Sunday, November 25, 2018

Building Content Area Reading Experiences

I'm delighted to be presenting about content area reading experiences at Shippensburg tomorrow! Well, I admit that I'm not delighted about driving "over the mountain" on the first day of hunting season...but I know that it will be enjoyable to talk about content area reading.

Content Area Reading Presentation
You can find the link to the presentation here. Because I do periodically clean out my folders on Google Drive, you may want to save a copy to your own Drive if you think you'll refer back to this later.

Other content area reading posts
Anticipation Guides: Read more about one of my favorite content area reading strategies.

Nominalizations: No one ever talks about these word constructions, and in my mind, that's a shame. Nominalizations really wreak havoc with the reading comprehension of learners, and understanding their role in text helps students as readers and writers.

Animal Adaptations Synthesis: A reflection about an activity that I led with fourth graders.

Previewing Content with Phenology: How to find out what vocabulary words your learners already know.

Concept Maps: How to develop knowledge with students by making concept maps

Friday, November 23, 2018

Sixth Grade Classroom Management: Grouping Tips

   Sometimes the trouble with teaching for 20+ years is the curse of knowledge. I have tried so many different techniques and noticed so many different results that I get to feeling paralyzed by choices!  I've also learned that some strategies are great for winning the battle, but losing the war--they work really well in the short term, but leave me with greater challenges in the long term.

    But last month, I learned that sometimes techniques that I discarded a decade ago are worth a closer look.

Table Competitions

    Enter Star Table. In the research compilation library of my mind, assigning points to different tables as a competition has as many entries in the "Con" column as it does in the "Pro" column. In the short-term, it is highly effective, as groups will quickly learn how to manage their behaviors to earn points. In the long-term, well, are the students really shaping up to improve as learners, or are they just performing to win points? Because of these issues, I really had abandoned table incentive schemes ten years ago.

Star Table for Cleaning

    In October, I added a "Star Table" incentive, but it was only for cleaning up under the tables and putting up chairs at the end of the day. For these small chores, I feel that a tangible incentive is both helpful and necessary. Each day I'd assign points to table based on what their desks looked like at the end of the day, and at the end of the week the Star Table got to "spin for dollars" with my wheel of fortune and the classroom economy. It was pretty simple, actually, and got the classroom cleaned up with a minimum of fuss.

Group Norms

    But Star Tables were on my mind when I rearranged tables for the month of November. To build a better climate, I started the new groups by having students create group norms for their table. (I picked up this idea from a NASA STEM workshop, and as a teaching tip, is the one of the BEST little tricks I've ever learned.) The idea is that students have a dialogue with each other to dream up what they want for themselves. When issues arise, it's easy for a leader to refer students back to the group norms to address problems.

    Group norms are also great for finding out what you value as a teacher, because to a degree the norms that students create tend to echo what they hear a lot of in the classroom. (I know this from working with group norms in after school clubs, in which we have a mix of students from different classes.) If the group norms come out anemic or weak, that can be hard to face, because it means that somehow my messaging as a teacher is not coming through.

 November's norms were an interesting assortment! Notice in this one the students in the group took turns writing the norms, which I hadn't expressly suggested. They also used a nice numbered list format--again, not something that I had directed them to do!

What do these norms say about our classroom? I was really happy to see #1, but I can see the impact of Star Table right there in #3: "Stay clean." I especially love #4: "Have a sense of humor but not to much."

    In this next set, I really liked that they started with kindness and respect. Once again, though, I could see the influence of Star Table.

    As I'm writing this, I wonder if maybe I should have backed off from Star Table. However, in the first week of November, I made a different choice. I looked at these norms and realized that my casually implemented Star Table was a powerful force in the classroom. What if I could harness that force to achieve more good? What if I kept points throughout the day, for things beyond cleaning?

Star Table Throughout the Day

    For the rest of November, I created a chart on the dry erase board each day, and put up points for tables throughout various classes. As I recreated the chart every day I could never help but reflect on how this method of management has gone wrong for me in the past. As I wrote the table names each day I berated myself for employing such a meaningless technique.

    Once I defeated my anxiety each day, I added or subtracted points as issues arose. Because I prefer to be the Generous Benefactor instead of the Evil Deductress, I was often quite generous in the giving of points. Each table could earn 3 points for every session, and I would add an X or a star in the box as needed. I have to admit, sometimes adding that X felt satisfying, like when it was five minutes into independent reading time and AN ENTIRE TABLE had digressed to a conversation about Fortnite.

    Of course I never gave or took away points for academic work, like getting answers right or wrong. Instead, I looked for things like having out assigned tasks, being ready for the next part of class, showing kindness to one another, and walking through the hallway quietly. (Ugh, like 50% of my classroom management stress comes from trying to keep my class quiet in the hallways!)

    When there were issues that involved only one student, I addressed them with that one student instead of marking down the whole table. I know from experience that taking points off a table for the behavior of one student is the pathway to ruin!

    What was different with this year's implementation of Star Tables? First of all, this was the first time that I explicitly linked them to the group norms that students created. Another innovation was to give minutes to our entire class's Preferred Activity Time if all four tables earned all of the points for a class. This helped to provide an incentive to benefit everyone instead of focusing on the competitive aspect.
    I just finished Week 3, and it was still working harmoniously in the background. Working to the point at which I can just pick up my dry erase marker and frown at the board for a moment to encourage a class to get started! Instead of taking too much time to implement, this method has really allowed me to spend more time working with students and less time giving directions.

Lessons Learned

    The curse of knowledge can be a huge obstacle for those of us in our third and fourth decades of teaching. However, by pairing new tricks with old techniques, we can dust off some strategies and make them work again.

Warnings, Side Effects, and Contraindications

Thinking about Star Tables for your classroom? Consider these warnings:

  • De-emphasize the competitive aspect to build cooperation in your room.
  • Start with a robust set of group norms to guide how tables will behave.
  • If one table is significantly behind the others, make adjustments to the seating chart.
  • Do not punish the entire group for the misdeeds of one. Instead, let that one student earn points or minutes for the whole class.
  • You will be much happier if you are generous with points.
  • This works best for short periods of time, especially the period of November-January. Eventually every management scheme gets stale!
  • Encourage group members to help each other: "In one minute I'll be checking to see how tables are doing. Does everyone have their ____ and ____ ready to go?"
  • Try random point awards: "I'll be pulling popsicle sticks at random times through that work session. If I pull your name and you're on task, your table will get a point."
  • Pair up Star Tables with Preferred Activity Time:


Sunday, October 21, 2018

Preparing for Text-Dependent Analysis

In Pennsylvania, text-dependent analysis is a big deal.  Teachers in schools all over the state have probably worked with their text-dependent analysis (TDA) data this fall.

First, let's think about all of the skills that students have to combine to write a successful text-dependent analysis essay:

Reading skills
-identifying text elements
-selecting strong text details
-analyzing components of the text
-switching between "micro-level" or local processing of text and "macro-level" or big picture processing

Writing skills
-creating a thesis statement
-using an introduction and conclusion
-linking ideas with transitions
-weaving in text evidence
-using appropriate conventions

The issue with TDA essays, however, is that your efforts in one area from the above list do not lead to instant improvement. As with summarizing, it's like playing a game of Whack-A-Mole--as soon as you deal with one issue, another one pops up.

But we must not despair...nor must we fall into the trap of sacrificing high-quality instruction for the sake of one assessment. Again, as with summarizing, there are good teaching moves that can improve a TDA as well as being worthwhile in the greater sense, beyond the requirements of school and state.

Return to reading stances

I think it's time to shift the reading discussion back toward the idea of "envisionments" as described by Judith Langer. As she writes, "Envisionment building is an act of becoming – where questions, insights, and understandings develop as the reading progresses, while understandings that were once held are subject to modification, reinterpretation, and even dismissal."

I just love this thinking about envisionments. The texts we share in the classroom aren't just what's printed on the next page in the reading series; in the minds of our students, they become so much more.

Anyone who taught in Maryland in the early 2000s remembers building questions around the stances of Global Understanding, Developing Interpretation, Personal Connection, and Critical Stance. And guess what? These ways of looking at a text lead students very well into the kinds of thinking needed for a TDA.

With the tumult surrounding the arrival of the Common Core, the stances and envisionments were dropped at the school level.  I have lots of cynical ideas about why and how this happened, but do you know what? The stances make sense and bring up the level of classroom discourse!

Have students practice connecting text elements

In Pennsylvania, the TDA always has students connecting two different elements of the text. For example, students might have to show how the character traits relate to the theme. In expository text, students may need to show how the organization of the text conveys the key ideas.

This is a very global way of thinking about a text that requires flexibility in student thinking. This year, I'm going to focus more on having students discuss these elements in low-stakes classroom conversations. We might even have these discussions before our district-mandated weekly assessment tests (Shh, don't tell!)

My reasoning is this: If students don't get to thoughtful analysis and comprehension at the discussion level, they'll never get there in writing. Grading 20 well-structured but empty analysis essays is a thankless task. Students won't put effort into the writing portion of the task unless they care about what they're writing about! Engaging in group discussions and meaningful conversations is a proven way to get kids to care.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

First Day of School Activities: From Low Risk to High Risk

    Many years ago I went to an in-service presentation about Lions Quest, the character education program funded by the Lions Clubs. Although many parts of the presentation have faded from my memory with time, the presenter had a piece of advice that I still consider every August:

"When planning group-building activities, always remember to start with low risk activities. Don't ask participants to share too much at once."

   The idea is simple, but deeply meaningful. We must be careful to structure our group building so that students aren't asked to share too much before they are comfortable doing so. 
     Over the course of our two-day session, the presenter practiced what she preached. The very first grouping activity was based on something that we had for breakfast that morning, with prescribed choices offered. Pretty low risk, right? Revealing that I had eaten cereal for breakfast did not give away too much of myself in an awkward new group. It wasn't until the very last activity of the last day that we did an activity called "Rare Birds", in which we shared something about ourselves that made us stand out from the crowd.

First day = low risk activities

    Keeping this principle in mind, I make sure that my first day activities are low risk. This is not the time for sharing important truths or deep ideas. While we are coming together as a class, I make sure that our first activities do not put students on the spot.

    I am a pretty reserved and quiet person myself. In new groups, I much prefer to sit back and watch what's going on before I contribute. Many students feel the same way....and my first day activities need to reflect this.

     There will be plenty of opportunities for students to get to know each other on a deeper level. Right now, I want to help everyone to feel comfortable. And this means not asking questions that will make students feel distressed. We keep our conversations rather light and superficial on the first morning of the first day. 

  • What is your favorite color?
  • What books in the classroom look interesting to you?
  • Which classroom plant is your favorite?
  • What part of the classroom do you like to sit in?

    I also like quick and easy games, such as:


Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Start the Reading Year: Lesson Plans for those First Days of School

There are very few times when I will reuse lesson plans. In fact, sometimes I write plans that I don't even use an hour later! I'm always working on building new things and trying out new ways to teach.

However, there are times when a trusty set of plans is helpful. For me, the beginning of the school year is one of those times. I need the comfort of what's tried and true!

As I was looking through my files to clean up some items and improve them, I came across these lesson plans. I first wrote them in 2011 and have slowly added to them over the years, but hadn't used them since my move to sixth grade.

When I read them I felt my anxiety about the first few days of school just decrease. I can do this! (I've done it before!) I added some new features, like the Reading Interview and the Double Entry Journal, and now all I have to do is make some photocopies and my first few days of reading class are planned.

Here is a sample snippet of the first lesson and activity. What lesson plans do you use over and over again?

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Setting up a classroom for collaboration

    It's that time of year again...when pictures of perfect classrooms start to show up on Pinterest and Instagram! It's also the time when anxious and perfectionist teachers start to feel very, very badly about themselves.

    But setting up collaborative classroom actually means learning to let go. It means that as teachers, we can let go of key routines and processes that should be in the hands of students. It means that we can let go of perfectly pretty bulletin boards and having every square inch of the room filled with themed posters. It's actually quite freeing!

Materials stored and labeled for student use

    I am so lucky to have a classroom with lots of drawer space. I make this usable for students by labeling the drawers and providing students with free access to them. It always takes some time in the first weeks of school for students to become used to this!
    Of course there are some materials that I don't like to leave out, tragedy of the commons and all, and these I simply store in a higher cupboard.
    Do the drawers ever get cluttered and messy? Of course! Around December, a few enterprising students always undertake the task of organizing the marker drawer or fixing up the colored pencil drawer. It's just one more way to put tasks in the hands of students.

Browsable book bins

    These are so helpful for students to be able to find and return books on their own. In the first days of school, I put the bins around the room to facilitate browsing. I love how flexible this system can be!

Student-led routines

    Instead of a moon phase bulletin board, I have a place on my board for "Today's Phase" and "Next Phase". The student astronomer will be in charge of checking out the phases and placing the posters accordingly.
   In addition to the moon phases, I also have a dry-erase board set up for the meteorologist to fill in each day. Planning for these routines before the start of school helps them to have a place in the physical arrangement of the classroom.

Leave some things un-done

    My recess games cabinet is a bit messy right now, but that's okay with me! On one of the first three days of school I like to spend an hour getting everything out so that kids can see what the options are. Then, students decide how to organize the cabinet so that the games and materials they like the best are the most accessible. Students are much more likely to keep up with an organizational scheme that they have created.