Monday, September 12, 2011

Just Tell Them

"Sometimes I feel like the kids don't have any idea why they're here. It's like they have no idea that they are supposed to be learning something."
Sound familiar? It's something I don't hear often, but occasionally. I wonder if it's thought more often than uttered aloud.

So...what if they don't? I mean, what if some of our kids really don't know why they are in our classrooms or don't realize they are to be learning something. That may be the case--or maybe not. Either way, it's not like there's nothing we can do about it.

This week the teachers in my school have been thinking a lot about posting and stating lesson objectives. In plain talk, they are thinking about telling students what it is they are to learn during each lesson. Yep--just tell them. That simple step may make a big difference.

It may sound simplistic, but it's sound. People like educational researcher Dr. Robert Marzano say that when students know what it is they are to be learning, their achievement tends to be 20-27 percentile points higher than those who don't. Pretty big payoff for a relatively simple statement at the start of a lesson.

Landrigan and Mulligan (contributers to Choice Literacy) remind us that kids should not have to spend the first 5 minutes--or longer--of a lesson trying to figure out what we're trying to teach. If we tell them up front, it frees up the brain to put attention (and energy) into learning what we need them to know.

This isn't new thinking. Some of you probably know of Susan Kovalik's work on effective teaching. One of the many things I learned teachers could to do make their teaching more effective was to include on the daily agenda what it was we'd be learning during each part of our day.

One of my mentors and dear friends once asked me a career-changing question after watching me teach a lesson. "If you can't say to the kids what it is you are trying to teach them, what makes you think they are going to be able to learn it?"  That was years ago, and I still remember it like it was yesterday.

The other thing that we notice about some of our learners is that they don't seem to know how to focus--or more accurately for most, they don't know what to focus on. When we start a lesson by telling the kids what they are going to learn, they know what to pay attention to, resulting in a much more focused learning experience. It's the same for us.

When I started writing down what it was I was going to teach kids in my lessons, and then posting it where we all could see it during the lesson, I became more focused too. I didn't ramble on or become distracted and pulled off-task by the meandering learning conversations I was having with my students--an occupational hazard when you work with young kids! I was clearer and my teaching was more specific. The kids knew why we were there and not only did they know they were supposed to be learning, they knew what they were to be learning.

The important part for us to take away is that we can do something. We can impact what or how much or to what degree our kids learn stuff by telling them at the start of the lesson what it is we're about to teach them. Posting it will help keep us focused during lessons and will help kids remember what they are learning and what they have learned. When they see these learning statements, it'll most likely trigger at least some spark of recognition in their minds and it gives us something to physically point to when referring to past or present teaching and learning.

So if maybe there's a chance our kids don't know that they are to be learning something or don't know what to focus on...we should just tell them.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Assessment On My Mind

I've been thinking a lot about assessment the past few days. Not the high-stakes tests that come once a year or the benchmark tests that come a little more often or even the assessments that come at the end of a unit of study or the end of a chapter. 

It's the day to day assessment that's on my mind. 

We talk a lot about using formative assessment and observational assessment and performance assessment and standbys like checklists and more recent things like exit slips. Teachers at my school use all sorts of tools to assess kids on a frequent basis, and this week we're thinking about how we do that on a daily basis. 

You did NOT hear me say we test our kids every day (do I need to repeat that?). You did, however, hear me say that we are assessing daily. In fact, most teachers do it almost constantly. We're watching, listening, noticing--who can do what and to what degree or in what way. Who is struggling. Who almost has it. Who had it already. 

What gets hard sometimes is articulating that and communicating to others how we're assessing. What evidence do we have? Are we taking notes in the plan book or in a conferring notebook? Do we have a checklist on which we note which kids can do what we're teaching for and which need more support? Do we often look at student work--analyze it? Not analyze like spend a long time picking apart every tiny detail, but looking at the work to see if kids are getting it and if not, which parts they do get and which parts they don't yet.

But what it really boils down to is not what kind of assessment tool we'll use, but what it is we're looking and listening for. There are lots of ways to do the assessing and record the evidence. The thing is, if we don't know what it is we'll see or hear if the kids get what it is we're teaching each day, the tool we use to check doesn't really matter. For example, we often say we're using observation as an assessment (and I think it's probably the most powerful one we can use); however, teachers sometimes struggle when asked to say what it is they are looking for when observing. That's the important part.

This week, I've been talking and thinking and working with teachers on this aspect of assessing. Can we say what it is we'll see/hear to know whether or not kids are learning what we are teaching. If we can't, how do we know our teaching is working? Most of already are assessing almost continually--as we walk around, work with kids, look at their work....doing the teacher stuff we do during lessons. It's just that we don't usually pause to say exactly what it is we need to notice. 

What about you? When you think about assessing, do you think first about the tool? Or what it is you're looking/listening for? Think about it this week--see if you can name what it is you'll see/hear if kids are taking on the things you are teaching. 

Yep, I threw down a challenge. :) 

Friday, July 15, 2011

Reading Like a Boy

I'm a girl. A girl who has always preferred reading fiction--a variety of fiction, but I'll admit that I'm mostly drawn to literary narrative, historical fiction, and a good mystery/suspense novel. Don't get me wrong; I do enjoy memoirs and I read a lot professionally. My husband even convinced me to read a fantasy series years ago that I have since reread at least 3 times.

As a teacher, I've always worked hard to stock my classroom library with a wide variety of reading material, and in the past few years, have made an effort to balance my read aloud selections. I have deliberately included more informational text and have helped my students get to know authors from a wider variety of genres. I have found resources and created lists of books that might appeal to students with different interests and abilities. This past year I finally admitted that what I hadn't done was spend more time reading these books myself unless they also matched my own interests.

While my taste in and experiences reading picture books is pretty varied, I could not say the same about reading middle grade texts. This is especially true when it comes to books that tend to be geared toward boys. Like a said, I'm a girl. I have to admit that Captain Underpants just doesn't do it for me, though I greatly admire his ability to ensnare hoards of boy readers, including my own sons.

What I have realized is that even if I'm familiar with titles and authors and summaries and reviews, truly connecting with readers is hard when you don't ever read the same kinds of things they do. Besides, my selections for read alouds, book clubs, reading groups and even independent reading suggestions may make it hard for student readers who are not drawn to the same type of reading I am. The other problem is that I end up with very limited experience to draw upon when supporting these readers. I may not understand as a reader how these texts are set up, how the plots tend to work, or what strategies may really help readers navigate and understand and enjoy and share with others what they are reading.

But I'm a girl. So this summer, I've not only been scouring blogs and booklists and journals for reading suggestions to widen my experience, I went right to the source. I asked my 10 year old son. He made me a stack, and even told me which ones to read first. No, I haven't yet read Captain Underpants. But slipped in among my other reading the past couple weeks, I have read:

The Toilet Paper Tigers (G. Korman)
Oggie Cooder (S. Weeks)
A Whole Nother Story (Dr. C. Soup)
The Spiderwick Chronicles, Book 1 (H. Black, T. DiTerlizzi)
100 Cupboards (N.D. Wilson)
Fablehaven, Book 1 (B. Mull)

Can you tell I started with things I thought I'd most like? My son has promised to keep adding to my stack, and I'm asking him to make sure to pull out some graphic novels and information books. He told me he would, but that he was trying to start with books that boys like that I would also like. I thanked him, but explained that I was also counting on him to stretch me a little, so he promised to vary the list a little more. Meanwhile, the upcoming titles include:

The Unusual Mind of Vincent Shadow (T. Kehoe)
Powerless (M. Cody)
Stink-o-pedia (M. McDonald)
NERDS: National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society (M. Buckley)

Still heavy on narrative fiction, but because I am aware of this, I am deliberately planning some other reading, especially information texts (maybe even the ones about gross topics like why we have snot) and graphic novels. Reading things outside my own interests isn't always easy; sometimes it's a little uncomfortable and I have to make myself do it. But that's what I ask my readers to do sometimes. And I know that doing it will make me a better teacher of reading for all my students, especially those with whom I can not relate to reader to reader.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Going Deeper: rereading more than one at a time

Last week I wrote making plans to include professional reading as part of my summer reading frenzy. Though I do plan to read new things--a new professional book or two (or three) and backlogged journal articles--I also reread a lot over the summer.

I like to think about how what I learn from one source links to other sources and then how it all plays out in the classroom or when working with adults. It's important to be able to see how things fit together or what we do ends up feeling like a disjointed, chaotic mess.

Sometimes I like to take a new resource and read it along with a familiar one--sort of like wearing a new pair of shoes with an outfit you know works. This does a couple of things for me. It helps me hook the new learning to something I already know and also forces me to consider that stuff I already knew in different ways. Other times I take two or more familiar resources and read them together to help me deepen my thinking about something in particular.

Right now, I'm rereading Mindset by Carol Dweck and Teacher leadership that strengthens professional practice by Charlotte Danielson because I wanted to think about how mindset impacts what I do as I work with teachers. The big thing that jumped out at me the other day was on reflection. Here are short excerpts that got me thinking:
Teacher leaders...recognize that nothing is ever finished; everything is subject to revision and improvement...Teacher leaders engage in critical reflection on the consequences of actions, on the impact of an approach on student learning. The power of reflection on the practice of teaching has been well documented (Kolb, 1984), and teacher leaders engage in critical reflection on their own teaching. They extend this habit of mind to other projects with which they are involved...
When interpreting others' actions or statements, they tend to ascribe positive motives. 
Furthermore, as more teachers are engaged in the pursuit of improved practice, the school itself becomes increasingly defined as an organization that learns. 
Danielson, C. (2006). Teacher leadership that strengthens professional practice. Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD. 
 ...aren't they [people with the growth mindset] more likely to have inflated views of their abilities and try for things they are not capable of? In fact, studies show that people are terrible at estimating their abilities....but it was those with the fixed mindset who accounted for almost all the inaccuracy. 
If, like those with the growth mindset, you believe you can develop yourself, then you're open to accurate information about your current abilities...if you're oriented toward learning, as they are, you need accurate information...with fixed-mindset people...some outcomes are magnified, others are explained away, and before you know it you don't know yourself at all. 
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: the new psychology of success. New York, New York: Ballentine Books.
I started thinking about what this might mean when working with other teachers and alongside other teacher leaders--those who may have fixed mindsets or growth mindsets. When I think about teachers who are highly reflective in terms of their mindset, I realize that they are not afraid to talk about when things do not go well in the classroom and view these experiences as chances to learn and to enhance their classroom practices. They are not afraid to share their experiences with colleagues so that everyone can learn.

One the other hand, those with a fixed mindset may feel very threatened when engaged in reflective thinking. For them, realizing or admitting that something didn't go well leads to the self-perception that they have failed. This situation is tough for teacher leaders to approach, in part because the relationship with the teacher must be strong enough to balance the insecurity. Teacher leaders are also often in the position to help others become aware of and shift their mindsets. Hard work, to say the least.

But the most challenging thing may be our own mindsets in terms of how we think of others. We have to be careful--we must remember not to have fixed perceptions of those with whom we work. We have to be open to possibilities, to see strengths in spite of limitations and not become stuck with one view of a colleague. Even when working with fixed-mindet colleagues, we must believe that their mindsets can be changed, that they can engage in accurate reflection than enables them to continually refine their practice. We have to be willing to let go of past perceptions and keep an open mind as we work more closely with colleagues, being wary of allowing fixed perceptions to color our interactions.

Last week, a couple of you commented that you'd like to know what titles I plan to read--an ever-changing list! If you leave contact information in the comments, I'll be happy to respond. 

Monday, June 13, 2011

Planning for Summer Reading--remember professional reading too!

Last Friday, I got to do a guest post for Two Writing Teachers. On Fridays during the summer, Ruth and Stacey invite others who blog about about their lives as writers or educators to do guest posts. I was excited about doing it and decided to reflect on how changing some things in my writing life changed some things in my classroom. I invite you to check it out on their site, and while you're there, make sure to check out the other posts!

Thinking about my writing life while writing my guest post also got me thinking again about my summer reading life. I generally read a lot of fiction in the summer--actually, more than a lot. Most of my summer reading is just for my own fun and I love nothing more than to sink into a good story. I do plan what I'm going to read for fun--I make lists, create stacks of books, visit Barnes and Noble, and trade books with my friends. Planning this reading for summer comes easily, but I also plan deliberately to read things that will help me continue to grow professionally.

Some of the fiction I'm enjoying also serves a professional purpose. It's like hitting a double jackpot! In order to be able to help connect readers with books, I need to know a lot of books written for kids of all ages and interests. This is something I strongly believe, and I try to read a lot of children's books. I don't have to try very hard--I love reading books written for kids. This summer I'm trying to become more familiar with novels I put off reading while working with my first graders this year, and have been especially trying to read more books that appeal to upper elementary aged boys. Being a girl and a fiction lover, I sometimes unintentionally (and sometimes intentionally) overlook books that may draw boys in the 9-12 year old range. Luckily, I have a 10 year old boy at my house! I mentioned my goal to my son, also a voracious reader, and he's got a big stack pulled aside for me. He checks about every other day to see how I'm coming with it.

I'm also planning to reread some professional books related to topics of focus for my school in the upcoming year. Since we'll likely be focusing on accelerating progress for struggling readers, much of my rereading will focus on that. My role will also be changing for next year, so I'm going back through some of my books on teacher leadership and instructional coaching. Choosing to focus my rereading is deliberate. I like to go back and reread from time to time because it takes my thinking deeper. It forces me to continue to refine my knowledge and consider again how what I read might look when applied in the classroom. I also know that every time I reread something, I notice or think about something that I didn't before.

I also have a stack of journal articles that I didn't get to this spring. My goal is to catch up before starting a new pile in the fall. I may not make it. They started piling up earlier than usual this spring, so the stack is pretty big! I'll also read a couple professional books that are new to me. Often these are recently published books that I see in fliers or are by experts whose names I recognize. I read reviews and book descriptions and love when I can peek at the table of contents or even a chapter or two before committing to purchase. I keep a running list of professional books I hear about at conferences and workshops or that are recommended by colleagues. Reading new stuff helps me stay up to date professionally and helps me extend my learning in areas where I have set goals for myself or that come about as a result of a professional development experience. I haven't yet placed an Amazon order for new professional books this summer--I'm still narrowing my list to something manageable for my budget!

What about you? Do you plan to do some professional reading along with lots of reading for the fun of it over the summer? How do you decide what to read?

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Documenting Past Learning for Future Planning

The school year is over for us, and as I began taking down, packing up and putting away, I took time to take a few pictures of the charts on the walls. I wanted to document some of the learning we had done together. I also took lots of pictures of student work, especially in writing. I wanted to have a record of what students did in response to minilessons and how it looked when done by first grade authors and illustrators. I don't do this so that I can simply recreate charts from year to year--in fact, I avoid that. Pulling out old charts and reusing them or copying them from a photo without thinking about what my current students already know and can do and what they need is not thoughtful, deliberate, or responsive instruction.

However, keeping a record of old charts helps me remember things that were powerful for my students, and I've learned that it helps to have pictures of student work to go with the charts. That way I can see how students were able to use what I was teaching.  I don't have easy access to a color scanner, so I've started taking pictures as a way to collect full color examples of charts and student work. The bonus is that I have a collection of student work to use as mentor text--whether I'm working directly with students or collaborating with colleagues.

I save the pictures in folders with charts, articles, and notes about units of study. I am trying to remember to include digital copies of any paper planning forms I use and have learned to wait to scan or photograph these until after a unit of study, when my planning forms include observation notes, changes I made and things I want to remember for the future. When colleagues do a similar study with their students, I sometimes ask to take pictures of their charts and student work as well.

As I took pictures, I was thrilled to see how the kids had used what we were studying as they created books and poems. Some of their work made me laugh--working with first graders is fun! Here are some charts from recent studies and some examples of student work. Notice how the kids tried out what we were learning.

See the question in the heading?
These questions served as the heading for a new section
in  book about plants.

Sometimes the diagram contains much more information
than the text.

The author of this piece not only used a heading,
but also made sure the diagram helps the reader
understand the process he describes in the text
(which continues on to another page). 

My favorite example of zooming in--check
 out the cat's eye peeking around the corner
of the cage! And the hamster has no idea. 

Used a heading--and see the fun fact in the top right corner?
It says, "boys can pee on you". The baby in the picture is
 also wiggling during a diaper change (this author got a
new baby brother this spring).
I've got lots more--but these are a few that I know I'll pull out again. I like having several different options to show kids so that they can begin to imagine possibilities for their work instead of copying one pattern of use. Having pictures of the charts and student work and my notes will help me consider possibilities when planning in the future, and I know I'll be glad to have mentor texts from real first grade writers. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Ending with Little Things

The end of last week marked the end of our school year. I always have a hard time letting the year go. Don't get me wrong--I am overjoyed that summer vacation has arrived and am more than ready for relaxing and re-energizing. It's just that I am never ready to say goodbye to the kids, to put away all the traces of our learning, to let go of plans for things we ran out of time to do, and know that this particular learning community won't be together in this way again.

The kids know these things too. They are also excited about summer vacation--as 6-8 year olds, they are experts on the subject of summer vacation. But they are also sad to say goodbye, and some are nervous about a summer without the routines and people of school to count on.

So how do we close out the school year? In lots of little ways and a few big ones. The big ones are fun--the school-wide picnic, field day, and annual visit from the public library people. We also celebrate with things like a publishing party and a last day party. But I think it's the little things that really matter most in our classroom.

We indulge ourselves by using any read aloud time the last two weeks to reread our favorite books from the year. The kids dig through book baskets and desks, pulling out well-loved, well-worn favorites and stack them precariously on my chair in the meeting area. They settle more quickly than usual so we have time for more. I want the kids to know and remember these books and their authors so that they don't feel lost or overwhelmed when visiting libraries in the summer. I want them to know their book friends are waiting.

We make use of every pencil, box of extra crayons, and booklet or loose piece of paper. Everyone goes home with something to write on and something to write with. I send home books so they are sure to have something to read. Our grade level was lucky this year--we were able to free up funds to buy at least 1 book per month for every child. We talk about these books and where they keep their "libraries" at home. The kids ask for " 2 or 3 really, really big" ziploc bags to carry home their supplies so nothing gets lost.

We pull out writing notebooks and the file folders that hold the stacks of writing that leaked out of the too-small-for-a-whole-year folders. The room is quiet at first as they begin to sort through and read their work. The the sound swells as they begin to show their friends forgotten pieces or explain how they are going to organize the work to take it home. We talk together about what they learned and how they grew as writers. Then we talk about how writers make a place for their writing at home and plan to write, even when it's not a school day.

We look at the goals and charts posted on our walls and talk about what we've learned to do and how we've learned to think this year--as mathematicians, readers, writers, word studiers, and scientists. We remind ourselves that smart is about lots of hard work and thinking and trying something.  The kids remember the kind of learners they are now and think about the things they want to keep learning and studying. They make plans. Plans for where they'll keep flashcards and books, paper and crayons. Plans for what kind of books they hope to check out from the library and what things they want to look up on the computer. Plans for how they can keep learning even if the library and computers are beyond their reach when school is not in session.

We make lists. Lists of books and authors and math games and science topics and websites. Lists of unfinished writing projects and lists of things to know about first grade to give the kindergartners next door. We make lists of things we'll remember about this year and about each other. Lists of where we might see each other next year, even though we won't be all together again.

It's the little bits of talking that happen here and there across the day during the last couple weeks of school that matter. I take time too. I sit in the classroom and take time to think about each child individually. Sometimes my thoughts find their way into end-of-year progress reports or onto special certificates. This year I wrote a short poem for each child and we read it like a book on the last day. After each poem, we talked a little. Smiled and talked and remembered.

My students would tell you that they may be little, but they can still do important things and they are significant. I think that the little things we do do close out the school year are the same. Simple, little moments are the ones that helped most once we realized our time together  was growing shorter with each X on the classroom calendar. These seemed to be the ones that mattered most to us as a learning community--our school family--as we saw this year come to an end. Little things.