Blogstitute: Vocabulary Practice in Grades 5-8

Here it is — the last day and the last post for our 2015 Summer Blogstitute. It comes from Brenda Overturf, coauthor of the new book Vocabularians along with Leslie Montgomery and Margot Holmes Smith. She outlines how to nurture learners who acquire and use new words with confidence. She believes that when students actively engage in learning vocabulary in creative ways, they enjoy their experience with words and remember them.

vocabulariansActive and Creative Vocabulary Practice in Grades 5–8
By Brenda Overturf

For the last few weeks, I have been taking an acrylic painting class. Although I loved art when I was in school, I have not attempted this type of work in many, many years. So I was a bit startled when the teacher, a career artist with a master’s degree in fine arts, left us with this homework close to the beginning of the course: “Get your supplies and begin painting!”

At home, I laid out paint, brushes, and the other things I had purchased from the list. Then I eyed the blank canvas. Where to begin? Of course, like any modern person, I flipped open my laptop for some helpful tutorials. But I was quickly confronted with a number of unfamiliar terms. Linear and aerial perspective. Positive and negative space. Blocking. Tinting. Shading. I vaguely remembered my teacher saying some of these words, but I certainly did not know enough to approach the canvas with confidence. It is only now, with my last class coming up, that I can read the same websites and not only better understand the terms but also envision myself engaging in what they mean. I’m the same learner, but now I have tried creating linear and aerial perspective and positive and negative spaces. I have blocked, tinted, and shaded. I am more confident and can use these words with ease. The only difference in my knowledge is that I know some words that are important for understanding and now have a bit of experience to connect the meaning.

Teaching Vocabulary in the Middle Grades

Vocabulary learners need rich experiences with words and their related networks (synonyms, antonyms, homophones, etc.) in order to develop word schema and truly make new words their own. Dutifully looking up words in a dictionary and copying the definitions doesn’t count (in fact, it may even hurt). All students need to learn individual words and word-learning strategies, and to develop word consciousness, within a literacy-rich environment.

Research tells us that we need to experience a word seven to twelve times to truly remember it, so vocabulary learners also need multiple exposures to words over time. The structure of most elementary classrooms enables teachers to provide experiences with targeted words throughout the day. However, this is not so easy to do at the middle level. With compartmentalized classes and specialized disciplines, teachers must have an intentional plan to provide vocabulary instruction that helps kids learn.

In Vocabularians, I describe a process for teachers of middle grades students to plan vocabulary instruction together within a school, team, or professional learning community:

  1. Carefully select a small number of words important to understanding upcoming lessons in different classes and that students will see in text. These words will be designated for deep study for each two-week vocabulary cycle.
  2. Introduce each selected vocabulary word in context. Encourage students to infer the meaning of the word and engage them in discussion that allows them to explore the context in which the word is introduced. Reinforce these words across the team or grade level.
  3. Invite students to create a “vocabulary exploration” of each word selected for deep study. Add the vocabulary exploration to a journal or section of a binder to be used as a reference.
  4. Flood each classroom with other words important to content or that students discover in reading.
  5. Teach morphological awareness as multisyllabic words are introduced for deep study or as they are encountered in text.
  6. Provide opportunities for active, engaging vocabulary practice that include movement, discussion, art, drama, music, writing, technology or media, and test-taking skills.
  7. Assess vocabulary in ways in which students will be tested. Include words that students have studied previously so there is a cumulative effect. Provide ways for students to self-assess and monitor their own progress in vocabulary development.

Students need “thick” vocabulary experiences—where they really wrestle with words—to help them develop deep knowledge. Step number six of this plan emphasizes active and creative practice as part of learning vocabulary. It is no secret that students are more motivated and learn at higher levels when they are doing something they find interesting. The Association for Middle Level Education agrees. This organization has outlined five characteristics of appropriate curriculum, instruction, and assessment for early adolescents, one of which is that students learn best when they engage in active learning. Physical activity and projects using the arts can be highly motivating to young adolescents who need to move frequently and enjoy social interaction. Active learning can also help meet the needs of students who learn best through multisensory instruction to develop visual, auditory, and kinesthetic-tactile pathways to language learning.

Active vocabulary practice can also help students meet standards. For example, the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts include a number of references to determining the meanings of unfamiliar words and phrases. They can be found in the standards for reading in literature, informational text, history/social studies, and science and technical subjects. They can also be found in standards for writing and are implied in speaking and listening, but the emphasis on vocabulary learning is in the language standards. When a science teacher calls out “Prove it!” and challenges his seventh-grade students to find evidence about a word’s meaning from the context of the science passage or from the meanings of the affixes and roots, students are hard at work on reading in science and technical subjects standard four, language standards four and six, and speaking and listening standards. To the students, it is first a game to find the clues.

Illustrated Vocabulary

One of the active practice strategies that students enjoyed in Vocabularians is called Illustrated Vocabulary. In this strategy, students write one of their words for deep study on a sheet of paper. We ask them to write it neatly and make it dark, using block letters. Then we ask them to create an illustration using the letters as the foundation of the drawing, adding details to establish the definition.

When I first showed middle grades teachers the kind of thinking that elementary students had produced with this activity, they were impressed. For example, David illustrated the word nomadic, a word from a social studies lesson. He turned the lowercase “n” into a Native American boy. The “o” became a basket. The “m,” which he drew larger than the others, became mountains with arrows that indicated movement over them. The “a” became a buffalo, the “d” was transformed into a teepee, the “i” was a tree, and he made the “c” into another Native American. As he explained to me, “Some Native Americans were nomadic. They had to cross mountains to go to another village to find food.” Does David understand the word nomadic enough to use it in his speech and writing? Will he remember it the next time he sees it in text? It is obvious to me that this word belongs to David forever.

Middle grades teachers who tried this strategy for themselves were pretty impressed by its complexity. When their students tried it, teachers were even more impressed. It is a deep-thinking activity, causing students to plumb depths of knowledge as they creatively explore the meaning of a word. Math terms became fire engines, ladders, and bouncing balls. Social studies vocabulary transformed into ancient Roman ruins. Words from Shakespeare turned into a fight between feuding families. All kids, including English language learners and underachieving students, could participate enthusiastically.

Create a Community of Vocabulary Learners

Mark Twain once said, “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.” Providing opportunities for active, engaging vocabulary practice that includes movement, discussion, art, drama, music, writing, technology, or media can help students experience carrying that metaphorical cat. We want students in grades 5–8 to become vocabularians who can acquire and use new words with confidence. When students actively engage in learning vocabulary in creative ways, they enjoy their experience with words and remember them.

9 comments July 22nd, 2015

Blogstitute: Words Still Matter

We have the amazing Janet Allen on the blog today, with an inspiring post about the power of words and how to make vocabulary instruction a part of everything you do in your classroom! Janet’s latest book is Tools for Teaching Academic Vocabulary. We have one more week left in our Blogstitute and we’ll hear from Mark Overmeyer and Brenda Overturf! I hope you will join us again and follow us on Twitter using #blogstitute15!

tools-for-teaching-academic-vocabularyWords Still Matter
Janet Allen

I was working with literacy coaches last week when one of them sighed and said, “What a year.” It was quiet for a moment, and I could literally see others stopping to personalize her words to the school year they had just experienced. Three simple words had given us pause not because of the complexity of the words but because, for each of us, those words called up hundreds of other words and images. And, while I hadn’t been in my own classroom for many years, I certainly had many experiences that reminded me just how much words matter.

When I left my classroom in Maine in the early 1990s, I filled my van with boxes that contained my students’ words, my teaching journals that were filled with my reflections and resolutions, and my favorite books. Other, less-significant items were left in the hands of movers. Today I’m in the messy process of moving again. This will be my fourth home since moving to Florida and today, as with all other moves, I packed my books, my journals, and my students’ words. I think it is because I know the power of words that I have spent so much time writing about vocabulary instruction. Unfortunately for my students, it took me a long time to find effective strategies to help them become inquisitive word learners and powerful word users.

As with many of you, for me summer was always a time for teaching resolutions. Or, it was once I hungrily read one book after another—books I wanted to read and not ones I had to read. One of the most common summer resolutions for me was to figure out a way to teach vocabulary more effectively. A teacher from Ohio once shared with me a fourth grader’s words from a self-assessment of his handwriting. He wrote: “I don’t think my handwriting has improved because I have been doing it ‘half fast.’” On reflection each summer, I felt as though my teaching of vocabulary the previous year could have been described in the same way. In spite of my resolutions, each year I fell into the trap of seeing vocabulary as something we did but not part of everything we did. I now know that teaching vocabulary has to be a part of everything we do.

When I decided to write Tools for Teaching Academic Vocabulary, I had already written two books focused on vocabulary: Words, Words, Words and Inside Words. In each of those books, I focused on an array of teaching strategies and graphic organizers to support students in learning a variety of words across all content areas. In writing Tools for Teaching Academic Vocabulary, I set out to clarify that word-learning depends on a variety of factors—purpose for knowing the word, how it differs from similar words, and how and when to use the word. I believe the instructional tools we use depend on how deeply we want students to know a word. I used Graves’s (2006) research and organized the tools based on four components of a comprehensive vocabulary program as a reminder that a focus on words that lead to academic success needs to be addressed in all activities and in all classes. In fact, a district where I worked required that teachers use this tool to ensure they were focused on words from informal conversation and reading to direct instruction.

janet

I don’t want to keep you from that summer reading for too long, so let me just highlight something about each of the four components.

Rich and Varied Language Experiences

Rich language experiences mean that students will have opportunities to encounter interesting words each day. These encounters should be so varied that the words draw them into learning many more words than you may have intended. As I was writing this, I received an e-mail from Joy Hakim (author of A History of US and The Story of Science) sharing her new e-book, Reading Science Stories. I was immediately so engrossed in reading these narrative nonfiction pieces that I had a hard time stopping to continue writing (and unpacking). I laughed out loud at her engaging use of language:

Most priests and teachers and ordinary people have a hard time dealing with the astonishing idea that the universe does not revolve around us. Copernicus’s discovery leads to another idea that many find hard to accept (and a few find exciting): if Earth is not the center of the universe maybe the universe was not made just for us. (2015, 123–124)

While you may know someone who still doesn’t understand this concept, there is no doubt in my mind that readers will learn a great deal of academic, domain-specific words when they are embedded in a text with such rich language.

Teaching Individual Words

Teaching individual words is where you would be very likely to use a graphic organizer, concept map, or academic vocabulary cards. These words are typically related to the content or text students will encounter; they are so important, they deserve the extra time and attention. I receive lots of e-mails with humorous accounts of students attempting to write sentences with words they have looked up. Often the dilemma is that they didn’t know the target word and they also didn’t know the words used to define the target word.

In this section of the flipchart, I focused on four types of words necessary for academic success:

  • General academic words (such as analyze, hypothesize, and paraphrase)
  • Domain- or discipline-specific words (such as factor, integer, and rational numbers)
  • Topic-specific words ( such as argumentative, menacing, and gregarious when writing a character analysis)
  • Passage-critical words (such as strain when used in a completely different way—e.g., in talking about a flu or other illness)

One of the most difficult aspects of this component will be choosing the word or words you want to teach. Remember, you can’t teach students every unknown word in any text. This is a good place to think about how deeply students need to know a word in order to support comprehension and communication.

Teaching Strategies for Learning New Words

Given that most teachers can teach about 350 new words a year through direct instruction, teaching strategies for learning unknown words independently is critical. Stahl and Fairbanks summarized the problem: “Since a vocabulary teaching program typically teaches 10 to 12 words a week or about 400 a year, of which perhaps 75% or 300 are learned, vocabulary instruction is not adequate to cope with the volume of new words that children need to learn and do learn without instruction” (1986, 100). I decided to focus on the three strategies that have been shown to have the greatest impact on learning new words independently:

  • How to Use Internal Context Clues: Prefixes, Root Words, Suffixes
  • How to Use External Context Clues to Learn New Words
  • How to Use Resources to Support Learning New Words

Knowing how to create an effective strategy lesson using a hook, direct instruction, guided/independent practice, and closure is critical to this component of a comprehensive vocabulary program.

Fostering Word Consciousness

In Jennifer Donnelly’s book A Northern Light (2003), the narrator reminds us that interesting words embedded in interesting texts make words more memorable:

I tried to put my mind back on Paradise Lost, but it was hard going. Somniferous was my word of the day. It means sleep inducing, and it was a good one to describe that dull and endless poem. Milton meant to give us a glimpse of hell, Miss Wilcox said, and he succeeded. (60–61)

I love that one of the components of a vocabulary program is heightening students’ awareness of words. Riddles, games, political cartoons, interesting texts, lateral thinking puzzles, and hundreds of other activities help students become more conscious of language. Two of the characteristics I look for in this component are inquisitiveness and risk-taking. When students start to question a word’s meaning or attempt to use words other than safe words, you know they are developing word consciousness. I will always remember three boys who hung out in my room so much that I sometimes forgot they were there. When the principal stopped in my room after school to talk about a department issue, one of the boys decided to jump into the conversation. I gave all three my “teacher look” and ushered them out of the room. As I closed the door, one of the boys said to the others, “We wouldn’t have gotten in trouble if you hadn’t been earsdropping!”

Words Still Matter

Words do indeed still matter. Many of you have folders with notes from students with words you want to keep forever. Others of you have words you have kept to tell your story. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that words are about more than a standard or checking off an instructional requirement. And, since I believe that words still matter, my hope for you is that this summer will be your summer to spend time with words—reading, writing, sharing, and storing. There is no doubt in my mind that effective instruction is critical, but I believe that our love of words is also critical. I wish each of you a word-filled summer as you anticipate supporting others in growing a love of words. Nearly 100 years ago, Horace Mann said, “When growing things, one former is worth a thousand reformers.” I don’t know about you, but those are words I needed to hear.

References

Donnelly, J. 2003. A Northern Light. New York: Harcourt.

Graves, M. F. 2006. The Vocabulary Book: Learning & Instruction. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hakim, J. 2015. Reading Science Stories. E-book, published by author.

Stahl, S. A., and M. M. Fairbanks. 1986. “The Effects of Vocabulary Instruction: A Model-Based Meta-Analysis.” Review of Educational Research 56(1): 72–110.

 

 

10 comments July 15th, 2015

Blogstitute: Classroom Talk — A Vehicle for Student Learning and Engagement

We hope that you are still with us on these hot summer days as we continue our Blogstitute today with Liz Hale, author of the recent book Readers Writing. In this post Liz talks about how her thinking evolved around classroom talk and how she harnesses its power to enhance her teaching. Follow us on Twitter using #blogstitute15 and be sure to leave a comment for a chance to win free books at the end of this year’s Blogstitute!

readers-writingClassroom Talk: A Vehicle for Student Learning and Engagement
By Elizabeth Hale

If you had asked me what I thought about students talking in the classroom during my first year of teaching in Boston, I probably would have thrown my hands up, looked to the sky, and said, “It just drives me crazy!” Back then, classroom talk was something that seemed to work against my teaching, not support it.

The longer I was in the classroom and the more instructional strategies I learned from colleagues, workshops, and professional literature, the more I understood how classroom talk is one of the most powerful vehicles for teaching and learning, from both a cognitive and an affective standpoint. Of course, this change required a shift in my perspective on what classroom talk meant. Rather than see it only as student-generated talk that disrupted teaching and learning, I began to understand that it could be a purposeful tool for student learning and engagement.

Many teachers understand that productive and beneficial classroom talk does not just happen but is something that needs to be initiated and supported by the teacher, even if it eventually becomes student driven. The more defined the form and purpose of classroom talks are, the more productive they tend to be. In my books Readers Writing: Lessons for Responding to Narrative and Informational Text (2014) and Crafting Writers, K–8 (2008), the main instructional focus is writing. But embedded throughout the lesson structures and instructional strategies are purposeful times for students to talk. They are critical vehicles to help students learn about, and care about, what we teach them about writing.

Here are a few specific ways I use student talk to support learning:

  1. Turn and Talk to name what is being taught or modeled

In this first, twenty-second turn and talk in a mini-lesson, all students are asked to tell a partner the name of the craft technique or “writing about reading” strategy that was just modeled within a paragraph of writing. This consistent expectation supports accountability and engagement as well as memory retention.

  1. Turn and Talk about the “why” of the lesson

In this also-very-brief turn and talk that comes in between teacher modeling and students writing an entry in their reader’s or writer’s notebooks, everyone briefly tells a partner what he or she is learning or why the “writing about reading” strategy or craft technique is beneficial to know. Here, I am supporting not only accountability of learning but also student ownership: I want them to be able to verbalize and understand how a particular strategy will help them as a reader or writer.

Sometimes I do this same kind of turn and talk before the direct instruction part of the lesson. For example, in one of the Readers Writing lessons, I ask, “So why do you think writing about the relationship between two characters is a good strategy to use in your reader’s notebooks? Why not just write about one character at a time? Tell your partner what you think.” The purpose here is less about reinforcing a concept just taught and more about getting students to think analytically about what they learn.

  1. Partner Share of writing

After any kind of independent writing, whether it is in a writer’s or reader’s notebook, I always have a partner share before the whole-class share. This takes a little extra time, but it is worth it! I have seen so many students who previously did not care about their writing start to become more invested during independent writing because they knew that, every time they wrote an entry, it would be shared with a peer.

Classroom Talk: The Benefits

Making room for purposeful student talk—whether in the context of literacy instruction, read-aloud, or content subjects—does take thoughtful planning, attention, and time, but here are three reasons why doing so is worth the effort!

  1. Student Learning

Unlike listening, talking is an active way to process ideas. You can learn by listening, of course, but it is a more passive way of learning. Production of speech is cognitively more demanding, and so talking about one’s ideas, as opposed to just thinking or listening, can result in deeper processing of information (Cazden 2001). In fact, scientific research using brain imaging shows that certain areas of the brain are more active when talking is about to occur than when a person just listens or thinks about an idea (Carota et al. 2009).

  1. Student Engagement

While there is much to be said about how students learn as they are talking out ideas, talking also greatly benefits student learning and engagement that occurs before and after talk—and you probably don’t need to conduct a study to agree. Think about the teacher workshops you’ve been to and how much your engagement differs depending on whether the speaker just talks at you for hours or makes time for you to process what you are learning with someone next to you. When you get to talk every now and then, your ability (and desire) to absorb information from the speaker can be maintained at a high level.

  1. Lesson Management

Unbeknownst to my first-year teacher self, classroom talk can also be a preventative management tool! This is a simple matter of human nature. Again, put yourself in your students’ shoes. If you sat in a chair all day right next to people your age, five days a week for 180 days, it would be hard—if not impossible—to always be quiet, listen, and pay attention. By channeling the desire to talk into academically productive ways, student learning not only benefits but can often curtail the off-task talk that is otherwise likely to occur.

Shifts in Perspective

I realized that, for me, taking advantage of talk in the classroom required two shifts in perspective. The first was getting over my fear of losing control. Especially in my first year of teaching, I thought that unless I was facilitating and directing all conversations, students would just start talking about anything and everything. It took a few years to understand that creating places for student talk, both short and long, actually gave me more control in terms of management, because I valued the reality of the receiving end of instruction. The second thing that shifted for me was redefining what learning was. I had a hidden assumption that, unless I was in that role of facilitator and was present to hear and give feedback to every spoken idea, students would not really be “learning.” What I do as a teacher still very much matters, of course. But now I place a lot more value on what all of my students’ minds experience in terms of processing what I teach than on whether I am there to hear everything they say. After all, the goal of our teaching is less about what we do every day in our classrooms and more about what our students’ minds experience. Bringing different kinds of talk into your classroom, even though it will take some trial and error along the way, is an investment in how your students experience learning.

What other forms of classroom talk have teachers found useful in supporting student engagement and learning? I would love to hear your ideas!

References

Carota, F., A. Posada, S. Harquel, C. Delpeuch, O. Bertrand, and A. Sirigu. 2009. “Neural Dynamics in the Intention to Speak.” Cerebral Cortex 20: 1891–1897.

Cazden, C. 2001. Classroom Discourse: The Language of Teaching and Learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

11 comments July 13th, 2015

Blogstitute: What Yoda can Teach You About Engagement and Motivation

Well, it’s not really Yoda who is doing the teaching in today’s post, but the lesson remains the same: to keep your students motivated, you have to keep them engaged. Kim Yaris and Jan Burkins, authors of Reading Wellness, bring you a lesson in physics, Star Wars, and the art of making small adjustments to your teaching, that will have a big impact.

X-Wing Fighters, Superheroes, and the Difference Between Engagement and Motivation
By Kim Yaris and Jan Burkins

Always with you what cannot be done. . . . You must unlearn what you have learned.–Yoda

Randall Munroe—author, former NASA roboticist, and creator of a science and mathematics webcomic that has a cult following—volunteered to teach a weekend class at MIT on the physics of energy, which he talked about on NPR’s TED Radio Hour. The class was for interested high school students—students obviously motivated to learn science and math, since they were signing up for a weekend physics class. Midway through the lecture on the first day, as he was staring at students’ bored expressions during his explanation of how to calculate the joules of energy (x) required to move a five-kilogram weight, Munroe noticed that these highly interested students had checked out. Suddenly he realized that, even though these students were interested in physics, his explanation of the content had made it abstract and seemingly irrelevant to them.

In such a situation, with students leaning away and looking uninterested, it would have been easy for Munroe to default to blaming them for their lack of motivation. As we work in classrooms alongside teachers, literacy leaders, and administrators, it is not uncommon to hear educators talk about the low motivation levels of students. Inevitably, however, “unmotivated” students are being asked to sit through lessons that are heavy with teacher talk and light on engaging texts and reading experiences.

So what did Munroe do about his seemingly disengaged students in the weekend physics class? He asked a better question. Rather than talking about how to solve for x, which is completely abstract, Munroe told students that, using the formula for potential energy, they could figure out how much potential energy it took for Yoda to lift the X-wing fighter in a scene from The Empire Strikes Back.

Once Munroe told students that this X-wing problem was a relatively straightforward calculation—all you have to know is the mass of the X-wing, the distance Yoda lifted it, and the gravitational strength on Dagobah—the students were suddenly running ahead of him, figuring things out before he could even get to them. They immediately went to a Wikipedia article to find out the mass of the X-wing, and they used YouTube to estimate the distance it was lifted. Once Munroe asked a more engaging question, the seemingly unmotivated students were suddenly leaning into the math and science work, drawing from their energy, not the teacher’s. Munroe was able to watch them problem-solve as he gathered formative assessment data and scaffolded in ways that supported rather than supplanted their efforts.

In the end, of course, they learned a lot of science, because they were actively engaged in applying it in ways that were relevant to them. Since then, Munroe has made it his full-time job to draw comics that ask and answer interesting questions, making abstract mathematics and science relevant enough for people to engage themselves. Ask yourself, which text would you more likely engage with to learn about physics: this one:

physics

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Or this one?

physics2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This connection between student engagement and learning holds true beyond physics, of course. In fact, research from Gallup indicates that a 1 percent increase in student engagement is positively correlated with substantial increases in achievement scores.

Students are naturally curious and enthusiastic learners. If your students appear unmotivated, assume the best of them and look for ways to affect their motivation by making changes to the learning experience. For us, the bulk of the engagement work during a reading experience happens before the lesson, when we select a text. Text selection is to student engagement during reading instruction as interesting questions are to physics students.

Here are a few questions that may prove helpful as you explore ways to engage (vs. motivate) students:

  • Are the texts you are using too difficult for students, requiring extensive teacher talk to scaffold them?
  • Are you spending weeks and weeks on books that should take only a day or two to read and understand?
  • How can you show more than you tell? Can you use visual art, video clips, or other images to engage students?
  • How much actual reading do students do? Is extensive time spent on teacher explanations and/or student documentation?
  • How much of the reading instruction is about aspects of the text—genre, structure, form, theme—rather than about responses to and connections with the text?
  • How much say do students have in what they read? Where can you give students more choice?
  • How relevant are the texts for students? If the marginally relevant texts are required, how can you make them more relevant?
  • How much are students moving? Do they sit for one long period after another, with little or no opportunity to get their blood circulating?
  • Do students know that you think of them as motivated, smart, and capable?

Just as Randall Munroe discovered that a simple shift in questioning could make a profound difference in the tenor of his learning environment, shifting your focus from motivation to engagement can lead to similar responses from your students. Even minor adjustments can have a powerful effect on learning.

May the force be with you!

8 comments July 8th, 2015

Blogstitute: Moving Beyond the 4×4 Classroom

Right before the holiday weekend here is a great read for you from the talented,  brilliant Kelly Gallagher. In this post Kelly takes us through the year in his classroom and how he is re-evaluating how much and what his students read and write about, how he grades them, and how his choices in the classroom will impact his students’ learning. Be sure to leave a comment or ask a question for a chance to win free books at the end of the Blogstitute. You can also follow us on Twitter and use #blogstitute15 to comment!

Moving Beyond the 4 x 4 Classroom
By Kelly Gallagher

kellygallagherWhen I first started teaching, I ran a “4 x 4 classroom.” My students read four “big” books a year (one per quarter), and they wrote four “big” papers a year (one per quarter). Four big books and four big papers—a 4 x 4 classroom.

At the time, this made sense to me. It took a week or two to teach students how to write a specific essay. They took another week or two to move their papers completely through the writing process. Then it took an additional three weeks to read and comment on 180 papers. (While students were waiting for their papers, I shifted the focus in the classroom to the core work we were reading.) By the time I eventually returned the essays, we were into the next quarter and it was time to start thinking about the next big paper.

The same pacing held true when I taught core novels and plays. I took a week to prepare my students for the reading of Book X. We then spent six weeks reading the work, stopping frequently to make sure students were analyzing it to death. Then we spent a couple of weeks revisiting the work via numerous “beyond” activities. By the time students finished these culminating activities, we were into the next quarter and it was time to start reading our next core work.

Years later, I have come to understand the severe limitations of the 4 x 4 approach. The central reason 4 x 4 doesn’t work can be summed up in one word: volume. Volume matters a great deal, and, simply put, students stuck in 4 x 4 paradigms do not read and write enough over the course of the school year to significantly improve. A 4 x 4 approach ensures adequate progress will not occur.

As I write this post, I am three weeks away from the end of another school year—a year in which I have spent a lot of time and energy breaking free of the 4 x 4 mold. Considering the importance of volume leads me to think about my students’ reading and writing journeys this year. Following is a list of the reading and writing tasks they have completed:

Reading:
• In-depth study of three core works: All Quiet on the Western Front, Hamlet, and 1984
• An in-depth study of The 9/11 Commission Report
• Various other books and articles on 9/11
• Book club books (self-selected from a list)
• Four (or more) self-selected recreational reading books
• An article of the week (every week)
• Numerous articles, maps, graphs, charts, infographics, speeches, and political cartoons that were woven throughout the curriculum

Writing:
• Weekly Article of the Week reflections. Students wrote thirty-plus of these, each one page in length. (For more on the AoW, see http://www.kellygallagher.org/
article-of-the-week/.)
• Weekly pieces in their writer’s notebooks. All of these topics and genres were self-selected by the students and shared in their writing groups each week. (We did this for half a year.)
• An inform/explain essay (students chose the topics)
• Multiple narrative essays (students chose the topics)
• Poems
• A literary analysis essay on All Quiet on the Western Front (students chose the topics)
• An essay that connected Hamlet to the real world (students chose the topics)
• An argument paper after reading 1984 (student chose the arguments)
• A historical investigation into 9/11. The average paper was twenty-two pages. The shortest paper was twelve pages; the longest was forty-eight pages.
• Numerous reflections spun from classroom discussions and from video (YouTube)
• On-demand writings

in-the-best-interest-of-studentsAm I completely satisfied with this reading and writing output? No. On the reading side, for example, I want my students to have more choice when it comes to book club selections. (This is a budget hurdle; I am working on clearing it.) I am moving toward what I have deemed a 20/80 approach—20 percent reading of whole-class, core works; 80 percent reading of extended works, book club selections, and independent reading choices (for more on this, see Chapter 8 of my new book, In the Best Interest of Students. In regard to writing, I also want to build in more choice, perhaps moving toward a 20/80 split there as well (20 percent teacher-generated topics; 80 percent student-generated topics).

Though I am not completely satisfied with my students’ reading and writing output, I can say without hesitancy that the young men and women about to leave my class have written and read much more than my former students who were mired in a 4 x 4 approach. My classes are moving in the right direction. Volume is increasing.

Here are two factors that have helped me to turn up my students’ volume this year.

I recognized the importance of choice.
Looking at my students’ reading this year, there were times where they had no choice, times where they had limited choice, and times where they had wide-open choice:

No Choice: The class read three major core works together (see above).
Limited choice: In the 9/11 unit of study, for example, students were presented with numerous books on the topic and chose the titles they wanted to read. In book club settings, students were given a choice between eight different titles and then selected the book they wanted to read. (Instead of picking from a list, I would love to have wide-open choice in book clubs, but budgetary limits and school bureaucracy prohibit this. Again, I am working on it.)
Wide-open choice: Students independently read a number of self-selected books.

These three types of reading—no choice, limited choice, and wide-open choice—were found on the writing side as well:

No Choice: The entire class wrote a 9/11 paper.
Limited choice: My students had just finished reading 1984 and I asked them “to write an argument under the umbrella of 1984.” Some students wrote arguments within the four corners of the book (e.g., “The central theme of 1984 is . . .”). Others wrote arguments outside the four corners of the book (e.g., “1984 remains valuable to the modern reader because . . .”). Whether they remained inside or outside the book, students created and answered their own prompts.
In some papers, I blended the level of choice. For their 9/11 papers, for example, the first half of the essays were dedicated to informing the reader of both the prelude and the events of the day; in the second half of the paper, students generated their own arguments and answered them (e.g., “Has the Patriot Act gone too far?”). I call these “50/50 papers”—half assigned, half choice.
Wide-open choice: My students did a lot of writing in their writer’s notebooks, and they generated almost all of this writing (topics and genres).

One thing is certain: when students are given a choice—whether limited or wide open—they read and write more.

I recognized that grading everything slows my students’ reading and writing growth.
Recently, Nancie Atwell received the first Global Teaching Prize (and the $1 million award that accompanies it). This award nicely coincided with the release of her third edition of In the Middle (Heinemann, 2014), arguably the most influential book ever published regarding the teaching of language arts. It is interesting that in this newest edition, Atwell states:

I have never graded individual pieces of writing. Growth in writing is slow. It’s seldom straightforward, and it varies tremendously among young writers. It also happens on a wide array of fronts, as writers learn to generate, experiment, plan, select, question, draft, read themselves, anticipate, organize, craft, assess, review, revise, format, spell, punctuate, edit, and proofread. One piece of writing can never provide an accurate picture of a student’s abilities; rather, it represents a step in a writer’s growth—and not always a step forward, as new techniques, forms, or genres can overload any writer of any age. (300)

This bears repeating and should be shouted from the rooftops of every school in the land: the teacher who was recently recognized as the best teacher in the world has not graded an essay in forty years. Atwell’s students demonstrate remarkable writing growth, but let us not forget that her students’ growth occurred without a single essay being graded. Grading does not turn students into better writers. What makes Atwell’s students better writers? The same things that make our students better writers: Modeling. Conferring. Choice. And lots of writing.
The volume of writing is the key ingredient. If I provide good modeling but my kids do not write much, they will not grow. If I confer with them but they do not write much, my students will not grow. If I provide a lot of choice but they do not write much, my students will not grow. Modeling, conferring, and choice are critical to growth, but if my students are not writing a lot, these factors become irrelevant.
In my school system, I am required to score essays, and I imagine this may be true for you as well (Atwell runs her own school and gets to create her own rules). But let’s not lose sight of the lesson Atwell teaches us here: students should be writing way more than a teacher can grade (I have a goal of at least a 4:1 ratio). When teachers grade everything, the writing pace of the classroom slows down. Volume suffers. It is only when students begin writing (and reading) more than the teacher can grade that they approach the volume necessary to spur significant growth.

Moving Beyond 4 x 4
As this school year winds down, I cannot shake the feeling that, despite the progress in my classroom, my students are still not reading and writing enough (especially considering the deficiencies some of them have). My thoughts are already turning to next year’s classes, and, as I approach summer, I am wrestling with some big questions: How can I build more choice into the curriculum? When and where can I provide more modeling? How can I build in more time to confer? What else can I do to increase the volume of my students’ reading and writing? And, most important, what else can I do to move beyond the 4 x 4 approach?

24 comments July 1st, 2015

Blogstitute: Digital Distraction or Engagement?

Welcome back to Week 3 of our Summer Blogstitute! We are starting out the week with this very practical post from Diana Neebe and Jen Roberts, authors of the new book Power Up: Making the Shift to 1:1 Teaching and Learning. Diana and Jen address an issue that many teachers who use technology in their classrooms on a regular basis face: what to do with distractions — online or otherwise? Please share some of your strategies in the comments or on Twitter using #blogstitute15. Diana and Jen are at #ISTE15 today and we’ll be live-Tweeting their presentations and their mini-sessions at our booth. If you happen to be there, stop by and see them at booth #134, or follow the sessions on Twitter.

power-upDigital Distraction or Engagement in Action By Diana Neebe and Jen Roberts

We recently received a question from a middle school teacher asking about digital citizenship and digital distraction. Specifically what to do about students who are off task or using their device for something other than school work. She wrote:

“In the past I have removed computer privileges from students who were either playing games or using Gmail accounts to chat (not about the content)…What do other teachers/schools do to implement responsible use of computers/devices while in the classroom? What do you recommend…?

Before we jump into what we think is the heart of the matter, let’s make a quick digression. Many teachers who are new to 1:1 often feel that, since their school or district shelled out the money to provide the devices, teachers are supposed to use them every minute of every class period of every day. We have yet to meet an administrator who pushes this policy. Many of the challenges teachers face with distracted students come at moments in class when students aren’t really actively doing anything. We may be giving instructions, or reviewing a sample of an assignment, or setting up an activity. This is prime distraction time. (Just look around at the next faculty meeting during general announcements for teachers checking email or sending off a quick text; digital distraction is pretty common.) It is for this reason that we encourage teachers to build norms into their class routines, and verbal cues into their lesson transitions. Jen’s students know that during silent reading time, their laptops need to be closed. Diana’s students have gotten comfortable with her cue to “chill out and listen” while she gives directions — hands clasped behind their heads (where they can’t type), reclined in their chairs, eyes off their screens. If distraction during these brief windows of time is an issue, it’s completely reasonable to have students power down.

But our hunch is that’s not the entirety of the question. What do we do when it’s time to power up for learning and our students veer off topic? When our classrooms are 1:1, and our students truly need their computer or tablet to do their classwork, then we have moved past a time when technology is a privilege and into an age when it is a necessary learning tool. Very rapidly, computers and tablets in our classrooms are becoming as critical as textbooks were several decades ago. When our students need technology to be productive, removing it also removes any chance they have for doing their work. The issue, then, is not about the technology; it is about disengagement from the learning task. The challenge is that with a screen in front of our students, a whole host of more engaging activities are close at hand.

In some cases, taking away the computer may be exactly what a student wants us to do. Consider this story from a few weeks ago in Jen’s classroom.  A student, who should have been collaborating with his partner on an activity, was reading his book instead. Jen asked him to please put the book away, open up his laptop, and help with the task. He did, but a few minutes later Jen’s colleague, a co-teacher who is new to 1:1 teaching, brought her the student’s computer. “He was playing a game, so I took it away.” she said.  When Jen looked over, the student had his nose back in his book, an activity now seemingly sanctioned by the removal of his laptop. Jen told her colleague she should return the computer; she protested that the student had been off-task. “Yes,” Jen explained, “and now he is still off task because without the computer he can’t do the work today.” Taking his laptop was more of a reward than a punishment. Without the computer the student was free to read his book without having to collaborate with his peers. With his computer back, and a bit of closer supervision from his teachers, he spent the rest of the period working with his partner.

Taking a computer or tablet away from a student should be our last resort, and only if we are ready with some other equally rigorous task. Consequences for off-task behavior should be the same whether the work is analog or digital. We wouldn’t take away a student’s pencil because the child was doodling or writing notes to friends. We think part of the solution for off-task students is to reframe the problem. Students who are doing other things are not being willfully defiant; they are looking for something more engaging to do. Let’s admit that many of the things we expect students to do in school are not always going to be interesting to them. Making sure we have taken steps to create a student-centered curriculum is the crucial first step for increasing engagement, and thus, limiting digital distraction.

Beyond curricular changes, students need to know that the work they are doing matters, and that we will hold them accountable for completing it. Having clear consequences for completing work is a useful way to motivate students to stay on task. Additionally, we suggest partner work activities that rely on the contributions of both students.  Moving around the room, and having direct conversations with off-task students about why they are choosing not to do their work are other ways to show students we care about their success. We suspect  many of these strategies sound familiar from the pre-1:1 days. In short, our recommendation for encouraging responsible use of technology is to be sure that our learning tasks are engaging, the consequences of not finishing work are clear, and the spirit of  productivity guides our lesson planning. There is work to be done.

Making our 1:1 classrooms an engaging place for learning is the subject of all of Chapter 3 in Power Up: Making the Shift to 1:1 Teaching and Learning (which we highly recommend, of course.) Chapter 3 explores three core conditions for student engagement—connection, perplexity, and curiosity—and uses a series of classroom vignettes to illustrate these conditions. The second half of the chapter details five strategies for increasing engagement in your 1:1 classroom. We share reasons why each of these strategies works to encourage and integrate all student voices, put students in conversation with one another, and transform teacher-centered instruction to personalized learning. Using back-channeling, online discussion boards, polling and data collection, interactive feedback systems, and educational games, you can easily enrich the great teaching you are already doing. The chapter closes with a brief discussion of disengagement and offers suggestions for ways to detect and reduce distractions in the 1:1 classroom.

10 comments June 29th, 2015

Blogstitute: Running Down the Details

Today’s Blogstitute post comes from Kate Messner, who shares some of her adventures in doing real-life research for one of her books and shares some ideas for helping students branch out when they are doing research in the classroom. Kate is the author of several books for young readers, as well as the professional development books 59 Reasons to Write and Real Revision.

Running Down the Details

59-reasons-to-writeI travel a lot when I’m researching a new book. As much as possible, in fact—a habit that sometimes leads to conversations with my husband that begin with, “So why exactly do we need to go to Rome this summer?”

But depending on the research, it’s not always possible to visit every single site I’m including in a story. Here’s an example of how I track down the details when I can’t get there in person.

My Ranger in Time chapter book series with Scholastic features a search-and-rescue dog who goes back in time to various historical events to help people in danger. In the first book, Ranger in Time: Rescue on the Oregon Trail, Ranger is transported to a trading post in 1850 Independence, Missouri, and sets off on the Oregon Trail with a boy named Sam Abbott. Along the way, Sam’s family faces hardships that include everything from stampeding buffalo to cholera, and when they reach the milestone of Independence Rock in Wyoming, the children rush up to see the names inscribed on the rock by travelers who came before them.

In my first draft of this scene, I’d written this:

textEven though Sarah is a fictional character, I wanted her to touch the names of real people who had traveled that long, dangerous road. I knew I’d have to do some research to find actual names that were inscribed on the rock.

rangerI started with the heap of books I’d signed out of the library, many of which talked about Independence Rock, but few of which listed names. I didn’t have any luck coming up with names that were guaranteed to have been there in 1850.

Next I searched online, and while I came up with a good variety of photographs from Independence Rock, it was impossible to verify when the names had been inscribed and whether they would have been there in 1850 for Sarah to see.

I was pretty sure I’d struck gold when I came across a great work of nonfiction called In Tar and Paint and Stone: The Inscriptions at Independence Rock and Devil’s Gate (High Plains Press, 2001), written by Levida Hileman. This book not only describes the inscriptions but also lists all of the names that have been documented, with dates where available, and including the general location on the rock (southwest top, west, cave, etc.) where the inscription is located.

I started choosing names from the book, taking care to select those that predated Sarah’s July 1850 arrival. I decided she’d see J. A. Allred’s name . . . and Milo Ayer’s . . . and . . . oh, wait.

I figured out, in the midst of my happy name collection, that these names were scattered all over the rock—not close together where Sarah would be able to read them off of the stone in a single bit of dialogue. And even if I paid close attention to the locations listed in the book and chose only names that predated July 1850 and were located on the west side of the rock, I had no idea whether the inscriptions were anywhere near one another on the rock, or if they were written in a spot low enough for a child to see.

Bummer.

My first thought was to try to find the author of the book so I could ask about the specific locations of some of the names, but a quick search for Levida Hileman didn’t turn up any contact information.

Next I went to the Independence Rock Historic Site website at Wyoming State Parks. There was a phone number listed, so I called it. A park ranger named Patrick Sutton answered, and I explained—rather awkwardly, I suspect—who I was, what I was trying to find out, and why my book wasn’t helping.

“So I was just wondering if you know of any places on the rock where there are names written low enough for a child to see,” I told him.

Mr. Sutton told me there are plenty of names written fairly low on the walls—hundreds, probably—but he couldn’t say for sure what those names were or how long they’d been there.

“But I’ll tell you what,” he said. “I’ve got someone else who’d asked me to go out to the rock and take a photograph of a specific name. When I do that, I’ll take some photos for you, too.” He promised to find some of those low-enough-for-a-kid-to-touch names and e-mail me digital photos so that I could cross-check them with the reference book to find some that would have been there for Sarah in 1850.

Then he asked where I was from, and when I answered northern New York, he told me that he’d grown up just across Lake Champlain, in Addison, Vermont. It’s a small world, indeed. He fell in love with Wyoming and has been there more than thirty years now. He has a pile of grandchildren. And once this book comes out, I’ll be sending him a pile of copies to share with them.

Real-world research involves more than looking up details in the online encyclopedia, so don’t be afraid to branch out from the usual library- and computer-based student research. When your students have questions, do you ask them who might know the answers? There’s a good chance your local university or museum has experts who would be delighted to answer questions from your young writers. Encouraging them to have the courage to ask can yield wonderful results.

11 comments June 24th, 2015

Blogstitute: Nurturing Responsible Learners

Today’s Blogstitute post comes from Mary Anne Buckley, author of Sharing the Blue Crayon: How to Integrate Social, Emotional, and Literacy Learning. Mary Anne wanted her students to take charge of their learning and not just accumulate knowledge that they then didn’t integrate into their lives. So instead of “I Can” charts, she came up with a different method for making sure that her students took responsibility for their progress and were able to see and show the results.

DSCN0008This year I had a fabulous group of second graders. They were kind and helpful, hard workers and eager to learn. They were also a tad . . . irresponsible in their learning. They were engaged and active participants during discussions and workshops, but they stumbled with using the daily lessons across the curriculum.

For example, math strategies for addition were not used when we started a unit on measuring. Our reading unit on character traits had the students using meaty adjectives, but when they wrote their persuasive essays the words great, cool, and awesome littered their papers. When I asked them why, they usually answered, “Oh yeah. I forgot about that.”

I don’t want school to be a place where kids think learning is segmented into blocks of time and informational bits, that all they need to do is fill in the blanks until June rolls around. Learning comes alive when students take ideas and expand them into their schema and when they use new information beyond a set of benchmarks or a standard assessment. I needed something to help my students see that they were accumulating knowledge and how to integrate that knowledge into all areas of their lives.

Holding my students accountable for their learning was not a new idea, but writing “I can” statements or the “Standard for the Day” on the board felt forced and unnatural. I wanted it to be more about the awareness of learning and being responsible for using that learning. I decided to create a more interactive and fluid form of accountability. I call it Learning Reflections and Frames.

I made a small poster with the phrase “By Friday I will . . .” at the top and seven blank boxes below. In each box was a label for our workshops: Writing Workshop, Math Workshop, Reading Workshop, Friendship Workshop, Science/Social Studies, Specials (art, music, PE), and one for home learning. I laminated the poster and every Monday, as a part of our Morning Meeting, we filled in the blanks with an erasable marker. An example might look like this:

DSCN0016By Friday I will . . .

Math Workshop—understand that fractions are equal parts

Writing Workshop—type up and illustrate at least four of my poems

Science Workshop—understand the life cycle of a caterpillar

I found that writing this poster together created a mutual understanding of what was coming up in the week; it also established that the students needed to be responsible for their learning. Throughout the week I would refer to the chart and confirm what we had written or revise it if circumstances called for a change in our schedule.

The writing activity that we did every Friday afternoon also helped to deepen the connection between what was being taught and what the students absorbed. It is called Learning Reflections and takes about fifteen minutes to complete. To prepare, we made reflection frames. I had the students write these phrases on two thin pieces of paper:

This week I was . . .

and I learned . . .

The students chose a colored 8 ½-by-11-inch piece of construction paper and glued these strips on the long sides, with “This week I was . . .” going up the left-hand side and “and I learned . . .” going down the right-hand side. The short sides were left blank. At the top of the frame we attached a clear pocket (made from leftover laminate) that would hold a 3-by-5-inch index card. At the bottom of the frame we pasted a photo of each student (see photo).

As a group, the students reviewed our weekly board and shared ideas about some specifics we had learned in each subject area. Then, on a 4-by-6-inch piece of paper, each student completed his or her frame’s sentence using words and illustrations. The final piece was to create a title for their learning and write that label on an index card to be placed at the top of the frame. The final frame might say, “This week I was a poet and I learned how to use line breaks to make my poems more interesting.”

These frames now hang outside our classroom, and each week the students simply slide a new index card in front of the previous one and tape their new learning on top. After each marking period, the students take the whole packet off of the frame and look back on all the things they have accomplished and discovered over the past months.

Occasionally I still get blank looks when I tell my students to check their spelling for unit words or to think back to an earlier unit before starting a project, but overall this has been a fun and engaging way to help my students take a more active role in their learning.

 

25 comments June 22nd, 2015

Blogstitute: How to Write a Reading-Based Argument Prompt

Welcome to the second post in our Summer Blogstitute series. We are happy to welcome Jennifer Fletcher to our author lineup. Jennifer is the author of the new book Teaching Arguments and in this post she talks about writing reading-based argument prompts that engage students and help showcase their best thinking. Be sure to leave a comment or a question for a chance to win free books at the end of the Blogstitute! And you can also follow along on Twitter using #blogstitute15.

How to Write a Reading-Based Argument Prompt
by Jennifer Fletcher

teaching-argumentsRead the passage carefully. For many years now, writing prompts in English Language Arts classes across the country have opened with this key direction. Gone are the days when a typical essay assignment asked students to respond to a topic rather than engage with a text. The writing tasks students are most likely to encounter today acknowledge that the ability to read critically and closely is at least as important as the ability to write clean academic prose.

But creating a successful reading-based writing prompt isn’t easy. What kinds of texts should we use for the reading passage? How long should the passage be? Should we choose an excerpt from a published work or write the passage ourselves? What directions should we give? The answers to these questions can vary depending on the purpose and format of the assessment—such as whether the essay will be timed or a process piece, is part of a thematic unit or a standalone task, or will be used as a diagnostic or summative tool.

My friend and colleague Robby Ching, a professor at Sacramento State University, developed the following guidelines to help teachers create reading-based prompts:

  1. Find an engaging topic that relates to the experiences of all students—males and females, ethnic groups, English learners.
  2. Write a prompt that makes a debatable claim and offers evidence as support. For on-demand essays, limit the reading passage to 100–200 words. Try to start with an argument you’ve found in print and then modify it as needed. Blogs, letters to the editor, and op-ed pieces are good candidates for argument prompt writing. Acknowledge the original author if the passage is only slightly altered.
  3. Evaluate the prompt and have colleagues evaluate it. Sometimes a prompt looks great on paper but utterly fails to generate the kind of thinking and writing we want our students to produce. The only way to know whether a prompt is successful is to field-test it. (2009)

In my work as a member of the California State University English Placement Test (EPT) Development Committee, I help to write the reading-based argument prompts that measure students’ readiness for college English. I’ve struggled firsthand with the challenge of creating writing tasks that spark students’ interest and best thinking.

Take, for instance, one of the first prompts I wrote for the EPT. The test development committee rejected this one almost on sight. See if you can tell why this prompt didn’t make the cut:

Directions: You will have forty-five minutes to plan and write an essay on the topic assigned below. Before you begin writing, read the passage carefully and plan what you will say. Your essay should be as well organized and as carefully written as you can make it.

“Americans are infatuated with the idea of ready-made communities. We seek instant belonging in master-planned developments calculated to create a sense of nostalgia and intimacy—tract houses with white picket fences, shopping malls with old-time town centers, and newly manufactured ‘main streets’ with theme music and lighting. But real community bonds and identities are not something that can be designed by developers; true communities are born over time through accident and shared hardship.” —William Doser

Explain Doser’s argument and discuss the ways in which you agree or disagree with his analysis. Support your position, providing reasons and examples from your own experience, observations, or reading.

(Note: I wrote the passage from the fictional “William Doser” myself, but we also use excerpts from published works for this exam.)

Because students entering our state university system in California must take the English Placement Test “cold” (that is, without any advance knowledge of the prompt), the topic has to be fair and accessible to all test-takers. The reading passage needs to be short to accommodate the forty-five-minute time limit but still contain enough reasoning and writerly moves to be a suitable candidate for analysis. We try to choose subjects that students care about, that relate to the experiences of all students, and that don’t privilege one group’s cultural knowledge over another’s.

My prompt on master-planned communities failed on multiple accounts. While I might be interested in issues of homeownership, urban planning, and community development, most teenagers aren’t. Students might be able to paraphrase this reading passage, but they’d probably have very little to say in response. The prompt doesn’t offer adolescents any tantalizing bait—or what rhetoricians might call exigence, a sense of urgent need that calls for a response.

Successful reading-based argument prompts stimulate analytic thought and engagement. They show what writers are capable of achieving when they genuinely care about an issue. The reading passages in these prompts make provocative claims that invite critique but cannot be easily dismissed. Some prompts do this by offering a reasonable description of a problem capped offed by a modest proposal worthy of Jonathan Swift. Others might make compelling claims based on faulty assumptions. The trick in prompt writing is not to tip the scales too heavily in one direction.

The good prompts also don’t script the response for students. An overly structured prompt—say, one that has three major divisions or examples—can discourage students from generating their own content or inventing their own organizational structure. Students might think a five-paragraph essay is called for if they see three main points in the directions, thereby missing their opportunity to showcase their own creativity. We want prompts that give students different directions they can go.

Here’s another EPT prompt that looked more promising but didn’t work very well during our field test. This one never made it on the placement exam either.

“The United States’s addiction to nonrenewable fossil fuels has grown unsustainable. Thus, a simple solution is needed to significantly reduce consumption and put America on the road to responsible energy use: drivers of large gas-guzzling vehicles such as SUVs, luxury sedans, and trucks should be required to pay significantly more at the pump than drivers of economical vehicles—initially, 100% more. While still allowing people to choose what kind of vehicle they drive, this approach would rapidly curb our country’s dangerous consumption habits. Furthermore, the funds generated by this price increase could be invested in environmental programs, increasing sustainability and reducing climate change in the process.”

Students were asked to explain the argument the writer makes in this passage and discuss the ways in which they agree or disagree with the writer’s analysis and conclusion. Unfortunately, the prompt didn’t show what the student writers could do. Most of the students who responded to this prompt in the field test didn’t have the economic, environmental, or legislative knowledge needed to analyze the writer’s reasoning and conclusion. When a prompt calls for background knowledge students don’t have, they often substitute an easier topic for the more difficult one. In this case, instead of engaging the writer’s claims about sustainability and differential gas prices as a means of decreasing fossil fuel consumption, many students defaulted to a topic-based opinion instead of a text-based argument, simply responding with comments such as “It’s a free country” or “You can’t take my truck away.” In other words, they weren’t demonstrating their ability to read the passage carefully.

So what does a successful reading-based argument prompt look like? Educational Testing Services, the company that develops the English Placement Test for the California State University, offers a useful description (adapted from “Characteristics of Successful and Unsuccessful EPT Topics” [2015] and used with permission):

  • It clearly presents an idea that invites analysis.
  • It presents a line of reasoning—e., a claim supported by evidence.
  • It doesn’t simply repeat assertions.
  • It doesn’t suggest a “right” answer.
  • It doesn’t trigger emotional trauma or excessively personal responses.
  • It asks students to develop and support a response based on close critical reading of a passage.
  • It refers to familiar situations or problems students are likely to have experienced or studied.
  • It presents a topic about which students are likely to have opinions.
  • It elicits different points of view and different approaches to organization and development.

While I can’t share current examples of successful prompts from our placement test (it’s only the “fails” that are not confidential), I can say that some of our most successful topics are the ones you’d expect would appeal to teenagers: social media, schools and curricula, technology, sports, gender, and the transition to adulthood.

One of the benefits of argumentation, notes writing scholar Annette T. Rottentberg, is that it “teaches students to read and listen with more than ordinary care” (1994, v). When we ask students to “read the passage carefully” in preparation for writing an argument essay, we are asking them to do more than just be sure they follow all the directions. We are asking them to read with an awareness of reasoning, evidence, context, and point of view; to understand not only what the text says but also what it does; to uncover and analyze a writer’s assumptions; to evaluate a writer’s conclusions—to read, in other words, with an extraordinary degree of care.

References

Ching, Roberta. 2009. “Creating an EPT-Type Prompt.” California State University English Placement Test Development Committee. December 4.

Educational Testing Services. 2015. “Characteristics of Successful and Unsuccessful EPT Topics.” May 28.

Rottenberg, Annette T. 1994. The Structure of Argument. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

17 comments June 17th, 2015

Blogstitute: The Messy Process of Talk and Revision

blogsitute2015

Welcome! We are excited to kick of this year’s Blogstitute with Jeff Anderson and Debbie Dean, authors of the recent book Revision Decisions: Talking Through Sentences and Beyond. In this post they discuss how to make the messy process of talking, writing, and revision, productive for students. Be sure to leave a comment or ask a question for chance to win 12 books at the end of the Blogstitute. You can also follow along or comment on Twitter using #blogstitute15.

Getting Messy with Talk and Reading and Writing and REVISION
By Jeff Anderson and Debbie Dean

Since talk is messy and interactive, so is our blog entry. We alternate in the dance of conversation:

revision-decisionsDEBBIE: When I was in first grade, I idolized my teacher. I wanted to be her. And I would imagine myself in her spot, calmly walking up and down the straight aisles between desks with little students all diligently (and happily, it seemed to me) writing between the solid and dotted lines on the paper. The only sound I remember was pencil scratching. I could look up as she walked slowly past my desk. She was smiling. She seemed never to have known stress in her life.

When I was in my own classroom, however, the picture wasn’t so tidy. There was noise—lots of talking—with some students at the computer and some with notebooks on the floor in the back corner. There were even a few outside in the hall, sitting on the floor with their backs against the wall, writing (they needed more quiet—and who could anticipate that the hallway was more quiet than the classroom?). There were students—surprise!—who weren’t writing at all. Some were staring out the windows (prewriting???) while others complained, and one or two just put their heads down on their desks for a while. And the thing was, although I felt like these days were sometimes very stressful, I was happy, too.

For the most part, my students were engaged in the messy aspects of writing—not all in the same spot at the same time, not all as heavily engaged as others (at least for the moment), and talking! Talking! Not writing in silence, without anyone to bounce ideas off. Actually talking about ideas or reading parts aloud, laughing or crying sometimes. No, this wasn’t the neat writing class I’d imagined, but it felt like we really were engaged in writing.

JEFF: Sometimes we feel guilty that our classrooms are so alive, that the writing process is so messy. But that’s how it works. If we want things done one way for one answer, then we need a worksheet. If we are going to steward our students into deep thinking and decision making—creating and modifying on their own—it’s going to get messy. Debbie and I acknowledge this in our new book, Revision Decisions (Stenhouse, 2014). Revising is not a straight line: it erases, retraces, and replaces as students muck about in real thinking about the effects of their choices.

Messiness is not a free-for-all, though it can look that way at times. We need reliable patterns of thought to get us started. For instance, I am sure my class would be quite messy and loud if at the beginning of the year I said, “Okay, now we’ve reached the revision stage of the writing process. Revise.”

No modeling, no instruction, and no place to start gets us a steaming pile of no revisions.

So, one thing Debbie did in Revision Decisions is to give teachers and students a starting place for intentional talk. First, we give examples of what writing looks like revised and not revised. We learn there are replicable moves successful writers make to revise. We teach the mnemonic DRAFT (first used in 2011’s 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know):

  • Delete unnecessary repetition
  • Rearrange words and phrases
  • Add connector punctuation, words, and phrases
  • Form new verb endings
  • Talk it out

Specific enough to do, broad enough to allow for play. And play is serious business. It needs a bit of structure and flexibility to stretch and grow.

DEBBIE: When Jeff and I started work on the book, we talked a lot about play—about how the elements of play are important to writing and developing writers. We read about play theory and thought about all the ways that play corresponds to writing. Think about it: children may start play with a general goal in mind, but they develop structures to the play as they go along, structures that make sense to the specific situation of the play. I was at the park with my grandson. The same square structure was a rocket for a while, then a train, and finally a restaurant where I was told to give him my “food order,” which he brought. We “ate” and then I “paid.” Isn’t writing a lot like that process? We start with an idea. We may discard it or adjust it, but once we find what we want to say, we modify the text, shape it to our needs and the situation. And talk is essential to this process, both in play and in writing. We need to try out our ideas.

When we were writing Revision Decisions, Jeff and I talked—a LOT. Sometimes online, sometimes on the phone, sometimes face-to-face. It was a lot like play—trying out ideas and seeing how far they would take us. Once we had settled on the general structure for the book, much of our talk followed the DRAFT device as we worked through our revisions. But we have an advantage: we have enough experience to know how to move among rearranging, deleting, adding, and forming. We can use these actions naturally because of that experience, but our students need scaffolding to learn these ways of talking.

By beginning with the patterns in the book, teachers can help students learn ways to talk productively about their writing. As Jeff said, this talk is intentional, not a free-for-all. In the same way that play develops as children gain experience (my grandson needed to have gone to restaurants to structure our play restaurant), students gain experience using the patterns of the book until their revision talk is natural. When students see the talk modeled and get to practice it, the patterns became their own—and then they can modify them to meet their own purposes and needs. And that’s exactly where we want them to be as writers: independent talkers and revisers.

JEFF: Yes, independence. Letting go, allowing fits and starts, good and bad, allowing for experimentation. For a thriving revising classroom, we let loose and let go of the idea that every revision will make writing better and that when it doesn’t make it better, we’ve failed. The truth is, if we are doing revision well, experimenting and risk taking, then it’s a sure thing we’ll mess it up from time to time. We have to allow the space for error and experimentation.

In this world of computers, I’ve had to learn to copy and paste the awkward passage I’m revising into a new document. That way, I can experiment, try anything, and if it works, I can copy and paste into the document. If I made a mucky horrible revision, then I still have my thought. Better yet, I can pull a Don Graves and rewrite the whole group of sentences again without looking at the original. There is no one way to revise, but we can give our students guideposts with things like DRAFT.

We model the guideposts and then we let the students play with words. That’s revision. Just like students get better at writing by writing, they get better at revision by revising. Helping students make decisions about revisions is our game. Revision Decisions is our name. I think I better stop now, but you continue the conversation wherever you are. Take a risk, play with sentences, and see where it takes you.

 

 

37 comments June 15th, 2015

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