Friday, May 24, 2013

2012-2013 Reflections

Well, this is it, I suppose.  The day that we all have anticipated this week - the day we say good-bye to our kiddos for the summer and our eighth graders for good.  I always get this panicked feeling about mid-year when I realize I only have half a year left to prepare our eighth graders for the high school where the expectations continue to increase in the areas of responsibility, citizenship, and academia.

I consider us to have pretty rigorous expectations here, but even with those expectations I worry myself sick about how our students are going to "measure up" with the rest.  Will his freshman English teacher ask, "Who was your teacher last year?" and then judge us because he is not measuring up?  Will she have difficulty adjusting so much that she falls apart in the fall?  The high school IS big, and sometimes the shock is enough to send a kid into melt-down mode. 

But most importantly, as a reading specialist, I shake in my shoes as I send kids over - hoping that they've been able to stock up on the most essential skills and praying that the communication I have with the high school will be enough to provide them a window into the students' reading skills and build upon the work we have done here. 

Honestly, I'm proud of what we have accomplished this year, so I thought I'd make a list of all of the things that make me most proud in hopes that the rest of you can see just how far we have come.
  • I have worked with every LA1 teacher in the building to support them in benchmarking their own students in comprehension using the Performance Series test.
  • After I determined which students needed it, every LA1 teacher in the building made an attempt to benchmark at least some (and many - all) of their necessary students in fluency - and FAST. Whatever they were not able to finish, I picked up or helped with the process.
  • A collaborative atmosphere was maintained, which allowed decisions to be made and for us to make schedule changes when appropriate.
  • I was able to get lists to our schedule guru for SLC classes for next year (because of our timely testing) so that we can deliver more fluency practice (Tier 2) and some additional vocabulary interventions (Tier 2) to those students whose scores and performance show they might need it. 
  • Trained expert teachers in the building delivered multisyllabic training as a Tier 2 intervention in SLC to students who showed gaps in their decoding skills. 
  • Expert intervention teachers showered our struggling students in their LA1 classes with good, solid comprehension skills and devices to use when tackling complex text (Tier 1).
  • Many of our LA1 teachers and I shared test scores with our students, and some of us even made time to have students set goals and review them at each benchmarking time!  Some of us used these scores to help narrow down reading material in the library, and our ET students used them to find more challenging material! (Tier 1) Awesome!
  • Every week during grade level meetings, specific students-of-concern were discussed. This often led to Tier 1 strategies and Tier 2 interventions for these students, which were then evaluated and tweaked until we could find the right plan for some of our strugglers.
  • Every few weeks, our school psychologist, social worker, speech pathologist, reading specialist, and an administrator were able to meet and review data, student concerns, and next steps for some of our kiddos who were brought up as concerns to the grade level teams.  This led to a small group of Tier 3 students. 
  • Several teachers and administrators in the building, along with myself, set aside time once every two weeks to help progress monitor our 120+ students who were receiving Tier 2 and 3 interventions. Much of this took place during SLC time.
  • I have had conversations with reading specialists at all of our feeder elementary schools regarding specific students who will need support next year.  Communication between myself and the bilingual teachers of transitioning students have occured.  And I have been able to sit and discuss individual students with our high school reading specialist, as well, so she knows which students to target at the beginning of the year. 
  • More content area teachers have expressed interest in collaborating with me on projects, reading skills within the content areas, and using student data to explain student learning.  Much of this happened this year, and I enjoyed the opportunity to learn from these teachers and work with their students.
  • And last of all, we have worked together to create readers.  Are they all readers?  No, but how can they not see the passion that many of our teachers have for reading?  Some of our SLC interventions were delivered flawlessly and skillfully by teachers with expertice in subjects other than the language arts.  We had teachers of several content areas require independent reading every day. And over twenty teachers in the building participated in reading and writing questions for our 2013 Battle of the Books!  Incredible.
Next year our plan for Tier 2 expands to vocabulary interventions during our SLC time.  Fluency training will be strategically and systematically planned during SLC and at other times in the day for students who need both fluency and vocabulary.  Progress monitoring will continue during SLC, so if you're interested in joining me once every two weeks for a progress monitoring session, please let me know!  We are going to need all the help we can get, and it is pretty easy.

I also have lists of students who I am watching carefully, and once we finish benchmarking in January, I will spend springtime working on diagnostic testing on students who still seem to be making little progress.  I'm excited for this new plan!  Additionally, we have some specific, strategic interventions put into place for our students who, even after the multisyllabic training, have made little to no progress in their decoding and fluency.  Plans for including parents are also being developed, and a new system for Tier 2 and Tier 3 communication amongst staff will be up and running when school opens in August.

What I have learned this year is that the role of the reading specialist is a bit of a tight-rope walk around here. It's a walk between reading and literacy, in my opinion: reading being the actual skill of reading and literacy being the ability to tackle more complex text, grappling with the meaning, and making beautiful connections. Literacy is at the heart of Common Core, but in order to be literate, you have to first be able to read.  In order to learn how to read at this age, you have to want to be literate. In order for us to build these types of learners, we have to have passionate teachers. And that, friends, is the foundation and why my year has been one of gratitude for the passionate people with whom I work.

Have a restful summer.  Read a lot.  Get ready to run again next fall!

Friday, May 17, 2013

Time for reflection - May 17 Crumble

The year is ending, and classrooms are beginning to look empty.  This last week I had a group of five eighth grade girls ransack my office and pack up books, photographs, and supplies.  They just showed up one day at lunch, and, like a band of hungry vultures, pecked my office clean.  Then they had the nerve to show up the next day and complain because I had unpacked some of my boxes so that I could do my job for the next two weeks!  I have some nerve, I know.  I love middle schoolers.  Sincerely. 

This week I've felt a little revitalized, and I thought I'd give the area of metacognition a good shake down as we all prepare to take off our educator hats for at least a few weeks and rest.  As many of us know, reflection is such a key component in becoming a better anything, and there is no better way to know oneself as an educator than to reflect upon oneself as a learner and a person.

One of the foundations of Project CRISS is a skill called metacognition, which many of you know means thinking about one's own thinking.  How do I, as a learner, learn?  I almost think that this reflection is more important for teachers than it is for students because, cognitively, these kiddos are still in stages where they haven't got a clue how they learn and are looking for us to supply them with those answers.  If we can't show them our confidence in our ability to detect our own learning styles, then how can we show them how to explore theirs?

Several years ago I conducted a refresher geared toward learning styles, and it's been a while since I preached that sermon, but I recall one revelation that many of us had after we all took the VARK learning styles assessment together and a multiple intelligences assessment.  It was like light bulbs went on all over the library as we started sharing our learning strengths with each other!  After I took those tests, I realized why I get frustrated when I sit in lectures or when somebody tries to tell me how to play a game.  My auditory listening skills stink, and I tune out after the first few instructions. 

But something even more amazing happened that day.  My ability to connect to my colleagues expanded because I was able to identify each person by his/her learning style.  I also began to notice that we bring those styles into our interactions with others.  Anybody ever notice me staring at your hair or interrupting a lengthy conversation with a completely new one?  Yep.  It's because my ears have shut down.  I don't mean to do it.  I am a better emailer and texter than I am a face-to-face conversationalist - and it's not because I like to hide behind my computer and my phone.  It's because I can't focus on my ears for too long.  Knowing this about my colleagues made it easier for me to communicate because if I knew I was working with a person who was kinesthetic - I showed them how to do something rather than type them out an email with directions. 

It even made a difference in my relationship with my husband - who is completely kinesthetic.  My strengths are my read/write ability and my musical/rhythmic ability.  Instead of frustrating him with lengthy instructions about things, I try to show him.  This is a challenge for me, as I produce better with my words, but to improve our (already amazing) relationship this is what I do.  With my daughter (the technology and visual girl) it is even more of a challenge, but I am learning.

My point is, friends, if we are willing to put forth the effort in creating engaging and meaningful lessons geared toward the highly-rigorous Common Core Standards, we have to be willing to go all the way.  Our kids will meet us with what they have to offer, but if their brains aren't wired for what we're giving them - good luck!  You can rebuttle this with the idea that as they get older learning isn't going to be geared toward their intelligences, and that they need to learn how to adapt - if you want, but the fact remains - we have these kiddos now.  Our job is to pack them with confidence, skill, and the ability to learn without being directed.  What better way to do this than to empower them with the idea that their way of learning may be different than others and by giving them ideas to adapt that way to today's education.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Metacognitive Journals and Paragraph Frames - May 10 Crumble

Well, it took about twenty-four hours for our extreme reluctant readers and writers to become disenchanted with the blogging we had started last week.  Once we started pushing the idea that our kiddos needed to shelve the text-speak and try to write academically - a few went right back to irritation and frustration - even with the technology.  What a disappointment this was for us, but I have to keep reminding myself that there is a large group who seem to be getting better and better.  The technology and the blogging are really motivating.

"Why are we doing this?" came from one of our loudest in the back.  I cringed.  We knew if one was asking that there were more wondering.  And yet as soon as we began reading the next chapter of Unwind, most of their eyes were glued onto the page and their ears were perked up, waiting to hear whether Connor, Risa, and Lev were going to be caught and unwound.

How could we get them to stop and process, comprehend, and write?  It was Monday when I woke up thinking about Metacognitive journals.  For years I've been asking my students to read and write, read and write.  I usually give students a list of prompts and ask them to choose:
  • This reminds me of . . .
  • Summarize the selection read in twenty words or less.
  • I disagree with . . .
  • I was surprised by . . .
  • Predict what will happen next . . .
  • Describe one character.
For each of the above prompts, students were always required to write a paragraph.  Some of them did; many of them didn't, and it took a lot of training to get them to add details and evidence to support their thoughts.  With our current group of readers, things are no different.  We gave them some ideas for blogging, and they answered the questions.  And that is all.  What was worse was the lack of care in spelling and punctuation, making some blog posts almost unreadable.  Our kiddos are so used to their word processors, phones, and tablets correcting spelling, punctuation, and (sometimes) grammar that the use of these skills is not even close to automatic to them. 

But Monday's brain-child came with a flash-back of a Project CRISS strategy that I use sparingly and only with struggling and resistant writers: the paragraph frame.  I had completely forgotten about this useful tool until last week, and I immediately went to work putting together a list for blogs.  Some examples are:
  • ________ wanted __________, but ____________.  So, __________________.  Then _____________. 

  • When ______________________ happened, it reminded me of __________________.  The situations are alike in that _______________________.  I also think that _______________________.

  • I disagree with ____________________'s choice to ____________.  I thought it was wrong because ______________________.  I also think ______________________.

The idea of each of the above "frames" is that the student will pull it up on a Word document from the shared folder and fill in the blanks, taking care not to erase any punctuation but erasing all blank lines.  Once it is filled in, the student can copy and paste it directly into his/her blog. 

Interestingly, we ended up having some students who preferred to fill in the frame on paper.  I actually leaned more toward this technique, myself, because once the students filled in their frames, they had to go in and type the entire thing into the blog - including correct capitalization and punctuation.  This gave the students the experience of correctly typing into their blog, and then they were able to see how nicely it looked once they published!  The blogs were much easier to read, and when we asked the kids about how they liked the frames, most of them said they thought it was much easier.  They also completed the frames in a much shorter time than the other blogs. 

My thought about why the students preferred the frames is because these particular students struggle so much with writing that they cannot focus on the skill of writing AND the content in any reasonable amount of time.  Giving them the outline of what the paragraph should look like and starting out their sentences gave them direction and focus so that the technical stuff was done, and they could focus on the content - all the while still giving them the experience of creating a coherent paragraph.

The idea of the frames is to start out the year giving your struggling and resistant writers a clearly written frame where students supply only the ideas necessary.  As the year moves forward, you can expect more and more to come from the student and provide less and less of the frame.  Paragraph frames can't be used once a quarter if we want to see our students write independently, however.  Using them once a week and across the curriculum will give our struggling and resistant writers consistent experience in writing that will only make them stronger in the end.

Have caution, however.  Proficient writers may resist the use of these frames.  If you want to use the frames for your strugglers, consider making a sheet with whatever frame(s) you want to use and distributing it to specific students or giving the entire class the "choice" to use them.  Then you can stop by individual desks or tables and ask or require specific students to give the assignment a shot using the frames. 

I was thrilled with the end results of our first blog using the paragraph frames this last week, and many of the students seemed almost relieved to use them.  I'd like to see this type of writing used more across the curriculum as we increase the rigor and expectations for reading and writing for all of our students - including our strugglers. 

Friday, May 3, 2013

Technology as a motivational tool: May 3 Crumble

The entire month of February I spent talking about motivating our reluctant middle schoolers to take responsibility for their learning.  Intrinsic motivation is not something that instantly appears in a twelve or thirteen-year-old student - it takes years to build this desire for academic success, and most of our strugglers lost that desire years ago when they found themselves failing more than succeeding.  Why try if I'm not going to succeed?  That is an excellent question.

So by middle school, the job of the teacher becomes much more than a deliverer of instruction and nurturer of curiousity.  If you are an educator who is responsible for our struggling middle school students, your job is to somehow re-light that fire that is natural in our young ones and then you can nurture that curiousity and deliver instruction.  You're working with wet wood though.  Wood that has been soaked for years in a downpour of frustration, humiliation, and embarassment and has become a soggy mess of anger, hyperactivity, apathy, and super-social behavior that no longer cares about reading, math, and science.  Pair that up with video games until midnight and Hot Cheetos for breakfast, and you have a pocket full of a hot mess walking your hallways on a daily basis!

These are the kids who make their way into my heart, and it is because of these kiddos that I get up and come to work every morning.  They are the ones that I seek out in the hallway because I want them to know that it isn't too late.  And this is why I continue to dig for answers, motivators, and hooks.  How can I get them to start caring again?  What can we do to motivate them to want to read and write?

Well, one answer that we have found is the use of technology as a learning tool.  I once went to a session where John Orech spoke on the use of technology in lesson development.  In this session, one of his messages was that technology should be our "vehicle to a destination", and we should consider how we are going to get kids places and not "how should I use this technology?"  This message has stuck with me this year because, in my case, technology is one key to getting my kids where they need to be.

Recently, during a collaborative conversation, I spoke with our seventh grade intervention teacher.  She desperately wanted to give these kids one last shot at getting them hooked onto reading.  For three years, now, we have used Neal Shusterman's Unwind at the end of the year as a read-aloud or novel study.  This year, CCSS requires students to be reading at or above grade level before the end of the year, and what better way to continue to support this than by dousing them with a creepy and engaging novel about kids who are just like them.  Most of our kiddos are reading right around the level of the novel or below, and the language of the novel is fun - and so are the ethical discussions!

But the issue with the book always is the kids who flat-out refuse to participate - they sit with their books closed or heads down and they get up for Kleenex or to throw away something every three minutes.  At this point in the game, no number of discipline referrals for behavior like that is going to motivate these kids to open their books and love reading.  Period.

Until we let them crack open the 8-year-old computers we have been "storing" in her room off an on this year . . .

The day that we opened the kidblog site for the class and got the kids logged in, we gave them the anticipation guide and a list of possible prompts for writing. It took about 24 hours for 100% of our kiddos to get engaged in the book! Yesterday we even had one interrupt three times and ask if he could blog!

The first blog topic was written before we even started reading.  It was more of a "let's try this blogging thing out" blog than an actual blog.  The kids did pretty well with it, and they were able to get around the site very easily, so that wasn't a problem at all. 

We knew we had to read and write, and we knew we didn't have much time to get them going, so we gave them the option of using the computers to write down their thoughts in a word document before they wrote their second blog, which was to make a connection with one of the three main characters.  Kids who I have watched drag their feet on the way in the door were thinking and typing about Connor, Risa, and Lev yesterday!  It was reported to me this morning that first period sat silently as they typed and clicked for a half hour on the blog site.  We are actually considering the possibility of opening the classroom during lunch for "beautification" and commenting on the blogs as well.

Now, did we do an amazing job at forseeing the problems we would encounter?  Well, we sent a note home to parents inviting them to join us on the blog site, and we emphasized the idea that if the site is misused in any way (and we gave examples) that the misuser would be permanently removed from the site class.  So in that respect, I think we covered our bases.  But one thing I'm already seeing is the attention that is being paid to the way the blog looks vs. the content.  We have a lot of very pretty blogs.  Now that we have established the idea of the blog and motivated even our most unmotivated student to participate, our next battle will be to up our expectations on the content of the blogs.  I'm a writer, and I love to teach writing, so my expectations are going to get higher and higher for the next fourteen days, and I can't wait to see what these kids can produce! 

So how can you, a content area teacher, use this blog idea to enhance and motivate your kiddos?  Well, first off, edublog and kidblog are two websites that I would consider investigating.  We also have gifted students using edmodo in a "paperless classroom" situation that is truly fascinating!  All of these sites are private and can only be accessed by the members of the group.  They are all set up by the teacher and are accessible from home - some of them even have apps for devices other than computers!  Then establish a use for these fantastic writing tools!  Science logs, social studies journals, music journals, health journals or fitness tracking, favorite recipes, responses to art or music, even extended response questions in math can be adapted to blogging!  Kids can respond to books they're reading - even over the summer - and teachers can still see what they're reading!  You can give students specifications on their writing or have them write freely - just remind them that what they write will be seen by you, their parents, and the entire class!

If you're considering setting up a blog for your kids, let me know if you need help!  Once you get into it and get the hang of it, it is really easy.  And it's such a neat way to get the kids writing without telling them they're writing.