Monday, December 30, 2013

The Importance of Building Background Knowledge

Last week I finally got to sit down with our reading professional development coordinator to show her some of the vocabulary and QRI testing results I had been getting on my eighth grade target students.  She confirmed my fear, after looking at all of the scores.  These kiddos needed support in their oral vocabulary in order for them to build reading skills.  This was the first time I had really gotten a chance to approach this dilemma from a reading specialist standpoint, and I was anxious to hear what she had to say.

She introduced me to the idea of multi-level text sets (different texts on the same topic that require students to determine importance and extract information - all part of our new Common Core Standards), which is not a new concept for me in any respect, but for the sole purpose of building vocabulary it was. This conversation started me thinking about some things I then wanted to develop.

She also introduced me to, a news website where teachers can find one article on a topic and download it in four different lexile levels! Her thought was to start with the article in a 730 lexile, do a vocabulary building activity, and then read the exact same article in an 850.  The idea is to read the same article four times, each time building more and more background knowledge, more and more vocabulary, until we got to the article at the 1130 lexile.  She also suggested that I try to use an article that connects somehow with content area material that our kiddos might be studying by the end so that the knowledge and vocabulary might support these students in their content-area classrooms!  Genius!

From this, we started to formulate some thoughts that have been brewing over the last month or so - the idea of building background knowledge.  I was talking to a sixth grader who struggles with reading.  He insisted that he wanted to read the Twilight series.  Now, if you're familiar with the read at all, you might know that the lexile level is in the 600s - a nice easy read for an adult, but it is LONG and rather mature for an eleven-year-old struggling reader.  Many of my adult friends found the book annoying and repetitive, and yet I was captivated by the love story.  Still, this boy was insistent and went on to tell me that he had watched the movie several times AND he had read the graphic novel and he LOVED them.  It was at this point when the conversation I had with our reading professional development coordinator started ringing with me again.  This was a perfect opportunity for this kiddo to challenge himself with a lengthy book on which he already had a TON of background knowledge and maybe build some reading stamina.  So we found the novel for him, and he checked it out for winter break.

After these two incidents last week, a few ideas developed.  Aside from my more solidified plan to go to our Tier 3 team with the pull out idea for vocabulary groups, I'm also going to work to target background knowledge building activities with our struggling readers in their content area classes.  Meeting with some of the content area teachers and coming up with lists of specific students to target is next on my list, and then I'd like to somehow target these students specifically.  One big challenge is finding the time during the day for pull out groups.  For now, however, I'm making a list of ideas (many of which come from the CRISS manual) that will help in building background knowledge.

Keep in mind that building background knowledge and activating background knowledge are very different. When activating background knowledge, you assume that the learners have some background knowledge.  Building it means that there is nothing filed away in your students' schema for them to build upon, and now, not only are you responsible for the new knowledge, but you have to give your kiddos some background in order for the new knowledge to stick as well.

Let me give you an example.  I worked in December with a few colleagues who had their sixth graders writing a RAFT assignment.  The idea was that students would use multiple texts to research something specific about the Olympics and then write a perspective piece based upon that research.  During the time students were supposed to be writing, I noticed that critical pieces of information were being left out or wrongly assumed.  Then it hit me - when one student began to write about a skiing event, and her first paragraph mentioned traveling to an arena for the event.  I finally asked her if she had ever seen an Olympic skiing event before, and she shook her head.  Another one struggled to write about her ice skating event until I realized she had never seen an Olympic ice skating competition or ANY ice skating competition, for that matter.  After that, I spent the entire day looking up Youtube videos of the different events and watching them with the kids.  Two things could have been done to prevent this - and I don't know why we didn't think of it before beginning the project.  Hindsight is always 20/20, I suppose.  We could have spent a day watching videos of the different events together OR we could have left a few more days for research and insisted that each student watch several videos of the events.  However it was, we have noted it and I would like to see us include the extended time for next year's project.

So for this blog, I've made a list of background activation activities and background building activities so that you can begin to think about how to use these effectively with your students.  Keep in mind that many of your students who struggle with reading may need background knowledge building activities because they lack much of the vocabulary necessary to function at grade level.  I think our biggest problem here is differentiation.  You will, undoubtedly, have students in your class who have access to background information.  How you will use some of these ideas in your classrooms most effectively is the next step.  I realize that you may not have these strategies in your pocket, and if you don't, please don't hesitate to ask about them.

Background activation activities

  • Preview the reading by looking at text features (titles, subtitles, illustrations, vocabulary, etc.) and making connections/predictions in partners or groups of three.  Give specific guidelines for group work and set strict time limits.
  • Use an easy organizer (such as a word map or Venn diagram) and have students work individually or in pairs to fill it out before previewing the information.  
  • Easy word sorts or pattern puzzles (both strategies require words cut up ahead of time and are basically matching activities - ironically interesting for our older students) in partners or groups of three.  These usually work, themselves, as classroom managers so you won't have to do much work in terms of management unless you find that your students have no background knowledge on the topic.  In which case, you'll want to skip down to the next section.
  • Discussion strategies such as the ABC Brainstorming (literally a list from A-Z where students have to think of an on-topic word that begins with each letter of the alphabet), mind streaming (partners each have to spend one minute blurting out any information that comes to mind on the topic without interruption or stopping), Discussion Webs, Carousel Brainstorming, and previewing using questioning techniques
  • K-W-L plus (categorize information gathered on the K-W-L)
  • Anticipation Guides (agree/disagree questions for students to consider that are directly related to the topic) and Double Entry Reflective Journals (Questions or statements to be answered before learning and then again after learning.  It's my personal favorite.)
  • One sentence summaries and/or paragraph frames before learning
Background building ideas
  • Youtube, United Streaming or another video websites
  • Articles and/or other text-selections well-below grade-level on the same topic
  • Preview vocabulary necessary for learning (use an engaging activity such as word sorts and pattern puzzles that are more guided)
  • Web quests or website exploration
  • Photos, pictures, artwork, primary source documents (with active learning strategy attached - you could consider having students work through a Double Entry Reflective Journal with these.)
  • Easier non-fiction text to build knowledge for fiction and visa versa
  • Picture books (another favorite of mine!)
  • Musical recordings (with an active learning strategy attached. - for example, have students journal how the music makes them feel when listening.)
  • Cartoons (for some reason the Simpsons seem to have an episode for everything!)
  • Poetry or lyrics to songs
  • Field trips (if your students are lucky enough to be in a district that funds them)

And the list goes on and on . . .

Friends, I implore you to really look hard at your clientele.  Our students need us to understand that we can't take for granted that any of them have the background knowledge or the vocabulary to tackle even the easiest knowledge, skills, or information in our classrooms.  Don't leave your kiddos behind because they lack the background necessary to easily pick up on what others can manage without much thought.  Observe. Evaluate. React. Give them success that they might not have otherwise.

Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Advocating for our Strugglers and Teaching Them to Do the Same for Themselves

Since I began really digging into this vocabulary issue, my eyes are opening to the idea that we are not just talking about the typical reading struggles, but a much more serious deficit in oral vocabulary.  So where do I start?  That has been my question all week, and if you read last week's blog on expressive and receptive vocabulary, you know why. And now that we have established that the issue is no longer just about reading but about speaking and listening - we ALL get to participate!

I had the chance to pull out four more students for vocabulary screening tests over this past week.  Because I've been so busy, I only completed two.  I plan to pull the other two next week to finish that testing before I bring their scores to our Tier 2/3 team.

One student has been on the fence with me since she was in sixth grade.  Her progress was minimal, at best, and yet I felt like when I made more contact with her she seemed to do better than when I left her alone.  We worked hard during her sixth grade year to move over the humps of phonics and fluency.  Our seventh grade hurdle was finding reading material that she would actually READ.  Oh, this was ridiculous!  I will forever remember this girl as one of my most difficult in terms of matching her with a book, but in some way we ended up hooking her up with the Miki Falls series by Mark Crilley (which she inhaled) and then branched her out bit by bit.  Currently, she is an eighth grader and has gotten her hands on the Perfect Chemistry series by Simone Elkeles (on of my all-time FAVORITE love stories, because I'm kind of a love story lunatic).  Although we do not house this series in our middle school library, our eighth grade girls (and some boys) always seem to end up with it in their hands before year-end.  Simone has been so kind as to send me a stack of very cool posters (autographed by her) with pics of the (adorable) three main characters.  When I have a kiddo who is THIS into that series, I always award them a poster when they finish it.  It's a motivator for our girls, anyway. I digress.  Anyway, I ran the vocab screener on this student.  She fell within the two middle quartiles.  Relatively average, although when I looked at her scores, the range seemed low, but I'm not familiar enough with the testing to make that determination, so I'm going to have our speech path take a gander at the numbers as well to help me interpret them and make the best use of the data.  This student, however, I know has some major motivation issues.  I just need to figure out the source.  For right now, she goes into my "not scary" pile for vocabulary screeners.

I had a request from a science teacher to move another student who has come up as a concern. She's a good student.  Quiet.  Hard working.  Grades are okay.  Normally, she wouldn't be one that would rise to the top of our "concerns" pile, but I've been digging around for kiddos, and her name surfaced due to lack of progress in the READ180 program and a concern that she needed support in science and social studies.  So I screened her.  Her numbers came up at close to the bottom of the middle two quartiles.  Low.  Hers went into the "scary" pile.  I've got at least one more that will go in there once I finish her testing because her receptive testing was at the bottom of the average range, and her expressive seems like it is going to be much, much lower.

Our speech pathologist got me thinking a lot last week when we discussed these kiddos.  I usually have strategies in my back pocket for a majority of reading issues, concerns, and supports, but I've got empty pockets on this one.  The idea that I could be working with small groups of kiddos who are potentially tens of thousands of words behind their on-grade-level peers scares me so much!  It's like looking at our kitchen and trying to figure out where to start cleaning it after a Lambert Thanksgiving! The situation is daunting, at best.

But one thing our speech path said stuck out to me.  It was the idea that we need to teach these students to advocate for themselves because self-advocacy will help them immediately, whereas vocabulary-building will come with lots of time and work.  In other words, we need to teach them to ask for clarification.  Because we are working with eleven to fourteen-year-olds (and an occasional fifteen or sixteen-year-old), they need some "right now" strategies.  Much easier said than done.  Here are the immediate setbacks of this idea:

  • Most of the kiddos I pull out for testing don't have a clue that they need support.  This is just life for them, and they don't get that things would be a whole heck-of-a-lot easier if somebody would open up their brain and pour in a Webster's Dictionary.  This is that whole fixed versus growth mindset.  It is cultural.  How do we bring our students who are currently in this fixed mindset (thinking that this is just the way things are) to a growth mindset where they feel like they can make some changes to their situation and feel successful more often?
  • Many of the students I'm identifying are ELL.  If you remember from my blog over the summer on reaching our social students, we are looking at a variety of cultures sitting in front of us daily, and those who come from a more collectivist culture are taught not to bring attention to themselves in class - which includes asking for clarification.  What we are now asking these students to do is go against everything they've been taught socially by their parents so that they can succeed academically.  Not an easy request!  It's family-first for many of these kids, which means what I teach them about helping themselves may fall upon deaf ears if it goes against what Mom and/or Dad has taught.
  • This is middle school, and asking for clarification is uncool.  If you're caught looking even remotely interested in academics, there is a stigma attached to your efforts.  Asking questions is often out of the question.  
So in an effort to approach this with a growth mindset myself, I went hunting for some things I can do as a reading specialist to start working with some of these kiddos (and their teachers).  My search is most definitely NOT over. This is just the beginning as I start scratching the surface on my increasing pile of students who lack receptive and expressive vocabulary.  Here are some goals I've set for myself for 2014.
  • Identify groups of students who would benefit from small group "self-advocacy" and "oral vocabulary building" instruction. This is going to require a lot of work on my part because each time I give the test, it takes twenty to thirty minutes to administer.  For one student.  
  • Identify appropriate times in the school day for this small group instruction (Working with social studies teachers to use social studies material as a springboard for this instruction is one idea that I have discussed with our district reading coordinator).
  • Reach out to teachers with specific student names and specific data to illustrate the need to be sensitive to the way instruction is given in the classroom setting.
  • Give teachers specific strategies and behaviors that they can begin using in the classroom to better support our increasing numbers of students who have fallen into this linguistic abyss (for example, rewording directions even if nobody asks for clarification or creating a visual or demonstration of the directions aside from just giving them orally).
  • Continue to look for researched strategies to use for older students.  There's a lot of research there on building expressive and receptive vocabulary with preschoolers and younger elementary kiddos, but once they get into the middle levels, the research and strategies taper off.  To me, its scary.  
  • And you have the motivation piece to factor in - because, by this age, many of them are feeling pretty unsuccessful, and to ask them to stick their necks out and try again is asking a LOT.  What can we do to motivate them?  I need more motivation strategies!
  • Buy stock in Kleenex because I feel like I'm going to be doing a lot of crying over all of this in the next year.
So there you have it.  Nothing.  Not a strategy that is even close to useful, I'm afraid.  Just a lot of unanswered questions and vague goals.  But my direction this week is more clear than it was last week, and by next week I am hoping to hone in on some strategies that I can start whipping out at you so that YOU have some ideas in your pocket you can use.  So stay tuned as I detective my way through some of your kiddos to figure out what their issues are.  I figure if I dig far enough eventually I'm going to uncover something we can use!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Why do many of our English Language Learners suffer in our system?

I'm wondering when my reading specialist colleagues are going to stop answering text messages and emails from me with the subject "vocabulary".  They have to be sick of my ranting by now because I've been beating that poor dead horse all year, and it seems that I'm only beating harder nowadays.  But this time I'm backing up my rants with some real data. 

For two years, I've suspected that vocabulary is at the root of our issues for many of our kiddos, but vocabulary is such a vast and general topic, and I'd never been satisfied with any assessment that I'd seen for vocabulary.  As it currently stands, there's the most commonly accepted Three-Tier Model for reading vocabulary: Tier 1 vocabulary (sight words), Tier 2 vocabulary (academic vocabulary), and Tier 3 vocabulary (content-area vocabulary).  Project CRISS's fourth edition manual now includes a Four-Level Model that, in no way, aligns with the Tiers, but the tiers would absolutely fit into the four levels (mostly academic and/or content-specific vocabulary).  Level 1 critical words are words that must be pre-taught before reading.  Level 2 words are important but do not require a lot of pre-teaching time.  The third level are words that are important, but they are clear in the text and do not require preteaching.  Finally, level 4 words are words that are not necessary to be taught to students before, during, or after.  As an educator, I make automatic assumptions that vocabulary-building means words that you read, right? Well, after this week I have begun to wonder if maybe I had it all wrong from the beginning.

With all of these categories and ways to approach vocabulary, why do we struggle so much once we hit this roadblock in reading?  We seem to have all of the answers for phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency, but yet when it comes to vocabulary - the answers come in all shapes and sizes, and yet none seem to be fitting for so many of our middle schoolers.  Most of us skip considering vocabulary as a major issue because we assume that we are covering it when we teach content or literature-specific words, and when our kiddos test below level in comprehension, we push comprehension strategies, not vocabulary (in my case because I thought I had already covered it).  But what happens when you have a student who started life speaking a different language (in the case of most of our ELLs - Spanish)?  Maybe she began learning English at the age of six.  Imagine all of those important first-words that she missed and then had to learn!  How many years do you think it takes to catch up in a new language?  And how does that impact her at the age of thirteen?  Research tells us that each year our students absorb thousands of new words, but what if you don't start learning them until age six or seven?

So a few months back I remembered an assessment from my graduate work in reading that I wanted to try - one that targets oral vocabulary, specifically.  Although I was unable to get my hands on that specific assessment (the Peabody), our speech pathologist had something very similar for both receptive and expressive vocabulary.  I spent some time skimming through these two assessments and decided to give them a shot with one of our eighth graders (let's call him Tito) who has been through just about every Tier 2 intervention we offer.  At this point in the year, I begin to panic when nothing is working because I know that my time is limited with our almost-freshmen, and I need to act quickly to pinpoint a solution.

What I found did not surprise me one bit with this kiddo, and my former hypothesis that oral vocabulary is at the root of many of our English Language Learners' reading struggles sprung to life again with all sorts of questions attached to it.  Tito's scores on both the receptive and expressive vocabulary tests were in the very low average and below average range.  During the receptive vocabulary testing (where he had to identify pictures that best matched the words that I gave him), his responses came quickly.  However, the expressive vocabulary assessment was almost painful - he took so much time trying to formulate words for the pictures that at one point I wondered if he had forgotten that he was supposed to give an answer!  In several instances he finally gave up and said, "I don't really know."  Also, at times when the answers were incorrect, Tito's response was a short phrase description of the actual word.  It was obvious he was trying his best to express himself correctly every time.

I then started to formulate a list of questions that I will be pondering over the next few months:

  • What can I do, as a reading specialist, to help close the gap for these ELLs who fall under the RtI umbrella?  It is my responsibility to "catch them up" in reading, and yet I'm not trained to develop tens of thousands of missing pieces in oral vocabulary.  This is the most loaded question and very general, so then I started to get specific.
  • Will testing more of our ELLs produce the same information?
  • How do these gaps effect their performance in their content area classes?
  • What can I do to communicate this information to our staff?
  • How can I support our students who are lacking in oral and aural vocabulary so that they can be more successful?
  • What strategies work best for middle level students who have significant gaps in expressive and receptive vocabulary?
  • Within the confines of our current schedule, when can we work on these gaps?
  • How can my speech path (who is AWESOME, by the way) and I work together to make a plan, even though she is tied mostly to her students with IEPs?
  • Who else can help? (I have already talked to our speech pathologist who gave me some ideas, a bilingual reading specialist, and gotten an email from a former colleague who is hoping to help me use some resources to which she has access, and I'm super excited about all of it!)
  • At what point do I stop digging? Because I'm exhausted and exhilarated at the same time.  Although the screeners are just screeners, so are our comprehension, fluency, and phonics screeners - but you have to start somewhere, and the fact that both of Tito's tests came out just a few points from each other tells me that we do, indeed, have a problem.  
By next weekend, I hope to have a few more students assessed so I can report on how those went.  I have chosen three more students (three eighth graders and a repeat seventh grader) on which to complete testing. Once I get that done, my next step is to consult with our other reading specialists on this and formulate a plan of action after we put our resources together.

For now, friends, the next time you stand in front of your class and register that you have ten students who appear to have zoned off, take a moment to evaluate how you speak to your class.  The trick is to support them all without "dumbing it down".  The last thing we want to do is to stop exposing them to rich academic vocabulary, but know that if you do that without rephrasing and supporting, many of your kiddos may not have the skills to even understand the words that come out of your mouth.  A few years back I had this exact conversation with a respected social studies colleague who admitted that she hadn't considered that her vocabulary choice when instructing her students would impact their performance in class.  Also, we often think that if we read the text to our kiddos it will make a difference (and it sometimes does!), but imagine trying to keep up with an instructor who spoke to you in words so difficult that you often couldn't understand him, no matter what strategies you used.  What would you do?  I know what I would do, and it certainly wouldn't be to pay more attention and take more notes.  And yet this is often the answer just about every student gives when we ask them what they think they can do to improve themselves - even those who struggle due to language . . .

Friday, November 29, 2013

Creating Success for the Unsuccessful

Recently I had a request from a science teacher who asked me if I had any tricks up my sleeve to help her students read and comprehend their science text books.  She reported that even after doing read-alouds as a class and two-column notes that many of them space out or don't fully understand what is being read.  Sound familiar?  I know it did to me . . .

Ironically I had just finished (that evening) rereading some notes I had taken weeks ago from another of Cris Tovani's workshops at the Day of Reading Conference, and I immediately went back for another read-through with the request in mind.  This science teacher was most concerned about her inclusion classes, classes where students with IEPs are placed along with a paraprofessional to give additional support and communication to the classroom teacher (often our students who receive tier two and three reading interventions are placed in these classes purposely as well).  Basically you're looking at a class where more than half of the students sitting in there are probably reading slightly to significantly below the reading level necessary to easily manipulate and extract information from the tricky text found in the science text book used in this class regularly. 

My plan is to meet and collaborate with this teacher, but I figured the situation would make a nice blog, as well, so below are some suggestions (some from Tovani's workshop) I'm going to consider as we discuss possible supports that we can implement in her classes.
  • Active engagement in the reading is key for kiddos who struggle with difficult text.  I'm a firm believer that students CAN comprehend material that is considered at "frustration" level, but they're unlikely to have the motivation to wrestle with it until they make meaning (in other words - they choose not to), and THIS is why they space out and don't understand what they're reading (or not reading, which is probably more accurate). 
  • Require students to be actively metacognitive.  Teaching them to close read may help, because that is what close reading is - recording what you're thinking as you're reading.  And when I say this, I'm not suggesting that we ask our students to jot down things as they come to mind; I'm suggesting that we require students to stop after every sentence or two and record their thoughts (on sticky notes, photocopied pages from the text book, or response journals).  If they're not recording thoughts, they're probably not making meaning because they're not thinking.  This may mean that you, as a teacher, need to narrow down what it is that your students read or you'll never get through what you need to cover. See the next bullet point for more details.
  • Taper down what is expected to be gained from reading so that students begin to feel success with smaller chunks of reading.  The idea is not to work slower, but to work smarter.  What can you get away with skipping so that your students can do a close read of two pages rather than five?  What things can you present to them in different ways other than reading?  You don't want to eliminate reading because there are so many benefits that can come out of teaching your kiddos to read text in your content area, but can you find better methods of presenting some of the material?  Does your text book have an adapted version?
  • Give students specific purposes for smaller chunks of reading.  For example, "After reading the first two paragraphs on page 95, tell me why you think that solar energy is not used more than it is today."  Allow students to work in pairs or trios and expect all group members to have the same response (require them to formulate answers together).
  • Use a timer, chunk their reading into small sections, and stop them after about seven or eight minutes to reset them and then set them off again.  For kids who struggle, unless you see that they are fully engaged and would be better off left alone - continuous resetting will be necessary due to low attention spans.  In instances where the text is SO tough that the simple act of reading the words on the page is horribly frustrating, how can you group kids so that they can work with you or another adult to hear it being read so that the struggle of decoding is eliminated?  What about setting it up so that students can listen to the book online if this is available, but still chunking the text and expecting engagement?
  • Make the content matter.  FIND a way to relate the content to their lives and make it matter to them somehow.
  • Use strategies such as the Read and Say Something.  This is good for kiddos who are auditory/aural learners.  Partners read (aloud or silently) a small section (a paragraph) and then one restates, summarizes, or comments on what he read to the other one orally.  Then partners switch roles and the second partner reads the next small selection, restates, summarizes, or comments.
Sometimes when teaching content-area material, we know that reading in the content is important and we LOVE us some content-area reading - but we have to put ourselves in the shoes of our kiddos.  The likelihood of a struggling reader loving them some science info straight from the tap is a big fat ZERO.  Ok, maybe not zero, but those students who love reading their science or social studies text books are few and far between - and are even more scarce when all they've done is encounter failure.  It's easier to zone off and choose to fail than try and fail anyway.  Our job is to create situations that create success for these kiddos so that they begin to want to succeed more often.  If you've ever been a teacher, you've seen that moment where a student has a glorified moment of success (with you or with a colleague), and then that student changes her tune for that one teacher - possibly for the remainder of the year.  By using some of the strategies listed above, the likelihood of this happening with one or more of your students grows, because you're purposely setting your kiddos up to have small, successful moments. And that, friends, is what teaching should really be about (yes, I just ended my sentence with a preposition).

Monday, November 25, 2013

Thanksgiving . . .

In an effort to be very cliché, I thought I'd triple post this week and talk about being thankful.  I forget how thankful I am for things on a daily basis, so it's really a good thing that we HAVE Thanksgiving each year.  Otherwise I'm pretty sure I'd forget to be thankful at all - life just moves too quickly.

To start, I'm thankful for the opportunity to be a middle school reading specialist - for the district who had vision enough to understand that the job of a reading specialist has to move past our elementary schools and seep into secondary education.  A step up from that is my current building administration and their vision for reading intervention and the faith that they have in my decisions as a reading specialist.  I'm given freedom to create my own schedule and use my time in a way that I feel will allow me to impact the most students in the time that we have each day.  They listen to my ideas for improvement and do their best to accommodate those ideas.  When I ask for a schedule change on a student, it is never challenged, and I know it is because my judgment is respected and trusted by those who make those final decisions.

I'm also eternally grateful for the staff who have come forward to be part of our intervention team.  Without this group of tireless teachers, there is no way we could impact over 200 (out of 800) students each day the way that we do.  Not only do we have language arts teachers working intervention classes and running homeroom interventions, but we have had science, social studies, and fine arts teachers step forward as well!  They're eager to learn and to help out, and they're candid with their feedback, which allows for positive change.

Those teachers and staff who have offered to help progress monitor our 140+ students who need to be monitored in either fluency or comprehension are the next on my list.  Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.  Because of you, I only have to run assessments on forty-five students every two weeks for fluency and about fifty in comprehension every six weeks.  It's still a lot, but imagine if I DIDN'T have your help!

I am grateful for those of you who have trusted me enough to invite me into your classrooms, collaborate with you, discuss specific students, or brainstorm strategies to target groups of students.  Your classrooms are the reason I have loved this job.  You allow me to provide support to you and your students AND you allow me to learn from you.  Thank you.

Finally, I am grateful for the kiddos I reach every day.  Each mini-success provides me with the confidence and will to move forward in this time of great change in education.  I have loved (yes, I said love) hundreds of children in the last seventeen years, and one of the greatest gifts a teacher can have is to run into one from ten years ago and see that I might have had some impact on where that adult is today.  There is no greater gift than that.

So that's all I'm going to say on this topic, as I kind of feel like I've just "social media"-ified my blog.  But, hey, I'm feeling in the spirit, and I promise a professional post will come sometime over the long weekend!  Happy Turkey Day, all!

Sixth Grade Wit

I don't usually post stories about kids, but I couldn't resist telling this one from today.  I spent four periods in a sixth grade language arts classroom today with an amazing colleague, as we prepared her students for a Save the Last Word listening and speaking activity.  Every time I do this, I always start with asking students about their own lives - how they use speaking and listening as a kid.  We get all sorts of answers - from talking to parents, teachers, and friends to ordering food at a restaurant or translating from English to Spanish or visa versa.  This is the first year, however, that we had a few students tell us that one of the ways they use their speaking skills is to just be annoying. 

You could tell that these two kiddos thought their answer was hilarious as they slapped each other a high five and went on and on about how they wanted to just be annoying . . . I will decline to comment on this except to say that we did our best to move on and ignore the behavior.

But when it came down to discussing how these lists would change in ten years, one of their witty female classmates countered them quickly.  She raised her hand properly, and when called on, she responded, "Maybe when we are twenty-one we can take 'be annoying' off the list because by that time we would have matured." 

I don't think she realized how funny my colleague and I thought this was because she wasn't laughing, but inside I chalked one up for her, smiled, and thanked her for her answer.

Friday, November 22, 2013

November 22 Crumble - A New Spin on the Carousel

So I went back this morning and reread my notes from the Day of Reading Conference again because there were so many philosophies and strategies that I gained from attending.  Writing these blogs helps me just as much, if not more, than my readers because I use writing as a way to process through information.  Usually, I start my weekly writing with one objective and it morphs in the hour that it takes me to crank it out.  By the end I often have a new idea, and I feel happy about being able to share that with the world.

After rereading my notes from my third session with Cris Tovani, I was reminded of an idea that I wanted to share with my staff.  Because I'm not an auditory learner, I am pretty sure that I tuned out during part of her talk, so the way that she presented this idea is probably not the way I'm going to share it.  Nonetheless, the connection I was able to make while listening to her explain was with a strategy in which many of you are probably familiar: the carousel.  I will first explain how I have originally seen this strategy done, and then I will explain Tovani's spin on this.  What a GREAT way to allow active, social kiddos to learn from each other, all the while practicing their listening and speaking skills!

Project CRISS trainings have included this fun way of reviewing and discussing:
  • On large pieces of poster paper, write a topic or a broad question.  Include enough different topics so that you can split your class into groups of no more than four students. Three is my ideal number.
  • Give each group a different colored marker (so you can monitor group participation in the discussion).
  • Put each group at a different piece of poster paper with the idea that they will discuss and formulate an answer or information related to the topic to be written by one of their members with their colored marker.
  • Set the timer for a specific amount of time (2 minutes, maybe?) and allow groups to discuss and write. 
  • At the end of the specified time, call for groups to SWITCH, and they will move to the next poster to read what has been written, respond to responses, correct information, embellish on answers, and add their own thoughts. Try giving groups the responsibility of changing writers at every switch as well.
  • Carousel through until all groups have gone to all papers.  
  • Choose how you want to conclude this activity.  It could be a quick run-through of all of the papers.  It might be where you take a day to read through and prepare the next lesson based on what you have learned.  Or maybe you used this as a test review, and students are now ready for a test.  This can be used in so many different ways!
So, in an effort to keep up with the theme this year of teaching our kids to observe, I attended a session at the Day of Reading Conference, earlier in the morning, that emphasized the use of observing artwork as a "text".  Interestingly, I heard in several sessions that the word text is not necessarily referring to words on a page anymore - that artwork, videos, and even audio-recordings might be considered text.  It's almost like the word media has been overrun by the word text just to confuse us all.  Flexibility is the key, I suppose.  

Anyway, in both of these sessions, the presenters asked the participants to take a look at a graphic (a piece of art or photograph) and write/discuss observations, ask questions, and make comments or inferences (with evidence to back it up).  Being completely not visual, this activity annoyed the heck out of me because I miss all sorts of clues in pieces where others see things plain as day, but I went along with it because I know I'm in the minority when it comes to learning preferences, and I know many of our kiddos are visual learners.  I also know that if I push myself I will strengthen this area of weakness, so I gave it a try. 

Tovani took this activity a step further and combined it with the carousel.  Genius, really!  She suggested multiple visuals set up around the room or at desks where students perform that same carousel activity listed above, but they respond to a visual instead of a prompt, topic, or question.  Then they have to read what others have written, respond, and add their own thoughts until they've made their way around the entire room.  This type of activity can be used in so many classroom situations using things such as:
  • paintings or pictures of historical events or cultural activities for social studies or language arts
  • graphics of geological, astronomical, or other scientific events or ideas
  • different pieces of art for an artistic period in history
  • listening stations with different musical pieces playing and multiple headsets so that all group members can hear
  • pictures of situations or scenes in health to discuss good decision making
  • sports or fitness-related visuals in PE
  • tough geometry or algebraic equations in math (REALLY tough ones that might require multiple brains or a longer time to figure it out so that one group starts to solve it, and others may have to take over)
  • finished three dimensional projects, websites, or other tech projects
The list here is really endless.

The use of the carousel supports so many of our students in their need to move and be social.  If structured properly and kept moving, this activity can be a beneficial learning experience where you simply observe and let the students learn from each other.  And what better way to teach than to let the kids learn from each other!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Vocabulary Unit 6 - "Selfie Culture"

Here is the next vocabulary unit I finished today for our intervention SLC classes!  Enjoy!

Unit 6
"Selfie Culture" article
Mystery Word Bubbles
Jeopardy Game (if you can't get this to work properly, email me, and I will email you a copy or upload it and share it from my dropbox)
Jeopardy answers

Saturday, November 16, 2013

November 15 Crumble - Active Engagement and Column-Notes

I spent some time this week collaborating with a colleague from another building.  The focus of our meeting was to discuss ways to support some of our content area teachers in providing students with organized information, yet keeping these same students actively and collaboratively engaged.  Tough order, but absolutely possible.

As we talked, the question arose about teaching students organization strategies for note-taking.  Too often in education we follow a trend to a fault, let the pendulum swing so quickly to one side, and neglect to see that we have abandoned things that are working.  Buzz words such as collaboration and active engagement have risen so high above anything else that many of us are starting to abandon key life-skills such as organization and summarization - skills that would be taught during more structured lecture-style lessons where students were expected to take notes. 

Don't get me wrong, friends.  I am absolutely not justifying making students sit for fifty-minute periods while they listen to an instructor drone on and on about a topic, ferociously jotting down copious notes.  What I am suggesting is that there are some beneficial skills that still need to be taught that may or may not be taught during a more engaging activity or collaboration.

In previous blogs I've discussed the power of note-taking, choosing what organization strategy works best for you, and organizing that information according to your strengths.  Some teachers are having a difficult time finding a happy medium between teacher-centered instruction and student-centered instruction, and that's where many of us are struggling.  We want our kiddos to be able to pull out important information from the text, but we don't trust them enough to be able to handle this task alone, so we spend time in the classroom asking them to copy down what we think is important. 

After my discussion last Tuesday, I was reminded of some ways that we can use an oldie-but-goodie and revamp it to be used in the classroom as a partner tool -- all the while allowing the teacher to still have some control over what students might be recording in their notes.

Project CRISS calls this strategy Two-Column Notes.  You might know it as Cornell Notes.  I'm going to take these notes a step further and move to three columns.  Below is what it could look like:

Main Topic
This is where the teacher might start students by giving them a purpose for reading and discussing.  Teachers can do either one of two things here:
  • Provide students with main topics or broad questions
  • Allow students to use text features to come up with their own main topics or broad questions.
Whatever happens in this column, know that this is the purpose-setter, so if you want your students to explore specific topics, this is the place to do it!
Partner Discussion
In this column, students work with a partner or partners (no more than three to a group!) to decide together what goes here.  You may want to be specific about what you think should go here. For example, you might ask students to look in the text to find evidence that climate change is, indeed, happening on Earth.  This purpose should be stated in column one. 
All group members need to agree on everything put into this column. 
This is a great time to listen in on discussions and gage what will need to be addressed during the final large-group discussion. 
Cris Tovani suggests during times of engagement to stop the class, state observations, redirect if the entire class seems perplexed by something significant, and send them off again.
Another idea here is to find one piece of information in each group that you ask the group to share with the class.  This validates their group work.  
Additional Information
During the discussion, the teacher should have collected information about where students have missed chunks of important information.  As a wrap-up activity, point these things out and have students note them in this column.  If you choose to go over all information, students can even go back to column two and highlight information that was emphasized during this phase.
Students will not see value in the second column, however, if they end up copying down everything that you present, so be certain to have each group share something you felt was important and have students check their second column for that information. 
I wouldn't even put up a three column note taking guide on a projector at this point here.  I would use a two column note or make a simple list.  This will get students out of the habit of copying down exactly what they see and get them into the habit of checking their previous work before adding to it.  This column is for additional information, not restating work they've already done.

I had another conversation this week with a valued colleague on her frustrations with her struggling readers - why do they struggle with things other than reading (like group work)?  You'd think that if you give a struggler the opportunity to work with a partner or small group that he would be more motivated by the social aspect of the activity, but the group-work that this teacher had planned dissolved before her eyes as these students completely resisted (kind of as a whole) and did not complete the activity effectively.  The teacher then expressed that she never revisited the idea of group-work again.  Don't fear - this is so common, so know you're not alone!

If you have a kiddo sitting in your class that is still struggling with reading at age eleven, twelve, or thirteen, know that your class is not the first class she has struggled in, and that the struggle with reading is no longer the issue.  She is now a struggling learner, not because she can't learn, but because she has faced failure enough times to understand that things are more likely to go down the tubes than to turn out positively.  Because of this, she resists any school work.  Your job is to create small successes.  My suggestion to this teacher was to break up that group work into smaller chunks, give specific guidelines, and redirect frequently (like every ten minutes or so).  And don't give up.  Giving up is one of the worst things a teacher can do when teaching students to work effectively in groups.  This is one of the reasons why so many of our struggling readers have no collaboration skills - once you face failure as a teacher (you see that group work is not working), you do not want to revisit that type of activity again.  Hmmmmm . . . ironic, isn't it?

If you've ever visited a Montessori classroom, you've seen that even five, six, and seven-year-old students can work collaboratively and effectively.  These students are taught from the beginning specific skills, and their teachers train and retrain them until they get it right.  This is what could be happening with our kiddos as well.  It's never too late to train them.

To bring this to a close - remember a few things:
  1. Collaboration doesn't have to include building a house or  starting a business; it could be as simple as agreeing upon significant pieces of information in a text selection.
  2. Validate group work by not making your kiddos re-do work they've already done.
  3. Organizing information is important.
  4. Group work comes after training and consistency.
  5. Even struggling learners can do it.
  6. Reflecting on what works and what doesn't is very important.  Let your students reflect also!
And most importantly, don't give up!

Friday, November 8, 2013

Who is the Expert?

I remember back in 2005 when I moved to my current school and was asked by my former principal to take on a building leadership role - Balanced Literacy Coordinator.  See, when I spent some time working near Chicago several years before this, I had a superintendent who felt that it was imperative that I take a class in teaching reading, even though my primary focus was social studies - so I did.  I should have thanked the man back then, because what I found was a new passion that eventually grew into a career path - content area reading, now known as content area literacy. So I became a trainer for Project CRISS and talked a good "content-area reading" talk, and before I knew it I was the . . . Balanced Literacy Coodinator.  Fancy title, right?

Well, it was not fancy.  It was aggravating, and here's why.  At that time I taught science (way too many endorsements on my certificate, apparently), and our department chair - a well-loved and vivacious eighth grade science teacher - fought with me over and over and over again that science did not involve reading.  Well, it wasn't really a fight.  It was more of a statement - with his fingers planted firmly in his ears.  He wanted nothing to do with my Balanced Literacy Coordinator job that I was taking so seriously.

I bring this story up because, when I went to hear Cris Tovani speak last week, she brought this question up to her listeners: with the new informational text CCSS standards, who is responsible? Tovani discusses the finger-pointing and the shoulder shrugging that goes on in schools.  CCSS pinpoints those standards as ELA standards, but her argument is so brilliantly legitimate - why would my amazing science-teaching colleague dispute it?

The ELA (English Language Arts, for those of you who are confused by this new acronym) department will absolutely continue to support all of our students with the informational text standards.  Part of our curriculum is non-fiction and informational text, but who is the real expert in reading a piece of text from your content area - either in the text book or found elsewhere?  Look around . . . I'll give you a hint.  It certainly isn't your favorite language arts colleague.  It's you!  You are the one who loves your content so much that you spent eighteen or more hours studying it so that you could teach it at the middle or high school level.  You took those classes.  You spend your time diving deeply into the text to pull out information and add it to your lessons.

Tovani says that thinking in a science, math, health, or music class requires completely different techniques and strategies that we, as highly educated professionals take for granted!  Some of you have one or more graduate degrees, which implies that you have done more than your fair share of informational reading - it's become like second nature.  But your students are being met with more and more complex text with the expectation of meeting higher and higher demands in both reading, writing, and thinking.  Not to mention the fact that you may have thirty (or more) students staring at you with any variation of learning styles, and you are expected to bring them all up to snuff this year.  Without your expertise, some of them will never make it through those difficult texts that our text book companies continue to publish.

"Okay," you say.  "So what can I do?"  Below are some ideas to get you thinking about ways you can support your learners in reading informational text in your classroom.  Tovani included some great content-specific strategy charts in her talk on November first, but before you can think strategy, you have to think philosophy.  How will you modify your already-fabulous teaching philosophy to reflect this addition of reading in your content area - not just content-area knowledge?

  • Know your learners.  Know that you have a variety of students sitting there in front of you, and in order to reach them all, you need to vary your presentation-styles. Talk some, put some on the screen, stop and have students process through discussion strategies, expect them to write, and get them up and move them around.
  • Know your text and how you attack it.  You are the expert in reading your content text.  Know how you approach it.  Science teachers and math teachers may rely more on the illustrations, graphs, charts, captions, and tables than a literature teacher would.  Social studies teachers may jump directly to illustrations or maps before trying to conquer a piece of text.  Literature teachers may do a quick once-over on the text to see how it is organized before making the jump into the text.  Whatever it is, watch yourself do it once and be sure to note how you do it!
  • Demonstrate how you attack text.  Once you know how you approach a text task, demonstrate how you do it.  Over and over and over again.  Let your kiddos know that the way you do it may be specific to your content area.  You can even ask them how reading or thinking in your class might differ from another!
  • Chunk the text.  This is especially important for your struggling readers (and you're all going to have them).  Break it down into manageable sections if it isn't already broken down for you.  Stop and have them process after each chunk so that your students get used to reading metacognitively.
  • Give students specific purpose for reading.  Say things like, "Read the next three paragraphs to find out why . . . " or "After you predict how the main character will respond to X, read on to find out if you were right.  Stop when you can tell me, and write down what you learned."  Giving struggling readers (or any reader, for that matter) specific purpose for reading each small chunk of text not only shows them that purpose setting is important, but it makes larger pieces of text (even three pages can be daunting out of a social studies or health text book) not as overwhelming.
As you explore the idea of not just teaching students your content, but how to acquire more knowledge within your content by reading, you will find that you have questions that need to be answered.  There are no better professional developers than your own colleagues, so go to those within your department and start the conversations there.  From there, seek out language arts teachers, your reading specialist (yay!) or literacy coach, department chairs, and others who may be currently taking classes or have had experience.  You never know who may have just the tools you need to move forward and embrace our new informational text standards that are weighing so heavily on so many people. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Mini-Vocabulary Unit on Current Events

So this year I have been working with a colleague to create short two-week units that introduce some Tier 2 academic vocabulary in a non-threatening way to students who need more exposure.  We are using the students' sixteen-minute SLC (Small Learning Community) period to do this, and it goes QUICKLY!  Below is an example of the next unit.  I feel like after working through four units, I'm ready to share with the world.  Feel free to use or lose, but please give feedback.  I can't make things better if I don't know what works and what does not.

Unit 5 plan
Band Made Instruments out of Junk
Mystery Word Bubbles
BINGO cards

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Day of Reading Presentation

Thank you for coming to our presentation!  Ann and I are thrilled that you chose to come hear what we had to say.  Please feel free to email either of us if you have additional questions or comments.

Heather Lambert  @
Ann Eifler @

Day of Reading Presentation slide show

Save the Last Word for Me - The Teacher Toolkit


Proposition / Support

Sorts and Ranks

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Metacognition (originally published in 2011)

Several years ago I wrote this article in lieu of a conference presentation.  Dr. Carol Santa actually enjoyed it so much that she recommended it get printed in the CRISS national newsletter after I revamped a few things.  The article below is the original article (before the Dr. Santa revamp - although it was good both ways!).  I was very proud of this research, and I am looking forward to using some of it this year at both the Day of Reading Conference and the IRC Conference as well.

The Epiphany
                Metacogntition  - a word that even Microsoft Word doesn’t recognize, and yet eighth graders in my language arts class can tell you that it means “thinking about your thinking”.  This year, however, I was compelled to step back and take a look at just how much I really knew about the word.  That one act opened up a flood-gate of research, ideas, and discoveries that I could not wait to share with anybody who would listen . . .
                My name is Heather Lambert.  I am a read/write learner.  Five learning-styles tests have proven that I am incapable of being a successful learner by kinesthetic means.  Teach me to play hockey by writing it out for me.  Teach me to fix a toilet or make a cake by giving me written directions.  Do not show me or tell me.  Let me read it. Interestingly, I am both intrapersonal and musical.  Put that together with read/write, and you get a poet.  Spiritual balancing has indicated that I am also a communicator.  I love words.  So what is the problem?
                The problem is sadly simple. 
                During our study of Flowers for Algernon in eighth grade, my student teacher drew attention to Howard Gardener’s theory of Multiple Intelligences.  She had students perform a self-assessment on themselves that ultimately indicated their highest intelligence.  Most of our students scored highest in kinesthetic, musical, and visual.  Not a match to their highly-wordy teacher. 
                Still don’t see the problem?  
                After assessing my own teaching, I discovered that most of my teaching methods, although highly engaging, were language-based.  I was comfortable with words, but I was not working with subjects who had the same strengths.  Without knowing it, I had clearly set up some of my students for failure because I had not reflected upon myself as a learner/teacher and allowed myself to see my students through my multiple-intelligence glasses.  Yikes!  Even scarier, I was so wrapped up in my intrapersonal-self that I didn’t take into account that many of the adults with whom I engage are not like me either! 
                In the six years that I have been training for CRISS, metacognition has always been a word that meant “reflection on act”.  But the idea that I was teaching toward my own learning style on a daily basis allowed much more than reflection on act.  It allowed understanding that my lessons needed to become more multi-modal if I am to reach all of my students.  But it was more than that.  It was not just about giving students multi-modal work, but about seeing them as learners who take in information in different modes.  Even one-on-one informal discussions take on new meaning when you think of it that way.  What an epiphany!  And what a heart-break.  To discover that the blood, sweat, and tears that I had put into my work was not enough was devastating to me!  And how was I going to sell this to our overworked, over scrutinized staff?

The Three-Tiers
                Upon attending a stirring talk by Dr. Carol Santa on what really works in education, I was inspired to move forward with my research, and I wanted to drag my colleague Pam McGreer along with me.  With one eyebrow up in curiosity for literally thirty minutes, she listened to me go on and on about Dr. Santa’s ideas in the three tiers of CRISS understanding.  The more I talked, the more it made sense to me.  Dr. Santa had hit the nail on the head for me.  We understand CRISS at three levels: by strategy, by principle, or by a deeper clinical psychological level. 
                Most teachers, having gone through their first level 1 training, are so overwhelmed by the strategies and how they can be tied together that often the metacognitive piece is overlooked.  Strategies are fun and engaging; they allow for differentiation by level and by learning style.  Reflection on a strategy takes time.  I don’t have it.  Done. 
                After four or five years of training, I finally was able to wrap my head around the second tier, principle, and it dawned on me that the P&P were a set of guidelines that, if followed daily, one can hit a variety of learners in a lesson with little major changes in those plans.  Discussion?  Check.  Writing? Check.  Explanation and modeling?  Check.  And so on.
                But to ask a teacher to know oneself as a learner before even evaluating oneself as a teacher?  Then to meet students head-on with your knowledge of self?  And to engage in activities that take student strengths/weaknesses into account all the while knowing where your strengths and weaknesses lie?  Well, that is the root of where communication lies, and that is where we must stoop to reach the kids who seem unreachable.  At the base. 

                So what does this mean for us, as educators?  Throw up our hands and walk away – the task is too daunting?  Certainly it does not mean that we need to revamp our entire curriculum, does it?  The answer is no.  What is does mean is this:

  •  Before you go any further, take a learning styles test ( a multiple-intelligences test ( or  Reflect upon both and journal about parts of your life and your teaching that align with the results.  If you are not satisfied with your results, take another one somewhere else (I took five, remember?).  In your journal, take time to reflect upon your teaching – focus on strategies and activities that you do that align with your learning styles and your strengths.* After this, jot down things that you do already as a teacher to reach students who are of other intelligences and learning styles.  Visit some of those websites listed above to give you a thorough explanation of the types of intelligences you will encounter.  Make lists of things you can do as an educator to keep all intelligences in mind.    *I say “journal” because that is how I would do it – remember, I am a read/write/intrapersonal type.  If you have a better way of keeping track of yourself, use it!  But don’t let the information go away.  Save it somewhere so that you can reflect back upon it later. 
  •  Give students a learning-styles and multiple-intelligences questionnaire and allow them to reflect upon themselves as learners as you did above.  Expect them to give examples from their lives that support their learning style.  Some will disagree with the outcome.  Have a second test handy for this reason.  Dive into what learning styles and multiple intelligences mean for them as learners so that they can carry this new knowledge with them from class to class.
  • Make a CRISS P&P checklist and be sure to hit as many of the P&P as possible during each lesson.  Understand and accept that some activities will support some students better than others and that handfuls of students will be more comfortable with certain strategies more than others.
  •  Teach strategies and directly relate them to students as learners.  Confess that some of the strategies just don’t work for you, and get excited when you, as a learner, benefit from a strategy.  Encourage your students to reflect upon their strategy usage in this way.
  •  Use CRISS vocabulary and multiple intelligence/learning-styles vocabulary when introducing activities and strategies, not only for strategy-calling, but for principles.  For example, “To help you to build background knowledge we’re going to be using a discussion strategy called Mind Streaming.  Our interpersonal and verbal/linguistic students will love this activity because it involves discussion, and you love to connect with others and talk!” Build in reflection time and have students draw their strengths into their reflections to different activities and strategies.
  •  Give students choices within the same activity.  In eighth grade, we spend time in language arts supporting our students with note-taking strategies so that they can take these skills into their content area courses and be more organized learners.  Modeling different note-taking strategies at the beginning of the year and pinpointing what types of learners may benefit from using the different types would be a great place to start!  When discussing learning styles, I often recommend that our verbal/linguistic students try power notes because we (the verbals) tend to be pretty wordy.  Power note taking gives students lots of room to reword and summarize.  Two column-notes might work better for those kids who are kinesthetic and aural because they don’t see much value in note taking.  Two-column notes are easy to organize and allow for very brief summaries to be written.  Webbing or mapping, although challenging for me, is really easy for a more visual learner because that type of learner can see relationships visually.  I am completely distracted by the lines and boxes, but then I would be.  I’m verbal.
  • Get crazy.  Set up a portfolio system.  At the beginning of the quarter go over a list of the learning targets that students will hit by the end of the quarter.  As you hit each target in your lessons and assignments, direct students to this list and remind them that they need to be able to prove with physical evidence (ie. a piece of writing, test/quiz, assessed project, reading logs, journals, etc.) that they have been able to meet that goal.  At the end of the quarter, have students put their portfolios together.  Included should be a checklist of the targets and student-selected evidence along with a metacognitive reflection for each piece.  Reflections should indicate why the student feels that the evidence supports learning and how his/her learning style/intelligences fit into the equation.  Why not have students check off a list of the CRISS P&P and allow them to make connections with that as well?
Whew!  Talk about knowing oneself!

Saturday, October 19, 2013

October 18 Crumble - Power teaching and its alignment with the P&P of Project CRISS

My best planning times are usually the most inopportune times when its virtually impossible, dangerous, or ridiculous for me to write down my ideas.  I used to tell my former principal that I planned most of my PD while I was sleeping - which used to make him laugh, but this is a true statement!  Generally when he would spring a PD on me four days before the show was supposed to go on the road, I'd stress about it for a day, go to bed, and then wake up at 3 a.m. with a plan that I would have to get up and jot down so I could sleep again.  A few weeks ago, in the car on the way to work, I'd been stressing about a presentation that I had agreed to do with a colleague at the Day of Reading Conference on November 2, when I had a brilliant idea!  Of course, I was driving . . . so I did what any teacher would do, I grabbed my phone and hit the voice to text button and sent her the entire plan in a voice text, which came out sort of the way I had intended, but she got the idea (although apparently I thought that we should introduce whole GRAIN teaching instead of whole BRAIN teaching . . . ).

So yesterday during a working lunch with her, I embellished on my thought - which included the idea of introducing Power Teaching to our audience.  Not surprisingly, I had completely forgotten that I had even texted that to her.  I love technology for this reason - how many ideas of mine would have flown out my open car window that morning had I not had the option to voice text her?

I digress . . .

A little over a year ago, a respected colleague of mine introduced me to Power Teaching - one of the most engaging and entertaining ways to present, in my opinion.  This video is a brilliant illustration of a few of the fun and engaging strategies. 

Want more?  Just google Chris Biffle and whole brain teaching, and you'll get a ton of fantastic ideas as to how you can make these strategies work for you!

So after discussing the idea of power teaching with my colleague yesterday, I started to realize that the bits and pieces of information that were being "taught" by the students to each other were similar to what Project CRISS has called the 3-minute-pause.  The idea of this strategy is to break up a lesson into smaller, more manageable chunks so that our kiddos can process it and then reset for another stretch of learning.  I really wish I was better about writing down important research and backing it up with evidence like we expect our students to do because my rule of thumb has always been "one minute per grade-level" - so for a sixth grader, the manageable chunk of time they can "sit and get" is about six minutes, a seventh grader can sit for about seven, and so on.  I'm pretty sure I didn't just make this up, but I can't find the research to back it up.  In a behavior management document published by the University of Carolina, it is reported that kids can usually pay attention for their age +1, which would be about twelve minutes for a sixth grader, thirteen for a seventh grader, and so on.  My experience has been that it depends on the topic and the kids, and I'm sure that most of you would agree with me on this one.  Notice that for middle school, none of those numbers are even close to forty-nine, which is our current period length, so our job is to break up that time so that we can make the most of the instruction time we have with our kiddos.

CRISS's three-minute-pause is a longer time frame than the power teaching model with a more in-depth look at the content, but the idea of breaking up the content is the same.  CRISS values the idea that students should restate what they've learned, similar to Biffle's power teaching, but CRISS specifically asks students to make connections with the content, ask questions, or identify something that was particularly interesting to them.  Using a combination of power teaching and the three-minute-pause could be pretty powerful if planned and implemented well. 

Whatever your time specification - know that once your kiddos start to sign off, there is no more learning going on, so the more often you can get them to engage in the content, process it, discuss it, apply it, write about it, and reset - the more content they will internalize.  Biffle stops so often that my head starts to spin after about three minutes, but his illustration is one for teaching teachers how to use the strategies, and it is truly effective!  You have to make them your own.  What I love about his teaching method is the predictability of what is expected along with the validation that quick pace and discussion are important for learners at the middle and high school level.  Its classroom management and content management wrapped into one strategy, and it is beautiful.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

October 11 Crumble - Using higher level questioning and the jigsaw to engage learners

I'm currently in the throws of planning an experience in a science classroom that includes close reading followed by several discussion strategies.  As I was flipping through my 4th edition CRISS manual tonight, searching for a crumble-worthy topic, I happened across the Question-Answer-Relationship (QAR).  I was then brought back to a conversation I had with the science teacher this last week who was pleased with a set of questions I had developed as the final discussion activity for our three-day experience, and my crumble was born!

Last year, as I was finishing up my graduate work for University of Nebraska, I was assigned some article readings geared toward problem-based learning.  If you've never run across the term problem-based learning, it's the idea that students learn through solving real-world problems - which, theoretically is a genius idea, but in practice takes either a miracle from God (a problem just happens to present itself that meets every CCSS target needed for the unit) or an ungodly amount of planning and finger-crossing.  Either way, I love the philosophy but am completely and utterly intimidated by it. 

So to bridge the gap between a daunting task of creating a problem-based learning experience and a completely un-engaging lesson, try using Bloom's Taxonomy to create questions that mimic problem-based learning or have students create questions for discussion.  Even better, try doing it using the jigsaw strategy. 

How can this work with a jigsaw?  Well, the first thing you have to do is fully understand what a jigsaw is supposed to look like.  Our plan for the students in science is to give them four parts of an article on climate change and allow them to choose which part they'd prefer to close read (see my previous blog on close reads or another recent blog by my colleague Jen White on the topic as well).  Once they've read and discussed their part of the article with a group of students who have read the same part, we plan to number the students in each group to create new groups where there will be four people in each group (one of each part of the article).  If there are seven students reading each article part, then we number the students off by seven in each group and then put all of they students with the same number together for their jigsaw. 

But instead of giving students direction to simply share information from their part with the rest of the group (as is typical in a jigsaw), our plan is to give the students a set of higher level questions to answer as a group.  Examples of the questions are:
  • What one part of human life contributes to climate change more than any other?
  • What is the single most piece of evidence that tells us that climate change is happening?
  • Can we stop climate change?  Why or why not?
  • Should human beings be required to do certain things to stop climate change from happening?
Our goal here with the set of questions is to spur discussion between group members who have all read a different part of an article or piece of text.  It works even better when group members have read entire pieces written from different perspectives.  Do you see how your students will have to use their speaking and listening skills carefully to communicate effectively and how they will learn from each other without just listing off a string of information they read in their part of the selection (that will either be ignored by group members or will superficially be copied down only to be shoved away in a notebook or tossed in the trash later on)? 

If you know anything about Bloom's Taxonomy, you may have identified most of the questions above as evaluation questions (second to highest step on the taxonomy).  We could have taken the discussion questions one step higher, but much of the final step in the taxonomy are more individual and reflective questions, and the goal at this point of the lesson is to get the students to collaborate, not self-reflect.  A few of the questions could actually fall between the final two steps of the Taxonomy - evaluating and creating.

So consider using some of the following question starters when presenting questions for group collaboration.  This table is adapted directly from page 104 of the fourth edition CRISS manual.

Bloom’s Taxonomy
Question starters
How can you adapt this information to __________?
How can you apply _______ to your own life?
Reinterpret _________ to fit with a different point of view.
The author has changed my understanding of _____ by _____.
What is your opinion of _____?
What is the best solution to the problem of _____?
Defend your opinion about _______.
Evaluate the writing of ________.
Compare ____ to _____.  In what ways are they the same?
How are they different?
Categorize the important ideas in ______________.
What connections can you make to ____________.
What is one way to illustrate _______?
How can you apply _____ to ______?
How can you relate ______ to ______?
What will happen next in ______?
What is the main idea about ______?
Predict what ______.
How is this similar to or different from ______?
Explain what is meant by ______.

The jigsaw strategy sounds complicated, and, in fact, on paper it seems to require a lot of organization, but honestly - our biggest task was choosing the text selections.  Once you wrap your head around the jigsaw organization and create a set of four to five questions, you're really all good!  You shouldn't have to teach anything - just demonstrate the close reading (which was described in the close reading blog) and mix up your kiddos.  They get to do the rest, and all you do is facilitate - which is good teaching, friends.  And because of the discussion and high level of engagement build into the lesson, your students are more likely to get involved and stay involved -- meaning fewer behavior issues and more learning!