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!
Words Still Matter
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.
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.
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.
July 15th, 2015
We are excited to be heading to this year’s ILA conference in St. Louis! Stop by booth #1313 to receive 25% off all of our titles, and to pick up one of our new tote bags (see below)! Many of our authors will also be on-hand to sign their books, answer your questions, or just to chat. We hope to see you there! Full a full list of author presentations, click here!
Author Schedule at Our Booth
10 a.m.: Kelly Gallagher, author of In the Best Interest of Students (NEW), Write Like This, Readicide and more
11 a.m.: Jennifer Jacobson, author of No More “I’m Done!”
1:30 p.m.: Georgia Heard, coauthor of A Place for Wonder
2:30 p.m.: Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan, authors of Assessment in Perspective
4:15 p.m.: Steven Layne, author of In Defense of Read-Aloud (NEW), Igniting a Passion for Reading and Life’s Literacy Lessons
10:30 a.m.: Julie Ramsay, author of “Can We Skip Lunch and Keep Writing?”
11:30 a.m.: Stephanie Harvey, author of Nonfiction Matters and coauthor of Strategies That Work, Reading the World, and more
12:15 p.m.: Dorothy Barnhouse, author of Readers Front and Center
12:45 p.m.: Brenda Overturf, Leslie Montgomery, and Margot Holmes Smith, authors of Vocabularians (NEW) and Word Nerds
1:30 p.m.: Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris, coauthors of Reading Wellness (NEW)
2:30 p.m.: Janet Allen, author of Tools for Teaching Academic Literacy (NEW), More Tools for Teachchg Content Literacy, and more
4 p.m.: Rose Cappelli and Lynne Dorfman, coauthors of Poetry Mentor Texts, Mentor Texts, Nonfiction Mentor Texts, and more
July 14th, 2015
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!
Classroom 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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).
- 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.
- 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!
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.
July 13th, 2015
I tell them that at the end of the unit most of them will have produced the best piece of writing they have ever produced, and many of them will have come to see themselves and their lives in new ways. They look at me skeptically. How do I know this will happen? I know it, I say, because it happens every year.
Eighth grade teacher and YA novelist Jake Wizner inspires you to teach memoir writing and guides you through the process in his new book, Worth Writing About.
Jake helps you navigate issues that are unique to adolescent memoir writing—such as balancing significant experiences with what’s too personal, and separating fact from truth—and provides useful prompts for students who may think that their lives aren’t interesting enough to write about. Using many examples of student writing, he shows how to teach understory, perspective, beginnings, endings, and titles.
A final chapter includes tips on how and when to assess students, giving feedback, revision, and grading. The appendix includes advice on modifying instruction for students with IEPs and over a dozen memoir excerpts to use as models.
Preview Worth Writing About in its entirety now!
July 10th, 2015
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:
Or this one?
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!
July 8th, 2015
Today’s Blogstitute post comes from Christine Moynihan, whose latest book is Common Core Sense: Tapping the Power of Mathematical Practices. In this post Christine introduces the GOLD framework that helps make the Standards for Mathematical Practice more accessible to elementary teachers. Be sure to leave a comment or ask a question for a chance to win 12 Stenhouse books! On Twitter you can follow along using #blogstitute15.
Got Common Core?
By Christine Moynihan
Something I hear from many teachers is that it is challenging to be up-to-date on everything that teachers should and must know in order to be effective practitioners. This is especially true for elementary teachers, who are asked to be content experts in reading, writing, grammar, spelling, science, social studies, and, of course, mathematics. Not only do they need to have expertise in these curriculum areas in terms of content, but they must also be experts in the best instructional practices that will support their students in learning in each of these areas. (I’m not even going to go into how they also have responsibility for social and emotional growth, health and wellness, behavior management, and the list goes on. . . . )
So, as a former classroom teacher, I get it. As a former curriculum specialist, I also get it. As a former principal, I most certainly get it. As a current educational consultant, not only do I get it, I hear it all the time—there is just so much to know, so much to learn, so much to do. As a result, when I ask a variation of the “Got Common Core?” question, many teachers respond that although they “get” the basics of the Common Core in terms of the standards for mathematical content for their specific grade levels, they believe that they have a somewhat light understanding of the standards for mathematical practice. Most teachers report that what they know about the MPs has been by way of an introductory look at them at a professional development session and/or staff meeting, with little or no follow-up.
My major purpose in writing Common Core Sense: Tapping the Power of the Mathematical Practices emanates from my desire to help teachers gain a foothold in understanding the MPs and how they can affect their practice. The book is meant to be a vehicle for making the eight Standards for Mathematical Practice more accessible to elementary teachers, for I see them as the core of mathematical proficiency. As I wrestled with how to do that, I defaulted to something that has always worked for me as a learner—to devise some kind of a framework, a mnemonic of sorts, to aid in understanding and then activating that understanding. Because I had been saying over and over again that “the gold of the Common Core really lies within the mathematical practices,” I constructed the GOLD framework to help teachers see some of the major components of each MP and then think about what they may look and sound like in classrooms, and what might need to be done to support the incorporation and implementation of the MPs into daily practice.
Go for the goals—What are the major purposes of the practice?
Open your eyes & observe—what should you see students doing as they utilize the practice? What should you see yourself doing?
Listen—What should you hear students saying as they utilize the practice? What should you hear yourself saying?
Decide—What do you need to do as a teacher to mine the gold?
I identified three major goals for each mathematical practice, fully aware that there are many more goals to be found within each. In the link you will find what I have identified as the second goal of Mathematical Practice #3: Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others. What’s not to love about MP3? When you can analyze your thinking enough that you can clarify it, defend it, justify it, and represent it, you have learned something that will be valuable in all areas of life. In terms of mathematics, that ability leads you straight to the path of being mathematically proficient—a goal we all have for our students. I hope that the chart for the second goal I identified for MP3 can help in your work to make this MP come alive for the students in your classrooms.
Accept that viable explanations of mathematical thinking must be organized, reasonable, and justifiable/laden with proof.
July 6th, 2015
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
When 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:
• 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
• 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/
• 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)
• 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
Am 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?
July 1st, 2015
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.
Digital 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.
June 29th, 2015
We are excited to be a part of this year’s ISTE Conference June 28-July 1. You can find us at booth #134, where we will be displaying our books that help you integrate technology into your classrooms. You can also hear mini-sessions from authors, teachers, and digital mavens Diana Neebe, Jen Roberts, and Julie Ramsay, as well as presentations from our video streaming partner Kanopy.
Stop by and enter to win an iPad Mini and pick up your free copy of “Technology in the Classroom,” a collection of practical teaching ideas from five Stenhouse books.
From Alabama to Nigeria: Building Stronger Learners One Brick at a Time
Student-led session, with Julie D. Ramsay
Monday at 10:15
Twitter-a-ture: Student Learning and Publishing in 140 Characters or Less
With Julie D. Ramsay
Monday at 10:45
Insta-success with Instagram: Strategies for Empowering Learning for Our Selfie-Loving Students
With Julie D. Ramsay
Tuesday at 1:30
Curation Station: Tools that Equip Learners to Manage the Information Inundation
With Julie D. Ramsay
Tuesday at 2:00
Amplifying Student Voice with Choice throughout the Learning Process
With Julie D. Ramsay
Wednesday at 10:00
Power Up: A Crash Course in Going 1:1
With Diana Neebe and Jen Roberts
Monday at 1:00
Tuesday at 10:00
Wednesday at 12:00
Power Up Collaboration: Norms, Tools, and Tips for Collaborating with Your Colleagues
With Diana Neebe and Jen Roberts
Monday at 1:40
Wednesday at 12:40
Power Up Solutions for Frequent Freak-Outs: Coping with the Uncertainty of Changing Digital Expectations
With Diana Neebe and Jen Roberts
Monday at 2:20
Tuesday at 10:40
Power Up Your Feedback: Responding to Student Work in a Radical Way!
With Diana Neebe and Jen Roberts
Tuesday at 11:20
Sessions with our Streaming Video Partner Kanopy
Attend one of the below mini-sessions by Kanopy and receive a free streaming trial!
Monday: 9:45 a.m., Noon, 4 p.m.
Tuesday: 9:45 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m.
Wednesday: 9:45 a.m., 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m.
June 26th, 2015
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
I 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:
Even 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.
I 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.
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.
June 24th, 2015