Blogstitute 2016: Why Students’ Reading Plateaus

Welcome back to week 2 of our Stenhouse Summer Blogstitute. We are excited to bring you a post by Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris, whose latest book is the groundbreaking Who’s Doing the Work. You can still preview their book on the Stenhouse website, but first read their post below about why and how students reach a reading plateau and what you can do about it. There’s also some dancing involved. Be sure to comment or Tweet about this post for a chance to win our 10 new fall books! And be sure to join the #G2Great Twitter chat this Thursday, June 23 at 8:30 p.m. EST with Jan and Kim to discuss shared reading.

The Electric Slide Effect: Explaining Why Students’ Reading Plateaus

By Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris

Whos Doing the WorkTraditionally, the gradual release of responsibility has been viewed as a process educators follow through a single lesson: teacher does, students and teacher do together, students do. However, a single lesson is often not enough. In many cases, students need varied levels of support on multiple occasions to get sufficient practice to really learn the thing they are trying to master. This means that, to avoid learning plateaus, we must hold tight to all four instructional contexts: read-aloud, shared reading, guided reading, and independent reading. As a whole, they provide students both the practice and the support they need to improve.

How Learning to Read Is Like Learning to Dance

Can you do the Electric Slide? The Electric Slide has been a dance party staple since we were teenagers, so over the years we have had multiple opportunities to learn and join in this dance. If you have ever learned the Electric Slide, or any other line dance, then you have keen insight into the gradual release of responsibility, including why each instructional context is critical for the transfer of learning.

Read-Aloud

Imagine you are somewhere with live music, the band begins to play the Electric Boogie, and the cool cats rush out to the dance floor. On cue, their feet and arms begin to sway and move synchronously. You stand along the edge of the dance floor admiring their coordination, feeling the call of the music, and wanting to be part of the fun. This watching from the side is like read-aloud, where a skilled other shows you the joy that can be yours as soon as you learn to read. This kind of reading aloud is a commercial for reading, just as watching people dance entices you to want to learn the Electric Slide.

You continue to watch carefully as the dancers move—right foot right, count to four, left foot right, cross behind the right foot—analyzing their strategies for changing direction or for keeping time. This close watching is also like read-aloud, when the more skilled other gives you a window into the strategies that will make the new task more accessible. When you are watching a dance because you want to learn to do it, you watch differently. The same is true for learning to read.

Jan and Kim 2014Shared Reading

Next, you move to the dance floor where the crowd dances as one. You stand behind someone who appears to be a viable candidate for So You Think You Can Dance? and attempt to jump in. Your dancing model holds the choreography, dancing steadily even as you stumble through the steps. Noticing your struggle, she begins to support you by counting or calling out the next step. Eventually, you bumble less and dance more. This phase of learning the Electric Slide is like shared reading. The learner approximates as the lead offers guidance while maintaining a steady reading pace.

Guided Reading

The song ends before you quite have the Electric Slide down. You, joined by a few other novices, pull your dancing friend aside to get both confirmation and guidance. Each beginning dancer works through a different sticking point, tries different movements, asks questions, makes attempts, and repeats the process until his or her Electric Slide is stabilized. The teacher celebrates your success, and you feel like John Travolta! You can’t wait to hear the Electric Boogie again! This small-group Electric Slide support is like guided reading, where the teacher watches the students work through the reading process independently as they identify tricky spots, try new strategies, and confirm or revise approximations.

Independent Reading

Finally, driven by your vision of yourself taking command of the dance floor, you crank up the Electric Boogie at home in your bedroom. As with independent reading, you choose how much or little you practice; you choose when and where to practice; and you even choose what music to practice to, switching to Don Henley’s All She Wants to Do Is Dance after you’ve replayed the Electric Boogie for the eleventh time. As you practice more and more, you mess up less and less, your confidence and your joy rise, and you begin to plan your groovy wardrobe for the next dance party.

Becoming a Cool Cat

We must confess: neither of us has mastered the Electric Slide. Like the teacher frustrated by the student readers stuck at the same place on the reading proficiency continuum, we find ourselves frustrated by our Electric Slide plateau. Why haven’t we ever mastered this silly dance that everyone else seems to have been born knowing? We think our need for an Electric Slide intervention has to do with our instruction, and the missing instructional contexts in our experience.

Learning involves progress across the gradual release, with each stage in this release represented by a different instructional context: read-aloud, shared reading, guided reading, and independent reading. In our case, with the Electric Slide, steps along the gradual release have been omitted, as is the case with reading in many classrooms today.

Historically, we have watched the Electric Slide and then jumped in expecting to be able to do it, always a step off, always facing the wrong direction. This is the equivalent of moving from read-aloud to independent reading without having time to stabilize and consolidate our learning through shared and guided experiences. We can’t learn the Electric Slide by skipping the instructional contexts that afford us the additional practice we need to truly master the dance, any more than we can skip shared reading and/or guided reading and expect students to progress as readers.

In reading instruction, this Electric Slide pattern of skipping instructional contexts is classic, with one instructional context favored over another until there is a pendulum swing in the other direction. For example, pre-Common Core, many children received a lot of guided reading instruction, leaving very little time for read-aloud and almost no time for shared reading, which made the shift brought about by the Common Core predictable! Since the Common Core and its emphasis on text complexity, educators have shifted to doing a lot more read-aloud and shared reading, and in many cases almost no guided and/or independent reading.

Closing Thoughts

If you want to avoid the Electric Slide effect in your students, if you want the reading strategies you teach students to transfer to their independent practice, then hold tight to all four instructional contexts. These four ways of supporting students’ authentic interactions with text work together as a whole and give students the varied practice they need to grow.

See you on the dance floor!

Jan & Kim

13 comments June 21st, 2016

Blogstitute 2016: Getting Started with Close Writing

The next post in our #Blogstitute16 series comes from Paula Bourque (@LitCoachLady), author of Close Writing: Developing Purposeful Writers in Grades 2-6. Paula shares her strategies for creating a habit of close reading — the first step in developing close writers. Be sure to leave a comment or tweet about this post using #Blogstitute16 for a chance to win some amazing new Stenhouse books!

Getting Started with Close WritingClose Writing approved cover
Paule Bourque

I love coaching in classrooms during writing workshop. I love to watch students take ideas from their heads and magically transfer them to paper. I love listening to the talk that floats above the flurry of writing. It was from these opportunities that I noticed the varying range of connectedness students had to their writing. The most successful writers seemed to be very connected to their written work, while those who struggled more were often quite disconnected. This translated into some students frequently rereading and revisiting their writing and others who saw writing as a one-way process: get it down and done.

I started observing the most accomplished writers to analyze which behaviors and habits supported their success. The thing that jumped out at me in almost every instance was that these writers were close readers of their own writing. They reread their work with purpose and focus, and they did so frequently. I thought about how we have been teaching students to closely read the work of other authors but not how to apply those strategies to their own pieces of text. That was the genesis for my book Close Writing: Developing Purposeful Writers in Grades 2–6 (2016).

What started as a book about teaching students close reading strategies for their own work evolved into a plethora of approaches for creating stronger relationships between writers and their writing and building awareness of their writing identities. That process was a genuine path of discovery for me, and it continues to this day.

I am now frequently asked by teachers who have looked at the collection of ideas and strategies in Close Writing, “Where should I start?” I think that’s such a relevant question because teachers sometimes find writing instruction “messy.” Writers’ needs are so varied, and their styles are so individual. One size rarely fits all. I usually suggest that they start where I did—encouraging writers to create a habit of close reading.

The premise for Close Writing is that writers reread, reflect, and revise with a variety of purposes and lenses. Writers cannot reflect or revise if they aren’t aware of what IS and what IS POSSIBLE, and that can happen most effectively when they first reread what is in front of them. So I now emphasize teaching students to reread (closely read) their writing to raise that awareness as the first step in becoming a Close Writer.

Three Aspects of this Initial Process

  • Awareness
  • Purpose
  • Practice

Awareness

Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things they are transformed. —Thich Nhat Hanh

You can’t be intentional without awareness. You can’t purposefully change a behavior you aren’t aware of. So how can we raise this awareness?

How Do Other Authors Do It?

We can start by sharing with our students audio or video of published authors reading their work. These are obviously successful close writers! Some of my favorites are Neil Gaiman, Eric Carle, Mercer Mayer, and Suzanne Collins. We can ask students to describe what they notice about how they read their work and why they made certain choices. I found many of the techniques could fall into one of these categories:

  • Pace—How quickly or slowly authors read
  • Pause—Where authors stop at various points
  • Punch—What words or phrases authors choose to emphasize
  • Play—The dramatic quality or style of authors’ voices

I then invite students to try these techniques in their own writing and to think about their purpose to help them share—as well as reflect on—their writing.

How to Read Your Writing

Once students are aware of techniques and purposes for reading their work, we can reread with a variety of lenses. Close reading often answers a question for the reader. You change your lens or focus to answer questions. We can ask questions of our own writing that can be answered with a close read, such as these:

  • How do I show transitions of time or place to my reader?
  • How natural does my dialogue sound?
  • How varied are my sentences?
  • Which verbs are my strongest? My weakest?

The questions are limitless. Whatever craft element, technique, or convention you are working on can be monitored and strengthened by close reading.

Purpose

“Children work very hard in their purposeful endeavors in the world, when they have ends they want to accomplish themselves.” —Frank Smith

Almost all of the students I know want to get better at what they do. Most recognize that this requires work. When we understand the purpose and can see how that work could pay off, it is much easier to invest time and energy.

  • Why is close reading important? I contrast a “fast forward” style of reading (quick, mumbled, inattentive) with a purposeful “writer reading” (intentional pace, pause, punch, play techniques) and discuss the difference between “getting through” a piece of writing and really “getting into” a piece of writing. I invite students to consider which style will help them to be more aware and purposeful with their writing. I believe that if they don’t understand the purpose behind a skill, it doesn’t become a strategy.
  • How does this close reading help me? The idea isn’t that they can turn their writing into readers’ theater. The focus is on the purposeful choices they make to interpret and convey the meaning of their writing more precisely. Slowing down, thinking about what is important, and listening to how those written words sound when spoken aloud can help readers to better reflect on what they have written.
    • One of my favorite lessons to demonstrate the effectiveness of rereading is “Rewind and Find.” I ask students go back and read a piece of their work for just two minutes to see what they might find to revise or edit that their teacher would find if he or she read it. We then list everything they notice, and those lists are often quite extensive. I say, “Look at what we were able to find in just two minutes. Do you think if you took two minutes each day to go back and reread your work that you would become a stronger writer?” At this point, most students are convinced!

Practice

“Practice isn’t the thing you do once you are good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” —Malcolm Gladwell

We can’t just tell our students to reread their writing and expect them to be more attentive and intentional. How often have kids told us they have reread their work only for us to discover a myriad of errors, incomplete sentences, or gaps? They may have reread it, but they weren’t sure what to look for.

  • Teach it. I don’t assume that this comes naturally to students. I model how it looks and sounds using my own writing and then give them plenty of opportunities to practice it themselves with feedback and reinforcement.
  • Prompt for it. Once I teach a technique such as Flash Editing, Rewind and Find, or Listen and Learn, I can then quickly prompt for it so that students can practice independently without a lengthy lesson. If every time students said or thought “I’m done!” they heard a prompt for closely reading their work, they would very quickly begin to develop that approach as a classroom expectation.
  • Make it a habit. If we put structures and routines in place that foster close reading, it will more easily become habituated. We need to make it easy for our students to develop these close writing behaviors.

There are so many more strategies and approaches that I have written about that can help our students become Close Writers, but if we can begin by making them aware, helping them to understand its purpose, and giving them opportunities to practice closely reading their writing, I am confident that they will become much more accomplished writers. I welcome you to continue this exploration with me on Twitter @LitCoachLady, on Facebook, or at my website. You can find resources for my book Close Writing at the accompanying Stenhouse website.

13 comments June 16th, 2016

Blogstitute 2016: Wide Awake to Stories

We are excited to kick off #blogstitute16 with a post by Katie Egan Cunningham, author of Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning. What will you do this summer to be open and awake to the stories around you? Katie shares her ideas. Tweet about her post using #blogstitute16 or leave a comment for a chance to win 10 brand new Stenhouse books!

IMG_1035_Cunninghampic

 

Wide Awake to Stories
Katie Egan Cunningham

Recently I was driving in the car with my family when my seven-year-old asked us to turn up the radio. The song “Seven Years” by Lukas Graham was playing. As a seven-year-old the lyrics likely caught his attention when he heard his own age affirmed as something important. After all, being seven is really important. We all listened more closely, drawn in by the singer’s voice, the resounding beat, and the urgent message of the song to “Remember life, and then your life becomes a better one.” The song describes a life story told in stages that include friendship, family, and dreams. The word lonely is repeated over and over across the verses as a constant presence at every life stage. Perhaps Graham is reminding us that part of what binds us as humans is that we are forever seeking to belong—no matter who we are or where we’re from. As the song wound down, Jack declared a bit mournfully that the song was really sad but that he still liked it. I remain grateful that the song gave him the opportunity to really feel something that great songs, works of art, poetry, and literature all offer us.

This moment of soul searching and shared wisdom driving down the parkway was immediately followed up by a lighthearted family singalong to DNCE’s “Cake by the Ocean.” I dare you to listen to that song and not loudly join in on the chorus of “ah ya ya ya ya ya.” It’s the catchiest song of the season and justly so; it’s the counter-story to Graham’s song. Rather than engage in deep questions about the meaning of life, sometimes we have to hope for the ridiculous, the unusual—cake by the ocean, perhaps.

This summer, I will attend literacy conferences and I plan on digging into a pile of books and articles to reenergize my literacy life and be inspired by the work and wisdom of others. Yet I also think we fuel our literacy souls, especially in the summer, by attending to the stories that surround us every day in all of their forms, ranging from the deep to the somewhat absurd. To be wide awake to stories may be the best form of self-development we can give ourselves. This summer, I want to notice what catches my eyes, ears, and attention. I want to encourage my children to do the same—to be wide awake. Most of all, I want us to share those noticings with one another as a family.

How do we do that for ourselves?

Be wide-awake to the stories you see. Sit in the grass. Take notice of the sun at dusk. Watch children invent games and fictional worlds on the playground. Observe the life of city streets, full of new energy after a long winter and cool spring. Notice your friends’ facial expressions as they tell stories at barbecues and summer gatherings.

Be wide awake to the stories you hear. Tune in to song lyrics and sounds that make you feel something—allow yourself the chance to feel something strongly even if it evokes buried emotions or makes you laugh out loud in a crowd of people. Listen to the night song of crickets, frogs, and owls in the country. Hear the hum of the subway beneath the street grates. Be inspired by the voices of others through outlets like Storycorps. Call a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while and decide to listen more than speak.

Be wide awake to the stories that grab your attention. View the summer film that makes you gasp or well up or hang on the edge of your seat. Notice the media post that makes you think more deeply or that leaves you full of questions. Read blog entries that urge readers not only to notice but to take action.

Be willing to dig up stories worthy of your time and attention. Take the time this summer to scroll through old family photos and postcards. Who are those people? What did they care about? What are the family stories to be shared that you don’t know yet? Who should you ask about those stories now, because there is no better time? Start a summer journal as a place to reflect on your past, present, and future. My favorite is the Five-Minute Journal for its simplicity and its consistent approach to self-reflection. Find out things about yourself and your loved ones you never knew before.

Finally, create new stories. Savor the moment. Capture it or decide not to. Share your stories with the people you love. Most of all, be wide awake, open, and willing to attend to the stories around you. Then consider how to tap into the power of stories in your classroom next year. You may find yourself more wide awake to your students and their stories when you take the time this summer to notice the stories in your own life. It will be time well spent.

23 comments June 14th, 2016

Blogstitute 2016 kicks off next week!

blogstitute2016logo

Pull up a beach chair and join us for our annual online PD event. Blogstitute 2016 kicks off Tuesday, June 14, with many of your favorite Stenhouse authors.

This year’s lineup includes posts from Katie Egan Cunningham, Jake Wizner, Lynne Dorfman and Diane Dougherty, Linda Dacey, Paula Bourque, Lucy West, Erik Palmer, Ralph Fletcher, Kate Roth and Joan Dabrowski, Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris, and Stacey Shubitz.

Like what you are reading? Tweet using #blogstitute and at the end of the summer we’ll raffle off a package of all of our new Fall 2016 titles to a lucky winner. (That’s 10 books!)

See you on the blog.

On Twitter:
@StenhousePub
#blogstitute16

6 comments June 9th, 2016

Now available: Craft Moves

CraftMovesIf you want to help your students improve the quality of their writing—and who doesn’t?—you’ll find Craft Moves a must-have resource.
—Ralph Fletcher

In Craft Moves, Stacey Shubitz, cofounder of the Two Writing Teachers website, does the heavy lifting of choosing mentor texts and mining them for craft lessons you want your students to learn.

Using 20 recently published picture books, she creates more than 180 lessons to teach various craft moves that will help your students become better writers.

Each of the lessons in the book includes a publisher’s summary, a rationale or explanation of the craft move demonstrated in the book, and a procedure that takes teachers and students back into the mentor text to deepen their understanding of the selected craft move. A step-by-step guide demonstrates how to analyze a picture book for multiple craft moves.

Stacey discusses picture books as teaching tools and offers ways to integrate them into your curriculum and classroom discussions. She also shares routines and classroom procedures to help students focus on their writing during the independent portion of writing workshop and helps teachers prepare for small-group instruction.

Preview the book online now!

Add comment June 1st, 2016

Summer PD opportunities near you

Are you thinking about summer PD yet? Check out where you can catch up and learn with some of our authors near you!

Stephanie Harvey’s Reading Comprehension Institute
This year’s Reading Is Thinking workshop focuses on topics ranging from nonfiction literacy and inquiry circles to expanding comprehension across the curriculum and meeting standards through explicit comprehension instruction. Join Steph June 28 & 29 for two full days of learning.

Debbie Diller’s Summer Institute
Join Debbie in Houston July 15-16 as she helps you sift through standards, select the most efficient and effective ways to teach them, and focus on what students will be doing as a result.

The 2 Sisters across the country
Join Gail Boushey and Joan Moser, The 2 Sisters, at one of their workshops this summer for two days full of everything you need to know to successfully implement the Daily 5 and CAFE structures in your classroom. Their workshops include tools and tips and a chance to collaborate with colleagues.

Writing workshops in the woods
Jump start or fine tune your writing at one of the workshops offered by the Highlights Foundation. Whether you are working on a YA novel, a children’s book, or resources for educators, you will find inspiration and support in the Poconos—including workshops featuring Stenhouse authors Jennifer Jacobson and Georgia Heard.

Literacy Institute at Penn State York
Penn State York’s Summer Literacy Institute, June 20-24, is packed with Stenhouse authors. Learn from Lynne Dorfman and Diane Dougherty, Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan, Mark Overmeyer, and Peter Johnston, among others.

New Hampshire Literacy Institutes
Kelly Gallagher, Georgia Heard, Kathy Collins, Shawna Coppola, and Rachel Small, among others, will be teaching at UNH’s Summer Literacy Institutes in July. The list of courses includes a variety of topics, from teaching poetry to the role of technology in literacy education.

Stenhouse Summer Blogstitute
And finally, if you don’t feel like leaving the house, join us for our sixth annual Stenhouse Summer Blogstitute, starting June 13th. Our lineup of authors includes Katie Cunningham, Linda Dacey, Paula Bourque, Erik Palmer, and many others.

Add comment May 16th, 2016

Summer PD is good for you

In today’s guest post, literacy specialist Shawna Coppola talks about why professional development in the summer is a great way to refresh your knowledge in an authentic, sustainable, and engaging way. Shawna is hard at work on her Stenhouse book, tentatively titled “Rethink, Revise, Renew” and she is teaching a summer course at UNH. Visit her blog at: https://mysocalledliteracylife.com/

Summer PD is good for you
By Shawna Coppola

shawnaAuthenticity. Sustainability. Engagement. While all three can be filed under educational buzzwords, they are also what we strive to provide for our students each day in our classrooms. We strive to make the learning as authentic as possible so that students find meaning in the work they do; we strive for learning to be sustainable–to transcend a particular lesson, project, course, or classroom; and–above all else–we strive to engage students in the learning process itself, to captivate their minds in a way that will lead them to fall in love with learning and become passionate, lifelong learners.

For those of us who work to support educators, our goals are (or should be) exactly the same. Rather than “develop” teachers through mandated workshop days, program trainings, or outside consultancies–most of which teachers have little to no choice in selecting–we must strive to ensure that the professional learning opportunities we offer our colleagues are authentic, sustainable, and engaging.

Simple, right?

Unfortunately, no. Such an objective is challenging, complex, and dependent on a whole host of factors that are out of our control. This is partly why so many professional learning opportunities fall short. Another, perhaps less benign, reason is what author/educator Mary Ann Reilly (2009) refers to as “doing unto others as a means of improving” professional practice. When learning is done to us, rather than something we pursue with curiosity, desire, and action, we are left with “professional development”: something that passively exists. That stagnates.

I suppose this is why I have always been intoxicated by the concept of summer learning, which to me is the very opposite of “professional development.” Summer learning is full of opportunity, choice, and possibility. (Not to mention furtive side trips to the ice cream stand….) It is authentic in that I have genuinely pursued it. It is sustainable in that I’ve chosen it (and have approximately 964 fewer things to think about on any given day during the summer, thus leading to better retention). And it is engaging in that I can do it where I want, when I want, and how I want.

Last May I posted  about ways that educators might pursue summer learning opportunities that don’t involve withdrawing large sums from the bank or filling out district reimbursement forms. However, the possibilities don’t end there. Summer can also be the perfect time to take a class at a local college or university, to chip away at your professional TBR (to-be-read) pile, or to participate in an educational webinar. Just think of the brain capacity that’ll be increased by the lunch counts you won’t have to submit! The minute-by-minute decisions you won’t have to make! The shoelaces you won’t have to tie!

The learning that won’t be done to you.

So as you begin to wrap up the learning opportunities you have painstakingly provided for students this year, consider it your chance to plan your own incredible opportunity–one that is authentic, sustainable, and engaging.

One, perhaps, like that you would wish for your own students.

References

Reilly, Mary Ann. 2009. “Dressing the Corpse: Professional Development and the Play of Singularities.” Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy 6(1): 79-99.

Free, Easy, & Fun Summer Learning (Sangria Not Included)

1 comment May 11th, 2016

Taking apart the “key word” strategy

Today we have a guest blog post from Christine Moynihan, author of the recent math books Common Core Sense and Math Sense. Christine takes a close look at the often-used “key word strategy” and explains why it might not be the best way to help your students get to the right answer.

Taking apart the “key word” strategy
By Christine Moynihan

Christine Moynihan

Christine Moynihan

“Does your answer make sense?” Can you estimate how many times you have asked your students this question in regard to word problems? Even if you are a beginning teacher, I am willing to bet that it has been, on a daily basis, several times a day, five days a week, 180 days a year! Do the math and you will find that you have asked that question of your students a staggering number of times.

Even if your students answer in the affirmative — “Yup, my answer makes sense”!what may pass for their answers making sense is that they’ve  checked to see if their computation is correct; if it is, they assume they are good to go. Tucking their answers back into the context of the problem after they have completed the computation still may not come naturally to them, even though you and their previous teachers have tried to build it into your practice, their practice, and the practice of mathematics in general.

In my pre-service math methods classes, I was told that when I was helping students learn to solve word problems, I had to support them first in making sense of the problem so that they could then determine which operation they had to perform. One way to do this, considered good teaching practice, was to tell them to search for key words.  The next step was to get them to underline those key words, underline the numbers in the problem, and then to use the key words to write a number sentence to solve the problem.  My guess is that many of you may have had the same experience in pre-service as well as having been taught that way when you were in elementary school yourselves.  A few of the key words/phrases you most likely learned are: for addition – in all, altogether, total, increase, combined; for subtraction – difference, left, fewer, decrease, gave away, take away; for multiplication – of, times groups, twice, double; for division – per, groups, share, out of.

So what’s wrong with the key word strategy?  I have had to answer that question countless times in my previous roles of mathematics curriculum specialist and building principal, as well as in my current role of educational consultant. The short answer is that using the key word strategy has limited scope and value.  Further, it can be incredibly misleading and steer students to wrong answers that make no sense at all within the context of the problem.  Additionally, it sends students the wrong message in terms of them thinking that solving problems can be done routinely, formulaically, and without much deep thought.

Let me share a recent experience I had with one of the fourth grade students with whom I have worked for two years.  We were going over a sheet of problems he had done in class, as he had to make corrections to the ones he had gotten wrong.  Now Jared is a very bright fourth grader who excels in reading, is highly engaging, and knows a great deal of information about a wide variety of subjects.  He likes to work fast, think fast, move fast, and complete his work fast.  Mathematics is not always his favorite subject and he often shuts down his thinking if he cannot see a solution path quickly.  Here is one of the problems he had done:

Mr. Smith bought 14 new globes that his students could

use in class as they studied Earth.  Each globe cost $76.

How much did the new globes cost in all?

Jared’s answer?  I bet many of you can predict what his answer was.  If you thought that he had written $90, you would be correct.  I had him read the problem aloud and asked why he thought his answer made sense.  His response was, “I did the right thing because 14 plus 76 equals 90.  I did it in my head, but I know it’s right and I even put a dollar sign in front!”

I asked him to draw a picture that represented the problem.  He drew 14 circles to show the globes. When I asked what the cost was for the globes, he wrote 76 under the first one and then did the same under the others.  He then said, “This won’t work.  Look at the problem – it says ‘in all’ and that means you have to add, so the real answer has to be $90.”

My next question was, “How much did two globes cost?”   He immediately replied, “Well, it could be $152 but that can’t be right!  They told me to add!”  I had him continue to work and after he had successfully solved the problem, he looked at me and said with utter conviction and even a bit of indignation, “It’s not my fault!  They put in ‘in all’ so how I am supposed to know I shouldn’t add?”

I know for certain that there isn’t anyone who teaches key words as the only and/or best problem-solving strategy. But the rigidity with which Jared applied the strategy reinforced for me just how limiting and misleading it can be. I continue to work with him with one of my goals being that he understands that the responsibility for making sense of a problem rests with him and that he needs to add to his repertoire of problem-solving strategies to ensure his answers make sense.

1 comment April 27th, 2016

Writing poems around a theme

Poet and author Shirley McPhillips is back today with a post on how to harvest students’ interest around a specific topic so that it opens up writing possibilities. For more tips on poetry in the classroom, head over to the Stenhouse website to preview Shirley’s book Poem Central.

All I Want to Write About is ——: Poems Around a Theme
By Shirley McPhillips

poem-centralWhat to do about Jerome. “All he wants to do is write about dogs.” Mandy’s a head-scratcher. “She draws stars and spaceships all over everything.” Lawrence is exasperating sometimes. “He’s been scribbling for two months with one topic to show for it. Basketball.”

I read somewhere that writers have only one or two seminal themes in their lives. That everything they write comes out of those. I have no data but I think that’s probably true for many writers. The ideas, situations, experiences, beliefs that infuse and fuel what we think, what we do.

So why not share this notion with Jerome and Mandy and Lawrence? That it’s okay, even grand, to pull different types of writing out of the same writing well. Get them making a collection around a theme. Many poets do.

I’ve given Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs to so many friends for one dog reason or another over the past couple of years. For these folks, one dog poem is not enough. It’s about that special human-canine relationship. It’s also sharing what that relationship reveals about the meaning of our own lives. If I could locate Jerome, I’d put a copy of Dog Songs in the mail.

A few years ago, Tess Gallagher wrote a serious, playful, sassy book called Portable Kisses. “There are as many nuances and inflections for kisses as there are lips to kiss,” she said.

Swirl by Swirl, Joyce Sidman’s nonfiction poems celebrate the elegance and usefulness of spiral shapes in the natural world and across galaxies. Mandy could have used this for inspiration.

Lawrence’s passion for basketball might have been greatly validated as a force for writing if he could have read the 2015 Newbery Medal Winner: The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander. In this coming-of-age novel in verse, we come to know something of the lives of two brothers, both on and off the court. Also, imagine Lawrence being inspired by another sports enthusiast, poet and anthologist Paul B. Janeczko. That Sweet Diamond, a collection of his own baseball poems, shows all the magic, grace and grit of the game from “Prayer for the Umpires” to “How to Spit.”

As we’ve said, collecting around a theme of one’s own poems is an instructive and rewarding project. So is making an anthology around a theme of other poets’ work.* Imagine Jerome getting to read lots of dog poems by other poets. And him, as editor, deciding what poems he would include in this collection. Why this poem? Why would I put these poems together in a collection? Do they fit together in some way? Do I want a variety of style? Length? Tone? In what order will I arrange them? What’s a good poem to begin? To end? What title will reflect this collection as a whole?

Recently, I was asked to submit a poem to a future anthology called Amore: Love Poems being edited by Johnny M. Tucker, Jr. Such an engaging project for me to peruse some of my poems asking: Is this a love poem? What makes this a love poem? Can love lost, or love denied, be considered a love poem? Can it be a love poem without reference to a person? Looking through the lens of “love,” poems took on new meaning. A couple were obviously love poems from the title on—“Love, Off Guard.” Others, like “Selfies of Autumn,” may not be as obvious to a reader until the epigram is considered and the story beneath the text blooms.

This poem appears in a new book, Acrylic Angel of Fate (2016, Finishing Line Press, KY).

Selfies of Autumn
(for Barbara Caldwell)

The day drips with the elixir
of autumn—a dark honey
of orange, a sadness of red,
the steadfastness of green.

A rainpool of birds slap
the summer’s heat from their wings;
beaks strip their feathers as if
to neaten up for a brave new day.

In the garden, I pose with the ghosts
of spring peonies. I can still breathe
their ambrosia heavy as wine, still feel
their heads lean.

Along the woodpath, squirrels
tear and leap, leap and tear, delirious
with an onset of primal intuition.

Above them the bittersweet vine,
blood-burned, still wants to reach,
to wind.

A windburst stirs the leaves
to the gripping point. One golden
soul, all lightness and fluttering heart,
twists and soars.

But time just won’t, I think,
allow for drift. I’ll snap a picture
for eternity, I say. You and me
against the starry cold.

—Shirley McPhillips

(Turn to p. 278 of Shirl’s book Poem Central: Word Journeys with Readers and Writers for a list called “Gathering of Flowers: Anthologies of Poetry.”)

Add comment April 19th, 2016

Now Online: Good Thinking

Good Thinking“Once you start looking, you’ll see arguments everywhere,” Erik Palmer writes in his new book, Good Thinking: Teaching Argument, Persuasion, and Reasoning. “All of them are opportunities to teach good thinking.”

A large part of our everyday communication involves argumentation and reasoning—for example, when we want to persuade others, make good purchasing decisions, or analyze the messages we receive from advertisers and politicians. But how well do we prepare students for these tasks?

In Good Thinking, Palmer shows teachers of all subjects how to transform the activities they already use into openings for improving student thinking. Building on his previous work in Well Spoken and Digitally Speaking, he reveals how all students—not just those in advanced classes—can begin developing sophisticated reasoning skills that will improve their oral and written communications.

Blending theory with practice, Palmer shares a wide range of classroom-tested lessons and explains complex concepts in simple, practical language that gives teachers a deft understanding of the principles of good arguments, proper use of evidence, persuasive techniques, and rhetorical tricks.

Preview the entire book online now!

Add comment April 13th, 2016

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