Saturday, April 26, 2014

Background knowledge and purpose setting - without them you could face epic fail

This topic never gets old for me.  I think it is because I've walked into dozens of classrooms over the years and have heard students ask over and over and over again, "Why are we doing this?"  When those words come out of their mouths, immediately I understand that the relevance of the activity and information has left the building, and the kids are instantly disengaged.  Posting standards and target goals in one's classroom gives a purpose, but the relevance is still not there.  Thus, continued disengagement.  Well, the last two weeks I have been working with two educators who are always willing to step out on the highest cliff with me and peer over just to see what possibilities lie over the edge, and I have to say, its been so wildly successful that we have rallied two more teachers to join us on this adventure!

Its tough to let go of things we have loved from years past.  There is currently a joke running in our department about a dramatic version of The Diary of Anne Frank and how this has been one of the toughest pieces for some teachers to "let go".  My risky colleague is no different.  Last year she and I collaborated on her long-loved biography project.  It's one of those projects that she has been teaching for years, and we needed to revamp it to cover the correct standards.  I'm a firm believer that if you really love something that much, you'll teach it with passion, so I knew that we needed to fix it up and make it work for her.  

Well, she approached me again about this same unit three weeks ago, but this year we were both ready to amp it up.  In the past she has had students choose biographies, read them, and then do some sort of project on the person.  As with so many other long-standing projects across the curriculum, it was a basic research report where kids choose a topic and become the expert on this topic, and we pray that they have found enough relevance and interest in the topic to complete it. This year we wanted to tie in some argumentative tone to the project, so we met and decided to focus on the essential topic Most Influential People.  We decided that students would be required to research a person and then provide evidence that proves that the person is, indeed, one of the most influential people in their field.  

Our first meeting consisted of pinpointing standards that we wanted to be certain to cover in-depth and then outlining our expectations.  We knew we wanted to focus on the research process, and we knew that we wanted to leave the final project open to student choice. After that planning meeting, we met off and on to start the process of front-loading important information, and we decided that we needed to get everybody on the same page in terms of defining what an influential person was.  I was also able to interest my retired former-colleague (and Project CRISS partner in crime) Pam, who loves to come back and share her wealth of knowledge with middle schoolers.  

Because the project has turned out to be one of the most interesting collaborative adventures I have ever had, I wanted to outline, in depth, what we did - partly to share what we have done and partly to remember the beauty of how it all came together.

Our first few days with the students focused on the phrase influential person.  We did a few background knowledge activating activities which ended up being as telling for us as they were for our students.

  • We had students draw a target on a piece of poster paper and fill in people they considered to be influential in their families, school, neighborhood/city, state/nation, and the world.  This was an immediate bust.  It was clear, after only a few minutes, that some of our kiddos could identify the word influential, but few could apply it and identify people they would consider influential because their definitions of the word were so wishy washy.
  • We then went back and had students discuss, in groups, their definitions of the word before they looked it up in the dictionary to clarify their misconceptions.  A whole group discussion took place, and we pointed out misconceptions over several days.  My biggest fear is always that students will go back to their former thinking because its easier and has been ingrained in them for so long.
  • Finally, we had groups discuss and identify a list of ten characteristics they thought a person of influence might have.
Students took purposeful notes
I knew I wanted to hit this idea of influential people really hard, and I also knew that if we didn't clean up all misconceptions on the word that our project would fall apart during the early stages - an epic fail I was not willing to watch, considering we actually had the time to clear things up.  We decided to work this idea for a week.  My colleague and I googled "characteristics of influential people" for kicks, and we found some pretty amazing articles on the web that outlined what these organizations believed it meant to be influential.  We chose 4 different ones (two from Forbes  and the other two from different websites that focused on self-help).  One was so long that we split it into two.  From there we performed the same twisted jigsaw that I had done with a group of kids in science earlier in the year.  
Discussions began
  • Print enough articles for every student to have one (be sure to even out the articles so that each one is read by the same number of students).  Have students choose what article they want to read and get into groups after they've chosen.
  • Give students their purpose for reading the article.  Their purpose is to decide which of the characteristics they feel are most important and to be prepared to explain why by arguing the case for the chosen characteristics.
  • Once everybody in the group finishes, the group must somehow agree on the most important characteristics.  If one person feels strongly about their second choice, he must argue his case, but he cannot choose it unless the entire group agrees.  By the end of this group work, all students in each group should have identical lists of characteristics and be prepared to provide reasons why they were chosen.  Here is where it gets fun.
  • Count each group off again.  In one group, each person gets a different number.  Then put the new groups together by number.  Now each new group should have at least one person in it that has read a different article.  In a normal jigsaw, the job of the group would be to "teach" the information to the rest of the group, but not in this one!
  • Every student in the group will, undoubtedly, have come armed with three to five characteristics of an influential person - all from different perspectives.  The group's job is to whittle down those into a list of their top ten.  What our kiddos found was that one characteristic may have shown up several times, and all they had to do is put some of them together!  Some, however, had to be debated.
  • Their final list then got submitted to us before they left for their next class.
Once we got those lists, we took the time to cut them apart and put like-characteristics together until we came up with a long class list of every trait mentioned.  The next day, we made the class discuss and vote on the final top ten.  What we found beautiful is that six of the ten characteristics chosen for the top ten were the same in both classes!  I'd call that success!

Our kiddos were finally ready to move forward to previewing topics and choosing their biographies.  Reflectively speaking, a few beautiful things happened during this entire pre-learning stage.  
Final lists derived from jigsaw activity
  • In the time that it took us to complete this entire process (about a week), only one student got "schooly" on us and asked what the final project was going to have to be.
  • Misconceptions were cleared up, and we now had an easily accessible list of ten characteristics that students could use while they played detective in their reading of their biographies that they didn't even HAVE yet.
  • Interest was piqued.  I say this with hindsight because we are several days ahead as I write this, and the behavior of the students after they received their biographies blew us away.  More details to follow on this.
  • A good discussion was had in both classes about negative influences and how they would align to the top ten characteristics. Without even doing it, students had developed a top ten list that would easily include the negative influences as well as the positive.
The next steps in this process are just as exciting, but this is a great place for me to stop for now.  What I can say is that every day I cannot wait to step into this classroom to see what is going to happen next.  Even though our plans are secure, the implementation is entertaining.  Watching our students remain engaged excites me.  But what really is interesting is that they all know they will be expected to produce something at the end, but they're so involved in what they're doing right now that none of it seems to matter.  Next weekend, I should be able to report to you the process of choosing topics and beginning the prep for research.  Stay tuned!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Feeding curiosity and writing questions to guide research

I had the pleasure of working with eighth graders this week on an activity that had two clear and important goals.  When I met with my colleague several days before, she showed me examples of final products from years past and explained that she was trying to build much-needed background knowledge on the Holocaust and WWII before beginning a novel study unit on the Holocaust novel Night.  She also planned to hit target standards that focus on research skills.

My role as a reading specialist is generally one of reading support for struggling readers, but another part of my job is to support teachers with best practice instruction, support for implementation of the Common Core standards in English Language Arts, and to give our achieving readers strategies to become more independent learners.  Collaborating on this research project was an exciting prospect, and I couldn't wait to get started!

After establishing our goals, we decided that I would come in to do a mini lesson on creating good questions for research.  Research instruction has changed significantly over the years.  Because our kiddos are inundated with information from all angles, our job is to teach them how to retrieve the information and then process it.  When I was a kid, we researched one way - encyclopedias and books, card catalogs, and index cards.  Today we have brain research to thank for the dozens of organization and note taking techniques that we can teach along with millions of cyber-resources, making teaching research more challenging than it has ever been!  Stephanie Harvey discussed this same idea in March when I attended her session at the IRC Conference.  Kids think they can just hop onto Google and type in a question, click on the first link, and voila! Question answered!  Next!  To avoid this, teachers make lengthy lists of previewed websites so that students can use them like books - scanning the documents for information and reporting their findings.  Why are we not teaching them how to scan the web to find the information for themselves?  Time is always of the essence, and teaching web searches is a time-consuming process.

I opened my lesson with the Observe, Infer, Question activity that has had me smitten this last few months.  Clearly, students were engaged, as we saw them write and discuss, ultimately beginning the process of asking good questions.  We used the photograph to the left to get the students thinking about our topic for the day - Adolf Hitler.  Next, we moved into the real purpose for the day, which was to write research questions that would help us to understand Hitler - my colleague called it biographical information, which it is, but with a spin.  Gone should be the days of writing reports where we simply talk about something.  Hitler was born on April 20, 1889, in Austria might seem like important information if we were gathering biographical information on Hitler, but for this particular assignment there is no purpose for it.  Project CRISS would call these questions right there questions.  They're quick to ask and quick to answer, and they take about as much thought as 1+1.  We wanted to push our kiddos to do more "thinking and searching" in their research.

In order to do research like this, we had to look at the purpose.  My colleague's purpose for research was to build students' background knowledge on the Holocaust so that they can better pick apart the themes and literary elements of the novel Night.  That being said, the Holocaust is where we needed to head, so anything that she wanted students to research ultimately had to connect to that.  Once that was established, she asked the students how they could connect World War I with the Holocaust.  After some discussion, the class was able to come up with How did the events during and after World War I effect what later happened, causing World War II and the Holocaust?  This is exactly what we did with Hitler, then, the next day.

I posed the big question How did Hitler effect what happened during World War II and the Holocaust?  From that I demonstrated how I would write more questions that led us to a better and clearer understanding of Hitler and what his part was in the Holocaust.  I wrote questions like What was Hitler's path to power? What events in Hitler's life may have impacted his decisions while in power? and How did the citizens of Germany view Hitler and why?  We organized them in a two-column note and started reading the synopsis of the article on Adolf Hitler from  Instead of skimming the article looking for the answer to the first question and then the second question and so on (which is so often what I see students doing), I encouraged students to just start reading, and what they found was that we could begin to answer three questions in the first paragraph, but those answers made us ask more questions, so we wrote the new ones as well!  In that short twenty minute period we had written eight pretty good research questions that would easily give us a handle on who Adolf Hitler was and what his role was during the Holocaust.

In hindsight there are a few things I would have done differently during this lesson, but I was pleased with much of what we had done.  A few things to consider when taking a stab at a research activity are below.

  • Be absolutely clear on what your purpose(s) is(are).  Be certain your final product will align with the purpose.  It is always refreshing when a teacher takes a look at his original vision of a final product and realizes he has made it way more complicated than it needs to be.  If the goal is the research process, why go on and waste time with publication?  If the goal is a final published work for some purpose, then, by all means forge ahead!  My colleague wanted the students to organize their notes in a booklet-form for easy reference and connection during the novel study, which was a meaningful and purposeful final product.  If you are a content area teacher, you will probably have a two-fold purpose - one skill-based purpose (ie. - asking good research questions) and one content-based (ie - What was Hitler's role in WWII?)
  • Once your purposes are clear, establish a "big question" that can be answered by all students.  I'm working with another colleague right now on a biography unit, and, after lengthy discussion, we  finally decided to ask students to prove that the person they chose to research was a major influence in whatever industry he/she was in.  This is a great way to introduce informative writing with the argumentative purpose.  Our big umbrella question was What makes people influential? So the big question became, for the students, What made so-and-so a major influence in the such-and-such industry?  Once the big question is established, everything leads back to that question.  It's like a foundation.
  • Require students to ask loads of questions before allowing them into the resources.  I make this mistake over and over and over again - I let my kiddos into the resources, and the first thing they do is abandon the questioning.  Then it's days of clean-up as I watch them start randomly writing down unimportant information, and the entire process crumbles before my eyes.  Once your kiddos stop asking questions, their purpose is blurred and they lose focus.  Make questions mandatory, and do not give up!  If these kiddos get into the habit of asking questions, their entire educational career becomes more focused.  Imagine if your students opened a science book to chapter 12 and started immediately asking questions before they began reading!  How much more focused their learning would be!
  • Teach note taking strategies and allow students to give input on strategies that have worked for them in the past.  Pick one.  Ask the teachers in grades below what they use and the grades above what they use, and build a bridge.  Wouldn't it be fabulous if a sixth grade student used one type of note taking for research in sixth grade and repeated it in seventh grade and then eighth grade? Or even better - what if sixth grade teachers taught multiple note-taking strategies and allowed students to choose which one fit their learning style better?  And then seventh grade teachers built on those same strategies, and then eighth grade teachers did the same??? Kids are adaptable, but jumping from strategy to strategy every year never allows them the spiral effect where they can build upon acquired skills.  
  • Pique curiosity.  Allow students to choose.  Appeal to their emotions.  Get visual.  Use their five senses.  Nobody dreads a research project more than a person who researches something that has no interest or connection to their lives whatsoever.  Brain research tells us negative feelings impede learning. Some of our kiddos go through their entire day with a negative outlook on school.  No wonder these kids make so little progress!
Really, I could go on and on about the research process, but I will quit now while I am ahead.  The chances of me discussing this same topic next week are pretty high, as I have begun an exciting research project with two seventh grade teachers and a retired library media specialist this week, and we are all pretty psyched so far with what we have done!  Research has never been more challenging for students, so our job as educators is to help them to use their current reading and writing skills to make the task easier.  This is a daunting challenge, but one that can be conquered with the proper planning.  

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Friday, April 4, 2014

IRC Conference: Scaffolding for mastery of the Common Core by Deb Franciosi of Project CRISS

It was my pleasure to connect with Deb Franciosi and Anna Deese of Project CRISS at the IRC Conference for dinner Thursday night.  I've been conducting trainings for and embracing the Principles and Philosophies of Project CRISS since 2005, and although the emphasis on CRISS at the middle level seems to have waned in my district, my faith in the philosophy has not.  

The next morning I had to choose between Anna and Deb's sessions because they both had presentations planned at the exact same time on Friday.  I had seen Anna present the year before, so she encouraged me to attend Deb's session this year, and I'm very glad I did!

Franciosi's session focused on the idea of scaffolding.  According to the Glossary of Educational Reform by the Great Schools Partnership, scaffolding is "a variety of instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process. The term itself offers the relevant descriptive metaphor: teachers provide successive levels of temporary support that help students reach higher levels of comprehension and skill acquisition that they would not be able to achieve without assistance."

To start out her session, Franciosi went through the CRISS frameworks for teaching and learning, which is really a fancy name for a plan for instruction.  She called the framework "PPER" (pronounced peeper).  The acronym stands for Plan, Prepare, Engage/Transform, and Reflect.  Nothing earth-shattering here, but the focus of the scaffolding happens during the planning and preparation stage.

One target of my coaching this year has been the area of planning.  I never begin a collaborative project without first discussing the goals of the project and what outcomes are expected.  It's a tricky situation when I begin work with a teacher, only to discover that he/she is unclear on the final assessment for the unit.  What scares me even more is when the final assessment is created by somebody else and the teacher with whom I'm working has never seen it.  To me, its not enough to know what the objectives are for the unit.  The assessment is written with the idea that the skills tested are expected to be mastered.  If the assessment is based upon anything other than those goals and the teacher hasn't seen the assessment, the students are immediately set up to fail.  Period.  Franciosi's first P in PPER is Plan.  Plan beginning with your goals, how you will assess, and what materials you will need to begin and engage your students.

Prepare is the second P in PPER.  To prepare oneself to engage students in content means to consider the learner and the content to be presented.  We have already determined the end-product and the goals of the lesson, but without properly assessing our learners, we cripple ourselves as educators.  What kind of background knowledge will our kiddos need for us to scaffold properly?  Who are our learners?  What are their strengths and learning preferences?  Are we standing in front of an entire class of struggling readers or a group of gifted kiddos?  Does our audience speak English?  All of them?  How much do they already know about the topic?  Do they know anything that I can easily connect to the topic?  What about the content?  What resources are readily available to me?  Are the resources easily accessible for my kiddos?  In other words, can they easily glean information from the resources or will they need support to do so?  Without asking every single one of the questions above, and possibly more, we leave out part of the preparation process and therefore risk losing our audience before we even begin.

Scaffolding happens as a result of preparation.  Once you know your learners and your content, you prepare to engage them, which may require some pre-teaching before actually teaching.  Earlier this year I worked with a science teacher on a close reading activity on global warming.  Although we chose to introduce the strategy and practice it with easily accessible text, in hindsight, we could have (and probably should have) used sections from the actual text book to work through the strategy.  

One idea that Cris Tovani describes in her book Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? is the idea of text-sets.  The reason we chose the easily accessible text was because we weren't certain students would have enough background knowledge to pull-off a good close read of the text book itself.  If we had considered the piece of text that we did use as more of a part of a text-set, we could have had the students read it first with the essential question in mind and then dive into the science text book to conduct a close read on sections of the text.  We could have given students time in class to explore several different texts, in fact, so that we could build up their current knowledge before we hit them with the really tough stuff.  This would have given the students an opportunity to build some background knowledge and maybe allow them to formulate some questions before tackling the more challenging text from the book.  It would have allowed them to feel challenged but successful.  Hindsight is always 20/20.

Another point that Franciosi made during her presentation was that the initial material that should be presented to students should not only be accessible but relevant.  In other words, find material that relates somehow to students' lives.  I read this recently, and I wish I could remember where . . . wherever it was, I recall the speaker adamantly telling the audience that no matter what the content, make it relevant!  Somehow find a way to connect it to students' lives.  If it is history, start with how the outcome impacts us today or parallel the situation with a current day situation.  Science? Health?  Music?  Get creative and make it fit.  Without relevance, you immediately lose a large percentage of your students without even beginning.  

The second part of Franciosi's session was filled with an example lesson, using the framework that she introduced at the beginning.  She went into much detail about all steps in the framework, but what I brought from the session was the emphasis on scaffolding, the research behind it, the implications for using it, and how it applies to good planning.  

Good, solid planning equals a well-managed classroom where students know the goals and the plan to get there.  Knowing your goals, your plan, your students, and your resources creates an environment where students may be less self-conscious about trying new things and stepping out of their comfort zone.  Once the ice is broken, students begin to feel more independent in their learning, and that is the whole premise of the Principles and Philosophy of Project CRISS.  CReating Independence through Student-owned Strategies.