Today I had the privilege of observing in a science classroom. As a part of our school improvement team, I was trying out the idea of learning from colleagues through observation, and although classroom observation is a part of my job normally - my purpose was different today. I went in with the plan to learn how my colleague implemented partner reading in her classroom. What I got was a lot more than that! I wish you all could have been there, but since you can't, I'll do my best to explain what I saw today and give my thoughts about it.
I should preface this blog by telling you that the day before, the sixth graders participated in an activity involving gathering information on different types of alternative energy from posters around the room and stating some opinions about them. A perfect way to pique the interest of middle schoolers - ask them to tell you what they think. So today, their teacher referenced this activity at the beginning of the lesson and then asked students to set up a notes sheet outline with spaces to gather information from their reading (she had a clear example on the board) and a paragraph frame (It was at this point that I became giddy with excitement - a CRISS strategy!!!). What I loved about this task was that students had the background knowledge gathered from the group activity the day before AND now they were being given purpose for today by simply setting up notes and an exit slip! Brilliant! I also loved the fact that she remembered her strugglers and had copies of these things made for them. She gave all of her students the option of using one of her copies, and I was shocked to see how few students actually requested the premade copies. My guess was that, being January, those who were fully capable had been told long before that they were capable and had stopped asking for the adaptation. The picture to the right shows the frame that their teacher used. The note taking outline was nothing more than a list of important vocabulary words. Simple and effective.
After setting up their notes and their paragraph frames, the sixth graders were given a quick demonstration of the partner reading activity that they had obviously practiced over and over - it was basically a "read and say something" strategy from Project CRISS. Their teacher referenced a poster that she had off on the side wall (see picture to the left) that had clear directions for the activity. After going over directions, she then asked for a volunteer to help demonstrate the practice. She had chosen a piece of text from an alternative source (not the text book) that was a little over one page long and very well organized - a manageable piece of text for a short reading period. Her volunteer was given the option of being partner one or two. He chose partner two, of course. After that she reminded the class that they were all going to pretend to be partner two while she read, and she reminded them of the expectations listed under the second step on the poster. As she read, I watched them all, and probably all but two were tracking the text with a pen or their finger! They were following along, just like the poster said to do! Once she finished reading the short paragraph, she asked her partner to tell the main idea of the paragraph. She asked a few questions to lead him to the right answer, and then she pointed out that having a conversation while deciding on the main idea is okay. Then her partner read, and they repeated the exercise. I am not convinced that she even had to do this demonstration, as it seemed like the kids really knew what was expected, but it was nice to see the strategy modeled first before seeing the kids in action.
Finally, the sixth graders were told that after they were done reading, they should fill out the paragraph frame while waiting for the rest of the class to finish their reading. They immediately got to work. Let me just tell you - one hundred percent of those sixth grade students were actively engaged in the reading activity! One hundred percent! While most of the class worked independently, their teacher moved from group to group, stopping to work with the kiddos who received photocopies of the note taking sheet earlier. She knew which kids needed support, and she focused on giving them support while they read. The actual reading took maybe fifteen minutes for most of the class. Some took longer, but she had structured the activity to allow her to continue working with the strugglers while the rest of the class moved on to the paragraph frame. It was lovely to watch.
Why did it work? Well, I can give you my two cents on it and let you make your own decisions. First off, the teacher's classroom management was obviously impeccable. The kids knew expectations, and she never sat DOWN! She was on her feet the entire period circling the room. Even if a kid DID want to do something goofy, there was no time before she was around the room again. Second, the students had their interest piqued from the activity the day before, so they were already somewhat invested in the topic. Third, they knew what they were doing from the beginning. She set this up when she had them set up their notes, look at the board for the agenda, and write out their paragraph frame. They also were given explicit instructions, had a poster for support, had the option for differentiated note taking, AND had a demonstration of the reading activity. Finally (and most important from a reading specialist standpoint), they were given time to work together in an intimate setting - so there was very little chance for even our most shy of shy kiddos to hide. She also encouraged her students to help each other out with tough vocabulary, which I think was important. It was a one-on-one activity, and nobody was more important than anybody else. All important = all engaged.
Afterwards, she and I chatted for a few minutes, and she was disappointed that she hadn't gotten to go over the notes with the kids. She had prepared phrase cards to be taped on to the board on the notes page to guide students through filling in their prepared notes sheets from the beginning of the period. Another wonderful idea. Of course, my mind started going further and expanding on this activity, but I'll save that for another blog.
For now, let me just say that I was glad to have had the experience of going in to observe. It is rare that I go into a classroom with the sole purpose to observe and learn from the teacher. My purpose is usually support of struggling readers or observe these readers to help the teacher support them more - and through THAT I generally bring back something I, myself, have learned from this teacher. This time was different, and I can't say I was surprised one bit at the quality of instruction these students were getting. Bravo to this sixth grade teacher, and lucky us for having this gem in our building!