Instructional Coaching: Tools Every Teacher Needs

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 Ph.D.’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 Vygotsky’s Sociocultural 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 the 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.

Observation Tools:

Literacy Instruction Observations

Nonfiction Reading Instruction Checklist

Nonfiction Reading Strategies Teacher Self-Assessment

Do you have any favorite observation or reflection tools? If yes, comment and tell us how you use them.

unsplash-logoClark Tibbs

Coaching Models: Choose Wisely to Meet Your Goals

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 Coaching Modelsstaff 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 this Really Needed in Schools Today?

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?

  1. Social Interaction: Knowledge and understanding stem from interaction with others. As we communicate with others, we develop and grow.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

 

References
Social Development Theory (Vygotsky). (2016, September 8). Retrieved from https://www.learning-theories.com/vygotskys-social-learning-theory.html

 

 

 

A Passion for Thinking: 9 Ways to Keep Students Motivated and Thinking

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

  1. 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
    fullsizerender-6
    A student reflects on why she chose a particular quote to motivate her.

    the theme or main idea. Each week is a new focus. Some focuses have been on our impact on others, growth mindset, empathy, and providing support to others.

  2. 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.
  3. List a daily agenda and/or goals that is dependent on student need. This year, my kiddos want
    ind-anchor-charts
    Individual anchor charts remind students of the information from our lessons or conferences.

    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.

  4. 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!
  5. 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!
  6. Make it a group effort. Our goals are hanging on our door, written in their journals,
    vision-board
    One student’s vision board. Each week, a new image, quote or idea is added.

    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.

  7. 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!
  8. 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.
  9. 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.

A Friday Reflection in the Spirit of Halloween: On Gut Feelings & Questionable Decisions

Why Take Time to Reflect?

Reflecting on learning and making plans for success accelerates growth. In our classroom, students reflect on their learning often. We do this at preset points in the process, and we do it naturally when one of us realizes it’s time to take a minute to look at what we’ve been struggling with or accomplished. We also do it every Friday because it provides closure for the week and sets the stage for Mondays when we set weekly goals.

Friday Reflection

Each Friday includes a theme relating to one of the characteristics we need in order to overcome adversity, media of some kind, reflection prompts, and a brief class discussion with compliments for us as a group or for individual students. The entire process takes 20 minutes or less once students get the hang of it, and provides huge dividends when done consistently.

Weekly Theme

“When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this: You Haven’t”

-Thomas Edison

Media

Animated short “Francis” directed by Richard Hickey, and written by Dave Eggers. From production company CGI Brothers: The story of ‘Francis’ came about interestingly from the famed radio show ‘This American Life’. Broadcaster Ira Glass asked 6 American writers to create a short story about Adventure. One of these stories, written by novelist & screenwriter Dave Eggers, was read on the show to much acclaim and praise. Richard worked with producer Kevin Batten & a team to turn the words into this short film. The film has been shown at Cannes Film Festival and Raindance.

(I know this is a given, but be sure to view the video before playing it for students. It is appropriate for seventh and eighth graders and high school, but please view it before showing it to them; it’s creepy. I will choose another video for my sixth graders when we do this reflection.)

*My students will watch this video once before our reflection on its themes and how they apply to our lives. We always use the  Notice and Note Signposts to analyze character motivation, predict plot, and uncover themes. We are several weeks deep on practicing the signposts, so students will be able to recognize the signposts and ask and answer the signpost questions quickly with this film. (For more information about teaching the Signposts, see “Three Things I Learned by Doing My Own Signpost Assignment” and “Evolving Understandings: Dig Deep with Signposts“)

Reflection Prompt

  • Francis is a bit of a rebel and lives according to her own terms. The night of her “accident,” there were several points that she should have had, and even might have had but ignored, the gut feeling that she was doing something wrong and possibly dangerous. Eventually, she made too many wrong decisions, gave up, and… well, you know what happened in the end. Why do you think she didn’t listen to her instincts? What do you think she should she have done differently? 
  • We are not in the middle of a lake with no one around to help us get back to shore, but it is a good metaphor for some of the things we struggle with.Think of a time when you struggled to learn something new or with having to do something that seemed so hard that you wanted to give up. What did you do: Give up? Avoid the difficult things? Find a way to keep trying hard? Did you stop to think about what people who care about you would want you to do? Did your “gut” tell you what to do?
  • How can we use the themes in “Francis” in our lives? 

Discussion

  • We’ve inferred that Francis didn’t like listening to the advice of the adults in her life (She was a rebel. She sneaked out of her tent in the middle of the night. She smoked cigarettes- yuck!) Sometimes kids decide not to listen to their parents’ advice, and rely on their friends. If you were giving advice to people in this class on how to become better readers, what would you say?
  • What compliments do you have for each other? (This question is intentionally left open-ended because kids will surprise you once they’re comfortable enough to share. I ask the question regardless of the stage my class is in and share my own compliments if students aren’t ready to be open with each other yet.)

 

What types of reflections do you do with students? The more we share, the more we learn!

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.

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

Teaching Thinking Strategies- Synthesis

What is Synthesis… really?

Synthesis is one of the most difficult thinking strategies for students. In the past, readers have been expected to be able to synthesize at the word and text level.  The Public Education Business Coalition (PEBC), explains this type of synthesis:

Synthesizing Information at a text level, readers…

  • continually monitor overall meaning, important concepts and themes while reading
  • recognize ways in which text elements fit together to create larger meaning
  • create new and personal meaning
  • develop holistic and/or thematic statements which encapsulate the overall meaning of the text
  • capitalize on opportunities to share, recommend and criticize books
  • attend to the evolution of their thoughts across time while reading a text, and while reading many texts

Synthesizing information at a word level, readers…

  • select specific vocabulary from the text(s) to include in their synthesis because they know that specific language is highly meaning-laden
  • know when certain vocabulary is critical to the text’s overall meaning, and therefore, must be understood if comprehension is to be achieved

Recently, with Common Core State Standards, students are expected use these synthesis skills across multiple texts of different genres and formats.

Synthesizing information across multiple texts and genres…

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6.7Integrate information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words to develop a coherent understanding of a topic or issue.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6.9Compare and contrast one author’s presentation of events with that of another (e.g., a memoir written by and a biography on the same person).

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.6.7Compare and contrast the experience of reading a story, drama, or poem to listening to or viewing an audio, video, or live version of the text, including contrasting what they “see” and “hear” when reading the text to what they perceive when they listen or watch.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.6.9Compare and contrast texts in different forms or genres (e.g., stories and poems; historical novels and fantasy stories) in terms of their approaches to similar themes and topics.

Synthesizing Multiple Texts

In order to synthesize multiple genres, students need a multitude of experiencesIMG_0521 reading different genres.  The students who synthesized texts for these lessons had read nonfiction articles, blog posts, memoirs, biographies, novels, short stories and picture books of various genres, and etc…, on different topics, daily for five months before I even attempted to ask them to synthesize across texts and genres.

Wait, keep reading!

If you’re realizing that this isn’t the case in your classroom yet, don’t worry: It can still happen.  In short, start asking students to read and annotate a nonfiction piece at least once a week, along with the group readings and independent reading students do daily. Soon, I’ll post my 60 Books in 6th Grade Reading Challenge which was inspired by a true book whisperer, Donalyn Miller.  I’ll also post the most effective thinking strategies I’ve learned in my thirteen years of teaching (I know, still a newbie, but I study wicked hard.) Both of these made it possible for students to synthesize across genres.

After students had read, annotated, and discussed many texts, with differing messages, but on the same topic (Gender Stereotypes), students voted on which texts we should synthesize.  We did this by a quick show of hands, and it was remarkably clear which texts this age wanted to analyze further:

  1. “Everything Will Be Okay” by James Howe
  2. Why I’m Raising My Sons Like Daughters” by Sarah Stewart Holland (blog post at bluegrassredhead.com)
  3. Various Disney film clips

Our next step was to list the major ideas we learned from each text.  The photo below shows students’ exact wording.  The three circles with bullets are the major ideas kids learned from each text.  I really should have taken a picture after that point (But who is going to interrupt thinking to take a photo?)  The middle section is the next step in synthesis.IMG_0522

After listing the major ideas we learned from each text, we turned and talked about what we could read between the lines and infer that these authors believe, and we looked for beliefs they have in common.  After discussing ideas as a class, we decided upon three BIG IDEAS the authors share:

  1. We learn gender stereotypes from society. (We acknowledged that family, teachers, media, books, friends, and ourselves are “society”.  Major aha! for kiddos- all with my asking the simple question, “Who is society?”  Lights went on in each of their eyes as they realized that they can contribute to or challenge stereotypes.  LOVED that moment.)
  2. Be who YOU want to be.
  3. Challenging gender stereotypes is a way to break stereotypes.

Next, we listed these BIG IDEAS on this chart, or graphic organizer, so that we could begin collecting text evidence to support these inferences.  We did this step by gradually releasing students so that by the time they worked individually, they’d work with confidence.  Students began by watching me think aloud as I read “Everything will be Okay”, looking for text evidence to support the BIG IDEAS we’d inferred.  Next, students worked with their partners to find text evidence in “Why I’m Raising My Sons Like Daughters.”  Finally, students who were ready, worked individually to record evidence from class discussions and their personal interpretation of the Disney film clips we viewed.

Next Steps

Our next step in synthesis, will be to learn the reasons gender stereotypes exist, and why society upholds these stereotypes.  We’ll ask:  What purpose do these serve?  Once students have access to both sides of this issue, they’ll write an argument that synthesizes multiple texts and supports their belief about whether gender stereotypes should be upheld or challenged.

I’d love to have a conversation on ways you’ve taught students to synthesize across genres and texts? What’s been successful or challenging?  What questions to do have about our process?

Are You Asking, “Why Gender Stereotypes?”

I recognize how very challenging this topic is for adults, let alone middle school kids. Recognizing how we’ve contributed to stereotypes, or limited ourselves because of them, requires a firm sense of self.  Here is why I ask students to analyze this topic: there has never been one student, out of over 250 kids who’ve studied this topic with me, who didn’t recognize how limiting gender stereotypes feel to them every single day on the playground, in PE, in the hallway, in the classroom… EVERYWHERE.

I also acknowledge my personal beliefs, having grown up in a Free to Be, You and Me household.  No kidding; it feels like the record played daily. As well, my sister, Amanda Diekman, studies gender and society as a professor at Miami of Ohio.  In my home now, my daughter’s favorite sports to play are basketball and football.  Her favorite clothes are athletic anything!  She also loves crafts, doing her hair (for special occasions), playing baseball, reading, glitter, inventing, doing science experiments, writing, riding her bike, organizing and decorating her bedroom, hiking, wrestling… My two sons, ages two and four, love Legos, superheros, stuffed animals, cooking in their kitchen and with us, crafts, snuggling, reading, nursery rhymes, music, riding bikes, baby dolls…  I do share these tidbits of my daily life with students at times.

I also let students know that our purpose is to figure out what we each personally want for ourselves; we need to know that gender stereotypes exist in order to identify them when we are confronted with them, stop and think about our personal opinions and beliefs, and decide to either challenge the stereotype or to recognize the characteristic or behavior as something we truly feel is our own.

More on this topic later.  Too important to ignore.

 

 

Increase Thinking: 3 Simple Changes Will Make a World of Difference

Truth:  I am not a “quick thinker.”

Truth:  My mom and dad wouldn’t agree with that admission. Growing up, I was certainly “quick to react,” and I was described as having a “quick tongue.”

Truth: Reaction is what happens in the absence of strategic thinking.

Strategic thinking- thinking that maneuvers, changes, and grows can only happen if we are offered time. Time to process new information, synthesize it with prior knowledge, rethink, rearrange and revise, and decide how to share. In a classroom of 30-40 students, allowing each child that time sounds impossible.

Another truth:  I loathe the silence that happens after I ask my students a question.  For example:

“So, I’m thinking we should take extra time to read independently today since we had to cut it short yesterday.  What do you guys think?”

Blank stares.  A cricket under the bookcase.  Someone’s mom calls, and his phone vibrates.

Me again, kneeling on the carpet, “Seriously guys, do you think you need that time? Or do you have it covered at home?”

Someone raises her hand.

I bite.  I’m desperate.  I cannot wait for think time.

“Can I get a drink?”

Truth: Some students feel uncomfortable being an integral part of their learning.

Truth: Some students sit and wait for us to speak for them.

Truth: We’ve taught them to do this.

Here are few simple changes, to how we ask students to share their thoughts, that will make a huge difference for all students:

  • Wait time:  We all know what it is, but do our students?  Create a thinking culture by explaining why you pause after asking students a question.  Let them know you value “thoughtful thoughts” and not just their first thoughts.
  • Think About It:  Instead of asking “Why do you think…”, ask “Think about why… and photo- sky thinking best onewhen you have your thoughts ready, raise your hand, even if you don’t want to share.”  Once the majority of students are ready, say, “Keep your hand up if you want to share your thinking.”  It’s incredible how quickly this one works.  Students who never want to share, will begin thinking instead of letting others answer. They’ll also start sharing after only a few rounds of phrasing questions this way.
  • Turn and Talk:  It should be named “Turn and Process” because that’s really its purpose.  This strategy is tried and true, but it isn’t used nearly often enough.  I’ve found it particularly useful during lessons in which I’m modeling a certain skill. For example, pausing to allow students to turn and process what they notice me doing as I revise a sentence in a piece of writing, helps them pinpoint the important moves I make as a writer.  They are keen to observe once they realize their observations are important to their classmates.  Turn and talk very clearly places value on all thinkers. As kids are talking, be sure to confer with groups, and catch pieces of what students discuss, so that you can ask them to share out when the class comes back together. Letting them know that you value their thinking will open the door for sharing.

Simple changes.  Big impact.

Looking for a BIG change?

This week students began running whole-class discussions without raising hands.  We’ve worked on it for a couple of months, and this week they’re ready to run with it.  Teaching students how to have stimulating academic discussions without teacher direction at each turn makes a pointed statement to what we value:  their thinking.  More to come on the steps we took to get here.  Thanks to Alfie Kohn and his column ‘Your Hand’s Not Raised? Too Bad: I’m Calling on You Anyway‘ on Alternet.org.  It was a reminder that the small changes written about above lead to big changes once students begin valuing their thinking too.

Teachers, what do you do to get every person thinking in your classroom?  I’d love to hear your ideas and tips no matter what grade level- preschool to college!  Thanks!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Design Matters: Creating a Place for Thinkers

Three Truths and a Leap of Faith

TRUTH:  I get a lot of flack from friends and colleagues about the time I spend designing, arranging, decorating, and rearranging my classroom.

TRUTH: The flack is well deserved. I should be more efficient; but efficiency is not one of my strengths, and I have far too many other inadequacies that I should improve first!

TRUTH: The time I spend figuring out what types of spaces will best promote reading, writing, and thinking for my students really pays off.

The Leap:  We need to give our kids a glimpse of these professional lives by letting them see, act, and feel these lives for part of their school days.

  • If we want kids to be writers, we must create authentic writing spaces.
  • If we want kids to be scientists, let’s create authentic science labs.
  • Mathematicians?  Let’s consider mathematical sciences careers, and redesign our classrooms.

After all, don’t our kids get that authenticity when visiting the art room, band room, gymnasium, and STEM room each day?

Planning Classroom Design

As I began planning my classroom design this school year, I thought about the types of places and spaces that contribute to my creativity:

Which places in my home foster deep discussion? I pictured growing up around our kitchen table, and then my mind flashed to my own family around our kitchen island, with my kiddos in their spots and my husband and I leaning in and chatting.

Where do I go to write? I’m usually at our kitchen island with my laptop- my feet elevated on another chair or sitting “crisscross-applesauce” in my chair.

Which place is my favorite reading spot? I get comfy in my reclining chair that sits next to my grandmother’s end table.  There is sure to be no overhead light; just the soft light from the table lamp.

I began to look at my classroom with the same lens.  I began to design spaces that authentically fostered thinking, creativity, reading, writing, and discussion.

And I did a lot of Googling.  I searched “alternative classroom seating” and found Setting Up for Second which reminded me of how we all love to gather around a good, old coffee table to chat, so I decided to lower two of the trapezoid tables I already had.  I also researched types of seating for students who need movement for focus and found Stabili-T-Stools.  I combined these ideas with my experiences about spaces that work for me as a thinker, and this is the plan I designed:

  • Students would work in groups of 3.  These would be learning groups that could potentially last for 8-9 weeks or longer (If the group and I felt that they worked well together, then they could last as long as the relationship was productive.  If it was not a good working relationship, we would try new strategies and readjust if needed.)  This would allow students to form working relationships with each other. Productive relationships (both personal and work-related) are founded on experience and time with each other, mutual dependence, and successes earned together.  I wanted to give students time to earn that, even if the relationships were rocky or uncomfortable in the beginning.
  • We would have a mix of seating options with the goal of students trying different options and reflecting on what might work best for their personal learning styles and the type of work being done (independent reading, group discussion, and etc).
  • We would group kids based on reading level with the intention of placing readers with others who can discuss the same book choices they make and various texts from class (Reading is the crux of the language arts curriculum in my classroom, and it is crucial for students to be able to have the time to think and to create understanding with peers at like reading levels.)

I scrounged for, gathered, begged for (Seriously, I posted on my neighborhood FB page, to which I had ZERO replies!) and bought the following items: traditional classroom desks and tables, short tables with beans bags, camp chairs with lap desks, cubes, Stabili-T-Stools, and mats.

Take a look:

 

Upon Reflection:  Three Truths and a Leap

Different, isn’t it?  A colleague who taught for me one day, when my own children were sick, teased, “She has NO desks!”

TRUTH: I’m not encouraging teachers to throw out the furniture and follow this lead.

TRUTH:  I do want us to think about our classroom designs.

TRUTH:  I asked myself what I  wanted my students to feel when they were in my classroom. I asked myself what settings promoted reading, writing, thinking, and discussion.  I wondered what students needed.  I examined my personal comfort levels.

THE LEAP:  About halfway through the school year, I asked students to complete a brief survey about the alternative seating in our room.  One-hundred percent of students liked having alternative seating options and believed that it helped them focus on reading and writing and contributed to discussions.  Ninety-five percent of students liked their current seats. Here are some student comments from the survey:

I like these types of seating because it kind of makes you feel a bit more independent. Sometimes the lack of space is too little if kids are at traditional student desks. I think kids should have a bit more space.

IMG Discussion 2
Memory foam mats are a quick and easy way to offer alternative seating.

I like this seating because there are various ways you can arrange. It helps me learn because when I can get comfortable in different positions, then I can focus better.

IMG_campchairs
Camp chairs are great in the classroom.  They’re comfortable, lightweight, and easy to move anywhere in the room.

This seating is very comfortable. I think the more comfortable I am, the better I can learn and pay attention because I will not be fidgeting and trying to get more comfortable

IMG_0149

This seating style has helped me learn because I like to move around more than just sitting, so the stability stools allow me to do that.

The comments and reflections from students on this survey, and from my observations and conferences in class, will keep me on this alternative seating path. Finally, another truth? At the end of the survey, I’d asked students if there was anything else they’d like to let me know about our classroom seating.  A few students suggested bicycle chairs, ball chairs, and bungee cord chairs (I’ll propose those ideas to my administrator.)  A couple of other students suggested we switch partners more often (I’ll figure out what’s not working on Monday.)  And one student suggested we add more windows to our classroom (I’ll let the student figure out the fundraising needed for that endeavor.)

What classroom designs work for you?  What spaces and places increase student thinking?  I’d love to get this conversation going.