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