Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Reading in the Content Areas--something "extra" or a priority?

In a recent conversation with a content area teacher, she informed me that her plate was very full, and when it came to reading, she just didn't have time for anything "extra."

Extra.

Extra?

Luckily, I didn't choke to death in front of her. Nor did I reach out and shake her. But I also didn't have a good response on the tip of my tongue. I was shell-shocked. The look on my face said it all and she ended her vent session and moved on.

This teacher was young, and while I could say that she has a lot to learn ahead of her, I could also wonder how in the world she got out of a college of education without someone instilling within her that belief that literacy is a priority in every content area, including hers. Either she is completely obstinate, or someone dropped the ball. I'm going to pray that someone dropped the ball so that I can influence her.

Many content area teachers view reading as something "extra" that they just have to simulate in order to satisfy people like their administration or their literacy coach. But reading isn't extra--it's a priority.

See, real-world math isn't going to only consist of polynomials. Real-world math is buried and real-world adults stumble upon it before they realize what they are doing. Then they have to figure out how to get to the output that they need--and it won't always be as easy as the Pythagorean theorum.

On a more immediate scope, students are faced with word problems that are designed to emulate real-world situations and they have to dissect these problems in order to decipher what they problem is ultimately asking. If they can't read the problem, how will they work it out?

Am I asking content area teachers to teach full-length novels in their classrooms? No. I understand the time constraints that standardized testing has put us under. I live under the same constraints. Am I asking teachers to spend hours searching for the most perfect informational text to use in class? No! (But their instructional coaches don't mind doing that search!) Reading in the content areas looks different in each content area. Math, science, and social studies teachers have to step back and realize the type of reading that students are already expected to do in their classrooms. That is the teaching of reading that has to go on daily in all classrooms.

I will find a way to work over this teacher. It's what I do. Confronting her beliefs won't work. It has to be subtle. But I love a challenge, and I love getting in front of classrooms and showing students the connection between the content areas.

Besides, for every teacher who thinks of reading as something "extra," there's a teacher out there reading the paper right now and thinking of ways to pull that cool article into her classroom next week.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Demonstrating Learning

Remember Charlie Brown’s teacher?  She always came across with “wuh-wa-wuh-wa-wa-waaaa”.  Who knew what she was talking about?   Have you ever thought about what our students hear about 15 minutes into a lecture?  I’ll give you one guess.

Telling students what to do cannot replace showing them how to do it.  Someone should have told Charlie’s teacher to show, don’t tell.

Brian Cambourne studied the conditions of learning for more than 20 years.  At the core of his research lies none other than student engagement.  When engagement is up, discipline problems are down.  Test scores are up.  Achievement is up.  Fun is up—for everyone involved.

One condition of learning that Cambourne has zeroed in on is demonstration learning.  Demonstration is the “ability to observe (see, hear, witness, experience, feel, study, explore) actions and artifacts”. 

One popular demonstrational technique for teaching reading is the think-aloud.  This way, you, the experienced reader in the room, can provide the key to unlock the text.  Remember that all of our content areas come with a new set of vocabulary.  Students need the demonstration of cognitive strategies to help tackle the material in front of them.

Students can learn to parrot back answers, but that is neither thinking nor learning.  Teachers can demonstrate thinking as a way to move beyond the questions.  We need to show students that comprehension doesn’t stop with knowing all the answers.  It often means that you are just starting to find the questions.

Demonstrating the process of learning rather than teaching chunks of information is one of the best practices that secondary content area teachers can use, especially when teachers are struggling to cover more and more content each year.  While thinking aloud through the text may be daunting for content area teachers, it is a perfect opportunity to demonstrate to students how to access a particularly difficult text.  Remember, you are the expert in the room.  Share your expertise.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

When a plan comes together...

I love the gallery walk strategy. It is a simple way to get students up and out of their seats. It can be used to have students examine various documents or have them participate in peer assessment and feedback. I've used it for years.

But I have a secret.

I've always been more willing to use it with my honors students than my on grade level students.

My honors students are typically still in the teacher-pleasing mode. I can scare them into behaving. They also see the value in participating in peer assessment. They work well together. When the noise level gets to be too much, I can threaten them with the loss of a letter grade and nothing more needs to be said.

My on grade level students? Not so much. They don't fear authority figures. They will only respect me if I respect them. They will only listen to me if I listen to them. Many of them carry their parents' failures in school with them as heavy luggage. That makes fear tactics useless. I'm reluctant to let them up and out of their seats because I immediately relinquish control.

And I am nothing if not a control freak.

But I try the gallery walk every year. I give the new batch the benefit of the doubt. I'll try it a few times before putting it away for the rest of the year.

And, sometimes, my babies surprise me.

In this particular case, students were examining a variety of genres. We were preparing to read Nothing but the Truth by Avi, and Janet Allen suggests having students examine the characteristics, the supports, and the challenges of each genre, as well as strategies that the reader employs when examining the genre. There are many ways to accomplish this, but I chose the gallery walk strategy. Students were allowed to pair up. They were given a chart with the genres listed, as well as the things they were looking for. (A chart is a great format for this!)

There was a great deal of frontloading. I defined each category of the chart. We talked about what it meant to "think about your thinking." We talked about various strategies that readers use (and the phrase "struggling readers" was never used--but that's for another day). Then I turned them loose.

And something beautiful happened. The plan came together. As I moved around the room to monitor, students were working. They were interacting with the text. Did they know everything? Of course not! But they asked some great questions. Their questions indicated that their level of learning and engagement was something special. Something unique.

I'll be incorporating the gallery walk again with this special little group of students. I hope that I can teach them lessons as valuable as they are teaching me.

Monday, October 28, 2013

When a Plan Comes Together

Sometimes a plan comes together...an instructional plan, that is.

Sometimes your kids do what you want them to do, what you had in mind when you planned this lesson.

For me, today was that day.

We are getting ready to start our new novel, Nothing But the Truth by Avi. It is a great multigenre novel that explores point of view and our natural biased tendencies.  A great anticipatory set is a multigenre gallery walk. This is a chance for students to get out of their seats and move about the room and examine the various genres that they encounter on a day to day basis. I post several genres about the room, and students complete a graphic organizer examining the purpose, the characteristics, the supports, the challenges, and the strategies students employ when encountering this type of text.

A gallery walk involves students of their seats. There is definitely some collaboration involved. Collaboration leads to talking...talking can lead to the edge of a cliff where there is no point of return.  Especially with my overly active class of on-grade-level students.

But today, a plan came together. Conversations were on topic, to say the least. Students were really having conversations with one another about the various characteristics about the variety of text they were being faced with. Students were generally thinking about the strategies they employ when faced with challenging text. Students were moving from text to text examining the words, the structures, and the characteristics, and having genuine conversations about their learning.

Sometimes, a plan comes together perfectly.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Mindfulness in Education

Stressed. Spelled backwards, it's desserts. Stress, for me, though, has nothing sweet about it. It is something that can take over my life. I hear the things that come out of my mouth when I'm stressed out and I immediately cringe. That's not me! That's the stress talking. 

Did you know 46% of teachers leave the profession in the first five years? Stressed, anyone?

By increasing mindfulness, teachers can control their reactions to situations that are out of their control. I sat through a seminar this morning at the CERRA fall renewal conference and practiced a little bit of mindfulness. After just five minutes, I feel more relaxed and more comfortable than I have all week. I can accept that I am three and a half hours from the work that is on my desk and it will be there waiting on me tomorrow when I go back. And tomorrow is fine. 

For more information on mindfulness, I highly recommend checking out information from Todd Scholl at CERRA. You can visit his website at theinnerpiece.weebly.com. Visit it. Get relaxed. Control your mind. Your kids will appreciate you for it. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Formative Assessment in Room 201

Ongoing formative assessment is vital in any classroom, as it provides opportunities for monitoring and adjusting, provides feedback to the instructor, and helps to guide and customize the learning process throughout the unit of study for all students (Chapman and King, 2012). I use a variety of formative assessment strategies in my room to help me gauge where my students fall on the road to mastery.
The simplest thing that teachers can do during a lesson or unit is to circulate. During a guided practice session, teachers should start by modeling the expected outcome and then closely examining students during practice (Schmoker, 2011). Just by roaming the classroom, I can ensure that my students are on task and that they have a good understanding of what is being expected of them. I keep anecdotal notes on students as they work so that I have a running record of their progress during a unit. By repeating this cycle of guided practice and checking for understanding multiple times throughout the unit, I can move students towards a gradual release of responsibility and make them more independent learners (Schmoker, 2011).
Another way to assess students where they are is to allow time for student talk. Talking has been proved as one of the best ways to digest information (Schmoker, 2011). Allowing students to turn to their neighbor and share what they have learned will help them teach each other, as well as clarify their own thinking in a safe environment. It also gives me, the teacher, the chance to monitor conversations and correct thinking. I seat my students in pods of four—students are not grouped together, but are seated very close and are aware of who is in their pod. Pods are strategically planned. Students are heterogeneously grouped by fall Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) scores, so that they will be able to help one another through difficult learning tasks. I have seen that talking to one another, and sometimes teaching one another, help increase student ownership over our lessons.
A third simple type of formative assessment that I use in my classroom and that is research-proved is writing to learn activities. Writing helps students to formulate and articulate their thoughts before they share out with groups or the class (Schmoker, 2011). Students are able think through their own confusion in writing, and therefore remove some of the insecurity when sharing with others. Research shows that the act of writing extends knowledge and helps create new thinking (Gallagher, 2006). I use several types of write to learn activities, including free writes (which I call brain drains) and written conversation. During free writes, students are given a prompt and told to write nonstop for a predetermined amount of time. If they do not know what to write, they are to write “I don’t know what to write” until something comes to them. The stubborn few will fill their paper with this sentence, but after a while, that loses its magic and they begin to truly process their thinking. During a written conversation, students write to a topic or answer a question, pass their paper to a neighbor, and respond. With my students in pods, we can pass around the pod very easily.

Students need interaction in their classroom in order to succeed (Schmoker, 2011). Teachers often assume that students are lazy or cannot read, but when we allow opportunities to demonstrate understanding, we see otherwise. Schmoker states, “Interactive lecture and the simplest versions of formative assessment work for anyone” (p. 70). Teaching in this manner can seem slow for teachers, but account for as much as six to nine months of learning growth each year (Schmoker, 2011). Formative assessments are small ways to interact students in the art of teaching and learning.  By checking for understanding, teachers are able to gather and examine ongoing student data in order to make sound curricular decisions in the moment that they need to be made.

Chapman, C. and King, R. (2012). Differentiated assessment strategies: One tool doesn’t fit all. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Gallagher, K. (2006). Teaching adolescent writers. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse Publishers.


Schmoker, M. (2011). Focus: Elevating the essentials to radically improve student learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

So what IS the purpose of public schooling?

Traditional education, as defined by Ira Shor in The Art of Critical Pedagogy (2008) suppresses student skills and intellectual interests, while a more critical approach develops these skills and interests. Traditional education puts the students in positions of powerlessness and the teacher in a position of authority. This approach hampers the student’s development as a critical thinker. Above all else, the role of the public school is to help the next generation of voters to approach media and information as critical thinkers.

Paulo Freire advocated for developing the capacity in students to confront real-world problems related to them and their community. At the core of his critical pedagogy was the concept of praxis, which is not unlike the more recent concept of problem-based learning. This approach leads teachers and students to action and reflection upon that action. Through this approach, students (1) identify a problem, (2) analyze the problem, (3) create a plan of action, (4) implement the plan, and (5) analyze and evaluate the action. By addressing real-world, community-based problems, students are able to become their own change agents, which prepares for an active civic adulthood.

The public school system plays the most integral role in developing the next generation of citizens, and this is not accomplished through traditional approaches of filling empty receptacles. This is accomplished by fostering dialogue, inquiry, critical reading/viewing of the world, and a partnership and exchange of ideas between students and teachers.


Duncan-Andrade, J. M. R., & Morrell, E. (2008). The art of critical pedagogy, possibilities for moving from theory to practice in urban schools. New York, NY: Peter Lang Pub Inc.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Hate: A Title Character in Society Today

I'm spending some time this morning reflecting on the senseless death of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent not guilty verdict of George Zimmerman (whose life is also ruined now, no doubt). Many want to claim that race plays no role in this verdict. Even the prosecutor wants to claim that race is not an issue.  How is it not?

If Trayvon had been named Danny and had his hoodie over his blonde hair and blue eyes, would the news be splitting time between the Zimmerman verdict and the death of Corey Monteith? I claim no. Had it been a blonde-haired Danny, he would have been observed as he went along his way, but ultimately left alone. Zimmerman's actions were racial profiling, plain and simple.

If George Zimmerman had been black, would we be having such outrage at the verdict? Would there have even been a trial? Most claim that there would not have been. Another black-on-black shooting would have been chalked up as typical. Sad, but typical.

If Marissa Alexander of Jacksonville had been a white woman, would she be preparing to spend the next 20 years behind bars for defending herself against an abusive spouse who had a restraining order against him or would the stand your ground defense work for her as well?

These recent events only demonstrate the role racism plays in our society. There are many types of hate rearing in our society today. In fact, hate is becoming a major player in our world. As people fight for the rights to love and marry someone of their own choosing, they are met with so-called Christians who claim that if you love differently, you don't have the same rights as others. And women in Texas are face a hate crime against their own choices as Texas recently voted to pass one of the most restrictive abortion bills in the nation.

I don't have children. I am white. I am Christian and I am heterosexual. But I still remain appalled at the role that hate plays in our society. My heart aches for the victims of senseless violence. I will not even pretend to know that Trayvon's motives were purely innocent. But we'll never know, will we? George Zimmerman played arresting officer, judge, and jury when he followed a young, black teenaged male on a Florida evening.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Presenting New Knowledge to New Teachers

I'm currently working on a presentation for the CERRA Induction Symposium--a conference for teachers who have just finished their first or second year in education. I signed up to present on strategies for keeping students engaged. At this point, I'm wondering what was I thinking?!?!

So I have been reflecting on the most engaging lessons from my classroom this past year. What is engaging instruction rooted in?

Let's start with anticipatory sets. Getting students to anticipate the lesson helps them to get excited about their learning. Before dealing with Romeo and Juliet, students can examine value statements that deal with the major themes from the play and decide if they agree or disagree with the statements. Once they realize how much they can relate the major themes of the play with their actual lives, the classic piece of literature becomes much more attainable. Teachers can also use questioning strategies, word webs, songs, and videos to get students engaged in the lesson before it starts.

Once the lesson begins, strategic instruction is a powerful, student-centered approach to learning. Using strategies help students access the tools that adept learners are able to readily access. One great strategy for teaching new concepts is the concept map. This graphic helps the learner to understand relationships between the concept and other thoughts/ideas. I have used this to entrench knowledge of figurative language. A history teacher has used the mapping process to further explain the amendments to the Constitution. Strategies can be extremely engaging for learners, and they help students tap into the cognitive strategies that will help them as they encounter new knowledge.

Mixing in music and video to lessons also helps increase student engagement. Keeping clips short and relevant is all students need get that technology fix that this generation seems to need. A US History teacher working with the Jim Crow South could introduce "Strange Fruit" by Billie Holiday and "The Flowers" by Alice Walker. This incorporation of both music and a short literary piece will help fire up the dendrites to increase student learning and comprehension.

Engaging instruction is vital in teaching today's youth. There are many options teachers can tap into to help create connections to enhance learning. I only hope that I can come up with a few new ideas to help new teachers this week.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Keeping Many Balls in the Air

If there is one thing that I have to do every day, it is keep multiple balls in the air without letting a myriad of people down.  We talk about the many hats that teachers wear--teacher, planner, data keeper, mentor, friend, counselor, mediator.  In addition to those classroom teacher hats, I am....

  • a coach
  • a data cruncher on a large scale
  • a strategy suggestor
  • a professional development leader
  • a reflective practitioner
  • an event planner
  • the student government sponsor
  • a color guard instructor...a choreographer...the punisher...a dreamer
And sometimes all these hats have to be worn at once.  Just this past week, my high school celebrated Homecoming, which the student government association is over.  There are dress up days, a pep rally, a senior parade, Homecoming King, dealing with the 24 female members of the Homecoming court, counting ballots, and crowning a queen.  Yesterday marked the day of the first band contest for one of the groups that I work with.  We participated in a festival, so we were able to march twice.  Great for growth, but hard on the weary soul.  And last week also was a week of preparation for a visit from the federal education department to monitor our growth under the School Improvement Grant.  Talk about pressure from all sides!

The most important thing for me to learn and remember as an instructional coach is to rely on others.  As a true Virgo, I struggle to ask for help from others.  I am a firm believer in the "if you want things done right" adage.  But sometimes you can't do everything.  You have to be willing to reach out.  I am lucky to work with two other instructional coaches who willingly recognized my need for help and stepped in without pause.  Of course I carry guilt for having anyone else take over my duties, but sometimes things are necessary.  Asking for help is necessary.  Accepting that help is even more important.

If there is one thing I have learned that is that if I don't ask for help, then the many balls that I am keeping in the air (very precariously) will come crashing down around me.

And that would not be acceptable.  After all, I am a true Virgo and that means a perfectionist.