Conferring: The Heart of Learning

What exactly is conferring?

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 conferring notesalways 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. journal
  • 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 book titleshelp 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.self reflection
  • 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 troubleshooting 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 Writers One-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.

For more information and strategies on teaching readers, see This I Know: On Becoming a Reader and Ten Ways to Grow Readers (Out of System and Self-Proclaimed Non-Readers).

Please note, some Teaching Thinking posts contain affiliate marketing links, which means it is possible I will receive a small share of the sales of some of the products or services that are linked from these posts

Getting Smart with the Whole-Class Novel: 5 Do’s and 5 Don’ts

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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 intent and 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

5 Don’ts

  1. 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. 
  2. 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. whole-class novels
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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’re interested in reflecting on your own reading life in the effort to engage students in theirs, read This I Know: On Becoming a Reader.

 

 

 

 

 

Ten Ways to Grow Readers (out of System & Self-proclaimed Non-readers)

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:

What works?

  1. 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.
  2. Beg, borrow, and buy to create a diverse classroom library that promotes student
    img_0090-1
    Part of our classroom library- in this section, informational books are organized by topic.

    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.

  3. Design comfy reading spots. Make your classroom feel like a living
    img_0087-1
    Our meeting place- for lessons, discussions, and reading. We have lots of other nooks and crannies perfect for curling up with a book. My intention was to mimic the places all readers love to read.

    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.

  4. Let students know their reading levels and 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.
  5. 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?
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. Visit your students’ other classes to help bridge what students are learning about reading in your class to other contents. This has been most helpful to my eighth graders, and
    d13aaf80-770c-455a-8b9d-f9a25c5ed849
    Student replicas of  parts of the brain (an idea from the book The Growth Mindset Coach)

    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.

  10. 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.

Differentiate Reading Instruction in Any Content

Differentiation Starts and Ends with Students… actuallythey’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.

ind-anchor-charts
Individual anchor charts let students take the information from our walls out the door and with them when they leave. Either take photos of your charts for easy access or write a chart for a student during a conference. (Students can obviously write charts for themselves too, depending on your purpose.)

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Offer texts on a common topic but at different levels, lengths, and genres.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.)
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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

  1. 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
    img_0169-1
    Mini anchor charts are used for conferences and small group lessons. These are easily accessible when students show the need for something different than the class mini lessons.

    for conferences and small group lessons.

  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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  😉

 

 

 

 

Notice the Tiny Triumphs

We need to celebrate the little things. These little bits of triumph are setting the course for the individual goals, benchmarks,  leaps, and bounds students need to make in order to be real thinkers and readers and doers and changers.

My Top 5 Tiny Triumphs of this School Year:

  1. A student who has hardly spoken until this week, who shook with fear during his first assessment, and who fake-read for a good three weeks (despite all I knew to do to make him comfortable), came to me and said that he thought his book was too easy for him. He wanted to try something harder. HE WANTED TO TRY SOMETHING HARDER.
  2. A kiddo who has made it his school-life’s goal to goof off and avoid all work has repeatedly run into my classroom because he cannot wait to find out what will happen next in our read aloud. I wait to hear that door open every single day. I cannot wait. His enthusiasm is matched by the others
    in his class. I love hearing their loud footsteps down the hallway.
  3. That same kiddo also told a knock-down, drag-out, perfect retelling of our read-aloud to another student who’d been absent… ARE YOU SERIOUS? That was better than I could do! He was my language arts student last year. This year, he’s in a class of 5 reading-intervention students. He is a completely different learner. Frankly, I’m very much the same teacher. What made the difference? *Too much to tackle in one writing.
  4. A student who has a really difficult time forming coherent thoughts, asked this question as we ended our study of schema, “So, is it like if you learn something new, then a new web is made in your brain? Then when you learn another thing new that connects to it, it can stick to make another web?” YES! YES! YES! And now when this kiddo is confronted with new material, he might not turn away. He’ll have an opening to it.
  5. One of my eighth grade classes, filled with kids who weeks ago wouldn’t speak directly to anyone but me and spoke in mumbled whispers for at least the first week of class… who’d also thought liking books and actually reading books was not for them, asked if they could Facetime their absent classmate to show her the two books they’d decided on for our read aloud and ask her which book she wanted to choose. Unfortunately, its against school policy to use Facetime, so I had to say no. WHAT? Not. A. Chance. They Facetimed. Truth be told, I would have looked up her number and handed them my cellphone if one of them hadn’t had her number.

Not Without Worry

I could go on with triumphs, but I won’t. Our triumphs are not without worries and failures. One night this week, I stood in our school book room talking with my friend about the issues I noticed with my eighth graders. Another night, a friend and I talked about our seventh graders. She said that she knows when kids are struggling that she needs to hold up a mirror and figure out what she’s doing wrong. And I joked that sometimes I want to pound the mirror against my forehead a few hundred times. In another meeting, I laughed and laughed with someone who only came to our school this year, but who thinks about kids and struggles with ideas, and asks for thought like all of the rest of us. We all struggle, every single one of us reading this, and we all have moments we can celebrate. In fact, I was just stopped in the hallway by a friend who told me that a kiddo we share (Kiddo from #1 T.T.) went from 2/20 on a vocabulary quiz last week to 11/20 this week. Is there still work to do? Yes. Approaches to figure out? Yes. Should we even celebrate growth that still amounts to an F? Yes. Yes. Yes.

Focus on Growth

I also want every teacher to know that the fact that I could have gone on with positives is most certainly the result of a decision I made long ago. At that point in my life, I needed to look for positives. It had nothing to do with teaching, and everything to do with the very most important part of life: family. When I was much, much younger than I am now, and my family would talk about positive mindset and focusing on the good, I thought that that mindset was “living in fairy tale” and unrealistic. But years later, I needed that mindset, and it worked. In about a thousand positive ways, it worked.

The five little bits of happiness listed above are not the end-all. I have not grown lifelong readers yet. But we have planted seeds. And if I focus my energy on the growth, then they’ll focus their energy there too.

 

 

 

 

Monitoring Comprehension- Introduction for Readers

When we introduce a new thinking strategy to students, it’s important do it in a non-reading way. Using concrete visuals, movies, songs, or experiences to show students how to use the strategy allows them the chance to build schema for it before applying it to reading and other content areas.

First Things First: Thinkers Make a Habit of Activating Schema

When I introduced monitoring comprehension this week, we began by discussing what the word monitor means. We talked about other places we’ve heard it, and several kids recalled playground monitors who “watch out for good and bad behavior.” A few students with monitoring-comp-is-the-protector-photoyounger siblings talked about baby monitors and said that their parents use them to make sure the baby is safe and isn’t upset.

Then we applied what we knew about the word “monitor” to the phrase monitor comprehension. Kids quickly formed the idea that monitoring comprehension means making sure you understand what you’re reading.

I explained, “We can think of monitoring our comprehension as the protector of our understanding. If we don’t protect our understanding, the other strategies can’t even do their jobs.”

“So, it’s kind of like if you don’t even know what’s happening in the story, then you can’t really visualize it or think about who the characters really are,” one student called out.

Kids nod and a collective aha comes over their faces, so I ask, “Be mon-comp-anchor-chhonest. How many of you are aware when you don’t understand something, but you just keep going with it anyway because you don’t feel like stopping or maybe you figure it doesn’t really matter?”

Lots of nods and expressions of recognition.

“I get that. I even did it when I was in school, but I was so wrong. It really did matter. I could have liked reading a lot sooner if I’d made myself stop and think. I would have liked my classes a lot better too because I’d have understood what the heck was going on. The thing is, you’re already monitoring your comprehension and using fix-up strategies when you watch movies and play video games, and you don’t even realize it.”

I wanted to show students what they were already able to do, so I asked them to watch a 60-second commercial and notice the exact moment their brains thought, “Wait. What’s going on here?” Then they needed to pay close attention to what they did to make sense of what was happening.

Are you game? Try it yourself: Watch this US Bank commercial on YouTube, noting exactly when your brain is confused and what you do to fix it.:

After the kids watched, they immediately shared the moment their understanding broke down:

“The woman sat, but there wasn’t anything there!”

“It was an invisible chair!”

“Then she lit a candle.”

“And jumped over a counter.”

I brought us back together, “So, you guys understood what was happening, even though you were confused at first. What did you do to help yourselves understand?”

“She was sitting just like people sit in chairs,” someone gets up to show us.

“And you could totally tell it was a candle!” another student adds.

I ask, “And you’ve seen that a lot, right? Those things are part of your schema.”

Kids smile and agree, so I go on, “You fixed your confusion so quickly by using schema that if I hadn’t pointed it out, you might not even have noticed! And once you fixed your first confusion, you were able to fix all of the confusing parts by keeping your schema activated!” It is then that I realize I’m practically jumping out of my skin with excitement because THEY GOT IT. I almost tone it down a notch, but there’s no need to because they seem really happy. We’re a roomful of people who are  gleeful about monitoring comprehension. It’s my dream come true. Just ask my husband. I’ve tried this with our children.

A child breaks the silence and asks if it’s really that easy to monitor your comprehension in a book.

I answer honestly, “Not all of the time. But the thing is, you guys know how to do it, so now we just have to start practicing with our books. For now, take a minute to think about some of the ways you already know to fix your confusion. What do you do? Or what do you remember your parents or teachers teaching you to do when you were confused about what you were reading? Kids right on their exit slips and leave class feeling satisfied… full of the idea that they can do this… which makes me so very happy for what they can accomplish.

Tomorrow, we’ll look into how we know when we’re confused and some fix-up strategies we can use to repair comprehension. Right now, their wheels are turning. Mine are too.

Up Next:

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On Becoming a Reader- It’s Not Easy

Truth: Last Friday, I sat on the floor of my classroom library with a student who’d moved to our district just a few weeks earlier.

Truth: He is in the eighth grade, but he reads at the first-grade level.

Truth: When he left, I locked my door, and I cried.

The Leap?  If you’ve ever uttered the words “learn how to play school” to a student or about a student, stop now.

Another Truth: I’ve said those words myself.  WHY? As a struggling reader, I learned that part of succeeding in school was “playing the game”.  I’ve always regretted that I didn’t play the game better. I thought that I was giving good advice to my students. And I am guilty of waiting too long to recognize a student’s learning needs because she played school well.

Our world cannot continue to educate with the notion of walking the walk at the expense of original thought. Or talking the talk without the ability to read words. Frankly, Common Core standards ended that game by requiring students to read at higher levels and learn to think through concepts. CCSS ended it by requiring teachers to change their game and begin growing thinkers, collaborators, and inventors of ideas, technologies, words and thoughts – an intensely different task than we previously faced.

The student I mentioned above was passed from first grade to second grade to third grade to eighth grade without the teaching he needed.  He does not have the decoding skills most students learn in first grade.  He doesn’t understand morphemes or the blending of sounds- skills most of our students possess, but don’t even notice because they’re a natural part of learning language.  Yet, a loud and frequent complaint about children in his situation is that they don’t know how to “play school.”

Last Friday, I had an entire 44 minutes of one-on-one time with this kiddo. We talked about his family, his recent move, his reading level, his difficulties, and his intention to leave wherever he is, whenever things get embarrassing and tough. He read aloud half of a page of one book; it was too high.  He read aloud one more; we found his level.  I promised him that I’d get him to grade level.  I told him, point blank, to follow my lead.

I promised that I’d get him to grade level, but I won’t do it alone, and he won’t take part if he’s being harassed about not having a pencil or forgetting notebooks in his locker. He’s been avoiding the tough stuff since the moment he realized that he was behind his classmates. I understand the frustration teachers feel when students don’t bring suppliestjppb1473823196 or do homework or when they try to leave class hourly, but the frustration needs to be tabled.  It cannot get in the way of teaching and learning.

Another few truths?  I borrow a pencil at more staff meetings than I bring one.  I have an online calendar and a very pretty leather and paper one I bought at T.J. Maxx this summer (my attempt to be on time, remember one-zillion things, and appear to have it together). But I still forget appointments, meetings, and bills.  My desks at home and at school are covered in papers and piles, but if I put the papers and piles away, I’ll forget about my tasks at hand. I am the last teacher to turn in emergency phone numbers, emergency sub plans, and my CONTRACT every year… I sound like a nightmare, but I can can navigate the reading difficulties kids face, I read and read and read, and write and write and write, and I learn from the mistakes that matter. I base all that I do on research, standards, and my observations of students.  When I say I will get you or your child to grade level, I mean it. I will champion, guide, educate, learn from and be part of the team who does it.

Another leap? Let’s table the “playing school” issue until we know whether there are real learning issues with a student. If we see that problem, our first step needs to be: zero-in and gather data. Playing school matters as part of a whole picture of learning, but it is not the picture, and it cannot cloud our ability to see the learning difficulties our students face. Let’s sit down and listen to our students read, talk, and make sense of the world. Instead of canvasing the room for off-task behavior (which can be taught, revisited, and non-issue for most periods of the school year), let’s observe conversations, talk one-on-one, and take notes in order to reflect and make the next steps each student needs.

I promised this reader that I’d get him to grade level, and I will. It will not be by myself. It will be with people who see his whole picture. Those who table the little things to focus on educating for the larger issues that created them. Those who learn from the mistakes that matter and who notice the truths and leaps we can make once we notice them.

It’s not easy, but it makes the difference.

 

 

 

 

 

This I Know: On Becoming a Reader

Next year, I’ll begin a new role in our school as a Literacy Specialist.  Initially, this position entailed teaching one class of partially-proficient readers at each grade level (the readers we know as “bubble kids” because they are right at the edge of being proficient).  When I use this term, I always picture being able to fill that sweet “bubble kid” up- with enough enthusiasm, skill, and inertia- to let them pop to the other side of the chasm which is cut between partially-proficient and proficient readers. My principal, assistant principal and I had planned on having the rest of my time spent in classrooms working with small groups and with teachers.  Sounds perfect, right? It’s my dream job. It always has been.

But it didn’t feel right.

If the bubble kids float over the chasm with my help, what do the other kids do? Sit and watch. Stare. Ignore us? Cope? Yep. They do all of those things as they realize they’re being left behind. We hadn’t planned on leaving them behind.  We have interventions in place and we have skilled teachers who individualize and differentiate as students need, but it still didn’t feel right. The need is too high.

Luckily, my assistant principal and I both felt this “not right” feeling at just about the exact right moment, so there was no time wasted trying to convince the other person of what we needed to do: We’d fill my time with our kiddos who are hanging out on the wrong side of the chasm.

That felt right.  But then I panicked!

I do not just want to try to help these kids.  I will not just help them. I will make them readers. Period. End of story, as my dad always said.

That’s really not that hard of a task with most of our non-readers, right? A good classroom library, book talks, targeted instruction, conferring, goals, progress monitoring, teacher enthusiasm… In 13 years, I can’t think of a kid who didn’t have that aha moment we all had when we realized that we love reading.  I still remember my own aha when I was in seventh grade and read The Outsiders with my teacher’s guidance. Then I went on to read And Then There Were None and Lord of the Flies the same year. My reading enthusiasm fluctuated for years until I was in college, when reading became a staple. I know that all my non-readers leave me with a newly uncovered appreciation for books, and many realize they actually love books. I know that that love either dies or flies as their lives change. I’m good with that. But until next year, the majority of my kids have come to me reading at the 25th percentile and higher. Next year, the game is changing.

I’ll need to instill a love of reading with these kiddos who can’t even see the chasm from were they stand.  If the chasm is halfway between here and there, these kids have only seen others attempt the crossing and assumed that they aren’t up to the challenge.  These kiddos have spent all of elementary school not being able to read. Many of them have come to hate reading because they can’t read- it’s not fun, it’s too hard, it’s embarrassing. It breaks my heart, and I won’t have it. So, we’re going to try something different.

This is what I know about becoming a reader:

  1. We learn to love reading on the laps of those we love.  Picture yourself reading as a child. What is the lighting like?  Where are you sitting?  Who is with you, and how do you feel with them?  Is there soft music in the background?  Is someone cooking
    Dad and Brady reading
    My dad and Brady (at 11 months) reading

    dinner? Humans associate. We can’t help it.  It is our nature. I know that I need to recreate this safe, comfortable, exploratory environment for my very lowest readers. What will I do? I’ll take my alternative seating further.  My classroom will look like a family room. I talked with my principal today about ordering rocking chairs. You have to love this: His only question was, “We can do that. I mean, it’s not like you want thirty, right?  Just a few?”  I also talked with him about having a large, round table (much like the kitchen table we all grew up around) for our book groups to meet. I’ve never had a typical classroom setting, but next year, I’m giving it my all. I will do everything I can to help these kiddos correlate learning to read with comfort, kindness, safety, and companionship.

  2. We learn to love reading because someone let us pick books ourselves. Picture yourself reading as a child. Where were books displayed?  Who was in charge of
    Ryder Reading
    Ryder (at 1) choosing books

    taking care of the books? Who was in charge of buying books? When I was growing up, we had books everywhere. There were books on shelves, in piles, under our beds, on my parents’ bedroom shelves. We got to choose what was read to us each night, and as we began reading ourselves, we got to choose which books we read. As a teacher, this has always been nonnegotiable for me. Kids will choose their own books. I read a ton of YA LIT so that, if needed, I can match books to readers in terms of interest, level, or etc. But they’ll choose their own books. Period. End of story.

  3. We learn to love reading because someone showed us reading is loved.  I vividly remember trips to our library with our dad: My dad is shuffling through each of our library cards, with the librarian grimacing, because we have too many books OUT and
    Brady books sleeping
    Brady (at age 3)

    LATE on this card or that card! My dad, my siblings and I parade out the sliding doors with armloads of books. I also remember my Grandma Phyllis reading to us the nights we spent at her house. Grandma Phyllis cherished books. Ah! The way she read, her interest in spending time on each page of a picture book, letting us each share one detail we noticed… Period. End of story.

These moments! Picking our own books, keeping books far past their due dates, books piling and spilling and left under our beds! These showed me that books are important.  I really don’t remember my dad ever telling me books were important.  I remember him reading.  I remember my mom, my dad, and my grandma reading to us.  I remember my older sister reading, reading, and then continuing to read more.  I remember worrying that I was “not a reader” until seventh grade when I found chapter books I loved. I remember wondering “am I really a reader” until I went to college, when I had the ability to reflect, slow down, and remember all of my reading moments.

I’m not panicking anymore- at least not at the same level.  Now, when I meet my kiddos who can’t see the edge of that chasm, I know what I need to do to help them build their bubble. And I know what I won’t do: I won’t start with formative assessments so that I can determine where they are and what they are lacking.  I won’t show them all of our books and ask them to find one they like. I won’t put them through the awkward “get to know you” games. I won’t even tell them how incredible books really are. Nope.

I will welcome them to our space. I will ask them to come sit so I can read to them.  And I’ll smile a lot. Read and smile. And when they come back the next day, I’ll read and smile. And read and smile and talk. And guess what? About three or four days in, someone will look over at our bookshelves. Someone will ask about our books. Someone will wonder if they can look at them. And then we’ll have our reader beginning.  Just like I did. Just like you did. They’ll discover books.

P.S. Once they’ve done that, I’ll formative assess their little hearts out.  I’ll show them books.  I’ll ask them to find ones they like!  I’ll tell them how incredible books are!  But only after they’ve had a new reader beginning. Period. End of story.

Are you interested in reflecting on your own reading evolution in the effort to help students understand theirs? These reflection questions will help you begin:

  1. What are your earliest memories of reading? Do you remember reading before you could read words? Who read with you? How often?
  2. Did anyone in your family or close circle read often? What did they read? What did you learn from watching them?
  3. Think back to when you began school. What was reading instruction like? How did you feel about it?
  4. What reading experiences stand out as important to you? Positive or negative, these will give you insight into what students might need.
  5. What did you need from a teacher when you were a K-12 reader? If you were ahead of the class, what did you wish your teacher would do for you? If you were behind, what did you need? If you right in the middle, what were you wanting?

I’d love to hear from you as your think through these questions. Let’s keep this conversation going.

60 Books in 6th Grade

This year I decided to do something kind of crazy:  I asked my 6th graders to attempt to read 60 Books in 6th Grade!  I based the idea on Donalyn Miller‘s work in her book The Book Whisperer. I liked the seemingly insurmountable challenge Miller described,  but I wanted more kids to be able to access the varying genres without being frozen with fear by book length.  I co-teach LSS (learning support services) and ELL (English-language learner) classes, and I have many kids who enter sixth grade with reading scores below grade level. I needed to make Miller’s challenge appear a bit more accessible, so I lowered the number of chapter books and increased the number of overall books!

Miller is adamant that teachers not change the book challenge in ways that negate its original purpose; she writes about this in a blog post titled The 40 Book Challenge Revisited. I read her book ages ago, and I’d felt like I’d found my kin.  The reason I’d connected to Miller’s ideas was her main message: Find what you love to read. Read a lot. Those aren’t Miller’s words, but that’s what I gather from her work, and it was just what I needed to hear since I’d struggled with “being a reader” until I was in college.

Another way to illustrate the purpose of Miller’s work is this: This year, I did the 60 Books in 6th Grade Challenge along with my students. Guess what? I did not read 60 books, although some students did. What did I do? I read more than any other year of my life. I found a lot of new authors I like. I realized I like science fiction. That’s HUGE!  And it was huge for my readers to see me grow with them.

Believe Me- This is not as crazy as it sounds!

In today’s high-stakes testing environment, many companies have developed computer-based reading programs that promise to increase test scores.  Yet we all know what students really need to do to improve reading skills: They need to read.  And read.  And read.   Students need access to a variety of books, they need targeted instruction, and they need time to read.

That idea alone is what makes 60 Books attainable.  Students spend a lot of time reading in 60 books quote 2my classes.  The 60 Books log helps them track which genres they read most, it is a record of author’s they prefer, it asks them to step out of their comfort zone and try new genres, but does so by including picture books as an introduction to the various genres.

Believe Me- They’re all reading more!

Some teachers have asked how I make sure students don’t lie and just fill in book titles. The truth is, there is no reason for them to lie.  This assignment isn’t worth points.  We talk a lot about the fact that it really doesn’t matter whether you get to 25, 40, or 60.  What 60 books class photomatters is that this year we are reading more than any other year of our lives! Students feel really good about that! Challenge by choice is a perfect term to describe this assignment- Students are given the task of reading 60 books of various genres and lengths. Students decide how far to take it! The only “requirement” is that students go further than they ever have before!

And you know what?  They are reading more!  We all have students who are shocked because they suddenly realized that they love to read.  When the appropriate structures are in place, students do unearth a love for books.  Yet, 60 Books was a game changer in my teaching and in student growth.  Students have noticed themselves changing as their book logs got longer and longer, and now they realize that attempting to accomplish something that seems really overwhelming and out of their league, can actually happen.  They just need support, time, materials, perseverance, and a plan to get it done.  Intrigued? I hope so.

5 Tips to Help:

  1. Designate independent reading time every day.  Period.  Don’t get rid of it when time is short and you feel like something has to give.  Time to read is exactly the one thing we can’t give up.
  2. Schedule extended reading time once or twice a month. This time should be set aside just for 60 Books!  (Our school has shortened class periods about once a month BeFunky Collagedue to PLC meetings, so we used these days to celebrate our successes and look into what we still had to accomplish on our 60 Book logs.)
  3. Talk about the 60 Books log often.  As soon as a student says they’ve finished a book, celebrate, and ask if they’ve added it to 60 Books.  When a student is looking for a new book to read, ask them to open their 60 Books log and help them narrow down which genre they want to try next.
  4. Talk about effort and honesty often. All year long, discuss that getting to 60 is not exactly the point. The purpose is to read more than ever before, to discover new genres, and to learn about and reflect on reading habits.
  5. Do 60 Books along with your students. This is a huge challenge- there is no way around it. Even when we focus on growth, even with all of the support we give students, this is a big challenge! So, I did my own 60 Books log. I shared my reading challenges- like having to read science-fiction!  I shared my choices- books I knew they’d love too. Seeing me attempt this task alongside them, helped make it real.

If 60 Books in 6th grade (or 40 Books in 4th grade…) seems like a challenge worth your time, please let me know how it goes!  If you run into trouble, I’d be happy to troubleshoot with you.  I can say with all honesty, this task was worth every minute we spent on it.  Kids are really proud of how far they’ve come!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 Things I Learned by Doing My Own Signpost Assignment

My most recent experience doing my own assignment is recording Notice and Note Signposts from the book Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading while reading 11/22/63 by Stephen King.  I bought 11/22/63 soon after it was released, in November of 2011, with the failed intention of having a 2-person book club with my husband. My husband read the book, but I ditched it. I tried reading it a couple more times over the next few years, but I always abandoned the book in the first 50 pages.

The Miniseries Made Me Do It

Tacky truth: A few weeks ago, when my hubby told me that the miniseries was soon to start on Hulu, I got the urge to read 11/22/63 again! It was like the stars had aligned: My students had learned the definitions of each signpost. I’d already modeled my thinking, we’d found signposts together, and I’d supported groups as they worked together to find them.  Just after I gave students the task of using signposts on their own, I attempted 11/22/63 again.


 

My Very Own Aha! Moment

The signposts made it possible for me to stick with 11/22/63!  The signposts and guiding questions slowed me down, of course, but in slowing me down, they engaged me.

3 things I learned by doing this assignment:

  1. I learned the signposts inside and out. (This didn’t really surprise me; we learn by doing.)

  2. I learned that signposts can be difficult to notice sometimes because readers just want to keep reading!  (This didn’t really surprise me; I’m naturally intense.  Pausing to be mindful is something I had to learn to do.)

  3. Looking for several signposts at once helped me understand and “get deeply into” the book quickly. (This surprised me; I read a lot.  I love to read.  I hadn’t even noticed that I’d been missing something which would help me be a better, more interested reader until I practiced these signposts with my own novel.)

I learned a ton by completing this assignment: I had to think critically about the characters and plot just as students had to, and that made it possible for me to teach them the thinking moves I’d made as I identified the signposts and asked myself the guiding questions.  I’d practiced signposts with picture books and videos, but using them in a novel helped me understand them on a deeper level. There were times I found myself having to stop every page or two to read the signpost definitions and think about whether I’d missed one.  Initially, this felt counterproductive, but once I began valuing the guiding questions, it felt natural.

The Big Debate:  Teach Signposts Individually or at Once?

I also realized that teaching all of the signposts at once is the way to go because different readers will connect to different signposts, initially.  This connection is key to the “buy-in” struggling readers need.  If readers have taken a week or two to learn each signpost, but after several weeks, haven’t connected with one that reveals big value, then every subsequent signpost has already lost its meaning.

Teaching all of the signposts within seven school days allows readers to build a signpost onebook-signpostsstockpile with which to attempt reading.  Signpost stock is invaluable in tackling a book. (For me, it was a book I really wanted to read, but couldn’t seem to finish. For many of our readers, this is any book because they haven’t learned the thinking skills to engage them for an entire novel.)

I worried that teaching the signposts all at once would be a double-edged sword for my struggling readers.  Typically, they are the readers in grave need of learning how to stick with a book, and they are the readers who cannot manage learning a lot at once.  I found that learning signposts all at once was best, and then offering differentiated assignments so students could choose ways to use signposts was the natural next step. Once students were comfortable using signposts at their own pace, they were really excited to attempt finding all of them each week.

Now What?

We can’t complete every assignment we give kids; but it should happen when we think they need it (or as in my case, when the stars align). It should be visible to students. It should be reflected upon.  We need students to see the mistakes we make and the smart moves we learn.

I’d love to hear which of your assignments you’ve completed and what you learned from doing them.  Why do you find this practice valuable?  How often do you manage it?

Featured Image Photo credit: ginnerobot via Foter.com / CC BY-SA
Photo credit: Kim Klassen via Foter.com / CC BY-NC