Saturday, February 20, 2010

Reigniting the Fire: Maintaining Independent Reading

One aspect of independent reading that is often overlooked is how carefully it needs to be maintained throughout the year. Things can go from good to poor very quickly.

When we returned from the holiday break, my reading time had stabilized into a calm, focused period with kids engaged in great books. A month later, this same calm time had become fragmented. Kids were returning to their "flitting" habits, randomly grabbing picture books off the shelves or lingering for long periods by the bookshelves. The series books which had been so hotly contested were just languishing on the shelves. Kids weren't updating their book lists or consulting their Someday Lists.

I had a part in this as well. I had drifted into spending the reading time taking care of urgent classroom tasks, dealing with issues from lunch and recess, working with students to get organized, and managing homework problems. Pressured by upcoming state tests, I was also putting the squeeze on independent reading time, shaving off time at the beginning and end.

Clearly, I needed to make some changes! I took a two-prong approach--working with individual students, and meeting with the class as a whole.

Class meeting: We met at the carpet with our reading logs. I asked students, "What do you notice as you look at the books that you have read this year? What do you like? What do you want to change?" The students spent a few minutes talking about this with their partners, and then we shared. I was gratified to see that they noticed the same problems that I did. One girl said, "I've been choosing the easy books. I want to try something harder again."

A boy said, "I haven't been writing down the books that I read, and now I forget them. I wish that I had kept a list." (I give students a reading log because many enjoy capturing their progress...I don't force them to keep it or give them a grade on it.)

When we looked at our Someday Lists, real enthusiasm emerged. "I've read three books from my list!" a girl said. "Can I borrow a pencil? I want to add the rest of the Among the Hidden series to my Someday List," a boy said...and this was a boy who had finished few books throughout the year.

Then, I shared a few books with them. I had chosen a few that were a new level of challenge--an Annie Oakley biography, The Teacher's Funeral, and Time for Andrew. Instead of reading the back or the first few pages, I chose an exciting bit from each one to share. For the Annie Oakley biography, this was the account of how Annie shot her first squirrel. (Hunting is a favorite pasttime of some of my students, and I knew they would appreciate this part!) They were riveted. When I held up the book--a book that had been on the shelves all year, with no readers--ten hands shot up in the air. I gave it to one boy, and told the rest to put it on their Someday Lists.

The whole meeting took about fifteen minutes. Students went away from our conversation with clear goals for themselves as readers, and a renewed interest in reading. I thought to myself, "Fifteen minutes! That's all it took to get us back on track." Even with trying to fit everything in before the tests, I can spare fifteen minutes each week to keep things going strong.

Next time, I'll write about the other part of my independent reading maintenance program: The Let's Get Real Conference.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Text Structure: Chronological Order

The text structure of chronological order, or sequence, is all around. For many students, this is the easiest structure to understand, because it closely parallels the structure of everyday life. Events go in order, time flows in one direction, and events are pretty easy to understand. (Unless, of course, you're watching Lost.)

But chronological order comes in different flavors. This week, I've explored several different kinds of chronological order with my students.

In guided reading, we've been reading some short little books about animal life cycles. These books, with a clear sequence, are very easy for students to understand. Kids respond well to questions like, "What would happen if we switched the pages around? Would the text still make sense?" Life cycle books, like recipes, are an easy introduction to chronological order.

We've also looked at "Firefighting Through the Ages" from Toolkit Texts. This short article skips through the time periods, looking at firefighting in ancient times, colonial times, and today. A timeline on the back helps students to see the flow of events. This "through the ages" technique is a pretty common device that authors use. It's important for students to see how they can use headings and dates to quickly find their way through a text. While it's second nature for adults, kids need to be taught how to do this.

Later on this week, students will be reading a more compact account of the Great Chicago Fire. In this text, the author tells the events that took place over two days. Looking for dates is not terribly helpful in this article--the events happen in a short time period. Instead, students need to look for times of day.

As I read and reread these texts this week, I realized that something so simple as chronological order has many dimensions. And simply labeling text structures is not going to lead to better reading. Instead, students need to learn how to use text structure to generate good questions. In a chronological order text, kids can consider:

-What is the time span of the events?
-Does one event cause another?
-What is the author trying to tell me about?
-What do all of the events add up to?
-Which event is most important?
-Which events could be left out?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Text Structure Readers Theatre

So here is my problem with text structure. For some students, the mere mention of "cause and effect" is enough to get them to remember it. These students learn quickly and easily. A little bit of instruction goes a long way.

But for other students, text structure is a lot of content to learn. These students need repeated exposures to an idea in order to learn it. They need to hear the word, say the word, see the word, and act out the concept. They can't remember the difference between a cause and effect; they don't know how to pronounce the word "solution"; they get lost in the syllables of "chronological".

Readers Theatre is the perfect way to give students repeated exposure to these words. As students practice their lines, they are practicing the important words related to text structure. Over a snowy weekend, I created four scripts--one each for chronological order, cause and effect, problem and solution, and compare and contrast. Are the scripts a little silly? Of course! I want kids to enjoy performing them, so I tried to add in lots of action and some funny parts.

Text Structure Readers Theatre

I can see these being used in two different ways. In my classroom, groups of students are working on one script throughout the week, and will hopefully perform their work to another class of students. But it would be just as effective to put the scripts in a fluency center and have students cycle through practicing the different scripts.

We had so much fun doing these scripts yesterday and today! I got the big acting break that I've been waiting for...due to a student absence, I got to be the Writing Fairy. It was about as much fun as you can have on a snowy Tuesday afternoon.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Finding main ideas

It's important for students to understand how to find main ideas. With my fourth graders, I am always fighting against their impulsive habits. If I give them paragraphs for practice, they often just circle the very first sentence.

How to change the activity? I've found some success with cutting apart paragraphs. Students have to read each sentence, figure out the topic, find the main idea sentence, and then try to put the paragraph in order. Sorting the cards and putting them in order keeps them more engaged than just reading sentences. As I watch them work with their partners and listen to their conversation, I can figure out what "rules" they're using and clear up any misconceptions. Students who can easily find the main ideas then concentrate more on putting the rest of the sentences in order, which requires them to think carefully about cohesion and how the ideas fit together.

These cut apart sentences are simple to make. For my first set, I just wrote the sentences on a sheet of paper. When I saw how well it worked, I typed the sentences into a Word table and copied them on cardstock. However you do it, this works well as a small group activity, partner activity, or center.

I've uploaded a document with some sentences to Slideshare. Here's the link:

Sentences for finding main ideas

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Adding Glamour to Revising

Revising! I always find this step of the writing process frustrating. So many of my students just want to rush headlong through the writing process, scribbling out a final draft so they can say that they're "done". When I ask them to revise, they might circle a word, find a punctuation mistake, or half-heartedly reread their piece.

Part of this is developmental. See, most of our writers are still at the "knowledge-telling" phase, in which they think that their purpose for writing is just to take what is in their head and copy it onto the page. (See The Psychology of Written Expression by Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia for more on knowledge telling.) To a knowledge-teller, revising is boring and redundant. They already wrote what they know. Why should they read it again?

In the past, I've made the earnest appeal for revising. I modeled revising with sample drafts. I've shown them how revising leads to a stronger piece of writing. I took a thoughtful, reasoned approach to convince students that revising is more than just adding a word. I told them, honestly, that revising is hard.

Well, the earnest approach wasn't working with my students. Instead, I decided to try a different approach--the glamour approach. For fourth graders, nothing is more glamourous than new and different materials. After introducing the revising checklist, I gave students the choice of three revising strategies. None of these are earth-shattering or new. What made it work, though, is the use of the materials.

1. Add details with sticky notes: I've used this strategy for years, but I've only recently started to offer a wider variety of sticky notes. A choice of color and size makes this much more engaging and fun for students. I keep a few of the special shapes on hand to give out to students as I circulate around the room.

2. Add details with red or blue pencils: Last year, I think that I accidentally put my regular pencil order on the lines for the red and blue checking pencils. While this has led to an alarming shortage of pencils in my room (and serious pencil rationing!), I am liking the supply of red and blue pencils! Somehow just using the different colors--and even using them in combination--leads to better revising. And I make sure to keep these put away so that they are "special" for revising.

3. Surgery! This has been especially successful with the boys in my class who really resist revising. Of course, I make a big deal about it--"Don't worry. The patient's in good hands. We'll pull this through!" And then I cut apart the rough draft and tape it down on a new piece of paper.

Sometimes we need to leave big spaces between sections so that the student knows where to add more. In some drafts, details need to be rearranged and reorganized. "I'd just like you to know that the surgery has been successful," I'll say in a hushed voice. "I think your piece of writing just might live." The surgery banter has been flying thickly through the room this week, with some kids choosing to use it as a revision strategy probably for the sole purpose of being able to pretend to do an evil laugh as they cut their writing apart. I can live with this.

I haven't earnestly showed the students how they can improve their writing by revising. They are showing each other. I've overheard students talk about how they need to add more. One boy said to another, "Look, what you have doesn't match your graphic organizer. You need to do surgery."

How do you add glamour to revising?