Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Engaging Readers with Independent Reading

Today I got to present with the Adams County Teaching and Learning Conference! It was exciting to get together with fellow teachers for a day.

I presented on the topic of independent reading. Structured time for students to read during class has been an important piece of my instruction ever since I started teaching (waaay back in 1997!) I've never presented about it before, however. Why not? I never feel totally comfortable with how I implement independent reading. Each year I make small changes as I consider whether my classroom was too structured or not structured enough or whether I didn't hold students accountable or whether I sucked the joy out of reading.

This level of existential discomfort, however, is vital to teaching reading. I think that the day I decide that everything is "just right" will be the day that I am done as a classroom teacher! I need to learn how to embrace that uncomfortable feeling and keep making small changes as I adjust to each new group of students.

Speaking of an uncomfortable feeling...I didn't have my Mac adapter to plug into the Promethean board, so I used the handy PC computer that was already connected and just signed into my Chrome account. No problem, right? Except that the computer RESTARTED twenty minutes into my presentation and took the entire session time to look for updates and finish. Ugh! Luckily I could talk forever about books and reading, but I don't think the participants were impressed.

Here is a link to the presentation, with some photos removed:

Here is a list of my favorite classroom books for independent reading!

Anyone else have a presentation fail to share?

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Working with Wonders: Choices and Challenges

So two years ago my district adopted the Wonders reading anthology. I've been pretty quiet on here ever since then for several reasons:

  1. The process of adopting the anthology was pretty painful, and everything that I'd ever created for curriculum was cast aside, publicly and loudly. Ouch.
  2. The learning curve to assimilate all of the new materials was steep.
  3.  I like to really think deeply about a topic before writing about it. For like two years.

Everything I say here will be based on the sixth grade Wonders materials, which are the only ones to which I have access. I've done two (maybe three?) days of in-service work with the official trainers, and I've used the program for two years.

The Basics
The Wonders series is based on two different books: The Reading-Writing Workshop book, and the Literature Anthology. Each of six units has six "weeks" of curriculum written for it. Each week focuses on an essential question, and has several selections associated with it, often of differing genres.

The Reading-Writing Workshop selections are designed to be shared reads. These are uncredited texts that use the eight vocabulary words for the week, and often I find myself admiring these anonymous authors who managed to work the necessary words into an unrelated text. They range in quality from meh to surprisingly good.

The selections in the Literature Anthology are, naturally, the longer texts that hold the meat of the program. These include selections from novels such as Elijah of Buxton, A Single Shard, and Home of the Brave, as well as magazine articles and other nonfiction selections.

Reading lessons are included in the Reading-Writing Workshop book, and there are many close reading questions for the literature anthology selections in the teachers guide as well. Each week ends with a Weekly Assessment that consists of two uncredited selections, nine multiple choice questions that reflect the week's lessons to a degree, and one text-dependent analysis question requiring students to compare the two texts.

Of course there are scads of other resources that come along with the program, including leveled readers for guided reading, grammar worksheets and assessments, fluency reproducibles, diagnostic and placement tests, a close reading companion, an interactive version of the text for struggling readers, and then everything online as well, et cetera et cetera.

The Great
The best part of this program is the quality of the literature selected for the Literature Anthology. The sixth grade texts have a dizzying variety of form, style, and genre, and many are from well-known authors. The publishers didn't stint on the illustrations, either. For example, an excerpt from Linda Sue Park's A Single Shard is gorgeously illustrated in context-building paintings created especially for the series. Readers can't help but turn the pages to see what happens next! Nonfiction texts, like Into the Volcano, are accompanied by diagrams, maps, and sidebars.

It is easy to find an entire year's worth of instruction in the pages of the anthology. The texts are meaty enough to yield multiple interpretations, and the text pairings can lead to interesting comparisons.

The Good
The connections between the uncredited texts in the Reading-Writing Workshop and the texts in the Literature Anthology are pretty solid. The Reading-Writing Workshop texts are written to be accessible to most readers and used to introduce key concepts, and as a whole they are well-written and interesting. As with the Literature Anthology, the RWW texts are beautifully illustrated and formatted.

The Weekly Assessments are reasonably good as well, and give teachers far more than enough materials for ongoing assessment. The online testing system works well and makes grading much easier!

Vocabulary words are well-chosen. Last year, I had a classroom economy running, and "paid" students $50 to find vocabulary words in the context of their independent reading books. The incidence of the program vocabulary words in grade-level literature was astounding! This showed me that the words taught in the program are words that readers are likely to encounter and totally worth the time spent teaching them.

The Questionable
My biggest issue with the Wonders series is the issue of time. It is absolutely impossible to finish the program as described. For example, a 15-page story excerpt called "Roman Diary" is meant to be taught, read, and discussed in a single day of instruction. This is the norm, rather than the exception. Each of the amazing Literature Anthology texts is blocked for one day of instruction. My readers have varying reading rates, of course, and even with an incredibly generous reading block of 2 hours we can't make this work. I don't think I'd want to do it this way, either. Strong works of literature require time for the reader to consider and think about the author's choices; racing through them does no one any good. This is especially true for the upper grades, in which the goal of reading becomes slowing down and considering the author's choices.

Of course the facilitators at the workshops are quick to say, "Make it work for you!" at the same time that they talk about keeping pace and moving quickly through the program. It's telling that the online planning program will not allow you to make a lesson block longer than 6 days. Instead, to make your days line up correctly, you have to add "Non-teaching days"...even if those days are definitely going to be spent teaching! This sends a message to teachers, especially newer teachers who don't have as much confidence in their choices. It's easy for me to say, "I'm teaching this amazing text about the Great Chicago Fire, and we will work on it for four days because there is so much to explore here!" A first year teacher, however, might feel pressure to race through and miss those great connections.

Another small quibble has to do with the Benchmark tests. There are three Benchmarks to be given at intervals through the year. Like the Weekly Assessments, these are uncredited texts written for the program. I would like to see stronger texts for these tests, especially as there are so few of them!

The spelling and grammar segments are weak, with an emphasis on really dull worksheets. Given the strength of the other components, I'd have loved to see stronger lessons with more sentences and examples pulled from the included texts.

As students move through the series, I also notice that the program's emphasis on text-based essential questions--"What was life like for people in ancient civilizations?"--leads to a lack of knowledge about literature terms. Even though text structure is taught throughout each year, my students had trouble generating a list of text structures this year. Now that I'm aware of this issue, I can easily work to fix it.

Next Steps
In my next post I'll talk about what I've done to add to the program this year.

Have you adopted a basal series in the past few years? What was your experience like?

Friday, April 13, 2018

Customizing Sixth Grade Calendar Math

So...um...I'm not a true believer in Calendar Math. I mean, I like having a structured beginning to math class. But following a scripted activity guide that hasn't been written for my class is possibly my least-favorite thing to do (after analyzing data, that is.)

Because I teach sixth grade science as well as math, I've tweaked a few of the Calendar Math activities to help us build data sets that we can use to discuss our local weather. My students have become so confident and capable at building line graphs! Even better, they offer comments on the weather and make predictions based on what we are seeing.

Where to get the data?

Of course, a classroom thermometer is the best! Unfortunately my outdoor probe was stolen, and the replacement that I bought wasn't accurate enough for us. Each day I project either Weather Underground or Accuweather data, which varies in interesting ways and can always lead us into a discussion of variations in different places.

From Stem-and-Leaf to Histogram

January's activity manual requires a stem and leaf plot, which leads naturally to a discussion of the data that is lost with this kind of display. At the end of the month, students used the data to build a histogram displaying the temperatures for the month. For their first histogram experience I built the intervals, while students worked with the data and colored in the values.

You'll notice that we had an unusually warm day for Pennsylvania! I've kept student work for next year so that I'll have a ready to go, authentic histogram comparison for students.

Comparing Highs and Lows

In February we grew more ambitious: students made a graph to show the daily highs and lows of our town of Bendersville compared with Melbourne, Australia. Why Melbourne? We are at roughly equivalent latitudes, and I thought it would be interesting to compare summer in the Southern Hemisphere with our Northern Hemisphere winter. 

Creating such a complex graph proved to be a real challenge for my sixth graders, right down to keeping track of the colored pencils they used for each line! Because they varied so greatly in the time they took to do the graphing, students copied down the data each day, and worked on the graph during homework time or other down times during math.

It was very exciting for students in the middle of the month, when the local high overtook the Melbourne low. Mistakes were inevitable (I made a few myself!) and celebrated. We discussed--what went wrong? What could we do to avoid this in the future?

Daily Highs and Lows vs. Historical Data

In March, we began to explore the daily temperatures versus the historical data. I pulled the historical data from the Accuweather calendar--here's the link to my local one. When students started to graph the historical data, they were surprised by how the graph turned out with smooth steps. (Honestly, this surprised me as well!) We discussed why the graph of historical data looks so nice--it's because the data represents decades of data, which smooths things out for us.

When we started graphing our daily temperatures, students noticed much more variation than the historical temperatures. At the end of the month, students found landmarks of data for both the historical information and the monthly data. What did we find? If you were on the East Coast in March, you know that it was cold! Both the median and the mean were colder than usual, which led to a conversation--where were temperatures warmer than usual? Students went to the weather sites themselves to find the answers.

We also found that the historical data was already arranged in order from least to greatest, which made finding the median much easier. This lead to a conversation: Would we see this in every month? (Hopefully not) Which months might not have the data in order from least to greatest? Why?

Finding the landmarks of data was tough for students: Here, you can see some of the strategies employed to find
the median and the mean.

Looking Back

In the month of April, students have been extending their investigation into actual versus historical temperatures. It was heartening to see how competently students went about this process. When I made a mistake on the graph I copied for student use (I wrote a date twice), some of them cast aside my graph and made their own. This was great! I was glad that I went beyond the scripted activities and into tasks that were meaningful for my students.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Success with Text-Dependent Analysis

    This past week, we read an excerpt from "Home of the Brave" by Katherine Applegate in our literature anthology. It's a compelling read, even though the excerpt doesn't come close to matching the power of the rest of the book, and kids were enthralled. As we talked about it in a small group session, one student said, "Can we write an essay about this?"

    Wow. A student actually requesting to write an essay! The next natural question was, "What would we write an essay about?" and the small group came to life with a discussion about what kinds of essay prompts would work for this text and why. There were no formulas, no acronyms--just a meaningful conversation of how we could write about this text.

    This was a hard-fought victory. For the first time, I feel that my sixth graders are really moving forward with being able to frame strongly written essays to analyze text. I have mixed feelings about this--on the one hand, I'm pleased with the progress that they're making; on the other hand, I recognize that every new curricular topic replaces something else, and I wonder what my students are missing now that we focus so heavily on the text-dependent analysis essay.

    Ah well, those musings aside, here are some techniques that I've used this year to help us to get to a point where text-dependent analysis essays are meaningful. I will say that these techniques are not for the faint of heart or those looking for a quick and easy answer. Getting kids to write strong text-dependent analysis is far more difficult than simply adopting an acronym or printing a graphic organizer. You as the teacher will need to know each text, love each text, and consider the words inside and out.

Examples, examples, examples

    Early in the year, I noticed that my students were having trouble with writing text-dependent analysis essays that actually say something. The world of text-dependent analysis is far removed from the world of everyday speaking and listening, and most students (probably most teachers as well!) haven't had much experience with reading examples of essays.
    So I had to provide some. In some cases, I write my own. I share these with students as examples that I have written, and we've diagrammed the parts of them--introduction, conclusion, transitions, text evidence. Some students like to have these examples sitting beside them as they work on their next essays. A few introductions and conclusions end up being closely modeled after mine, but it gives these writers a starting place from which they can feel comfortable with further innovation.
    In other cases, I've used the texts provided by the state in the item samplers. (Pennsylvania has some nice examples available here.) As we look at these examples, I lead students in a discussion of what we like about them. What techniques can we use as writers ourselves? Students often see patterns that I didn't notice, and we talk about what worked and what didn't.
    As I talk with writers in these conversations, I make sure to give the ideas precedence. The ideas are the reason for our piece of writing. Our job as writers is to pull the formless ideas from our heads and hammer them into something worthwhile and meaningful to our readers.

Collecting text evidence

     Teaching students lots of ways to collect text evidence is another important step to text-dependent analysis. Sometimes, a chart works well. I have some students with writing difficulties in my class, and I've taught them how to number parts of the text so that they can find and label their text evidence at one point and write it at another. Having to copy a text quote twice--once in an organizer, and again in the essay--really discourages some young writers. Whatever we can devise to minimize this chore is helpful.
    For example, in the chart to the right, some students would write the number 1 next to the quote that they wanted to choose, and then write that corresponding number in the chart. It really helped them to focus on looking for strong evidence instead of copying!

Ongoing practice

    My students are never not working on an essay.
    I know.
    I'm not sure how I feel about it either.
    Students have an essay to complete on each "Weekly Assessment" with our Wonders program. They're more like "Bi-Weekly Assessments" for me, as the suggested pace is laughably at odds with providing rich reading experiences for students.
    In addition to these assessment pieces, the only homework I give is a Summary and Analysis packet that students complete over two weeks. Calling this homework isn't exactly accurate, as students have lots of time to work on it in class. I use a soft-start to begin our day, and kids come in, chat, get computers, and work on the summary and analysis. Often, my co-teacher and I will choose to focus on the summary or the analysis part for focused instruction. Students really don't complain about these assignments; they like the texts, and they enjoy the conversations that these assignments foster.
    I started making Summary and Analysis packets so that I could keep using them year after year. You can find the ones that I've created here.

     Sometimes I look up from a student essay and think, "If someone had told me, fifteen years ago, that a sixth grader could write like this, I wouldn't have believed them." Students are capable of writing strong text-dependent analysis!

And, if you approach it carefully, they may even learn to like it.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Hands-On Experiences and Reading Comprehension: Building Motivation

    We all know those readers: the ones who voraciously devour every book, who love finding new details about the topics that they love, who read and read and read.
    As a classroom teacher, it's easy for me to identify these students and build a classroom to support them. I love to use flexible assignments so students don't have to waste their time with busywork; I build a wide classroom library with texts on many topics; I make time in the classroom for students to share their lives beyond school.
    But I don't want to stop there! I want to turn every reader into a motivated reader. This is more easily said than done, however. How do we create engaged readers?

Stream Study Flip-Flop
    This fall I took students on a field trip that included a stream study. In previous years, I had made sure that students were well prepared for the stream study ahead of time. We read texts about the biotic index, we practiced identifying stream creatures, and even did practice inventories.
    What made this year different? I focused a bit more on watersheds at the outset, which meant that the stream study readings would have to take place after the field trip. I was even a little annoyed at myself at my poor timing when I realized this!
    When students jumped into the text after the field trip, however, I realized that something amazing had happened. I used a text from my Problem and Solution Text Structure packet called "The Biotic Index."
     In past years, students have had trouble moving beyond the topic of the text (macroinvertebrates) to be able to think about the structure of the text. This time, though, they showed far deeper comprehension. As I walked around the room to listen in on their partner discussions and see their graphic organizers I could see evidence of stronger connections and more effective analysis. What was happening?

Stimulating Tasks

As I thought about my observations over the next few days, I remembered a line of research into stimulating tasks. I found these journal articles while researching my details book (The Forest and the Trees: Helping Readers Identify Important Details in Texts and Tests, which was so much fun to write but which only 2 people have ever read.)  Shortly after I finished the book, the curriculum pendulum shifted to common core, and discussions of reading motivation faded into the background as everyone clamored to talk about text complexity and textual analysis.
    The article in question, "Influences of Stimulating Tasks on Reading Motivation and Comprehension" discusses how building situational interest in students can improve their reading comprehension by building motivation for reading. The process described in the article turns around traditional classroom practices by putting the stimulating task before the reading experiences. In this arrangement, the hands-on activity (like dissecting owl pellets) happens before the students read. What happens next is a cascade of good things: kids are interested in the topic, so they read more; as they read more, they are motivated to unlock the meaning of the text; as they unlock the meaning of one text, they gain the keys to unlock more. The authors of the article put it best:

    They have a sobering picture for students who don't get to experience a classroom with opportunities for situational interest: "Likewise, students who have fewer experiences of situational interest in reading will have fewer opportunities for experiencing competence in gaining valued information, fewer occasions for directing their learning, and fewer interactions with peers."

    So my mistiming of the macroinvertebrate readings turned out to be positive...especially because it led me back to a line of research and thinking that I had half-forgotten. It's helped me to realize that the goal of creating engaged readers is not so elusive after all. When I feel pressure to conform and just assign the worksheets like everyone else, it's journal articles like these that keep me planning the crazy field trips and buying the stacks of books at the used bookstore.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Exploring Author's Point of View in Expository Text

Identifying Point of View
    I think that many teachers have struggled over the past few years to expand their teaching of "point of view" beyond the traditional first and third person narratives and into identifying an author's perspective. There is a gradient of expository texts, from objective texts in which the author's point of view is faint and difficult to hear, to biased texts dripping with the author's opinions. As I explained to my students, most texts exist in a middle territory in which the generalizations and main ideas of the text do most of the work of conveying the author's point of view.

   As we started to identify point of view, I found that my students needed the academic language necessary for this task. I designed this resource to give students help as they work on defending their claims about the author's point of view.

Link to Google Doc

Supporting Point of View
    At this point in the year, many of my sixth graders are writing lengthy text quotes as evidence for their claims. I adapted a chart from the EngageNY materials to help them find the best evidence for their assertions. In the photo you can see the chart we filled out together based on the "Columbian Exposition" text from my Paraphrasing and Summarizing materials over on TpT.

     This chart worked wonderfully with students, especially the "Word Choice" column. Even students who struggle with identifying the point of view can find the author's words that carry the point of view. A nice way to mix it up is also to show students text evidence and have them infer the author's point of view conveyed by that text evidence.

    Link to Author's Point of View chart

    Helping students to listen for author's point of view in expository text is important! What successes have you had?

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Reading Round Up: Starting the Year

Oh my goodness, this was my first proper back to school in three years! I moved from fourth grade to sixth grade at the end of 2015, which meant that I had two years with super-easy starts, as I'd taught the students before.

Getting Started with Assessments
So this August I was back to square one with a new crop of readers and writers. True to my reading specialist training I've been using the Qualitative Reading Inventory to listen to my students and gain an insight into their word-solving and comprehension techniques. There are so many things to like about this as a quick reading assessment--the word lists help me to see where kids are with words in isolation, while the passages allow me to listen to students and gain insight into their answers to both explicit and implicit questions. I've been working with one students each day, during independent reading time, and this has worked well.

Popular Books
It's been interesting to see how readers have taken to my classroom library. I always love seeing
which books they love! What's great about having so many excellent books around the classroom is that I can quickly pull them to explain concepts that I'm teaching.

  Calamity Jack by Shannon and Dean Hale retains so much appeal for students. This is one book that hasn't seen the shelf (actually, the bin dedicated to Shannon Hale's books) all year. What's neat about this book is that it leads to so many others--not just the Shannon Hale books, but also books by Nathan Hale.

Another popular graphic novel has been The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks. The characters are interesting, the setting is new and exciting, and the action appeals to a wide cross section of readers. Today a student even brought me the sequel, The Stone Heart, to show me the way it reveals a flashback in the text.

With a movie on the way, Wonder has been making its rounds through the room. It's so great to have this book at hand to illustrate important concepts about point of view. There are so many reasons to love this book, but Auggie's wry sarcasm is my favorite part.

New on TpT
I made these Expository Text Structure signs for my classroom. They're pretty simple, but a nice ongoing reference for my students.

I'm starting the year teaching about Earth's Spheres, so I'm using this set of resources that I made last year. They go very nicely with the Crash Course Kids videos on the topic.

These Summary and Analysis sets are easy to use for ongoing summarizing and text-based essays! I use them on a two-week basis (we're doing the Stormwater text right now) and see so much growth from my students over the course of the year.