Category Archives: Uncategorized

Data, Friend or Foe?

This year I have kind of been geeking out on the numbers by trying to find ways to use our copious amounts of student achievement data to help make teachers jobs more efficient.  No, no.  Not standardized testing data.  We’ve been using our in-house, purpose built reading and writing assessments.  This year, we looked at our classroom based reading data (DRA2) to see if students made an acceptable amount of growth over the year.  We also looked at our writing assessment data to see what the average student growth was over the year.  We used this number as a way to benchmark the margin of growth all students hopefully made in a year’s time relative to their own starting point.  But the best part about these numbers was that they were derived from an assessment tool we created that matches our own benchmarks for student progress.

Using data in this way feels practical and takes some of the subjectivity out of looking at student progress.  Being objective isn’t the ultimate goal, mind you.  But when you don’t give tests that are black and white, when you are working with 6, 7 and 8 year olds, and you have a team of teachers working together, you want some meaningful measures that help you all evaluate children in the same way.

I think teachers have a love/hate relationship with data.  We find it useful, but also confronting.  When we first started looking at student achievement data in this way a few years ago, there were some tense silences at meetings.  Teachers tend to feel insecure when they look at ‘the numbers’.  This is understandable, because most teachers put their heart and soul into their work every day and they want to see each child reach their full potential.  When the numbers are good, we feel so validated.  When the numbers are not good, we can’t help but take it personally.

In this era of crazy high stakes testing, it’s easy to feel like data is evil.  But it’s not.  The best data measures what teachers feel is important.  It should be used to recognize student accomplishments and as a way for teachers to reflect on and improve their teaching.


Writer’s Revise- A LOT Part 3

“There are no mistakes.  It’s all useful in some way.”

Follow this link to read about Eric Carle’s ‘mistakes’.  There are lessons here for all of us, not just for students.

My other posts on writer’s revising can be found here and here.


Sharing our Practice

Last week our school had its second annual In House Institute during our professional development days.  The theme was “Sharing our Practice” and it was organized for language arts teachers in the lower school over a day and a half. Teachers presented to other teachers in small groups on various reading and writing workshop related practices they were amazing again!  I feel so lucky to be working with such a dedicated group of teachers.

The large group focus was on taking walk through observations into each other’s classrooms.  Since this was the first time our staff had done this kind of thing, I asked for volunteers to open their classrooms to both their team, and to the grade level above and below them.  We had 2 one hour sessions of walk through observations with debriefing afterwards.  So, for example, Grade 1 walked through three grade 1 classrooms and three grade 2 classrooms in an hour.  The next day grade 1 walked through the same grade 1 classrooms and three kindergarten classrooms.

There was a specific protocol for the walk through and a guide sheet that served as a way to focus our attention on key practices in reading and writing workshops.  To be clear, there were no kids in the building.  We were just looking at what was present in each room.  We focused “The Big 5” in reading and writing, which is something that AJ and CM heard talked about at Teachers College at the coaching institute.   For reading, the 5 things we focused on were:  structures and management for independence, matching books to kids, stamina and volume of reading, charting, and collaboration/partnership work.  For writing:  structures and management for independence, examples, charting, stamina and volume, and feedback.

The purpose of these observations was for teachers to get an idea of the bigger picture of where their instruction fits in with the grades before and after them.  Also, as a staff, we were able to have a focused discussion about the key practices we have identified as critical in workshop teaching and to begin to think about the purpose of each of these key practices (more on that in my next post).

When the walk throughs started, I was really nervous, even though I was not opening up a classroom (as a full-time literacy coach, I don’t have a class of my own).  I wanted everyone to have a really positive experience and feel good about their rooms/teaching.  However, and this was/is the tricky part, I also wanted everyone to see new possibilities for their own teaching without feeling overwhelmed or bad about what they already had going on.  So there we were, pawing through each others student notebooks, scrutinizing each others charts, and digging through student book boxes.  When we started in the first room, the air was a little tense (and the protocol called for silence)… but by the second room, the tension began to dissipate.  I am so grateful to the brave colleagues who opened up their rooms (1/2 of each grade level) for this great experiment.

In the end, it seemed like people had a generally good experience, though you can never be entirely sure.  A couple of take-aways that seemed to span grade levels:

  • Consistency between rooms, structures, and grade levels was celebrated. People really understand how much easier it will be for students because we are using a common approach to the teaching of reading and writing.  This represents a change from several years ago when people were afraid of being ‘too consistent’ and therefore somehow losing their individual voice as teachers.  I think as a school we are at a place now where people understand that you can be consistent and unique at the same time.
  • Teachers recognized that what students are doing in the grade below is more rigorous than they originally thought. This realization will help them lift the level of their teaching from the get-go next year.  Students know more and need to be held accountable for what they know.
  • Collegiality is high. Teams have always shared at our school.  But now the sharing is going vertical, and this can only mean good things for students. People are sharing structures, tools, formats, and ideas with people from other grades.

There’s more to say, but this is probably enough for now.  I am making a reflection tool for our teachers so they can walk through their own classroom looking for some of the things we saw across grades on our walk throughs.  The tool also includes questions for consideration, so no matter where teachers are at in terms of developing their practice, there are ideas to help them continue to refine their teaching practices.  If you are interested in this document, email me and I will send it to you.

Word Study= The New Spelling

Here’s  an article that I wrote for the upcoming Window- our quarterly publication for parents.

If you are of my generation, memories of spelling instruction go something like this:  a list of words was given out on a Monday, you spent the week memorizing the words, and you were tested on the spelling of words on Friday.  Often, you forgot the words by Monday, and the whole process started over again.  The instruction was often disconnected to anything authentic, and the whole exercise was rather meaningless.  You had little opportunity to manipulate word concepts or apply critical thinking skills.

We use a more modern approach to teaching spelling these days- Word Study.  The umbrella term word study includes teaching phonemic awareness, phonics, spelling, and vocabulary development.  This instructional model teaches students many strategies that will help them grow as readers and spellers.

The Word Study approach taps into students’ natural curiosity by asking them to think about words and the way they work.  Students analyze words for patterns and features so they can generalize beyond isolated, individual examples to entire groups of words that are spelled the same way. The Word Study approach has students asking questions such as “What do I hear in this word?  What patterns are in this word?  What other word is this word like?”

This approach also teaches students to use this same kind of critical thinking to learn new vocabulary.   When students apply this analytic lens to unknown words they encounter in their reading they ask “What do I know about this word that will help me understand it?” For example, after studying the Latin root –rupt, a student can use what he knows about the words erupt, disrupt or interrupt to help him figure out the meanings of the words rupture, corrupt, and bankrupt.  When students think about words and their relationships with each other, their vocabulary grows exponentially.

Like reading and writing, spelling develops along a continuum.  At different stages of development, students tackle different kinds of spelling patterns.  In our K-5 classes, Word Study instruction is differentiated based on student need.  Teachers use a common assessment tool to evaluate students, determine their developmental level, and group them for instruction.  Once students are placed in the appropriate group, the teacher will use an instructional sequence that will help students move to the next developmental level.  Students are reassessed periodically and the grouping can change as needed.

On one end of the spectrum of spelling development, you will find students studying the basics of phonics: letter sounds and sounds at the beginnings and endings of words.  As they progress to the next stage, vowel sounds and letter blends are introduced.  Next, students will study how endings and syllables come together to form longer words.  Later, as students become fluent in spelling, the focus of word study shifts to studying how meaning influences spelling.   They will study prefixes, suffixes, base words and word roots to generate the spelling and meaning of literally thousands of words.

The core activity of our Word Study program is sorting words.  This is the process of grouping sounds and words by specific characteristics and patterns.  Current research on how the brain works teaches us that the brain likes to perceive and generate patterns, making connections between information rather than storing information in individual tidbits.  Students sort words and make discoveries about the way the English language works. They compare and contrast word features and discover similarities and differences within the categories.  This hands-on approach means that students cannot be passive receptors in the learning process.  They have to actively engage in the construction of knowledge, which means they are more likely to retain and be able to use what they are learning.

In the Lower School, we began the shift towards using the Word Study approach last year.  Our primary resource is the Words Their Way program by Shane Templeton, et al..

Providing robust Word Study instruction requires teacher expertise.  In March, we look forward to hosting one of the authors of our Word Study program, Dr. Shane Templeton, for three days of professional learning.  Dr. Templeton has spent his career researching spelling and vocabulary development.  He will help us learn more about this area of literacy development and ways to improve our instructional practice as well.

Spelling instruction looks different than it did when we went to school, and it should.  We know more now about how spelling develops over the course of childhood, and more about how the brain works.  At TAS, we are proud to offer a program that combines the most current research with the best instructional strategies so that we can prepare our students not just to spell, but to think as well.

RSS, I love you.

I love my RSS reader.  I use Google Reader.

If you don’t know what an RSS reader is, take 3:46 seconds to watch this video.  I promise, it’s worth it!  This nifty tool will help you follow your favorite blogs as easily as checking your e-mail.

Here are links to a couple of posts on blogs I follow using my RSS Reader that caught my eye recently:

Over on Literacy Builders:

Teach them Well Her thesis?  We’re responsible for when things go right in our classrooms, and we need to own that.  We also need to own when things are not going so well.

Better than the Best Never mind that the story is about Tiger Woods.  I think she makes a great point about thinking about why we do what we do- we should always have a reason.  And, I think we can always amplify our success.

Not directly related to teaching,  the always clever Indexed offers these gems:

Stretching is good stuff

Poor things

And, a great end of year book list:

From the NY Public Library

If you like these posts, you can subscribe to these blogs on your chosen Reader!

What blogs do you follow?

A Book a Week #48- 52!

I had notions of getting this post up BEFORE the end of the year, so it was all legitimate that I made my self appointed goal by the self appointed deadline.  But, I have to confess that I took a real mental break from all things related to work over this holiday.  I spent time reading adult novels!  My favorite has been Johnathan Franzen’s Freedom– deserving of all the hype for sure.  And watching lots of movies.  And reading magazines.  It’s been divine.

But to cap off the quest to read 52 childrens books in 2010, I did make the goal with these books rounding out the year:

#48 American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

Surely this should be required reading for our Middle School students- it’s a masterful graphic novel that intertwines three stories about a boy’s struggle to find his identity between his Chinese heritage and his American upbringing.

#49 Words of Stone by Kevin Henkes

Level V

Kevin Henkes can write more than just cute picture books.  The main character, Blaze, is traumatized by the death of his mother.  He engages in certain rituals every year to mark her death.  This summer, a new neighbor moves in and mysterious things begin to happen, which ultimately leads to Blaze learning about friendships, family, and finding some inner peace.

#50 Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins

Level Q

In the tradition of The Velveteen Rabbit, Toys Go Out tells the story of three beloved toys from their own perspective.  I read this charming book to J and E.  They were rapt throughout, and looking forward to the sequel Toy Dance Party.

#51 The Dreamer by Pam Munoz Ryan

It’s a dreamy, poetic fictional biography based on the life of Pablo Neruda.  Barb M. suggested this book and thinks it may be a contender for the Newbery (announced on January 10th this year).  It’s as much as I will ever read about Neruda (he had an tough childhood, which seems to be a prerequisite for genius to emerge), and Sis’ images lent the book a puzzle like quality that kept me reading and re-reading.

#52 Waiting for Normal by Leslie Connor

It’s a pity that the last book of the year was one that, one month later, I can’t remember well at all.  It slid off me like a fried egg off a well seasoned cast iron pan.  It was a sad book, about a girl who was raising herself because her mother was a total looser.  It saddens me to read this kind of book. Maybe that’s why I forgot it as soon as I closed it.

I had notions of how to celebrate achieving my goal:  collecting all the books in a stack and taking a picture of them, ranking them, choosing favorites or least favorites, signing a big movie deal for having a transformative experience ala Julie and Julia.

Alas, that’s all more than I am willing to make happen, or that’s probable.  So, I will leave it at this:  the resolution was good.  It helped me keep up with my kid-lit reading.  I’m signing on for another 52 for 2011.

Happy New Year!

Beginning Procedures

I love watching other people teach. I always learn something new from them… so I appreciated this post back again at Two Writing Teachers. Here are some clips of various teachers establishing procedures in their Writing Workshops. I like the way these teachers specifically name the behaviors that they want to see repeated across the year.

Beginning Procedures