How to Get the Most out of Education Conferences

Notes from the Classroom


It’s been a little over a month since I came home from this year’s NCTE convention, and I’ve reflected on and used my learning in new ways every single day. 

But over the past several years of going to professional conferences, that hasn’t always been the case.

I’m sure that a large part of the NCTE carryover can be attributed to the quality of the conference. But I also think that it’s due to some specific, strategic moves I’ve taken on as a participant. As I attend sessions and then again after I return home, there are three moves I make to ensure I bring home more than just books.  

When I encounter an uplifting or provocative idea, I make sure to spread it beyond the walls of the conference.

I attended more than one session after which friends and I would gush about how how it felt like “going to church.” Yes, of course, that’s a good thing because we felt a kind of spiritual revitalization, but it also got me thinking: Does this session just feel good, or is it actually doing some good? There was the worry that “going to church” might really be “preaching to the choir.”

Yes, the spiritual revitalization is good in its own right, but to move beyond preaching to the choir, I reflect on how to spread these ideas to people who aren’t already in “the choir.” I ask myself:

  • Who would benefit from hearing this? How would it benefit them?
  • Who else do I have in my building who would be part of “the choir”? How can I empower them to lead with me?
  • What are my entry points? Are there pieces of this session that are shareable? Quotes or statistics that were particularly resonant?

I also make sure to step out of my comfort zone with conference sessions.

Yes, those “going to church” sessions are awesome and empowering and revitalizing, but sometimes it’s important to step out of your comfort zone and go to the sessions where you might not know so much already. Sometimes these are exactly the sessions that can push your instruction forward. So, when you’re browsing the convention book, look for session descriptions that make you think:

  • That’s what so-and-so in my building is always talking about. I wonder if this would help me figure out what the fuss is about.
  • This issue keeps popping up, and I’ve been doing my best to avoid it. Maybe this is a good way to put it back on my to-do list.
  • I’ve never heard of this before, but it sounds like something that might complement what I’m already doing.

Remember to take notes–and then spend time reviewing them.

Sketching big takeaways on my airplane ride home helped me process pages of notes. Click the image to enlarge.

It probably goes without saying that you should take notes during a session. It doesn’t matter whether you use a trusty old paper-and-pen notebook like I do, or you have embraced digital note taking. Just make sure you’ve got a way to capture your thinking as it’s happening.

The same goes for cell phone cameras. Don’t be afraid to take pictures of slides and resources to save for later.

That saving it for later, though, is the most crucial part. After your last session has ended, make sure you take some time to go back through your notes, to start reflecting and synthesizing. I started to do this on the plane ride home, but found that I was just too wiped out to go too far with it. The next day, though, I returned and dug in a little further. It helped me to organize my reflection into a few categories:

  • Resources I can use and share right now
  • Big takeaways to remember forever
  • Opportunities for learning

To seize those opportunities for learning, I ordered a few professional books, started searching some journal subscriptions, and updated my Christmas wishlist. With so many doors for learning opened to me, I know that I’ll be able to carry my conference learning with me for years to come.

Megan Kortlandt (@megankortlandt) is a secondary ELA consultant and reading specialist for the Waterford School District. In the mornings, she teaches at Durant High School, and in the afternoons, she works with all of Waterford’s middle and high school teachers and students through the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment department. Every time Megan goes grocery shopping, her cart makes her appear to be exceptionally healthy, but don’t be fooled. The healthy stuff is all for her pet rabbit, Hans.

4 Ways Education Should Look More Like Google

Notes from the Classroom

Technology has certainly exploded between the time I started preparing to become a teacher and now, but lately I’ve been thinking about Google–and the ways that education can, and should, mirror the company’s ubiquitous technology.

We don’t need to focus on memorization.

We have to confront our fascination with facts and memorization: Why bother if you can Google it? In the age of information overload, we’re finding that it’s far more important to teach our students how to analyze multiple sources, determine credibility, and read around a topic to gain a deeper understanding of it.

That’s true for vocabulary, too. Vocabulary in English classes used to consist mostly of looking up definitions in dusty dictionaries and, if your teacher was really on top of things, using the word in a few different sentences or drawing a picture of it. Now, the standards call for students to flexibly use a variety of strategies to determine meaning when they encounter unfamiliar vocabulary; the last strategy involves looking it up in reference materials (ahem, Googling it). 

Let’s prepare our students to collaborate.

There is inherent value in teaching the collaborative skills that will prepare our students for success beyond their high school walls. We design projects and lessons so that students will bounce ideas back and forth, develop questions, and seek answers together.

In many ways, this mirrors the Google Drive platform. On Google Drive, you don’t just create documents inside your own software, then print or attach to share. Instead, you have control over how and with whom you share your folders as you’re working. Sure, you can still choose to keep something private and then share it only once you’re ready for the work to get into others’ hands. But now we have the opportunity to collaborate on our work as we’re drafting–in real time–and it’s changing the face of how we work.

It’s been less than a year since I fully switched over to Google as my primary mode of doc creation, but I already have a hard time imagining drafting something without hitting that little comment button to get feedback from my colleagues.

Tech companies update their software. We should update our practices.

We all know that feeling when our favorite technology company updates something. It’s almost like we go through Kubler-Ross’ seven stages of grief each time our tech changes. But the thing is, we do reach acceptance and adapt to the changes–and we do it quickly. 

Part of this has to do with semantics. Google has been telling its users about some upcoming changes to its Drive services and apps. But they aren’t just adapting, changing, or revising: they’re upgrading.

I hear teachers say all the time that “X worked for me when I was in school…” If I applied that logic to my tech life, I’d have to accept being completely okay with only a house phone and a dial-up internet connection. Isn’t it only fair to our students that we upgrade our teaching like we upgrade our technology?

Employees in the tech industry feel valued. Shouldn’t teachers?

I’ve never been to Google’s headquarters myself, and I’m sure there’s more than meets the eye, but still: the company ranks at the top of employee satisfaction surveys year after year. In an interview with Fast Company, Karen May, Google’s VP of people development, explains that the company believes that focusing on their employees’ health and happiness is what ultimately determines their success.

I think we are all realists and know that our funding sources are vastly different from Google’s, so I don’t think too many teachers expect field trips to exotic locales. But in our current climate, I think we’d do well to take a step back and think about how we can support the health and happiness of our teachers, our administrators, and ultimately, our students.

Megan Kortlandt (@megankortlandt) is a secondary ELA consultant and reading specialist for the Waterford School District. In the mornings, she teaches at Durant High School, and in the afternoons, she works with all of Waterford’s middle and high school teachers and students through the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment department. Every time Megan goes grocery shopping, her cart makes her appear to be exceptionally healthy, but don’t be fooled. The healthy stuff is all for her pet rabbit, Hans.

Teacher, Mom: Finding a Balance

Notes from the Classroom
teacher mom bags

A typical scene as I unloaded the car on a Friday afternoon this fall.

I’ve been thinking of blogging about being a teacher-mom for a while now, but this is totally out of my comfort zone.

I’m usually happy to share anything teaching related, but when it comes to talking about my personal life, I clam up. The more I think about it, though, the more I realize that it is teaching related. As a blogger-friend of mine, Jay Nickerson, likes to say, “teaching is a human endeavor.” If we ignore ourselves as a part of the equation, our craft is sure to suffer.

Up until the past few years, I was that teacher: Mine was one of the first cars in the parking lot before the sun was up, and then one of the last as it was starting to set. It’s safe to say that teaching was my life. I even married the math teacher in the classroom next door.

When our son, Jack, was born, it was an adjustment. But once we got into a routine, it became the norm. I scheduled my time strategically, careful not to waste a single minute of my time away from him. I didn’t always work the same long hours as I used to, but I grew to feel like I was in control of my balancing act.

And then came Charlotte. She just turned one last month, and she has already had upward of 10 ear infections and has been admitted to our local children’s hospital three times: once for a simple surgery to put tubes in her ears, once for a week that included a stay in the PICU, and once that was not-so-conveniently timed during the first full week of school.

To say that “the norm” has changed would be an understatement. When I was able to drop the kids off at daycare, I felt like I was failing as a mom. And when I had to stay home with a feverish baby, I felt like I was failing as a teacher.

Thankfully, I work with a wonderful, supportive group of friends who were able to help me realize that I wasn’t failing at either one; I just had to readjust to a new normal. And throughout the course of this journey, I’ve come to a few big realizations.

Teacher-Moms* Manage a Unique Balancing Act

On my worst days, I’d sit in my car before heading home, and I’d cry. Why, I wondered, was I paying a daycare to take care of my own children so that I could spend my hours with someone else’s kids? It took a while to admit this, but after talking to lots of other teachers in the same situation, I’m starting to think maybe we’ve all felt that twinge of resentment at some point.

But, by the same token, even though they are “someone else’s kids,” I don’t know a single teacher who doesn’t in some way think of their students as “my kids.” It’s like we have two sets. My son calls our students “your work kids” or sometimes “your big kids.” And, before you think that we’re screwing him up too badly with this, it’s okay. He knows that they’re students, and that they’re not family, but he also knows that I love them. Sometimes I wonder if his understanding of this might be one of the reasons he’s thriving at his preschool. He knows that teachers are people who are unconditionally on his side.

I’m a Better Teacher and Mom for It

jack reading wilbur

My son, Jack, reading a book that my high school students collaboratively wrote and published. When the kids in my worlds intersect like this, it reminds me how important our work is, as teachers and as moms.

The other day, I overheard my kids playing. Charlotte was probably pulling one of Jack’s toys off the shelf, and I could hear him saying to her, “Do you know what dat is, Charlotte? Do you remember dat? It’s something you’ve seen at da zoo. It’s a bird, but it doesn’t fly. Dat’s right! It’s a penguin!”

Between each question, even though she doesn’t talk yet, I heard him pause and then patiently continue, prodding for understanding. And I had to chuckle because I could clearly hear myself as a teacher in his little three-year-old voice.

I know that the work my husband and I do in education also helps us teach our own kids. Likewise, I know that being a mom benefits my students. I see them through new lenses now. I’m more patient and open. I think about every student as someone’s baby.

And in sharing my vulnerability, my students see that I’m not some perfect teacher-robot; I’m a human.

I can sure live with that.

*I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that “teacher-mom” sounds a bit sexist. Of course I realize that there are teacher-dads out there too, and that they likely have many of the same issues as moms do. But, I’m a mom, so I can only write about my experience in this regard.

MKortlandt1Megan Kortlandt (@megankortlandt) is a secondary ELA consultant and reading specialist for the Waterford School District. In the mornings, she teaches Language Arts at Durant High School, and in the afternoons, she works with all of Waterford’s middle and high school teachers and students in the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment department. Additionally, Megan works with Oakland Schools as an instructional coach for AARI. She has presented at various conferences including the Michigan Council for Teachers of English and Michigan Reading Association annual conferences

Rooting Myself in “Why”

Notes from the Classroom

sinekIt’s that time of year. Second semester is in full swing. The hope of snow days is waning. And for high school teachers in Michigan, this time of year also means that assessment season is quickly approaching.

We, as teachers, often struggle with how to best prepare our students for high-stakes assessments like the SAT. No one likes to teach to the test, but we also recognize its importance both for our schools and for our students, and we want to see our students achieve success. So, how do we find that balance?

To answer that question, I’ve come back to a favorite resource of mine, Simon Sinek’s “golden circle.” In this TED talk, Sinek argues that, in order to inspire change, we must “start with ‘why.’” To prepare my students for success on the SAT, I’m starting by rooting my practice in “why.”

As a teacher, questions are our job. In this case, I’d argue that “why” is the one that we should return to with consistency–both in planning and in instruction.

Here are a few questions that I’m trying to integrate into my daily instruction.

1. Why do you say that?

In daily instruction, this question can inform me and help guide my instruction. If students have an answer, but it sounds like they might not quite have the understanding that they need, I’ll ask this question. It illuminates their thinking and identifies where I need to redirect.

If they are on the right track, this question can extend thinking to the next level of supporting analysis with evidence. This type of question even appears on the SAT.

2. Why might this author…?

You could finish this question in a lot of different ways:

Why might this author include these details?

… use this particular word?

… start her essay like this?

… structure her paragraphs in this way?

… write this in the first place?

These questions help to make that ever-important connection between reading and writing. And they help to make a habit of analysis, which is a crucial skill on the redesigned SAT both in multiple choice and essay sections.

3. Why are we doing this?

shutterstock_373931644We’ve heard this question a million times from our students, and it’s an important one. If our purpose is to more authentically teach students to write by studying the craft of mentors, then we should make sure our texts and our writing are aligned, and that we are asking these questions when it makes sense to do so.

There’s a very real human element to the craft of writing, and we can’t forget that. Here, we’re asking “why” with the lens of what we, as writers, can learn from these mentors.

The same question can be asked of test prep. If you teach juniors, you might be especially frustrated this time of year that your unit work gets eclipsed by frequent practice tests. Again, it would be worth asking, “Why are we doing this?”

The biggest advantage to giving practice exams (and I’m talking full-test- or whole-section replicas of the test) is to expose students to the format, the wording, and the nuances that come with different tests. Yes, of course this is important, but it shouldn’t trump good instruction.

If the goal is to practice a format, wouldn’t that be most effective within our good instruction in manageable chunks? Or by assessing in a variety of formats–including those that will give our kids exposure to the wording and format? If we’re replacing a lot of our valuable class time with practice tests or are letting them drive our curriculum, we should step back and re-ask ourselves “why?”

Rooting our practice in “why” through planning and instruction can help us make the necessary shift from surface-level understanding to purposeful, thoughtful analysis. And if this is done throughout the year and beyond just the typical “test-prep” time of year, it can shape our students in ways far more meaningful than just preparing for a score.

MKortlandt2Megan Kortlandt (@megankortlandt) is a secondary ELA consultant and reading specialist for the Waterford School District. In the mornings, she teaches Language Arts at Durant High School, and in the afternoons, she works with all of Waterford’s middle and high school teachers and students in the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment department. Additionally, Megan works with Oakland Schools as an instructional coach for AARI. She has presented at various conferences including the Michigan Council for Teachers of English and Michigan Reading Association annual conferences

Creating a Culture of Readers

AARI Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_123704254Each year, students tell me, “I don’t read” or “I haven’t read a whole book since the fourth grade.” I take those comments as a challenge. It’s part of who I am. If someone tells me that something can’t be done, I double down and whisper to myself, “Wanna bet?”

This attitude faltered this fall, though, when I moved to teach at a new school. My new building was recently designated by the state as a Shared Educational Entities school, which means that it draws nontraditional students from the other main high schools in our district. Students come here to recover credits, or if they have not otherwise found success in a traditional high school structure.

As I unloaded my boxes of books, people were quick to warn me that I wouldn’t be able to use those here. “You don’t have enough time,” they warned me. “These kids won’t read.”

Of course I’d had plenty of those kids in the past. But they were always among students who already identified as readers, so I relied somewhat on the readers to help establish a culture of reading. Even when I taught AARI (reading intervention) classes at the traditional high school, I built a reading culture with independent, choice reading.

But for some reason, facing what seemed like an entire building of “non-readers” in an alternative environment, I wondered if I could still do so.

The possibility scared me, but I dug in my heels. Could I establish enough of a reading culture that I could “trick” students into reading outside school, without thinking of it as homework or a requirement?

So far, I’m a month in, and this is what I’ve tried.

Book Talks

A few times a week, I take a minute or two to highlight a couple of books from my collection. I show students the cover, tell them a bit about the book, and sometimes read a page or two as a teaser.

I have the students collect these titles on a handout called “My Bookshelf,” on which they collect the books based on how interested they might be in reading them. They rank each on a scale of 0 to 10. When they are stuck, and unsure what to do next, I ask them if there are any books on their “bookshelf” that they might be interested in reading.

Classroom Library Scavenger Hunt

In the first week, as we’re establishing our norms and getting to know each other, the students complete a very quick survey that asks them to explore the library. They have to check out how the bins are organized, look for titles that they recognize, and decide which areas of the library they might gravitate toward.

This gives them lightly structured and non-threatening time to get the books in their hands. It also allows them to get comfortable looking through the space.41uzrunxtkl-_sx331_bo1204203200_

Read-Alouds

Sometimes I build a few pages of read-aloud into a book talk. Lately, though, I’ve been trying to include some read-alouds from choice books in my mini-lessons.

For example, when we did a lesson on making inferences about characters’ thoughts, I read from the first chapter of Gary D. Schmidt’s Orbiting Jupiter, which is one of the 2016 titles for the Global Read Aloud project.

Choice in Independent Practice

After our mini-lessons, I try to build in as many choices as possible. As we were establishing the norms for our classroom learning community, my students told me loud and clear that they hate when teachers tell them what they have to read. At the same time, they’ll do it if they can choose the readings. Sometimes they have a choice between a few different short stories, and sometimes I’m able to include independent-reading books as well.

I’m only a month in, so I don’t yet know how successful I’ll be, but I am hopeful. My students are talking about the books and asking questions about the read-alouds. One student asked, “Did this guy write anything else?” His eyes got wide as I showed him the section of my library that houses Walter Dean Myers’ books.

A little over 25 percent of my students have actually checked books out of my library, and one boy even took two. And every student (EVERY! STUDENT!) has been able to identify at least one book that they want to read.

To say that this hasn’t been easy is an understatement. On days when the kids act like all they want is a worksheet and to check out of thinking, I worry that I can’t keep it up. But I’d say that with a start like this, it’s well worth trying.

MKortlandt2Megan Kortlandt (@megankortlandt) is a secondary ELA consultant and reading specialist for the Waterford School District. In the mornings, she teaches Language Arts at Durant High School, and in the afternoons, she works with all of Waterford’s middle and high school teachers and students in the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment department. Additionally, Megan works with Oakland Schools as an instructional coach for AARI. She has presented at various conferences including the Michigan Council for Teachers of English and Michigan Reading Association annual conferences.

Learning from My Mistakes

Notes from the Classroom

One of the best parts of being a teacher is that I’m always learning. Every year, I learn more about pedagogy, reading, and writing, so I know with one hundred percent certainty that I am not the same teacher I was when I started. I love the learning process and I wouldn’t change it for a thing, but every once in a while I can’t help but think that if I could travel back in time, I’d love to share some much-needed guidance with myself as a first-year teacher.

1. Don’t Take Home So Much Grading

I’m surprised that that first year (and for many years afterward, actually), I didn’t drown in a sea of grading. I would usually grade the quick stuff first, and then I’d tackle the dreaded essays. And, oh, those essays. I would carefully read each one, correcting grammar and mechanics, and commenting on word choice, style, and content. Then, when I finally passed them back, I’d be so frustrated that my students barely looked at what I’d written. I tried different protocols for having students review their feedback and set goals, but ultimately it didn’t make much difference. So, the argument I’d make to myself back then: you should stop.

Now, stay with me here. I’m not advocating being lazy or leaving students’ work without feedback. Quite the opposite, actually. The students wouldn’t read my comments and feedback because it was too late. They’d already felt like they had finished the project and moved on to the next unit. All of that precious feedback just seemed like criticism. Now, I still give my students all of that good feedback, but I try to do more of it before they ever turn the final draft in.

This has been a huge shift in my mindset and my instructional planning. In the past, I would teach a series of lessons, which the students would practice through carefully crafted assignments (most of which I’d created). Once I felt they were ready, I would present them with the final project or essay. This model creates more problems than it solves, though. First, the lessons are disconnected from the ultimate goal, so it’s no surprise that the kids aren’t always very motivated. And second, I had double the grading: first the assignments for practice, then the essay that they completed at the end.

Now I try to frame our instruction around our end goal. We have plenty of time to work together in class, and the mini-lessons are grounded in doing that well. Students have the opportunity to apply these lessons and practice in class, which gives me a chance to read their work and give them feedback as they go. And the best part is that they’re actually using that feedback!

2. You Don’t Have to Be the Expert

Again, this sounds counterintuitive at first. You’re the teacher, and they’re the students.  Of course you’re going to be the “expert” in most regards, but as a Language Arts teacher, I took this to the extreme too often and, as a result, failed to use some great resources and opportunities.

I believe in writing with my students. I always have, and I probably always will. It’s important that my students see that I, too, am a writer and that we are all learning. I know the power of modeling the process, but in my first years as a teacher, I thought this meant that I always had to provide the models. Creating model writing for everyshutterstock_269516258 skill we learn? That’s exhausting – and unrealistic! If I want to enforce the idea that writers are always learning, why on Earth was I always expecting myself to write the “how-to” examples of “good” writing?

Now I know the value of mentor texts. I’m still writing alongside my students, and I still model the process, but now we pull our wisdom from great writers. When I need to teach a lesson on writing leads, instead of preparing a list of types of leads, then teaching them to my students one by one and modeling each one as we go, we study texts that we like. We pay attention to what hooks our attention and what doesn’t, and we use these texts as tools to teach us how to do it better.

So, if I could travel back in time, I’d never shortchange myself the opportunity to learn most things on my own, but I have to wonder where I’d be in my learning journey now if I had learned these two revelations a bit earlier.

MKortlandt2Megan Kortlandt (@megankortlandt) is a secondary ELA consultant and reading specialist for the Waterford School District. In the mornings, she teaches Language Arts at Durant High School, and in the afternoons, she works with all of Waterford’s middle and high school teachers and students in the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment department. Additionally, Megan works with Oakland Schools as an instructional coach for AARI. She has presented at various conferences including the Michigan Council for Teachers of English and Michigan Reading Association annual conferences.

Mentor Texts: Reading Like Writers

Book Reviews Common Core Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_151419089Secondary teachers continue to switch from old units designed around novels, to new Common Core State Standards units focused on skills and genres. As they do so, an instructional method that can support this shift is the use of mentor texts to “read like a writer.”

When a class reads like a writer, the teacher takes a descriptive approach, rather than a prescriptive approach, to instruction. It might help to think of this as an inquiry-based lesson. Instead of a teacher saying to her students, “Your essay must contain a thesis statement that sounds like this,” she might guide her students as they read another text, asking questions like, “When in this paragraph does this writer tell us what claim he’s making? How does he do it?”

It is clear that the secondary ELA world is catching on to this instructional method. It’s deeply rooted in our Common Core State Standards. Rather than requiring just the comprehension of texts, our anchor standards require students to analyze texts for word choice, structure, or “how purpose shapes the content and style of a text” (R.6). This analytical reading goes hand-in-hand with the descriptive approach taken when classes are reading like writers.

As our state makes the switch from ACT to SAT, the focus on analysis is even more apparent. The Teacher Implementation Guide produced by the College Board includes in its recommended instructional strategies the direction to “ask students to investigate the ways authors use word choice, structure, and other techniques….” Likewise, the new SAT essay does not simply ask that students be able to write their own persuasive essays; it requires that they analyze another writer’s argument.

A Book Focused on High School

It’s clear that this inquiry-based approach to reading and writing is profoundly important to secondary teachers. This is an enormous instructional shift for many teachers, especially for those in high schools. As they tackle new units and new assessments, they’ll need support. Some of our go-to mentors like Kelly Gallagher and Jeff Anderson have been writing about this instructional method, but the vast majority of writing that’s been done around mentor texts has focused on elementary classes.

41dIMvzIynL._SX395_BO1,204,203,200_That’s why it’s so exciting to see the recent publication of Writing with Mentors, by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell. So many other great mentor-text resources have left secondary teachers like myself to adapt the work for my high school students. But this book is written by two teachers with a decidedly high-school lens.

As the authors put it in their introduction, “This book was written to help you understand the potential that writing with mentors has for your students.” The book starts with the writers’ understanding of the use of mentor texts. Throughout the subsequent chapters, the book transitions to students’ understanding, use, and ownership of mentor texts.

The first two chapters offer the most foundational support for high school teachers who are making the paradigm shift, from prescriptive instruction to reading like a writer. These early chapters outline the classroom essentials needed to foster this instructional approach. The authors describe creating conditions, space, and time for reading and writing, as well as the concept of choice.

The second chapter digs into how teachers should approach the planning and internalization of this method, or as the authors call it, “Developing a Mentor Text Habit of Mind.” This chapter offers concrete suggestions for the finding and building of mentor-text collections, as well as for storage, organization, and planning. It is essential reading for secondary teachers who are just starting to get their toes wet in this kind of analytical reading and writing.

A Book for Novices and Veterans

The subsequent chapters focus on how to use mentor texts throughout the writing process, from planning to publishing. Throughout the book, the authors include plenty of resources to support teachers at all levels of understanding. Included in these resources are examples of texts that the authors have used as mentors for various genres and purposes. These texts are explained throughout the chapters and again collected in an appendix, complete with URLs and QR codes for quick access.

I’ve only had this book since its publication this fall, but with all of my highlighting, markings in the margins, and sticky notes, it’s already looking pretty well loved. It seems like every time I turn around, I’m recommending it to someone new.

That’s because whether you’re a teacher who has been using mentor texts for years, or one who is just starting to grapple with the new units and standards, this book offers valuable support for a trusted instructional approach, one that’s guaranteed to help our students grow as analytical readers and writers.

Resources

Gallagher, K. (2011). Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling & Mentor Texts. Portland: Stenhouse.

Gallagher, K. (2014). Making the Most of Mentor Texts. ASCD , 28-33.

Marchetti, A., & O’Dell, R. (2015). Writing with Mentors: How to Reach Every Writer in the Room Using Current, Engaging Mentor Texts. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Ray, K. W. (1999). Wondrous Words: Writers and Writing in the Elementary Classroom. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English.

MKortlandt2Megan Kortlandt (@megankortlandt) is a secondary ELA consultant and reading specialist for the Waterford School District. In the mornings, she teaches AARI and literacy intervention classes at Waterford Mott High School, and in the afternoons, she works with all of Waterford’s middle and high school teachers and students in the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment department. Additionally, Megan works with Oakland Schools as an instructional coach for AARI. She has presented at various conferences including the Michigan Council for Teachers of English and Michigan Reading Association annual conferences.

The SAT Essay: Embracing My Fear

AARI Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_217407295I don’t know about you, but when I got my first look at a sample SAT essay prompt, my eyes just about bugged out of my head.

It was last year, and I was trying to wrap my head around the changes that were in store for our kids with the switch from ACT to SAT. If you’re not already familiar, take a look at the information and samples on the College Board website. The essay question on the redesigned SAT, which all Michigan juniors will be required to take this spring, asks students to first read a high-level text that presents an argument. The topic of the text, the College Board explains, will “express subtle views on complex topics.” Then, students must write an analysis of the rhetorical strategies that the author uses to express those subtle views.

At first, I wanted to argue, “But I know how to prepare the kids for the ACT!” Even if students walked into my room with zero knowledge of persuasive writing, I could coach them with enough practice, checklists, and do’s and don’ts to help them reach proficiency. We were machines when it came to preparing for the ACT essay!

But the SAT essay doesn’t assess a genre of writing; it assesses students’ reading comprehension, analysis, and writing. No matter how much I wanted to prepare students for this essay, I couldn’t give them crash-courses—in how to understand a complex text, or how to analyze an author’s purpose. I felt like I would somehow be failing my students.

The Upside of the Essay

The more I worried about it, the more I came to the realization that changed my perspective: This isn’t a bad thing. Why was I clinging to prepping students for a test? I don’t know anyone who went into education in order to teach to a test; I certainly didn’t. The redesigned SAT essay measures the very skills we’ve been teaching as we have shifted to the Common Core State Standards. I realized that I needed take heart in the fact that this new test would assess the skills I am already teaching within my regular units of study.

Still, I worried that the students and the teachers in my district wouldn’t be ready for such a change. I initially felt uncomfortable moving away from teaching as if my students were essay-writing machines, and, I realized, surely there were other teachers who felt the same way. So, I dug into the research and my own practices to determine what I could do to support them.

shutterstock_160526231I kept coming back to the portion of the essay that asks students for analysis. At first, I wondered if we could put together a toolbox of the most common ways of building an argument, or a list of a few “magic” rhetorical devices students could expect to encounter. But the more I read and explored, the more I came back to the answer that no, there would be no magic lists or silver bullets for this test. What the analysis portion essentially boils down to is: Can students understand what an author’s purpose is, and analyze the moves the author made to achieve that purpose? This isn’t a test prep strategy; it’s just what good readers and writers can do!

What made me even happier as I came to this realization is that this is exactly what we are scaffolding in our AARI reading intervention classes. In AARI, or the Adolescent Accelerated Reading Initiative, we regularly read to determine the author’s purpose, then analyze how the author supported that purpose by how he or she organized his or her evidence.

Clearly this is a great start. But it’s not enough. It needs to happen in every class at every level, with a variety of texts.

Taking the Lessons to Other Classrooms

To start supporting our teachers in this endeavor, I went back to the work of favorites like Katie Wood Ray, Kelly Gallagher, and Jeff Anderson, who advocate the use of mentor texts to “read like a writer.” In this instructional method, teachers lead students to not only read for comprehension, but to also analyze how the texts are written, so that they can essentially imitate the craft in their own writing. The result is more focused, purposeful reading, and authentic writing.

This is not a new idea, especially for many elementary teachers who have lived within reading and writing workshops for years. But it can be transformative for many secondary teachers who are still adjusting to our new standards and units.

And though there may not be any magic lists or silver bullets for this essay, this instructional method just may be the closest thing.

MKortlandt2 Megan Kortlandt is a secondary ELA consultant and reading specialist for the Waterford School District. In the mornings, she teaches AARI and literacy intervention classes at Waterford Mott High School, and in the afternoons, she works with all of Waterford’s middle and high school teachers and students in the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment department. Additionally, Megan works with Oakland Schools as an instructional coach for AARI. She has presented at various conferences including the Michigan Council for Teachers of English and Michigan Reading Association annual conferences.

Making Reading Interventions Relevant

AARI Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom

shutterstock_163383446As a teacher who works with struggling readers, my favorite time of year is the end of the semester. It’s then that I assess students’ progress. When I give them their results, some can’t believe it. Some want to call their parents to share the good news. And some even cry. They all beam with pride.

What’s not to love?

The time of year that is a close second, though, is the just-past-halfway-point. Yes, I know that this is when students and teachers tend to count down toward the next break, with nothing but survival on their minds. But in the Adolescent Accelerated Reading Initiative, or AARI, things are starting to get exciting.

AARI is a program that quickly brings struggling students up to grade level, using a variety of research-supported techniques. During the first few weeks of AARI, we learn a lot about an author’s purpose. We also learn how authors achieve their purposes through the organization of their texts. We focus heavily on text structures and “mapping” a text’s organization, which shows the relationships between facts and information.

It’s at this point in the year, this just-past-halfway-point, when my students start to recognize text structures in their books—on their own. I love this because it shows me that they’re ready for more. They’re ready to start transitioning to grade-level texts.

The Real-World Connection

There are other signs that they’re ready. Sometimes a student will burst into the room at the beginning of the period and exclaim, “You’ll never believe what we’re doing in Chemistry! The teacher gave us a chart, and he didn’t even realize it was a matrix!”

Seeing kids make these connections to their learning is what makes my work so vital. It’s why even as I’m launching the first weeks of the class, my focus is always on my endpoint: helping students use their intervention in relevant, real-world applications.Sequence Word Bank

This real-world focus starts early. Toward the beginning of the semester, we start talking about our text structures in the “real world.” I start this discussion by asking students what clues readers have in other, more difficult texts.

Together, we make anchor charts of “clue” words and phrases that writers use to signal that they are using a particular text structure to organize their thoughts. We post these in the room and add to them as we encounter more. Having these word banks arms students with tools to start recognizing text structures when the texts aren’t so easy.

Starting Small

Once students have these tools in their tool belt, I start introducing higher-level texts. They’re gaining proficiency, but they are still struggling readers, and they’re not ready for the full independence of working with long texts on their own.

So I start to give them a little taste: an appetizer, if you will. To do this and to make the reading relevant to them, I get my texts snippets from their content area textbooks.

I bring these “appetizers” in to class and “serve” them at the beginning of class as our warm-up. To scaffold their reading, I give them a focused purpose. They may have to answer a question about the author’s purpose, or they may have to identify a text structure. It helps them to see that their practice work with the easier texts is helping them to approach the more daunting texts they see in their classes all the time.

Lessons for ELA Classrooms

Finding this balance is crucial not only in intervention classes like AARI, but in all reading. We know our students have some pretty high expectations set by the Common Core State Standards and assessments like the redesigned SAT. Teachers want students to be able to access their texts, but they also know the value of exposing them to more challenging options. To help achieve this balance, I’ve found that these steps are key:

  • Arm students with tools to help them bridge the gap between accessible and challenging texts. Word banks are a great start.
  • Introduce more difficult texts slowly and in small chunks.
  • Gradually build to a combination of high-level, high-skill texts that require more stamina.

MKortlandt2Megan Kortlandt is a secondary ELA consultant and reading specialist for the Waterford School District. In the mornings, she teaches AARI and literacy intervention classes at Waterford Mott High School, and in the afternoons, she works with all of Waterford’s middle and high school teachers and students in the Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment department. Additionally, Megan works with Oakland Schools as an instructional coach for AARI. She has presented at various conferences including the Michigan Council for Teachers of English and Michigan Reading Association annual conferences.