This weekend I had the privilege of attending the Michigan Reading Association Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The facilities were spacious and beautiful. There were so many sessions to choose from that both the Devos Center and Amway Hotel conference areas were needed to accommodate them all. There was definitely something for everyone.
The presenters were knowledgeable and often entertaining. They ranged from well-known authors and researchers to classroom teachers who practice their craft on a daily basis. The keynote speakers, although speaking within their own expertise of reading, writing, engagement, or the importance of talk and collaboration, all had the same central message, disrupting the old way of literacy instruction.
The theme of the conference was disrupting literacy. We need to stop doing the same old, same old and do what we know in our hearts is right for children. We spend too much time assessing students and not enough time getting to know them as humans and teaching them what will make them more successful adults. As Susan Riley, Founder of Education Closet, said, "We need to stop valuing what we assess and assess what we value."
Sitting in a classroom for hours on end talking at students or having them read and write without support at their level needs to stop. We need to engage them in their learning by allowing them to discover, create, talk, and interact with the content. We need to get away from the programs and practices of the last century and move quickly toward the ideas and concepts of learning in the 21st century.
Are we practicing what we preach? It was ironic that the conference was called disrupting literacy and the conversations that were being held were about how to not use a program to teach literacy because students need more. Then you walk into the exhibitors' hall and are surrounded by vendors selling programs! Are we truly ready to move forward or are we just preaching that this is the way to go?
I understand that programs sell because so many of us in the teaching world are not ready to step away from the comfort of our preconstructed programs. The materials in a program are there and ready to go, the teacher just needs to follow the guide. Teaching the way we know is right for kids is hard. Giving up control is hard. But, the consequences of us not doing this is worse.
Why is the sky blue? Why did you do that? Why are we doing this? Why can't I go there? Why? Why? Why?
If you are a parent you hear this question twenty plus times a day (sometimes an hour!). As parents, sometimes we know the answer and sometimes we don't. As a classroom teacher, interventionist, coach, or school administrator if you don't know the answer to why is the sky blue, that's OK, you can always direct a student to a resource. But, if you can't answer the question why are we doing this? or why are you doing that? then you may need to reflect more on your practice.
As an instructional coach I ask teachers 'why?' a lot. If you don't know why you are doing something then maybe you shouldn't be doing it. The answer I get the most is because I was told to do it. To me that's not a good response. If you don't know why then you should be digging deeper into the purpose behind the task.
Most recently the discussion of formal formative assessments was being discussed in a meeting of ELA teachers. The choice they had made as a group was to administer 5 formative assessments during their unit. My first question was 'why?' Their response, 'because we were told to give formatives'. And so the discussion of why continued. If you are not understanding what those assessments are going to do for your teaching, then why are you doing them. Why 5? Why not 3? What will you do with the results? Why are you giving them if you don't know what you will do with the results?
Needless to say the group left more frustrated than when they entered, and I apologized (not new). But, if you don't know why, then take a step back and reevaluate your purpose. A discussion with another group went a little different. They new their why.
"We have a 6 week unit so we are going to develop a formative to be given after every 2 weeks of instruction starting after the first week."
"Why?" was of course my question.
"We thought that we should begin an introduction and then assess our main standards to see where everyone in the class is with the content. Then we are going to teach for 2 weeks and reassess to see what knowledge has been gained. At this point we can begin focused instruction with those students who are not understanding as much as we would like them to and continue to move ahead. After another 2 weeks we can reassess again and find out who is still struggling with the content and continue to support them with small group or individual instruction. This will lead us to our summative assessment on the unit."
Their why was to support the student in their classroom who were struggling with the content while continuing to move through the unit. Knowing their why made their discussion more focused on student need and what they could do to support them. Knowing their why helped them make sense of what was happening in their classroom.
Knowing your why does not just effect assessment of students. Knowing your why is universal in your classroom or school. Why is it important to walk in the hall quietly? Does it mean no sound? Is it Ok to whisper? If you do not understand they why then you may not feel it is important to teach it to your students and if your students do not understand the why they are not going to follow the direction.
Why are you having your students take a spelling test every week even though 50% of them fail every time? Why are you reading that text aloud to your students? Why are you are you using that text to teach that specific skill or content?
Good or bad, right or wrong, know your why. If you are not sure of your why, stop, and rethink your purpose. If we all keep doing things because we were told to, or because it's easiest, then things will never be different. Question your purpose. Know your why.
My husband often says to me, "What do you mean you don't know? You have 4 college degrees, you should know." This is usually in response to me not knowing something about my car or some random history question he has asked. Just because you have gone to school doesn't mean you know everything. My husband says this because he knows it gets under my skin. He thinks it's funny!
It's OK not to know. As educators, we need to stop pretending that we know everything and admit to our students that we don't. Our students need to see us as human. Humans make mistakes, they learn, and they struggle. Our students need to see this example. They need to hear that it is OK not to know it all. Sometimes even when we do know - we need to pretend we don't!
Admit when you don't know, admit when you are wrong, admit that you are human. Talk to your students about how you cope. What do you do when you aren't sure about something? What do you do when you make a mistake? Show your students so that they can follow your example. And so that they can understand that learning from those mistakes is the best part of learning.
My sixth grade students knew that Google.com was my 'friend'! Whenever I didn't know something I would pull up Google and ask the Internet to help me. Lucky for my students, they live in an era where knowledge is at their fingertips. They can find answers for almost all of their questions. As their teacher, I needed to make sure they understood the vastness of the Internet and the knowledge they had access to. We talked a lot about appropriate websites, how to find credible sources, and how to evaluate the sources we found.
Admit that your way is not the only way. Sometimes our students have a different way of doing something that gets them the same result. As educators we need to encourage their creativity and out of the box thinking. Yes, we need to teach them strategies, however, we also need to allow for them to choose the strategy that works best for them. This can be difficult, especially in math, when we are teaching a certain strategy and we want our students to practice that strategy. But, what if the strategy doesn't make sense to them and there is another way that does and gets them to the same conclusion. The important part is the outcome, isn't it?
By the way, it's OK to admit you don't know everything to other teachers, too! We need to stop judging each other, and support each other instead. The days of closed door teaching are over. Collaboration is the key to success. The old adage, "Two heads are better than one", has never been more true.
,When meeting with a teacher, she expressed her concern that she was never able to get everything completed, that needed to be, each day. We all have had that feeling at one time or another. Some of us all the time.
The teacher and I sat down and looked at her lesson plans. Being they type A person that I am, the first thing I noticed was that there was just a list of activities she wanted to accomplish during her 90 minute ELA block. There were no other times or estimates of the amount of time she may need. This is where we started.
Plan your class period like you are planning a trip or a tour. How much time do you expect each task to take? Decide how much time you are willing to give to each task. Once you have done this, schedule your class period.
For instance, the teacher I was meeting with had written down, "read chapter 6 in Hoot". I asked her how much time she would spend on this task. Her response was that it varied from day to day. I suggested, allowing herself only 20 minutes a day for the read aloud, whether she finished the chapter or not. This way that activity did not overpower her entire class time. Remember to alternate activities that will have the students sitting and moving.
Here's an example of a 90-minute ELA class period for 6th grade:
This schedule may be alternated depending on some of the activities needing to have a little more time. If you are doing a small group rotation for example, you may need to have the independent work done in a centers setting. When doing this I alternated between small group and whole group. That way students are working in a center, then coming back to me for whole group, then going back to another center. It allows for me to check in with students and to monitor behavior more closely.
Another example, this time for a first grade class:
During this particular discussion, the teacher asked me what I do when a lesson takes longer than I had planned. My response, I am flexible. You can choose to do one of two things; you can stop and continue the next day, or you can finish and not do something else. There is no right or wrong answer. You do what is best for your class and your students. But, having the schedule helps to keep you on track and focused.
The video below, by Mr. Thain, may help you to visualize some of my points.
Reading Aloud at any age is beneficial to everyone involved.
We often see the President going into a classroom full of first or second graders to read aloud a story. Elementary schools invite guest readers to come in and read aloud to classes, especially during March is Reading Month activities. Parent volunteers may sign up to take turns coming in to read aloud their child's favorite book to the class. But, we rarely see or hear about this happening in the upper grades.
Why? Do we think that older children would not enjoy a read aloud? As an adult I enjoy being read to, why would I think that a 10 or 13 year old wouldn't enjoy it, as well? There are benefits of read alouds at all grade levels.
Most teachers are familiar with the reasons to read aloud in the early grades. It introduces students to books, vocabulary, fluency, comprehension and more. But, we don't think about the benefits of reading aloud in the upper grades. Students in upper grades have similar benefits from read alouds in addition to hearing proper fluency and new vocabulary, they are also exposed to texts and concepts they may not choose on their own.
Jim Trelease is an expert on reading aloud to children and the author of The Read Aloud Handbook. He says, “A child’s reading level doesn’t catch up to his listening level until eighth grade. You can and should be reading seventh grade books to fifth grade kids. All kids like to be read to. Period.”
Reading aloud in the upper grades should stretch the students vocabulary and introduce or practice figurative language and narrative techniques. Choose a text a grade level or two above their level. This gives students the opportunity to experience tougher texts.
I can remember being read aloud to in the 10th grade. The book was "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The symbolism in the book was above my naive and literary inexperienced mind. I learned a lot in that class about narrative technique. So much so, that to this day I do not remember much about high school, but I remember reading that book.
Whenever possible allow students to mark the text. If they have a copy of the read aloud, they are able to follow along and not only hear the text, but also see how it is written. If marking in the text is not an option, try post it notes. Students can interact with the text by marking where they have questions, their thoughts about the text, or if they agree or disagree with what was said.
When reading aloud to a class you need to read with expression. Nothing is worse than listening to someone read in a monotone voice. Watch some videos of others reading a loud. Listen to an audible book. You will hear all kinds of different approaches to a read aloud. Notice what you like and dislike about each approach and decide what you need to do in order to be more effective in your read aloud.
For me, I do not like to read the book ahead of time. I am more authentic in my reactions to a text and my struggle. It allows me to engage my students in the book more when I am "learning" with them. If I want to have students use a part of the text for a specific purpose, I may look for a pre-written teacher's guide to the book or I will skim the text for specific elements I need.
15-20 minutes is a good time limit for a read aloud at any grade level. You do not want to spend your entire class period reading. Not only will your voice become tired but your students will become tired as well. In order to keep the class engaged set a time limit and stick to it. There are days when we discussed a lot as we read and then there were days when I would limit conversation so that we could complete a certain number of pages that day.
There are hundreds of books that make good read alouds. Don't overlook the picture books you would normally considered for lower elementary when looking for a text for an older group. Many children's picture books are written at high reading levels and you would be surprised at the different message older students get from these texts.
Today I spent my morning at another building in our District. My purpose? To curate books for the teachers in my building. Here's the thing, teachers have stuff. We don't really need more. We may need daily consumable items like folders, pencils, and paper; but, for the most part we have books, games, and posters. More than we know what to do with most of the time. Problem is these things aren't always our's. They are owned by our district or other teachers, but that doesn't mean they are being used.
We all have those teachers in our buildings who never throw anything away. They still have the materials they used in 1999 somewhere in a file folder. In today's education system, when everything is online, there's even more stuff being collected by teachers. The problem is we don't know who has what or what is being stored where, and so we end up buying new stuff. (Kind of like I do at home, and then find that I have two of something!)
So this morning I was at another building taking some of their stuff! The teachers in my building want to do small group guided reading next year. Our problem is that our building was a middle school at one point and then was redistricted into an intermediate building (grades 5-6). In the beginning they tried to still do a middle school model but quickly found that didn't work for the new grouping of grade levels. It has been several years and we are still trying to find our best fit. We are now being considered an upper elementary and as such want to teach more like upper elementary. For us this means more small group reading in our classrooms, but we didn't have any small group sets of leveled text for teachers to use.
Logic says buy some, right? No - Wait - Stop! Just from what I have seen in my building with materials that are being stored and not used I knew that other schools had to have the same. Sure enough, they do. I was able to get everything we were looking for in one place. Hundreds of books that were just sitting there waiting for someone to read them. Several copies of each title so they can be used in small group. All I have to do is box them up and have them shipped to my building.
Here's my point, we need to share. Teachers need to start asking around for what they need or want. Looking for books for your classroom library? Ask family and friends for their children's books they were going to donate or pass on. Need small group book at a different reading level than what you currently have? Send an email to the instructional coaches or mentor teachers at other schools and ask if they have any that aren't being used? Maybe your building has a room like mine that seems to have boxes of stuff not being used. Take some time and inventory what's there, then send an email to other schools asking if they could use any of it. Not only does it free up some of your space, it also gets materials used that were forgotten about. Keep in mind, books that were once meant to be used for a specific program could be used for an entirely new purpose somewhere else.
I talked a lot about books here, I know. That's because I was looking for books. However, that's the cool thing about teachers and sharing. There's a lot of stuff out there that could be used somewhere else. While I was visiting the other school today I was asked if we could use math hands-on materials. There was an entire book shelf full of unused materials for math, just sitting there waiting for a child to learn with them.
The site Share My Lesson allows teachers to find lesson plans and to share their lesson plans. Another is Teachers Give Teachers, which is a give one take one site. You upload your own digital lesson / hyper doc and can take one from someone else.
Do you have things you could share? Are you looking for "stuff"? You don't need to look at your whole school. Start with you. Make a list. Share!