How to Build Active Readers

Notes from the Classroom

Recently I was teaching a demonstration lesson at Oakland University. I brought one of my students, Brandon (a pseudonym), who was among the lowest readers at the beginning of first grade. He had been in an intervention group all year with his first grade teacher and an additional group with me. Now in the spring, we were working one on one, as he still had not yet met grade-level standards.

Brandon was right in the middle of reading a familiar text, The Clever Penguins, by Beverly Randell, when he suddenly stopped and said, “Wait, I think that the seal ate a lot of penguins. Do you know why? Look at his fat belly! And look.” He jabbed his finger repeatedly at an illustration. “I think he just kind of let her get away.”

At the time I was pleased that he was thinking so deeply about the story he was reading. However, I had no idea what my peers were thinking about Brandon’s responses to the text. Several came up during our break and inquired.

“How did he learn to talk that way about books?” someone asked me.

“Wow,” another said.  “How did you get him to search and use evidence from text to support his thoughts? This is an intervention student!”

Their questions made me pause. Just how did I help Brandon and my other intervention students think that they should be asking questions every time they read?

Steps to Take

In the classic How to Read a Bookauthors Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren remind us that as readers, it is our responsibility to be active and awake. That means it is our job to ask and answer questions while we read.

It is also the reader’s job to understand the structure of the text and to take notes in the margins. Additionally, it is not sufficient to read a text just once. We must reread it, and consider how it may link to other texts that we are reading.

So, how did Brandon learn to be an awake, active reader at the age of seven?

When working with intervention students, it is critical to build up their background knowledge of a variety of text types, literary structures, and vocabulary, and to do so using rigorous but engaging picture books in an interactive reading format.

A few steps to remember:

  • It’s paramount to intentionally teach conversation moves that help students grow their thinking about books; this should be done in a community of learners.
  • It’s also important to read and reread, in order to find evidence in the text to support one’s thinking.
  • Students move into reading their own books in a guided reading format, using leveled texts.
  • During one-on-one conferences, the teacher assists students to transfer their learning from the read-aloud setting to their own reading.
  • Along with learning word-solving skills, meaning now becomes an equally important tool that enables students to accelerate their literacy progress.

Bringing It All Together

So if asked again, “Why did Brandon approach the reading of what seems like a simple text with his questions and deep thoughts?” my answer would be:

  • If you include quality literature with opportunities for students to build their background knowledge, including selections linked to the classroom units of study, then students can connect the dots to see how their learning links up and can be used between intervention and classrooms–which indicates transfer of learning has taken place.
  • You will soon hear your students talk the way Brandon did, every time they read.
  • And you just might also hear, “I LOVE this book! Can I take this one home? Do you have any more like this one?”

My school year is complete, as many of my students are now engaged, active, grade-level readers.

Lynn and her co-presenter Christine Miller will be presenting on the topic “Intentional Teaching = Accelerated Learning” at the Oakland Schools Effective Practices Conference, on June 20 at Bloomfield Hills High School.

Lynn Mangold Newmyer has been an educator for 42 years. She is a Reading Recovery Teacher Leader and an Elementary Literacy Coach in the Walled Lake Consolidated School district. Lynn has presented at state, national, and international conferences and has taught graduate classes at Oakland University. She currently teaches her students at Loon Lake Elementary. Lynn emphatically believes that you can never own too many picture books. You can follow her on Twitter at @LynnRdgtch.

Truly a Buzz in the Hive

Notes from the Classroom

My kids took the AP US History Exam last month, so now is a good time to reflect on a writing experiment I led this year.

If you read my first post, you’ll recall that I described HistoryHive (then known as HerodotusHive) as a structured space where my APUSH students would go to improve their writing. There, APUSH alumni (now juniors and seniors) would share insights—essentially craft knowledge—with my current students on how to build on all of the class work we’ve done to write for APUSH.

In my second post, I explained that the HistoryHive is premised on the work of physics professor Eric Mazur, who found that at a certain point in the learning process, peer instruction helped his students in ways he could not.

I had an open question going in. Mazur’s world is of one of equations and right answers with decimal points. Would this method transfer to writing?

5 Parts to the Hive

We’ve had a total of 10 HistoryHives since the fall. Structure was important. I couldn’t just have current students and former students show up and say, “Go!” So, each Hive featured 5 distinct parts:

1. I review the targeted writing skill, with my flipped lecture.

2. Mentor Historians riff tips about the targeted skill.

3. In small-group settings, Apprentice Historians discuss a piece of writing with Mentor Historians.

4. All together, we debrief about epiphanies.

5. Apprentice Historians can stay after for Franchi Flash Feedback.

The result? I could tell that Mazur’s method did in fact transfer to writing.

Not to sound cheesy here, but from the beginning of the year until the end, there really was a buzz in the Hive. I saw lots of kids walk through the door; I saw buy-in; I saw focus; I saw a genuine drive to be better writers. I heard great conversations about writing. And I saw growth taking place in real time.

It was so satisfying to see students show up without the dangle of extra credit. OK, I have to confess: I may have offered snacks. But the point is that the kids were invested for all the right reasons. I certainly thought it went well. But what did the kids say?

Ah-Ha! Moments

During a riffing segment on introductions, Apprentice Historian Christine (a pseudonym, as with others) learned that “it’s important for us to ask ourselves what someone would need to know before reading our essay.” This moment of advice from a mentor stuck out. “It improved my writing dramatically and months later I still ask myself this question before I write an introduction,” she told me.

I noticed that any given piece of advice might not be needed by most, but individual students were catching on with “Ah-Ha” moments. For Dakota, that moment was when she realized she needed to focus on the significance of the documents instead of summarizing them. Sara picked up something about sentence structure. For others, the importance of planning and using the language of historians like “turning point” were the lessons that stuck.

In one Hive about mid-year, we had a collective “ah-ha!” moment, the one that seemed to resonate with most. See a pattern?

Realizations about Depth

“CK [Content Knowledge] can be used really well, or really horribly. For CK you can’t just spill a bunch of it out on paper and expect it to be relevant to the topic,” Juliette told me.

The key, Nicole learned, was to “have a few strong pieces and spend most of my time analyzing them.” Ellen agreed, saying it’s all about “quality, not quantity.” And so did Don, recalling that the best tip from the year was to “just answer the question directly and don’t add extra ‘fluff’ just to make your essay seem longer.” Candice, a Mentor Historian, reported that this was a point she made with groups, urging students to only “provide those specific events that would help build your argument.”

Haruto, another Mentor Historian, was the one who started a conversation about this for the whole Hive. I could tell he was on to something when I saw lots of nodding around the room. He said that “the deeper analysis you have of your CK is much better than having a bunch of CK with shallow analysis.”

This lesson underscores the real progress kids can make in understanding their task for advanced writing. Many kids come into the course conditioned to believe that simply stacking content knowledge is the way to prove their points. In a class like APUSH, the effect is a show-and-tell of topics learned, when the reality is that they need to offer analysis. The sooner kids can shed those old ways of thinking about school, the more they’ll grow into more sophisticated writers.

And, it turns out, these are lessons they can learn from each other–perhaps even more so than from me.

unnamedRod Franchi (@thehistorychase) is in his 21st year teaching Social Studies at Novi High School. He did his undergraduate work at Albion College and the University of Michigan, and earned an M.A. in English at Wayne State University and an M.A. in History Education at the University of Michigan. Having served as an education leader at the school, district, county, and state levels, Rod now works as AP US History Consultant and AP US History Mentor for the College Board. He is also Co-Director of the Novi AP Summer Institute and is an Attending Teacher in the University of Michigan’s Rounds Program.

Emergent Literacy is Play

Notes from the Classroom


Before my daughter’s music class starts, the moms that attend get a chance to chat while we wait for the previous class to end. Last week, the conversation turned toward preschool and what we’ve all decided. One mom said that she wasn’t going to pay for three-year-old preschool because “all they do is play.”

I’ve thought about this notion all week and have decided that play is not such a bad thing.  

When Literacy Begins

In a master’s thesis, Kelly Day says, “Emergent literacy is the natural occurring reading and writing behaviors of children beginning at birth, up until they learn to read and write conventionally.” 

Some examples of emergent literacy at my house–which you can see in the image above–include my daughter’s:

  • “doing work” and using a pencil to write jagged zig zags on paper and cards
  • pointing to distinct scribbles she has written and saying one word for each scribble
  • noticing word bubbles in the “Elephant and Piggie” books and asking who is talking
  • taking a familiar book and turning the pages while “reading” it to her mom and dad
  • looking at a red candy wrapper with white writing and knowing that it says “Kit-Kat”
  • hanging up a “missing cat” poster and asking me to add numbers for the phone number

Writing Through Play

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning.” – Fred Rogers

Much of the writing my daughter creates is based in play. She is a doctor taking notes on her clipboard like Doc McStuffins. She is Mom doing work on the computer and typing words. She is a waitress taking your order in her special black notepad. She is a scientist studying bugs, and making observations in her notebook.

Lots of the games that she and my husband play deal with rhythm and rhyming words. In one game, he reads a familiar book that rhymes and leaves off the last word/rhyme, and she fills it in. Sometimes she thinks that rhyming is when words have the same beginning sounds. One of her favorite phrases right now is: “Hey, that rhymes!” Instead of correcting her, we usually run with it and try to think of more words that have that same sound.

Bring Back the Fun

When I see the joyful play that my daughter partakes in daily, I can’t help but think about how my classroom should awaken students’ playfulness in writing and reading. Where are the areas in my literacy instruction that suffer drabness? How might I capitalize on all I’ve learned about gaming and the Makerspace culture from the MACUL conference to evoke joyful play in my students? Here are some ideas:

  • Poetry has always been a source of joy and so I think I will revisit poem-a-day annotations and perhaps incorporate some interesting technology to further the conversation.
  • Try to use popular song lyrics, rap and rhythm, or rhyming poems more in mini-lessons.
  • I recently attended the 4T Virtual Conference and learned about Genius Hour: giving students 20 percent of class time to work on a project of their own choosing and direction. I’m interested in making Genius Hour happen in my classroom.
  • I want to have a game area (with games like Scrabble, Up Words, Boggle, Balderdash, Madlibs, Crosswords) that students can use at set times or when they are feeling unmotivated.
  • I’m still thinking about how to create a Makerspace in my classroom–what it would have, when kids would use it, how would I infuse writing without making it drain the fun.

Mostly, I want to do more than just add an activity to my daily routine. I want to make play a real focus in my classroom, because a playful mind is a thoughtful mind.

In sending my daughter to preschool next fall, I’m most excited to see how she will negotiate all this playing, this conversation, this pre-literacy–with other kids her age. How they will all create a new, collective knowledge of the world around them and change or grow their sense of what it means to be–all because of play!

Caroline Thompson (@TeacherThompson) taught middle school ELA for twelve years in Lake Orion before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She supports AARI teachers for Oakland Schools as an independent literacy consultant in the areas of digital media, professional development, and non-fiction resources. Caroline is a Reading and Writing Workshop advocate, a 2008 Oakland Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and a 2009 Oakland County Outstanding Teacher of the Year Nominee. She has a BA in English from Michigan State University and a Masters in the Art of Teaching Reading from Oakland University. She lives in Berkley, Michigan with her husband and their three year old daughter.

You Must Read The Alchemist

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, was given to me by a colleague, who said that the book is for the journey that our team is on. I had to admit, I had never read the text. It sat on a classroom bookshelf for years. Some students chose it for independent reading, yet I never had a kid use it during a reading unit, so it wasn’t ever on my book stack.  

And then, about a year ago, a popular song by Macklemore made some recommendations for life. One of them was, “I recommend that you read The Alchemist / Listen to your teachers, but cheat in Calculus.” I can’t speak to the math recommendation, as a person who avoided Calculus like the plague. But I can recommend that everyone from grade 7 onward read The Alchemist.

The Plot

Santiago is a shepherd who buys his own flock of sheep, even though it isn’t his family’s profession. While looking at his herd and making plans for his future, he meets a man who encourages him to look into his heart. Santiago must look for his true desire, or, as it comes to be known in the book, his “personal legend.”

The decision to achieve his personal legend takes Santiago on a journey. He visits other parts of the world, and meets many people who guide him on his quest. But the journey is not as straightforward as it seems at first. Coelho reminds us: “Making a decision was only the beginning of things. When someone makes a decision, he is really diving into a strong current that will carry him to places he has never dreamed of when he first made the decision” (p. 70).

Why It’s Worth Reading

The Alchemist helps us remember that everyone has his or her own journey. Sometimes these journeys intersect. Sometimes they may be different from our own.

This makes me think about every learner that I interact with. My journey may be to forge students’ independence in reading, and to empower them to achieve writerly voices. But their journeys may be different. I just have to appreciate the time in which we have intersected on our journeys.

As Santiago learns about another, “Everyone has his or her own way of learning things. His way isn’t the same as mine, nor mine as his. But we’re both in search of our personal legends, and I respect him for that” (p. 86).

Beyond this important theme, The Alchemist resonates because it’s a joyful read, and its language is beautiful. The ideas are structured like those in a fable, too. This allows every reader to gain meaning from Santiago’s experiences.

I mirror Macklemore when I say, read The Alchemist. I hope you realize that it is a book from which you can find meaning at any point in your life. I daresay that, with multiple readings, you may find a different journey for yourself. And it is a great text for students who are in transitions–including those transitioning between middle and high school, and high school and college.  

Book Details:

Reading Level: 910L
ISBN: 978-0062315007
Format: Paperback
Publisher: Harper One
Publication Date: April 15, 2014
Awards and Accolades:  Anniversary Edition, New York Times Bestseller

*Thanks to Bethany Bratney for the blog structure for a book recommendation.

pic 2Amy Gurney (@agurney_amy) is an ELA and Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator for Walled Lake Schools. She has a Master’s degree from Michigan State University in Educational Administration and an Education Specialist in Educational Leadership from Oakland University. She is a Galileo Alumni. She worked on the MAISA units of study and has studied reading and writing workshop practice and conducted action research.

 

K-5 Literacy Apps: A Deeper Dive

Notes from the Classroom

An image of Osmo, in use. Photo courtesy: Osmo

I love books. I love holding them in my hands and turning the pages myself.

However, I also love technology. I’m trying to find the balance between using it in my classroom to enhance literacy, and keeping things traditional.

I’ve written about some of my favorite K-5th grade apps, but I want to dive a little more into the ones below.

Osmo

Through the generosity of my district’s Foundation for Excellence, I was awarded a grant that allowed me to purchase Osmo for my students. (Thank you FFE and all who contribute to make the grants possible!)

Osmo requires an iPad, and through apps and tangible materials, it makes the iPad a tool for hands-on learning. Osmo has many applications to enhance literacy, math, coding, and the arts.

I’m using the Words app to enhance literacy. Students are provided upper and lowercase letter tiles, and are asked to complete words. The words may have missing letters or a picture to name, and you can create your own word lists for students to interact with. What’s helpful, too, is that Osmo provides students with instant feedback.

With the Masterpiece tool, students can choose a picture they would like to draw on paper.  The image is then shown on the screen, along with the paper you are drawing on. Students can draw something and then label it and/or create a story using the images.

Scratch

Scratch is a coding website. We are currently using it in our after-school Coding Club, and the students are enjoying learning how to code games. My kindergarten students have also been exploring coding with Scratch and Scratch Jr., along with their 2nd and 3rd grade buddies.

It’s never to young to start learning to code! But, what about literacy?

To help enhance literacy skills, students could choose sprites (characters) and backgrounds, and then code them to retell a story they have read. They could even make it interactive, and code the sprites to ask questions about the story. Students could also create their own story by coding different sprites and backgrounds.

Seesaw

My students and parents absolutely love Seesaw. Right now I use it to communicate with parents about what we are doing throughout the day. It’s a perfect window into our classroom for those who aren’t able to make it in person.

But my students love it because they are able to post pictures of things they are working on or have created. These can be shared with parents.

Next year I would like to implement a weekly literacy challenge to my students. I would like them to write a letter, draw a picture or video themselves, and tell parents about what they have been doing in school. Parents will be able to write back to students and give them instant feedback. I think this would be a great way to avoid the “nothing” answer when asked what they’ve been up to at school.

Raz Kids

Learning A to Z has a product called Raz Kids, which offers online books at students’ levels. Students are able to listen to stories being read to them, read the stories themselves, as well as answer comprehension questions after. There is also an app that allows parents to use it at home. Teachers are able check what students are reading, as well as how they are doing with comprehension.

In with the Old and New

Nothing will ever replace holding a book or pencil in your hand. However, with the plethora of resources and the changing times, we need to adapt in the classroom as well. Building in small doses of technology, and challenging yourself to try something new every so often, can help inspire your students to do the same!

image1Tricia Ziegler (Twitter: @axf96; blog: http://kindergartentreasures.blogspot.com) is a kindergarten teacher at Loon Lake Elementary, in the Walled Lake School District. She is a part of the Walled Lake iCouncil (Instructional Council) team and is part of starting a coding club at her school this year. She is in her eleventh year of teaching, with nine in kindergarten and two in Second Grade. Prior to that she taught in the Walled Lake Great Start Readiness Program, which is a state-funded preschool program for at-risk students. Tricia attended Michigan State University for her undergraduate degree and specialization in Early Childhood. She then attended Wayne State University for her Master’s in Teacher Education.

Why Interdisciplinary Units Are So Powerful

Notes from the Classroom

Examples of students’ character cutouts

I have a love/hate relationship with this time of year.

We’re in full swing with the end-of-year craziness. Yet this also is the time when I teach the American Revolution in social studies. I’m able to combine the content with our historical fiction unit in reading, and our opinion unit in writing. This is a wonderful opportunity to combine content areas and provide a truly immersive experience for my students.

It is so nice to have a seamless day of reading both fiction and nonfiction texts around this topic, and having conversations that span reading, writing, and social studies. I find that I am excited about teaching, and students are excited about learning. It’s no small feat at this time of year!

What The Unit Looks Like

Right now in the hallway are cutouts of characters from our read aloud and our book club books. Within the cutouts are character traits and reflections about critical choices, power, and how these characters were shaped by the times in which they lived. Connecting all of the characters is a red string, and tomorrow students are going to spend time reading the cutouts and making connections. Then we will write them on paper that will hang from the string, making our thinking visible. This is a new project but one whose outcome I am super excited to see.

Another project that I always do during this time of year is a thinking routine from Ron Ritchhart called a “step inside.” This writing project combines the best parts of narrative writing, yet allows students to use their imagination to step inside the life of a slave from the 1500s. As students examine the three phases of slavery as outlined in our text, they attempt to step inside and develop empathy for the experience of these people. This is a lengthy writing assignment and yet one that is incredibly powerful. I have had students tell me it is their favorite writing assignment of the year.

I find that students actually are able to bring more elements of narrative writing in this assignment than they sometimes are able to do in their own pieces. I think this is because of the scaffolding required for the assignment. Also, the assignment requires that they pay attention to a number of details, which enables them expand their normal writing habits.

Integrating Opinion Writing

The opinion writing comes very late in May and in early June. This is when students have to take a side in the American Revolution. They are assigned either the Patriot side or the Loyalist side, and they have to defend their side based on evidence from their historical-fiction text. They also rely on the supplemental reading we do with nonfiction texts.

The opinion pieces have to include a counter argument acknowledging the position of the other side. Yet they also have to defend their own positions and attempt to persuade the reader to agree with them. All of this is used in a real-life debate with a student moderator, and the kids absolutely love it!

As I write this we are at the end of an unusually warm (86 degrees!) day in May. I have a huge to-do list and yet I am still excited about all that is going on in my classroom. All of this gets me wondering how I can channel this same type of integration and excitement into the rest of my year. Perhaps this will become my summer project: examining my curriculum to find better connections and texts that will lend themselves to this cross-curricular type of integration. My wheels are already spinning.

beth croppedBeth Rogers is a fifth grade teacher for Clarkston Community Schools, where she has been teaching full time since 2006.  She is  blessed to teach Language Arts and Social Studies for her class and her teaching partner’s class, while her partner  teaches all of their math and science. This enables them  to focus on their passions and do the best they can for kids. Beth was chosen as Teacher of the Year for 2013-2014 in her district. She earned a B.S. in Education at Kent State University and a Master’s in Educational Technology at Michigan State University. 

Provocative Nonfiction about the Birth of Our Nation

Book Reviews Notes from the Classroom

I used to think that nonfiction was not my thing. But I’m a librarian, so I have to make it my thing in order to best serve my students and staff. Still, I often felt like I was twisting my own arm while reading nonfiction.

But then, as I often tell reluctant readers, after a few missteps with the wrong books at the wrong times, I started to find exciting, narrative nonfiction that was as captivating and readable as my favorite fiction pieces.

I was reading unbelievable stories about mutinies, revolutions, sports stars, and even corpses, and they were true! Not only did I have a great tale to tempt my students with, but every event actually happened.

People are enchanted by dynamic, true stories even more so than by fiction because they engage our child-like curiosity about the many events and topics that have previously eluded us. Yes, we have been in school (or out of school) for years, but we haven’t yet learned it all. I recently finished reading In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives, by Kenneth C. Davis (a 2017 YALSA Excellence in Young Adult Nonfiction finalist) and found myself alight with all that I had learned and wanted to share with others.

The Story

In the Shadow of Liberty tells the true stories of five African-Americans who were enslaved by four of the country’s founding fathers. We learn about Billy Lee, Washington’s right-hand man on and off the battlefield; and Ona Judge, Washington’s house maid who escaped and was fervently hunted by both George and Martha Washington.

We hear about Paul Jennings, who grew up playing with Dolly Madison’s oldest son, though Jennings was already enslaved to the family. And we learn of Isaac Granger, who was enslaved to Thomas Jefferson after Jefferson wrote a law ending slave trading to America.

Finally, we read about Alfred Jackson. Jackson lived his entire life at Andrew Jackson’s “Hermitage,” watching as Andrew ordered enslaved workers to be whipped savagely–but then doled out vast sums to provide defense lawyers for enslaved men on trial for involvement in a slave rebellion.

Kenneth C. Davis writes about the full scope of the labor that these five people were expected to perform. He describes the way that they were treated, and most especially, the roles that they played in the major accomplishments of their owners.

Why It’s Worth Reading

We spend a great deal of time learning about the Founding Fathers and the way that they helped develop the country and institute democracy. But like all famous figures, these men did not work alone.

There were many people, including hundreds of enslaved people, who fought in the wars, managed the meetings, and built famous structures, like the White House. Billy Lee went everywhere with George Washington, fought alongside him, and carried his most precious items and documents. He is one of the most famous enslaved people in U.S. history, yet no one knows when he died or where he is buried. He never even knew his own birthday.

The thing that stands out to me most about this book is a great historical paradox. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Jackson were all deeply involved in battles related to rights and liberties, but each of them failed to consider, at least initially, that enslaving others was a direct contradiction to their fights for freedom.

This book will make you think about American history in a completely new way. It’s a fabulous text to work into a history or sociology class, and I can see it as an engaging title for students who are interested in current civil rights issues. In the Shadow of Liberty could turn anyone into a nonfiction convert.

Book Details:
Title: In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives
Author: Kenneth C. Davis
Reading Level: AR = 8.2
ISBN: 9781627793117
Publisher: Henry Holt & Company
Publication Date: September 20, 2016
Format: Hardcover
Awards/Accolades: 2017 YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults finalist and at least 3 starred reviews

Bethany Bratney (@nhslibrarylady) is a National Board Certified School Librarian at Novi High School and was the recipient of the 2015 Michigan School Librarian of the Year Award.  She reviews YA materials for School Library Connection magazine and for the LIBRES review group.  She is an active member of the Oakland Schools Library Media Leadership Consortium as well as the Michigan Association of Media in Education.  She received her BA in English from Michigan State University and her Masters of Library & Information Science from Wayne State University.

Four Essential Steps for Workshops

Formative Assessment Notes from the Classroom

We bought our daughter a new Strider bike for her upcoming birthday. These bikes have no pedals, and they teach kids how to balance and use their bodies to move the bike and steer. The “Learn to Ride Guide” sets out “four essential steps” to ensure your child will ride successfully:

  1. Adjusting the bike properly to fit the child.
  2. Being a cheerleader, not a coach.
  3. Letting the child set the pace.
  4. Supporting the child — NOT the bike!

As a reading and writing workshop teacher, I really fell in love with this guide, as these four essential steps could inform what we do in a workshop classroom.

Adjust the Teaching to Fit the Student

Conferring with kids is basically adjusting your teaching to meet the students where they are.

Using formative assessment tools, like a quick exit ticket, you can adjust your entire lesson. And after looking at class writing samples, you can decide if the majority of students actually need that mini-lesson on punctuation–or if you can move on to something else.

Know When to Cheer and When to Coach

As a literacy teacher, you are so many things at different times, and for different students.   

  • Sometimes you are a coach, honing in on specific skills that your students need and explicitly teaching them, while giving them drills that will help strengthen the skills.
  • Sometimes you are a cheerleader, praising what students are doing well, and lifting them up when they are being too hard on themselves or just not getting it–yet.
  • Sometimes you are a teammate, sharing in the discovery and laughter of the class.  
  • Sometimes you are a spectator, observing in the stands and letting the writing and reading play out.  
  • Sometimes you are the referee, making sure the rules of the workshop classroom are being followed.

Let the Students Set the Pace

There has to be some level of commitment on the part of the student with the work that you do in a classroom. I think this is where choice comes into play.  

Giving students choice about their writing topics, and in the titles or genres they read, allows students to set their own pace. Even giving them options in when assignments are due, or in how they can demonstrate their learning, can help students set their own timetable and be in control of their learning.

Support the Writer and Reader, Not the Writing and Book

Teachers teach children, not content. When you support the student, and the content comes second, you can really make a difference in the life of that student. This doesn’t just mean forming a relationship with each student; it means deciding what they need next in that conference or small group situation.

Each new skill our students and children learn has to be practiced. As teachers and parents we need to be there for our kids–but we also need to know when to take a step back, and let them go it alone. If we keep these four essential steps in mind, we can help kids become independent, skilled writers and readers on the road of life!

Caroline Thompson (@TeacherThompson) taught middle school ELA for twelve years in Lake Orion before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She supports AARI teachers for Oakland Schools as an independent literacy consultant in the areas of digital media, professional development, and non-fiction resources. Caroline is a Reading and Writing Workshop advocate, a 2008 Oakland Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and a 2009 Oakland County Outstanding Teacher of the Year Nominee. She has a BA in English from Michigan State University and a Masters in the Art of Teaching Reading from Oakland University. She lives in Berkley, Michigan with her husband and their three year old daughter.

Loosening The Lit Circle Grip

Notes from the Classroom


A few months back, I realized that something felt off about independent reading time in my classroom. The energy (there’s definitely an energy to a silent room full of readers) just felt like it had drained away someplace.

I fretted about this for a while. And then I remembered that I’d just spent the past month or so engaged with my favorite end-of-the-year (calendar, not school) activity–browsing the dozens of “best of” lists that flood the internet around mid-December.

So I asked each of my students to choose two books and two films from 2016’s lists, and make them their “pop culture resolutions” for the new year. The reading improved immediately. We had some great discussions about film, but the real surprise only came recently–when Lit Circle Season rolled around.

Letting Students Decide

So, Lit Circle Season isn’t really a thing. We’ve done one this time of year for the past several years, though, to mixed results. It has always gone somewhat well, but the limitations of our book options sometimes stifled student interest. They were solid titles, but the scope of student interest was much broader than what we could cover.

Cue the New Year’s Resolution lists!

This year, I pleaded with my students to maximize the Lit Circle experience by selecting their own groups, and agreeing on a book title that intrigued all of them. I was cautiously hopeful that two or three groups would find their own title based on the New Year’s lists or the recommendations of their peers (we do book talks year-round). I figured I’d get a few ambitious groups, and the rest would read the selections I had to offer.

To my surprise, only one group chose NOT to select their own book–and they all showed up on Official Book Selection Draft Day (also not really a thing) with their own copies of their chosen titles already in hand.

A Major Lift from a Minor Shift

For the first time all year, there was some buzz surrounding reading. I decided to embrace it all the way—and let go of my control:

  • My students selected their reading schedule, with Lit Circles held each Tuesday and Friday for three weeks.
  • I made discussion topics available, but I gently discouraged them. Instead, I suggested that students identify their own topics for discussion prior to each meeting–based on whatever direction their books led them.
  • Groups decided what to focus on. If their book had been adapted into a film, they might spend a meeting discussing the film. If their book echoed current events (one group, for example, read All American Boys) then perhaps one meeting might be best spent talking about a news article.
  • Assessment was built entirely around student contribution to the group’s dialogue–based on a speaking and listening rubric, not a reading comprehension rubric.

None of these are new ideas. The best voices in literacy have actually been telling us to do this stuff for years. But they do work–if you’re willing to relinquish control.

The Real Point

Once students had books they truly wanted to read, motivation took care of itself. Do they all have the required reading done by each meeting? No. Do they all love their book choices now that we’re two weeks into the process? Certainly not.

But you know what? I would answer those questions the same way for the book club that I just finished with several of my colleagues. Students–when they’re reading what they want to read–behave pretty much the same way that adults do.

Assessing this can be hazardous (mostly for students). But a well-designed discussion rubric will tell you all you need to know. My students score well on mine if they are actively engaged as listeners (body language and responsiveness to the ideas of others) and are bringing engaging, original ideas into the conversation regularly.

By the end of their Lit Circle experience, all of my kids will have read a book of merit and experienced it as a set of ideas–not the ideas I’ve pointed them to, but the ideas inherent in the text. Their peers will have helped shape their perspectives, and their own curiosity will have provided the primary force behind their efforts.

The curriculum we assign our students has great value. But none of it will build a passion for reading like the empowerment of independence.

Michael Ziegler
Michael Ziegler (@ZigThinks) is a Content Area Leader and teacher at Novi High School.  This is his 15th year in the classroom. He teaches 11th Grade English and IB Theory of Knowledge. He also coaches JV Girls Soccer and has spent time as a Creative Writing Club sponsor, Poetry Slam team coach, AdvancEd Chair, and Boys JV Soccer Coach. 
He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, majoring in English, and earned his Masters in Administration from Michigan State University.  

Filling in Context Gaps

Notes from the Classroom

The other day, my eight year old was brimming with questions about the Revolutionary War. As I went through each, I found myself using vocabulary that he needed me to explain, like alliance–after which he quickly said, “Oh, I get it! My buddy is my alliance on the playground.”

My son is lucky that I majored in history in college. Yet, as teachers, we need to recognize that many of our kids do not have these experiences when they’re young. This opportunity gap explains why some students arrive to high school prepared to grapple with text complexity, while others continually struggle.

The Common Core State Standards state that ninth graders must be able to “[c]ite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text” (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.1). This ability to infer depends greatly on the student’s prior knowledge.

So how do we play ten years of catch-up in four years of high school?

Teach Kids to be Resourceful

As an academic interventionist, I’ve learned that many students who struggle to understand the course content are also struggling to read the textbook.

Many students simply read the text without paying any mind to the accompanying images, graphs, charts, and summary boxes. In Text and Lessons for Content Area Reading, by Harvey “Smokey” Daniels and Nancy Steineke, the authors explain that reading is easier when “the text makes ample use of pictures, charts, and other visual and text features that support and add meaning.”

When I work with underperforming students, I first show them how to use these features. I show them how to preview the text, by modeling an image walk, observing headings and bolded words, and reading the end-of-the-chapter summary before actually beginning the reading. This helps build context for students who may be unfamiliar with the content.

Create a Collaborative Culture

Context in any subject area often begins informally through conversation. Creating a classroom based on discussion, then, effectively engages struggling learners by giving them an entry point. When I taught English 9, I incorporated frequent, low-stakes discussion opportunities. When students discuss content, they make their thinking visible, and teachers see what gaps need to be filled.

Early on in the school year, I introduced my students to the “think-pair-share” protocol. My students could anticipate and prepare to verbally discuss ideas, and soon this routine was normalized.

Some teachers may feel hesitant to put an underperforming reader on the spot, but there are ways to scaffold discussion:

  • I often had students spend a few moments writing down their ideas on paper before sharing with a partner.
  • I arranged my room in either pairs or quads, so that turning and talking was natural.
  • My students also needed processing time, in which they could ask questions and grapple with the content.

Authentic context is built upon multiple sources–not merely upon the teacher quickly rattling through facts. Having this time to discuss with peers and think aloud was important for resistant readers.

Model Strategic Reading

This year, I have worked closely with U.S. History students to engage with the content. Many of them tell me things like, “I can read this, but I don’t get it” or “I just can’t pay attention.”

I began to notice a difference in how my students were performing on tests when I taught them how to text code. This strategy, also from Daniels and Steineke, instructs students to label details of the text with symbols, engaging in an abbreviated reader response. Daniels and Steineke offer a general list of text codes that students can use to monitor comprehension, and I adapted this strategy to text code for content-specific details.

I worked with U.S. History students studying America’s entry into the first World War, for instance, and helped them develop the text codes (N and DW) shown here:

chart
As students went through the text, they used these codes, and categorized the actions leading up to the U.S. entry into WWI.

Text coding provides students with a framework, which is especially important for those who lack prior knowledge. It also serves as a scaffold to show students which details matter, helping them to pay better attention to the text and prepare them to annotate independently.

Moving Forward

Teachers can’t turn back time. But they can establish routines and norms that create growth for underperforming readers.

There is not a one-size-fits-all solution for students who lack contextual knowledge. Still, by teaching students to read strategically and collaboratively with others, we include–rather than exclude–developing readers in the secondary classroom.

lauren nizolLauren Nizol (@CoachNizol) is an MTSS Student Support Coach and Interventionist at Novi High School. She has eleven years of classroom experience, teaching English, IB Theory of Knowledge and English Lab. Lauren completed her undergraduate degree in History, English and Secondary Education at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and her Masters in English Education from Eastern Michigan University. She is a National Writing Project Teacher Consultant with the Eastern Michigan Writing Project and an advocate for underperforming students and literacy interventions.