Students Need To Choose What They Read.

I  remember falling in love with my first book.  My mom used to take me to the library Image result for tamora pierce alannaonce a week so she could study.  I  would hang in the kids section browsing books, generally bored. I  had the choice of any book in a large children’s section and I  made a lot of choices. One day I  found a book I  loved. It was Alanna by Tamora Pierce. I loved it because of the setting (specifically the time period-medieval times), the magic and the female empowerment. So I  read more by this author because many of her books have these elements.  Then I  searched out similarly written books- books of the same genre or with similar settings. I  was off to the races. I  was no longer in love with one book- I  was in love with reading.  I  wonder who I  would be today if I  hadn’t had the choice to explore whatever books I  liked until I  fell in love?  I  think all of our students deserve this opportunity.

Why is it important to give students choice in their reading?

Because giving them choice provides a better opportunity for engagement with the text. They have to choose to engage.  Take my own life as for example.  I  am a self-professed bibliophile. I  love books.  I  collect them, surround myself by them, immerse myself in them. I also put a lot of them down- without reading them. If I  can’t get into the book, It’s not worth my time to read. That doesn’t mean I’ll never read it; it means I  won’t read it right now.  When I  pick it up another time I  might dive right in.  I  need   to be open to whatever the author is giving me in order to fall into the book.  So do students.  They become open through background knowledge, a sales pitch from the teacher- better yet another student, or the challenge of an intriguing assignment that gives them a sense of agency and accomplishment.  Nobody is open to receive what an author has to give just because some disconnected body chose to put it in an anthology, or because somebody outside of the classroom decided it had to be read. In these situations the teacher better have a great elevator pitch, an intriguing assignment, or some way to make the mundane seem fun, because if the kids don’t check into the reading they are going to check out of the lesson and possible school itself.  When students are allowed to pick their own reading, they are more likely to engage and by engaging have a better chance of falling in love with reading.  And if they aren’t yet ready to fall in love- they can at least choose which books to date until they do.

What if students aren’t yet ready to choose?  

Then the teacher needs to- for the purposes direct instruction. But how? By knowing the students’ interest, the grade level content, by sharing a beloved piece of text, and most importantly by finding texts that will capture the students’ attention and modeling how to interact with them. The teacher than has a multitude of choices, from open source, adopted materials, library shelves, blogs and  online articles, or a clip from this morning’s newspaper. We should not be limited to the abridged versions curriculum publishers have been able to get their hands on.  After modeling carefully selected texts teachers need to allow students the time and space to explore texts not only to practice what they are learning but so they can make their own choices. Students should not be limited (not in 2017) we aren’t in one-room schoolhouses anymore with a short supply of reading material.  We are in the 21st century it’s no longer about access to reading material but how to select what’s worth our time reading. It is our job as teachers to help them learn how to do this.  Help them to notice why.  Why did they choose that book? Why is not a good fit at this time? What could be a good fit at this time? What obstacle is in the way and what can we do to break through that obstacle?  And when they find something they love- why do they love it?

When teachers know their students by taking an interest in them and their likes and dislikes than students begin to trust the teachers. A recommendation from a trusted teacher means something.  When a teacher allows students to follow their interests the students learn to follow their interests. And isn’t that what we want? Students following their interests?  I  understand many of us have to contend with pacing guides and you may consider me to be a bit up in the clouds of dreamland thinking it can be otherwise.  I  maintain that both can happen.  I  argue that teachers can, engage students, cover the grade level standards, be guided by (very different from chained to) the pacing guide and still offer choice, still let students follow their interest and help students fall in love with reading.  We need to give students the choice.

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What’s wrong with education today. .

Do you know what’s wrong with education today?  Yeah that too, but I’m referring to testing.  To be clear I do not mean assessing whether or not something that you have taught and the students have sufficiently practiced has been mastered or not.  I mean publisher tests.  The ones that go with the curriculum we are forced to teach with written by people who have obviously bitten off more than they can chew.  To add to the mediocrity of prewritten/scripted curriculum is the added pressure of a data driven bureaucracy.  You see once the scores are in the judgment begins.  Not necessarily administrative judgment, but peer judgement and self judgement. We all know who we work with. We listen to each other’s struggles over lunch on a daily basis. So how did so and so’s class score so much better than my class?  Why did so many of my students not master the material? I know I am a good teacher, so what happened? I’ll tell you what happened.  So and so taught specifically to the test. Asking questions with the same format, the same wording, the same necessary skills in the same order.  Not the specific test question, but a mirror image if you will. So and so’s students were well trained to pass the test.  Whereas in my room, I am teaching to the standards.  Pacing guides limit how much time I can stay on a topic, not allowing for actual mastery.  But I certainly expose my students to all the math they need to know.  They don’t succeed on these tests because they have not had time to master the material, They know enough to save themselves from failure, but not enough to ace the test.  How could they? They didn’t have a chance to marinate in the material and fully understand the concepts before they were assessed.  But we have to use theses scores as grades, we have to test at certain times.  It seems the data is more important than the achievement of our students.  The data is more important than taking time to teach social skills and problem solving skills. The data is so important we are sacrificing our children to make sure we have numbers to compare at any given time.  A snapshot of how ineffective teachers are. Screw the tests! If I was simply allowed to teach at the pace of my students’ learning I might be able to help produce productive members of society on a larger scale.  And better yet society at large might be better off if we could simply get rid of these tests, or at least the pacing guide that forces when to give the test. What’s wrong with education today is not really the test, it’s the powerlessness of teachers to do what they know to be the best for their students.

Why I am excited about the Common Core.

It is an exciting time!

I am welcoming the change coming down the line with Common Core and here’s why.

1. The script is changing!

I am no longer chained to the teacher manual. I get to deviate from the plan. I get to create! I come from a district where everyone must teach the same page at the same time in the same way.  it is such a relief to see the beginning of the end of the robotic lock step I have had to teach in for the last 10 years.

2. It makes sense!

The flow of ideas from one grade to the next, especially in the math standards, make so much more sense than trying to cover everything every year with no mastery. Mastery is now a possibility. That makes sense.  As does the focus on learning from content based text.  Being able to decipher facts and bias are key skills in this day and age of pulling the wool over our eyes and spinning things to be what they really aren’t.

3. It’s Deeper!

I look at the breadth, depth and speed of what we have to get taught in a single school year and I get the image of a large very shallow lake or puddle, spread out in many directions. There is no time to really cover the entire thing and there is not enough to really go deep. If you are thirsting for knowledge, there is not enough to drink only drips and dribbles. With the Common Core it is more streamlined. More focused, deeper,  more a stream.  One you can dive into and get a good drink of.  I will be able to get students to think deeper. And more exciting,  students will be able to articulate their ideas and what caused them in the first place.

I’m looking forward to it. Now how will get assessed? That may evoke an entirely different emotion.

What’s working

Last week was my first week trying to purposely incorporate Formative Assessment into m teaching. Here’s what’s working.

1. Collaboration- My students love that I am having them talk to each other often.  They appreciated the opportunity to share and I assume to feel their opinion is valued.  As I walked around to monitor the vast majority were talking about what I asked them to and contributing to the group.

2. Discipline- The students were so involved in the activities presented to them this week and the discussion that I had fewer behavioral issued to deal with this week.  Let’s hope this is a continuing trend.

3. Thinking- Though sometimes a struggle the students are beginning to explain their thinking.  They back up their ideas with examples from the text.  The times when student had difficulties with this I could directly link a part of the lesson that wasn’t designed clear enough to provide a proper expectation for them to meet.

4. Clearer planning- Spending extra time on planning definitely paid off.  The clearer the expectation the better the results.

 

I had an unexpected family event take me from the classroom Friday. I planned a summative assessment in Comprehension to see if my detail lesson plans resulted in positive test scores.  When I know I’ll let you know.  But for now Formative Assessment techniques and careful planning have definitely paid off for me and my students in one week of experimentation.  Now for the next week.

 

First try with the students

Well planned and ready to teach, in fact eager to teach, I had a challenging day today.  On my mission to teach kids to think I discovered how much kids don’t really know how to think.  2 sections of my day were dedicated to practicing new teaching techniques incorporating Formative Assessment and deeper questioning to prepare my students for the upcoming Common Core, and of course to become better thinkers.  Both lessons today were Comprehension lessons.  To give a little background I teach fourth grade and I have 35 students in a Title 1 school district.

Lesson 1.

Target: I can visualize and summarize what I read in order to explain the headings the author used and give examples form the text that support the heading.

We read and I asked my well thought out questions.  My advanced and proficient students caught on very quickly and were giving me page numbers and citations from the page to connecting the heading to the text.  The lesson went fairly well.

3 good things that happened.

1. We finished reading all intended information for the day ( often we fall behind by discussing everything instead of focusing in on one specific task)

2.Students were able to give page numbers and sentences from the text that support the heading.

3. Students are excited to learn about the subject matter. ( probably because I showed a video first to get them interested.)

3 areas that can be improved.

1. Less active students are still not very active.

2. I neglected to have students explain the headings, they gave support but didn’t think further than that

3. The students struggled to follow directions and had to be encouraged to look at the page or sentence being offered by another student as evidence.  In other words they didn’t appear interested in what their classmates were sharing.  They were interested in me but not each other.  How do I build the collaborative environment???

I ended this lesson with the ticket out the door strategy asking students to make a connection to the video I showed to introduce the story and the parts of the story we read today.  This turned out to be more difficult of a task for them then I had thought. Many simply wrote something they had learned not actually making a connection to the video.  Of 31 students 4 used the words ‘connect to’ .  We are going to have to work on this.

Lesson 2.

Cold read comprehension.  We have been doing this kind of activity all year.  This is the lesson in which I had planned out an entire trajectory of learning targets for the week each building on the last with the main objective to understand a piece of writing and be able to tell the main idea and organization of the piece. Although familiar this is still challenging for them.  The goals were to identify key words in a paragraph,  see how paragraphs relate to each other, find the author’s purpose including the main idea and text structure.  Today I modeled finding the key concepts in a paragraph then asking students to work in groups of 3 to find the key concepts in a different piece of writing.  This strategy is one I have been teaching for a while.  It didn’t work very well.

3 things that went well

1. most of the students worked well in their groups contributing and listening

2.I observed students actually reading and rereading the text to find key concepts.

3. . . . I can’t think of a third 😦

3 things we need to work on

1. Students were asked to write 2-3 key words but I was getting sentences

2. many groups completely missed the point of the paragraphs and were struggling to find key words

3. Only 1 group successfully duplicated what I had modeled

To culminate this activity I asked the groups to write one thing that was hard for them and one thing that was easy for them.  I got responses like “the beginning was easy and the end was hard” and “finding words was easy and the hard part was finding words” and “the hard part was finding words it was easy using context clues”  This tells me that they really didn’t get what they were doing. Their meta-cognition is lacking. Tomorrow we are going to try the “Keep it/Junk it” strategy.  I wrote out all the keywords the students found in their groups.  Tomorrow they will decide if they should keep each individual word or junk it while providing reasons for their decisions. We’ll see how that goes.

Not a great start, but a start.

First hurdle knocked down!

Freed! Getting started already taught me several lessons. I didn’t jump the hurdle I knocked it down. This is the process of trial and error. I have erred. My errors were biting off too much to chew and not having a clear plan of attack. I now have a new goal (and a clear plan of attack) .

Jumping into the middle of a curriculum unit and trying to find the goal and teach to the goal is not helpful in trying to identify a specific learning intention, or target, for your students. It effectively truncates the trajectory you are trying to map out for your students.  Mapping this trajectory is a huge task to undertake and is definitely not the goal of a weekly lesson plan. The better way to approach this, I think, is to start with the Standard as your main goal and map out the skills it will take to reach that goal adding the sub-goals to your main goal as you go along, backward mapping. In other words, scaffolding the learning to hit the bigger target. Doing this allows you to break that big goal into lesson sized chunks thereby providing your day-to-day lesson goals. This doesn’t happen in the middle of a unit. And it doesn’t happen with the weekly assessment as the goal which is what tried to do at first. It is a long-term plan. Not a short-term plan. I bit off too much at once. Not only that, I tried to bite the apple core bypassing the peel all together. No wonder it was so hard!

I needed clearer plan of attack so I could get started now not later. And I found one. I sat in on a staff meeting yesterday introducing us to the concept of “Close Reading” an element of the Common core. It miraculously provided me with a clearer plan. Creating my long-term goals, as I mentioned earlier, needs to happen and will happen, but at the beginning of a unit not in the middle. I am not beginning a unit so that is not my current plan of attack. Instead I need a short-term goal so I can get my feet wet, try a few things, and see what works. I have already decided to focus on comprhension. So I have created a smaller trajectory with the goal of simply understanding a reading passage.  I have a  a clear plan of attack

This is my new goal, clearly understand a reading passage.  I have a plan with bite sized lesson goals all aiming to help a student understand a reading passage. Smaller trajectory, smaller goals, clearer focus, still Formative Assessment. Pressure for CST testing is coming. This goal will help students be more successful on CST tests, become better readers, become better thinkers, and allow me to experiment with the Formative Assessment techniques that I have learned. These images show my idea of the trajectory and how it breaks down. This is the plan I will use for the next couple of weeks. I will keep you posted.

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Still attempting hurdle #1

ARGH!!  I am trying to finish my plans for next week.  And I have planning block.  Ironically my planning block is bringing about some Aha! moments for me.  I’m having trouble finishing because of the learning target part of Formative Assessment.  To clarify, this is where you clearly relate the learning intention to your students.   They should know exactly what they are learning and how they are learning it.  It is not just “This is what you are learning today”  it is not just the standard or even the objective of a lesson.  It is a goal for the students to aim for- a target.   I should be able to state what they should be learning TODAY in relation to the LONG TERM goal for the unit.  Marrying this with a scripted curriculum is a huge challenge for me because the curriculum  is written in a spiral,  little bits rotating with other bits that repeat here and there.  I’m still digging through this mess and will update as I go.

My Aha! moment is realizing why so many teachers may be  ineffective excellent teachers. It is because they are trying to do it all in every lesson.  This process is meant not only to focus the students on what and how they are learning (making them better thinkers) but also to focus the teacher.  To keep the teacher focusing on the same goal while teaching.  Not diverting.  Not teaching a little bit here and a little bit there hoping somehow the student will put it all together and be smart- like the curriculum says to.  So the AHA! is that to be an effective teacher I need to be just as focused as my learning target.  Well planned and deliberate.  Small goals that lead to bigger goals. This takes some serious thought.  Serious time.  Planning is becoming a marathon when it used to be a sprint.  I have to straighten out this spiral and make this curriculum more intentional. My lessons used to be loosely planned.  These pages on these days following prompts in manual to teach these  skills or this strategy, easily diverted as I went along.  Now I’m building a pathway to follow rather than meandering along. But the path is unclear thus my frustration.

I must get back to work now.