This is the third post in a series on Instructional Coaching. For this post, I’m falling back to my “Three Truths and a Leap” series structure because it fits perfectly with what I’ve learned about coaching and with what I want to share in this post. For those who aren’t yet familiar, I’ll share 3 problematic truths based on my teaching experiences and research, and then I’ll describe the leap I took in an attempt to fix the issues.
Truth: I have wicked bad anxiety about attending any formal classes. I’ve felt this way since some point in kindergarten.
Truth: I’ve never stopped learning. If PhD’s were awarded for self-direction and growth, I’d have one.
Truth: I started peer coaching and cognitive coaching long before I knew they were a thing, and you should too.
The Leap: I’m giving you some materials to get you started, and I’m assuming you’ll want to!
When I think about my growth over the last 15 years, there are certain people who immediately come to mind- a teacher friend in New Hampshire who I immediately bonded with as we began our first years in the classroom. Teachers in my current school who I talk openly with, who are willing to be honest with me when I share areas I need to grow, and who help me by sharing strategies and letting me observe them as they teach. And even our instructional coach and administrators who are always willing to chat, reflect, and plan as if we have an ongoing professional learning community each time we encounter each other in the hallway! Considering Vygotsy’s Socioculteral Theory and the peer coaching format, it makes perfect sense that all of our open and honest encounters, all of the reflecting time in between, the learning from each other’s strengths, and pushing each other’s thinking have helped us grow.
When I said that started peer coaching and cognitive coaching before I knew they were a thing, I wasn’t kidding. But here’s the bit I didn’t reveal: I coached myself for a long time. I videotaped my lessons, I watched and tallied, and reflected, and set goals. And then I videotaped again. A few years into teaching in my current school, I’d had enough day to day interactions with team members to begin really peer coaching, but again, it wasn’t formal. No one asked us to take part or taught us how it worked. But we learned and we grew because we trusted each other enough to reveal problems we were having in the classroom and respected each other enough to accept the guidance and support needed to grow.
Since moving to the reading intervention position, I’m no longer part of a specific team, but I’m still part of peer coaching relationships, and I coach teachers on best practices in literacy instruction. In this role, I’m in classroom often supporting students who read below grade level and teaching staff literacy instruction strategies. The tools I use are aligned with our school-wide goals and are designed help me do three specific things: (1) I use them to teach intervention students to connect what they’re learning in content classes with what we’re learning in reading intervention, (2) I use them to accurately share observations with teachers, and (3) I use them to plan next steps with the instructional coach as we work with teachers on increasing nonfiction reading instruction. If you are not in a coaching role and don’t yet have a peer coaching relationship, use these tools to reflect on your instruction. They’ll help you recognize areas of strength and also help you notice important pieces that are missing in your practice.
Choosing a coaching model for staff is a lot like choosing instructional strategies for students. Like students, all faculties have different abilities, depth of knowledge, diverse needs and comfort levels. It can be overwhelming to choose between coaching models unless you’re systematic in figuring out the best fit for your staff. Use the following steps to focus on your current needs, determine goals, and to choose the most effective coaching model to help you accomplish them.
Step One: Determine Needs Analyze assessment data to determine the knowledge and skills students lack. When we analyzed state and district assessment data, one glaring need across all content areas was instruction in reading informational text.
Step Two: Develop Goals Consider school and district goals, as well as specific grade level and content area goals. Determine how you’ll measure progress toward each of these goals. Our school goal is that all students meet the median growth percentile of 50.0 or above on English Language Arts state and district assessments. Each content area (language arts, social studies, and science) developed specific goals within their disciplines with the same purpose of increasing nonfiction reading strategy instruction.
Step Three: Determine the Knowledge and Skills Staff Needs Choose the skills and knowledge that will help teachers meet the student goals in Step Two. Asking teachers to reflect on what they believe they need is an important part of developing a reflective environment. The needs of staff can be as diverse as the needs of students, so we developed a self-reflection tool for teachers to determine their current skill level and to guide the process of increasing nonfiction reading instruction. This form is also a useful observation tool as it lists best practices in reading instruction and can be used quickly during a walk-through observation.
Step four: Analyze Effective Coaching Models Discuss the similarities and differences between models, as well as the advantages and disadvantages for each in regards to your goals and the needs of teachers. Most of our teachers determined they needed help understanding the purpose for different instructional strategies like annotation and modeling and practice using nonfiction reading strategies themselves.
Step five: Choose a Model or Various Models Different goals and the varying needs of staff will require flexibility, and it is likely that more than one model will be implemented. Another important consideration in choosing a coaching model is the current culture of your building. If your school has had a lot of recent hiring, it is likely that you’ll need time to build relationships before implementing peer coaching but mentoring new teachers might meet your needs. Yet, if your faculty is well-established with strong relationships and effective professional learning communities, a peer coaching model might be the most effective way to meet your goals. If your staff has had movement across grade levels or contents, then subject-specific coaching might be your go-to model at this time.
Our staff is a mixture of new and established teachers, we’ve been working in professional learning communities for several years, and we have diverse needs in terms of the skills and knowledge teachers identified as needs. We’ve implemented peer coaching and cognitive coaching depending on each staff member’s needs. Subject-specific coaching is not being utilized because the main need is an instructional need (teaching nonfiction reading strategies) versus lack of content knowledge.
Using these steps was productive for our staff. It was the first time all content areas had been part of determining goals for their department (Our administration had asked all staff to be involved in looking at the assessment data and determining needs based on it.) It was also the first time we’d asked teachers to reflect and self-evaluate their level of nonfiction reading strategy instruction. Determining coaching models was a longer process as we relationships developed throughout the semester and we learned more about what each teacher wanted and needed.
The outcome of all of this work? Our students showed a lot of growth in nonfiction reading on their mid-year district reading assessment. The average growth for reading intervention students was 31 points (expected growth to catch up over several years’ time is 13-15 points)! Our staff will analyze this recent assessment data and reflect on our current needs as we move into second semester. Coaching models will fluctuate as we learn more and as students grow, as they should. And we are on the right track with a staff who has common goals, trusting relationships, and a desire to grow!
Sociocultural learning theory is based on the work of Lev Vygotsky. The main premise is that our understanding stems from our social interactions. Sounds obvious, right? Especially for those who teach in middle or high school! Colleagues and I talk daily about how social our middle level kiddos are! Socialcultural theory gives us a structure to maximize on this trait if we are puposeful in our planning.
There are three areas of sociocultural learning theory, and if we plan for each of these in coaching situations and in the classroom, we will boost student and staff learning.
What is it, really?
Social Interaction: Knowledge and understanding stem from interaction with others. As we communicate with others, we develop and grow.
The More Knowledgeable Other: Someone who has a greater understanding and a higher level and ability than another in a relationship should model desired behaviors and actions, as well as give support.
Zone of Proximal Development: Language and learning occurs within this zone. These are the skills learners can do with guidance from others who can already do them independently.
What Does it Look Like?
When I think about my growth as a teacher, there are certain people who immediately come to mind- teachers I talk openly with, who are willing to be honest with me when I share areas I need to grow, and who help me by sharing strategies and letting me observe them as they teach. Considering Vygotsy’s Socioculteral Theory and the peer coaching format, it makes perfect sense that reflecting on our work, learning from each other’s strengths, and pushing each other’s thinking and practices has helped us grow.
Social Interaction: As we communicate with others, we develop and grow. Peer coaching is most rewarding when teachers form these relationships on their own versus being paired by administration. One of the goals of peer coaching is to reduce teacher isolation. In my own practice, I have two peer coaching relationships. Both were formed organically out of our own needs. Both relationships took time to develop as we learned to trust each other enough to share the issues and concerns we had about our practice. Our interactions are informal and cyclical- its a lot like having a really high-functioning, 24/7, professional learning community!
The More Knowledgeable Other: One person might be more knowledgeable in one area while the other has more experience in another area. Peer coaching focuses on individual growth with two important goals being to increase student learning and to promote collaboration among colleagues. In my peer coaching relationships, we each have different strengths, and the “more knowledgeable other” changes based on the current topic. One of my peer-coaching relationships is with our school’s instructional coach because is my role as a reading specialist I also coach teachers. Our instructional coach is the more knowledgeable other in terms of strategies for teaching adults while I am the more knowledgeable other in terms of literacy strategies. We learn from each other’s strengths daily!
Zone of Proximal Development: Learning occurs within our personal learning zone, which is a bit beyond what we can do independently. The wonderful thing about peer coaching is that it is specific to each person’s needs. Understanding our own needs requires reflection (another goal of peer coaching), and when we’re honest with ourselves about areas we need to grow, and we’ve formed a trusting relationship with a colleague (or two), we can work with them on the best approach to learning within our zone.
Conferring is a strategic conversation between you and one student. In the beginning, you are always the listener as you look for things your student already does well, recent growth, and new areas to grow. Once you have this information, your roles switch, and you teach your student one strategy or skill to work on next. In this post, I discuss conferring with readers, but conferring is a strategy all teachers should use to individualize and accelerate learning.
How will you know what to do?
Step 1: Go to one student, and ask what they’re thinking. It sounds like a no-brainer, but some teachers will schedule kids to come to their desks for reading conferences. The movement of students ends up disrupting the concentration of other readers, and the set meeting-time limits original thinking for both the student and the teacher. Seriously, I sit right next to them and say, “So, what are you thinking?”
Step 2: Listen, and point out something they do well. Listen to your student read a page from their book. Point out one or two things they did well while you were listening. Many teachers will skip listening to reading at the middle level, but I can’t stress how important it is to get your kids comfortable reading one on one with you. If you, as their mentor, read and think aloud regularly, students will understand that the heart of real reading means slowing down to process ideas, noticing breaks in comprehension, and using fix-ups.Once this is the norm, you’ll glean so much data from a one-minute reading. Even at the middle level, we have kids who do not yet have phonological awareness. We also have students who think reading means decoding words and nothing more. If you don’t hear them read, you won’t be able to teach them at their reading level.
Step 3: Choose a strategy or skill, and teach it. Choose a strategy or skill to teach, or ask your student to tell you something they want help with. Teach only one strategy. Directly teach what this strategy is and how it helps readers. Model the strategy, and have the child practice with you. (Think one-on-one, wicked fast gradual release.)
Step 4: End with the good, a goal, and log it all. Leave on a good note. Then remind your student of the new strategy (At this point, I always refer to this strategy as their next goal, and I write it on a post it for them to keep in their novel.)
Next, log the important parts of the conversation. (I always record the title and page of the book my student is reading, what strategies they’re using, what instruction is needed, and what I taught during the conference.) I use a binder with a page for each student. The front of the page is for conference notes and the back of the page is for book titles. I also have a checklist of twenty strategies and skills readers need, so I date each strategy when I observe it to make my conference note-taking easier.
SIX TIPS I CONSTANTLY REMIND MYSELF:
Carry your current novel or book journal with you, so you can show how you use reading strategies, when applicable.
Record what each student is reading. It helps track how often the child finishes or ditches books (The most common reason people ditch books is that they aren’t thinking while reading. You’ll figure out which thinking strategy will help the child connect fastest by having them read aloud to you.)
Once in awhile, instead of doing one-on-one conferences, record reading behaviors. Note whether the student is easily distracted, constantly checking the time, recording their thinking, or pausing to think…
Once in awhile, ask students to reflect on post-its versus in their notebooks, and keep their ideas alongside your conferring notes.
Keep a running list of strategies and skills each student needs or has mastered. Here’s a checklist to use so that you can decide whole class needs and small group needs.
Do whatever you can to make your note-taking efficient. If I handed my binder to another teacher, it would take them awhile to understand what I wrote. That’s fine. Your notes are for you- so you can pick up where you left off after each encounter, so you know where to go next, and so you can track growth. Notes don’t need to be neat and tidy, but they do need to be logged.
Truly, whether I’ve had 140 students or 40 students, conferring has been the heart of my teaching for 15 years. If I didn’t touch base with each student in this way, I wouldn’t have a direct line to each one of them. Each year I learn more about how to confer. Each year I tweak parts I thought were steadfast.
I’m determined to make conferring a part of everyday learning for our students. In my work as a reading specialist, every single one of my kids, every single year will tell me they’ve only fake read for the past few years. Too often, I wonder: If only my own teachers had met with me briefly, one on one, way back in the 70’s and 80’s? If only I would have that direct line to what I could do to understand reading? The impact this one practice has on motivation, engagement, connection, and understanding? Indisputable.
Interested in learning more? These two books offer in-depth information and will serve as trouble-shooting guides:
Conferring: The Keystone of Reader’s Workshop In workshops with teachers, Patrick Allen encountered a long list of “counterfeit beliefs” teachers hold about conferring. Some of these include: “I don’t have time. I don’t know what questions to ask, It’s too hard, I don’t know what to write in my notes, I don’t even take notes, I don’t know how to go deep. . .” Allen argues that the benefits of conferring outweigh the effort it takes to do it well. He shows you how to overcome your perceived obstacles to make conferring possible.
How’s It Going?: A Practical Guide to Conferring with Student WritersOne-on-one talks with our students during offer opportunities to zero in on what each student needs. As Lead Staff Developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, Carl Anderson has provided hundreds of teachers with the information and confidence they need to make these complex conferences an effective part of classroom practice. Although his book is focused on writers, the process for conferring remains. Carl Anderson is one of my go-to educators. I promise you can’t go wrong with him.
If you have tips or your own or questions to ask, please comment or email.
This post is part of the 3 Truths & a Leap series: I’ll share 3 problematic truths based on my teaching experiences and research, and then I’ll describe the leap I took in an attempt to fix the issues. If your students struggle with reading the whole-class novel, read on.
Truth: The whole-class novel means a whole-class level.
Truth: Students have different ability levels- from reading to thinking to writing to speaking to typing to social comfort to…
Truth: When we are given tasks that far exceed our abilities, we shut down. Yet we thrive when we are given the chance to learn at levels just above our abilities.
The Leap: When we read one text with all students, we need to personalize learning (if we expect all of our students to learn).
5 Do’s for Whole-Class Novels
Offer different ways students can read the novel: read aloud by the teacher, another adult, a recording, with a partner, a small group, or individually. Teach students to figure out and value the method that works best for them: listen as the teacher reads, share reading with another adult (a volunteer or parent), a recording, with a partner, a small group, or individually.
Encourage students to read at a pace that is right for them– meaning they can understand it, discuss it, and practice thinking skills with it. Our goal is that students understand the author’s meaning and intentand internalize both to the extent that they draw on the experience of reading the novel later in their lives. Help students figure out how many pages per night is reasonable for them.
Allow students to use the materials they find most accessible and effective for organizing their thinking. Students can record thinking in a variety of ways. In my classes, some kids use tiny notebooks that fit inside their novels, others use post-its, bookmarks, or handouts created by me, and others have made their own Google Docs to record their thinking.
Group students based on fluctuating, current needs and teach mini-lessons based on each group’s need. One group might need to preview the text and activate or build background knowledge, another group might need additional practice annotating text, and another group might read and understand the text quickly and will need to extend their knowledge by finding additional information to synthesize with the assigned text.
Offer open-ended, thinking-based questions. When our focus is student thinking, differentiation is natural, and we gather data for what students understand about content. Switch the focus to their thinking because then differentiation is natural, and we can gather data on what they can do with and glean from a text. Thinking-based questions sound like this: Our main character has changed a lot since the start of the novel. Explain at least two ways you have noticed that she’s different, and give evidence from the text to support your ideas. Students will notice different ways the character changed, and if they provide evidence from the text, they’re right. If students provide reasoning and evidence that don’t coincide, they’ve shown us what they need in their next mini-lessons.
Don’t expect every student to read it the same way. When we ask all kids to follow along as we read aloud, listen to a recording of the text, or follow as classmates read, we stifle their ability, desire, or thinking.
Do not expect all students to read the same pages within the same time frame. When we require kids to stick to a certain number of pages per night, we need to accept that some students are not going to read and others will get bored with the book if they can’t read ahead.
Do not ask students to show their understanding in the same exact way. Teach students to figure out which methods they find most accessible and effective for organizing their thinking. If we assign one way for students to show their thinking, we can bet that we’re meeting the needs of about 1/3 of our students. The others will be bored because our method was either too difficult or too easy.
Do not stick to the same standards for all students. If we assume all students need instruction at grade level standards (for plot, characterization, symbolism, or etc…) we’re going to meet the needs of the middle. Only the middle. Some students might need to analyze plot at the grade level you teach, but others will need to analyze at levels above or below that.
Do not offer “end of chapter” or “did you really read this” type questions. Our students know this game, and they will beat us every time by finding the simple answers and “proving” they read the assigned pages.
Reading a shared text can and should be life-changing for all of us. It certainly has been for me, beginning in seventh grade when I read And Then There Were None alongside my English teacher and continuing to now as I read in book clubs in my neighborhood or with colleagues. But guess what? Even though we decide on the pages to read, not everyone reads them, not everyone attends each meeting, and not everyone reads with the same level of understanding. That’s life, and that’s okay. Yet during our meetings, not everyone is comfortable differentiating based on our needs.
If this crazy, forced mixture of readers makes adults feel uncomfortable to discuss ideas about a text, imagine how it makes kids feel. Let’s take a cue from our own reading habits, and design shared reading so that it meets everyone’s needs.
If you are interested in having a thinking-centered classroom, get ready to step out of your comfort zone! First and foremost, know your students and state and national standards well, and track progress like a ninja. I say this because when student-thinking drives instruction, the big picture and students’ whole selves are on the table as we plan instruction, teach lessons, tweak our plans, confer with kiddos, and generally interact. It’s an on-going fluctuation of growth, goal, and whole child.
9 Ways to Keep Students Motivated and Thinking
Make motivation and mindset a Monday morning ritual. This can happen in a number of ways and can easily incorporate curricular goals. View a motivational animated short, TedTalk, or other media and practice thinking skills to determine
Make Friday reflections a regular thing. Reflecting is an integral part of learning because it helps us recognize what works and what doesn’t. Friday reflections should relate to weekly motivation, but they also should include specific behaviors we’ve noticed kids need to reflect on and plan for in the week to come. You can see our reflections by clicking on the above links for motivational lessons.
List a daily agenda and/or goals that is dependent on student need. This year, my kiddos want
the basics: what are we doing. Their learning goals are far more flexible than one standard or even one step of a standard. I’ve learned to keep our agenda to a minimum and to keep our big picture goals on our walls (as anchor charts), in mini-notebooks (literally rubber-banded into their novels), and their individual goals in mini-anchor charts written on post-its in their novels.
Resist negativity from students, parents, and even beloved colleagues. It’s not easy. Everyone needs to vent. Yet, when students vent about teachers, I put the onus back on students, and we look into what they need to do to fix things. When I vent, my cohorts gently put the onus back on me, and we problem-solve to fix the situation!
Be their person. We all need “our person.” Adults seek personal connection at work, and kids crave that connection even more. When kids call us mom or dad by mistake, it’s music to our ears because they’ve connected to us. And when we notice a child who is struggling, we need to pool resources and find their person. My most recent experience is with a kiddo who wouldn’t engage. My classes are very small, and it allows all students to find inspiration, respond to the close instruction, and bond. He hadn’t. His language arts teacher and I would talk about him often, and she focused on him, tried different strategies and ideas, and eventually made the difference. On Friday, he finished his first novel in her class and ran into my class to tell me the news! On Friday, he thoughtfully completed his first weekly reflection! His language arts teacher was his advocate. She’d figured out what he needed, helped him get it, and he responded!
Make it a group effort. Our goals are hanging on our door, written in their journals,
pictured on their vision boards, and discussed daily. These are our goals. Students know that I’m invested in them, and they know the steps I’ve taken to help them succeed. Together, we made vision boards at the start of this semester. We think about these daily. We add to our boards and reflect on our goals weekly.
Be kind, always. How we respond to students impacts whether they’ll shut down or think and process. We are bound to feel frustrated at times, but we need to explain that frustration in healthy ways, so that even when we’re discussing misbehavior or something else a student needs to improve, we do it from a place of care and concern for the child. When two students earned detention this week, we discussed the misbehavior in a meaningful way and students filled in their detention forms having thought about the impact of what they’d done. In addition, our school detentions are opportunities for students to reflect once more on the reasons for the misbehavior, learn strategies for mindfulness, and a chance to bond with another great teacher in our school. The effects are incredible. We have students who choose to go to a mindfulness class once a week after school because they loved what they’d learned about mindfulness during detention!
Teach, preach, and show the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. This is an ongoing conversation. The easy way? Extrinsic. The harder, farther-reaching and farther-satisfying way? Intrinsic. This can feel impossible when working with kids who’ve never experienced intrinsic motivation, but its not. Giving students ownership of learning, scaffolding and differentiating so students grow and can celebrate successes, and creating a sense of connectedness and community all help students be intrinsically motivated.
Belly laugh with students. Laughter bonds. In fact, yesterday was one of the best laughs yet! It was Honor Role Assembly Day, and although my kiddos had worked hard to learn to read, we’d only recently begun to transfer reading skills to other classes. So, only one of the 13 in our group was being honored. We were writing Friday Reflections when a gifted-comedian and strong-willed student blurted, “I’m bringin’ hot Cheetos to the assembly today. I’m puttin’ them in my pocket and I’m eatin’ them while they all walk up there…” I cannot begin to tell you the laughter! She had perfect execution. We’d been through such incredible transformations: We’d grown grade levels and RITs and lexiles and emotions and outside-our-boxes and finding-our-persons. We’d faltered and reflected and tried and we’d even let other students see us try- and that’s not easy when you’re 13 and comfortable with not trying! Then we talked about their growth and how much growth matters. We talked about the fact that reading and thinking matter most, and that once they’d begun reading at higher levels (most of them at grade level now), they were finally ready to follow my lead on grades, homework, and studying. The belly laughs were therapeutic.
Real learning only happens when students are thinking. And thinking is messy! It changes, grows, learns to maneuver, and empathize. It’s exciting and passionate! Thinking isn’t linear, nor should our teaching of it be.
When I began a new position as our school’s literacy specialist in August, I knew my first step was to hook kids with a love of books. How else would I get students who are reading 2-6 years below their grade level up to their current grade level within one school year? I teach 34 reading intervention students in grades 6, 7, and 8. Right now, at the end of first semester, all students have shown growth on our district assessment and 18 of 34 are reading at their current grade level. I have one more semester to get the other 16 students there, and I will. (Why do I say that? Because part of the definition of “teacher” is someone who believes in growth and equity. How will I do it? I’ll share that in a later post, but I have additions to the plan that I list here, because we cannot expect different results from doing the same things, right?)
Looking back on my first semester as a literacy specialist and my 13 years as a language arts teacher, this is what works for my students:
Read aloud. Read to your entire class, to small groups, and to individual students. As soon as you notice a student’s disinterest in reading, read aloud. You can do this during conferences or ask for volunteers from the community. Emily Bushwald once said, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” When we have school-aged students who aren’t readers yet, we need to recreate that experience for them. No kidding, even my 14 year-olds love being read to.
Beg, borrow, and buy to create a diverse classroom librarythat promotes student
choice in reading. Students who don’t love reading yet need quick access to a wide variety of high-interest books and they need your help finding the needle in the haystack.
Design comfy reading spots. Make your classroom feel like a living
room, bookstore or cafe. Think of the places you learned to love books and recreate them for your students. I wrote about this idea in “This I Know: On Becoming a Reader.“
Let students know their reading levelsand teach them why levels matter. This might seem a bit dramatic, but it is heartbreaking to hear my reading intervention students say that they had never known why they were in intervention classes, that they hadn’t been told their reading levels, and that they’d been told that the district and state assessments aren’t really important, so they shouldn’t worry about them. If you work with children, you know that this translates to “reading well doesn’t really matter and these tests are a waste of time.” Students should know their levels and know how and why to raise them. Point blank- people who cannot read don’t like to read. People who cannot read are taken advantage of. It is our responsibility to change this.
DO NOT make students read books within their current reading levels. Reader leveling is a tool to monitor progress, and it serves its purpose well when kids know how to use it. Teach students how to find books that are a good fit and teach them what to do when they really want to read a book that feels hard for them. We cannot expect students to adopt a growth mindset if we don’t have one ourselves, and we cannot change non-readers to readers without the mindset that allows for change and growth. *Picture this: Say you have a New Year’s resolution to exercise more. So, you sign up for a 5K. You see that this race, a race that seems out of your league but sounds like a ton of fun, will motivate you to begin walking each day! You know that you’ll eventually begin running a bit, and next you’ll be able to run the entire 3.2 miles! Now picture this: Your personal trainer tells you not to attempt it. She says that no matter what she tries to teach you, you cannot even get close to that level of fitness. How do you feel about that?
Target instruction based on student needs, and give kiddos tons of time to read. Use assessments, reading conferences, student reflections, discussions with your students’ content area teachers, and their own books in instruction. Keep in close contact with your students’ other teachers and let students know that all of you are in on the same goal: making them readers. Teach students to monitor their progress and to become part of deciding what they need in instruction. When we use their own books to do this, they’re more likely to practice these strategies on their own. This doesn’t mean we should stop using shared excerpts and articles, but it does mean students who cannot read yet, need instruction in their chosen novels.
Teach students what readers do. I encourage all teachers to study PEBC’s Thinking Strategies. Teach these strategies directly, then model them, and gradually release students while giving feedback as they practice them. The thinking strategies are life-changing for non-readers. Once these kiddos learn the thinking moves proficient readers use, they feel such relief! These are strategies that all good readers use, but our struggling readers don’t realize they should.
Share your reading life. Show students the books you’re reading, share your thinking and your struggles with them, and do the assignments you ask kids to do (If you don’t want to try an assignment, then assign more interesting work- work real readers do.) I bring my current novel to and from school, even if I don’t plan to read it. I put it on our coffee table where we meet, and I refer to it on the fly and use it when I’m modeling a strategy. At this point in the year, kids ask me about what I’m reading all of the time. Kids who wouldn’t have given a second thought to care six months ago! I also share the professional books I use (I wouldn’t be surprised if some students know the authors of Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading and Reading Nonfiction: Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies by name!) Students need to see that we are teaching skills and strategies that are based on research and that we are always learning new things ourselves.
Visit your students’ other classesto help bridge what students are learning about reading in your class to other contents. This has been most helpful to my eighth graders, and
after visiting their classes they asked if they could start staying after school to get help with homework from their content classes. It’s been helpful to teach them how to use the thinking strategies in math, science, and social studies.
Teach students to adopt a growth mindset, set goals, be assertive, confront inequity, persevere, and believe in their worth. We teachers know that we teach more than content and standards. Students and I begin each week with a motivational lesson that I see students need. Some examples are growth mindset, reflection, perseverance, equity, and positive thinking. If you’re interested, you can read some of these lessons under the category Friday Reflections in the main menu.
When I met my students in August, I let them know that my goal was for all 34 of them read at grade level by the end of the year. I shared how we would do it, I shared their current reading levels, and against all odds, I managed to create a safe place for kids to struggle, be honest about their hurdles, and cheer each other on.
Keep Moving Forward
For a minute, I felt really good about 18 of 34 students reading at grade level this point in the year, but that vanished quickly. We owe learners more. Within the 16 who need to keep moving toward grade level, ten students are on the right track, but we aren’t even close to easy street yet and six students need something different or more or… I will figure it out. Next year, I will do better quicker because I’ll have this year to reflect on.
In the spirit of full disclosure and the importance of reflection, I’ll share one of my biggest and most embarrassing mistakes from this semester.
One BIG Mistake
I have a sixth-grade student who seemed to become less shy as the year wore on: eventually, she’d asked to come in during my morning planning time to read alone and with me, to get help with writing and she’d started talking more in class. She’d been telling me for months that she’d been reading at night with her mother and sister, and I could sense that she really was. When we took our district MAPS assessment at the beginning of the school year, she’d dropped 13 points from her 5th Grade score in the Spring. When we took MAPS again in December, she’d regained the 13 and added three additional points. I had been thinking that she would grow more than that because she’d been working in class and at home, I’d noticed her sharing her thoughts more often and she’d begun to explain to other students how to figure out reading struggles.
This child is identified by our English Language Acquisition Department, so when she and I saw this test result I asked her whether she comprehends better in Spanish or English. Without missing a beat, she nodded yes. Then I asked if she ever reads in Spanish, and again with out missing a beat, she said, “Yes, every night.”
EVERY NIGHT? Why hadn’t I thought to ask that before now? I would have asked her to come in and read one-on-one in English long before she’d decided to do it on her own! Here is a child who had put in the effort and had grown more confident as the year led on. I mistook that confidence as a result of increased comprehension ability, and part of it clearly was, but I see now that a bigger reason she became more outspoken is that she was speaking English more often now because she was back in school where English is the primary language.
Huge mistake on my part, and its not one I’ll make again. It’s embarrassing because it reveals my English-speaking egocentrism. It didn’t even occur to me that she’d be reading in Spanish at home even though I knew her family spoke Spanish at home. I LOVE that she is reading Spanish at home! Being able to speak AND read in another language has so many benefits- personally, socially, in her education and eventually her professional life!
Needless to say, I’ll ask her to come read with me during non-teaching times, and I’ll figure out how we can maintain her English during the summer. I’m learning a lot this year, and there will come a day when my all of my students do grow 6-7 grade levels in one semester. Don’t believe me? Keep in touch. I love a challenge.
We reflect constantly… naturally as students notice, and at planned times. On Fridays, each week includes a theme,media, reflection prompts, and a brief class discussion with compliments for individual students or for us a group. The entire process takes about 15 minutes on Monday when the media is introduced and 20 minutes or less on Friday once students get the hang of it, and this provides huge dividends when done consistently.
This week, students are exploring the importance of empathy in building a diverse, equitable society. They will need literacy, empathy, and activism over any other skills. Recently, the Black Lives Matter movement held a picnic with members and local police with the intention of knowing one other; empathy. We need to understand each other before any barriers are removed. It seems like an obvious step to some and ignites anger in others, maybe because we feel we’ve already made that step across or we were raised with our experiences and mindsets. If we really want to affect change, empathy is a necessary piece. Otherwise, we end up in the place we are now: Laws have changed, but too many minds have not. If you’re interested, read Education Secretary John King’s thoughts on discussing racism and empathy in schools in the article “Education Secretary Urges Schools to Tackle Racism, Teach Empathy” by David Desroches.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes
but in having new eyes.”
In this weekly reflection, we view the short film “The Present” by Jacob Frey. This animated short is a perfect springboard for introducing empathy. The main character is angry and cruel toward a puppy his mom has given him as a gift. Naturally, viewers feel angry at the main character. It is not until the very end of the movie that viewers realize why the main character acted as he did. Once they realize why, they’re without a doubt empathetic toward him.
(I know this is a given, but be sure to view the video before playing it for students. It is appropriate for all levels, but please view it before showing it to them.)
What role has empathy played in your life? Discuss a time when you have experienced empathy or witnessed empathy. How did it make you feel?
Do you try to incorporate empathy into your daily life? How do you do this?
Were there times when you found yourself empathizing with specific characters in the film? If so, which ones and why?
Were there times when you found it difficult to empathize with specific characters in the film? If so, which ones and why?
In our everyday activities, such as watching TV and movies, playing a video game, reading a book, or interacting with social media, where do you see the most empathy and the least amount of empathy?
What is the relationship between empathy and justice?
Reflecting on our learning, behavior, and feelings and making plans for our next steps accelerates growth in all areas. In our classroom, students reflect often. Without fail, we take time every Friday because it provides closure for the week and sets the stage for Mondays when we set weekly goals.
I’d love to hear what you’ve done with your students to help them create community, understand others, and work on social justice issues. Feel free to comment below or send a message.
For many of us, Thanksgiving is a time to pause and feel thankful for family, friends, and for our blessings. When I was growing up, it also meant our traditional dinner from Grandma Phyllis- “corn mush”, mashed potatoes, homemade bread… with the fire in the background and all of us around the dining room table. It was the turning point from fall to winter, and winter was cookie baking, a window-peering walk down State Street to see Marshall Field’s Christmas windows, Santa PJ’s and GIFTS! My mama fought over Cabbage Patch dolls like the best of them!
Today, Thanksgiving means all of these things, but my thanks are a result of and have changed since I was a child who was granted these luxuries and privileges. And I also recognize my part in giving.
On Teaching: What am I thankful for?
My students believe me. They had no reason to trust me when they walked into the classroom in August, and they made that clear. They trust me now. They also trust each other.
I have colleagues I can run to, vent with, and be there for. I’ve been at my school for a long time. We’ve seen people come and go, and that’s not always easy. But we’ve become stronger with time. When I need ideas, input, or help? I have friends to ask.
My administration believes in my thinking, understands family comes first, and supports my work. How incredible is it that I can be open and controversial, off the straight and narrow in terms of approach, and still have bosses who support me and raise me up?
A community of educational revolutionaries– some whom I have not yet met! Online and in person, these people mirror my thinking, challenge my ideas, and share perspectives I haven’t realized.
This blog. I do not stop thinking of education. Period. I need a place to put my ideas. I need them to be out there for others to read and think about in their own time. (There is a point each summer when the break is made. I never know when it’s coming, but once it happens, nothing brings me back until our first contract day!)
On Teaching: What will I give?
I will advocate for my students beyond our local levels. I will be more involved in the politics of their needs at the state and national levels.
I will find more substantial ways to connect my students’ families to our school life and to me.
I will be certain that my students see themselves as pillars of our community. I’ll continue with my plan for students to build and care for Little Libraries in neighborhoods of their choice. (I ditched that idea after some negative feedback, but I’m back on board.) In just the last week, as one student reminded a female student that we all thought that she has what it takes to be president one day, another student, taken by surprise, said, “A Mexican president?” This student was also Mexican. The class laughed. (This is a class of 9 reading-intervention students, one of which is not Hispanic.)
I will knock on colleagues doors, visit them at lunch, and follow them to their cars to ask what they want from me as a reading specialist. I’m going to listen more.
I will make it certain that all of our students know it in their bones that every single peer is equal in worth. Many of our students do not know this. They recognize the inequality, and they’re not always offered equity. That leaves them with this: “I just don’t measure up.” They joke about it amongst themselves and across social, racial, economic, and educational divides, saying things like, “[This teacher] only helps the rich kids.” and “[This teacher] just thinks I’m always doing something bad, but I’m not.”
I hope that you have time to reflect on your “thanks” and figure out your “gives”. I know that teaching is all-consuming. It is also a ballet dance- between our passions and the passions and needs of the kids who come to us each day. I compare teaching to ballet because both are artistic, needing an ebb and flow to share the artistry. Both are highly structured, but an outsider might never notice this. Both are influential and invigorating, for the “dancers” and audience members.
I’d love to hear your thanks and gives. Comment here or send me a message. Let’s have this conversation.
Differentiation Starts and Ends with Students… actually, they’re in the middle too!
Differentiation means personalized learning with the content, the process of learning it, or the product students create to show they understand it. Discussed here are ways to differentiate content and process because it has been my experience that many teachers already differentiate in terms of product. And content and process are meatier- they help students own the knowledge and skills needed in order to create the product!
Start with Strengths and Struggles
In order to differentiate, we need to know our students really well. We need to sit with them as they’re working and ask them to think aloud. We need to eavesdrop as they work with others and make quick conferences and formative assessments part of daily instruction. As we observe students, we should make note of their strengths and struggles, and ask them to articulate what they understand and what confuses them- we want them to be aware of their thinking and learning processes.
Plan Differently for Different Places
Differentiated learning is personalized learning. We use the information we’ve gleaned from conferences and formative assessments to figure out what students need as we plan lessons, and we’re ready to offer students what they need, on the spot, within a lesson too.
Does that mean 25 different lesson plans for each class? Not exactly because any teaching strategy that produces results is perfect for differentiation, and as you learn to navigate student needs lesson by lesson and within lessons, it will become easy to pull from what you know works best.
There isn’t a magic list of strategies, although I’ve attempted to list options below. My advice is to make your own list of effective strategies and methods. It will help to have it as you plan for what students need.
Not a Magic List, but I’ll Give it My Best Shot
If students are reading a common text or novel, offer different ways students can read it: read aloud by the teacher, another adult, a recording, with a partner, a small group, or individually. Teach students to figure out which way helps them understand best.
If students are reading a common text or novel, encourage them to read it at a rate that is right for them– meaning they can understand it, discuss it, and practice thinking skills with it. If we are differentiating, we aren’t telling kids they need to stick to a certain number of pages per night. If we do that, then we need to accept that some students are not going to read. Instead we should help students figure out how many pages per night is reasonable for them.
Offer texts on a common topic but at different levels, lengths, and genres.
Offer a variety of ways students can organize their thinking and the content as they read: graphic organizers, thinking stems, annotations, or a text partially annotated by the teacher.
Teach students to figure out which materials they find most accessible and effective for organizing their thinking. In my reading intervention classes, students record their ideas in a variety ways: Some use tiny notebooks that fit inside their novels, others use post-its, bookmarks, or handouts created by me, and others have made their own Google Docs to record their thinking.
Group students based on fluctuating, current needs and teach mini-lessons based on each group’s need (Some examples: One group might need to preview the text and activate or build background knowledge, another group might need additional practice annotating text, and another group might read and understand the text quickly and will need to extend their knowledge by finding additional information to synthesize with the assigned text.)
Collaborate with your students’ language arts teacher. Group students based on the skills they are learning in their language arts class, and teach them to discuss those skills and support each other as they read a text in your class.
Teach students to choose texts and novels based on their interests and purposes for reading. Support them when they choose a challenging text. My students and I discuss their reading levels because, in my heart of hearts, I believe it is their right to know their own data, and we use this information to plan for and track growth. If I made students read within a certain level, I’d be ignoring my purpose for differentiation, which is to teach students to understand and monitor their own learning and growth.
Offer open-ended, thinking-based questions. When our focus is student thinking, differentiation is natural, and we gather data for what students understand about content. (One example: What confuses you about today’s topic? If nothing seems confusing, what would you like to learn more about regarding this topic?)
TIPS for Successful Differentiation
As you reflect on which strategies are most effective, begin organizing anchor charts, graphic organizers, sentence starters and other tools so that they’re easily available
for conferences and small group lessons.
When you are working one-on-one with a student, quickly create a personal anchor chart as a visual the student can keep with them. It’s a quick way to reinforce what you conferred about and allows the student to refer back as often as needed, even when they’re not in your classroom.
Use a large artist’s pad to hold a mini anchor chart collection. Use these for small group lessons. Keep the pad easily available for students to refer to after lessons.
Two excellent books for teachers who are just getting started in differentiation in reading and writing come from Jennifer Serravallo: The Reading Strategies Book and The Writing Strategies Book (due to be released 2/2017). Serravallo offers anchor charts, prompts, tips, and multiple approaches for teaching reading and writing skills in any content.
When we know our students’ thought patterns, learning behaviors, and levels of understanding, we can teach based on student need lesson to lesson and even moment to moment within lessons. This gives all students access to course content which they’ll need if they’re doing to learn it, use it, and make it their own.
If this seems like too much, we need to give something else up. Live feedback beats the rerun (written a few days ago, graded awhile-back worksheet) EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.
Teachers, share the ways you differentiate reading. What tips and ideas can we add to our Magic Lists? …not that there is such a thing 😉