeffer. But there is plenty of room for flexibility. If these books aren’t easily available, you could substitute The Snail’s Spell by Joanne Ryder and Seed, Soil, Sun by Cris Peterson.
If you’d prefer to study animals and plants separately, you could pair The Snail’s Spell and Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator by Sarah Campbell first, and then focus on Jack’s Garden by Henry Cole and Seed, Soil, Sun afterward.
It’s also easy to integrate your own creative ideas into our three-step investigative process:
- Engage students.
- Explore with students.
- Encourage students to draw conclusions.
For example, if you are pairing The Snail’s Spell and Wolfsnail, you could engage students by inviting them to pretend they are snails and act out how they think the animals get what they need to live and grow. If you decide to pair Jack’s Garden and Seed, Soil, Sun, the “engage” part of the lesson could involve a fun card-sorting game or perhaps a reader’s theater.
During the “explore” part of the lesson, the teacher mines the books’ content with her or his class and helps students organize the critical ideas in a meaningful way. Then to bring all of the ideas together and fully address the Wonder Statement, students may engage in paired, small-group, or whole-class discussions. To reinforce the thinking that that comes out of these conversations, we recommend a concluding activity. For example, students might write acrostic poems with the letters in the words water, sunlight, or food. Or they could form Sun, Water, and Food teams and name living things that need their team to survive.
While Perfect Pairs provides specific, detailed ideas and instructions for lessons that address the Next Generation Science Standards, teachers can easily use our investigative process model to design alternate lessons for teaching the concepts mandated by their state science frameworks. It’s a great way to bring science and ELA instruction together.
November 5th, 2014
We are excited to be kicking off a week-long blog tour for Jeff Anderson and Deborah Dean’s new book Revision Decisions: Talking Through Sentences and Beyond. The blog tour will start on Monday, November 10 and will visit four amazing blogs where you can read each blogger’s take on the book as well as their interview with the authors. The more blogs you visit and the more you comment the better your chances will be of winning a free copy of the book because we’ll raffle off a book on each blog at the end of the week.
Here is the schedule:
Monday, November 10: The Two Writing Teachers
Tuesday, November 11: The Reading Zone
Wednesday, November 12: The Nerdy Book Club
Thursday, November 13: Digital Writing, Digital Teaching
Friday, November 14: Wrap-up here on the Stenhouse blog!
So, do you have the book? Have you read it? Let us know on Twitter using #revisiondecisions! See you on Monday!
November 3rd, 2014