Archive for July, 2010

Poetry Friday: The Skin I’m In

Happy Poetry Friday! This week we have a great poem by a student, Crystal Whiteaker, titled “The Skin I’m In” based on Sharon Flake’s book of the same name. Janet Allen uses this poem in a chapter on shared reading in her book On the Same Page: Shared Reading Beyond the Primary Grades. Enjoy!

The Skin I’m In
Every day she’s teased.
With her skin, no one is pleased;
It’s dark as chocolate and
her soul is golden like the sun,
Yet, she’s still an outcast to almost everyone.
She’s constantly pushed around,
but when she screams there is no sound.
She cries secret tears
hoping no one will find her fears.
She puts up with so much day in and day out,
but she never raises her voice to shout.
In the end, she opens her eyes,
To see that their taunts were nothing but lies.
Her lesson was learned and
The bully was burned.
She finally loved the skin
that her body was in.

3 comments July 30th, 2010

Questions & Authors: Integrating inquiry, assessment, and strategic teaching

In Pulling Together: Integrating Inquiry, Assessment and Instruction in English Classrooms, Leyton Schnellert and his coauthors present a comprehensive answer to the current big ideas in teaching: formative assessment, backward design, inquiry learning, strategic teaching, and metacognition. In this edition of Questions & Authors, Leyton talks about the origins and inspiration for Pulling Together, and how he and his colleagues find connections between English language arts and inclusive education.

Pulling Together emerged through collaboration with my colleagues Krista Ediger, Mehjabeen Datoo, and Joanne Panas.  Over the last few years, we have met about once a month to build text sets, redesign lessons, explore strategy instruction and wrestle with assessment.  However, somewhere along the way, we began to realize that the various approaches that we were pulling apart and trying to make our own actually supported one another.  Our inquiry then became something more satisfying and even elegant – an attempt to pull various practices together.

Pulling together seems to be a theme for me; I have spent much of my teaching career finding connections between my two passions: English language arts and inclusive education.  For me they go hand in hand, classroom communities with diverse student populations open up opportunities to explore multiple perspectives and literacies from the inside out.  Krista, Mehjabeen, Joanne and I use inquiry as a planning and teaching framework because inquiry invites students to engage with ideas and experiences by asking questions and developing and sharing their own perspectives. Planning from our knowledge of students – what they know and believe, looking at their strengths, interests and stretches – helps us to develop culturally relevant curriculum.  For us, ongoing formative assessment plays a big part in inquiry-oriented classrooms.

Through teaching English language arts and co-teaching with peers (in my role as a resource teacher), I have learned to invite students to tell their stories and develop their own insights.  Instead of looking for right answers, I ask students to develop an idea and/or interpretation and to explain their understanding using evidence.  When there is an aspect of oral or written language that we all want to develop – a common outcome – I invite students to generate criteria with me.  Even if criteria or rubrics exist, I prefer to involve the students in figuring out what our shared criteria might be and invite them to find positive examples of these criteria in their own and others’ writing and thinking.  In my teaching I work from a belief that all students bring experience and skill – I don’t expect all students to at the same skill or knowledge level, but what I do communicate is that each of them needs to move from where they are as a learner to a deeper, more accomplished place.  In my planning and teaching, I’m asking students to pull together their background knowledge, the texts they read and create, the criteria we develop together and the mini-lessons I teach to help them get closer to those criteria.  Together my students and I make curriculum together.  The learning outcomes or standards are part of this curriculum, but so are we.

Inquiry learning builds enduring understandings and thinking strategies.  In Pulling Together we show how we have combined inquiry, formative and summative assessment, and strategic teaching. Within inquiry units we find that we can both (1) help students to develop deep, conceptual understanding and (2) explicitly build the thinking skills they need to help them develop these understandings. In each unit we focus on a few key thinking, reading, and writing skills. This is how we develop thoughtful readers and writers, who choose to read and write beyond our classrooms.

To help us in this process we:

1. Start with the end in mind.  We look at the learning outcomes and/or or standards to determine what we want students to know and do in a unit.  We also think about what themes and/or aspects of the human experience we can students to explore. Then we group these into one or two big ideas.  By the end of the unit, we want students to:

–      link examples and ideas across texts and explain how they are related to the human experience

–      explain how technology shapes the way we live our lives

–      use more than one medium to analyze and share a personal example of technology impacting how they communicate and behave

2.  Recast big ideas as questions that can be explored through inquiry.  Joanne, Krista, Mehjabeen and I were able to shape an entire three month unit around the questions:

How does communications technology shape our humanity?

How do we communicate with each other?

How does technology impact the way we communicate?

How does the way we communicate change the way we behave?

How does communications technology humanize and/or dehumanize us?

3.  Plan one or two performance assessments for the unit.  These allow students to show the understandings and skills they have developed.  For this unit students:

– wrote a personal essay on the topic how communications technology impacts them personally

– created a video, blog or broadcast (ie podcast) on how communications technology affects humanity/ society/other groups

– reflected on their learning in their metacognition journals

4.  Engage in lots of formative assessment especially descriptive feedback and student self-assessment.  These activities and assessments are not usually for marks, but rather to help students practice working with ideas and approaches, getting feedback along the way.  In this unit:

-students co-created a personal essay, guided by the teacher, on the topic “how does YouTube affect behavior?”

-they created a communications technology timeline

-They participated in quickwrites, a class blog, group discussions, information circles, and read and discussed articles on the impact of technologies

-wrote a reflection on their learning in their metacognition journals

5.  Teach mini-lessons use gradual release of responsibility for key knowledge and skills.

–      Students saw a teacher model ways to brainstorm ideas, start essays, create a flow for their ideas and back up their ideas with examples.

–      The strategies and approaches used and practiced along the way were the same ones they used in the performance assessments.

–      By the end of the unit everyone had a change to see examples and practice with feedback related to criteria.

–      All students had more success as they got personalized feedback related to shared criteria.

For Mehjabeen, Krista, Joanne and I, we are working to help students develop foundational skills for working with texts, ideas, each other and beyond the classroom. What is key for us is that it is the thinking skills and communication approaches that allow students to deeply engage with and understand complex ideas and information being taught.  This is a principle of inclusion – all students have a right to access ideas and techniques that can help them to develop themselves and engage with others and the world.

It is exciting for us is to hear and read how students’ thinking and understandings are developing.   By spending this extended time developing thinking skills, we have found that our students are able to grasp increasingly complex ideas and synthesize information and concepts with insight and appreciation. Using inquiry and performance assessment has also helped students to see the unique perspectives of their peers and any number of ways that these insights can be represented and communicated.  This provides us with a deep satisfaction as teachers; pulling together inquiry, formative and summative assessment, and strategic teaching is helping our students to develop the ability and sensitivity to appreciate diversity and difference.

Add comment July 29th, 2010

Quick Tip Tuesday: How to select nonfiction mentor texts

We have a great great tip today from Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli, authors of the recent Nonfiction Mentor Texts: Teaching Informational Writing Through Children’s Literature, K-8. Lynne and Rose not only share how they select nonfiction mentor texts for their classrooms, but this Quick Tip is also full of excellent mentor texts recommendations.

As you look through the books that occupy your classroom library shelves or the favorites you stash on a special shelf behind your desk as your indispensable read-aloud selections, how many of them would count as nonfiction texts? In the nonfiction count, how many are narrative nonfiction texts, such as biographies and autobiographies, or selections that read more like narratives, such as Bat Loves the Night or One Tiny Turtle by Nicola Davies? How often are your students writing nonfiction during your writing workshop time? How do you choose a nonfiction mentor text for the young writers in your class?

Kristo and Bamford (2004) define nonfiction as the literature of facts. They describe the main purposes of nonfiction writing: to deliver information, explain, argue, and/or demonstrate. In this book, we are defining nonfiction texts in a much larger sense than as informational trade books and picture books. We are also including other kinds of expository texts, such as cookbooks, newspapers, magazines, brochures, and travel guides, as well as Internet selections.

Portalupi and Fletcher (2001) discuss the importance of familiarizing our students with high-quality nonfiction literature and the subgenres that have developed within the informational picture book selections. Kristo and Bamford (2004) discuss several types of nonfiction books that writers consider depending on purposes, intended audiences, and possible use by those audiences. Authors can present a topic narrowly but in great depth or they can broadly cover a topic. It is important to learn about the different kinds of nonfiction books that are available to our students in order to make sensible  selections for mentor texts.

Many of the nonfiction books we are recommending are life-cycle books, such as One Tiny Turtle by Nicola Davies and Monarch and Milkweed by Helen Frost, or survey books, such as All About Frogs by Jim Arnosky. We also have used many how-to books, such as A Kid’s Guide to Washington, D.C. by Diane Clark. Identification books (field guides), such as Jane Kirkland’s Take a Walk Books, and photographic essays, such as Lincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman, are other types of promising nonfiction books to use as mentor texts. We are also impressed with the wonderful selection of picture book biographies, such as Thomas Jefferson: A Picture Book Biography by James Cross Giblin, Into the Woods: John James Audubon Lives His Dream by Robert Burleigh, and Rachel: The Story of Rachel Carson by Amy Ehrlich.

In order to create an energizing sense of freedom within writing workshop and opportunities to write nonfiction across the content areas, we can make use of a variety of types of nonfiction books depending on our purposes for writing. When we allow our students to make decisions about how they will deliver and present information, we provide them with a sense of ownership, so vitally important to the notion of commitment to the process and product of writing nonfiction.

We have found that fiction books can also serve as mentors when writing informational and persuasive texts. Hey, Little Ant by Phillip and Hannah Hoose and The Seashore Book by Charlotte Zolotow are two examples. Informational picture storybooks, such as All in Just One Cookie by Susan E. Goodman, Everglades by Jean Craighead George, and Penny: The Forgotten Coin by Denise Brennan-Nelson show students yet another way to present information in a friendly and interesting format.

Sometimes we need a fiction book to serve as a catalyst to write about a topic or to imitate the form, voice, or syntax of an author. Consider the fiction books Dear Mr. Blueberry by Simon James, Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin, or Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White to find ideas, formats, and even strategies for writing persuasively. Around the World: Who’s Been Here? by Lindsay Barrett George is written in the form of letters from a teacher to her class. Sometimes a fiction story presents facts through a unique voice, as in Pamela Duncan Edward’s Barefoot: Escape on the Underground Railroad, told in the voices of the woodland
and marsh animals.

Sometimes we select mentor texts to provide a clearer picture of our multicultural society and the distinctive voices that can be heard in these books. Consider Voices of the Alamo by Sherry Garland, Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges, Teammates by Peter Golenbock, Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki, Virgie Goes to School with Us Boys by Elizabeth Howard, and Hiroshima No Pika by Toshi Maruki. It is important to find mentor texts that help us recognize and imitate qualities of good writing while at the same time fairly repre-senting the diversity that exists in our country. These texts can build bridges to new understandings about ourselves and others. They provide us with models of high-quality literature to help us learn how to write about diversity issues with dignity, style, and grace.

Duke and Bennett-Armistead (2003) advise teachers to expose their students to a variety of texts, because research suggests a reciprocal relationship between the kinds of texts children become familiar with and the kinds of texts they choose to write and are able to write well. They write, “Children who are not exposed to much informational text are not likely to develop informational writing skills as quickly as children who are” (129). Shelley Harwayne (2008) states that kids need mentor texts that are distinctive. At Celebrate Literacy 2008, a conference sponsored by the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project in West Chester, Harwayne suggested that we should help our students borrow techniques that are distinctive—that our young writers need mentor texts that are distinctive. She talked about the importance of reading-writing connections and reminded us that Peterson (2007) described reading and writing as good neighbors with a big hole in the hedge that separated their properties to allow them to pass freely back and forth. Kristo and Bamford (2004) would concur; they elaborate on this same idea: “Teachers work hard from the beginning of the school year to “marinate” their students in good nonfiction. They read aloud highquality nonfiction so that students develop an ear for how good expository writing sounds. Their lessons about reading and writing nonfiction scaffold their learners so they feel accomplished with what they can do all along the way.” (166)

We agree completely! Writers begin to understand that from the moment they begin to think about writing a text (finding a specific topic and engaging in prewriting) until long after the writing of the first draft (talking about it with others, revising it, and reflecting on how the writing has changed and grown in sophistication), they are beginning a journey. This journey will take them to and connect them with subsequent mentor texts and new writings—and, consequently, will lead them to new journeys. We know that students become better writers of nonfiction because they try out new things and take responsible risks (try out or imitate the writing techniques in mentor texts that they are capable of doing with a little practice and guidance). It is only through risk taking and experimentation that our writers will continue to grow and become better writers tomorrow than they are today.

Add comment July 27th, 2010

Poetry Friday: Cincinnati

This week’s poem comes from Robin Turner’s recent book, Greater Expectations: Teaching Academic Literacy to Underrepresented Students. Robin uses the poem Cincinnati by Mitsuye Yamada in a time literary analysis writing exercise with his Puente class. At this point in the school year, Robin’s students are reading Elie Wiesel’s Night and the class is very interested in World War II. Robin hands them this poem after reading a couple of other poems to practice analyzing out loud.

Mitsuye Yamada

Freedom at last
in this town aimless
I walked against the rush
hour traffic
My first day
in a real city
no one knew me.
No one except one
hissing voice that said
dirty jap
warm spittle on my right cheek.
I turned and faced
the shop window
and my spittled face
spilled onto a hill
of books.
Words on display.
In Government Square
people criss-crossed
the street
like the spokes of
a giant wheel.
I lifted my right hand
but it would not obey me.
My other hand fumbled for a hankie.
My tears would not
wash it. They stopped
and parted.
My hankie brushed
the forked
tears and spittle
I edged toward the curb
loosened my fisthold
and the bleached laced
mother-ironed hankie blossomed in
the gutter atop teeth marked
gum wads and heeled candy wrappers.
Everyone knew me.

1 comment July 23rd, 2010

Even babies love Debbie Diller

Stenhouse editorial manager Chris Downey had her own little literacy work station in her living room yesterday. She and former Stenhouse editorial manager Erin Trainer met to discuss some upcoming Stenhouse books – Erin is now a freelance copyeditor working on many Stenhouse projects. Their babies, Ruby and Dean, seemed excited by Debbie’s book. Take a look for yourself:

Add comment July 22nd, 2010

Quick Tip Tuesday: How to design a rubric

“Rubrics are a popular approach for focusing learning and for assessing and reporting student achievement,” writes Rick Wormeli is his recent book Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessing and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom. “Designing rubrics may be more complex than teachers realize,” Rick continues, “however, but we get better at it with each one we do.” And to help with that practice, he outlines seven steps to designing an effective, useful rubric.

How to Design a Rubric
1. Identify the essential and enduring content and skills you will expect students to demonstrate. Be specific.

2. Identify what qualifies as acceptable evidence that students have mastered content and skills. This will usually be your summative assessments and from these, you can create your pre-assessments.

3. Write a descriptor for the highest performance possible. This usually begins with the standard you’re trying to address. Be very specific, and be willing to adjust this descriptor as you generate the other levels of performance and as you teach the same unit over multiple years. Remember, there is no such thing as the perfect rubric. We will more than likely adjust rubrics every year they’re used.

4. At this point, you’ll have to make a decision: holistic or analytic? If you want to assess content and skills within the larger topic being addressed, go with analytic rubrics. They break tasks and concepts down for students so that they are assessed in each area. Analytical rubrics also require you to consider the relative weights (influences) of different elements. For example, in an essay, if “Quality of the Ideas” is more important than “Correct Spelling,” then it gets more influence in the final score. If you want to keep everything as a whole, go with holistic rubrics. Holistic rubrics take less time to use while grading, but they don’t provide as much specific feedback to students. In some cases, though, the difference in feedback is minor, and the work inherent with an analytical rubric doesn’t warrant the extra time it takes to design and use, especially at the secondary level where teachers can serve more than 200 students.
Another way of looking at the difference is this: The more analytic and detailed the rubric, the more subjective the scores can be.

The more gradations and shades of gray in a rubric, the more the score is up to the discretion of the teacher and is likely to differ from teacher to teacher, and even from day to day. The more holistic the rubric, the fewer the gradations and shades of gray and thereby, the more objective and reliable the scores can be. Of course, the more detailed the rubric, the more specific feedback we get for both teacher and student. It’s very rare to generate a rubric that is highly detailed and analytical while remaining objective and reliable teacher to teacher and over time.

Here are two examples: In a holistic rubric, we might ask students to write an expository paragraph, and the descriptor for the highest score lists all the required elements and attributes. With the same task in an analytical rubric, however, we create separate rubrics (levels of accomplishment with descriptors) within the larger one for each subset of skills, all outlined in one chart. In this case, the rubric might address: Content, Punctuation and Usage, Supportive Details, Organization, Accuracy, and Use of Relevant Information.

In a chemistry class’s holistic rubric, we might ask students to create a drawing and explanation of atoms, and the descriptor for the highest score lists all the features we want them to identify accurately. With the same task using an analytical rubric, however, we create separate rubrics for each subset of features—Anatomical Features: protons, neutrons, electrons and their ceaseless motion, ions, valence; Periodic Chart Identifiers: atomic number, mass number, period; Relationships and Bonds with Other Atoms: isotopes, molecules, shielding, metal/non-metal/metalloid families, bonds (covalent, ionic, and metallic).

Remember how powerful this becomes when students help design the rubric themselves. After working with a few rubrics that you design, make sure to give students the opportunity to design one. Determining what’s important in the lesson moves that knowledge to the front of students’ minds, where they can access it while they’re working. This happens when they have a chance to create the criteria with which their performances will be assessed.

5. Determine your label for each level of the rubric. Consider using three, four, or six levels instead of five for two reasons: 1) They are flexible and easily allow for gradations within each one, and 2) a five-level tiering quickly equates in most students’ and parents’ minds to letter grades (A, B, C, D, F) and such assumptions come with associative interpretations—the third level down is average or poor, depending on the community, for instance. The following list shows collections of successful rubric descriptor labels. Though most are written in groups of five, which I advise teachers not to use, they are provided in such groupings because that is what educators most commonly find on their district assessments. Look at the list’s entries as a sample reservoir of word choices.

  • Proficient, capable, adequate, limited, poor
  • Sophisticated, mature, good, adequate, naïve
  • Exceptional, strong, capable, developing, beginning, emergent
  • Exceeds standard, meets standard, making progress, getting started, no attempt
  • Exemplary, competent, satisfactory, inadequate, unable to begin effectively, no attempt

Descriptor terms need to be parallel; it’s important to keep the part of speech consistent. Use all adjectives or all adverbs, for example, not a mixture of parts of speech. Notice how this sequence on a rubric could be awkward for assessment and confusing to students:

  • Top, adequately, average, poorly, zero

6. Write your descriptors for each level, keeping in mind what you’ll accept as evidence of mastery. Once again, be specific, but understand that there is no perfect rubric. Alternative: Focus on the highest performance descriptor, writing it out in detail, and then indicate relative degrees of accomplishment for each of the other levels. For example, scoring 3.5 on a 5.0 rubric would indicate adequate understanding but with significant errors in some places. The places of confusion would be circled for the student in the main descriptor for the 5.0 level.

In my own teaching experience, this alternative has great merit. When students are given full descriptions for each level of a rubric, many of them steer themselves toward the second or third level’s requirements. They reason that there’s no need to be “exemplary”— the top level—when they’d be happy with the label “good” or “satisfactory.” These students either don’t believe themselves capable of achieving the top score’s criteria, or they see the requirements as too much work when compared with the lower level’s requirements. To lessen the workload, they are willing to settle for the lower-level score.

Don’t let them do this; don’t let them lose sight of full mastery. When all that is provided to students is the detailed description of full mastery, they focus on those requirements—it’s the only vision they have. All of their efforts rally around those criteria and, as a result, they achieve more of it.

7. “Test drive” the rubric with real student products. See whether it accounts for the variable responses students make, ensuring those who demonstrate mastery get high scores and those who don’t demonstrate mastery earn lower scores. Ask yourself: “Does this rubric provide enough feedback to students to help them grow? Does it assess what I want it to assess? Does it help me make instructional decisions regarding students’ learning?” If it doesn’t do one or more of these things, the rubric may need to be reworked.

Add comment July 20th, 2010

What it means to be “in production”

Get a glimpse into the writing and production process of a Stenhouse book from first-time author Stacey Shubitz as she describes the journey on her blog Two Writing Teachers. Stacey and her co-author, Ruth Ayres, spent the past year working on their upcoming professional book titled Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice.

The book will be available in October. If you would like to find out more about it, watch for updates on the Stenhouse website in early August and sign up to be notified when the book arrives in our warehouse.

1 comment July 19th, 2010

Poetry Friday: Coffee

This week’s poem is an original by Liz Hale, author of Crafting Writers, K-6. In a mini-lesson on writing free verse poems, Liz shares how she demonstrates writing a free verse poem in front of her class. She thinks aloud as she writes: “Hmmmm, okay, I’m thinking of what coffee looks like… hmmm what else, coffee is… I’m thinking about it in my cup….” The think-aloud part in this lesson is very important, says Liz. “Students need to see that thinking and some effort are needed to go against the rules of the standard sentence.

by Liz Hale

Dark brown in
my cup
Every morning
waking me up
From the Earth
right to mugs
Steam rises as I close
my eyes
and smile

2 comments July 16th, 2010

Podcast: Steve Layne, reading arsonist

The author of Igniting a Passion for Reading gave a great presentation at this year’s Michigan Reading Association Conference. In this recording you can hear him talk about why he is proud to call himself a “reading arsonist” and he shares how he takes advantage of students’ love of shopping when it comes to selecting books.

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Add comment July 14th, 2010

Quick Tip Tuesday: Head over to Ning

Our tip on this Quick Tip Tuesday is pretty simple: head over to our Ning group and join an already lively discussion of Ralph Fletcher’s new book, Pyrotechnics on the Page.

The discussion started yesterday with this question from moderator Amanda Villagomez: “What are ways that you write with your ear or consciously use observations to benefit your writing? How do you encourage students to do so?”

Ralph already stopped by the discussion group to read and respond to comments. Several teachers have written about how they use their writer’s notebooks to record the fun, playful things they hear every day in their classrooms or at home.

Tell us about your writer’s notebook – what do you record and then share with your students? Leave your comments on the Ning group!

Add comment July 13th, 2010

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