Friday, March 15, 2013

IRC Conference, March 14-16, 2013, Janet Allen

Janet Allen
Information Literacy: It's Not just Reading More Nonfiction

Janet Allen is a seriously hilarious woman. The irony of that statement was purposeful, as she is one of the funniest serious educators I've ever met. This was evidenced by the fact that, although she never left her table, every eye was focused on her as she moved so quickly from one topic to the other, bridging the shifts with funny anecdotes and quick-witted humor. Her talk was separated into eight segments, and she was able to cover three in the hour we were together.

Off the bat, Allen stated the urgency for students to be writing . . . A LOT.  She said if you are grading everything that they are writing, they're not writing enough. I found this to be a refreshing statement, as the years I taught 8th grade ELA, I had my students write every day at the beginning of the period. They were given a prompt or a quick mini lesson in one of the 6 traits of writing, and away they went! I always wondered if not grading or reading all of their writing was doing them a disservice, but I felt that if they were to become writers, they needed to write every day. Period. Once every two weeks, they produced one of their daily writing prompts for grading on the skill that we were practicing, and then we moved on to an extension of that skill or a related skill, or a new skill for another two weeks.  It worked for us, and as the year progressed, their stamina for writing increased. 

Getting Students Started
Getting students started on a topic is tough business.  Allen suggests tugging at students' emotions a bit and giving them something to which they might connect or get emotionally engaged.  She produced a chart at the beginning of her talk that allowed students to take three texts (selections) of the same topics and respond to each one before beginning their writing.  The three texts she shared with us were different perspectives on the Alabama Church bombing in 1963.  She read an excerpt from a text book, a poem, and an article detailing the events related to the bombing that day.  For each we had to write the name of the source, write down some facts from the selection, and then react to it. 

The process took about 20-25 minutes, and then we all had an entire sheet filled with facts and ideas for a possible writing activity.

Developing Word Banks
Allen's next topic was the idea of developing word banks.  Presentation after presentation after presentation touched upon the fact that one of the best ways to build the vocabularies of our students is to get them to read.  Read a lot, and read a variety of different text selections.  Reading TO a student has an effect on the words he or she pics up as well, so she suggests read-alouds as well.  I found some of her quick and painless ideas to be no-brainers and "why didn't I ever think of that?" ideas.  One of the best ones was her idea that students should be read to every day  at the beginning of the period - something quick.  Anything.  A poem, an excerpt from a book.  A short article.  But they should hear from a variety every day so that their exposure to unfamiliar words increases, making the liklihood that these unfamiliar words will stay unfamiliar unlikely. 

Students can create portable word walls in their binders or notebooks for each unit so that they can start using new words in their writing.  The word wall looks similar to an ABC Brainstorming sheet used in Project CRISS, and it works in a similar way in that students will organize the words in alphabetic blocks, but the collection of the words happens over a lengthier period of time during word-wall-creation wherease the ABC Brainstorming sheet is just that - a brainstorm, usually happening in a very short amount of time. 

Allen suggests other strategies such as word sorts, and she mentions that context clues are important, but they're not likely to be of large value in anything but science and social studies text books where words are purposely placed into sentences containing definitions or clues from which to identify the meaning of these words. 

Several frightening statistics were thrown at us that morning, including the idea that 3000-5000 new words acquired represents about one reading grade level on standardized testing.  Allen worked for several years writing standardized tests, leading me to believe she might have some authority on this topic.  She also says that if we can get students to read twenty-five minutes a day, they will encounter 20,000 new words every year.  Will they all be learned? No.  But some of them will, and perhaps the 3000-5000 new words will be achieved.  I guess I hope this isn't an under achieving student, because if it is, then the time spent reading would have to increase to go up two levels.  And so on . . .

During our time together, Janet Allen talked about another acronym that she uses to teach students to preview books before reading them.  My mind immediately went to the THIEVES strategy that we used last year because it is very similar.  Allen's is below:
  • P - Predict
  • R - Review the table of contents
  • E - Examine the visuals
  • V - Vocabulary.  How hard can it be? (Allen suggests going to the captions of visuals to check out the vocab.
  • I - Index.  What can I learn here?  (Her thoughts are that the table of  contents are the main ideas and the index is the supporting details.)
  • E - Explain what you know about the book.
  • W - What connection can you make? 
I know that a few of my colleagues will be happy to hear that Janet Allen praised the use of academic notebooks, as she thought they were a great tool for organization and learning!  During the short plug for academic notebooks, Allen gave us probably one of the THE MOST helpful tools that I have gotten in the last two days at the convention - it is called the question matrix (left), and it is a genius tool for helping kids learn how to ask questions.  After previewing a selection of text, students can then write their questions in the matrix as the words connect.  The horizontal row is their first word in the question, and the vertical row is the second word in their sentence.  They have to fill in the rest of the question based upon their preview of the selection.

Allen's final strategy is the use of "response frames", known as paragraph frames in my Project CRISS world.  The example here shows how a teacher creates a frame for writers who struggle to get started on their writing.  As the year progresses, the teacher creates these, but the teacher's words get fewer and fewer while the expectation for the student gets larger and larger until the student is writing independently. 

Janet Allen concluded her presentation with a story that had the audience howling by the end, closing a brilliantly constructed and beautifully presented, engaging talk on non-fiction reading and writing.  From her words, I feel like I am able to attack the use of non-fiction more effectively with students - both in reading and writing.

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