Saturday, September 28, 2013

September 27 Crumble - Close Reading

The 2013 educational buzz word seems to be close reading, and, unless you're a language arts teacher, you may not completely understand this term.  In fact, some language arts teachers still struggle with it because it's complex and has no concrete rules.  I, myself, become impatient with the practice because I'm a slow reader, naturally, and close reading just makes me read more slowly.

So what is close reading, why should I care, and how could I use it?

Close reading is very much what the term says - it's a close reading of a piece of text for a particular purpose, looking for clues to help you determine what is important for your purpose.  It blends Project CRISS's purpose setting principle and the free-write into one strategy.  When you give your students an activity or a piece of writing, you do it because there is a standard or target that you're trying to hit.  Consider that target when you give your students the assignment, and either communicate it to them or allow them to identify that purpose on their own (checking to be certain they are on the right track). 

To illustrate, take a piece of reading from a book selection on climate change (one of my current collaborative projects).  Your objective may be that students identify causes of climate change.  You communicate that to students and give them the passage.  Modeling the close read is always important, so on the projector or on the board with colored markers (our low-budget interactive white board), show your students what you expect.  A close read is not simply highlighting the causes of climate change, however - but that's a good start.  It requires multiple read-throughs, stopping after EVERY sentence and processing what the sentence is really saying.  The picture to the left shows what this might look like on the white board (thanks to my most amazing colleague for takings pics during one of her lessons!  You can check out her super cute and informative blog right here!).  Notice that she color-coded the annotations here and even made a key. 

This next picture to the right shows how it might look without the color coding.  Notice that she labeled a lot of what she underlined.  The idea here is to have students converse with the author of the selection - to stimulate the internal conversation that is missing so often when students read.  Our kiddos are being asked to perform more and more complex tasks while learning and reading, and many of them become so overwhelmed with the daunting requests that they freeze and forget to be metacognitive while they read.  The close read requires metacognition because students must record their thoughts about the text as they read.  This ultimately gives them a closer understanding of what they are expected to read and allows them to process and ask for help with difficult text.

What can they highlight, underline, or annotate? you ask.  Below is a list of ideas that you can give your students as they practice their annotation and close reading.
  • Main characters or the "who" of the selection and evidence of traits of those characters (this can include the narrator).  Traits can be inferred, but the evidence to prove that inference should be marked and noted.
  • Setting or the time and place of the selection as it pertains to the purpose of the reading
  • Problems/Conflicts and solutions as they pertain to the purpose of the selection
  • Unknown vocabulary
  • Cause and effect relationships
  • Chronological events that pertain to the purpose of the reading and notes as to how they relate to each other
  • Questions that you have for the author (that may or may not be addressed later in the selection)
  • Answers to previous questions asked
  • Reactions to surprising points
  • Details that support a conclusion that you have drawn
  • Connections to previous learning or real-life situations
The options are really limitless, but remember - your students will get lost in the text if they don't have a focus.  To simply tell them to perform a close read will require them to set their own purpose, but unless you guide them, some of them will, undoubtedly, miss the entire point of the lesson and spend a lot more time processing useless facts than necessary. 

If you're interested in taking a stab at this truly valuable strategy, pick the brain of a language arts teacher this week!  All of our students should have been practicing their close reading the first part of quarter one, and some of them are ready to take their show on the road to other subject areas.

Friday, September 20, 2013

September 20 Crumble - Today's Homework: Study

Years ago when I had the opportunity to visit the four middle schools on a regular basis in support of the CRISS initiative at the middle school level, we conducted a survey with the students.  Part of that survey uncovered things that students felt they didn’t know and wanted to learn – and the top request was instruction in study-skills.  Our kids didn’t, and still don’t, know how to study.  At the end of my work that year, we re-surveyed the students, and, even after the year of inundating them with strategies, they were still asking to be taught how to study.

Part of this is our fault, as educators.  We give them study guides and practice tests that they use as their study tools, and they feel as if they complete these tasks, they have studied.  But is that half hour spent on the study guide a few nights before the test a great study strategy?  For some, maybe.  For most of our kiddos, however, constant, repeated exposure to the material is what is going to make a difference for them, and that is what the 12-Minute-Study is all about. 

Remember that these kiddos have an attention span that lasts about as many minutes as years they've been in school - so we're talking that the average seventh grader has the attention span of about seven minutes before he zones.  We can totally make this work, as long as we carefully plan and give our students ideas for studying instead of telling them that they must do this study guide or these practice questions.  Our ultimate goal is to create independent learners, and in order to do this we need to give them tools that they can use to prepare themselves. 

Just like with our formative assessments, studying can and should be done in small chunks.  So if you have a quiz or test coming up in a week, start these kiddos out on a study regiment, just like an exercise regiment.  Give a seventh grader the challenge of studying seven minutes at the beginning of your class each day that week and then seven minutes at home.  Yes, that's right.  I said seven minutes.  So that's fourteen minutes a day.  If they study all week, that's four days at fourteen minutes . . . you're looking at a good hour of studying for a short assessment.  If you're planning a huge unit test, you have a relatively good idea when that test will be, so start the kids out a few weeks before the test.  Or better yet, from the beginning!  Studying doesn't have to, and probably shouldn't, be for just a test.  It should become part of their academic lives.

So how does it work?  It's simple:
  • Each day of the Seven Minute (or Six or Eight) Study Challenge, begin class immediately with a quick study tip.  For example: "Look at the notes we took as a class and make up questions in your head that might be answered with the notes.  Try it with a partner now, and then tonight for the study challenge try it by yourself." 
  • Then give an example, and set the timer for seven minutes. 
  • Tell partners to go back and forth with making up questions and answering them.  The challenge is to do it for exactly seven minutes.
  • Challenge students to give it a shot at night.  You could have them use a study log to log whether they did it.  They could even staple that log to their test, and you could compare the scores of the students who studied to those who didn't as part of the reflection after the test.  Share this information with your students!
So what else can students do during this Study Challenge?
  • They can use flashcards to see how quickly they can get through them, and then they can race themselves using a timer (or stopwatch because everybody and their brother has a phone with a stopwatch on it now).
  • Instead of going over vocabulary words, tell them to read the definitions and then give the word.
  • Students can make up sentences using vocabulary and just say them out loud.  Writing takes too much time in seven minutes.
  • Ask students to listen to their favorite song while studying and see if they can put the notes to the music.  Guaranteed any kid who can do this will certainly get whatever part she put to music perfectly on that test.
  • Ask students to draw quick pictures of some notes.
  • Have them read the notes out loud.
  • Ask students to go back to the text book section and match the illustrations to their notes.  Then have them think of reasons why those illustrations probably go with those notes.
  • If there are lists of things that students need to have memorized, ask them to think of great mnemonic devices to share in class the next day.
  • Ask students to read a section of their notes and then close their eyes to visualize what it might look like.  Then do it with the next section.
  • Ask students to think about the notes from the perspective of somebody else (maybe somebody from the notes?).
  • Ask students to write a quick letter to somebody ridiculous (like Superman or Sponge Bob)using as many of the vocabulary words as possible . . . correctly.
There are so many possibilities with studying, and what we need to emphasize with our kiddos is that they need to find out what is going to work best for them.  Some people actually find that recopying notes helps them remember them!  Well, have at it then!  What we want is for them to find out what works and go to it when the stakes are high.  We also want to empower them to have an open mind to try new things, as well, so that they can increase their shopping cart of good study-strategies.

Happy studying, friends!

Friday, September 13, 2013

September 13 Crumble - Purpose Setting - the key to engaging our students

I have a ten-year-old who doesn't like to read.  But every once in a great while I can't get her head out of a book.  It's at those times when I look at her and ask myself, "What is different about this time, and why is she making the choice to read?"  In her case, eighty-percent of the time it is a non-fiction book that has captured her with a picture that made her go, "What's that!"  And at her age she knows that she will find the answer inside. 

So how can we transfer this type of behavior to our classrooms?  One of Project CRISS's Principles and Philosophies is Purpose Setting - but we're not just talking about telling kiddos why they're doing what they're doing.  Purpose setting comes in all sizes and shapes - including the "sneaky-teacher" ways of getting kids interested.  Here are some ideas to get your students motivated to read, learn, and participate.
  • Play a video related to your content (YouTube, United Streaming, DVD clip) that is not too long (6-8 minutes max) - something that is edgy or entertaining, and maybe evokes emotion.  After the video, ask students to write observations and reactions.  Give them a sentence frame if you think it will help.  Expect them to give details about their observations and reactions. Have students discuss and share their thoughts and then have them ask questions about it. You now have the beginnings of purpose (their questions).
  • Use music.  Kids love music.  Many of them write, and if you approach their lessons in a way that breaks down their own music or allows them to understand what goes INTO writing it, those with a musical inclination are more likely to participate.  Is there music that relates to the topic at hand?  I'm not talking a song about the scientific method or the fifty states, but music that somehow connects to the topic at hand.  You make the connections for them initially.  Have them observe and ask questions. 
  • Google Images is, hands down, one of the most fun places to go when you're curious about something.  Why not use it to gather some attention and show images that related to something in the lesson before giving the lesson and see if you can get kids to react to it.  So how does your topic of study connect to students' lives TODAY?  Find some images.  Have students write and discuss their observations and reactions and . . . you guessed it - ask questions!
In the three general ideas listed above, there are some commonalities that I'd like to point out, and then I'll let you take it from there. 
  • Get the kids thinking about the topic before they learn.
  • Engage them in something other than reading or talking (viewing, listening, or playing).
  • Require them to observe, write, and react.
  • From those observations, require them to ask thoughtful questions.  The questions asked can be used to drive your instruction or not - but a good educator can easily find the balance between what the kids want to know and the stuff that we're being told is important. 
It's not tough - in fact, I find that our purpose setting activities can be the most fun part of the lesson because it requires students to express themselves.  This is the beauty of middle school!  They're just learning to express themselves - their viewpoints and opinions, and yet we don't have to reel them in too much.  You can learn so much from just talking to your kiddos, and who knows?  Maybe what you learn from them is a new way to look at the topic! 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

September 6 Crumble - How do we use our data?

I usually try to write these blogs as focused on instruction as possible so that they apply to a variety of educators from anywhere, but I've had some requests and questions about benchmarking, assessments, and progress monitoring over the last few months, so I've decided to dedicate this early-in-the-year blog to explaining the process that we use at our middle school to assess for reading and plan the proper programs for our students.  I'll also talk a little about how we are using lexile scores, as lexiles were recently under question by Tween Tribune and Fox News in the last month, for those of you who saw the reports. 

The last few years, our district has chosen to use Scantron Performance Series as our benchmarking and screening tool for reading comprehension at the middle school level.  This test uses a combination of vocabulary, non-fiction, long and short passages to assess a student's reading comprehension and provides a National Percentile Ranking (NPR), Scaled Score (Scantron's own scoring system), a lexile score, and a lexile (research) score.  I do a few things with these scores.

First off, if a student's NPR is below the fiftieth percentile (out of 100 students, his scaled score fell below at least fifty of them), his language arts teacher is then required to run the AIMSWEB Oral Reading Fluency (ORF), which is a three minute test of oral reading where the teacher listens to the student read, out loud, three different passages (on grade level) at one minute each.  From the ORF, we can determine whether a student reads at an acceptable pace or not and whether she is an accurate reader (misreading words).  AIMSWEB gives us specific benchmark scores that show where students should be at different times of the year (depending on their grade level), and these scores are used to guide us in choosing the correct program for the students.  We are just finishing up Performance Series right now, and I've already started going through rosters and highlighting students who need AIMSWEB benchmarking for teachers so I can get those out early next week. 

Here is where things start to get tricky.  Often, a student will read below the fiftieth percentile but his fluency has met the benchmark.  At this point, as long as the student's score is above the twenty-fifth percentile (still talking Performance Series), then no intervention is recommended.  I will sometimes put kiddos on my monitor list (unofficially) if they are below the thirtieth. 

Fluency scores that fall below the twenty-fifth percentile (on the AIMSWEB ORF) are flagged, and we place those students into a Small Learning Community (SLC, which is like a homeroom.  Ours is sixteen fantastic minutes.) where they will participate in the (super easily implemented) program The 6 Minute Solution (Adams and Brown).  We are lucky to have teachers across content areas who are willing to work programs like this.  They're scripted and easy and don't require the implementing teacher to know a lot about reading fluency, as long as I'm around for consultation and direction.

Yet there are still students who need more.  The ORF also tells us how accurately a student reads a passage.  For example, if a seventh grader reads her passages and miscues (gets them wrong) more than five percent (sometimes I will check over three percent) of the words for that benchmarking period, I will pull that student to run a few different screening tests on the student to see if she has some gaps in her phonics skills (putting letters together to make words). 

We use 95% Group's PSI to start.  Our high school reading specialist also developed a syllable-types screener (to determine if the student may just have trouble with identifying/reading a specific type of syllable).  But one thing that I'm starting to learn is that basic sight words are a source of trouble for a small group of our middle schoolers, especially those who are still learning the language.  Because of this, I started using the Scholastic Phonics Inventory (SPI) to gather information on sight word recognition and fluency, and wouldn't you know it?  My theory about sight words tended to be true.  At this point, we haven't developed a specific intervention that targets those students with sight word deficiencies.  This is on my list of things on which to research.  I've also used the SPI to identify students for placement in System44, one of our Tier 3 programs, which takes the place of the student's exploratory class.  I hate to use that time because the exploratory cycle is so important for so many of these kiddos, but time is not on our side, and this is the most logical place to insert a Tier 3 intervention. 

I also look at Performance Series scores to see if students need extra support in reading.  Sometimes I'll catch an incoming student on the opposite side of the spectrum who may need to be referred to our Gifted Coordinator so she can take a look at the student's scores.  This doesn't happen very often, however.  Ironically these students seem to come in with all of their paperwork lined up, every I dotted and every T crossed.  Its our new struggling readers who end up popping up in November, and then we shake our heads trying to figure out how we missed them.  Usually its because they came in after Performance Series or they're on my To-Do list, but we DO eventually pick them up and get them what they need. 

Teachers who take a good look at their data will often look at lexiles and NPRs and email me about kiddos about whom they have immediate concern.  I will then consult my vast spreadsheet of scores over the last two years and let the teacher know if the kid tanked the test or if maybe there is more to the student. 

The big question is - What would cause immediate concern?  Well, that's another tricky question that comes with a variety of tricky answers.  I try to use's CCSS Text measures (at the bottom of that link), but most of our kiddos struggle to hit those, so I also take into consideration their past years' growth and what classes they were taking at the time.  For example: if I'm looking at an eighth grader in a regular language arts class with a lexile score of 700, this is undoubtedly low for eight grade.  The teacher may question the student's placement, but what the teacher may not know is that in sixth grade the student was at a 500 all year and had been receiving support in the intervention language arts classroom.  The following year we decided to place the student in a regular language arts classroom around peers who were great models of reading and give this student a vocabulary intervention in SLC.  In seventh grade we saw that lexile score creep up to 700, so we decided on the same program for this student for eighth grade.  This is how the scores can be used to shift students around in the Tiers. 

Language arts teachers who have these growing strugglers have options of using material of different text complexities for instruction.  Our current text book has text selections that are paired and labeled for more accessible vs. more complex text.  Teachers can choose selections and differentiate right in their classrooms if need be.  Plus, all of this data is available to any of our content area teachers, as well, and if there are students who need support, we try to make people available for that (Special Education teachers, paraprofessionals, myself, support staff). 

One last thing I like to do with lexiles before I sign off for the weekend.  Tween Tribune and Fox News went on a lexile rampage about a month ago, talking about teachers who get lexile scores and make kids read only at that level, and it frustrated me.  I think we truly have a good thing going in our use of these scores.  The reason I bring this up in this blog is because I think its important that everybody understand how they're used in relation to the testing process. 

First off, many of our teachers share the most recent lexile scores with students and will often use this score as a springboard for conversations about what students can do to maintain or improve.  But lexiles were not designed originally as a benchmarking measurement.  Just like so many of our educational tools, the lexile score morphed into something it was never intended to do.  Lexiles were designed to match a student with a piece of text.  Period.  Now there's all sorts of research out there that tells us that students should read at their independent level, and now we're seeing stuff come out that we should instruct students at their frustration level

I'm talking strictly independent reading now, friends.  Put yourself in the shoes of a thirteen year old.  If you didn't like to read, and you were given a book where thirty percent of the words were a challenge for you and the sentences were lengthy, what would you do?  I know what I would do, and it isn't pick up the book and read for twenty minutes a day!  I'd chuck that baby at the bottom of my locker and put on my bad-girl face as I walked to language arts.  Struggling students need to feel success before they can choose to grapple!  They need to want to wrestle with the text before they do it.  It's like learning to do anything for fun.  If I don't want to do it, why would I do it?

So when we walk into the library of 10,000 books with a class of students who are all struggling to read, the last thing I want them to have to do is decide which one out of the 10,000 they will hate the least.  So we take their lexile score (Not their lexile research score from Performance Series - the lexile score from Performance Series considers the student's grade level and will give us books that are more age appropriate because some of these kids have scores that are so low there is nothing available for them that is age appropriate.  This works in our ET classes also where we have some students whose lexile research scores max out at 1400, but the only thing we have to give them at that level would be a college text book from one of our grad classes!) and we plug it into our computer catalog along with information from an interest inventory that we have given them before we go to the library, and Voila!  A short list of books at an attainable level that might be interesting enough to crack open this week.  And then we look at them, read the back, analyze whether the length will be something they want to tackle, and maybe even check it out with a smile. 

And that, my friends, is my long winded narrative of how we acquire the scores, how we use them, and how they can work for us.  Please ask if you have questions, as I am open to answering.  Also, if you're reading this and disagreeing with something, I'm also open to having that conversation as well.

Happy weekend!