Quick Tip Tuesday: Building relationships in the classroom

I don’t know about you, but every time I read one of Debbie Miller’s books, I wish I could be a student in her classroom. Reading today’s Quick Tip, you will see why: Debbie shares how she builds a connection with each student in her classroom and how she shows her students how to treat each other with respect to create a true learning community. This Quick Tip is from Debbie’s book Reading with Meaning: Teaching Comprehension in the Primary Grades.

I begin by paying attention to the little things. It’s noticing Paige’s cool new haircut, Grant’s oversized Avalanche jersey, Kendal’s sparkly blue nail polish, and Cody’s washable tattoos. It’s asking about Palmer’s soccer game, Jane’s dance recital, Elizabeth’s visiting grandpa, and Hannah’s brand-new baby brother.

It’s giving Ailey a heart rock to add to her collection, copying a poem about cats and giving it to Gina because I know she loves them, and even putting a Band-Aid on Grace’s tiny paper cut. Showing children we care about them and love being their teacher is an important first message. And at the same time, I’m modeling for children how to show someone you care about them; I’m modeling how you go about creating lasting friendships.

Teaching children how to listen and respond to each other in respectful, thoughtful ways also helps foster new relationships and caring communities. I used to have long conversations with children about this, telling them how important it was to listen carefully to each other and to really think about what their classmates have to say. I’d talk about responding respectfully, to look at the person you’re speaking to, call them by name, and on and on. But the very next day a child might groan at a song another had chosen, wildly wave a hand when someone else was talking, or flip through the pages of a book while another child was sharing. And I’d go into the whole respect routine again. During these conversations, the children were just as eloquent. They sounded just like me! But their behavior didn’t change. And I’d wonder, “What’s going on here? Why don’t they get it?” And even sometimes, “What’s wrong with these kids, anyway?”

Eventually I realized, of course, that nothing was wrong with “these kids.” They didn’t get it because I hadn’t shown them how. I’d told them to be respectful, thoughtful, and kind, but I hadn’t shown them what that looks and sounds like.

The best opportunities to show kids how occur in the moment. When Frankie says to Colleen, “Colleen, could you please speak up? I can’t hear what you have to say,” I can’t let that pass without making sure everyone heard. I can’t let that pass without pointing out how smart it is to want to hear what someone has to say. I say, “You guys, did you just hear Frankie? Frankie, could you say that again?” She does, and I ask, “So boys and girls, why was that such a smart thing for Frankie to do?” They respond, and then I use their words and mine to bring our thoughts together. And when Max tells Jack that his idea is “a little bit dumb,” I can’t let that pass either. I say, “Max, I’m sure you didn’t mean to be rude to Jack, but when you said his idea was a ‘little bit dumb,’ that’s what you were being. It’s okay to disagree with someone, but there are nicer, more polite ways to do it. You might say something like, ‘Jack, I don’t understand what you mean’ or ‘Jack, why do you think that?’ Try it again, Max.” He does, beautifully this time, and I don’t miss the opportunity to let everyone know how much we’ve learned from Max today.

Or Sean is trying to find a place in the circle, and he starts nudging himself into a spot four inches wide. I say, “Sean, could you think of a better way to get yourself into the circle?” Sean’s stumped. “Well, how about this? The next time you need to be in the circle and there isn’t room, how about asking someone to scoot back so you can fit in? Let’s try it right now. Just say, ‘Sunny, could you please scoot back so I can fit in the circle?’” He does. Next, I turn my attention to Sunny. “Okay, Sunny, Sean has asked you nicely to scoot back. What could you say back to him?” She says, “Sure, Sean, I’ll scoot back for you.” With smiles all around, she does.

Is the first time the charm? No. And probably not the third time either. But remain diligent. Remain calm. Don’t give up the good fight! Once the flagrant violations are in check, watch closely for the rolling of eyes, the private conversations, the exasperated sighs. Don’t let those go by either.

You can use these first lessons—we can call them “anchor lessons”—to refer back to. For example, when Sarah snaps at Troy, I say, “Oops, Sarah, what’s another way you could tell Troy what you’re thinking? Think back to how Max handled something like this.” We’ll assist her if she needs it, but a gentle reminder is usually enough.

Here are a few more teachable moments:
To the children with the wildly waving hand when someone is talking: “You know what, guys? I know you’re not meaning to be rude, but when your hand is up and someone else is talking, I’m thinking you’re probably focusing on what you’re going to say rather than listening to the person who is speaking. What do you think? Since we can learn so much from each other, remember to keep your hands down and really listen and think about what your friends are saying. When they’re finished, you can share what you’re thinking.”

To the children who abruptly get up in the middle of a story or discussion: “Oh my goodness, you’re going to leave us now? Think of the learning you’ll miss! Can you wait until the story [or discussion] is over? Thanks.”

To the children who always have something to say, no matter the topic or the day, and the ones who hardly have anything to say, ever: “Today I want you to think about yourselves as listeners and speakers. If you’re someone who’s great at talking a lot, I want you to be a listener today. See what you can learn. If you’re someone who is a great listener, I want you to do some talking today. We want to know what you are thinking, too. Raise your hand if you think you do a lot of listening. Raise your hand if you think you do a lot of talking. Wow! You really know yourselves. That’s so smart. Let’s try it.”

To those who have already heard every book in your library and can’t wait to let you know the minute you hold it up: “That’s so great you’ve heard this book before. And you know what? Since we know how much more we can learn and understand when we reread, I want you to pay special attention when you hear the story today. Think about what you notice this time that you didn’t notice before. Think about what puzzled you the first time, and what you think about that this time. Will you let us know?”

Doesn’t all this take a lot of time? You bet. But it sets the tone for learning and thoughtful conversation; it paves the way for the work that lies ahead. Once children realize you’re not going to relent, once they realize that this is not just a “sometime thing,” and once they understand what you want them to do and why it’s important, it becomes habit. It becomes part of the language of the classroom.

2 comments October 5th, 2010

Quick Tip Tuesday: The paper shuffle

Homework assignments, handouts, field trip requests — even in this age of technology, teachers still deal with a lot of paperwork. In this week’s Quick Tip, Rick Wormeli shares how he deals with the “paper shuffle” in his classroom from his book Day One and Beyond. Leave your ideas in the comment section – how do you deal with all of paperwork that comes with teaching?

Have a clearly marked place in the room for students to turn in their work. There are a number of options for creating places where students can turn in papers:
• a set of tubs or trays, one for each period, desk cluster, row, or subject
• a set of magnetized or wall-mounted file folder trays, one for each period, desk cluster, row, or subject
• one main basket, tub, or tray into which everything goes
• folders, one for every assignment or one for every period, desk cluster, row, or subject

The way you prefer to grade will affect how you ask students to submit their work. You may want to grade all 150 projects so your mind is focused on the same things as you grade; or you may want to grade all the papers for each period you teach or all the work for one student, grading many different assignments. Grading by period seems to be the most efficient method. Breaking the larger task into five or six smaller groupings such as class periods gives a sense of accomplishment, and your mind is not dulled by huge quantities of repeated information. Don’t forget to consider asking students to alphabetize a set of assignments for you. It will make record keeping easier.

Students will occasionally (and chronically, depending on the person) submit papers on which they’ve forgotten to record their names. Please don’t throw these in the trash can as a way to teach students a lesson in responsibility. It won’t work, and you’ll be creating larger problems—resentment and an irretrievable assignment. Young adolescents are not capable of remembering to write their names on their assignments 100 percent of the time. Even my most conscientious students over the years have made this mistake. It’s not reasonable to provide a harsh response to students when they forget. We can be developmentally appropriate and hold them accountable in other ways. First, if we recognize the writing, write the student’s name on it and return it to him. Let him record his name and resubmit the assignment. It was a simple mistake; we can afford to be forgiving.

If we don’t recognize the writing, place the unnamed assignment in a tub or tray labeled “No Name, No Credit.” Invite students to inspect the contents of the tub or tray once a week or when others have their papers returned but they don’t. If students find their work, have them put their names on the assignment and resubmit it for credit. If you wish, take some points off, but not so much that it would significantly change the indicator of mastery you put on it.

A great way to maintain sanity with the paper shuffle in middle schools is to ask students to maintain a student assignment notebook or something similar. It’ll help them complete, find, and submit papers on time, preventing frantic paper chases down the road. Though there are plenty of inexpensive versions for mass purchase, students can make their own assignment notebooks. Just make sure there is a page for each day of the school year, and on each page there is space for writing down assignments for each subject, as well as places to record additional reminders, a place for parents to sign, and a place for teachers to initial that the information is correct. It is particularly helpful, too, if there is a section somewhere in the notebook for recording phone numbers and e-mail addresses of classmates
who can be contacted for homework assignments when students are sick, as well as a grade sheet on which students can record grades as papers are returned and thereby keep a running tab on how they’re doing.

Make sure to have a final tub, basket, tray, or folder to store extra copies of handouts. Inevitably, students will lose original copies of what we’ve given them, or they’ll be absent and not receive the handout. An “extras” tray provides a place where they can go to get back up to speed without bothering you or their classmates.

A caution about technology: Many teachers are exploring electronically submitted assignments and portfolios. I’m one of them. It’s the way to go in the years ahead, but we aren’t there yet in terms of security, technology, and equal access to technology. Experiment with your students, if possible, but be wise and back up every electronic submission with a hard copy, just in case. Until we can guarantee that diskettes and CDs won’t be broken or lost, servers won’t be down, and everyone has equal access and expertise with the technology, we can’t require across-the-board use. Another benefit of hard copies: successful editing. It’s been proven repeatedly in editors’ offices and English classrooms across the nation that our minds catch mistakes on hard copy more often than on a computer screen where we’re dealing with the oscillating pixels of the electronic image. Have students proofread by reading the hard-copy version of their work aloud.

Have a designated student of the week return papers or, if privacy is a concern, return papers yourself while students are working on something else. Be efficient with time. Just a reminder: There is a direct correlation between how long papers take to be graded and returned to students and the extent of complexity and depth students apply to the assignment. If students know they’re going to get feedback quickly, they’ll put more of themselves into it. If they don’t get feedback for a couple of weeks, their motivation fades.

When it comes to your own administrative paperwork, deal with everything within twenty-four hours. If you get a request to complete a teacher narrative form for an upcoming IEP meeting, sit down and do it right away. Need to complete a form requesting buses for your field trip in four months? Get the forms and complete them right now while you’re caught up in the trip’s planning. You can put off your own paperwork only if you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. This means completing administrative paperwork even when you don’t want to do it, tired or not. Believe this repentant paperwork procrastinator: it’s worth doing it now. Don’t wait until the pile of uncompleted paperwork has hit critical mass; do it as it comes across your desk or into your teacher box. You’ll have a life if you do.

Add comment August 31st, 2010

Quick Tip Tuesday: Establishing classroom policies

In the second edition of Mentoring Beginning Teachers, authors Jean Boreen, Mary K. Johnson, Donna Niday, and Joe Potts provide mentors with a road map for helping new teachers become confident, reflective educators. In this week’s Quick Tip, they talk about how to establish simple, easy to follow classroom policies even before the beginning of the school year so that students know right away what is expected of them.

Classroom Management Strategies Should Be Developed Before the School Year Begins

Although we have already mentioned it, we want to reinforce the idea that proactive planning is critical to the success of less-experienced teachers. Lin Su, a second-year fourth-grade teacher, remembered last year’s management decisions vividly. She had decided not to give the “rule talk” to her fourth graders on the first day of class because she did not want to come across as the “heavy.” The students responded to Lin Su’s lack of direction by making every effort to determine how far she would let them go before reacting. By the end of the first week, Lin Su was contemplating early retirement even as the students embarked on a year of anarchy. She eventually restored order, but the process was lengthy and difficult. This year, she would do things differently.

If a teacher goes into the classroom and has to make management decisions on the spot, without the aid of a previously developed policy, problems are inevitable. A disruptive student who is reprimanded in front of classmates has an even greater incentive to contest teacher actions in order to “save face” if there is no management policy in place. Teachers who make their policies clear early in the semester have the flexibility to enforce or to modify those policies because the students already know the rules and what is expected of them.

Classroom Policies Should Be Simple to Explain and Easy to Enforce

Stan, a first-year teacher, has already decided that he will not be caught unprepared when management problems arise. Before the school year began, he spent hours developing policies for absences and tardiness, bathroom passes, late work, talking in class, respect for classroom furniture, respect for other students as well as the teacher, trips to the water fountain, and every other conceivable activity known to students. On the first day of class, he distributed a three-page management handout to every student and sent another copy home to parents. For each infraction, his management plan detailed the consequences for the first, second, and third occurrence. On his desk were individual infraction sheets that he intended to file by class period as well as the sheets he expected to use to keep track of how many points students lost for “one-day-late” work, “two-day-late” work, and so on.

Stan’s is an example of the too-complex management plan. Prior preparation is admirable, but he has created a system so complicated that all his energies are likely to go into an unsuccessful attempt to maintain it. Stan instituted this management plan hoping that it would make his teaching life easier and convince his students that he was serious.

However, the pressures of everyday school life and the inevitable exceptions that will arise will eventually make his professional life more difficult. In addition, he may inadvertently be leading his students and their parents to believe that he expects frequent misbehavior and that he lacks confidence in his own ability to work with them—and they may be right. Although a carefully thought-out management plan is essential, it is also essential that the plan be practical. Stan’s mentor should remind him that a system requiring extensive and detailed record keeping traps the teacher by its inflexibility and is prone to failure. Even if the teacher is capable of maintaining such a system, his or her time is better spent grading papers or homework, planning lessons, or conferring with students. (See Resources for Teachers for more information on specific, easy-to-use management plans.)

Among the topics usually found in the basic management plans of experienced teachers are tardies and attendance, late work, and expectations for appropriate behavior. Certain disciplines may require attention to other types of behavior; for example, a science teacher may wish to delineate specific rules for lab day, or the wood shop teacher for running certain types of equipment. Mentors should also remind beginning teachers that students’ age level will also determine the rationale for a management plan. Rules appropriate to high school students may be unrealistic for younger children. Obviously, a “one size” plan does not fit all grades, disciplines, or teacher personalities.

Management plans should also specify what the consequences are when students do not adhere to the rules. Experienced teachers know that rules are pointless if they are not backed up by reasonable consequences. Has the new teacher planned what she will do if Sue leaves class to go to the bathroom without obtaining a hall pass from the teacher’s desk? How will she handle Mark when he mysteriously appears at the class door thirty minutes after the bell has rung without a clear-cut explanation of where he has been? How will she respond when Betsy tries to turn in all her homework at the end of the grading quarter instead of when it was due? What will happen to Eugene’s class standing if he misses four days this week and three days next week and the absences are not excused? Although we prefer not to detail specific consequences here, it is critical that you encourage new teachers to decide well in advance how they will respond to situations of this nature.

Although management systems should emphasize consistency, they should also allow for some flexibility. While some parts of the management plan require a common approach from situation to situation, some issues may have to be handled on a case-by-case basis. Even teachers who rigorously adhere to a policy of tardiness would not penalize two tardy students who brought a pass from their chemistry teacher explaining that they had been cleaning up after a lab. You might encourage your beginning teacher to be lenient with a student who was not able to finish a homework assignment because she was involved in a minor collision the night before or a student who ran to the bathroom without asking because she thought she was going to be sick. When working with less-experienced teachers, it is important to encourage them to be flexible. Without a plan, however, they will lack credibility and exceptions will become the norm.

Add comment November 3rd, 2009

Questions & Authors: Synergy, Socratic Circles, and ‘dog slappers’

“How do I grade Socractic Circles?” This is a question Matt Copeland receives reguarly from classroom teachers. His response: “Well, maybe we don’t grade them.” In his new article in our Quesitons & Author series, Matt, the author of Socratic Circles: Fostering Critical and Creative Thinking in Middle and High School, talks about how he stirred his students away from participating in Socratic Circles just to get more points or better grades, and how he came across an unusual “grading” method.

Not long ago, I exchanged a few emails with a classroom teacher new to Socratic Circles. She was frustrated, both with the strategy and with her students for the lack of depth and quality in their classroom discussions. It’s a topic of conversation I’ve shared with many teachers over the years. And, in many cases, the frustration appears to stem from one concept. Grades.

So, inevitably, my email boiled down to a central question: How are you evaluating the quality of the students’ conversation? The response I received was well thought-out and very detailed in its approach: Students received a homework grade for completing the critical reading of the text before class and they also were rewarded points for the contributions they made to the conversation during class. Statements of agreement earned a point; summarizing what a previous student had said earned two points; posing a question or offering new ideas to the group earned three points; offering a particularly insightful idea or question could earn four or even more points. Bingo.

As gently as I could, I suggested that perhaps students were not engaging the conversation at the level she desired because, in their minds, Socratic Circles and their grades embodied a game: How many points can I rack up in my allotted time? I offered the idea that perhaps holding the conversation without any points attached might help to improve the quality of the discussion. That perhaps allowing the students’ ideas (rather than their grades) to be the central focus might encourage and empower them to engage more fully in the dialogue. It was worth a try.

Her reply came back quickly, “but if I don’t count up points, how do I grade this thing?”

My response was simple: maybe we don’t.

Part of our job responsibilities as classroom teachers is to monitor and document the growth and learning of our students. But, at times, within my own practice, I know I run amuck of the spirit of this responsibility and focus more upon the grades than I do the learning. All too often, in classrooms across this land, points and grades (and test scores) become the “bottom-line” thinking of the classroom.

But my goal in facilitating authentic, open classroom dialogue, I hope, aims a little higher. Through their conversation, I want to instill in my students a love of learning. A love of the collaborative discovery of meaning. A love of one of the bedrocks of our democratic society. I want to see them applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating information. I know their voices contain meaning; I know their voices contain truth. I want them to know it—and feel it—too.

To evaluate true dialogue and true learning in a classroom, we need a better measure than points or grades. We need something that, when added to the conversation, helps to synergize, not something that helps to fragment. If we seek to create that sense of synergy when students are using their whole minds, their whole range of experiences, their whole beings and intuitions, to discuss and construct meaning—to transcend our common core expectations—we need a measure more meaningful. Something more immediate. Something more hilarious.

When I was growing up, my dad always referred to those moments when someone flinched or was suddenly, physically startled as “a dog slapper.” He was notorious for leaping around corners, jumping out from behind bushes, etc. all in hopes of scaring someone half to death just so he could slap his own knee, loudly chuckle to himself, “Oh, that was a good dog slapper!” and then offer his own impression of a yelping dog suddenly awoken from a deep slumber. He’d crouch over on all fours, then spring back up and turn a few full-circles as though he was trying desperately to escape something behind him that we could not see. Barking and yelping the whole time, as though he was a hellhound possessed. And then, after a brief reprieve of silence, he’d almost die laughing. We were never quite sure at what, exactly, he was laughing—the situation, or us, or himself. But, boy, he sure enjoyed it.

My father’s “dog slappers” became one of those quirks of family lore that embarrassed the rest of us immensely (which probably only led to him doing it even more often), but it was also one of those things we came to miss when he was gone. Little did I know at the time, but “dog slappers”—evidently—are also hereditary.

A few years ago, in the middle of one of those synergistic Socratic Circles in my classroom, we experienced one of those eerie yet blissful silences that only occurs when the thoughts being shared have blown away the expectations of everyone in the room. I sat there, watching, numb with glee. My students sat there too, all leaning forward, eyes focused, minds concentrating on the depth and insight being collaboratively created.

And in that pregnant moment of silence, when the cognitive gears of students were kicking into realms we didn’t know existed and everyone in the room contemplated her next contribution, the silence of engaged concentration was shattered as the bell rang to announce the end of period. And, just at the moment that bell shrieked against the concrete wall, I swear half of the students’ rear ends must have lifted two or three inches off the floor. And without so much as an ounce of forethought, I slapped my knee, shouted… (you guessed it)… “Oh, that was a good dog slapper!” and launched into my own impersonation of a yelping dog—yelp, yelp, yelp, yelp—right there in front of an audience of 28 petrified 14-year-olds.

Despite all the commotion between classes in the hallway outside my room, despite all the good conversation and meaning we had created, despite the hungry stomachs that so often dictate learning at the end of the class period just before lunch, my students sat there—motionless, deathly silent, staring at me incredulously. I think some were taken aback by the startle they received from the bell. Others might have been aghast at the perceived suggestion of animal cruelty. Others yet were more deeply disturbed—first—by the yelping and—then—by the school-girl-like giggling coming from their middle-aged, male teacher.

And then, one by one, with these deep, sheepish grins, they each gathered their things and headed off to lunch without muttering so much as a single word to me.

Of course, when fourth hour came to class the next day, it was quite obvious that absolutely no work was going to take place and that the entire world could grind to a halt unless I stopped and explained what exactly a “dog slapper” was and the story behind it.

So, I did what all good storytellers and teachers do. I decided to roll with it. Completely embarrassed, I told the entire story—with, of course, my own impersonation of my dad doing his impression of a caught-off-guard hound. Yelp, yelp, yelp, yelp.

We all had a great laugh. Somewhere my father smiled. And it was one of my students who then asked, “But isn’t a ‘dog slapper’ at the end of a Socratic Circle a good thing? Doesn’t it mean we were all so focused and doing such a good job of listening and thinking and paying attention and collaborating that we weren’t even thinking about school or bells or anything else?”

And I answered absolutely.

To which another of my students—as only teenagers will do and because grades too often seem to mean everything—asked, “Does that mean we can get extra credit for every Socratic Circle that ends with a dog slapper?”

It never went that far, but the students decided to keep an on-going record of how many of them would flinch at interruptions (bells, intercom announcements, visitors, etc.) during our Socratic Circles. So they wrote “DSC” (dog slapper counter) in the corner of the chalkboard and would add tally marks for each student who so flinched during a discussion.

Of course, it took all of about a day before the other classes wanted to know what in the world DSC meant, and I had to launch into the story—and impersonation—for them as well. Yelp, yelp, yelp, yelp.

And from there, a new game was afoot: which class could rack up the most “dog slappers” in a given semester? Although certainly flawed in its own way, DSC became our default measure of those synergistic moments when we knew that both the dialogue and our learning were transcending all expectation. But, thankfully, our tallies never translated to points in the gradebook. Our cart never lurched before the horse.

While I never award points for our dialogue, I understand the motivations of those who do. Each of us must operate our classrooms in a way comfortable, familiar, and effective. In my practice, I certainly award students points for the critical reading of the text they do in preparation for our Socratic Circles and also in the follow-up writing assignments that occur after our discussion. And, as a way to build and reinforce foundational skills, perhaps there is purpose and meaningfulness in assigning points to dialogue for students struggling with creating quality conversation among their peers and/or in struggling to participate at even a minimalist’s level. But, in my mind, those points are only temporary scaffolding that should be removed at the earliest opportunity. In my mind, grades are just a sometimes-unfortunate necessity in the business of education.

Collectively, if we are doing our jobs during the dialogue and striving to reach those higher gears of cognitive synergy, I shouldn’t need to assign points for the conversation itself. The quality of our dialogue will be reflected in that follow-up writing assignment. In this way, our Socratic Circles become a type of collaborative brainstorming session, a transformational strategy (for students and for teachers) that rises above grades and the “bottom line” and embodies all that which education and learning should be. In an authentic literacy classroom—in any classroom—that synergy is important.

And so now, to this day, every time I present Socratic Circles and am asked, “How do you give grades for this thing?” you might see an ornery smirk on my face because part of me is just dying to answer, “That’s easy, you just count up the dog slappers!” But I know that nothing in life—or in the classroom—is ever that easy.

2 comments September 3rd, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Framework for a successful mini-lesson

In the final chapter of their book, Teaching for Deep Comprehension, Linda Dorn and Carla Soffos focus on mini-lessons. They discuss the drawbacks of standardized, scripted lessons some schools use and some professional development materials provide. Instead, Linda and Carla provide a framework for a successful mini-lesson in this chapter, leaving it up to teachers to provide their own language to engage their students.

The Framework of a Mini-Lesson

The success of a mini-lesson is grounded in the teacher’s knowledge of the reading process as it relates to the students’ ability to apply strategic behaviors for comprehending the author’s message. The purpose of a mini-lesson is to enable students to accomplish a particular goal with assistance from the teacher. The teacher closely observes the group, makes mental notes of students who need extra help, and plans for ways to scaffold these students in small groups or individual conferences

The first step in conducting a reading workshop is to introduce a mini-lesson. The teacher uses books from the classroom library to demonstrate how authors craft their texts to support the reader’s comprehension. Prior to any mini-lesson, the students should have heard the book during read-aloud time; this previous experience with the book will give them a meaningful context for studying the strategy that will be introduced. Teachers should use a variety of texts in mini-lessons so that students can learn how to apply strategies for different types of texts. The teacher gathers all the students in a group and presents a brief and explicit teaching demonstration, usually making use of good literature, literature, which provides the basis for thinking out loud and demonstrating the strategy being taught. Typically, mini-lessons are approximately fifteen minutes long; longer mini-lessons run the risk of degenerating into a focus on items instead of a strategic process for problem solving. A mini-lesson should leave memorable traces in the minds of the students, enabling them to recall the important points of the lesson with ease. The mini-lesson follows a pattern within the workshop format. The workshop begins in a small group with the mini-lesson, proceeds to independent practice, and ends with a time for sharing.

This framework is compatible with a gradual release model, which begins with a high degree of teacher support and ends with a high degree of student independence.

Step 1: Review anchor chart of comprehension strategies.
The workshop mini-lesson begins with a review of comprehension strategies from the anchor chart. As comprehension strategies are introduced and discussed, they are added to the anchor chart. This part of the workshop generally takes two or three minutes.

Step 2: Model the process.
The second step of the mini-lesson is to model the comprehension strategy being introduced. To do this, the teacher uses a think-aloud process with a mentor book—an appropriate text, generally from a previous read-aloud, that will help students notice and apply a particular comprehending behavior. The teacher preselects a particular segment from the mentor text to use as the think-aloud model, then reads the text aloud in class, stopping at three or four strategic points to describe his or her thought processes. At appropriate places, the teacher might solicit brief comments from the class, maintaining the focus on the strategy at all times. This step generally lasts eight to ten minutes.

Step 3: Provide guided practice.
The third step is to have the students apply the strategy with teacher guidance. Without guided practice, students might find the model useless; in any case, it would be quickly forgotten. Guided practice is the step that makes the model meaningful and enables students to see the connection to
their own learning. This step generally takes about ten minutes.

Step 4: Provide independent practice.
Next, the class moves beyond the mini-lesson to independent practice. Students must have opportunities to transfer their knowledge to different problem solving situations; otherwise, they become dependent on a specific context for activating a strategy. Although guided practice and independent practice are complementary processes, they involve different degrees of processing power. During guided practice, students apply a specific strategy with the goal of testing it in context; during independent practice, students must apply the single strategy in concert with other strategies, thus promoting deeper comprehension.

Step 5: Sharing.
The fifth step, sharing, occurs at the end of the reading workshop. Allowing a time for sharing serves two purposes: (1) it gives students a chance to share their comprehending processes with the class, and (2) it allows the teacher to assess the students’ learning. This part of the reading workshop generally lasts about ten minutes.

2 comments March 3rd, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Creating “familia” in your classroom

In Robin Turner’s high school English class in Anaheim, California, students are more than just classmates, they are family, or familia. Robin works hard throughout the year to create this sense of family in his class, with a common mission: to help students get into a four-year university and succeed once they get there. “This concept of familia permeates every activity of the class,” Robin writes in his book, Greater Expectations. In this week’s tip, Robin explains why familia is so important in his class and suggests ten quick ways to help foster the concept.

The need to belong is so strong in this digitized generation that to facilitate a sense of community, or familia, can be a powerful motivating force for adolescents. In my class I try to never lose sight of the students who otherwise would get lost and be forgotten in the classroom – too often, such student is the underrepresented student – and instead, I actively work to draw those students into the mainstream of the class. Learning and using my students’ names within the first two days, creating a seating arrangement that leaves no one stranded in a corner, getting kids to interact on a near-daily basis, and conveying messages purposefully with the displays on my classroom walls – these are some of the techniques I use to accomplish familia in the classroom. Here are ten quick ways to help foster the concept of familia:

1. Take pictures of your students at prom, sporting events, assemblies, in class, and other places and post them in your classroom.
2. Try to find something to talk about with each student – their job, sports, clubs, hobbies, or music. A quick moment or two of conversation about something personal can make a lasting impact on a student.
3. Display student work on your wall.
4. Teach students how to have a classroom discussion. Have them use each other’s names in conversation. Make sure your students know each other’s names.
5. Bring back past students for quick talks of how your class has benefited them. Let your students see that they are part of a community of students who have gone on to be successful.
6. Set up writing groups as soon as possible. Have your students react to student work as quickly as possible. In an English class, it isn’t enough to be a community; we need to be a community of readers and writers with plans for future academic success.
7. Let students see that you are part of their community. Laugh at their jokes, show them your own struggles with writing, and listen to their criticism of your own writing.
8. Listen to students’ music during writing time after previewing the lyrics.
9. Make time outside the classroom to foster community. This past year, I have used my lunch break to play cards, video games, and Pictionary with my students, and have spent after-school time to eat hamburgers and attend plays, bonfires, and movies with groups of students.
10. When conferring with a student about a paper, suggest another student to look at it as well. A community of writers is the goal here.

The most important thing I have learned is to be interested in my students. I have found that if I start with that, everything else falls into place.

Later in his book, Robin talks about writing assignments that further foster the concept of familia.

Add comment January 13th, 2009

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