Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Writer's Notebooks: Yes, Please!

 My dad was the coach of our high-school volleyball team, so I grew up dreaming about being part of his team.  I attended each game and watched the matches unfold in front of me as I cheered from the stands.  I learned the rules and the joy of the game long before I was old enough and strong enough to play competitively myself.  Then, when the time came for me to learn how to play, I practiced.  I built up strength by running and lifting weights.  My dad brought me to the weight room on Sundays and we hit the ball against the wall until my arm felt like it would fall off.  He taught me how to hold my hand,  how to take the right steps, and how to float, or spin the ball into the opponent’s danger-zone.  When we won the conference championship, I knew that it was due to the teamwork, practice and hard work over many years.  My dad, my coach, shared the journey with us.   

We know that kids need to read and write a lot to become better writers.  We, as teachers, are sharing the writer’s journey with them to help them improve.  We are coaches:  guiding, mentoring, and training.   Writers need to watch the game and appreciate the joy of it before they begin; they need to read often and be read to frequently.  Writers need to get strong; they need to practice writing and take risks.  Writers need to have different “serves” in their repertoire; they need to analyze mentor texts and try many different strategies to make their point.  Writers need a coach; they need feedback and teachers to guide them through the process. 

A writer’s notebook, therefore, is integral to helping students improve as writers.  In Notebook Know-How, Strategies for theWriter’s Notebook, Aimee Buckner says, “The purpose of a notebook is to provide a place for students to practice writing.”  We, as coaches, need to tap into the experiences in a student’s life to help them create meaningful, cohesive writing.  The writer’s notebook is the perfect place to take risks and expand thought.  Ralph Fletcher writes, "A writer's notebook gives you a place to live like a writer, not just in school during writing time, but wherever you are, any time of day" in the must read,  A Writer's Notebook.  (Sidenote:  another great resource by Ralph Fletcher about the importance of writing notebooks is Breathing In, Breathing Out.)  

Here are a few thoughts to consider about writer’s notebooks that I’ve gathered, learned, and used over the years:

Launching the Writer’s Notebook: 
  •   Establish expectations for the notebook with students.  What size should the notebook be?  How often should students write in the notebook?  Can students take the notebooks home or should they stay in the classroom?  
  •  Organize the notebooks to suit your values and expectations.  Where will students collect ideas?  Where will students draft?  How will students take notes/strategies from mini-lessons?  How will students label entries? Click here to see Nancy Atwell reflect on the importance of organization and routine in the writer's workshop, which is true to writing notebooks, too.  
  •  Provide students time for writing in class and model the stamina for writing.  The CCSS requires students to write long over extended periods of time, and the writer's notebook offers the place for students to do just that. In addition to students writing daily, teachers should keep their own writer’s notebook to model the importance of writing and share the notebook with students often.   I like this short video (click here) to remind middle-school students early in the year about 5 habits to increase stamina for writing.  

Using Notebooks Throughout the Year: 

  • Coach students to take risks in their notebooks.  Notebooks should be a place for students to try out new strategies, expand ideas, and dig deep into their experiences and their writing. 
  •  Encourage seed ideas.  As a student collects topics, encourage them to “write long” about the ideas, opinions, and stories from the world around them. 
  •  Give specific feedback.  While teachers don’t need to read and assess every entry, teachers should see a progression of student writing through the notebook.  Flip through the notebooks to monitor student growth through your unit and through the genre studies.  Provide constructive feedback to students as you quickly assess their notebooks qualitatively. 
  •  Provide relevant and authentic reasons for students to write in their notebooks.  Allow students to explore their thoughts and opinions about what’s happening in their social, academic, and emotional world.
  •  Celebrate success.  As students’ stamina increase and writing volume improves, high-light the successes.  This will keep students engaged in the notebook and will affirm expectations. 
  •  Teach “habits of mind” mini-lessons.  What do you do if you’re stuck with a topic?  Where do you find new ideas?  How do you reflect in your notebook?  How do you think through a revision?   
  • Share writing.  Allow students to share their writing in their notebooks with other students.  While not all “experiments” will be published, the purpose of writing is often for students to share their thoughts.  Give them the opportunity to read their writing aloud to partners, groups, or writing circles. 
  •   Integrate mentor texts into the experiments that students are trying.  In the revision process, ask students to rewrite a topic or idea in a different way, perhaps using a mentor text as a guide.  When students go to draft, they could have multiple experiments of the same ideas in their notebooks from which to choose.
  •  Show examples of high-quality writing.  Aimee Buckner states, “Students are going to write shallow, simple entries.  They’re going to do what they think you want.  Keep plugging away an keep showing examples of high-quality writing” (20). 
  • Play with genres.  Using similar topics or themes, ask students to write in different genres.  This will help hone students' skills as they develop the awareness for audience and purpose in their writing.  

Assessing the Writer’s Notebook: 
  • Use the writer’s notebook as you confer with writers to recognize, high-light and assess growth in stamina, volume, and product for the writer.  This provides specific feedback to students and reaffirms expectations.  Identify teaching points from notebooks to use in conferences. 
  • Use a rubric and student models to grade based on your identified expectations and values.  This should be clear and consistent for students. 
  •  Ask students to choose one or two entries to be graded- don’t try to grade them all.  Collect notebooks and grade the entries based on the criteria and values previously established. 
  • Ask students to reread their notebooks periodically and reflect on the growth of their writing.  Students can self-assess their writing process on a rubric and write about their goals and successes as their writing improves. 

Aimee Buckner says, “My foremost task with my writing workshop is to help my students believe in themselves as writers-  in what they have to say, from the stories they have to tell to their opinions on school and world issues” (5).   Writing notebooks are an important component of writing workshop, and with effective coaches guiding students, can be a launchpad for dynamic relationships and partnerships to expand and embrace student thinking and learning through the writing process. 

I didn’t become a college or professional volleyball player; many of our students won’t become professional writers.  Yet, the thinking and analytic skills that we teach students as we coach them will create the foundation for learning that will extend far beyond the academic essay or volleyball serve.  Writers cannot and will not improve just by telling them how to write.  They must also practice writing, a lot, and they must be coached through the process.  It’s a journey that teacher and student can celebrate together.  

I'm always looking for new and exciting ways to use the writer's notebook and keep it alive and vibrant in the classroom.  I'd love to hear any strategies or ideas that are tried and true in your classroom, too, as we continue this journey together.  

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Celebrating Success!

Last night, a striving reader (and writer) emailed me at 6:00 to ask if she could stay after school or come in early to get some feedback on her Article of the Week due on Friday.  Let's call her Jessica.   She had read the article coded it like we had practiced last week, and drafted a reflection.

I teach in a middle school. 

As a caveat, I am not Jessica's ILA teacher;  I provide intervention to Jessica in a small group setting.  Typically, if she asks for help at all, Jessica emails me a few days AFTER the due date.  But, not this time.  It was a Wednesday night and the assignment is due this Friday.

I was blown away. 

What is happening in Jessica's Integrated Language Arts (ILA) class that made her so engaged?  Simple:  through reading and writing workshop, her teachers are inspiring her. An environment for risk taking and success has been established, and this student feels it.  She wants to please them and she wants to become a better learner.   

Bravo to our seventh grade teachers for the inspiring work that they are putting in the hands of our students.  Here are a few things that I've seen happening in their classrooms that may be exciting students like Jessica to keep reading, keep writing, and keep trying. 
  • Minute Reading:  I was excited to be a "guest reader" in a sixth grade class to share, aloud, an interesting part of a novel.  Students listened intently to Things Not Seen by Andrew Clements. 
  • Articles of the Week:  Inspired by Kelly Gallagher, teachers are energizing students with authentic and relevant texts.  Click here to see my previous post about the assignments. 
  • Sentence of the Week:  Also inspired by Kelly Gallagher, students are looking at editng and revising differently, and teachers are looking for students to apply the learning into their writing. 
  • Writing Notebooks:  Teachers have set up success for writers to experiment and take risks through the use of their writer's notebooks.  
These are just a few instructional examples.  The classrooms are lively and full of conversations about books.  The walls are lined with inspiring quotes and teachers are listening closely to student stories.  The joy of reading and writing are at the heart of our classrooms.  Students are the heart of our classrooms.   Did I say this is going to be a great year?  Jessica thinks so, too. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Webb's Depth of Knowledge

Rigor.  Text Complexity.  Difficulty.  What do these words all mean in the world of thinking?  Teaching?  Learning?  In my last post, I wrote about a “take away” that I had from our ILA narrative scoring session.  In that reflection, I realized that our students have the mechanics (mostly) and drive (mostly) to write well; however, we need to extend student thinking to develop more complex, meaningful pieces.  One way to do that is to become familiar with (and use) Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DoK) to develop and expand rigor and complexity in student thinking

I learned about Webb’s Depth of Knowledge just last year when I was at a Larry Ainsworth Professional Development workshop about unwrapping Common Core State Standards and aligning our instructional sequences to those standards.  Except for unwrapping standards, I humbly admit that I never really used it.  I put it on a mental shelf with things that I learned about in PD sessions but would probably never use again.  Then, this past summer, Chris Lehman Extraordinare (follow him on Twitter to learn every day:  @iChrisLehman) refreshed my thinking by showing and modeling the importance of using Webb’s Depth of Knowledge to plan daily lessons and assessments.  Chris, as always, broke it down in user-friendly terms that helped me to understand and apply the information.  And then again today, we focused on DoK at an assessment consortium meeting about the item development of Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) with an emphasis on the performance task assessments.   Ok, three times in one year:  I think it's something I should research, I realized.  

So, what is Webb’s Depth of Knowledge and what’s the big deal? Well, like Bloom’s Taxonomy, Webb's theories are based on research about student thinking to extend student learning.  Bloom's Taxonomy focuses on the tasks that students complete to deepen student understanding.  However, Webb's DoK centers on the thinking process, not just the product.  Webb’s Depth of Knowledge is about the cognitive demands (thinking process) of instruction, tasks, and/or assessments.  While Bloom's Taxonomy relies on the verb, Webb's DoK extends beyond the verb to what follows--- beyond the 'what' to the 'how'.    As we know, a verb alone can vary in terms of difficulty and complexity.  “Create”, for example, is a high level on Bloom’s taxonomy.  However, if you are asking students to “create a model of the human eye based on a textbook model,” little independent thinking has actually occurred from copying the model.  Students may not need additional background knowledge to complete the task.  There is little transfer of knowledge.   How many "creates" have you inserted into an objective and thought that you were tapping into higher-level, and perhaps even- critical- thinking?  We all have.  But Webb’s Depth of Knowledge challenges us to dig deeper beyond the verb and into the thinking process to expand student learning. 

Branching off of a “flipped classroom approach” and because I don’t pretend to be an expert on Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, click here to review (or learn about) the four levels of Webb’s Depth of Knowledge continuum: 
         DoK1.     Recall and Reproduction
         DoK2.     Skills and Concepts
               DoK3.    Short Term Strategic Thinking
               DoK4.     Extended Thinking

I believe that each unit needs a mixture, or a balance, of all of the levels above.  There is a place for recall and reproduction.  I would even argue that the CCSS leans to recall and reproduction (DoK1) in the reading standards when "close reading" is high-lighted.   Daily lessons, even, can be a combination of these levels.  However, to help students grow and manage the multi-dimensional world ahead of them, we can't stop at DoK Levels 1 or 2.  Just because we ask students to create or analyze doesn't necessarily mean that we are providing a deep level of thinking (nor does it mean that we haven't provided it either).  We must consciously ask students to extend their thinking in order to teach them to improve their thinking

How do we apply Webb's Depth of Knowledge into our classrooms?  Strategically.  Click here for a video that walks through a social studies example addressing the content of the Gettysburg Address through the four levels of Webb's Depth of Knowledge.  

If we are asking students to research, for example, here are some ways that we might be able to integrate DoK into a research unit sequentially: 
DoK1.    Students identify and list topics that may interest them to research.  They search for books that may relate to the enduring understandings or essential questions for the unit.
DoK2.    Students choose a topic and expand on it by utilizing multiple sources.  Students collect and display notes based on structures that have been provided for them. 
DoK3.     Students choose the note-taking strategy or structure that works for them based on many samples and practice activities provided.  Students draw conclusions about different ways to assimilate the information to the reader based on the structures that we have provided and reflect on those processes in writing.  Students have used differentiated reasoning to make their informed decisions.  
DoK4.   Students analyze and interpret the information provided to them and relay the research in any way that they choose that best exemplifies the learning process.  Students make strategic choices about the information presented based on task, audience, and type of product based on their level of knowledge and analysis from multiple sources. 

How does that look in Writing Workshop?  I'll give it a tentative shot in the revision process (and open for feedback or better examples, please!): 

DoK1.     Teacher shows students how to revise writing in a mini-lesson by adding details.  Students go into their writing and identify and locate places to revise using the same strategy. (I do- you do). 
DoK2.     Teacher provides students strategies to revise their writing.  Students go back into their writing to use some of the strategies throughout their writing and identify patterns of their own writing.  The teacher may guide the student.    
DoK3.  Using mentor texts, teacher mini-lessons and revision strategies, students compare and critique writing strategies and structures to revise their writing by choosing appropriate and strategic parts to enhance their meaning.  
DoK4.  Students develop generalizations about the types of revisions used in different parts of texts to apply multiple revision strategies to their writing. Writers are synthesizing information across many texts to think critically about the choices they are making in their writing process.

Levels 1 and 2 usually have finite, or correct, answers.  Moving into levels 3 and 4, students are reasoning and exploring without the answer being exact, or "right"-- this is where the real thinking happens! Levels 3 and 4 involve a more time intense activity that requires real world investigation and application.  Independently, students are accessing their resources to apply their knowledge.   If we don't set students up for exciting experiences that can extend their thinking to level 4, our level 1 experiences are doomed!

Click here to view Karin Hess's Cognitive Rigor Matrix, or a professional development video with Karin Hess, which parallels Webb's Depth of Knowledge with Bloom's Taxonomy.  It's a complicated chart to read, but this chart will help you recognize the difference between Bloom's Taxonomy and Webb's Depth of Knowledge.  Sound a lot like differentiation and gradual release of responsibility?  Yup.  Sounds like that to me, too.  Here are additional tools that we can use to use to set students up for success based on the scaffolding and structure that all students need. 

As we continue our journey of curriculum review into curriculum alignment, we must remain conscious of our questioning, our modeling, and our guidance to teach students how to extend their thinking.   Students will be asked to extend their thinking on the new assessments, be it PARCC or SBAC; we must prepare them for these expectations.  And is that so bad?  Even if we shoot high and slightly miss the mark, haven't we developed our students to be better, independent thinkers?   Sounds like a win-win to me.  Rigor.  Text complexity.  Difficulty.  Thinking. Teaching.  Learning.  

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Why I Embrace the CCSS Writing Standards

Educators everywhere are in a tizzy about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) pushing non-fiction reading and writing  throughout the English Language Arts (ELA) curriculums.  "We need to read and write more complex non-fiction texts," I see written all over blogs, in articles, and hear in conversations with administrators.  So, when my colleague, Kerry, and I approached our administration about moving away from a persuasive and expository "on demand" benchmark assessments in September to narrative, the reaction was... well, surprise.

See, we teach in the state of Connecticut, and we have been held captive to the persuasive and expository writing demands of the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) for many years.  The on-demand prompt given in March needed to be prepared for, so frankly some years, it's all we taught.  We've done it well, don't get me wrong.  We have professional, highly trained teachers and hard-working (mostly) students in our school. Each year, each of us tried to fit in small units around memoir or personal narrative in the beginning of the year, or poetry at the end after the tests, but it wasn't a focus for our curriculum, so the teaching and learning didn't always spiral or translate in ways that we hoped it would.

Then came a mandatory 8th grade writing portfolio.  In that portfolio, students are asked to reflect on themselves as writers first and foremost.  Reflection after reflection, we read about the dislike of writing from students.  It was like a bucket of water was thrown in our faces and we had to take a good, hard look at why the majority of our kids were leaving middle school with a distaste of writing.  Our scores are so good, we would say.  Or, well, it's all we've made them do, others would reflect.  We realized that we had made writing something that they "had to do" instead of a process that they "liked to do".  There were exceptions, of course, but our teachers lamented over the dichotomy of student enjoyment vs. testing demands.  Our district has always valued (and had) good test scores, not necessarily good writers.

So when the CCSS rolled around and pushed for a mix of all three writing genres:  narrative, opinion and expository, we were thrilled.  "Write more," the CCSS urges.  "Write over extended time frames," it demands. Look at the wordle to the right... the words that jump out at you are the words used most frequently in the writing standards of the CCSS. Yes!  Variety! This is our chance, we thought!   We will be able to focus our energy on good writing, real writing, and writing that students may actually enjoy.

Yet, it's hard work.  All change is. We're sailing in uncharted waters.  And, we don't even know what the new Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) test will really look like.  But the way I see it, if we can teach students HOW to read and write effectively through multiple genres AND they become life-long writers because it's something they value and enjoy...  that's a win.  At the middle school level, we're having new (and exciting) conversations about narrative writing and about stories.  What does good writing look like?  How do we grade narrative writing?  How do we confer with students about meaning? Craft? Structure?

Yesterday was our first stab at it, and I'm uber-excited.  (Little red lines came under that word, so I'm guessing it's not a real one, but I am choosing not to change it because adverbs like "so, very, or super" don't give the same excitement that I feel today).  We dove into the on-demand prompts of narrative writing as a department yesterday discussing student work, good writing, and our values around student writing.  Our day was professional, productive, and phun  (again, red lines, but I was going for alliteration here).

In the words of my colleagues, here are some of the "take aways" that our teachers had about our session yesterday in their evaluations:

  • Structure informs meaning, but there can be meaning floating throughout that needs to be honed in on.  
  • Students ask to write more narrative and say it's their favorite, but we have a long way to go to teach them how to do it effectively.  
  • We need to teach the writer, not the writing.  
  • It (the TCRWP Narrative Writing Continuum) allows for more accurate assessment of student writing.  
  • I (teachers) have a better understanding of where my colleague and I need to focus our energy for our new unit.  
  • There is a lot of potential in a lot of the writing that I read.  
My takeaway from yesterday was all of the above and:  
  • Our students can write.  The mechanics, sentence structure, and elaboration, (for the most part) are strong.  But, few pieces had complex meaning.  It's the thinking that we need to help improve.  
We have all hands on deck.  If yesterday was any sort of predictor, I think we're in for an exciting year!  

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Why Workshop?

Yesterday, I was engaged in a curriculum conversation and a colleague (read: boss) challenged, “Why workshop?”  The question made me pause.  My stomach twisted.  How could I explain the heart and soul of what I believe and what I value, in a just few brief sentences?  The eyes in the room turned to me.  Was my purpose to inform, inspire, or persuade?  I’m still not exactly sure.  Maybe he just wanted to make sure that I was fighting for something in which I truly believed.  I answered the question on the spot, but I haven’t stopped mulling it over.  In short, he asked a great question.  

Debra Pickering, from the Marzano Research Laboratory, speaks about the importance of establishing academic, social, and emotional belief statements in a school environment.   This got me thinking.  What do we believe?  Do our actions match our beliefs?  Then, this past summer, Carl Anderson challenged our group of inspired teachers at TCRWP, “What do you value most in student writing?”  Carl reminds us to focus our lenses at which we view reading and writing to align with our values.  More pondering, reflecting, thinking.  It's not that I haven't thought of these things before; I have.  My vision, however, is becoming clearer and clearer each time I pick up my binoculars and focus my lenses.   Why workshop?

  •  Workshop Cultivates Thinking and Independence.  I value student independence.  I believe that students have the ability and power to be self-directed learners and thinkers to achieve their goals. I believe that given the thinking strategies, students can, and do, take ownership in their learning.   I believe that students are independent, honest and caring learners in an environment that allows risk taking, expects integrity and effort, and nurtures innovation.  
  •  Workshop Allows for Inquiry Based Learning.  I value student choice.  I believe that students will rise to the occasion to read, write, speak, listen and think in collaborative and exciting ways when given the opportunity to innovate, explore, and dream.  I believe that students should read texts that interest and excite them, at their level.  I believe that students can and should write interesting, authentic experiences with purpose for targeted, authentic audiences.  I believe that students strive to express themselves through writing to find their true voices. 
  •  Workshop Nurtures Relationships.  I value teacher-student and student-student relationships.  I believe that through mini-lessons, conferring, and performance/project based learning, students can work collaboratively with teachers and peers to learn and grow from each other.  I believe that through the layers of technology available in the world, students and teachers are still human beings that need to communicate, collaborate, share, compromise, and take risks in safe environments by speaking and listening to each other with respect.  
  • Workshop Improves Student and Teacher LearningI value the joy of reading and writing.  I value life-long learning.  I believe that students should learn the habits of mind to help them apply reading and writing strategies and skills throughout their lifetime.  I believe that students will succeed as learners when taught how to learn.  I believe that books enlighten young minds and help students see the world from a different perspectives; I believe that kids should have many reading experiences throughout a balanced literacy program including read alouds, shared reading, explicit instruction, and independent reading.  I believe that authors and writers should mentor students to motivate our students with focus, meaning, structure and craft.  
  • Workshop Is Research Based, Classroom Tested, and Aligns to the Common Core State StandardsI value rigor.  I value teacher collaboration and learning.  I believe that students travel through learning progressions. I believe that students should demonstrate their learning and their growth in authentic, performance-based experiences.  I believe that teachers should have a strong curriculum available to them, and I believe that teachers should have choice and freedom over engaging learning activities that are differentiated for student strengths and needs. I believe that teachers are creative, hard-working learners that will bring their students to the next level when provided professional development, collaboration, and time to reflect.  
  •  Workshop Is Relevant.  I value authenticity.  I believe that students should participate in reading and writing experiences that are relevant to the world around them. I believe students should use the technology in the world to connect across the globe.  I believe educators need to embrace the shrinking world and teach students how to actively participate in the digital landscape around them.  I believe students should have opportunities to set goals, work toward the goals in an authentic, caring environment, reflect on the success and/or failure of the goal, and grow from the experiences.  I believe life is about making things happen.

I know I'm leaving out the nitty gritty details of what makes Workshop a dynamic learning environment.  But this post isn't about writer's notebooks, mini-lessons, or conferring.  Tonight, it's just about why we all need a little bit of workshop in our schools.  :)  

Reading and Writing workshop is a skeleton.  The teachers, the students, and the learning experiences breathe life into the structure to make it come alive. I value students. I value teachers.  I value relationships.  I value learning.  I believe the structure behind Reading and Writing Workshop fosters the joy of literacy and supports teachers and students through our life-long journeys.   

Monday, September 10, 2012

Why Mentor Texts?

When I first started teaching, I was given a teacher mentor, Deb.  At first, this was a person that I would turn to for school related business:  What are the best ways to handle grading? or  What are some good classroom management techniques?  I’d ask.  She’d answer, patiently and politely, always impressing upon me her calmness and confidence.  Our relationship, and my teaching, transformed when I entered her classroom and observed the magic and joy that she brought to students.  I had known (and heard) that she was good, but I could tell in minutes that Deb was goooood.  I looked ahead 15 years of my career and I hoped and prayed that some day, one day, I could be as good.  So, I copied her.  Deb gave me a strategy and I tried it.  Over and over again, I mirrored her craft.  We learn from our mentors to become better.  Deb is a master teacher in every way, and now, I don’t just turn to her for school related business, but for personal and professional advice, too.  I am lucky, I know, that my mentor was a model of good teaching, an inspiration of learning, a friend forever, and a master of her craft.  That’s a mentor. 

So years later, when I began my inquiry into reading and writing workshop, I was inspired by the idea behind using authors and their words to help mentor student writers.  A mentor can shape who we are, who we will be, and who we strive to become, like Deb has done for me.  A mentor text can shape and develop writers to grow their craft and voice through words in many of the same ways.  I dove into the words of Ralph Fletcher, Katie Wood Ray, Linda Dorfman, and Katherine Bomer to learn new ways to integrate mentor texts into my teaching of writing.  Actually, I also love to use Ralph Fletcher's memoir, Marshfield Dreams, as mentor texts.  When I began to teach students how authors elaborate with dialogue, organize through character perspectives, craft with punctuation and repetition, and write with detail and focus, I saw students transform their essays and stories into meaningful and important writing experiences. 

Here are a few ways that I have found mentor texts useful in my classroom(s) over the past few years:
  • Mentor Students with Specific Craft Techniques:  Choose a few mentor texts to teach a craft or strategy (could be something simple like dialogue, repetition or something complex like theme, suspense).  Ask students, independently or in groups, to study the text and notice the way the author makes the craft interesting in the text.  What does the author do?  Why is that effective?  How could you try it? 
  • Use Mentor Texts to Demonstrate Teaching Point Strategies:  In an earlier post about conferring, I shared the format of a conference that Carl Anderson reviewed in the TCRWP Writing Institute.  In every teaching point, Carl has a mentor text on hand to help teach students a strategy.  Carl reminds us that if students knew how to find the important parts or elaborate their writing, they would do it.  Mentor texts show students a concrete example of a writing skill and strategy. 
  • Teach Elaboration Strategies Through Mentor Texts:  We often say “elaborate” or “add more detail”.  Studying mentor texts and guiding students through the many different ways that authors elaborate can take the taboo out of the writing process.  Give students the opportunity to study a text and identify (and then use) the different strategies to make a detail, topic, or character come alive. 
  • Encourage Risk TakingWhen students are in the revision stage, ask students to choose a part of their text that they would like to revise.  Guide students to take a mentor text and try out a strategy in their writing.  Start the scene over again using a strategy by an author.   Build mentor texts and risk taking into the rubric or evaluation tool to encourage new writing techniques.
  • Encourage Reflection:  After a student revises and publishes a piece, ask them to reflect on the mentor authors that they have used.  Ask students to identify parts and sections of mentor texts and their writing that show the development of their writing process with mentor texts.    Sample questions might be:   How did the text help your writing?  What did you learn about writing?  Where can the reader see the mentor text in your writing?

Mentor texts should be pieces that students have already read and understood.  The focus, when teaching mentor texts with writing instruction, is not about comprehension, but about creating craft and importance in writing.  Carl Anderson recommends that for each unit of study, choose three or four mentor texts that you could use as a “go to” text for any strategy that you are teaching within that unit.  Carry those texts around with you in your conferences to pull out right away in your teaching points.   The blog, Teach Mentor Texts, is a great online resource.  Don't forget the books that I linked above, too!

A mentor text is not just a model text.  Model texts may be used to show skeletons of writing to guide students through the process.  A model text shows students the way it's supposed to look.  A mentor text, however, is a piece of writing from which students will emulate strategies and skills to hold onto forever as writers.  A mentor text is a master like Deb that makes you want to read on, learn more, and copy.  

We all need mentors help us learn and grow in many different aspects of our lives.  I've had so many different mentors in my life for many different reasons.  Using authors to show and demonstrate powerful writing helps young writers to see the strategies and skills that we want students to develop.  It’s okay for students to copy these authors’ strategies (not words) in order to find their own way.  I did it, and kids need to do it under our guidance while they are still learning how to take risks.  They’ll only find their own way if we teach them how.  J

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Articles of the Week

One of the things that I love best about being a literacy specialist is when colleagues collaborate, communicate, and learn together, and then bring that learning back to students.  Recently, our team read Kelly Gallagher's new book, Write Like This, together.  We had great conversations, but the teachers didn't stop there.  This year, teachers are implementing many new strategies to reach student readers and writers in authentic ways.

Our seventh grade teachers are implementing "Articles of the Week" this year.  Each Friday, students read an engaging article that relates to the learning in the classroom and the world.  Independently, students read and "code" the text (hellooo 'close reading' CCSS).  Our teachers created (and borrowed) codes (+ for agree, ! for surprise, ? for question, etc.).  After the close reading of the authentic article, students write a reflection in their notebooks about the reading.  The teachers provide models and guide students to code the text and write the reflection meaningfully and authentically.  Students will discuss the article and the reflections the next Friday in many different ways:  socratic seminars, cooperative groups, partners, and class discussions, to mention a few.  We are always searching for new ways to engage students to read closely, think critically, communicate effectively, and write reflectively.  I can't wait to see the conversations in action as students continue their deep discussions.  

I  predict that this kind of scaffolding will provide students the foundation and risk-taking environment that will allow students to choose their own authentic articles, codes, and reflection questions in the future.  This will make the process even more authentic as we teach students to be readers and writers in the twenty-first century and will transfer the learning into the hands of the students:  our ultimate goal to create critical, independent thinkers.  

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Alphabet Soup

We started school just a week ago, and I've already heard questions and confusion from many new teachers trying to decipher and figure out the many acronyms that we use in education, literacy, our district, and our school.  While this is a bit of a broader post than solely literacy tonight, I thought I would try to debunk some of the acronyms that we use and throw around on a normal basis.

  • RtI-  Response to Intervention-  In short, this is legislation put into place to support students in reading and behavior. All students are benchmarked and provided instruction based on best practice.  RtI is a 3-tier ladder to help all students succeed in a general education environment with explicit instruction.  A student's progress progress is closely monitored to work toward minimizing gaps in learning.  The fingers of RtI have spread outside of reading and behavior in many schools.  
  • RtIm-  Response to Intervention Management-  This is an online system used to track interventions and progress monitoring for students in RtI.  
  • SRBI-  Scientifically Research Based Intervention-  In Connecticut, we like to spice things up a bit.  SRBI is RtI with a flair.  CT's SRBI law mandates that interventions show signs of "scientifically research based interventions".  
  • CST (or sometimes SST)-  Child Study Team (or Student Support Team)-  This is a group of educators that come together to review data, discuss interventions, share successes and needs for improvement, and create next steps to support students.  
  • IEP-  Individualized Education Plan-  This is the document created by a core group of educators at a PPT (Planning and Placement Team) for students who require specialized instruction through Special Education.  This is a legally binding document that identifies measurable student goals, accommodations, and modifications to support students in the modified or general education curriculum.  
  • 504 Plan-  This is an education plan to support a student with a life-altering condition and prevents discrimination for students with special needs.  The plan, created by a team of educators and student supporters, details the accommodations necessary to help the child succeed in the general education curriculum.  This is also a legally binding document reviewed annually.
  • TEAM-  Teacher Education and Mentoring Program-  This is the mentor/teacher program put into place for new teachers in the state of Connecticut.  
  • ESL (English as a Second Language) or ELL- English Language Learners-  These are students who have learned English as a second language and may need support to access the general education curriculum.  
  • SSP-  Student Success Plan-  This is a document that outlines a personalized learning plan for students including their long and short term goals.  This is often paired with Advisory in new Connecticut legislation.  
  • PLC-  Professional Learning Communities-  In an effort to improve instruction, policy, and practice, PLC's are committees consisting of professional peers that meet to improve student learning.  
  • CMT's-  Connecticut Mastery Tests-  Through 2013, students in Connecticut complete standardized assessments in reading, math, writing, and science in grades three through eight.  The tests are administered in March. 
  • PBA's-  Performance Based Assessments-  (sometimes called Authentic Performance Tasks)-  These are tasks or assessments that measure learning in an authentic, rigorous, performance based way. The new national assessments will include a PBA for all students to demonstrate their learning of the CCSS.  
  • CCSS-  Common Core State Standards-  These are the standards that all educators use to inform instruction in kindergarten through twelfth grade to address reading, writing, speaking, listening, and math.  The CCSS is designed to spiral concepts and skills through the grades to scaffold instruction and create CCR (College and Career Ready) adults.  
  • NWEA-  NorthWest Evaluation Association-  An evaluation used for benchmarking students, this assessment is computer adaptive.  Students receive a Lexile (readability) score and a RIT score, which compares their scores to students within their peer group locally and nationally.  Our students complete this assessment in the areas of Reading, Language Usage, and Mathematics.  
  • WPP-  Writing Practice Program-  This is an online writing practice program created by ERB (Educational Records Bureau) and MI (Measurement Incorporated) designed to give students timely feedback to help improve their writing skills.  
There are many, many more, but this puts a dent into the big ones that are frequently used in our school.  Phew. That's a mouthful.  Hope this helps!  :)

Saturday, September 1, 2012

I'm Energized Already!

It's nap time for my two year old, so while I have a few minutes, I thought I'd pick up and flip through Chris Lehman's new book , Energize Research Reading and Writing, but I can't put it down.  My mind is already swirling with ideas.  This book is so current, timely, and practical.  Chris organizes the chapters with lessons, differentiated learning ideas, and student work samples.  I'll leave you hanging for now, but keep you interested with a few of my favorite quotes so far:

  • "This is an argument for making our teaching of research warmly invite our children and young adults into the fold of inquisitive, innovative thinkers.  It is intended to teach research skills in ways that encourage engagement and independence" (Lehman, 2). 
  • "Taking time to teach students to research well is taking time to teach them the skills of the standards.  Teaching students to research well is teaching them to learn well" (Lehman, 3). 
  • "What I have learned from living within communities of educators is that good teaching is good teaching, no matter what the content... The difference comes not in how you teach, but in what you say- both the language you use and the rigor of strategies" (Lehman 4).  
  • "No matter how well executed a lesson, how engaging and clear, if students cannot read the texts they have in their hands they simply cannot apply your teaching" (Lehman, 11).  
  • "To help our students transfer what we are teaching into their own practice, we need to ensure that we are as explicit and clear in our teaching as possible.  Having a balance between demonstrating a strategy and explaining the parts of it helps to achieve just this" (Lehman, 14). 
  • "The goal is the thinking involved, not the perfect enactment of the strategy I showed" (Lehman, 14).  
And I'm just through Chapter 3!  This is just the prescription I needed to energize me into my non-fiction unit coming up.  Thanks, Chris!