Category Archives: Literacy

Right Book. Right Group. Right Time

I’d had my heart set on reading To Kill a Mockingbird to my current eighth graders since last spring. Thanks largely to Nancie Atwell’s influence (see The Reading Zone, 2007), I no longer assign whole class novels. Instead, read-alouds allow for an accessible whole class experience that supplements students’ independent reading. I know I am lucky to teach at a school where I am trusted to make such pedagogical and curricular decisions.

Although it had been a long time since I’d read it, I was confident that To Kill a Mockingbird would be a valuable literary experience. It would also offer opportunities to connect to and discuss current issues of racism and the justice system. When I revisited it, however, I noticed several challenges. There’s the matter of the narrator’s southern accent, which I knew I could not pull off. There is also dialect and the N-word. I prepped the kids for it, gave them a lot of contextual information, and decided to use an audio recording. Despite those efforts, the kids were disengaged. Whenever I paused for discussion, my usually opinionated and insightful students remained silent. After a couple of days, they asked me to abandon the audio recording and read it aloud myself. I tried, but they were still disengaged. At that point, Anisa said, “Jessie, we know this is a book you really like, but do you think you could choose a book that we would like?”

I grappled with that question for the rest of the day. Did we just need to give the book more time, or was it truly not the right book?

I remember the year I used David James Duncan’s The River Why with ninth graders. I had loved that book, and I was certain that everyone in a pre-Advanced Placement English class would love it too.  After all, what adolescents wouldn’t love a coming-of-age story full of humor, self-discovery, and romance? I could not have been more wrong. The kids hated it. They did not connect with the main character; the humor was too sophisticated. There was a near revolt.

My selection of Angela’s Ashes, on the other hand, was transformative for my juniors and seniors, who could both appreciate the humor and empathize with the depictions of extreme poverty. What had been a disconnected, disengaged group of students developed community and confidence. That was when I learned the power of the right book for the right group at the right time.

Are there some books that are universally the right book? Maybe. It seems that every group of seventh graders loves The Outsiders. But most of the time, I have to start with my group of students in mind, and search for the book that will be the right match. I had forgotten to do that when I selected To Kill a Mockingbird, and then, against my better judgment, I continued to put the curriculum ahead of the students. Anisa’s question gave me the jolt I needed to change course. The next morning, I told the kids that I valued To Kill a Mockingbird and hoped they would each choose to read it at some point, but I could see that it was not the right book for the class at this time.

Wanting to get us back into our read-aloud groove, I pivoted to Wonder by R.J. Palacio. It is engaging, but lacks the literary heft I know my students are ready for and need. During a discussion about what makes a book interesting, Yasmin mentioned Of Mice and Men as an example of a book that had a powerful emotional impact. Isaac and Steven agreed. Yasmin then bounced out of her seat, saying Of Mice and Men should be our next read aloud book. I looked at Isaac and Steven who nodded vigorously. I’d been considering Of Mice and Men. The students’ enthusiastic endorsement settled the matter.

I imagine that there are individuals who would see this course of events as a reason not to trust teachers’ professional judgment, and instead to centralize all decisions about instructional materials at the district or school board level. For me it has the opposite effect. It makes me think about the absurdity of individuals far removed from classrooms making decisions about text selections. If I, who know my students deeply, can occasionally make the wrong choice, how could it be alright to leave the decision making to individuals who don’t know my students at all?

In this age of teacher-proofing and mandated curricula, I am curious about other teachers’ experiences. Are you able to make decisions about what will be the right book for the group in front of you? How do top-down decisions about curricula affect your and your students’ experiences?

Oh, and if you have any middle school read-aloud recommendations, please pass those along too.

Studio Teaching: A Luxurious and Effective Practice

Eight teachers and three district instructional coaches cram into the meeting room of a local coffee shop, the table full of laptops, large sticky notes, smelly markers, lattes and cell phones.  They pore over documents: teacher plans, student work, excerpts from educational articles.  The facilitator draws out ideas, pushes back when needed, and propels the conversation forward for more than two hours.  The coffee shop owner, familiar with many of these teachers’ faces, asks, “Are you guys working today?”  Yep. Six of these teachers already met the previous week after school in order to create the plans that this group is now tweaking.  So far: 2370 minutes of brain work in order to plan one 50-minute lesson.  Worth it?  Definitely. 

This past month, my co-teacher, an Exceptional Needs Specialist, and I were the “enactment teachers” for our English department’s “Studio” cycle:  teachers within each department take turns hosting other teachers from the department and district instructional coaches for a process that takes several days.  The enactment teacher begins by meeting with a coach to dissect his or her “problem of practice” or “problem of student learning,” a challenge that is almost always evident in the other teachers’ classrooms.  Later the whole team meets to plan a lesson that will address the stated problem, and finally, over an entire school day, the team finalizes the plan, digs deeper into learning about the problem of practice, observes the enactment teacher teach the lesson to one class, debriefs, watches as the lesson is taught once more, and then, after a long day, shares out in a final debrief. 

For this round of Studio, my co-teacher and I identified a problem of practice concerning students working in their “zone of proximal development,” a term defined by psychologist Lev Vygotsky, where students are appropriately challenged and supported at their current level of understanding. We had found that more struggling students often did not take advantage of the supports that we offered, including modified instruction in small-group settings, graphic organizers, one-on-one support, etc.; for students who needed more challenge, we realized that we didn’t always create opportunities for them to go further and deeper, and when we did, sometimes these students either did not realize they were ready for that level of instruction or they didn’t take advantage of the opportunities presented to them. 

Through the Studio planning cycle, our group of educators planned a lesson where students identified their current level of understanding of our learning target for the day, and then based on that self-assessment, chose from a menu of options of how they wanted to learn that day, including one that was more supported and one that was more independent.  The group also encouraged us to choose a more complex text than the one we had originally planned, arguing that with students being more aware of their current skill level and choosing an appropriate level of support, they could be successful at understanding this level of reading. 

My co-teacher and I stand in front of our classroom with 28 pairs of student eyes on us and 11 pairs of adult eyes on them.  The students start off stone cold – no one cracks a smile at my corny jokes.  But they slowly warm up, forgetting about the adults there with their clipboards, marking down their every comment and our every movement.  They tentatively raise their hands as they catch on to the lesson that these 11 people had a part in planning for them.  I smile, impressed with how my students are taking on this complex text, really understanding the heart of the argument. The adults keep their poker faces on, but they are silently cheering students on as they make sense of the reading before them, and quietly jotting down notes for later as they see us make teacher moves that both help and hinder the lesson.   

Studio feels a bit luxurious to me.  All of these brains helping us with one lesson.  All of this energy – and money! – spent to help our department gain a deeper understanding of a problem of student learning that affects us all.  All of the details in the lesson plan, the stuff that I rarely have time to think about, let alone write into a formal template.  All of the debriefing, refining, and reteaching.   

And yet the luxury is worth it.  Definitely.  That day, 84 students went home after reading a text that I had thought would be too much for them. Those 11 teachers went home with new ideas of what to do – and not do – in their own practice to increase student understanding.  And this one teacher, me, left feeling both challenged and affirmed, with new habits of mind and refined practice to take to the next lesson.   

For English Language Learners, Intentional Collaboration is Key

Tamar Krames

Guest blogger Tamar Krames is a NBCT in English as a New Language, a certified GLAD trainer, and an ELL instructional coach currently working with OSPI. Prior to her work at OSPI, Tamar worked as a district GLAD trainer and coach, taught ELL classes and co-taught sheltered ELL content classes. 

I recently sat at a table in a windowless conference room with a 3rd grade team of teachers. As you might expect, the table was covered with grade-level ELA curriculum materials, open laptops, and copies of Common Core Standards. Far less common were the open and highlighted English Language Proficiency Standards (ELP), Tier 2 vocabulary lists, and the laminated pictures piled on the table. Two teachers were pulling up engaging image files related to an upcoming unit on their personal tablets and one was searching her phone for affixes and Latin roots to support their vocabulary mini-lesson. While the driving force of the co-planning session was ELA content and standards, addressing the profound language needs of their dynamic students was inspired. This is it, I thought, this is what best practice for ELLs looks like. These teachers were clearly committed to their craft and to their multilingual students. But what made that collaborative moment so powerful was the shared focus of the whole building to best meet the needs of their particular student body. The teachers had common understanding of second language acquisition and ELP standards because a team of teachers had requested ELL training for the whole staff. The planning session had the full support of the building’s leadership. Collaboration was not happening on the fly. It was intentional and deliberately supported.

As a traveling ELL instructional coach, I visit diverse school communities across WA State. The geographic context and demographic mix varies greatly. One school community is comprised of Spanish-speaking migrant families living in a small town surrounded by orchards and mountains. Another school has no clear ethnic majority, the students speaking 15 different languages in one urban classroom. Regardless of setting, I walk into my first building visits with one central question; What might best practice for ELLs look like in this unique school community? I ask this question to school leadership right off the bat.

More often than not, the answer to this question disappoints me. Consistently the first answer points to a single focal point. “ We are so lucky to have a wonderful ELL teacher named A” or “ We just purchased this amazing online language program called B”, or “ our ELL Para has attended a training called C!”. Clearly this singular view of best practice begs the question – What happens when A, B, or C leaves the building?

As far as I can tell, there is no right answer to this question of best practice for ELLs. The learning needs of multilingual students are complex and always changing. A linguistics professor once said to my class, “ if you remember one thing about second language acquisition, remember this – language acquisition is without fail developmental”. For teachers this means that the ELLs support structures (scaffolding) must change and flex as their students’ English proficiency and content mastery develops. On top of that, the rate at which ELLs develop proficiency and mastery varies drastically in relation to a seemingly endless set of factors (literacy in first language, status of first language in the dominant culture, educational background, poverty, learning disabilities, access to quality instruction…)

If you need further proof of the complex and ever-changing learning needs of ELLs, try navigating though the English Language Proficiency (ELP) standards (An amazingly thorough matrix that outlines language development by grade level in relation to common core standards). Best practice for ELLs is truly a moving target as students trudge through the stages of second language development and academic literacy at their own unique pace.

More than a “right” answer to this question of best practice for ELLs, what I hope to hear is a plural answer that points to shared ownership instead of pointing towards one program or person. Whatever the site-based vision for ELL support entails, it must involve intentional and ongoing collaborative structures. Collaborative structure is different from collaboration as it is proactive and systematic – it implies a deeper commitment than amazing content teacher, X, that collaborates with one-of-a-kind ELL specialist, Y. Intentional collaborative structures answer questions such as, How and when do counselors, administrators, content teachers and ELL specialists work together to best schedule ELLs according to their developing proficiency level? How and when do content teachers investigate and integrate ELP standards into their grade-level planning? If the ELL specialist is ‘pushing in’ to core instruction – how and when do teachers learn about, experiment with, and reflect on co-teaching models?

Ultimately, the goal of any ELL program model is to expedite the academic English language/ literacy development of multilingual students so that they can meet grade-level standards and breeze through any gatekeepers they encounter on their path towards earning a diploma. Supporting ELLs through the K-12 system is not about finding the right teacher, program, or PD session. It is about shared ownership and commitment to refining best-practice, uniquely designed for each community, together.

TamarArt

The above drawing is an original piece done by Tamar Krames.

HB 2800

boxesBy Mark

I strongly believe that civil consideration of all sides of an issue are important for a literate society.

So let's take the Inslee/Dorn joint venture, House Bill 2800, which adds to RCW 28A.405.100 at section 2(f) a passage that begins on line 31 of page 3:

"Beginning with the 2017-18 school year, when relevant to the teacher and subject matter, student growth data elements must include results from federally mandated statewide student assessments."

This language is also inserted elsewhere in the document where it is relevant to define student growth.

Based on what I am reading, I hesitate to boil this issue down to a simple pro v. con. This issue, as are most, is more complicated that our society's convenient dualistic reduction.

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Common Core: Irony, Commerce and the Clock

File52a4a9f585e15By Mark

For English Language Arts 9-10, Common Core standard #8 for Informational Text is this:

Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.

I thought of this when I read a rant recently about how Common Core required education about safe sex rather than abstinence. This was the same week I read two different assertions: one claiming that Common Core specifically outlawed the teaching of cursive, the other claiming that cursive was now required. A few weeks ago I was lectured by a parent about how Common Core was forcing kids to just memorize a list of facts and spit them back on a test. My school year this year started with a colleague upset at the required reading list identified by the Common Core State Standards for high school English.

A seven-second Google search enabled me to "evaluate the argument and specific claims… assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient" and "identify false statements." 

1. Common Core does not address issues of sex education…

2. Common Core does not address handwriting or cursive in the standards…

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Teacher of the Year is Dyslexic

Jeff Dunn 1

Our guest blogger, Jeffrey Dunn is 2014 Regional Teacher of the year from ESD 101. Jeffrey is an educator, cultural critic, & backwoods modernist currently teaching in Deer Park, Washington. He invites others to read bell hooks, Paulo Freire, and Richard Brautigan.

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Try and imagine the impact this fact has on my students. No longer am I a model of all that is correct. No longer am I the authority on all that is academic. In this case, I am learning disabled as defined in Washington State law (WAC 392-172A-03055). This law reads that learning disabilities may include “conditions such as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.” In short, I am not the model of perfection students are led to believe all we teachers are.  

Researchers from the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity's Sally Shaywitz (Overcoming Dyslexia) and the College de France and  Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale'sStanislas Dehaene (Reading in the Brain) estimate that between 10-20% (call it the midpoint, 15%) of all human populations are dyslexic (variation  is a result of definition and assessment practice). Think of it, in any class of 25, we should expect 4 of our students to be dyslexic. My thirty-six years of teaching experience has proven this statistic to be true.

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More on Coverage vs. Learning: Student Growth

220px-Johann_Heinrich_Füssli_054By Mark

Last month I shared my thoughts about how "coverage pressure" nearly led me to move on before my students were ready. My decision to slow down and focus on my students' skills rather than simply plow forward resulted in far better student performance both on that essay as well as the next essay they are currently writing for me. I have had several students voluntarily tell me that they understand what to do far better now because we slowed down and spent more time digging deeper.

The new evaluation law requires that all teachers be able to demonstrate how their planning and implementation results in student growth toward an important content standard or goal. As I wrote that piece linked above, a minor epiphany occurred to me: coverage of content and student growth are not the same thing.

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What They Learn vs. What I Cover

File527fbcb709896By Mark

I had big plans for this three day weekend. 

Like many of my colleagues, when I look at the calendar and see three or four day weekends (or five-day, in the case of Thanksgiving), I don't think necessarily about all the relaxation I can achieve. Instead, I wonder if I could get a few class sets of essays turned around in that extended weekend. Those big writing assignments take time to provide useful feedback upon. For me, that means 15 or 20 minutes per paper to provide critical, focused feedback for improvement.

My kids submit their writing via Google Drive, so I can add margin comments (and cut-and-paste the comments I find myself adding frequently). When I reviewed their papers Friday after school, I knew I had screwed up.

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Are Schools Really Failing?

CompassesSome "discourse" about all the failing seniors in Washington State wants us to believe (using Washington as a proxy) that schools are continuing to fail.

This Reuters article seems to suggest they aren't, at least in terms of "closing the achievement gap." (Here is the link to the source data.) In the Reuters digestion, though, one key passage stood out:

The only scores to stagnate were the overall averages for 17-year-olds. While black and Hispanic students improved quite dramatically, the overall averages for the age group barely budged in either reading or math.

Peggy Carr, a federal education analyst, said the flat trendline among older students was actually good news.

More 17-year-olds with shaky academic records are staying in school rather than dropping out, which makes them eligible to take the NAEP exams, she said.

Even though some groups showed significant gains, the overall average was the same. My math knowledge tells me that if gains happened somewhere and the average stayed the same, some group's performance decreased. That decrease is being explained as a change in the survey sample–kids who otherwise would have dropped out are now part of the pool. Makes sense. That might figure in to the "high" number of "failing" seniors on Washington State math assessments. In that first article linked above, Randy Dorn even alludes to the fact that a priority in schools today is to keep kids from dropping out: keeping them in the system longer. This is a good thing, but does have an affect on our "data."

So, wait a minute. Where else might this matter?

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Reading, Thinking, the Media and the Truth

I teach 9th grade English so one of my Common Core State Standards reads like this: 

Informational Texts: Delineate and evaluate argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.

I usually focus most on this standard when examining logical fallacies portrayed in advertising as part of my propaganda unit during the teaching of Animal Farm. The kids quickly see the illogical and unsupported claims about toothpastes, beauty products, diet pills and any number of other too-good-to-be-true product pitches. When the validity of the reasoning only takes a moment of critical thought to deconstruct, they get good at it. When claims are presented that "seem" valid on first blush, though, the kids have a hard time decoding the nuance of falsehood behind the presumptive truth.

The route information takes nowadays is more like the game of telephone than ever before, with information being stripped, twisted and de-contextualized until it emerges at the end of the line as a statement whose meaning is a completely different message than the original referent. Thus, our challenge is not to help students spot the obviously fallacious reasoning, but to have their radar on for the subtle (and I believe, often intentionally manipulative) misinformation, misguidance, incompleteness, or writerly interpretation that portrays itself as truth and fact.

This was already in my mind when I read this seemingly innocuous passage in an article about teachers:

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