Archive for January, 2013

An interview with the authors of Poetry Mentor Texts

Stacey Shubitz over at the excellent Two Writing Teachers blog recently interviewed Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli, authors of Poetry Mentor Texts: Making Reading and Writing Connections. Lynne and Rose talked about the role of poetry in the Common Core Standards and how to make poetry a part of the classroom culture all year long. “Poetry gives students possibilities for collaboration and offers opportunities for students to use the strategies learned through poetry as they write in other modes during writing workshop. Teachers might want to include poetry as a choice in writing workshop or include it as part of a multi-genre presentation which can include art or music.”

You can read the full interview on Two Writing Teachers. The book is still available for full preview on the Stenhouse website.

Add comment January 30th, 2013

Now Online: Caring Hearts & Critical Minds

“We want our students to read widely, read texts that will open their hearts and challenge their minds, and read critically and wisely. We want students to own these habits of mind so they will use them outside of our classrooms, over the summer, and throughout their lives.”

Working with author and educator Steven Wolk, six Chicago middle school teachers designed and field-tested eight literature-based inquiry units, with the goal of encouraging deeper reading, thinking, and talking. In the new book Caring Hearts & Critical Minds, Wolk shares their successes and challenges.

Featuring a remarkable range of recommended resources and hundreds of novels from across the literary genres, Caring Hearts & Critical Minds takes you step-by-step through the process of creating rigorous lessons about topics kids care about–from media and the environment to personal happiness and global poverty. Wolk shows you how to find stimulating, real-world “complex texts” called for in the Common Core State Standards and integrate them into literature units. As students make personal connections to characters and events, they also develop deeper curiosity about the world and tolerance for others.

Caring Hearts & Critical Minds will be released in the first week of February, and you can pre-order and preview the entire book online now.

Add comment January 29th, 2013

Baking and the Zone of Proximal Development

In her latest contribution to the Stenhouse Blog, frequent contributor and editor Maureen Barbieri wonders “how much modeling is too much” in life, in baking, and in teaching.

The POP! as I dropped the hot saucepan onto our 1950s red Formica table was ferocious. My next-door neighbor and best friend, Nancy Moran, jumped about a foot backward and screamed “Fire!” No fire but plenty of smoke. We were ten years old, and we had decided to bake my mother a chocolate cake for her birthday. She had often insisted, “If you can read, you can cook.” So, being good readers, we placed our faith in her old copy of Fannie Farmer. My parents and younger siblings were off shoe shopping on this November Saturday, so we had the house to ourselves.

We found a recipe that took us through the process, step by step. The cake came out of the oven looking pathetically flat. The frosting was more challenging. Neither of us knew what a “double boiler” was, and, according to Fannie Farmer, this is what we’d need to melt the chocolate. We punted, putting one pot inside another and letting things take their course. (The recipe had not mentioned water.) Hence, smoke, terrible smells, the loud explosion, and a quarter-sized hole in my mother’s table.

“They’re going to kill me!” I cried to my friend.

Still, we smeared the burnt chocolate over the cake and spelled out “Happy Birthday, Mommy” with whole cloves. Oddly, it was the cloves that got the biggest reaction. “What possessed you?” my mother later wondered.

We lived in a Levittown-type house on Long Island in a small town called Seaford—two parents, four kids, and a new baby. My mother took pride in her home: the drapes matched the slipcovers; there was a hand-painted mural in the finished basement and funky black and white wallpaper in the bathroom. We were required to keep things tidy because “someone might drop in.” My mother loved her kitchen, and I knew that destroying her table was a big transgression, no matter how wonderful my intentions.

The reactions—my parents’, Nancy’s parents’, and, worst of all, my siblings’—were pretty dramatic. You’d have thought we’d set out to burn the house down. “Are you out of your minds?” my mother shouted. “What did you think double boiler meant? What does BOIL mean? Where was your head?” This last directed not at both of us, but squarely at me. I wanted to die. Nancy’s father just shook his head in horror while her mother, frowning, whispered “I’m so sorry” over and over again. My sisters and brother held their hands over their mouths, so as not to anger my mother further by laughing, but their eyes twinkled. I was in big trouble now, and it was better me than them. Nancy slunk home, and I was dispatched to my room while my parents spoke in low tones about how to salvage the table.

It must have been a rough night, but the next morning, riding home in the car after church, my father explained that my grandmother would be coming over to bake another cake with me. My mother just looked out the window, still not speaking, but I knew this was a huge concession on her part. She was not fond of her mother.

My grandmother was the kind of person you liked to hug. She was always smiling or laughing, full of stories (real and imaginary), and—best of all—she was an amazing baker. Indeed, she was sometimes called upon to be a guest speaker at home economics classes in her town, so legendary were her talents. She and my grandfather arrived early in the afternoon, and she rolled up her sleeves immediately. First we read the recipe I had used.

“This one is good,” she acknowledged, “but it’s a bit complicated. Let’s start with something simpler.” Relieved and eager to redeem myself, I agreed.

She chose a basic white cake and insisted that the first thing we needed to do was take the eggs out of the refrigerator, so they could come to room temperature before being “folded” into the batter. Next she explained that flour has to be sifted and measured very carefully. Precision was key, she told me. Each step of the process—choosing which bowls and spoons to use, beating the eggs gently, sprinkling the baking powder and salt into the flour—was sacred to her. There was more to baking than I had realized. She showed me how to hold the wooden spoon and then, stepping back, directed me to meld the butter and sugar together until there was no clear distinction between them. Timing was crucial. You had to get the cake into the oven fairly soon after adding the eggs or the whole thing would “fall,” which is undoubtedly what had happened to my first attempt.

Once the cake was safely baking (and rising) in the oven, she turned her attention to the frosting. “Let’s try this double boiler recipe again,” she suggested. Shamed, I hung my head and tried not to cry. With her right forefinger, she lifted my chin. “None of that now,” she said. “You’re going to be a wonderful baker. You’ll see.”

The grandparents stayed for Sunday dinner, we sang “Happy Birthday” to my now smiling mother, and all agreed that the new cake was scrumptious.

“Who made this one?” my four-year-old brother asked.

“Nanna and Mo,” said my father.

My sister chuckled, “You mean Nanna.”

“We did it together,” my grandmother said. “A few more practice cakes, and she can try it on her own.”

Nobody in my family knew a thing about Lev Vygotsky or the Zone of Proximal Development—“What the child can do in cooperation today (s)he can do alone tomorrow”—but this experience has stayed with me fifty years. My parents often struck me as beleaguered, overwhelmed, anxious. It must have taken stamina to raise all those kids. But on this occasion I believe they also showed wisdom. Too distraught over her ruined table to help me herself, my mother knew exactly what I needed, and she gave it to me: forgiveness for my botched effort. The perfect mentor. Reassurance that I would indeed be able to learn. And the indelible lesson that life offers second chances.

When I’m in schools these days, I watch brilliant teachers present creative curriculum in stimulating classrooms. It’s a dance, this combination of offering explicit instruction (“Watch me do it”) and encouraging risk-taking (“Now try it yourself”). Don Murray warned that too much guidance could dampen a writer’s spirits. “Just write” was his mantra. But then he’d offer such concrete, practical advice that we’d clamor to try again. Like my grandmother, Murray knew his craft, and, like her, he believed we could learn it too.

How much modeling is enough, and how much is too much? When is it better to let the children “have a go,” as the Australians say? When is it useful to do more explicit teaching?  This depends on the context, the age of the children, and the subject matter being explored. Clearly, my friend and I could have benefited from some upfront demonstration before we attempted our brave approximation of baking a cake, regardless of how well we read the cookbook.

The expert does have a role to play in sharing knowledge and in demonstrating technique. But it is equally important to have faith in the learner. (“You’re going to be a wonderful baker,” my grandmother told me.) There is an art to knowing how much instruction learners need and when to let them immerse in the task on their own. Students must practice what they’ve observed, take risks as they experiment, and find connections to the world as they understand it. If we end up with big holes in tables, it’s good to remember that we can always try again.

1 comment January 24th, 2013

Increasing engagement: A school revamps its reading invervention program

We’d like to think that it happens we just don’t hear about it — a Stenhouse blog post planting a seed in a teacher or principal’s head. Matt Renwick is an elementary principal in Wisconsin and he shared with us how he re-thought his school’s reading intervention program after reading a blog post by Peter Johnston. Matt will be back in a few months to share the results of the new program.

Increasing engagement

For a while it was popular in educational circles to talk about “time on task”. In some circles it still is. But, as many have noted, children are always on task; the important question is, what is the task?

– Peter Johnston, Knowing Literacy

My school faced a dilemma last spring: The grant for our after school reading intervention had run out. The loss of funding would also affect our A.M. and P.M. study centers. Many of our students and families utilized these services to get extra academic support and to provide supervision for children whose parents worked early or late. We had a captive audience in those who attended, but no resources left with which to captivate them, or so I initially thought.

As I prepared our final report for the grant, I noticed a pattern. Students who attended the structured, computer-based reading intervention after school did not make gains when compared to their peers. However, students who attended the morning and after school study centers, with minimal educator support, showed more growth than their school peers. It was a small sample size, but results nonetheless.


Around the same time, I came across Peter Johnston’s post “Reducing Instruction, Increasing Engagement” on the Stenhouse blog. In it he describes a study he conducted with Gay Ivey in a secondary classroom. Students were given edgy fiction and few expectations, other than to read the books and discuss them with classmates. They took control of their learning, selecting texts based on their interests and communicating with each other about what they read. Subsequently, their tests scores went up and their social and emotional well being improved.

This post was the proverbial manna from heaven. Along with Richard Allington’s suggestion in Schools That Work for the principal to help facilitate the morning center, we had a possible answer to our problem. Some of our Title I funds were allocated to support two staff members two times a week to facilitate the after school book club for 4th and 5th graders. At the same time, I shifted the schedule of an English Language Learner aide so she would come in an hour earlier to catch the students in the morning. Even though all of this programming was to be hosted in the school library, we did purchase some high interest texts from a local book store. Total cost for this year-long program: Approximately $3000.

So how have we reduced instruction and increased engagement?

A greater variety of literacy resources are available. For example, students can listen to books on tape, practice their letters and writing using art supplies, and select any text they find interesting.

In both the morning study center and after school book club, we strive to provide choice in books. Some guidance is provided by staff when they appear to have a tough time finding their next read. However, for the most part we stay out of the way.

We have created an inviting, cozy environment to allow kids to chat with each other while reading their books. Whistle chairs, foam shaped like an upside down whistle and covered with a leather case, are an example of a purchase we made to help create this climate. Educators need to give kids permission to read, both with our words and our actions. By doing this, we let them know that it is okay to just sit around and enjoy a book while at school.

As well, they like writing book reviews on bookmark cards. They are propped on the front of the respective book and displayed on a designated table for others to check out. These students are now seen as readers and writers by their classmates. At this age, peers’ perceptions are students’ realities.

One hiccup we have noticed is the inconsistent attendance of a few of our 4th and 5th graders after school. To address this, the staff and I have discussed ways to leverage technology to increase engagement. One idea is allowing students to connect on Edmodo.  It is a safe social media tool for schools to share and discuss their learning. This would allow students to write their thoughts and questions about what they are reading for a broader audience, as well as read what others have posted.

At a fraction of the previous year’s costs, we have developed a literacy intervention that engages students and has the potential to increase students’ reading abilities at a faster rate than prescribed programming. At the same time, departing from past practices is a scary proposition for us as educators. It means giving up the spotlight and allowing student learning to take center stage. Teachers and principals, myself included, sometimes think we can control student outcomes. This naturally leads us into trying to control the learning at times. Yet it is an open and curious mind that learns best. We can facilitate this mindset by increasing engagement in students through thoughtful instruction and sharing our enthusiasm for reading.  And isn’t engagement the reason we read and learn anyway?

10 comments January 22nd, 2013

Now Online: Word Nerds

Vocabulary opens the door to improved reading comprehension, writing, and content-area learning, especially for kids from high- poverty families. Students need vocabulary instruction every day to build lasting word knowledge. But how can you fit this into an already-packed literacy schedule? And how can you make it engaging and fun?

Classroom teachers Leslie Montgomery and Margot Holmes Smith teamed with veteran literacy educator Brenda Overturf to develop an innovative 5-part plan for vocabulary instruction, which they share in their new book, Word Nerds. Refined over two school years in real classrooms, their framework helps teachers improve student achievement while building confidence and enthusiasm about word learning. You’ll find:

– 10 essential ingredients for effective word study;

– routines and classroom structures that support vocabulary;

– how to introduce new words in both primary and intermediate classrooms;

– making the most of synonyms and antonyms;

– a collection of engaging activities for practicing and celebrating words;

– formative and summative assessments;

– connections to the Common Core State Standards throughout.

The appendixes include reproducible planners, organizers, and rubrics.

Word Nerds will be released early next month, and you can pre- order and preview the entire book online now!


1 comment January 17th, 2013

Podcast: Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli on Poetry Mentor Texts

“Poetry is a great way to level the playing field–kids delight in the sounds…poetry appeals to our ears our eyes, our imagination, our very souls.”

Teaching poetry is daunting for many teachers, but given the right approach it serves an important role in literacy learning, and students love it. In this short video interview, Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli, authors of the new book Poetry Mentor Texts, encourage teachers to use poetry throughout the day and curriculum, and explain how their book makes it easy to do so. You can preview the entire text of Poetry Mentor Texts on the Stenhouse website!

Add comment January 15th, 2013

Preview the full text of 5 new books!

Preview 5 new books from Pembroke Publishers (distributed in the U.S. by Stenhouse.)

100 Minutes
Making Every Minute Count in the Literacy Block
Lisa Donohue • Grades K-6 • 160 pp • $22.00
Shows teachers how to fit balanced literacy into a daily 100-minute literacy block using a framework of whole-class & guided small-group instruction, writing sessions, and independent work. Includes strategies for using exemplars, providing effective feedback, integrating technology, and more.

Ban the Book Report
Promoting Frequent and Enthusiastic Reading
Graham Foster • Grades 4-9 • 128 pp • $22.00
Presents 20 classroom-tested assignments for personal response to independent reading, each with a reproducible rubric, response form, and two exemplars. Will help you foster interesting and relevant responses that encourage further reading.

Student-Driven Learning
Small, Medium, and Big Steps to Engage and Empower Students
Jennifer Harper and Kathryn O’Brien • Grades K-6 • 128 pp • $22.00
Provides a wealth of new ideas for motivation, routines that engage kids, fostering creativity, sparking critical thinking, meaningful assessment, and getting to know your students.

This Book Is Not About Drama
It’s About New Ways to Inspire Students
Myra Barrs, Bob Barton, and David Booth
Grades 3-8 • 160 pp • $22.00
Offers sure-fire ways to engage students through sharing personal stories, role playing, and reenactments. You’ll see how to recharge literacy activities by giving kids opportunities to interact with themes, characters, and events in texts.

Back to Learning
How Research-Based Classroom Instruction Can Make the Impossible Possible
Les Parsons • Grades K-8 • 96 pp • $22.00
Tackles challenging issues such as bullying, appropriate use of technology, and responding to external pressures without compromising what’s best for your students. A thought-provoking and research-based look at a wide range of teaching practices.

Add comment January 9th, 2013

Three signs of a good math classroom

You want to hear good mathematical vocabulary that’s modeled by the teacher but that’s also expected of and modeled by the students.

We recently interviewed Chris Moynihan, author of the new book Math Sense. In this video, Chris shares three specific practices—drawn from her book—that exemplify the look, sound, and feel of effective math instruction:

Add comment January 4th, 2013

Podcast: Debbie Miller rethinks gradual release of responsibility

Instead of modeling and modeling and modeling, now I’m thinking that we don’t want to go overboard—we model a little bit, send kids off to try it, and then through conferring and what we ask them to make and do, we can have a clear picture of exactly where they are.

When it comes to teaching reading, what has changed in the 10 years since the first edition of Reading with Meaning was published? In this video interview, Debbie Miller reflects on how her thinking has changed in key areas such as gradual release of responsibility, how to use learning targets to empower students, and assessments that match up with day-to-day goals:

The full preview of the second edition of Reading with Meaning is available on the Stenhouse website!

Add comment January 2nd, 2013

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