February 19

What makes a good writer?

When I was in the classroom, I often was asked, “How do you get your student writers to be so good at writing?”  Trust me, they were not good writers by accident!  They were good writers because we wrote – A LOT!  In my class, students wrote every single day.  It was a requirement.  They knew it from day one.

At first, they grumbled a lot and some were quite resistant.  After a week or two, it became something that they knew could not be avoided and they accepted it.  After a month or so, they looked forward to writing time.  How did we get to that point?  By writing – A LOT!

You see, as the eighth grade English/Language Arts/Reading teacher, I was charged with getting those students ready to write on-demand for the state assessment.  The state writing assessment carried a lot of weight.  It counted as 25% of the middle school state report card’s accountability score.  Then, their state standardized ELA/Reading score counted 25% of the remaining 75% with math, science, and social studies scores rounding out the remainder of that 75%.  Therefore, performance in my class was important for the entire school – for sixth and seventh grades as well as the eighth grade.  So, in my class, students wrote – A LOT!

Times have changed when it comes to accountability scoring but the emphasis on being a good writer is still important for all grade levels and accountability reporting.  For that reason, students still need to write – A LOT!

To this day, I always look for writing inspiration that I can share with teachers to help develop their student writers.  Oh, there is more to developing writers than just challenging them to put words on a page, for certain.  Students need a mini-lesson on a regular basis to help guide them in knowing the conventions of the language – grammar, spelling, mechanics, etc.  They also need to read continually and especially to read and discuss good writing.  After all, without a model, learning is just trial and error and schools today do not have time to allow for a lot of trial and error – some, yes, but not a lot.  Guiding and developing student writers is an on-going task for any teacher in any content area.  However, the most important ingredient to the recipe for developing good student writers is to have expectations for writing – A LOT.

Today, I revisited a site that I have enjoyed periodically as inspirational – something that inspires me to be more appreciative of my blessings and encourages me to strive toward being a better person.  As I read a couple of stories today, my thought was, “Wow!  Wouldn’t this be a great model for student writers?  Some student writers could use this as a model and run with it.  They could become noticers and voices to tell bits of another’s story.”  Sometimes what a person needs to rejuvenate his/her writing life is a bit of inspiration.  So, my suggestion for today is, share Humans of New York with your students and maybe one or two might be inspired to develop his or her own Humans of… series, sharing an interesting bit of someone else’s story.

Write on!

And, write – A LOT!

February 12

We’re Back!

After a month of not having connectivity to this blog, we are back on track.

Yippee!!!

According to WIRED, “globally, we compose 3.6 trillion words every day on email and social media, the equivalent of 36 million books, not 52 trillion words and 520 million books.”

This tells me that folks have a LOT to say.

I cannot tell you how many times I would read something or stumble across some resource and the first thought that came to mind was…I need to write about that, to share it, to tell others about it.  So, I’ve missed posting to this blog and will try to do a bit of catching up during the next few days.

P.S. You might want to read the article linked above.  I know, I know.  It is L-O-N-G.  There is a lot of good information in it for educators (and for students)…and for anybody who would like to make a change in the world.

P.S. I really like how the author crafted the article linked above.  Full-circle writing.  Very effective.

October 23

Go Figure: The Week in Numbers

I stumbled across an interesting post on the web this past month.  It was found on the BBC News Magazine Monitor site.  Each week there is a post with a set of infographics entitled Go Figure: The Week in Numbers.

The post features a simple infographic with a blurb of information and a photograph or illustration like the one below

numbers bicycle

 Below the simple infographic is a link to a popular article that was trending during the week.  For the photo above, the article link is included within a question:  Tuesday: Copenhagen may be bicycle heaven, but what about the parking?

There is also a Twitter feed using this concept: #BBCGoFigure

I love it!  This is one of those things that seems to just suck me in.  I can start off by reading the current posting…then, an hour or two later I find that I have trolled back months to see what was trending and learn new bits of trivia  valuable information.

Then, my mind began working…Wouldn’t this be a fabulous assignment for students?

For social studies:

  • Students could create a ‘Week in Numbers’ infographic which reports what was happening during a bygone era…WWII, Civil War, Signing of the Magna Carta…
  • Students could create a ‘Week in Numbers’ which connects current events to historical events.

For science:

  • Students could create several brief infographics to represent the stages of a lab or experiment.
  • Students might report a ‘Week in Numbers’ which would connect a series of headline news items to the content being studied in class.

For math:

  • Wouldn’t this be a great way for students to show a representation of real-life examples for the math operations/problems they are solving in class?

For ELA:

  • Creating a ‘Week in Numbers’ for an outside reading book by sharing characters, setting, events, etc. of a work of fiction or facts and information from a non-fiction text would be a unique way for students to document their reading and make recommendations for their peers.
  • Students could find current news items which were impacted by past events and classic or historical pieces of literature.

I think the possibilities are only limited by the vision of teachers and students when it comes to creating a similar work to Go Figure: The Week in Numbers.  What would be your blurbs and infographics for this week?

July 25

Getting Off to a Good Start

It is that time of year again.  Soon the school bells will be ringing and students will be entering classroom doors.  Believe it or not, that first day is probably the most important day of the school year.  You only get one chance to make a first impression!  What the teacher and students do on that first day can determine the success or failure of a classroom for the entire year.

According to some authorities, “teachers who spend some time during the first couple of days organizing the class so that everyone knows how the class is structured and managed have far fewer discipline problems and students who are involved with learning (Wong).”

What are some things the teacher can do to foster success?

1.  Share your passion.

Forget the myth, “Don’t smile before December.”  That isn’t the personality of a teacher.  Most of us entered this profession because we love sharing something we are passionate about with others.  When we are sharing a passion, we are happy, enthusiastic, and energetic.  Let your students see that passion.

2.  Put your best self forward.

Be the person you want your students (and their parents) to see.  Dress the part.  Act the part.  Do you want to be respected as a professional?  Look professional.  Be professional.  Marketing studies show that we only have seven seconds to create a positive impression.  So, appearance can be important to how you are perceived (whether we like it or not).   There are ways to achieve a professional look and not like a little old church lady and ways to achieve a casual appearance without looking like you just dashed in from doing yard work.  Mode of dress is important but so is behavior.  That first day, above all others, is the one when your behavior is observed most closely.  This is when you begin to develop trust, purpose for listening to what you have to say, belief that you mean what you say, and offer inspiration to your students (and their parents).

3. Be Prepared: The Small Stuff Can Be Big Stuff.

Think about moving throughout your school day and how you want it to flow smoothly.  How are you going to seat your students?  How are you going to communicate with parents?  Where are you going to post or store materials for absentees or tardy students?  How will you encourage students to get started and dismiss class?  What will ensure that your class is truly experiencing bell-to-bell instruction and not milling round the doorway before and after class time?  How and where should students submit late work?  Try to think of all this Small Stuff so that there isn’t any Big Stuff.  Since I work in a BYOT district, I always encourage the teachers with whom I work to utilize as many online resources as possible.  Create a Google Form InBox and link it to your class webpage.  Posting online shared documents instead of distributing hard copies provides for easy, real-time updates and revisions.  Online tools and documents offer constant, anywhere, anytime access without chance of losing the hard copy.

4. Share Your Expectations.

You might call this rules or norms or acceptable procedures – whatever you choose to call it, make sure you make them known and adhere to them on the first day.  Your students want to know what is expected of them and really do want to be successful on day one.  Whether you prefer creating all your parameters or allowing students to develop them with you, make that a part of your first day and consistently follow them through to the last day.

5. Be the Manager.

You wouldn’t turn your bank account over to your students (or their parents) and ask them to manage it!  Likewise, you should be the manager of your classroom from bell to bell.  Again, think through a typical day in your class.  Make sure you have an idea on how you and your students might handle different situations and stick to your plan.  Consistency is vital to the success of a year-long community of learners.  You and your students must learn to trust one another, be prepared to share your space and your ideas, and work as a cohesive learning community for a long time.  The first day plants the seed for the tree of knowledge that you grow together during the school year.

6. If You Fail to Plan, You are Planning to Fail.

The first day of school is a long one with teachers and students adjusting to being back in the classroom.  Plan ahead what will be accomplished during that day.  Just as Benjamin Franklin expressed so eloquently, without a plan, you are planning to fail.  Maybe you want to spend time sharing the rules, introducing routines, getting to know one another, beginning to build a community.  As a reading specialist, I always encourage using read-alouds and picture books to lead discussions about issues important to your classroom.  Make it a day to learn about your students and give your students a chance to learn about you.

7.  Let Them Know Who You Are.

You are not there to be friends with your students.  You are there to be their coach, guide, mentor, and teacher who encourages and supports their growth and knowledge.  However, don’t hesitate to let students know at least a little bit about you.  We tend to trust, respect, and be inspired by those with whom we are familiar yet still hold a bit of mystique.  Try to be that model for your students.

 

The first day of school ends and the rest of the school year lies ahead.  The first day of school—when you have your students’ rapt attention and when their minds are open and they’re eager to do well—is the one chance you have to get things right from the beginning.

Good luck getting off to a good start!

I borrowed and adapted ideas from these resources to compose this post:

You Only Get One “First Day of School”

There is Only One First Day of School

The Biggest First Day of School Mistake You Can Make

May 16

It’s about time…

Have you ever noticed what the progression of time brings?  Sometimes it seems like we are always racing the clock or the calendar.  We are challenged with effectively teaching students literacy skills in a limited amount of time.  Sometimes we wonder if we will ever get from point A to point B in our short allotment of time.  Sometimes that same time seems to yawn in front of us like a disappearing vortex.  I recently read an interesting post by Matt Renwick at Reading by Example.  He explains how he thinks principals can support effective literacy instruction.  He maintains that there are three practices which move readers forward: time, texts, and effective teaching.

Renwick’s description of how the ingredient of time is an important part of the recipe for success prompted me to recall a few years ago when my administrator visited my classroom.  I was facilitating an English/Language Arts/Reading time and had a class of seventh graders working in my room.  Three or four students were sitting at their desks reading the article of the week and making annotations.  Five or six students were parked here and there around the room – some on a rug, some in desks, some in free-standing chairs and they were reading a non-fiction book of their choice which somehow related to the over-arching theme of the Civil Rights Movement.  Five students were at computers composing and posting their online discussion board post or revising their personal narrative.  A handful of students were clustered at a table writing, sharing their written drafts with peers, and revising their personal narrative drafts.  Another group of students were researching and answering discovery questions I had posed relating to a couple of magazine articles, an autobiography excerpt in their textbook, and anthology of works (including speech scripts, letters, and other primary documents) which all related to the Civil Rights Movement.  Half the fluorescent lights were turned off and there were lamps perched on shelves and tables around the room for lighting.  There was a buzz of low talk but the room was relatively quiet.  I suggested the administrator perch on a stool and read the students’ revised printouts of their personal narratives.  She read for about fifteen minutes, then circulated through the room and quietly asked students to explain what they were working on at the time.  Then, the administrator left the room.

Immediately the students heaved a sigh and began chattering to me.  They were so concerned because the entire time the principal  had been visiting us, I sat near the back of the room grading papers and conferencing with individual writers in pairs.  They were quite upset and were afraid I was going to lose my job!  I asked them why this was their belief and learned that it was because I “just kept sitting there and only talked to a couple or three students and I did NO teaching while the administrator was in the room”.

My post evaluation conference went just as I had suspected it would.  The administrator scored my classroom practice well and complemented me on my classroom management skills.  She was utterly amazed at the maturity, focus, and dedication of my students and their work.  Now, trust me that not every day and not every evaluation went so smoothly when I was a classroom teacher.  That observation also took place about six months into the school year after students had been ‘trained’ to know my classroom expectations.  Things certainly didn’t work like that and didn’t look like that in the fall!  It took us quite a bit of time and extended practice to get to that calm, independent reading and writing stage.  Yet, just like I had worked with my students, my administrator trusted me and provided us time to get to that stage.  She knew that we started out with ten minute independent practice and work time.  She had seen us take time to rotate through stations to learn how to handle the freedom to work independently.  She had given me time and heard my concerns and offered me advice when I was in despair and thought we would never get to that point.  Time was the most important ingredient to making that strategy work.

Time is still probably the most important component for exceptional teaching and learning.  Sometimes the practice is a bit messy.  Sometimes it is downright chaotic.  Sometimes, though, it is calm and progressive just like it was that day in my classroom.  It is this time of year when everybody seems to be scrambling toward the finish line to get everything done that teachers and students really need to take a little extra time.  We need to pause ever so briefly and reflect on how far we have come since way back in the fall.

Just as time has progressed through the school year, I think teachers and students will see that they have certainly progressed as well.  It is rewarding for me to stop into the schools I support at this time of year and see folks in the hustle and bustle of wrapping up a school year.  The teachers may have a bit of a weary smile on their faces when they see me.  The students may have a jaunty air about them when they notice I’m there again.  Yet, the one who is rewarded the most is always me because I see just how much has been accomplished and I know that those accomplishments can only take place when there has also been a progression of time and a dedication of time to allow exceptional teaching and focused learning to take place.

Time, it certainly marches on and I am thankful that I have been fortunate to be in the midst of great teaching and learning also marching forward and propelling students toward success and lifelong learning.

April 16

Taking The Test Apart

In the last post I shared a strategy: Taking It Apart Helps Get It Together.  In building on such an idea, let us look at a similar strategy.  Again, focus on a question that is relevant and needs more attention.  It may be a case where students need to know more about a specific type of question.  It also might be a case where students need further instruction in order to comprehend the information.

Again, choose an assessment question that your data shows your students need further support.  Project only the question on the wall.  Don’t show the answer choices from the standardized test at all.  Then, ask the students to create three or four possible answer choices that might be found on a multiple choice exam.

This could lead to looking at test designs such as where one answer is an obvious incorrect choice, another could be eliminated using the information provided or something of that nature.  It could also lead students to really look at the questions and answers offered on multiple choice tests and analyze the information provided and the evaluation of the choices and the decision making involved in answering questions for this type test.

Once again, this practice could take up as much as twenty minutes if test-taking strategies need to be addressed.  The learning train might need to stay in the station long enough for the passengers to disembark or to take on more passengers, fuel, or supplies.  However, in most classes, such a strategy would only need a few short minutes.  The learning train might only need to pause briefly to add a simple cargo and proceed.  Then, the class could progress onward to take in more learning and expand upon what they already know.

The next post will continue with more Take-Apart ideas – please join me!

April 15

Sometimes just taking it apart helps get it together.

With high-stakes tests on the horizon, teachers and students are looking reflectively to ensure they recall the knowledge they have gained, to reinforce the strategies needed, to polish the new learning they are taking in as the year progresses.  They know that the learning train doesn’t stop.  It just keeps rolling along.

One of the most helpful strategies that seemed to be an effective reinforcer for students became a practice of taking questions apart.  Most days we would look at a test-type question – not just flash the question and answers A, B, C, and D up on the screen but look at it with some depth.  We would take different approaches when employing this strategy.  Today I’d like to share one way my students and I would take questions apart in order to get the learning to connect.

After analyzing the data provided by a recent assessment, I would share that many students had answered a certain question or type of question incorrectly.  So, that provided a good starting place from which to work.  I simply projected the test question on the wall and instructed students to look at the question and write down their answer and an explanation of how or why they chose that as their answer.

Sometimes this was enough.  Students might simply say, “I guessed.” Some could describe a strategy they used such as elimination or comparison or connecting known to unknown.  The beauty of such a class discussion was multifold.  First, it provided me insight to know how a student was thinking when he or she was completing the assessment.  It also showed what problem-solving strategies they had in their tool-box.  This told who really knew the answer or could figure out the answer and who had no clue!

This strategy also provided information for other students.  By explaining their thinking, students were teaching one another how to think, how to break apart the whole and look at the parts, how to eliminate the clouds and focus on the clarity, and so much more!

Oftentimes, the students had no certainty of whether their answer selection was correct or incorrect when they were pondering the sample question.  That might be revealed during our class discussion.  Sometimes students did know if their selection was correct or incorrect but their explanation revealed the path their thinking had taken – or that there was little to no thinking involved.  So, the students were incidentally teaching one another not only TO think but also HOW to think.

The value in such an exercise is that very little teaching time is expended.  This practice can take a half hour or only five to eight minutes could be devoted to it.  So, if the practice is the focus of an extended time-frame, more learning takes place.  If only mere minutes are devoted to the practice, reinforcement and a spark of new learning takes place.  Then, the learning train continues along the track toward growing and increasing new knowledge that is connected to the old.

So, as this first installment of taking apart the test so that students can put the knowledge and skills together – look closely at the questions being asked, think about the tools in the students’ toolbox, and allow the students to teach one another strategies for success.  Look for similar ideas right here next post!

April 10

It’s about time…

A big focus at this time of year in many schools is to ensure students are prepared for high-stakes tests.  These are those mandated assessments which have lots of emphasis even though they really only show what a student recognizes and understands on a particular day at a particular time under specific circumstances.

In each school I support I notice little reminders to students focusing on test-taking strategies.  Those tips such as look back over your work to make sure you are accurate or cross out any answer selections which are obviously incorrect or underline key words or phrases to help decode questions.  Sometimes it is almost as important to be certain that students understand HOW to take the test as it is to be certain they have the knowledge necessary to answer the questions correctly.

I recently read an article describing how one school spends time focusing on Re-Teach and Enrich activities.  It is the school’s particular strategy for response to intervention.  It is a structured way of providing additional instructional time for students who are struggling.  In the article, 5 Strategies to Ensure Student Learning, the school claims to have moved from a “performing school” to an “excelling school.”  The school has not uncovered a new magic wand, they simply have focused on improving student performance as measured by assessments.

Data is collected along the way as students progress through the school year.  Objectives are taught using a specific scope and sequence.  Formative assessments are administered and resulting data is analyzed.  Teachers and administrators share the responsibility for data analysis and focus of further instruction.  Then, teachers collaborate to further instruct a group of students with students rotating amid a select group of teachers on a regular basis.  However, the key strategy to me seems to be that there is dedicated time for this.

There is dedicated time for each team of teachers to plan together.  There is dedicated time for review and assessment of the student data.  There is dedicated time for re-teaching or enrichment each day.  So, time management is of the essence.  One way time was provided for this opportunity is that transition from from the regular classroom to the teach and enrich classroom takes only one minute.  As you can imagine, each and every person has to be mindful and a full participant in order to make this work.

Some students are involved in the Re-Teach segment based upon their previous week’s performance.  The teacher whose students performed at the highest level is the one who coordinates the Re-Teach group of students.  Teachers may be teaching the same objective but not teaching the same exact way.  This differentiation can be important for some student learners.  Other students are involved in the Enrich segment because they have mastered the basics.  These students rotate from one teacher to another each day during the focused time to experience a variety of teaching styles and learn with a variety of different learners expanding on the objectives.

Sometimes learning is about experiencing a variety of different teaching styles and sometimes it is about being surrounded by different types of learners.  Sometimes learning is just about having extra time.

March 7

Videos, Animations, and Simulations

How do we make science come to life for students?  My first interest in science occurred when I got to participate in labs and experiments in the classroom.  I loved it when we had the opportunity to test a theorum and report what we learned.  I liked the discovery aspect of science.

I think that intrigue for children starts at a very early age, too.  I’ve noticed that my grandchildren experiment with ingredients (and food) mixing things together to see how it turns out.  I’ve noticed nephews with sticks and rocks and mud puddles (and other things that their mother didn’t realize they had) and they were creating and conducting their own labs.  I remember in high school that a couple of guys and I had a theorum of our own and we had to test it.  The result did not really meet with our hypothesis and turned out to be a bit disastrous and I wound up scrambling to locate the water cut-off valve in the B-hall boys bathroom…but that is a story for another day altogether!

I recognize that labs and experiments are expensive endeavors for science classes and with large classes and limited resources, they are sometimes an imposiblity.  I also know that there are times when an experiment would be too dangerous to have students manipulating components to learn the outcome.  So, the answer to these dilemmas are to utilize available online videos, animations, and simulations.  Here are a few suggested resources for that:

February 11

Inspiration

Where do you find your inspiration?  There are so many interesting, creative, intriguing sources out there today that inspiration hangs out at every corner where we pause and take notice.

Today I have been working collaboratively with teachers to create lesson plans which integrate technology.  I also have been working collaboratively with a group of instructional technology coaches to outline and prepare professional development workshops for teachers in our district.  So, I have truly been in search of inspiration at every angle!

Some of my g0-to resources are the blogs I follow.  Another resource is for me to listen to TED talks.  Today, I was listening to the wise words of Sir Ken Robinson in an RSA talk (Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts) – well, really was listening to a YouTube video.  What a world of ideas he was sharing in a short eleven minute clip!

The concept that struck a nerve for me – the point at which I paused and took notice – was when he was describing divergent thinking.  He explained this as “the essential capacity for creativity…the ability to see lots of possible answers to a question.”  He entertained the concept that there are lots of way to interpret a question.  He mentioned a study reported in the book Break Point and Beyond which involved fifteen-hundred people.   The protocol for this test determined that if you scored at a certain level, you would be considered a genius at divergent thinking.   It was interestingly noted that the percentage of people who scored at the genius level for divergent thinking in the initial testing phase was 98%.

Wow!  Ninety-eight percent of respondents were considered divergent thinking geniuses!  Yet, that wasn’t the most interesting part of the report.  The most interesting part of that report is that the fifteen hundred respondents in the study were kindergarten children.

This information certainly provoked thought.  Then, the follow-up to that study was to test the same population five years later and again five years later.  The frustrating thing is that with each year of linear aging, the over-all scores for divergent thinking declined.

Why did this strike a nerve for me?  What did it provoke me to do?  I paused and began to think about ways a child who is of kindergarten age is learning.  They are watching.  They are listening.  They are asking questions.  They are making friends with most anybody and then they are playing.  They are trying new things.  They are seeing things that are unfamiliar and trying to figure out what and why and how these unfamiliar things work and fit into life.  They are inquisitive and imaginative.  They pause and take notice of everything…even the ordinary.

Where do you find your inspiration?  Today, I challenge you to pause and take notice, too.