Saturday, May 17, 2014

One summarizing strategy EVERYBODY can use

Writing in the content areas - a new buzz phrase in the field of education. Some content area teachers embrace it as a great challenge to overcome while others duck tail and run the other way.  Regardless, research states clearly that if you can write about it, you can process through it and display mastery of it.  Plus, writing about certain things actually helps one to reflect on the process of whatever skill he is mastering.

I've had some interesting discussions about writing with teachers over the years, and what I have found is that our content area teachers outside of the language arts department may avoid writing for a variety of reasons. Below is a list of those reasons, and my responses to each one (in purple).

  • It's uncomfortable for me. It's not my expertise, and I don't have a clue how to teach it.
    • This is valid.  If somebody were to ask me to teach math, I would be uncomfortable also because teaching math is not my area of expertise.  As a veteran teacher I would ask for some support from the experts.  Know that, first off, you ARE the expert in your content area, and you are the expert in reading your subject - you just don't realize it because you're so good at it!  You are probably the expert in writing in your field, also.  No language arts teacher is going to be as knowledgeable in writing in your content area as you are because language arts teachers are the experts in writing for literature.  But ask one for some guidance if you don't feel perfectly at ease.  Ask other experts in the building (your department chair or literacy specialist).  Ask an administrator for suggestions.  Everything new is uncomfortable, but if you give it a shot it won't be new forever.  
  • Formal writing takes too much time.
    • Writing does not have to be a formal practice.  It could take five minutes or five days - depending on your goal.  Having students write about whatever they learned each day will begin that process.  The key is consistency.  Experience has told me that writing-stamina will improve with daily practice.  A five minute writing session at the beginning of the year might yield a few sentences from a student, but by the end of the year, that same student may be able to produce a page of writing in the same amount of time - all informally.
  • I don't see a real purpose that would support my content.
    • As a teacher of science, music, or physical education, the last thing most of your are thinking is, "Ooooo, what can I have the kids write today?"  But you have to remember that, just as a language arts teacher needs to remember his kiddos with musical and kinesthetic intelligences, you have to be mindful of those students who are linguistic.  You have them.  They hate PE, art, or music, but they love to write.  Meet these students half-way like your counterparts would in a language arts classroom.  Processing information or skills through writing about them is a research-based strategy for learning.  If you can talk about it or write about it, you know it.  And there is physical evidence that you know it because it is all down there in writing.
  • I don't want to grade all of that writing.
    • I have some news for you.  I've never met a language arts teacher who said to me, "I can't WAIT to go home and grade some argumentative essays tonight."  Nobody WANTS to grade it.  But the beauty of most writing is that it doesn't have to be assessed.  We want to expose our kiddos to as much experience with writing as possible.  So don't grade it if you don't want to, but please walk around and give feedback as students are writing.  The more feedback they get, the more they will want to write for you.
So now that we have established WHY writing is so important for everybody, let's write an essay.  Just kidding.  Let's not.  Let's do something fun and challenging that will help your students process their new information or skills with words.  Several weeks ago when I attended the Day at Judson with Jeff Anderson, he shared this absolutely awesome summarizing strategy with the group.  My colleague and I marveled at its ease and fun, and I couldn't NOT share it with everybody.

Anderson shared the book An Island Grows by Lola M. Schaefer as the mentor text (model) before he gave us the strategy.  Here is how it works:
  • Write down ten (or a predetermined number if you want something shorter) nouns (person, place, thing, or idea) that connect with whatever your topic is.  It could be the day's lesson or an article, story, or video.  You decide.
  • From that list, go back and connect one strong action word (you can use the word verb if you want) to each of the nouns.
  • Arrange them in an order that makes sense.  Capitalize the first letter, and put a period at the end of each pair.
  • And that is it.
Here is what we wrote to summarize the story The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe.

We are literature nerds, so it works well with a story written by a great author, but imagine the possibilities!  Teachers of social studies could have students summarize a section of their social studies chapter or write one as a summary of the entire World War II.  PE teachers could have students write about how their game of volleyball went that day.  A student in art might write about how she created a piece of art.  In music, students could write about a concert they performed the night before or their rehearsal that day.  Any teacher could have students read an article, watch a movie, or look at a visual image and use the strategy to summarize, predict, or describe it.  

Get creative with this strategy.  The endless possibilities make it versatile and easily adaptable.  Kiddos who struggle to read or write can handle the task with their own vocabulary while gifted students would be challenged by finding just the right words to use to create the perfect pairing.  And because there are so few rules, you can ask students to create using three sentences, seven sentences, ten sentences, or more!  As a teacher who avoids writing, you can now brag that you used a quick and easy writing strategy in  your classroom, and it worked so well, you'll do it again next week!

Sunday, May 11, 2014

My spin on the Day at Judson with Jeff Anderson - how grammar instruction and literacy intertwine

Many words come to mind when I think of Jeff Anderson, but when I speak to a group of English teachers about him, the word genius comes out of my mouth at least three or four times.  Jeff Anderson, author of Mechanically Inclined and Ten Things Every Writer Needs to Know spoke at Judson University's Day at Judson last week.  I was sad to have missed Kelly Gallagher the year before, so when I learned Anderson was planning a visit to Judson, I was thrilled!  Jeff Anderson spoke at the IRC Conference in Springfield in 2013, and I had the privilege of attending his (highly entertaining and informative one hour session (click the link for an overview of that session).  I couldn't imagine what I could bring back to our staff after spending an entire day with him!

Anderson introduced his audience to his approach to grammar instruction after the figurative burning of DOL to the ground.  His audience giggled as he described the all-too-familiar scene of students "yelling" at a sentence that needs editing instead of looking at model text that is correct.  And then he went into his grammar instruction approach, which, for the first time in my teaching career, I felt really made total sense.

One point that I brought up early on in the session is that many of our kiddos lack the background knowledge and vocabulary to complete the grade level DOL sentences (or daily edit paragraphs).  The lack of correct grammar and/or punctuation plus the high-level vocabulary makes creating meaning from the sentences virtually impossible for some of our students, and therefore they copy down answers rather than practice using correct grammar and punctuation.  So . . . pretty much they learn nothing from this exercise.

I, personally, am a sentence diagrammer, which is ironic considering I am not a visual learner at ALL.  I think it is my mathematical/logical self that I try to hide that makes me love diagramming so much.  With diagramming there is a place for everything and a right or wrong answer, but the kids hate it, and when all is said and done, they can't apply it - therefore, making the same mistakes they did before they diagrammed that stupid sentence.

Anderson's much more applicable approach has six steps, three of which he outlined in his IRC session of 2013.  I won't go into too much detail on them, but check them out here.  His last three steps I will spend a bit more time detailing.

  1. Invitation to notice: Choose a sentence that properly demonstrates your desired grammar element and ask students to report what they notice.  Honor everything (this could take some creativity on your part). Name everything.  Ask students to explain functions of what they're noticing.  I can see this being done with a lot of Think-Pair-Share discussion.
  2. Invitation to compare/contrast: Write an imitation sentence and ask students to compare it to the model text.  Again, Pair-Share discussion seems appropriate here, as our intent is to get all students to participate.  Asking students to share with a partner takes away the pressure of being wrong in front of twenty-eight of your peers.
  3. Invitation to imitate: And now it becomes your kiddos' turn to create a sentence that takes on the same form as the original.

    I'm envisioning Anderson's Invitation to Imitate as a perfect time for a teacher to practice that individual feedback Rick Wormeli thinks is so important, so that the "celebration" in the next step becomes more of a collective activity rather than individualized.  Students who come from collectivist cultures (click to read up on that bit of research) might participate more readily if individual attention is not the focus of this next part of the process.
  4. Invitation to celebrate: As a teacher of students who struggle, one of the big problems our students with little to no academic self esteem have is that they rarely feel successful.  This is a perfect opportunity to give them that feeling of success (possibly using the pair-share approach before sharing out).  Anderson suggests sharing student-written imitations with the entire class.  The student who offers to share reads twice and the class applauds in celebration.

    Now, Rick Wormeli may disagree with this practice, as he encourages teachers to give feedback that feeds intrinsic motivation rather than outward praise.  In his February presentation at the Kane County Institute he spoke about praise and how it can actually have adverse effect on students if it is too general and used to motivate them.  

    As I stated in step three, however, if steps three and four can be meshed together with Wormeli's strategy for supplying feedback, the adolescent's intrinsic motivation is tapped before the extrinsic hits, and hopefully she will see step four as more of a class-wide celebration rather than an individual pat-on-the-back.
  5. Invitation to Apply Pattern:  Initially, this might look similar to the invitation to imitate, but the difference with this step and step two is that students are now going to be asked to apply their knowledge to real writing.  The way that Anderson demonstrated this practice was so beautiful that my co-department chair and I ran the exact same activity with our department a few days later and are hoping to include the practice in our new writing curriculum this summer.  Here's one way it can work.

    Read students a text selection with an easily-recognizable form- something students could easily imitate if they chose.  Ask them to think about it, talk about it, and then use what they heard to free-write.  The idea here is to get students to write something so that they can go back and revise it with their new knowledge.

    At the bottom of the page, have students create a T-Chart  like the one pictured below.  Label the left column Shopping List and the right column Receipt.  In the Shopping List students should write down what it is that they plan to "shop for" while rereading their own writing.  This becomes their purpose for the reread, then.  They read their piece of writing, highlighting where they used the targeted skill.  Once they finish, they need to "check out" and get a receipt. This is where they will write an explanation for what they did.  If they couldn't find evidence of the skill in their own writing, they need to go back and find a place where they can revise to make it fit.  
    There are dozens of reasons this practice is beneficial for your kiddos.  First and foremost, they have to reread and make meaning out of their own writing, which may, in itself, be eye opening.  Second, they're putting into practice the skill that they've been learning all week.  Finally, practical application!  They have to put into writing why they did it, which means they have to not only use it, but they have to explain why.  Genius, right?  With all of the practice, these kiddos should be able to handle this activity, right?  And they're using their own writing, which means that the reading level isn't going to trip them up like so many of our grammar books.
  6. Invitation to Edit:  The last step Anderson introduced I could take or leave.  His idea actually makes sense - this idea that we need to prepare our students to identify when other writers use grammar or punctuation incorrectly (mainly for the purpose of standardized testing).  Instead of using the traditional DOL, Anderson suggests going back to the mentor sentence, the one he used to introduce the concept, and writing it three other ways, each rewrite having a different error.  Use the mentor sentence to remind students what they learned from the writer before uncovering the other three.  Each time you uncover a new sentence, ask students what effect the error has on the sentence.  Think-Pair-Share is an ideal discussion strategy to use here.  What I love about this step is that we never point out "incorrectness".  We simply discuss what effect the change has and go back to the correct grammar of the first mentor sentence.  What the kiddos may take from this is that the way we use grammar and punctuation can change the mood or tone of a piece, and there may be times when we want to break rules to create that mood or tone.  
To me, making meaning of text in both reading and writing is the difference between one who can and one who cannot function independently in life.  Without acquiring skills to communicate and comprehend, a person cripples himself.  Grammar and punctuation are, so often, treated as separate skills from reading and writing, but they're just one more piece to the big picture of literacy.  

Even though grammar instruction was the main topic of Jeff Anderson's program at Judson University last week, he had some other great ideas as well, but I may just save those for another blog, as this one seems to have grown three heads and a tail and has started walking on its own.  As I am writing I am now wondering if this same principle could be used to teach other subjects like music or art - the idea of creating something based from a model.  I think I need to process this a little more before I go too far with it, but the premise seems the same.  

See?  Genius.  That's what Jeff Anderson is.  He's got me thinking in three or four different directions now, where even this morning I wasn't that far along in my thinking!  How grateful I am that I was able to see him at Judson, and I do hope to see him present again sometime in the near future.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Background knowledge and purpose setting - Part 2

This blog is a continuation from last week's blog.  It is an ongoing narrative of a large project in which I am currently involved.  To get the scoop on what has happened previously, go back and read last week's blog.

On Friday I asked my colleague’s fourth period class for a show of hands of students who were more than half way through the biography that they had chosen last week.  Over half the class raised their hands, and some expressed that they had already finished!  Stepping out on a limb, I asked for a show of hands of students who are actually sort-of enjoying the biography (Never ask a middle schooler if they enjoy something about their education.  You’re likely to get crickets.).  What amazed me is the positive response we got when posing this question.  The room was filled with hands in the air.  They were admitting to enjoying  - not just reading – but reading a biography!  And, friends, I am not working with a class full of self-motivated or gifted students!  I’m working with a very diverse group of readers ranging from below average to above average in their reading levels. 

The big question from my former colleague (and tireless volunteer in this adventure) Pam is – WHY?  Why are these kiddos reading?  Why are they enjoying it?  What have we done that would cause a twelve or thirteen year old to find a biography on Helen Keller, Einstein, or Abraham Lincoln so satisfying that they’d want to finish it?  I’ll let you decide that answer for yourself after you read about the steps that we took  last week. 

We left off last blog with a final, class-derived list of the top ten characteristics that made a person highly influential.  Each class (fourth and sixth period) voted on the top ten, and, if you remember from last week, six of those ten characteristics were the same in both classes.  We felt like this was wildly successful.  If almost sixty students could conclude that the same six traits made a highly influential individual, then all sixty of those kiddos read, comprehended, and concluded at relatively the same level! 

Here they are.  The entire collection of pics just waiting to be picked.
The next step in this project was to have students choose their project topic.  Instead of giving the students a list of individuals from which to choose, Pam suggested going to the Library of Congress and printing photographs that represented the different choices we were offering.  She had even gone to the trouble of choosing only people who matched a biography of 100 or more pages in our library collection!  The pictures we printed and put into plastic sleeves before we laid out about 200 of them in the classroom.  The choosing process we conducted just like we normally do Steven Layne  Book Shopping activity (sadly, I can't find a good link for this activity).  With music playing softly in the background, we allowed students about twenty minutes to circulate the room and study the pictures.  Students carried sticky notes with their names on them so that they could mark their final choice when we gave the okay to do so.  Their instruction was to choose a picture that spoke to them.  What we didn't tell them was that the picture would be their choice for the biography project, and the next day we took a trip across the hall to the library where the students each checked out at least one biography that matched their picture from our collection.  Some students were intrigued by their choices, many knew at least the field form which their biography would likely come, and only a small number of students were outwardly upset by their choices.  We dealt with these students individually.
We couldn't get them out of their books!

What happened next was nothing short of miraculous for a group of seventh graders.  Our idea was to come back to the classroom the next day and have the students put themselves into groups according to field (artists, inventors, scientists, etc), which we did.  But we wanted the students to talk amongst their groups and share what spoke to them about the picture, why they chose it, and if they were surprised with the choice.  The picture to the left is what happened instead.  I walked into the classroom in the middle of the period to join the activity, and I was bowled over by what I saw!  These kids were READING.  Now, for those of you who know anything about most middle schoolers, its tough enough to get an entire class to sit still for independent reading when you ask them to, but to give them a social activity and have them choose to read (a biography) instead???  We couldn't believe it, and we finally gave up and let them read.

Working on the flip book
The following day we insisted on moving forward because we wanted our kiddos to read with a purpose before they got too far into their books, so we had the groups create flip books.  On each page of the book, they wrote one of the class-chosen characteristics of an influential person (ie. confident, good public speaker, etc.).  Then they had to go back and think about how that trait applied to their field.  We gave this question frame as an option if the group was struggling: What would it look like if a person in the field of _______________ was _____________?  So some students asked themselves something like What would it look like if an inventor was self-motivated?  They really struggled with this, and we found that, even though they could identify these characteristics as being important for a person of influence, they had a difficult time describing what the trait would actually look like.  This will be an ongoing vocabulary lesson with them as we move through the different stages of research, but there was no way we were going to be able to address all groups with all ten characteristics in one period.  The decision was made that we would clear up misconceptions on a small-group basis rather than with the whole group because each group had different needs.  The final product for this day was the flip book that we kept in a binder for future reference when it came to remembering the purpose for reading.

Pam's big job was to present the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) to the students.  We spent a day with the kids having them, as a group, write down all of their questions about their topic on a piece of poster paper.  Before they began, we reflected back on the essential question:  What makes (their topic) an influential person in (the field)? There were only four rules to the questioning activity:

  1. Ask as many questions as you can.
  2. Do not stop to discuss whether a question is good or bad.  Just write down every question.
  3. Write down questions exactly as they are stated.
  4. Change any statement into a question.

Once students spent time doing this, we then showed our kiddos how to change questions from In the Book questions (a Project CRISS QAR term) to Author and Me questions.  The idea was to show students that purpose changes when you change the questions.  We wanted students to think about questions before they really dove into their reading.  And that was that.  We let them read for two days.

Sticky notes by an average student
We really couldn't get the kiddos into their books fast enough.  Some of them had already gotten through half of their books because they'd been reading outside of school, and we wanted to arm them with some hard-core purposes before they got any further.  With sticky notes in hand, they attacked their books - looking for examples of the ten characteristics of influential people and answers to some of their preliminary questions.  At this point in the game, we didn't even really want them stopping to jot down notes other than on the sticky notes, and I have to say, it was an effective decision!  Some of them went sticky-note mad, marking spots on every page where they identified examples of how their person demonstrated confidence or public speaking, or the art of persuasion.

As you can see, the heavily-hit background information and purpose setting has made all the difference in the world to these kiddos.  And we still haven't told them what their final product will be!  Because the final product is not our real purpose, we didn't feel like we needed to focus too much on it, and honestly, we are having entirely too much fun to focus on ruining it with a final product.  We do have projects and rubrics ready to go, and the plan is to introduce them this week, but the kiddos are much more interested in the process than the product.  When more than half of them raised their hands when I asked who was enjoying their biographies - I knew we had them hooked.