Years ago, we bought a bread maker and it sat collecting dust. We never made bread in it. Ever. We live by this amazing bakery where we buy fresh, delicious bread every few days. Nothing I was going to make in that bread maker was going to take the place of that great bread! I didn’t see the purpose in having the bread maker. Then, one day my husband and I decided that we wanted to make pizza. But where to get the dough? Suddenly the bread maker became a purposeful tool in our lives. It turns out beautiful dough for us almost every Sunday afternoon.

How is this like teaching? Generally, people don’t want to use something they don’t see the purpose in or have a purpose for. Let’s take book boxes for example. Until you make it a priority to be able to easily research your readers, to scaffold them in choosing books that they can read with accuracy and fluency, to monitor the length of time they spend reading, to match them to books of various genres, book boxes might just be something cluttering up your room.

Reading logs are another example. Are they just a form of busy work you feel like you are making kids keep up? If so, it’s probably time to examine the purpose behind them. Reading logs are a way to help students understand themselves better as readers. They should not turn reading into drudgery. Nor should they be an onerous writing exercise. The reading log should be crafted so it gives you and the student information about their reading habits. The reading log will not be useful to a student unless they are taught how to use it, how to analyze the data, how to use what they find to make adjustments in their reading lives and to set goals for themselves.

When our school started thinking deeply about our Writing Workshops, I began by focusing our professional development efforts around the structure of the workshop. One year ago, I opened our first In House Institute with a talk called “A Little Structure Goes a Long Way”. You can imagine how it went: minilessons should have a connection, teaching point, active engagement, and send off. There should be independent work time. There should be a share.

People that already used this structure probably viewed this whole talk as both validating and boring. And for those people who had yet to embrace this structure, I can’t imagine I swayed their thinking because I didn’t make clear the purpose of each piece of the structure, especially the pieces of the mini lesson.

So when we organized our In House Institute this time, I really wanted the focus to be purpose, purpose, purpose. Each of the essential agreements we have outlined as a Language Arts committee serves a purpose. Everything from the structure of the minilesson to the kind of paper we give students to write on, to the way we organize our classroom libraries and the way we organize the charts on our wall-each thing serves a specific purpose that contributes to the big goals of workshop teaching: critical thinking and independence in readers and writers. I want all our conversations to be focused on student learning and the purposeful teaching strategies we use to help students become passionate readers and writers.


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.

TCRWP Coaching Institute #1

When I go to any Institutes at TCRWP, one of the hardest things to do is to synthesize my learning.  Every conversation I have there is stimulating.  It’s great to be surrounded by so many hard-core teacher geeks.  So, in an attempt to collect my thoughts, I will write a few postings from various parts of the week.

The first session was delivered by Lucy Calkins.  Below I summarize her comments.  But do know that I am rephrasing what she said.  It’s going to read as less seamless than when it was delivered.  Where I have directly quoted here, I added quotation marks.  She has some nice gems, of course.  This is not meant to be a term paper, so it won’t have footnotes with research to support her points.  Also, for you international teachers reading, know that the whole talk was draped in the context of what is happening in education in the US right now- and it’s not a pretty scene.

Staying Alive

Lucy is often asked what books she is reading to shape her thinking.  She started talking about two books, Visible Learning by John Hattie and Research Based Teaching (I am not sure of the exact title.  If I find out I will correct this later). The work of these books is shaping the way the project is taking their work.  One reason their ideas are being influenced by these books is because they are reading them with an open stance.  There is a way that we can read things and be open to letting their ideas shape us, and there is a way that we can read things with our minds already closed.  So with this open stance, they are trying to incorporate some big ideas into their work.

When people study what works in classrooms, they study what has a large effect size.  One of the books they read included a review of research about what variables influence student achievement.  Surprisingly, class size does have an effect, but not as large an effect as some of the other variables they studied. What does have a large effect size is the kind and amount of feedback students get from teachers.  What kind and amount are we giving?  Something to consider.

We need to give kids the feeling that there is a progression in their work.  Do they understand that one day is supposed to be better than the last?  Each day building on what has come before?  Their ability to choose a topic, reread and revise, have a partner conversation, jot on post its, use their reading log, and give themselves writing homework- it all needs to be getting better and better across a year, and across years.

Kids need big, ambitions goals.  And so do teachers and schools.  The whole idea is tha tyou have a goal that you are working towards, and a vision to attach the goals to.

Certain trends in education are not going away:  Differentiation, accountability, data based teaching, and the common core.  These things are here to stay, for now.  “You can’t really win by fiercely saying no.”

“We need to face the brutal facts with undying optimism.” (this quote is from Jim Collins, author of the book From Good to Great).

On data:  Using data is like looking in a mirror.  If we find that kids can’t do something, let that teach us that it’s what we need to give them more opportunities to do.

People are going to be looking at data.  If we don’t give them the data we want them looking at, they will look at something else.  So we need to be in control of what they look at.  Let’s give people data they can trust and what reflects our priorities.

On differentiation:  The very best of education is individual.  When you love someone different than you, you become bigger.

On the Common Core:  We need to become spokespersons for the Common Core.  If we don’t interpret this document, others will do it for us, and it could be done in a horrible way.

We spend a lot of time teaching children story structure, and that in a story the character struggles and struggles towards something they really want.  Story structure is life.  It’s not just a thing we teach.  We encounter trouble.  That’s when the rising action happens.  When we encounter trouble, we draw on resources we didn’t know we had.  “When you encounter bumps, that’s when the insides spill out.”  Bring the trouble out and let the community rally around it.

The winds blowing across education are troubling right now.  But we can use those winds to lift our sails and take our practice to new levels.

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.

Pencil to Paper… Handwriting is Still Important

This year, I’ve noticed more and more teachers are having students hand write final drafts in the upper grades- moving away from the time consuming practice of typing stories and essays on to a word processing program.

Is it good?  Is it bad?  There are pros and cons to both methods of publishing.  Typing a story makes it easier to read, edit, and revise.  But it also takes the focus off of the actual craft of writing and places it on data entry, effectively taking the writing out of writing workshop for days, sometimes weeks at a time.

Here are a couple of interesting posts that talk about the benifits of putting pen to paper, even in this techno day and age.

Why You Learn More Effectively By Writing Than Typing @ Lifehacker

How Handwriting Trains the Brain @ WSJ.com

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?