Fostering Student Independence and Accountability

After my last post, some questions came up about how to foster the sort of independence that made Mrs. G’s classroom work like a well oiled machine.  A big part of the answer is teacher talking moves!

So much of our daily classroom life is spent engaged in talk.  The importance of student talk is immeasurable, and in order to talk well students must be given many opportunities to converse and become immersed in an environment that values their voice.  An entire blog post could be devoted to the importance of fostering student talk, but I want to focus on how teacher talk can cultivate student independence and accountability in the workshop classroom.

Teacher talk is what sets the classroom tone.  The talking moves that we make day-to-day make a profound impact on students.  How many of you have come to the end of a school year and noticed that your students sound just like you?  The behaviors, attitudes, and habits we model will be emulated by our students, which is why it is so important that we use our talk effectively.

Talk to Foster Independence

As mentioned in my previous post, a main belief backing the workshop model is that we are working to create independent readers and writers who have a repertoire of effective reading and writing strategies they can apply as needed.  Workshop teachers do this by using whole-class mini-lessons to add to students’ repertoire, teaching them how to use various strategies they can draw on over and over.  This approach differs from traditional classrooms, where teachers use instruction at the start of the lesson to model and teach what everyone is expected to do during independent work time that day.  Basically, in a workshop classroom, you should not assign a task for students to  complete that day!

The language we use to dismiss students to work time will encourage the idea that students have options and choice about their day’s work.  Some phrases you might say include:

  • “So let’s review your options for what work you’ll do today.” *Refer students to unit anchor chart.
  • “So when you’re ready to work on [insert the day’s mini-lesson topic] remember this tip…  But you can also draw on all you’ve learned to do, prior to now.”
  • “So we can now add [insert the day’s mini-lesson topic] to our Strategies of…. anchor chart.  Look over the chart, and make a plan for today.  What will you be working on?” *Students could turn and talk, telling a partner their plan for the day.
  • “So far we’ve learned readers/writers use many different strategies to [name out skill].  Which one will you work on today?” *Students could raise their hand in a quick informal poll.
  • “So when you reach that part of your text, remember that you can…” *This is good when you know that you have students who have not reached the particular point in a book for the strategy you’ve just modeled.
A sample unit anchor chart from a third grade mystery book club series.
A sample unit anchor chart from a third grade mystery book club series.

All of these talking moves will allow students to reflect on their progress, set goals, and make an action plan.  These actions are the exact behaviors we expect from independent, self-directed learners!

Talk to Foster Work Accountability

We can also use our talk to promote accountability in student work.  Sometimes there are days when a student may not have approximated any of the strategies that you have modeled.  You would like to give students an opportunity to turn and talk about that work, but you worry that that particular student will not have anything to contribute.

I saw this situation recently in a third-grade classroom.  Students were working on tracking characters along a story mountain.  Some students had drawn their mountain, but had not added any plot points.  The teacher kept them accountable by saying,

“Even if you haven’t drawn any plot points, point and say what your points would have been.”

We  can use talk as a means for students to practice strategies they have not exhibited “on paper”.  No one gets an out because they didn’t get to it.

Talk to Foster Accountable Talk

We’ve all seen the Accountable Talk posters on Pinterest and have really taken to them.  However, students cannot learn these talking moves from a poster on the wall.  We as teachers need to model these talking moves regularly when conversing with students.  Some common conversational moves and their purposes are:

  • Marking: “That was an important point.”
  • Challenging students: “What do you think?”
  • Keeping everyone together: “Who can repeat what Johnny just said?”
  • Keeping the channels open: “Did everyone hear that?”
  • Linking contributions: “Who wants to add on to Mikala’s point?
  • Verifying and clarifying: “So are you saying…”
  • Pressing for accuracy: “Where can we find proof/text evidence of that?”
  • Expanding reasoning: “Take your time, say more.”
  • Pressing for reasoning: “Why do you think that?”
  • Building on prior knowledge: “How does this connect?”

Nancy Frey, at a recent Rutgers University workshop, said that we need to immerse students into these talking patterns by using them as often as possible.  When this language becomes a way of life for us, it will soon become a way of life for students.

The sooner we make our talk align with our goals for students, the sooner a positive outcome will ensue.  We have to make sure that what we are saying to kids truly embodies our beliefs about teaching and learning.  What we say in the workshop classroom is just as important as what we do.

What kind of talking moves do you make in your classroom to foster independence and accountability?

Let’s keep the conversation going-

Lindsay

If You Build It They Will Come

I believe in the workshop model.  Wholeheartedly.  I know that it is what works best for kids.

But honestly, when I implemented the model, I had a bit of skepticism regarding one aspect.  I never quite understood (or believed?) how young learners could learn a repertoire of reading and/or writing strategies and then just “magically” recall and apply them “independently” during the work period.  Early in my workshop teaching, I questioned, “Wait.  No task?  No assignment?  No specific instructions to go back and try (insert mini-lesson strategy here)?”

I was curious how the youngest learners could be so self-directed and purposeful during independent time.  Like most people, I was afraid to let go.

Now, I see many of the teachers that I work with grappling with the same concern.  However, like a field of dreams, if you build it they will come.

I recently visited a third grade classroom where magic was happening!  The class was in the middle of a mystery book club unit and after the mini-lesson students were sent back to their desk with their “quiet critters” (small craft pom-poms outfitted with feet and eyes) to read.

Immediately, I was impressed with how quickly the students transitioned from the carpet to independent reading.  Two students (who were in differing book clubs-I noticed because they had different books) sat together at the carpet and created twin Venn-diagrams in their notebooks to start character comparisons for the characters they were reading about. Another two met the teacher at her table for a quick small group.  Everyone else?  They returned to their seat, opened their notebooks to the next fresh page, and started reading.

Needless to say, I was impressed and I wanted to stick around.

I started to read over students’ shoulders as they paused (when they decided they were ready) in their reading to do some stop and jot reading notebook work.  What I saw was so impressive!  Students were independently choosing various reading responses to use in their notebook.  Most surprising to me was that students weren’t just jotting once.  The majority of students had chosen to do at least two different types of thinking that day.   For example, some predicted and then chose to do a character comparison.  Others created a suspect chart and wrote about character traits.  But all were reading…. and thinking!

This teacher, through meticulous patience and belief in the workshop model had created what we all strive for.  Her routines and expectations were working!

Look at this example from one student’s notebook:

Starting in the middle of the left page, this student did six separate thinking strategies (all dated 2/24/16). She wrote about book similarities, created a comparison Venn diagram, described a secondary character, named out how a character changed, summarized, and created a character web and attempted to include text evidence.
Starting in the middle of the left page, this student did six separate thinking strategies (all dated 2/24/16). She wrote about book similarities, created a comparison Venn diagram, described a secondary character, named out how a character changed, summarized, and created a character web and attempted to include text evidence.

When I spoke with this student she told me that writing in her notebook helps her reading “go from good to great.”  That sometimes she doesn’t understand something, but then she will write about it and it would become much clearer.  She explained that she chooses what to do based on what Mrs. G has shown them before.  There is no menu of activities to choose from pasted into each reading notebook or listed posted on the board of what to do next.  Strategies had been instilled into each learner in the class and they were drawing upon that knowledge independently.

I moved over to another student who was sitting next to Mrs. G’s anchor chart, and from what it looked like, copying the chart into her notebook.  I asked what she was working on.  She gestured to the chart and told me that she was taking questions from the chart and answering them in her notebook.  And she was!  I remembered that she was one of the ones who had started a Venn diagram  earlier and I wondered if she had abandoned that task for this one.  I asked her about the Venn diagram.  She flipped back a page and said, “That’s right here.  I didn’t finish yet.”  And then after a moments pause, “But I guess I can use the answers to these questions…” She flipped back to the answers based off the anchor chart questions,  “…to finish filling in my chart.”  She returned to her Venn diagram with urgency and fervor.  I hadn’t even said a word.

After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I immediately went to commend Mrs. G.  She was making it happen! Her kids were readers and independent thinkers and doing all the things we want students to do in the workshop model!   I was so excited!

But Mrs. G was busy… quietly conferring with a student.

So, I tiptoed out with a smile on my face and let them continue doing their thing.  I felt assured in the good work that we do and the value of the workshop model.  It IS possible!  She had built it and they had come.

Let’s keep the conversation going-

Lindsay

Making Time for Vocabulary Instruction that Matters

More thoughts on vocabulary instruction from Rebekah O’Dell of Moving Writers. Thanks Rebekah!

moving writers

Screen Shot 2016-02-05 at 2.33.31 PM.pngYears and years ago, before I had been bitten by the writing workshop bug, I became obsessed with vocabulary instruction. My school used a series of vocabulary workbooks at each grade level, and I had witnessed how that approach didn’t worked. Not for real. Not for the long term. Some students would dutifully memorize the words, earn a high score on the quiz, and forthrightly forget most of what they had learned. Many of my students would even bother — they would sort of study the words, sort of learn some of them, earn a low quiz grade, and move on with their day.

So, I did lots of reading and research — particularly of Janet Allen — and devised a series of in-depth, meaningful approaches to actually teach vocabulary so that my students learned, retained, and used new and increasingly sophisticated words.

The problem here was time. If I…

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The Burning Vocabulary Question Series: Where do vocabulary words come from?

Possible vocabulary words are everywhere.  We are bombarded with endless possibilities of words to teach our students.  The words come from mentor texts, independent novels, word lists, district mandated words, academic words, reading programs, vocabulary programs…the list goes on and teachers feel the pressure.

As a Common Core state (per se), NJ teachers are working their hardest to meet the increased expectations of national standards.  The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) put heavy emphasis on vocabulary, by making it an anchor standard at all levels K-12.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standard for Language

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.6
Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.

I do not disagree with the CCSS attention toward vocabulary.  I understand that a greater vocabulary makes more complex texts accessible to students and, in turn, increases their reading levels.  And we are all familiar with the correlation between reading, vocabulary, and test scores- made clear with this popular info-graphic.

read_with_a_child_infographic

But for all its gusto, what the CCSS does not do, is tell us what the appropriate academic and domain-specific words are for each grade level. It is left to the discretion of teachers and/or curriculum planners to determine words appropriate for individual classes or grades, and this is a daunting task when faced with the wide variety of sources out there.  In all the hustle and bustle of daily classroom instruction, it is this sort of huge task that can easily get put to the wayside.  So, this post offers suggestions to the first burning question about vocabulary instruction:

“Where do I get the vocabulary words to teach my students?”

A firm belief I have is that prescribed word lists or programs are not the answer.

Keeping the belief of the workshop model in mind, vocabulary words taught in the classroom should be as authentic as possible.  Students need to see these words coming from themselves and their experiences.  The relationship between ownership, motivation, and engagement is not a secret.  When students are invested in the words they are learning, vocabulary instruction will be more meaningful and you will have a very clear answer to the “Why are we learning this?” question.

My suggestion is to pull words from the following three places.

1. Your current mentor text

These would be completely teacher-selected words chosen from the mentor text that you are currently using to support your teaching.  These are the words that you would have the most control over.

2. Student’s independent reading novels

Since choice is a large part of the workshop model, it is important that students have the opportunity to provide input on the words they want to learn.  By allowing students to choose the words they will learn, you are tapping into their sense of ownership.

Greg Feezell, in his article “Robust Vocabulary Instruction in a Readers’ Workshop” featured in The Reading Teacher (Vol.66, Issue 3, 2012) suggests encouraging (as opposed to requiring) students to submit words to a “Word Box”.  These might be words students find interesting or words that they wish to understand better.  They can be chosen from texts read during independent reading time, at home, or in other subjects.  Using a submission process allows you, as the teacher, to have final veto power over which words are chosen for instruction- a valuable aspect of this system.

3. Student’s writing

Have you ever noticed how when you spotlight a single student, the level of the entire class is lifted?  We do this for good behavior.  “Johnny, I like how you are sitting up in your chair, ready to learn.”  Suddenly, the whole class grows taller as they work to emulate Johnny and seek our approval and praise.  Kids want to be their best selves, but sometimes they need to be reminded of just how great they can be.  This method works to tap into that phenomena.

While working with Teachers College Reading and Writing staff developer, Emily Strang-Campbell, in some of our district’s 4th-8th grade classrooms,  a technique that spotlighted student vocabulary use in their writing was introduced.  During independent writing time, when students were writing fast and furious, Emily walked the room to note students that had used strong vocabulary in their writing.  During the mid-workshop interruption she gave selected students a shout-out compliment and started a list of their words on the board.  As the students went back to work, Emily suggested that everyone push themselves and try to use one of the strong words listed or any other strong word they know in their writing during the final stretch of independent writing time that day.  You would have been amazed with what the students accomplished! The power of a compliment.

We can tap into this and  choose vocabulary words for instruction from the words that were spotlighted from student writing.  Imagine the power these words would have for students, coming from the pens of their own classmates!

These sources give you valuable, authentic vocabulary words that students will be invested in.  The next step of the process is choosing which specific words to teach from these sources.  My second post of this series will offer suggestions to do just that!

Are there are any other authentic places where you pull vocabulary words from for instruction?  I would love to hear from you!

Let’s keep the conversation going-

Lindsay

Congrats to all Education Graduates!!!!! And a few words of advice…

I recently attended the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education 2015 Convocation in support of my talented cousin (who’s actually more like my little sister), Alyssa (Congrats, again, Lyssy!).

My cousin, Alyssa, center at her RU Master of Education Graduation. (That's my mom on the left and me, on the right)
My cousin, Alyssa (center) just before her Rutgers University Graduate School of Education Convocation. (That’s my mom, on the left and me, on the right).

I sat there watching my cousin amongst the other graduates–her classmates, our future colleagues–a sea of mortar-board caps decorated with rulers, apples, primary colors, and the new title they would proudly answer to during the next stage of their lives, “Miss and/or Mr.  So-and-So”.  Their eagerness to enter the world of education apparent in their shining faces.  The promise of what this new cohort of educators stands for moving me to get a bit teary-eyed.  How exciting it is to have your whole career ahead of you! Something that you’ve worked toward for years.

As each graduate marched across the stage and accepted their diploma, I began to create a list in my mind of what I would tell each and every one of them.  They’ve been schooled in the pedagogy, theory, and practice of the education world, but what about things that cannot be taught in a class?  The small, seemingly insignificant things that one can only glean from experience.  The silly things that helped me survive my early years of teaching….

And so, this post was born.

My Unsolicited Advice for all New Education Graduates

Buy a notebook.

Keep track of PLC minutes, staff meeting information, professional development workshop notes, and anything else important.  Date everything!  Keep a record of decisions made and tasks assigned.  You can use your notebook to plan classroom groups, your teaching block, or content pacing.  It’s your thinking on paper and everything is in one place.  You will find that you (and your colleagues for that matter) will constantly refer back to and review this invaluable tool.

Some of my past notebooks, ranging from my first year in the classroom to last year.
Some of my past notebooks, ranging from my first year in the classroom to last year. Notice the telltale signs of how well-used they are: coffee stains, tabs, highlighting, additions and revisions.
Eat lunch in the faculty room.

Some teachers would advise against this, saying that the lunch room gets too gossipy or negative, and at times that may be true.  However, in some cases, you can actually learn A LOT in the faculty room – and that learning is two-fold:

  1. Put a bunch of females into a room and inevitable they will start talking about life, love, and their kids (Males within the education world, I understand this just might be your worst nightmare… but bear with me). As a new teacher, I learned a lot from them.  Whether it be marital advice, when to retire, how to set up a 403(b), the ups and downs of daycare, how to potty train, how to roast a chicken, the list goes on!  It seems like you’ll never need any of it, but I can promise you that time ticks on and you, too, one day will be ready to settle down and start a household–family and all. At least now you’ll have all that knowledge from your colleagues to stand on!
  2. Yes, lunch is a time to take a moment for yourself and decompress from the morning and recharge for the afternoon, and it’s good to take the time to do that.  However, teachers rarely ever stop thinking about their work. And this is where being in the faculty room at lunch time comes in handy. It’s a built-in meeting!  You can run lesson plan ideas or assessments past colleagues and get their feedback.  A teacher may come in to copy something that you realize you could use in your classroom. Ask for a copy!  And listen!  Listening in on other educators in your content area is like free PD.  Pay attention to what they are doing in their rooms, their pacing, their techniques and bring that back into your own room.  By being present and “leaning in” to the conversation as Sheryl Sandberg would encourage,  you can learn SO much.
Find a friend.

I’m not just talking about any old friend.  I’m talking about a trusted and respected colleague, who will challenge you and help you grow as an educator.  This should be someone who has educational goals and beliefs similar to your own.  Someone who you can easily work with and who’s feedback you value.  Mine happened to be my mentor.  Through our relationship, I became a much stronger teacher.  As I grew more confident in the classroom and in my practice, we began to function more as equals. We bounced ideas off each other, shared materials and resources, debated new classroom practices, and supported each other.  You will need this type of person because teaching is not always easy.  It’s hard work! And having someone to support you through challenges, offer advice, and keep you smiling is a necessary part of the job.

Say “Yes.”

As a new teacher, you have to build your reputation among colleagues and parents in your school.  One great way to do this is by volunteering for committees and extra duties.  Be a face that parents see at events outside of school.  Offer to become a member of school committees like the social club or an advisory committee.  Build your reputation as a team player and someone who cares about the positive culture and moral of your school.  A word of caution, however-do not take on so much that you become overwhelmed.  Your commitment, first and foremost, is to the education of your students.  Try not to lose sight of that.

Learn the name of every custodian and secretary.

These are the people who keep the school up and running.  They do a lot of work and are often not recognized for all they do.  Make friends, be kind, say “Good morning”, and thank them for all they do.  Then, hopefully, whenever you need a favor (and I can guarantee that at some point you will), they will be more likely to help you out.

Seasoned Educators, what else would you add to this “unsolicited” advice for our future colleagues??

Let’s keep the conversation going-

Lindsay

Skills Vs. Strategy

Throughout my teaching career, there was something that I always had trouble wrapping my head around: the difference between a skill and strategy.  Like many educational terms, the definition depends on who you ask, so it was always a bit murky to me.

During my time working on various curriculum writing committees, I started running with my own definition of the terms…

To me,

  • a skill is “content” necessary  for reading understanding
    • narrative elements
    • character traits
    • main idea and supporting details
    • text structures
    • text features
      •  Nonfiction (index, heading, caption, etc)
      • Fiction  (stanza, line, stage direction, cast of characters, etc)
    • Etc.

A reader would have to know that all of these exist and they would have to be able to name them out in any given text.

  • a strategy is, well, a reading strategy.  Based off the work of Ellin Oliver Keene and Susan Zimmermann in their groundbreaking Mosaic of Thought, as well as Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis’ Strategies that Work.
    • monitor comprehension
    • make connections
    • visualize
    • determine importance
    • Etc.

And so, I, Lindsay Pish, classroom teacher also threw my definition out there– adding to the myriad of voices.

However, in my work as a literacy coach I’ve come across some other definitions that have gotten me thinking about how my working definition might fit into the mix. Here are three others that I recently came across:

1. When I took this position as a literacy coach, I gained the responsibility of working with middle school teachers.  Middle school literacy was a new territory for me so I did a lot of professional reading on the subject, including Teaching Reading in Middle School by Laura Robb.

Robb describes strategies as the internal reading processes used to make sense out of print, while skills are isolated and out of context drills.  “Strategic reading means that when the learner practices a strategy, he has a conscious, in-the-head plan for comprehending, whereas skills are used without conscious planning.”  For example, students are told to practice a skill on a worksheet, but decide to use a strategy during their independent reading.  Skills are basic practice and can only be elevated to the level of strategy by linking practice to the student’s personal reading life.  “As students use strategies, they become more and more aware of their reasoning process as they make sense out of print, skills seldom involve this kind of self-awareness.”

This could somewhat fit with my definition of each.  The skills are the isolated parts of reading content, identifying narrative elements or text features, that are used to complete the more complicated strategies, inferring or synthesizing.  So you would have to have knowledge of the skill to consciously use a strategy.

2. While doing research for a new strategy-based resource curriculum that I am writing, a fantastic teacher let me borrow the book, Strategy Instruction for Students with Learning Disabilities by Robert Reid, Torri Ortiz Lienemann, and Jessica L. Hagaman.

In their book, the authors define a strategy as being facilitative, essential, willful, and effortful.  Meaning that strategies facilitate performance or help do a task better–easier, more quickly.  They liken a strategy to a tool.  Tools help us do a task “to a higher standard with much less effort” and strategies do the same.  Strategies are essential in that they are are necessary for success.  The highest achieving students use strategies.  In turn, these students make a conscious effort to use a strategy and commit to its use.

The authors go on to say that a strategy is a “cognitive process that occurs inside our head” and often one strategy is used in combination with another.  The point of strategy use in the classroom, according to this text, is to help structure the effort put into a task and to act as reminder for what the next step in the process is.  The conclusive definition of a strategy in this book then becomes, “a series of ordered steps that help a student perform a task.”

While I agree that strategies are facilitative, essential, willful, and effortful–a process that happens entirely in our head,I am not sure that I agree with strategies acting only as a series of ordered steps, likened to the the use of a mnemonic device to remember the steps in a math computation (“Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally”- parenthesis, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction).  I would feel uneasy boiling down something as complicated as synthesizing two texts, into such a simplified process because I want to make sure that deeper understanding is present.

3. Finally, as a blogger I make sure that I keep up with other literacy-based blogs.  Recently blogger Annemarie, on Teacher2TeacherHelp did a series of posts on teaching strategically.

Annemarie would agree with the definition put forth by the authors of Strategy Instruction for Students with Learning Disabilities.  She describes strategies as a mean to proficiently perform a skill.  Using Jennifer Serravello’s definition (from Teaching Reading Skills in Small Groups: Differentiated Instruction for Building Strategic, Independent Readers) that “strategies are the step-by-step how-tos for internalizing skills,” Annemarie explains that strategies are scaffolds put in place to help with the development of skills, and left in place only long enough for the student to become independent with the skill.

When a student has trouble with a skill, Annemarie describes how she asks herself, “How can I break this down?” and then works to find ways the skill can be broken down into manageable steps.  She reminds teachers to focus on their process for doing things, by listing across their fingers, “First, I…Then…Next, I…” to make internal processes more apparent.

Again, it boils down to the use of a step-by-step process.  However, I feel a bit more comfortable with Annemarie’s explanation, since I can see how it would work with say, determining the main idea.  The student has trouble with this skill and I can break that task down into steps:

  1. First, ask yourself what this passage is all about.
  2. Then, decide what the author is trying to tell you about that topic.
  3. Next, ask yourself if this is something that the entire passage focuses on, or just a small part.
  4. Finally, ask yourself what details you can find to support that idea.

The thinking behind the skill is being broken down, rather than the rote use of something like a mnemonic device.  And through my work with Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, I know that this definition would be their philosophy as well.  Their teaching points follow the form of, “Today I am going to teach you how to (a skill) by using ( a strategy).”  And that makes sense to me.

I also understand that skills can be leveled into a heirarchy, like Bloom’s Taxonomy or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge.  Identifying text features is a low level skill, where as using text features to determine the main idea is a higher leveled skill.

So, where do I go from here? Now that I’ve completely muddled my own thinking…

I think I need to adjust my idea of what a skill is.  What I previously thought of as a skill, may be more of a topic or umbrella term, rather than an actual skill that students must aquire.  For example, one can not “narrative element”, but one can identify narrative elements or summarize using narrative elements.  Those are skills that could be supplemented with strategies in order for students to be successful at them.

This idea does not exactly tie in the comprehension strategies set forth in Mosaic of Thought or Strategies that Work, but maybe that’s okay.  I can accept the two different “types” and move forward.  Maybe like so many of our students, these terms do not have to fit into perfectly labeled categories.

What have you thought about on this topic?  I would love to hear your ideas or musings.

Let’s keep the conversation going-

Lindsay