Get Ready…

19 Mar

Most teachers clearly recognize the essential need for planning. We’ve all had days when maybe we didn’t plan effectively, and lo and behold those days didn’t run smoothly, either. Several years back I was introduced to a simple but masterful planning protocol.

Here it is… just four planning questions:

1. What are my outcomes? I need to clearly understand my outcome(s), and the more specific and measurable these outcomes are, the better. Moreover, I should be able to clearly articulate these outcomes to myself and my students.

2. What steps will I take to achieve my outcomes? I need to know exactly what steps I’ll follow and my students will follow. The Gradual Release of Responsibility should be mapped out in advance.

3. What will learning look like? If I don’t have a clear vision of what I should see if learning is occurring, then I won’t recognize it when it happens. I should have a specific vision of what students will know or be able to do as a result of learning.

4. What is my “Plan B” if learning doesn’t happen and/or what are my next steps? Even with the best laid plans, sometimes learning goes awry. A carefully thought out plan for my next steps will provide instant remediation or acceleration.

So that’s it- simple, but effective!


You Gotta Read This…

18 Mar

Looking for your next “pleasure read” book? Have I got a book for you?! If you liked The Hunger Games you will love Divergent by Veronica Roth. Although I was initially worried that Divergent was going to be a clone of The Hunger Games, I  couldn’t have been more wrong. The only things that Divergent and The Hunger Games share are a strong female protagonist and a dystopian setting- other than that, Divergent completely diverges! I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but I will say that Veronica Roth manages to create a world that is at once familiar and terrifyingly different. Although the book is pure, adrenaline-junkie entertaining, she slyly manages to make some astute observations about the best and worst features of humanity. Be sure that when you start this one, you have plenty of uniterrupted time because you won’t be able to leave it until you are done!! Keep an eye out, because this is absolutely going to be the next “big read” that everyone is talking about!!


18 Mar

Out of all the professional development books, websites, blogs, journals, and newsletters that I read, every now and then I dig out a jewel of a thought that I turn over and over in mind. Just recently, I found one of those jewels on the Choice Literacy newsletter blog, The Big Fresh. It was a jewel in the form of an acronym. And although acronyms are certainly not something that we are short of in education, this is definitely one worth remembering.

The acronym is WAIT (Why Am I Talking?). WAIT is something that I need to ponder as I write this blog. WAIT is something that I need to think about when I instruct or talk to my students. In fact, pretty much every area in my life could be improved if I asked myself WAIT every time I was tempted to talk. By employing WAIT, no more impatient or harsh words, no more speaking out of turn, and no gossip. In addition, if I could remember to ask WAIT,  I’d learn more (because I’d be listening way more!), my students would learn more (instead of passively sitting), and I could provide a sounding board to help others work through their  thoughts and feelings. There really isn’t any downside  to asking WAIT.  Developing a habit of regularly asking myself WAIT is definitely a goal worth pursuing!

Let ’em Write!

15 Mar

We generally recognize that the only way to enhance or develop a skill is to practice it, but somehow that idea seems to get lost on the way to writing instruction. In the same way that we have to let kids read to grow as readers, we have to let kids write to become writers. Now, let me clarify what I mean by “let them write”. When I say, “Let them write.” I don’t mean let them write a DOL sentence, or let them write a worksheet, or let them write an extended answer or even let them write in response to a prompt, although all of those things might have some instructional value in other contexts. No, what I’m talking about when I say, “Let them write” is to let them write in a manner where they are choosing their own ways to respond, choosing their own topics, choosing their own audiences, tones, and purposes. In other words, let them write authentically in all of the ways that real writers write, Now, I recognize that every child doesn’t have a hidden novelist buried deep in their psyche longing to escape, but every child does have something of value to say in their own unique voice and deserves to have a welcoming place in which to say it. I’m not saying that grammar instruction isn’t important. It is. Structure is important, punctuation is important, syntax is important- but truthfully all of those things are only of value if one actually has something to say!! Becoming an excellent grammarian without being a writer is somewhat akin to becoming an expert in phonics, but never actually reading or comprehending anything. There is no point in developing expertise in grammar without putting it to work in some type of writing.

So here is what I’m suggesting. By  all means, do teach grammar, but do it in the context of writing. Show students how incorrect grammar muddles our messages and gets in the way of communication. Grammar instruction should be an important component, but not the main goal. When students understand the purpose of grammar instruction and how incorrect usage interferes with what they want to say, they’ll be much more likely to internalize and “own” the knowledge. Next, let them choose their own topics. Will they still need guidance and suggestions? Absolutely, but they don’t need someone else to do the thinking for them. They will need to see a lot of different models and mentors of writing techniques and watch how writers carefully select words to craft their message. They will need help in organizing their thoughts and building bridges between the strategies they see in reading and techniques in writing.They will need feedback from the mentor in the room (you!) and from each other.  BUT – they can and should be allowed to develop their own voice and write about things that are important to them, and they need to do this every day.

Writing is more than just a communication tool. Writing is also a thinking tool. We  write to think through a subject, concept, idea or feeling as well as to communicate those ideas, concepts and feelings.  A large part of being a literate person is the ability to think and communicate deeply. The ability to write and do it well is a legacy we must give our children. How? Let ’em write!!!

Let ’em read: Part 1!

14 Mar

I have heard it said that Mark Twain once quipped, “The man who can read, but doesn’t, is no better off than the man who can’t read.” How true this is!! Last year, I was feeling a growing sense of dismay as I watched children who were certainly capable readers, repeatedly choose not to read. What to do? In a search for answers I turned to the experts. What I discovered, I actually already knew, but apparently needed reminding.

The answer to how to motivate even the most reluctant reader is astoundingly simple (and really aren’t the best things in life usually the simplest?!). The two biggest factors in motivating reluctant readers are: time and choice. I know, it is so simple you almost think, “There has to be more to it.” Nope – that’s it. The first one – giving students time to read  – lots of time to read- makes a tremendous difference. Study after study show that good readers  read a LOT.  We’re not talking just 20 minutes of DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) although that is certainly a step in the right direction. We’re talking long, sustained periods of reading, not working on reading, not responding to reading…just reading. How much time? Richard Allington (What Really Matters for Struggling Readers, 2006) suggests 90 minutes minimum per day of just reading.  So how do we find the time? We don’t. We make the time, by carefully reviewing everything that we do and cutting out any/all nonessentials and combining subjects where we can. If we truly believe that more reading time is essential and that it has more impact in improving reading than practically anything else, we’ll make time for it. Granted, it may be impossible to carve out a single 90 minute block for sustained reading (and most kids wouldn’t have the reading stamina for this long a period anyway), but we should be able to carve out 25 minutes during the reading block, and another 20 minutes when students first arrive and another 35 minutes during content area instruction. Once you start really thinking about it, possibilities abound (Bus room? Cafeteria? Lines in hall?).

The second biggest factor in motivating students to read appears to be largely related to the issue of choice. The more choice students have over what they read, the more motivated they are to read. Students need to be able to choose their own reading material. This makes perfect sense. I certainly don’t like for my own reading preferences and choices to be dictated.  Another factor closely related to book choice is availability of books. According to Allington (2006) classrooms with the highest reading achievement had a wide array of books. Allington suggested a minimum of 500 books for intermediate classrooms and approximately 1500 in primary grade classrooms. Libraries can be grown steadily with purchases from yard sales (the teacher’s best friend!), thrift stores, and book fair points, not to mention gifts or donations from parents.  The research is pretty clear – if a school wants to increase the reading achievement of its students it will put its resources toward purchasing more books for classrooms.

So therethey are – the two big factors in motivating readers – time to read and choice.  Let’s give them lots of books to choose from … and more time to read them!

More on Questioning

13 Mar

If almost everyone agrees that prompting and supporting students to ask deep questions is an important instructional goal, then one has to ask, “How do we encourage and teach students to ask deep, probing questions?” According to the research, there are a few successful instructional strategies that teachers can use. First of all, research indicates that students “require direct-strategy instruction in the form of modeling and procedural prompts in order to generate high-level questions.” (King A.1994 Learning and Individual Differences 6, 163-185). Ciardiello suggests that there are three basic steps in teaching questioning in a method referred to as the “Teach Quest training model”. (Ciardiello,A.  Did you Ask a Good Question Today? Alternative cognitive and Metacognitive Strategies. The Reading Teacher. 1998. 210-219.)

In the first step the teacher explains “the purpose and value of asking questions.” (Ciardiello, 1998). Ciardiello suggests intoducing and explaining divergent (deep) questions by defining them as questions which will elicit a multitude of answers and are not closed-ended. In addition to asking divergent questions, students could also be introduced to the levels of Bloom’s taxonomy and some of the question stems or verbs associated with each level. During this first stage, students learn to recognize higher-order or divergent type questions and identify the signal words or verbs that make them deeper questions.

In the second stage, the teacher models how questions can be classified. Ciardiello suggests classifying them as Memory questions (which would correlate with the Remembering or Understanding levels on Bloom’s taxonomy), Convergent questions (correlate with the Analyzing level ), Divergent questions (correlate with the Applying and Creating levels) and Evaluating thinking questions (Evaluating level).  In the second stage, after observing the teacher model how to classify questions into the different types or levels, students will review questions and identify characteristics they share. Students could also compare questions to verbs and stem questions from each Bloom’s level and/or “Cue Cards” from Ciardiello (1998).

With a rich foundation of understanding the purpose of asking questions, and a clear picture of what deep questions look like, students are ready to begin to generate their own questions (Ciardiello). Again, the teacher will instruct following a Gradual Release Model. The teacher will model how to write deep questions using a text that will engage students’ interest. The teacher will then guide the students in developing and creating their own questions, gradually releasing them to create questions independently.

In summary, teachers follow a Gradual Release Model throughout as they: 1. Identify deep questions. 2. Classify deep questions and 3. Generate deep questions. Throughout the model the teacher will need to be prepared to offer corrective feedback and extend modeling as needed.


Asking is the thing!

12 Mar

Most teachers would readily agree that questioning is a key strategy that they employ on a daily basis. While I’m not debating the value of a teacher asking questions as an instructional strategy (although this strategy can certainly be enhanced by focusing on higher order questions, extending wait- time and asking authentic questions), what I am really pondering is the value of getting students to ask the questions (rather than the teacher!). When I consider my own learning, I know that the topics and ideas that I delve into the most deeply and that I learn the most from are the ones that make me question extensively.

I’m trying (emphasis on the trying) to learn to play tennis right now. Since I have never been very athletic (too busy reading!!) learning tennis has been a major stretch for me (and I mean stretch in both the literal and the figurative sense!). While I am on the court, I am constantly asking myself and my tennis partner questions. Some of my questions regard technique, some involve strategies, and some involve record keeping. Off the court, I’m still asking questions. I’m watching videos on YouTube to figure out how to better my serve. I’m watch tennis pros and instructors for tips on building flexibility and hand-eye coordination. I’m asking friends who play tennis for tips. All of that is to say, that since this is something that I want to learn, I’m asking a LOT of questions.

Now, think about this as applied to our students. It would seem that if we want them to ask questions there need to be a few parameters to consider. First of all, the topic at hand needs to be presented in a way that piques their curiosity. To the extent that it is possible, allow for choice. If the topic is one that does not allow for a lot of choice (such as required standards) think about how it could be introduced in a way that hooks a student’s attention. Be sure that students understand the end-benefits and purpose of learning this information. In  marketing this is referred to as “benefit sale”. If you want someone to buy a product (or buy into learning in this case), you make a strong case for all of the benefits that will be gained.Tennis was something that I really wanted to learn to do. I could see the end-benefits of getting in better shape, having fun with my husband, and last, but not least, wearing a really cute outfit!

Next, work to make sure that the environment is one that encourages asking questions. Sometimes it feels risky to ask a question. What if other people laugh? What if you’re the only one who doesn’t know this information? What if someone yells at you? There are some people  I would not want to ask a tennis question. For various reasons, I don’t feel safe asking them questions. However, I also recognize the people and places who are safe to ask my questions. They are patient,  and kind and most of all they know enough about tennis and where I am in my learning to nudge me to the next level. They know that with a carefully worded answer they can encourage me to push myself just a little bit  further. Our students’ needs are the same. When we have a clear view of the learning goals, the steps that lead to reaching those goals, and the individual strengths and weaknesses of our students, we can successfully support them as they ask questions.

Lastly, helping me learn some of the terminology of tennis helps me to know what questions to ask. As I began to learn to play, I didn’t know enough to even  know what questions would help me learn more! Getting a little basic information about the topic and the vocabulary associated with it, helped me to refine what I know and need to know. Having a little introductory information helped me make my questions more explicit and specific to my needs and interests. Yes, I am interested in learning how to do a backhand. Yes, hand-eye coordination is still an area I need help with. After we have created a desire for learning in our students and given them a clear view of the benefits of learning, we can continue to support them as they ask questions by giving them enough information to refine their knowledge base and ask deeper questions.

Ann Goudvis and Stephanie Harvey suggest that questions are what push readers (i.e. learners) forward in a text (Strategies that Work, 2000).   And ultimately, isn’t that what every teacher wants – a learner who can push themselves forward in their own learning? We have our students for such a short time. If we could help them develop tools that will help them become a  more thoughtful learner, not just today, but for the rest of their lives, that is definitely a topic worth considering!