Linda’s Literacy Log

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Welcome to my literacy log.  This is where I attach links to great literacy sites that I’ve found and also include some of my own thoughts (and rants!) on literacy topics.

What does student work time look like in the classroom?

Recently, I’ve spent time in classrooms where this question has popped up.  There is such a difference between compliancy and engagement.  I sometimes go into classrooms where the teacher is sitting at the computer and all the kids are quiet, seemingly working on reading from a text(book) or writing something.  When I look more closely, what I REALLY see is students being compliant.  They ARE quiet.  They have their book and writing materials in front of them.  However, they are not engaged.  They are surreptitiously texting, listening to music via their ear buds, or dozing.  There is one factor that changes this compliancy into engagement, and it’s an easy fix.  All it takes is for the teacher to be more engaged!  When the teacher actively wanders the room, stops to confer with students, asks questions, and even calls the class back together to respond to common confusions, this whole scenario shifts.  Now that the teacher demonstrates that he/she values the thinking and learning of the students by engaging with them, students actually spend time doing what they need to be doing.

The take away:  As teachers, we need to show students that we value their efforts in learning, that we’re part of a learning community, and that we support them in their tasks.  All it takes is getting out from behind the desk or computer and actually talking to our students!  An easy fix!!!

Resources on conferring during work time:

What’s the Difference Between Assigning and Modeling?

A million years ago, when I was in junior high school, this is what writing instruction looked like.  My English teacher, Mr. F., would have an essay assignment written on the board when we walked in the room.  He would explain the topic, and then we were expected to write the essay on our own at home.  The final copy was to be turned in, in ink, written on every other line to leave room for comments.  When the essay was returned, we would have two grades on it, actually looking like a fraction:  A/C.  The top letter was for ideas and content, the bottom grade for mechanics.  There would also be written comments, comments which we were expected to read and apply to our next essay.  That was it.  I guess the idea was that we would learn from simply writing and reading the feedback that we were given.

I’m pleased that writing instruction has moved forward since then.  We now focus on “modeling” rather than “assigning.”  When I work with teachers, though, I still hear questions about modeling.

Modeling is really a combination of SHOWING students what it looks like to complete a task  and THINKING ALOUD to show them what goes on in our minds, what we’re thinking, while we’re writing.  This makes the act of writing, or any other learning task, visible and much more doable for students.  Instead of them having to play a guessing game as to what the teacher expects, they actually have the opportunity to hear and see what it looks like.

Modeling has always been more common in some subjects than others.  For instance, I never was expected to complete a science lab until after the teacher had modeled the process.  The same goes for solving math problems.  And when I took choir, the director played our parts and sang along so we could hear what it sounded like.  In German class, Frau M. always modeled what words/dialogue sounded like, so I had heard it before I had to say it myself.  It seems that the two major areas where modeling did not exist were in English and social studies classes.  In English, we were given assignments–write this essay, read this story and then take a quiz.  In social studies, it was read the chapter and answer the questions.

How much more sense it makes to have someone show me HOW to read that social studies chapter.  What should I be paying attention to?  What are the overall questions that should guide my reading?  What’s the purpose?  When that social studies teacher models how to make meaning of the chapter text, I’m much more likely to actually comprehend it and come away with some thoughts about it.

Resources for Modeling:

Vocabulary Instruction

Lots and lots of research is out there on vocabulary instruction.  And NONE OF IT recommends having students look up definitions in the dictionary or the glossary and copy the definitions into their notebooks.  That is not learning; rather, it’s transcription.  I can complete such exercises in any language imaginable, and it does not mean that I will understand and be able to use the words.  So why do I still hear/see teachers doing this? Haven’t we gone beyond teaching the way we were taught?

There are lots of good resources out there for vocabulary.  If you want to read what the experts have to say, check out Isabel Beck, Marzano & Pickering, or Janet Allen. Personally, I try and always keep Isabel Beck’s information in my head while I follow Marzano & Pickering’s Six Step approach.  And Janet Allen’s many ideas for activities fit into that Six Step approach.

Rather than go on and on about it here, I’m attaching a link to a Padlet I’ve created on vocabulary.  You can find activities, research, and lots of ideas there.

Independent Reading

If we want students to become readers, they must have opportunities to actually read!  And this doesn’t mean assigned articles and textbook reading.  They need opportunities to read books of choice, books that they select and find interesting.  Too often, schools frown at using “instructional time” for reading.  They spend lots of time teaching reading strategies, but if students never have the opportunity to apply these strategies to their own reading, research shows that they won’t “stick.”  Teachers sometimes lament that they’ve tried independent reading in their own classes and that it simply doesn’t work.  Kids waste time.  Sure, if it isn’t structured right, that will happen.  But in my 30+ plus years of teaching middle and high school, I NEVER found a class where it couldn’t work…IF I did the work of structuring it, establishing expectations, and modeling and monitoring what it should look like.  And the reward?  Having senior boys tell me that this was the first time they’d read a book in high school.  Having those same boys ask me if I had any more books like the one they’d just finished.  Seeing students carry books home so they could continue reading the good part.

So what are the essential elements for successful independent reading?

  • Structured time on a regular basis:  I began my class with independent reading several times a week.
  • Accountability:  I took pages at the beginning and end of the time.  I applauded students for reading at home, for improved rates.
  • Book Talks:  I talked up books and had them in bins and across the chalk trays in my room.  You don’t have to read the entire book to be able to talk it up.  I also included who the book might appeal to.
  • Modeling:  When students read, I read.  In a yearlong research study at a middle school, I concluded the following:
    • If a teacher reads and expects students to read, they read.
    • If a teacher expects students to be quiet during reading time, but he/she spends the time on the computer or grading papers, the students are quiet, but they don’t really read.
    • If the teachers talks to students about their books, interest goes up.
    • The TEACHER is the deciding factor in the success of independent reading.
  • Conferring: When I talk to students about what they’re reading (during IRT) and ask some thought provoking questions, their reading improves.
  • Access to books: It’s pretty hard to have student read if there is no access to books.  A classroom library is best.  If that doesn’t exist, then a cooperative media specialist and access to the library is essential.

Resources for Independent Reading:

On a related topic, much is said about whole class novels, and their place in supporting reading.  For a new blog from Kylene Beers on this topic, go to the link below:

This article from a Kansas high school discusses how they are getting students ready for college.  Worth Reading:

Using Questions to Push Thinking

I recently had the honor of spending a morning in an amazing classroom.  This urban, low-socio economic, very diverse school has demonstrated impressive growth during the past few years, and after spending the morning in the classroom, it’s easy to understand why.

The class I observed was an AP Geography class.  They were just beginning their study of agriculture.  Instead of the traditional model where the teacher uses a PowerPoint to share information and explain it, this class was designed with the focus of students driving their own learning.  Students were given a sheet with agricultural data.  They were then asked to create questions as they analyzed the data.  After this, they then created inferences. Sounds simple, but it was actually like watching a smoothly oiled machine.

The teacher used the elements of the Workshop Model (focus lesson, work time, catches, debrief) for this lesson. She began by asking students to write about how questioning pushes our thinking to understand unfamiliar situations.  They then shared out at their tables, and ultimately with the whole class. While students worked, both independently and in groups, the teacher monitored actively, asked probing questions to continually prod their thinking.  Activities moved seamlessly from individual to partners to table groups to whole class.  Several times during the 1 1/2 hour block class, the teacher pulled the class back together in a “catch” to either share information or guide them toward the next activity.

One of the most impressive routines in this class was that for asking questions.  On an anchor chart at the front of the classroom was a set of steps for questioning:

  1. Ask your neighbor
  2. Ask your table group
  3. Ask the whole class
  4. Ask the teacher

When students had a question that they were struggling with, they proceeded through steps 1 & 2, and then let the teacher know they had a “class question.”  The teacher merely said “class question,” and all groups simultaneously stopped their conversations to listen politely to the “class question.”  After each question was shared, several hands went up as other students shared their thoughts on the question.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a thoughtful, organized routine for answering questions, especially one that honored both students’ questions and their classmates’ ability to think about and respond to these questions.

During the “catches,” the teacher modeled for the students what they were expected to do during the next activity.  This modeling, an important component of the Workshop Model, enabled students to see what their work should look like.  For instance, the teacher modeled how to create a mind map before students began creating their own in small groups.  At other times, the teacher used the catches to focus on process.  For instance, at one point, she asked “What is the difference between group work and collaboration?” Students responded to her question, and then she shared that she was seeing some “great collaboration,” thus providing immediate feedback to support student work.

At the end of the class, students completed exit slips by answering two questions:

  1. Did we meet our goals today?  Explain why or why not.
  2. What question pushed your thinking today and why?

So what was so impressive about this class?  First, it was a model Workshop, with students doing the thinking, the talking, the work.  The teacher had obviously spent a great deal of time planning ahead so that she knew what she wanted to model and when, how she wanted to structure the time, how to split the work and activities up in order to enable students to successfully struggle with the learning, and how she would hold them accountable and make sure that all voices were heard.  The focus lesson included an introduction, connections to prior learning, clear learning targets, and modeling. And even at this point, students were able to share with their partners and think about what they would be doing. The entire lesson was a balance of work time, pairs, small groups, quiet work, with accountability ALWAYS being there.  Throughout the entire block period, students remained engaged, something one does not always see in a typical high school classroom.

A classroom organized in this manner levels the playing field for struggling students. ALL students are capable of thinking, and with the appropriate structure of the lesson, teacher modeling, and planned catches to divide the work up, it is valuable learning time for everyone.

In the following log entries, you’ll see other resources and ideas for your classroom.  Enjoy!  Please leave comments!

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