September 20, 2017

Reading and Writing Interventions: Making Them Work in Middle School

I'm just going to say it.  I believe the United States education system right now is obsessed with the word intervention.  It's the answer for everything.  A student is reading several levels below grade level?  Let's put them in a reading intervention.  A teacher notices one of her student's writing skills aren't up to par?  Let's put them in a writing intervention.  I'll be clear: I don't disagree with having interventions.  However, after teaching and being the literacy coach at a middle school who is entering into the fourth year of a universal intervention period, I have some thoughts and non-negotiables about what is going to make the time and effort a teacher/a school system takes to plan out interventions worthwhile for all involved.  Also, as I'll point out below, an intervention alone is not enough to "fix" students' reading and writing deficits.

1.  Know the purpose of the intervention.  The middle school level is unique.  We have students just out of elementary land, and we're preparing other students to enter into high school.  This may create different reasons in some teachers' minds for why students need an intervention.  Is this intervention for (a) to increase reading and writing abilities in a student or (b) to increase reading and writing productivity in a student.  There is a big difference between (a) and (b).  Doing an intervention to help increase abilities is going to involve knowing everything about that student as a reader and writer and using specific strategies to help fill in deficits and build on strengths.  Doing an intervention to increase productivity is a behavioral issue that is going to focus in on student motivation and organization.  We must be clear on the purpose because a student who needs an intervention to increase reading and writing abilities but is in an intervention to increase reading and writing productivity is a waste of time for all involved and vice versa.

2.  Provide Teacher PD and Intervention Resources.  As a school system, if you want high-quality interventions done, you must make an investment in teacher expertise and intervention resources.  My school, for example, has purchased Fountas and Pinnell's Red, Gold, Purple, and Teal Leveled Literacy Intervention (LLI) Systems.  Several of the teachers using LLI, including myself, have attended LLI professional development instructed by Fountas and Pinnel themselves.  We also do a beginning of the year refresher and alignment each year.  A school simply cannot expect teachers to provide magical interventions without resources or training.  A significant investment must be made in both teachers and resources in order for interventions to be effective.

3.  Don't Ignore Universal Instruction.  Before any student is placed in a reading or writing intervention, the question has to be asked: What is happening at the universal level in the classroom?  If a student is receiving ineffective reading and writing instruction each day at the universal level, that problem needs to be fixed first.  We have come so far as educators as far as differentiating at the universal level to meet the needs of all students in our classroom.  Every English Language Arts classroom at the middle school level should have a balance of whole group, small group, and individualized instruction through whole group minilessons, guided reading/writing, literature circles, and reading/writing conferences.  The gradual release of responsibility should also be used during each minilessons so that students are exposed to a specific learning target, modeling of the learning target, a guided practice, and an independent application.  Minilessons should be focused on reading and writing skills that can be applied to how reading and writing works again and again versus specific reading and writing tasks teachers want students to do.  These are non-negotiables.  If these things aren't happening on a consistent basis, then going down the path of intervention is silly.  Universal instruction must be fixed first.

4.  Don't Replace Universal Instruction with Intervention.  If you were to ask me what the biggest mistake would be when implementing an intervention for a student, this is it.  Students needing a reading intervention are taken out of reading class to complete that intervention.  It sounds logical right?  Doing this is a total system mistake.  Students truly in need of a reading or writing intervention need universal instruction plus an intervention.  They need that double dose.  Replacing universal instruction with intervention gives that student, who is already struggling with reading or writing, less than other students in the classroom.  Their instruction at the universal level will be choppy and confusing because they're in and out to complete intervention, and many teachers don't adjust their expectations of these students even when they're missing significant chunks of class to attend the intervention.  This will just put already struggling students further and further behind and also leave them feeling more isolated and frustrated.

5.  Consider a Universal Intervention Period.  My school utilizes an "all hands on deck" approach to intervention by taking the first 40 minutes of the school day to provide interventions and extensions to every single student in our school.  There isn't a "you're in an intervention" stigma that students are worried about because every student participates.  Every staff member is involved in providing either an intervention or an extension.  No student has to miss universal instruction to receive his or her intervention.  Also, teachers are more aware of strategies they can use to help struggling readers and writers at the universal level.  It really seems like a win-win for everyone involved.

6.  Programs Aren't Always the Answer.  Earlier on in this post, I mentioned the importance of investing in resources.  My school has invested in LLI resources and training for staff as one option for reading intervention.  Here's the thing.  Purchasing a bunch of boxed programs and computer intervention programs isn't the answer either.  The biggest return a school will get on intervention effectiveness is to invest in the professional development of the teachers teaching the interventions.  Purchasing a professional development book, having teachers do a compensated book study of the resource, and giving teachers time to discuss implementation strategies of what was learned will go a lot further than purchasing every fancy intervention system out there.  The reps for intervention systems are extremely persuasive, but a program is just a program when there isn't teacher expertise to back it up.

7.  Ditch the Computer Intervention Programs.  There are great interventions out there where there is a computer element to a teacher-led intervention.  That is not what I'm talking about here.  I'm talking about the intervention programs where students walk into the classroom, grab a computer, and sit and complete a reading or writing intervention with zero connection to a human being/teacher.  My observations of students in an intervention like this is they might start out strong and learn, but there is a quick burnout rate where students become unmotivated and start to despise reading and writing, even though computerized passages and writing prompts are not what authentic reading and writing is, this is what students begin to associate with reading and writing.  There is nothing that any one could say to me to convince me that this is a better option than setting students in front of a highly qualified teacher who knows specific strategies to use with struggling readers and writers.  A teacher like this can observe what a student is doing and make a decision about what direction to take that student.  A teacher performing an intervention can smile, encourage, motivate, and explain.  A computer can do none of these things in a meaningful way.  Students spend enough time in front of a computer, television, or cell phone.  They don't need any more meaningless screen time added to their day then what already exists.

8.  Focus on Transfer.  The universal reading and writing instruction in the classroom should complement intervention reading and writing instruction.  If there is not a connection between the two, it is highly unlikely that the classroom teacher will see an improvement in students' reading and writing.  Classroom teachers and intervention teachers (who are sometimes one in the same) need to get on the same page as far as what good reading and writing instruction looks like and make sure already struggling readers and writers aren't getting complete mixed messages that will confuse them more.

9.  Give Teachers Time to Collaborate.  So much can come from allowing a struggling student's intervention teacher and classroom teacher time to have a conversation about that student.  If these two teachers can get in the same room and share their noticings about a student with one another, there is no doubt in how much more powerful the classroom teacher and the intervention teacher's instruction for that student will be.

10.  Use Multiple Pieces of Data to Re-Visit Intervention Placement.  A student should not be placed in a reading or writing intervention based on one piece of data from a 30 minute computer test.  Placing a student in an intervention is a big decision, and in order to make the best decision, teachers, interventionists, and principals need to be looking at multiple pieces of data.  I recommend using something like this Middle School Literacy Profile which includes looking at a benchmark assessment, computerized reading test data, a spelling profile, a writing sample, and a sentence dictation.  If your school uses Fountas and Pinnell's Benchmark Assessment, know that there is so much information a teacher can pull from that assessment beyond the level the student tests at.  I have created these Benchmark Assessment Helpers to help teachers break down the data they receive on this assessment and get the most out of it.  By far the most important piece of student data though is teacher observation and anecdotal notes from the universal level of instruction.  Also, just because a student is placed in intervention doesn't mean they should stay in that intervention for the entire school year.  Intervention placements should be flexible and reactive to student data continuously.

Please realize that the ten suggestions for interventions listed above are for ideal circumstances.  I know that schools struggle with money and time.  It saddens my heart that more money isn't invested into schools so that ideal situations are possible to help provide high quality universal instruction and intervention.  As leaders in schools though, it is still our responsibility to do what we can with our knowledge and the resources we are given.  I hope there is something from my thoughts above that get you thinking about how intervention is used at your school and how you could work to improve it.


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August 25, 2017

Sentence Stalking: The New DOL

In Jeff Anderson’s book Mechanically Inclined, he credits Vicki Spandel for coming up with the term “sentence stalking.”  Ever since I read about what it meant to be a sentence stalker, I couldn’t get it out of my mind.  It just made sense.  Sentence Stalking is described as showing students a great mentor sentence (from a book, newspaper, student writing, etc.) and having students notice what the writer did to create that sentence and why. 



I grew up with the traditional DOL system where at the beginning of language arts class each day the teacher would ask us to examine a sentence that contained an obscene amount of errors and identify what we would do to “edit” this sentence.  This practice doesn’t make sense on so many levels.  We are literally giving students a daily picture of what it means to be a horrible writer and then expecting that this practice will turn them into a successful one.  It would be like showing students the wrong spelling of a word over and over again and then asking them to spell it correctly.

Our brains soak in every visual thing that we see, and if we see these horribly crafted sentences with ten errors in them over and over again during DOL, doesn’t it just make sense that this would have the potential to harm our writing instead of help it?  This is where sentence stalking comes in.  I have scoured novels and nonfiction books that middle school students love in order to pick out “sentence stalking worthy” sentences.  These sentences contain rich words, strong writing craft, and creative sentence structure.  These are the sentences we want our students to study and take mental images of so that they try out these same types of writing techniques in their writing.

After years of trying out Sentence Stalking in my classroom, I am beyond excited to share this resource with you.  I have used Sentence Stalking in a variety of ways, and I am proud to say that the way I have structured this resource brings together my most powerful takeaways from using Sentence Stalking and puts everything I know into one practice that students will respond well to.  It is my sincere hope that your students will respond to Sentence Stalking in a way that transfers what they learn about sentences into their own writing, and that it also enhances their understanding of grammar and writing conventions.

The resource is designed so that each day, students study a new mentor sentence.  Each mentor sentence is accompanied by focus questions to get students thinking about the sentence on a variety of levels.  The focus questions deal with the following types of topics: parts of speech, punctuation, spelling and spelling patterns, capitalization, analyzing the writer’s craft, sentence structure, vocabulary, using context clues to find word meaning, denotative and connotative meaning of words, root words, prefixes and suffixes, figurative language, and more.

Each day contains a teacher answer-guide along with ideas for teaching points to coordinate with the daily mentor sentence and focus questions.  It is the perfect way to teach grammar without having to lecture or do drill and kill worksheets to learn one isolated grammar concept at a time.

You will never see sentences the same, and your students will never see sentences the same.  Sentence Stalking takes the sometimes intimidating, sometimes completely dry task of teaching about grammar and writing conventions and makes it into what is sure to be one of the best parts of your class period.


View this resource on my TpT Store here





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August 14, 2017

Nine Ways to Increase Reading Quantity for Middle School Students

Dr. Seuss once wrote, "The more that you read, the more things you will know.  The more that you learn, the more places you'll go."  As teachers, our hearts pitter-patter when we hear this phrase because we know it's true.  Students who are "true readers" tend to exhibit some or all of the following generalizations in our middle school classrooms:

1.  Strong, unique writing skills
2.  Higher academic vocabulary
3.  Faster and higher comprehension of nonfiction content reading
4.  More creative
5.  Can think within, beyond, and about the fiction books read and discussed in class
6.  Can share their thinking about reading with partners, small groups, and the whole class
7.  Brings a plethora of ideas when it comes to a new project, task, or assignment
8.  Scores average or above average on state and district testing
9.  Not likely to be a behavior issue in class
10.  Responds thoughtfully to written reading responses

Being a language arts teacher and literacy coach, it has been my honest observation that students who like to read and are constantly devouring books show qualities from the list above.  So of course this brings up the question, "How can we get middle school students reading more?"  We know that knowledge is power, but let's face it: it's not enough.  Just because someone knows doing something will create a desirable result, it doesn't mean that person is going to do it.  If life were that simple, everyone would change their choices and lifestyles to get the results they desired.

What if I told you though that I have specific methods you could use in your middle school classroom that would increase the reading quantity your students read this school year?  My hope is that at least one of these strategies resonates with you and that you're able to try it out.  By trying these strategies, I'm not promising that every student in your class will love reading.  I do promise you, however, that with an increased volume of reading, many of your students will shift their attitude about reading (at least slightly).  This, in turn, will create students who are true readers.

Strategy One: Independent Reading Check-In


Before giving students time for independent reading, take time to ask students what they're reading and the page number they're on in their current independent reading book with this independent reading tracker.  This strategy is quite simple to set-up and execute, and it has several benefits.  First of all, by asking students to publicly state in front of the class what they're reading and what page they're on, we are assuming they have a book.  One of the most frustrating things for teachers is when students don't bring a book to read to Language Arts class, where they know they will have time to read each day.  Assuming the best in students is a good thing, and most will bring a book every day for the simple reason that they know you are going to ask them.

This is also a great time to identify students you need to check in with for a reading conference.  Who is starting a new book every few days and continuously abandoning books?  Who is making snail-paced progress in his/her IR books and needs a push or a book with an easier reading level or more familiar content?  Who is flying through books so fast you want him/her to pause and check-in with where his/her comprehension is at?  Who never seems to be able to find a book to read?  Who always reads out of the same genre and never mixes it up?

Keeping these check-ins in your reading conference binder provides kick-off points for reading conferences based on students' actual reading habits.  The daily check-in also does something else unexpected: it helps create a community of readers in your classroom.  Students hear the books other students are reading and hear their daily reading progress.  This opens doors to initiate conversations about reading.  You might hear students say things like, "I just read that same book?  I was thinking about reading that book, too.  What do you think about it?"

Strategy Two: Interactive Read Aloud


Make the "Books We've Shared" one of the first anchor charts you create at the beginning of the school year.  As the school year goes on, continue to add the books you've read aloud to your class on the anchor chart.  We can't make kids read, but when we do a daily interactive read aloud, students really don't have a choice but to sit back, listen, and engage.  Being read out loud to is one of the most enjoyable educational experiences we can gift to students of any age.  For middle school students, they are guaranteed to finish several books across the school year simply through interactive read aloud.  These books often spark an interest in a particular author, series, topic, or genre that lead to increased independent reading.

Some key tips for reading out loud to middle school students include:
1.  Select a variety of genres across the school year.  What you choose to read out loud could be short stories, newspaper articles, entire novels, etc.
2.  Make the reading interactive without "killing" the reading.  Do this by setting aside 10-15 minutes to read out loud to your students.  Within that 10-15 minutes, pick 2-3 stopping points where you will give students the chance to respond to a question, turn and talk about a specific topic from the book, respond to prompt about the book in a sketch or quick writing response, etc.  Take 2-3 minutes after the reading is over to have students discuss 2-3 debrief questions.
3.  Allow students to listen and respond during the interactive read aloud.  They do not need a copy of the text during the read aloud.  This defeats the purpose for this context of reading instruction.
4.  To make interactive read aloud "worth it" in the tight time constraints many middle school language arts teachers face, you must strategically intertwine IRA into other instructional contexts.  Your IRA text can be where you get a sentence for a grammar activity, a common text you use to model your thinking about a reading minilesson, where you teach vocabulary from, and a mentor text for writing instruction.
5.  Use the IRA for writing about reading responses so that you're able to check students' reading comprehension through a common text.

Strategy Three: Book Talks


Start out the school year by making it your goal to give a 2-3 minute book talk at the beginning of Reading Workshop every single day.  Use books from your classroom library to highlight this as a resource and have a place where students can easily access the books that have been highlighted.  Make books talks informal and quick.  Once you feel like students understand what is involved in giving a book talk, ask for student volunteers to sign up on a blank monthly calendar to give a book talk.  Don't have any rules around it.  Allow students to sign up multiple times and don't make students sign up if they don't want to.  By putting in this process without formalizing it into a big book talk project, books talks will add to the reading atmosphere in your classroom and get students interested in new reading material.

Strategy Four: Small Group Reading Instruction


In my opinion, basing reading instruction only on class novels or only on independent reading just isn't enough.  Teachers need to know their students deeply as readers in order to help them become better readers.  This happens at the small group table, not when lecturing to the whole class.  Guided Reading and Literature Circles should be part of every middle school language arts classroom.  Guided Reading is homogeneous groupings of students reading a common book at their reading level.  The groups meet once-two times a week with the teacher, and the discussion and teaching around the book is driven by the teacher.  Literature Circles are heterogeneous groupings of students reading grade level texts and coming together to discuss these texts.  Students reading books above their reading level can listen to an audio version of the book.  The main point of literature circles is to get students discussing grade-level texts with one another.  This discussion is driven by the students.

Once I establish all the instructional contexts of Reading Workshop through a Reading Workshop Kick-off at the beginning of the school year, I continue holding a daily Reading Workshop where during the application time of the minilesson I meet with a small reading group.  I meet with one group a day so that I'm able to see every student every week.  I alternate between a round of Guided Reading (one novel or NF text for each group spread across 3-4 weeks) and a round of Literature Circles (one novel or NF text for each group spread across 3-4 weeks) back and forth across the remainder of the school year.  By the end of the school year, students generally have participated in 3 "rounds" of Guided Reading and 3 "rounds" of Literature Circles increasing their reading quantity by 6 books a school year.

Strategy Five: Give Time to Read


We cannot depend on students' independent reading to happen at home.  We just simply cannot.  If you want your students to read more, but you never give your students any time to read, then you are off base.  Human beings show what they value by where they give their time.  You can preach all day long to students about the importance of reading, but until your actions match your words, they are just words.  Give students time to get lost and hooked into a book.  The students who "hate" to read surprisingly seem to like it (at least a little) once they give it a try.  Use independent reading (minilesson application) time to hold reading conferences, lead Guided Reading groups, and observe Literature Circle groups.

Strategy Six: Partner/Trio Sets of Books


Two years ago, I had three students in my class that enjoyed reading the same book at the same time for their independent reading material.  Our school librarian and I were constantly helping them find three of the same book so they could do this.  They would make a reading plan and discuss their reading whenever they could find the time.  It was truly a beautiful thing.  Last year, I took a cue from these students and ordered doubles of popular books in my classroom library.  I then encouraged students to pick a book to independently read at the same time as a classmate was reading it.  Students LOVED this.  I witnessed actual, unprompted conversations between students reading the same book before and after class, during morning duty, by their lockers after school, etc.  Middle school students are social, and making reading social is just another way to hook them into loving it.

Strategy Seven: Make your Classroom Library Accessible and User-Friendly


Forget about reading level when organizing your classroom library.  Reading levels and lexile scores are a tool teachers can use to provide their best instruction during Guided Reading.  When organizing your classroom library, organize books by genre, author, and/or topic so that students can grab a tub of books they're interested in and look through them quickly.  I would also resist the urge of a classroom library organized like the school or public library (by call number, alphabetized by title, etc.).  The bins create a quick and easy way for students to identify what they're looking for and find it without feeling overwhelmed, intimidated, or making an excuse of they don't know where to look.

Strategy Eight: Give Time for Students to Decide What to Read


I don't know about you, but when I choose a book that I want to read for my own independent reading enjoyment, I want it to be worth my while.  I spend time researching, looking at ratings, looking at books by an author or a topic I've enjoyed in the past, etc.  If we like to do these things for ourselves, what a great thing to teach and give time for our students to do, too.  In my students' Reader's Notebooks, there is a page titled, "Books I Want to Read" for students to write down books that have interested them from book talks, social media, conversations they've had with other students, etc.

At my school, we have a monthly "Rec Reading" time where students get to go down to the LMC and check-out new books.  Our library is open all of the time for students, but this is a set time that we go down there as a language arts class.  Before this time each month, I like to give students about 10 minutes of class time to discuss with friends books they want to read next, give an open forum for whole-class book talks, and also let students go on computers to explore websites like What Should I Read Next? and Goodreads.

Strategy Nine: Document Reading


Have students keep a reading log across the year of the books they've read.  Students can document books they're finished, books they've abandoned, the genre of the books they've read, how long it took them to read each book, etc.  I have my students put all of the books they've read across the school year in their reading log, including books we read as a class during IRA and books they read in small group reading instruction.  When I hold reading conferences with students, I like to take a peak at their reading log to help discuss their reading habits with them.  Students also use their reading logs to access their progress toward reading goals we create.

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So there it is!  Nine strategies to get your middle school students to up their reading quantity this school year.  If you try any of these strategies out, make sure you venture back here and let me know!  Good luck!

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June 5, 2017

The Emotional Roller Coaster of an End-of-the-Year Goodbye

For teachers, the end of the school year can bring up a lot of emotions.  The thing about feeling emotions is there is really no right way or wrong way to feel because emotions are a bit out of our control.  As an ode to the end of the school year, I'm dedicating this blog post to breaking down some of the common emotions I have felt in the hopes of getting anyone who is reading this to reflect on the current school year, get in touch with where they're at in saying goodbye to their students, and know that feeling a rainbow of emotions is okay.

Sadness

Each year, I build a new story through my students and my classroom.  A story that I've poured my heart and soul into from September through June.  Everywhere I look in my classroom, I see a different story.  The anchor charts around the room remind me of all the different topics we've covered and learned about across the year.  The bulletin boards and classroom decor bring me back to those sweaty days in August before students even stepped foot in my classroom when I stressed over the placement of the rugs, the comfy items, and the visual appeal of the colors because I wanted everything to look perfect so that my students felt comfortable and intrigued from the moment they walked in.  Even as I clean out my files (at the request of the tech department) I see Smartboard lesson after Smartboard lesson that I've mentally sweat and toiled over each day.  Because I get a new group of students every year, I think it's only fitting that they get new lessons every day that were designed with their needs as readers and writers in mind.  Seeing these things create sadness because the classroom needs to be torn apart for the summer cleaning crew to do its thing, and the files are no longer relevant.  All of my hard work has served its purpose, and that chapter in my book is now closing.

The real sadness though, like the sadness that tugs so hard on your heart that it brings tears to your eyes comes from thinking about students.  I see the girl that doesn't have enough food at home and relies heavily on school breakfast and lunch every day, I see the boy who has a father who frightens him that he still has to go see every other weekend, and I see the girl who has lost herself this year and taken up the habit of cutting to numb the pain.  When they were at school with me and their other teachers this school year, they were safe, they had food, they had adult support.  I don't know what their summer holds for them now.  I want to stay positive and hope that things in their life will turn around and change, but I know that the reality for some of my students is they will not have a fun and enjoyable summer with their amazing families.  This is by far the hardest burden to bear when saying goodbye as a teacher.

Relief

What other profession do you get to have a clear beginning and end every single year?  Many other professions require the day-to-day grind where it is hard to step away, reset, and return fresh and renewed.  One of the greatest blessings of being a teacher is that every year is a chance at a new beginning.  At the end of every school year, I write down 3-4 things that I want to change or do better at the following school year.  At the beginning of the school year, I reread that list and figure out how I'm going to make that happen.  If I have a difficult school year, I know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that my current reality isn't my forever reality.

The end of the year brings to a close the crossing off everything on a checklist that just months, weeks, or even days ago seemed impossible to complete.
-Grade all of the things and submit final grades...check!
-Submit your final SLO and artifact reflection...check!
-Meet with your principal to discuss your SLO, artifacts, and classroom observations...check!
-Dismantle your classroom to get ready for the summer cleaning crew...check!
-Return all materials you've borrowed across the year to the correct places...check!

I could go on and on and on, but the point is that the end of the school year is an absolute whirlwind of things to do, and there is such a satisfying relief when the last day of school hits and that checklist is complete.

To continue with the whole relief thing, this blog post is meant to be completely transparent, and if I am doing so there is relief in saying goodbye, too.  There are moments across the school year where my patience gets tested more than I think others not in the teaching profession can even begin to imagine.  Dealing with 25 middle school students at one time can get trying.  They test limits, they make the same mistakes over and over again (even after they're told a million times), and some can even be extremely disrespectful.  The end of the school year brings with it elevated behaviors, dress code violations galore, a depleted student work ethic, and a classroom that feels more like a sauna than a classroom.  There is some relief in being able to have a retrieve from it.

Excitement

When I look back to who my students were at the beginning of the year as readers and writers and people and who they are now, it makes me want to do a happy dance.  When you're in the day-to-day, growth can seems slow and at times feel like it's going backwards, but when you're able to take a step back and see growth as a big picture thing, it is so awesome.  Teachers should be excited about this and celebrate the learning journey they've taken their students on across the school year.

Excitement also comes from a sense of freedom to get caught up on all of the things that have fallen into the "I'll do that during the summer" pile.  Summer to me means time with family on Long Lake, getting time to plug back into my other passions (such as blogging and creating resources for TpT), and a time for relaxation and renewal.  That is quite exciting.

Regret

No matter how hard I try across the school year, there always seems to be that little wisp of regret that remains as I say goodbye.  My mind flashes back to the student who moved away in the middle of the school year that I never got to say goodbye to and tell how great I thought she was because she was suddenly gone.  I think about the student who didn't improve as much I wanted him to as a reader and writer this year and wonder what it was that I could have done differently to reach him.  I think about the topics that I wanted to cover that I simply did not have time to and wonder if I spent too much time on a unit that wasn't quite as important as what I missed.  As a teacher, I feel like I am making decision after decision after decision all day every day.  Sometimes I choose right, and there are other times where I know I chose wrong.  Regret lingers because of those wrong decisions and because of the mysteries that I didn't quite get around to figuring out.

Hope

It's the final emotion I've listed on this post because it is my prayer for any teacher reading this that of all the emotions you feel at the end of the school year, you are overwhelmed with a sense of hope.  Hope that your students have a bright future ahead of them.  Hope that you will reflect on this school year and bring new and exciting changes into your classroom next school year.  Hope that your voice and the lessons you taught your students stuck with them, and that every once in awhile, when they are making a decision, they will remember something you told them and choose the right path.  We are teachers of content, but we are also teachers of life.  Keep the hope that you made a difference this year in the lives of many.  That is, after all, the very best thing about being a teacher.






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December 27, 2016

Do This, Not That: 7 Literacy Practices to Ditch and How to Replace Them

We've all done it, reflected back on something we used to do while teaching that we would never do again.  When I look back at some of the teaching practices I've used, it literally makes me cringe.  Does it mean we were bad teachers?  No.  I'm a believer that teachers always do the best they can do for their students with the resources and knowledge they have at the time.  Isn't it a beautiful thing that we live in a world where we can continuously learn, gain new knowledge, and make changes to improve ourselves?  That's what this blog post it all about.  How can you ditch some commonly-used literacy practices that can be replaced with practices that will serve you and your students better?


#1: Whole Class Novels

Why we should ditch it:  When all students are reading the same book, at the same pace, with the same purpose, troubles are sure to arise.  What about your advanced student who could read the entire book in one night's sitting (and probably will)?  That student will spend the next several weeks in sheer boredom, recalling what he or she read on that fateful evening where they finished the class novel, in one night...  On the other end, what about your lowest readers who are not capable of reading the book by themselves?  They will be forever behind, unable to participate in the reading discussion and/or answer the book questions.  Another interesting thing happens when teachers teach whole-class novels.  They let the novel become the center of teaching and lose sight of the only point of a whole class novel: teaching reading.  It's easy to worry more about if students understand what's going on in one book than if students are using reading behaviors to process their reading.

What to replace it with:  Replace whole class novels with a combination of interactive read aloud, guided reading, literature circles, and independent reading.  The interactive read aloud will give you that whole-class book experience and a common reference point for modeling reading behaviors and thinking during Reading Workshop minilessons.  Guided reading and literature circles will provide small group reading instruction differentiated to students' reading levels and reading preferences.  Ditching whole-class novels will also free up time for independent reading, where students can spend time with books they love and want to read.  For more information about using these Reading Workshop practices in combination, check out this blog post.



#2: Isolated Grammar Exercises

Why we should ditch it: The only logical reason to teach students about grammar is so that they can use it correctly in their writing.  That's it.  I teach my students grammar so that they can improve their writing conventions so that their writing is understandable, clear, and grammatically correct.  I used to teach grammar using predictable, scripted sentences.  Doing grammar exercises with my students felt like doing math.  And you know what?  It felt great!  There was a right answer, a wrong answer, a predictable pattern, and all those other things black-and-white-thinking people love.  But then this thing happened, and my students would do a piece of writing, and that isolated, predictable grammar rule didn't play nice in real-person writing.  It wasn't recognizable in the books my students read.  It was pretty much pointless.  I had created grammar exercise experts who couldn't write a grammatically-correct sentence.

What to replace it with:  When working with students on grammar, I prefer not to refer to it as grammar at all.  Instead, I teach from the perspective of learning how to write using correct writing conventions.  This already gets students' brains to make the connection that the sole purpose for learning about grammar is so that we can transfer our learning to writing.  The next difference is to use mentor sentences from novels and students' writing.  Messy sentences that aren't always completely clear, but they teach students that writing is messy, and writers are problem-solvers, not rule-followers.  Mentor sentences can be used to name and practice grammar rules.  They can also be used to have students mimic mentor sentences in their writing.  Another practice I love is to teach students a grammar rule and have them look through their writing or independent reading book for a sentence that exemplifies this rule.  For more on mentor sentences, check out this blog post.



#3: Teaching "Books"

Why we should ditch it:  When someone asks you what type of teacher you are, you don't say, "I'm a book teacher."  Chances are, you refer to yourself as a Reading Teacher.  However, if I would have been speaking accurately early on in my teaching career, I would have defined myself as a "Book Teacher."  A book teacher gives out worksheets on every chapter with questions like, "What happened to Jonas on page 5 when...."  These worksheets are followed up by chapter quizzes with similar questions.  Teachers who teach books are more concerned that students know what's going on in a book than what type of thinking students are doing while reading the book.  The problem with being a "Book Teacher" is students end up learning more about (you guessed it) the book over learning about reading skills.  We are not preparing our students to be able to answer every trivia question about Huckleberry Finn, we're teaching them how readers think while reading any book.

What to replace it with:  Reading teachers teach reading behaviors and ask students to apply that thinking to books.  Reading minilessons taught should center around the strategic reading actions: solving words, summarizing, reading fluently, predicting, inferring, making connections, synthesizing, analyzing, and critiquing.  My favorite place to go when creating reading minilessons is Fountas and Pinnell's The Continuum of Literacy Learning.  An example of a reading minilesson focused on one specific reading behavior that students could apply to their independent reading book is, "Readers consider characters' decisions so that they can infer why characters made the decisions they did."  The guided reading tab breaks down the different strategic actions into individual reading skills.  Good reading teachers also make sure that their questioning during interactive read aloud and guided reading covers within, beyond, and about the text questions as well.






#4: Assigning Writing

Why we should ditch it:  Assigning writing means that we tell students what we want them to write and then ask them to do it.  It happens all the time.  Teachers tell students, "I want you to write a three paragraph reaction to what just happened in the book."  For many students, this is highly stressful and unattainable.  Even for many adults, the thought of being asked to write pretty much anything can bring a high level of anxiety.  So as adults, what do we do when we're asked to write a cover letter for a job we're applying for?  We go on the Internet, and we find examples of successful cover letters and read tips about what to include in a cover letter.  We find resources to show us a model and give us tips for writing pretty much anything we're asked to write as adults.  So why do we expect students to write "cold" at the snap of our fingers once we ask them to write something?  Assigning writing is easy initially, but teachers who assign writing versus teaching writing probably notice the following from their student writers: an unwillingness to get started, refusal to do the writing assignment at all, a final product that does not fit the writing that was assigned, and/or a piece of writing with minimal effort.

What to replace it with:  Like adult writers, students need a writing target.  Mentor texts are perfect for providing students with a model of what the final writing destination looks like.  For even the shortest, simplest writing assignments, I use mentor texts.  Most of the time, the mentor texts are my writing.  Providing this target sets expectations high, makes them clear, and helps students with the hardest part of writing: getting started.  Doing my own writing assignments also allows me to give students insights while teacher and monitor if the writing assignment is even worthy of giving in the first place.  Taking writing assignments and breaking them down step-by-step is another great strategy to teaching a short or long writing assignment.  Sometimes the task of a piece of writing can be completely overwhelming, but like anything, if students are taken through it one step at a time, they are much more likely to feel successful.  More tips for teaching writing can be found here.



#5: Round Robin Reading, Popcorn Reading, Etc.

Why we should ditch it:  Round robin, popcorn reading, or any other related reading practice means students are taking turns reading the same text out loud while other students reading the same text are following along.  One problem with this practice is students have to sit and listen to students who have different fluency levels than them.  This interrupts the reading flow and fluency for each individual student.  Many students also struggle with comprehension during round robin reading because they're experiencing anxiety over the thought of reading out loud and the reading is so disconjointed that they can't concentrate on the meaning.  Another problem is that in order for students to grow as readers, they need to process texts independently.  If a coach wanted their basketball team to improve, he or she would have all of his/her players work on dribbling, shooting, passing, defense, and endurance.  The coach wouldn't run the practice with everyone sitting on the bench and then ask one player at a time to go out on the court to do a drill while everyone else sat and watched her.  This is just silly.  So is popcorn reading for this very same reason.

What to replace it with:  There are many great alternatives to popcorn reading.  What you choose to have your students do and when is going to depend entirely on the purpose for their reading and the type of instructional context you're using.  One alternative to round robin reading includes having students read independently so that they're able to process the text, work on their fluency, and problem-solve as they read.  Another alternative is a teacher read aloud where students listen to the teacher read the text out loud and hear a model of fluent, properly-phrased reading while working on their listening comprehension.  In small group reading contexts, a great alternative to popcorn reading includes partner reading with PALS principles where students take turns being the "coach" and "reader."  The coach listens and follows along with the reading and tells the reader to stop when a reading mistake is made and reread.  Students can take turns being the coach and the reader, and this can be a great practice used for a portion of reading with the rest of reading done independently.  Using fluency drills is another great way to intentionally have students work on what teachers want students to do through popcorn reading: reading out loud.  An example of one of the fluency drills I use in small group reading instruction or intervention is selecting a paragraph and doing an Echo Read.  I read a sentence and students in the group echo that sentence using the same expression, pausing, intonation, and pronunciations that I used.  We repeat this process until we make our way through the paragraph.  Next, I have students turn to a partner and take turns reading that same paragraph out loud to one another.  I truly believe teachers who use round robin reading want their students to have better fluency, but a targeted fluency drill in a small group setting like this will do so much more than round robin reading will ever do to improve the reading fluency of your students.



#6: Using Lexiles to Limit Reading Choices for Students

Why we should ditch it:  A lexile is a scientific measure of where students are at as readers at one point in time.  The lexile level of a book is also determined scientifically.  As we know as readers, the complexity of a book goes beyond how hard the words in a book are and the length of its sentences.  Yes, these things are a piece, but book complexity is also about the themes of a book, the point of view, the plot structure, the literacy devices used, and the background knowledge needed to understand the content.  That's why sending students down to the library with a lexile number written on a piece of paper and instructing them to select a book based on if their lexile level matches the lexile of a book they want to read just doesn't match up.  Students with high lexiles end up with minimal choices of books that are "challenging" enough for them, and students with low lexiles longingly stare at the book they wish they could read as we slowly kill their love of reading and self-confidence as a reader.  I don't know about you, but I don't walk into Barnes & Noble and select books I want to buy based on my lexile score.  Why would we do this to our students?

What to replace it with: We must teach students how to begin reading a book and monitor if it's a book that they're able to comprehend.  Is the book too hard, too easy, or just right?  Teach them how to be Goldilocks in the world of books.  What do readers do if a book is too hard or too easy?  These are other conversations and lessons we must work with students on.  Interest and background knowledge in a particular series, author, or topic cannot be ignored.  Interest and background knowledge can allow a student with a lexile significantly below the book's lexile to be able to read the book with success.  Students are so much more than a number, and it's our job to teach students what readers do when finding reading material and giving them the free will to decide what their independent reading material will be.  Will there be students who read books that are way too hard that they don't understand?  Yes!  Will there be students who read way too easy of books in order to slack off?  Yes!  These instances though are perfect teaching moments and conversations for reading conferences as we teach and talk with students about what it means to be readers.



#7: Teacher Lectures

Why we should ditch it:  As teachers, we think what we have to say is pretty important.  How are students supposed to learn unless we're telling them what we need them to learn?  If we're not talking, we're not teaching.  Right?  Wrong!  When we find ourselves up in front of the classroom talking at students for any longer than 10-15 minutes, we have a problem.  Our problem is that our students are going to look like the picture below.  If they don't look that way, we have a very polite group of students who look this way on the inside.  There are so many better ways to get students to retain information than lecturing.  If you hear yourself saying a warning to students or justifying your long lesson to a colleague with something like, "I know I talked way too long, but I just had to get through..." then you need to take a look inside and ask yourself how you're going to fix your long-winded ways.

What to replace it with:  One reason your time in front of students talking is too long could be because you're trying to teach way too much at a time.  Ask yourself if your minilesson topic for the day is truly mini.  If it's more along the lines of a mega-lesson with multiple steps you're asking students to take, break it down and cover it over the course of several days.  Another way to lessen your time in front of the class is to incorporate more small group and individual teaching in the form of guided reading, literature circles, reading conferences, guided writing, and writing conferences.  I promise you that the time you spend with small groups and individual students will be so much more valuable than the time you spend in front of the entire class.  One last tip for decreasing the teacher talk is to increase opportunities for focused student talk.  Building turn and talks and student small group discussion with focus questions and talking topics is a great way to get students actively engaged in the lesson.




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October 26, 2016

Favorite Beginning of the Year Foundation Lessons


When it comes to teaching reading and writing to middle school students, it's overwhelming to know where to start with what to teach them.  Below I'm going to recap a few of my favorite lessons to teach within the first two months of the school year.

Lesson One: Selecting Independent Reading Material

The way I run Reading Workshop rests on doing a daily reading minilesson following the gradual release of responsibility (modeling, have-a-go, application, share).  During that application time, students are expected to apply the concept from the minilesson for the day to their independent reading book.  If students are "fake reading" and have no idea what's going on in their book or flat out don't have an independent reading book, how are they supposed to complete the minilesson?

One common mistake we make at the beginning of the school year is that we jump right into content without laying down a foundation for reading.  In order to create a reading culture in your classroom, here are a few things to try:

1.  Have a minilesson focused solely on selecting engaging independent reading material.  This year, I did the minilesson application on Google Classroom.  Students explored sites like "Good Reads" and "What Should I Read Next" and wrote down book titles that interested them.  We also started a collaborative class Google Doc where each student added a book recommendation.  In the past, I have let students just go down to the library to pull any random book off the shelf as their next IR book and hope for the best.  Why am I not surprised when that same student comes up to me three days later and says they're going to abandon their current independent reading book....again.  Now, before I will even sign a pass to the library, students have to show me their "Book I Want to Read" list in their Reader's Notebook with the book they intend to checkout.  If students don't have a specific book in mind, I ask them to go to Google Classroom and spend a little time on the websites previously mentioned looking for a specific idea.



Lesson Two: Establish What Independent Reading and Writing Looks Like

In order for students to become better readers and writers, they must have time to read and write.  If you don't give them that time during class, the world of sports, friends, and technology is going to take over after school.  The reading and writing more than likely is not going to happen as consistently as we would want it to.  Independent reading and writing can't happen in your class is clear expectations aren't set collaboratively, practiced, reflected on, and reinforced daily.  Trust me, it is a battle you want to fight and win because not only do students need this time to become better readers and writers, I need this time with them to be holding reading and writing conferences and guided reading and guided writing small groups.  Some of my students will learn when I am teaching a whole class minilesson, but where I am truly going to make a difference is during small group and individualized instruction.  If this instruction can never happen because I have to play reading and writing police, then this is a tragic loss of prime instructional time for my students.  Taking the time to make sure independent reading and writing expectations are crystal clear is never a waste of time.


Lesson Three: Teach Students How to Be Sentence Stalkers

The foundation of how I run Word Study in my classroom, which encompasses grammar, writing conventions, vocabulary, spelling, etc. is through the sentence stalking of sentences from our current interactive read aloud.  I don't waste a day of school before I have students learn how to be sentence stalkers.  Word Study is on the board when students walk into class, so it's the first thing they do every single day.  Teaching students how to look at the writer's craft of what goes into writing a sentence can impact students in how they read and how they write.




Lesson Four: Citing Textual Evidence and Quality Reading Response

The first type of writing I have my students do is in response to their reading.  We call this type of writing "Writing about Reading."  These responses at the beginning of the year tend to be filled with vague ideas not supported with what's actually going on in the book.  This year, my team of 8th grade LA teachers and I bit the bullet and taught how to add in and cite textual evidence extremely early on in the school year.  We specifically focused on how to introduce textual evidence, how to cite it correctly, and how to explain the ideas.  I don't regret it one bit, not even a little.  Teaching this writing skill right away saved me from seemingly endless hours of reading Writing about Reading responses with vague references to reading.  Now that we're writing a research paper in Writing Workshop, it's also pretty awesome that students are connecting adding in textual evidence to adding in specific research.








The above picture is a shared writing that I did with my reading intervention group in response to the book, Crow Call, by Lois Lowry.  Getting the opportunity to work with six students consistently in a small group on specific skills they need as readers and writers is a true gift!

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