Posts filed under 'Questions & Authors'

Questions & Authors: Preparing for tests – without worksheets!

This week Charles Fuhrken, author of What Every Elementary Teacher Needs to Know About Reading Tests, has some tips for preparing students for reading tests throughout the school year—and not one of them involves a skills worksheet!

In this age of testing, school campuses with a history of performing well on high-stakes tests may get through the first month of a new school year without a single mention of “the test”—they very well may make it through the fall and winter without mentions of an upcoming spring assessment.  That’s refreshing, because the sad truth is that this will not likely be the case for the school campuses that have been deemed “low performing” by recent test results; instead, anxiety is felt on these campuses and preparation for a spring assessment begins almost immediately.

Teachers know that students cannot do their best work when they are encultured to view “the test” as something to be feared and something that requires year-long preparation via worksheets.  Therefore, practices that will ultimately help students on tests need to be more seamlessly integrated into the teaching of reading.  Here are some ways of doing that:

Translate “classroom speak” into “test speak”

The language of tests has been called formal English or hyper-English.  It’s more like funky English.  Certainly, it’s much too polite for the ways in which students (and teachers) talk about skills in the reading classroom.  Because tests have a certain way or a couple of ways that questions are posed about reading skills, teachers might want to do a bit of digging around in released tests and supplemental materials authored by their state department of education.  These sources provide information about how students are expected to recognize and respond to questions about reading and can be used to guide and assess classroom talk.  For instance, a review of released tests might tell you the word “conflict” is used to ask about story problem.  And yet you may hear students repeatedly use the word “problem” to discuss story problem.  Seize the opportunity to help students cross the bridge from “classroom speak” to “test speak” by discussing that “problem” and “conflict” are synonyms.  For younger students, especially, you may have to be explicit about your purposes for pointing out the association.  You might have to say, “So if you see the word ‘conflict’ on a reading test, just know that the test maker means ‘problem.’”  Embedding test language into classroom discussions in this way provides students with nuggets of test-taking wisdom over the course of the school year and can help students feel more confident about the questions they will be asked.

Teach students to be reading skill “name droppers”

We all have experience with name droppers—those acquaintances who infuse their dinner party conversations with the important people they know.  At parties, these people are annoying, but in the reading classroom, we like name droppers!  By that, I mean, we want students to label and name the understandings they voice.  Teachers often have to model how to be a name dropper.  For instance, if a student says, “Paragraph 3 tells about how bats are nocturnal,” then the teacher can label that student’s talk by saying, “You’re helping us to understand the main idea of paragraph 3.  You explained what paragraph 3 is mostly about.  It’s about how bats are nocturnal.  That’s what the author wants readers to know about bats in that particular paragraph.”  Because a test will use the words “main idea” and “mostly about” to test the reading skill main idea, your labels will help students learn to “name drop” when talking about this reading skill.  That way, the names and labels that test makers use will have become part of students’ everyday vocabularies.

Gather and publicize test knowledge

As students are learning “test speak” and to become “name droppers,” keep public records of students’ understandings by having students make lists and charts of their growing knowledge of test information.  Then, closer to the spring assessment, students can review this information so that it is on their minds come test day.  For instance, students can create “Classroom to Test” dictionaries in which they “translate” classroom speak to test speak and share them with their peers.  Another useful exercise is to have students work together to host a test-taking workshop in which groups of workshop leaders share their top five (or more) tips.  Such engaging activities provide a review before a test without the need to resort to worksheets.

Help students build their reading stamina

Reading tests are long.  Let’s just put that out there as fact.  Even “accomplished” readers, if you will, can have a tough time of getting through the text-dense test pages in the spring.  That’s all the more reason why students need time to get used to facing multiple pages of dense text in one sitting long before the day of the reading test!  Here are some ways teachers can help students build reading muscles:

Increase time spent in self-selected reading gradually

Asking students to stay focused on one text for a bit longer each month in the fall will certainly help students focus their minds on test passages in the springtime.  Try to make the increases unnoticeable to students.  (Having great books available in the classroom library will help with this too!)

Offer a range of reading opportunities—and follow-up activities

Reading silently from magazines.  Reading a chapter book with a book club or partner.  Preparing and reading aloud a poem.  Listening to the teacher read and following along.  Then writing about their reading.  Talking to a buddy.  Acting out a scene.  These are ways for students to spend meaningful time with texts and increase stamina.  Nancy Gregory, supervisor of secondary English language arts in a San Antonio, Texas, district, once told me, “Stamina comes from being fully engaged in reading and being a good reader.  Stamina is not built by reading test passage after test passage in test prep booklets.”

Allow students to be accountable for their reading work

Lucy Calkins suggests asking students, before they begin reading, to place a post-it note on the page they would like to reach during a particular reading session.  She contends that doing so helps students stay focused on their task and push to reach their goals.

Test scores from a previous year shouldn’t interrupt or halt the “real” work of the reading classroom in favor of skill-building workbooks.  When the preparation for tests that students need is incorporated seamlessly into the teachers’ instructional decisions all year long, students can grow to feel powerful over the test instead of anxious about it.

9 comments October 21st, 2009

Questions & Authors: What does a good fact look like, anyway?

In this edition of Questions & Authors, a bright student struggling with his history papers and tests reminds Sarah Cooper, author of Making History Mine, that sometimes the basic concepts that are obvious to teachers, are not quite as obvious to students. Sarah teaches eighth-grade English and ninth-grade world history at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, California.

As I was planning for the upcoming school year, I found myself thinking a lot about a student I’ll call Andrew, a ninth grader I had last year in my world history class. It was obvious he was bright and engaged with the world—he could identify state and federal politicians when they came up in current events discussions, and he loved nothing more than to argue about something intense, such as national health care policy or the arrogance of Roman emperors. On days when he was absent, the discussions were not as fiery, not as fun.

Yet Andrew’s essays on in-class tests and his paragraph responses on reading quizzes did not show his passion for ideas. His history writing was consistently vague and sounded as if he was not doing the textbook reading, even when I knew he was from the notes he took. His thesis statements and topic sentences were spot-on for ninth grade, with sentences such as, “Greek democracy lasted only a brief time because its leaders became power-hungry and greedy.” However, the essays didn’t follow up on their promise, and I kept writing the same comments: “Your ideas are great, but the essay needs more facts.” “More specifics.” “More evidence needed.” In our one-on-one conversations, he was earnest about trying to include more facts in his papers.

Yet it wasn’t until the beginning of fourth quarter—an appropriate in-the-clutch time for Andrew, who loved the school’s JV football team he had joined in the fall—that it became clear what I was not teaching, and thus what he was not learning. After yet another test on which Andrew scored a B-, he made an appointment to see me after school, spurred on by his mother’s urging and by his desire to take honors European history in sophomore year. We looked at some recent essays, and he asked the golden question:

“Ms. Cooper, you say I need more facts. But I have facts. They’re just not the facts you want. What does a good fact look like, anyway?

I had been teaching history for nearly a decade without ever having been asked that question. I was dumbfounded that I had never addressed this, and I wanted to make it right.

I started by saying, “A good fact in a history paper is something you can picture in your head, like in a movie. Here, let’s look at some examples:”

Too general: “The Minoans were good in art.”
“No, I can’t really picture that,” Andrew said.

A little better: “The Minoans did a lot of paintings on the walls of their palace.”
“Okay, but then I don’t know what the paintings looked like,” Andrew said.

Right on: “The Minoans painted frescoes with bright colors and natural scenes.”
“Oh, now I really get it. You have to be able to see it,” Andrew said.

“So maybe I’m taking notes the wrong way,” he thought out loud. “I tend to write down the main ideas of each paragraph or section. Are you saying I should write down more specifics?”

Yes, I said, but warned him to be careful not to write down everything in the book: “What I would do is to think about main ideas in the section and then pick two or three specific facts you could use on any essay or reading quiz to back them up. For instance, if you want to say that the Minoans had an independent mindset, you could refer to their living on the island of Crete and to their acceptance of women in the priesthood.”

I wasn’t sure Andrew was taking away everything we were discussing, so I asked him to check his reading notes with me for the next several days. The change was astonishing—he now included a sprinkling of facts relevant to the main ideas he highlighted instead of a general overview of the entire chapter.

Before the final exam, Andrew came in to discuss what score he would need to achieve to get a B+ in the class, which would qualify him for  honors history in the fall. It turned out he needed a high B+ because his homework grade had been strong. “I can do that!” he said.

On his final exam he earned a solid A, pushing his overall grade into the high B+ range. It was as if a light had turned on for him—and it certainly had for me.

Sometimes we as teachers assume that the most basic concepts—What is a fact? What does analysis look like? Why should we ask questions about the world?—are as obvious to our students as they are to us. My meetings with Andrew reminded me that every student can improve, especially if I don’t assume understanding—and if I take the time to figure out what is really going on in his head, and in mine.

Add comment September 16th, 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

Questions & Authors: Taking writing outdoors

The outdoors is not just for science classes anymore. Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli, authors of Mentor Texts and Nonfiction Mentor Texts, offer some ideas for allowing students to discover nature through writing, sketches, and poetry. Children have a natural curiosity about colors and change and harvesting this energy makes for “joyous learning” and creates artist-writers with keen observation skills.

As teachers of writing, we recognize the benefits of extending our classrooms into the great outdoors – whether that is an urban, suburban, or rural setting – and allowing our students to rediscover the intricate complexities of nature with eyes of the artist-writer. With great joy, students take their nature journals to sketch, record observations, create poetry, or to write simple truths. Often such excursions outdoors occur in the spring, when teachers and students are itching to answer nature’s invitation. One of the advantages of keeping a nature journal throughout the school year is to be able to compare the subtle or sometimes more dramatic changes that occur with each season. There is as well, a comfort in knowing that change is expected, accepted, and can be quite beautiful.

We’d like to suggest two books that can serve as mentor texts to set the stage for a study of color in nature. Nature’s Paintbox: A Seasonal Gallery of Art and Verse by Patricia Thomas (2005) explores the seasons with specificity of color and word. Beginning with winter, penned in black and white, Thomas recreates each season with extraordinary description and insight.  Her craft is filled with specific nouns and verbs, hyphenated adjectives, use of ellipses and dashes, variations in print, and wonderful rhymes and rhythms. Consider her extraordinary explanation of the pastel colors of spring:

blurry, furry,
baby-chick, baby-duck colors…
fresh-green-fuzzy, baby-leaf,
baby-fern colors…
soft colors, showing slowly,
perhaps so the surprise
of color in a black-white world
won’t hurt your eyes.

Red Sings from Treetops: a Year in Colors by Joyce Sidman (2009) explores how colors paint the landscapes differently depending on the season.  Notice how the writer paints green:

Green is queen
in summer.
Green trills from trees,
clings to Pup’s knees,
covers all with leaves,
leaves, leaves!…

Green is tired,
crisp around the edges.

Sidman’s text invites the reader/soon-to-be writer to savor words such as dolloped, squishy, lustrous, cerulean, sequined.  Her use of alliteration, personification, exact adjectives, onomatopoeia, colons, ellipses, and hyphenated adjectives make this text desirable for any age level.

Invite your students to compare and contrast both the text and the artwork in these books and think about ways the authors’ observations of the seasons could help them to shape their own thinking.

As students participate in their “outdoor” classrooms, a few guidelines will make their experience more rewarding and productive.  Here are some practical tips:

  • Take a tour of the area students will be using and talk about some possibilities for keen observation.
  • Invest in clipboards for your students so they can write in their books while standing or even leaning against a post or wall.
  • Visit local paint stores to acquire sample color strips that students can use to match the subjects of their observations to a specific shade.
  • Model how they can study one object from several vantage points. It would be a good idea to do a sketch here as well and include some labeling  (You can share this drawing when you go back inside)
  • Tell them you will be observing them, perhaps taking candid shots for a “Nature’s Walk” bulletin board display or to be included as black-and-white prints for their own nature journals. You could also create a videotape.
  • Perhaps suggest trying to write in the persona of the object the writer is describing (My Light by Molly Bang, Sierra by Diane Siebert, and Voices of the Wild by Jonathan London are some good mentor texts for this purpose).
  • Consider a rule of no talking in the outdoor classroom.  Students should save the talk for inside when they are able to compare notes, drawings, and interesting observations and descriptions.          

Searching for specific hues and tones satisfies the natural curiosity about color that children have from an early age. It helps students develop specificity in their writing and fosters a deeper appreciation of the world around them.  It is joyous learning!

1 comment August 13th, 2009

Questions & Authors: Familia in the classroom

As comfirmation hearings begin for Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Robin Turner wonders how educators can better nurture their Latino students. In his book, Greater Expectations: Teaching Academic Literacy to Underrepresented Students, Robin describes how he uses the concept of familia in his classroom to improve his students’ academic performance.

Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court has brought media attention to her identity as a Latina and has generated much more controversy than her rulings. Most people have heard of her assertion that “a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

The notion that by virtue of her experience as a Latina, her approach to judging will be different has earned her scathing rebuttals from many. Implicit in her statement is the question of whether one’s culture can in fact affect how a person goes about judging, or for that matter, how a person goes about performing just about any role.

It’s a question that I think educators need to ask: does a person’s culture influence the way he/she performs as a student? And if so, how do we educators adjust our practices to accommodate such diversity?

Just about anyone in education knows the dismal college-going statistics of underrepresented students. By 2025, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, one out of four K-12 students in the United States will be Latino. Based on a study by the U.S. Senate Education Committee, if the numbers hold true, then a quarter of our school population will belong to an ethnic group that is four times as likely to drop out of high school as the mainstream.

Now, if I were the manager of a baseball team, and a large group of my players weren’t hitting, I’d talk to my batting coach and make some changes in our practices.

It’s probably time to do that with education.

A recent report by The Tomás Rivera Policy Institute noted that young Latinos relied “on the family for emotional support, to contribute to the well-being of the family, and to stay physically engaged by either living at home or visiting often, participating in family events, and staying in touch.” In my observation, family events often have a much more communal feel to them than similar gatherings from other ethnic groups. Anyone who has witnessed firsthand a quinceañera, as opposed to a “sweet sixteen,” has probably seen the difference.

As a result, a classroom that makes use of community will probably produce more successful students than one that does not. While there are scores of students that still thrive in independent, non-social, learning-in-solitude kinds of classrooms with straight rows, the numbers are thinning by the year. In the age of Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace, the social dimension can’t be overlooked.

In my classroom, we call this realization of being knit together into a community of collgebound students familia, and it’s one of the ways that I have altered my instruction to accommodate students from various cultural backgrounds.
A classroom with familia offers explicit instruction with multiple opportunities for input from both peers and teacher when it comes to writing. Students use class time to speak with each other—not just with the instructor—about their writing. In a class with familia, students regularly interact and assess each other’s writing as they go through the process, focusing on aiding each other rather than competing with each other. Activities like literature circles, writing/reading workshops, Socratic seminars, and pair-shares offer students the opportunity to operate in an environment that accomodates and utilizes cultural strengths rather than lamenting a perceived lack of motivation.

For example, in my earlier years, I struggled with teaching Animal Farm. I would attempt to walk students through the novel, pointing out the various passages that I thought related to today, in an attempt to make the book come alive. After trying to push them through the book, I’d assign a paper—something like, “how do the pigs capture and maintain their power”—and then watch the disliking of the novel intensify. With no invoking of familia, it was a lifeless experience.

This year, after reading Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide, I pulled way back. My freshmen simply made T-charts based on what they noticed as they read. Every day, we started with them sharing their T-charts, in groups and then as a class. Amazingly, nearly all the concepts that I would’ve chosen were noticed by my students and created great teachable moments—the ones prompted by students asking questions that they really want answers to. At the end of the novel, I did have them write what message they see in the book, but we spent a great deal more time discussing what the overall messages were, and then in small writing groups responding to what we were producing. I wrote with them, as a member of their community, and modeled revising strategies throughout the process. Their papers were deeper and more well-developed than in past years.

At the conlcusion of teaching Animal Farm, nearly all my students actually enjoyed the novel and appreciated its content. Let me repeat that, my freshmen actually liked reading Animal Farm. All I did was get out of the way and let the force of community, of familia, do the work.

Sotomayor, in another statement from a speech in 1996 that has been garnering media notice, related that she “found out that my Latina background had created difficulties in my writing that I needed to overcome….My writing was stilted and overly complicated, my grammar and vocabulary skills weak.” That starting point is probably a common one for many of our students. The only question is whether or not the educational institutions can turn from their test-happy ways and really engage the full range of students through familia and other adjustments to pedagogy.

Add comment July 13th, 2009

Questions & Authors: Easing Into Summer with Great Reads

School is out, or will be soon, for most of the country. This is a great time to get kids hooked on some great summer reads. Teri Lesesne, author of Naked Reading and Making the Match, offers some suggestions that will make for some magical — and educational — summer reading for all kids.

My 16 year old is keeping a countdown clock on her laptop. It is ticking away the last weeks of school. It is not that she does not love school; she does. What she is looking forward to, though, is the luxury of time. That struck such a resonant chord with me. More than anything else, I think my teen looks forward to summer because she becomes “time wealthy.” She can sleep late, certainly. What she most loves about the abundance of time is that she is free to read those books that have been accumulating throughout the school year: the ones not assigned for her English classes. Summertime and the reading is easy, or it should be.

Easy does not mean, however, that books are without rigor. Often, I think, books for young adults tend to be snubbed by some adults who think that they are little more than pablum; nothing nutritious can be gleaned from reading books written specifically for young adults. Perhaps these adults can be forgiven; they must not have read some of the books from the last couple of years that challenge teen readers. That is what great YA literature does: it offers teen readers the chance to explore all sorts of new terrain in terms of issues and topics. What sets these books apart from their adult counterparts, though , is that YA literature is developmentally appropriate for teen readers. For example, how does legislation such as The Patriot Act impact on the lives of teens? Cory Doctorow explores this territory in Little Brother. Doctorow takes readers into the lives of a handful of teens who are arrested following the terrorist bombing of a bridge in San Francisco. he teens are held captive by federal agents until they (the teens) unlock their computers and cell phones and give the agents total access to their accounts and records. One teen, Markus (aka, w1n5t0n), dares to defy his captors for a time. Ultimately, though, he capitulates. The experience makes Markus begin to question authority.The comparison to books such as 1984 is inevitable and valid, too. However, the central character here is a teen, not an adult.

With the recent downturn in the economy, one of the most startling set of statistics concerned the rise in the number of handguns being sold. As people worry about their own survival in tough economic times, sometimes they also fear that someone will come to take what little they have. It is not too big a leap from here to futuristic scenarios where the wealth is in the hands of a few, a few who are corrupt to boot. Suzanne Collins delves into such as future in her proposed trilogy which begins with The Hunger Games and continues with the second book, Catching Fire . Katniss and Peeta must defeat the other players (all of whom are children) in the annual “Hunger Games” in order to survive and win rations which will allow their family members to survive as well. Dystopic views of the future abound in literature for young adults from Lois Lowry’s The Giver to Mary Pearson’s chilling The Adoration of Jenna Fox and Fade to Blue by Sean Beaudoin. For students who might prefer some nonfiction, books such as Affluenza: The All Consuming Epidemic by John DeGraaf or Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On ( Not) Getting By in America. The Hunger Games is one of the books nominated to YALSA’s “Teens Top Ten” list for 2009. To see the other books teens can read and then vote for in the fall, visit the YALSA web site and click on the link to Teens Top Ten. And while you are there, take a look at the winners for “Teens Top Ten” for 2008 (and earlier, too) and see how many of these titles are ones you know and have read. If teens are voting these are their favorites, perhaps we need to know a little something about them, too?

What about offering readers a chance to explore some history through YA books? Often, nonfiction is overlooked for recreational reading. However, there are terrific choices available to teens who want to learn more about a wide variety of subjects. Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice provides readers with insight into the role of this teen during the bus boycott in the South of Jim Crow legislation. Ellen Levine’s Freedom’s Children includes a vignette of Claudette Colvin plus dozens of other young people who took part in the Civil Rights Movement. I have been writing lately about the concept of reading ladders, a concept that helps us move readers from one book to the next and from there to another. A reading ladder for this issue might include the picture book A Taste of Colored Water and then progress to the two books about Claudette Colvin and continue on to novels such as The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 or one of Mildred Taylor’s novel in the Roll of Thunder series or any other novel set during these tumultuous times. Take a small step off to another reading ladder and recommend Gary Schmidt’s Trouble, a book that examines prejudice against Asian-Americans in the 1980s. Or select Denied, Detained, Deported: Stories from the Dark Side of American Immigration by Ann Bausum for a look at how immigrants were denied entry into the U.S. across history. Summer reading might just afford teachers the opportunity to construct ladders so that students can experience a story or history in interconnected ways rather than one piece at a time.

How wonderful to be a teen again and see the wealth of time summer offers. I am certain that you, too, have an ever-growing (and more than likely toppling) stack of books to engage you over the summer. Let me add just a handful of titles from the hundreds of YA books published this year already. These books represent the array available in YA literature: books for tweens and younger teens, fiction and nonfiction, reimaginings of familiar stories, and (most of all) accessible enjoyable texts. I discuss these books at my blog. Stop by and see how I am spending those precious extra minutes summer offers.

Some Suggestions for Summer Reading:

Soul Enchilada by David Macinnis Gill is a modern day “Faust” set in El Paso. See what happens when the devil comes to collect on a deal made by Bug’s grandfather that involves two souls and a primo Cadillac.

A Kiss in Time by Alex Flinn is a retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story set in contemporary time. Imagine waking from a 200 year nap to discover that your entire world has undergone tremendous changes.

Knucklehead: Tales and Mostly True Stories about Growing up Scieszka by Jon Scieszka. This slice of life autobiography is a quick and incredibly funny read. Scieszka is the US Ambassador for Young People’s Literature for a reason.

Purple Heart by Patricia McCormick follows the life of a soldier wounded in Iraq. As Matt’s memory of his injury return, he faces some tough moral decisions.

Hamlet by John Marsden is a prose variant that contains much of Shakespeare’s characters and plot with a few new twists.

Add comment June 4th, 2009

Questions & Authors: Getting parents involved

In the third installment of our Questions & Authors series with the authors of TeamWork: Setting the Standard for Collaborative Teaching, Grades 5-9, Kathryn Edmonds shares some strategies for getting parents involved in the life of a classroom. Revisit Amanda Mayeaux’s tips for keeping work and life in balance and Monique Wild’s advice on putting students in charge of their own learning.

Teachers often ask each other: “How do you get parents involved in your class or on your team?” Over the years of asking ourselves the same question at the start of every school year we found a few tricks that increased parent involvement that we discuss in chapter three of our book. Here are some quick tips to get you started:

  1. Whether the information is presented at a traditional open house or in before-school-starts letters home, offer a “menu” of choices of opportunities for parents to become involved. Be sure the menu has a wide variety of offerings for parents. These may include donations of supplies or treats for the classrooms, chaperoning for fieldtrips or school events, making classroom materials, and any other things you can do. Giving advanced notice of your involvement needs is always appreciated with working parents.
  2. Throughout the school year update your involvement needs list on the class/team website or newsletter.
  3. Thank you notes and shout-outs to those parents that contributed any amount of time, effort, and/or money, no matter how large or small, go a long way. As much as parents want to feel needed they also want to feel appreciated.
  4. Have the students do the inviting. Recorded voice messages from students and hand-made invitations are hard for parents to turn down!
  5. Offer parents the experience to share their college, career, or special talent knowledge with your class or team. Many parents, like their middle-school age children, enjoy sharing information and life experiences with others.

Add comment May 21st, 2009

Questions & Authors: Showcasing Student Work

Sharing and showcasing student work is an important part of the writing process, according to Ann Marie Corgill, author of Of Primary Importance: What’s Essential in Teaching Young Writers. She shares some of her classroom publishing strategies in the latest edition of our Questions & Authors series.

Publishing means many things to writers and writing teachers. To me, publishing simply means “going public” with your writing, and there are so many ways to support young writers as they publish and celebrate their writing and illustrating work. Publishing—and the celebration that goes along with it—is one giant step in the writing process, and possibly the most important part for the children. The pieces of writing go forth into the classroom, the school, and the world and become a representation of the reading, topic selecting, conferring, rough-drafting, editing, revising, talking, sharing, rewriting, and reflecting work that we do across the days and weeks of a study. So much teaching and learning about writing is held in those pieces, and that writing deserves and audience and a celebration.
Here are a few tips for celebrating and showcasing student work:

Make Time For Daily Sharing

Make Time for Daily Sharing

Young children will thrive as writers if they can count on daily responses to and celebrations of their work. So often writing share is the first thing to go when time is short in an already packed school day, but having this routine consistent and built in to the writing workshop block will provide multiple opportunities for student sharing and the class:

  • to learn how to give and receive comments to a piece of writing
  • to synthesize and share writing conference highlights and bring that teaching out into the classroom
  • to gain confidence in writing and illustrating abilities
  • to speak about the work that writers and illustrators do
  • to seek help and suggestions for a particular piece of writing or a part of the process that may be challenging for the writer

Bring The Teaching Out Into The Room

Bring the teaching into the room

One simple way to honor the work of a writer is to showcase writing conference teaching points throughout the room. This is a great way to have your conferring impact all students and is a great way to engage the class in the learning of one writer. Pretty soon the walls of the classroom become covered in teaching and learning about writing (or reading or math or science or social studies)—depending on which conference teaching points you decide to share.

Think Big
Think Big

Sometimes it’s difficult to imagine how a tiny piece of writing can grab the attention of a reader or can truly represent the hard work that went into writing and publishing. During our poetry studies, when the writing isn’t long and doesn’t fill several pages, we use our illustrating abilities to support the writing and create “poetry posters”. These posters give student writing a “grand and colorful” feel and can bring the dull and lifeless walls of a school to life. Think big when publishing and celebrating student work and fill your school walls with the work of your students.

Use Previous Artwork In Publishing

Use previous artworkA few weeks ago, my first graders created gorgeous artwork with markers and the raindrops of a February thunderstorm. After we hung these pieces in the room, I heard a couple students talking. “My art looks like a picture book cover!” Hmmmmm….

Thanks to my students, I learned that previous artwork might become the “seed” for a writing project. Some of my students are now using this artwork as the cover of the next picture book they’re writing. This is just a reminder to me as their teacher to keep my eyes and ears open for ways to publish and showcase student writing.

Chart Comments from A Real Audience

Chart Comments from a Real Audience

This week a second grade teacher in my school shared a realistic fiction piece that her class had written with my first graders. My students were delighted with the story, clapped when the story ended, and immediately burst into conversation about Rocket’s Bath. And I couldn’t just let that be the end of this “publishing and celebrating” experience. We decided to chart our comments and send them to the class of second graders so that they could hang our responses in the classroom alongside their published piece. Thanks to Mrs. Collins and her second graders for sharing an amazing piece of writing and for reminding us all that written comments from a real audience can inspire young authors to “keep writing!”

Show Children That They Are Doing The Work Of Real Authors

real authors

It’s especially important when students write to remind them that they are doing the work of real authors. One way to send that message to students is to find perfect places in your classroom library to house student writing. If students see the books they write surrounded by the work of the authors they read each day, they will come to believe that their own writing is always written for a purpose and a real audience.

Add comment April 22nd, 2009

Questions & Authors: Keeping teaching and life in balance

TeamWorkMany new and veteran teachers struggle with keeping their professional and personal lives in balance. The authors of TeamWork: Setting the Standard for Collaborative Teaching Grades 5-9 know this all too well. During their years of team teaching, they have learned many tricks for setting aside the time they need for planning their classroom activities, and for meeting their personal obligations to themselves and their families. Amanda Mayeaux, one of the coauthors of TeamWork shares some of these tips in this latest installment of Questions & Authors:

“A good teacher is like a candle – it consumes itself
to light the way for others. ”  ~Author Unknown

True, but most of our families would not be pleased if suddenly in the middle of grading papers while sitting on our couches, we were consumed! The question we are often asked by teachers struggling with the overwhelming workload is how to manage all of the responsibilities of work. Add the responsibilities of children and a spouse on top of your workload, and being consumed may sound like a great escape.

Our book, TeamWork, is not only about teaming, but more about the relationships we had with each other and our students. What truly made the teaming concept work for us was — and is — the collaboration which helped all of us learn to depend on each other so we could balance our professional and personal lives. If you are in a school without the structure of teaming, you can still benefit from the basics of collaboration. Learning to balance is about keeping your priorities straight, planning, and learning to lean on and support others.

If you are in need of some balancing, first, set your priorities. If you don’t take care of you, you can not take care of others in your family or your students. Your family is crucial. If you are struggling to make the list, think about who will be at your deathbed. These people are your priority.

List the things you and your family need to function properly. These may include being with your family, exercise, eating right, spiritual time, and recreational adult time. Many of these can include your family. Maybe you eat a healthy meal together three nights a week or maybe each Saturday morning regardless of what needs to be graded, you play in the park.

If you are struggling with fitting it in, consider having a family meeting each week to set dates for the week and anything important that may be coming up in the next few weeks. Knowing the important events that are coming up will allow you to know when you can take the lead at work and when you need to move back a little. For example, when Kathryn was getting married, Monique and Amanda knew we had to pick up some extra duties during the week leading up to the big event. Likewise, when Kathryn knew when Monique and Amanda had responsibilities with their children that may require a little extra help from her. How you manage your family is personal. Our families have moved to online calendars, but traditional paper family calendars work well also. Your students are important, but your families are you lifeline. You should plan with your family first.

Second, think about your professional priorities. Our best trick for keeping life in balance is planning ahead, setting a timeline for what has to be done, and then getting it done. As a team we plan quite a bit during the summer by planning our major unit timelines, planning parent and other events, and preparing anything we can prepare ahead of time. We also only focus on one major change a year. For example, one year we decided to add more parental involvement activities to our team. We planned during the summer, assigned roles to each person, and then spent the year implementing. We did not create another big push until we had this one under control. Chapter three in TeamWork illustrates the various elements of this initiative and has resources for anyone wishing to involve parents more often.

Of course every teacher has numerous demands thrown at them. Decide what is critical and what is not. Yes, some things are not. If you are overwhelmed, do not be afraid to talk to your administration or a mentor. Sometimes administrators do not realize things that may be on your plate personally. If there is an important event coming up in the life of your child or spouse, don’t be afraid to tell your administrator. Being up front about what you can manage and what you can not will assist everyone in getting the job done.

Finally, connect with your colleagues. If you are part of a team, then you are so lucky to have people with whom to share the responsibilities of calling parents, managing attendance records, conferencing with students, setting up special events, and many other things. Again, planning ahead will save you a great deal of time later and reduce your headaches.

If you are not part of a team, you will benefit from having someone you can talk to. Find a few teachers with whom you connect. Maybe these teachers teach the same subject or the same grade level. Maybe you are all in graduate school together or completing National Boards. Maybe you just like this person. If planning time during the school day is unavailable, ask if they are willing to talk over coffee after school once a week or once every two weeks. Amanda has a friend she meets on Saturdays when her daughter is dancing.

Before you begin the talks, set some rules. In chapter 1 of TeamWork we have some ideas for building a team. These questions and thoughts will help any group in the beginnings of collaboration. We believe the establishing core beliefs are crucial. Ours are listed in this chapter for your benefit.

Even though we are not teaming together anymore, we still get together with each other and with a few other teacher friends, because one of our core beliefs is that learning is a lifelong endeavor. Our meetings are not complaint sessions. We talk about issues, but we focus on solutions. We may talk about professional books we are reading or ask questions about an issue we have in the classroom. Sometimes we even talk about how to manage a personal issue or two. Adding a wise mentor to the group is a great idea.

We also collaborate with online chat sites and email. With Monique and Amanda moving to a new school in the district, we found the internet to be a way to remain connected. As lifelong learners, we are enjoying finding new ways to engage our colleagues and even some of our former students.

Teaching is an all consuming profession. Having someone or a small group of people to talk to about your challenges and thoughts will save your family the fate of hearing about school day in and day out. Great teachers should burn brightly, but please don’t burn those around you or they may blow you out.

1 comment April 15th, 2009

Questions & Authors: Put students in charge of learning


In Part I of our three-part Questions & Authors series with the authors of TeamWork: Setting the Standard for Collaborative Teaching, Grades 5-9, Monique Wild talks about how she used student-led conferences to get parents involved in their children’s lives at school and to get students motivated and excited about their own learning.

When we first began to host student-led conferences, we had meager hopes that the conferences would serve as a tool to assist our students in articulating their academic progress to their parents. Often parents had complained to us that their middle school children no longer told them about school activities. In fact, when questioned about what had occurred at school, most of our students responded with a standard, “Nothing!”

Student-led conferences were our attempt to bridge the widening communication gap that was forming between our middle-schoolers and their parents. We did not realize the power that student-led conferences would also have in improving the academic success of our students. Suddenly, our students became active, empowered participants in the learning process. In short, they not only communicated with their parents, but also began to accept responsibility for their successes as well as for improvements that were needed in their academic endeavors. It seemed that once they realized they would have to discuss their academic progress one on one with their parents and provide evidence to support their findings, academic activities became more important to them. What we witnessed was nothing short of a magical transformation. Here are the key components that made student-led conferences successful in our classrooms.
1. Gather artifacts to share with parents.
Our students maintain portfolios that contain graded assignments, photographs of learning activities, articles about our students from the local newspaper, work students are proud of, and student self-evaluations. It is important that students be provided time throughout the course of the grading period to organize and peruse portfolios to note trends in their performance. When portfolios are part of a reflective learning component in regular classroom activities, students are much more likely to articulate information about their learning to their parents.
2. Allow students to set goals.
Our students use their portfolios to reflect upon their learning and to set goals for improvement in subsequent learning activities. The goals they set are shared with their parents during student-led conferences and are monitored closely throughout each grading period. By setting their own learning goals, our students become responsible for their own learning.
3. Allow students to plan for the discussions prior to the student-led conference.
When we first invited parents for student-led conferences, we thought that the conversation would flow easily between our students and their parents if they were simply provided student portfolios to peruse. However, in the beginning many of our students sat silently looking at their parents for the duration of the conference. Now we have our students complete a discussion plan prior to conference day. We provide our students with the following sentence starters to which students write their thoughts.
– Three things I’d like to discuss with my parents are…
– What I need to explain to my parents about my goals includes…
– The thing I’m most proud of is…
– I need to work on…
– I want to tell my parents that I need help with…
In addition to having students write their plans prior to conferences, we also have them take their plans with them as reference notes during the conference. This provides our students and their parents with a guide for the proceedings.
1. Schedule dates and times for student-led conferences well in advance.
In today’s hectic world, we have found that it is essential to have dates for student-led conferences planned well in advance so that parents have time to adjust their schedules in order to attend. We have found that we experience the largest parental turnout when we schedule conferences throughout the school day and into the early evening. This gives all of our students’ families a chance to attend without jeopardizing job-related responsibilities.
2. Send personalized invitations two weeks before the event.
We tend to experience greater turnout for our student-led conferences when we send personalized invitations to our students’ parents prior to the event. We ask parents to RSVP with the time they plan to attend so that we can accommodate all of our visitors.
It is also helpful to ask for feedback from parents to assist in planning for future events. The feedback will help you to fine-tune the process to better facilitate discussions between your students and their parents. Questions that have helped us to improve the student-led conferences experienced by our students and their parents include the following.
– How was the student-led conference beneficial to you and your child?
– What was the most pertinent information you gained during the conference?
– What do you still want to know?
– What were your expectations of the event prior to the conference with your child?
– What do you feel your child’s teachers need to know?

Because we have incorporated student-led conferences into our practice, our students have become more engaged in the learning process and their parents have reported feeling more involved in their children’s education. The notion of adolescent students taking responsibility for their own learning is a compelling argument in support of student-led conferences. This alone is reason enough for us to encourage all educators to consider student-led conferences as a way to engage your students and their parents in meaningful dialogue about academic progress. We anticipate that you will witness magical ransformations just as we have. Enjoy the magic!

1 comment April 1st, 2009

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