Monday, October 29, 2012

Raising Baby Birds

Photo by Arno & Louise Wildlife-Flickr
I have a love-hate relationship with Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.  Like a baby bird, I sit there in the nest with my mouth wide open, looking for energy, passion, ideas, and inspiration from Mama Bird, worm by worm.  The conversations, workshops and staff developers feed me, nourish me, fill me.  I see a staff developer on the street, and like a celebrity, point them out to colleagues.  They don't know me, but I know them.  I've read their books, their tweets, their blogs, and listened to their words in workshops-  learning, applying, sharing.  They fly off to get more information and knowledge, and I sit, waiting for their insight.  They're my Mama Birds.

But, I also walk away feeling somewhat frustrated.  I don't want to just sit and wait for more. I want to explore, too. I want to fly out of the nest and find the worms on my own.    I sometimes walk away from TC realizing how far we still have to go to implement change.  I can't jump out of the nest yet, because the fall is so far.  So far.  I talk to the staff developers about our situation and they shake their heads.   Core novels?  Only 40 minutes of literacy instruction... TOTAL?  How many teachers?  they ask.  We're so far behind, and it's all a bit overwhelming...  it feels hard to spread our wings.

So try as I might, I begin the journey.  Step by step, worm by worm, I will do what I can to feed the soul of the district.  Dr. Tony Wagner, author of Creating Innovators, says, "Schools need reinvention, not reform."  Amen.  And, he says "Critical thinking is the ability to ask really good questions."  So, I need to figure out what questions, really, really good ones, to ask that will help to reinvent our teaching and learning... it's critical.

I have an iPad filled with worms (Well, not literally. I was going for the extended metaphor here, but I just realized that I may have crossed over into creepiness).  Over the next few days, I'll try to put them into logical words to share.  Here are the topics that I've been exploring at the TCRWP Coaching Institute and TCRWP Saturday Reunion that have nourished me so far this week.  I'm hoping that Hurricane Sandy doesn't keep me from TC, because the love outweighs the frustration, and my mouth is wide open waiting for more, before I'm ready to fly.  

Some future posts that I'm drafting:

  • Using the new writing continuum and checklists to help students and teachers self-assess and lift the level of student writing 
  • Planning and implementing informational and opinion/argumentative units that will engage students and teach habits of mind
  • Writing about reading to raise the level of comprehension 
  • Creating study groups that nurture relationships and enhance learning communities in our schools
Check back soon for more ;)  

Monday, October 22, 2012

Putting All the PIeces Together: From Initiative Overload to Meaning Making

Like most schools, our school is in an "initiative overload." We've been swimming in professional development about RtI/SRBI, CCSS, iPads, SBAC, behavior management practices, SSP/advisory state mandates, performance tasks and shifts in instructional and curriculum models.  You give us an acronym, and we have PD about it.  Yet, we have been left to wonder how all the pieces fit together.  What's the vision? How do these mandates all jive? we wonder.  Then last week, I attended a curriculum writing session with my ER9 colleagues to revisit our thinking about Grant Wiggins and Jay McTigue's backward design model of curriculum design, aptly titled Understanding by Design.  I've been trained with UbD before, but this time felt different.  This is the first in a series of steps recently put into place to review and rewrite our curriculum to align to the Common Core State Standards while following best practices of instruction with Reading and Writing Workshop, and the stars started to align.  Despite the things we cannot control, the pieces are finally fitting together into a set of values and beliefs that I can understand and wrap my arms around.  I believe that exciting times are ahead as our group refreshes our thinking to make sure our instruction revolves around student understanding and meaning making in our journey of curriculum redesign.

In our conversations about backwards design, our group discussed the important conversations that need to continue with our staff to propel our instructional practices to teach twenty-first century learners.  At the top of that list is the discussion about performance based assessments/tasks and project based learning.  Great conversations continued about enduring understandings and essential questions.  McTigue comments that we need to "focus on performance, not coverage."  With rigorous content and student perseverance, we can make learning relevant and authentic by focusing on the learning and understanding.  Cris Tovani, in her book titled Do I Really Have to Teach Reading, also describes the conundrum of content versus depth that teachers often feel.  To take this on, Wiggins and McTigue challenge teachers to seek out opportunities for growth, support each other in the process, and take ideas from colleagues.  We have a lot of work ahead of us, but I feel confident that it is meaningful work that will make our students better thinkers.

The Common Core State Standards defines students who are College and Career Ready in Reading, Writing, Speaking, Listening and Language.  They describe the students to be learners who:

  • demonstrate independence,
  • build strong content knowledge,
  • respond to the varying demands of audience, task, purpose and discipline,  
  • comprehend as well as critique, 
  • value evidence
  • use technology and digital media strategically and capably, and  
  • come to understand other perspectives and cultures.  
To me, these are the pillars of our future curriculum design.  Our enduring understandings in language arts must build upon these pillars to engage students to be lifelong thinkers and learners on their journeys to become College and Career Ready.  

I hope that an Understanding by Design curriculum model, which focuses on enduring understandings and essential questions to make meaning, matched with the best practices through Reading and Writing workshop will help us bring back authenticity, joy, and strategic habits of mind into our daily instruction.  We must make our decisions based on student learning, not on standardized tests.  We have a trained, trained staff.  It's now time to put all the training to good use in the hands of our students to make them critical, independent thinkers.  The pieces may not fit perfectly all the time, but it's a first step toward making a pretty picture.  

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


"Image "Crossroads" - (C) by"
I'll be brief.  But, I wanted to jot a few notes that I had from today's seminar with Lucy Calkins and Mary Ehrenworth in Danbury, CT after yesterday's post about Pathways to the Common Core:  Accelerating Achievement.  The day was filled with a wonderful mix of refreshing review of what I know, believe, and value; new insights and learning; and inspiration to innovate and reform literacy instruction.  Today was a breath of fresh air amidst the hustle and bustle of the start of a new school year, and it was just what I needed to propel me forward again.  Lucy reminded us of the important crossroads at which we stand and to slow down and take stock of what we are doing and how we are doing it.   She challenged us to view the CCSS as a mission, not a mandate, to push what we already do well to great heights.  I walked away with $100 worth of professional texts  and many new insights.  In the essence of being brief, here are a few (repeat: few) of many:

  • "The most important role is the role of the teacher." ~Lucy Calkins 
  • High level thinking and achievement accelerates in classrooms/schools that:  (1) nurture relationships between children and teachers, and (2) coach students (and teachers) with strong, specific feedback.  (Based on John Hattie's work)  
  • The CCSS puts a higher emphasis on higher level, critical thinking.
  • Among other personal touches, schools that are making progress:  
    • provide students time to read and write huge volumes of text 
    • review and analyze assessments (student work) in collaborative teams to move kids through an established continuum 
    • track reader and writer's progress through text 
  • Students should be reading "just right texts" at least 2 hours every day
  • It takes deliberate practice and good instruction to move students through learning progressions of sophisticated thought processes.  
  • We must continue to inspire teachers and professionalize teaching through think-tank discussions, peer (teacher to teacher) led groups, book clubs and writing groups. 
I could go on and on.  I'll stop there.  I agree that we are at an important crossroads with many paths possible.  I sleep at night hoping that we, teachers and educators, are leading our profession down the right path to do what we know is right and true and based on our values and beliefs.   I rest assured that the future holds exciting rewards for the groundwork that is being laid.  And, I hope that we can all come together to embrace change to create critical thinkers and lifelong learners.  Thanks, as always, to the TCRWP for the work that they do to inspire the work that we do.     

Oh, one more thing.  Lucy also highly recommended the book, Professional Capital by Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan, which isn't part of the $100 purchase today, but I'll be sure to pick up this week.  Shh, don't tell my husband.  Oh, come on. That was brief for me. ;)

Monday, October 8, 2012

Revisiting Pathways

I am attending a conference tomorrow with Lucy Calkins and Mary Ehrenworth centered around their new title, Pathways to the COmmon Core:  Accelerating Achievement.  Chris Lehman is also an author of this book, but he will (unfortunately) not be there tomorrow.

In preparation for the discussion, I reread Pathways this weekend, and was struck, again, by the insights and practical solutions to the CCSS.  I highly suggest that everyone who teaches reading and writing devour this book:  write in it, sticky-note it, and dog ear the pages.  The conversations that I have had with, and inside, this book about our school, our community, and our next steps have been the ones that have inspired me into bigger, deeper communications with our staff.  It's like the authors spent a week in our school, identified what works and doesn't work, and then wrote this book about us.  It makes me realize how similar our school really is to so many others across the country, Blue Ribbon status or not. It makes me realize that we're all in this together.  It makes me realize the wonderful things that we already do, and the long road ahead of us to accelerate achievement in reading and writing.  

My book is filled with sticky-notes, margin high-lights, and reactions.  It was really hard for me to pick out a few of my favorite points.   But, I wanted to share a few with those of you who haven't read the book yet, perhaps to get you thinking, or perhaps I'm hoping to inspire you to read the book, too.  
  • "Some middle schools have made ninety minutes for literacy or even double that when leveled reading is inserted in content areas, and students in those schools have surged ahead, but it takes educators wrestling with the schedule to make sure kids get time to read (and write) in school"(69).   
    • My takeaway:  We had a structure set up to allow students this time.  We need to revisit our schedule and our instruction to match our values.  Or, we need to revisit our values to match our vision.  
  • "As long as kids are reading, they are bound to be ready to read more closely" (65).
    • My thought:  Our students read.  A lot.  We can take them to new places with strategic, focused instruction.  
  • "You will probably need to start by owning the problems in your classroom and your school- and frankly, our hunch is the problems are serious" (88). 
    • My connection:  Yes!  We need to take a closer look at the non-fiction content area reading to make sure that students are actually reading (and researching)  45% of non-fiction throughout the day.  
  • "Finally, students may be reading without engagement-  and engagement is the sine qua non for learning."  
    • My question:  How can we integrate more reading and writing choices in content areas?  A plug for Chris Lehman's book, Energize Research here.  A great resource for teaching non-fiction with choice in the content areas.  Click here for recent blog posts about Chris's book.  
  • "... writing is treated as an equal partner to reading, and more than this, writing is assumed to be the vehicle though with a great deal of the reading work and reading assessments will occur.  The CCSS, then, return writing to its place as one of the basics of education" (102).  
    • My reaction:  Bravo!  Bravo!  Bravo!  Writing IS so important, so integral, and so critical for student success:  academically, socially, and emotionally.  I'm happy to see it regain its importance.  Now, (and back to the first bullet point), we must restructure our values and TIME to approach this call to action.  
  • "Human beings grow up on narratives, on stories.  We come to know our parents by hearing their stories of growing up.  We make friendships by sharing the stories of our lives" (113). 
    • My takeaway:  I love that this book discusses the importance of all three genres of writing high-lighted in the CCSS; not just one.  Click here to see an earlier post that I wrote discussing my embrace of the CCSS writing standards.  
  • "Both teaching and learning should be visible.  That is, teachers need to monitor student learning, provide feedback, and let students know when learning is successful" (124). Paraphrased from  pg. 37 of John Hattie's work, Visible Learning:  A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement (2009).
    • My thoughts:  Yes!  This reminds me of the Grant Wiggins article from 1996, "Embracing Accountability" that we just read in our PLC's last week.    Our teachers need to be coaches, providing specific, relevant feedback to students along their journey.  Likewise, teachers need specific feedback from colleagues, students, community members, supervisors, and inner reflections to help them celebrate successes and improve weaknesses.  
  • "Writers need time to write, which means they need time to take their writing through the steps of the writing process" (125).  
    • My reaction:   Seems like such common sense.  So, how can we reframe our schedule and our instructional approaches to match our values and what we know is right?  
  • "Reforms in writing instruction, in contrast, take no additional resources; schools can right now begin to emphasize writing in general and opinion writing in specific, and we believe this work will empower writers, make learning more active, help vitalize reading, and elicit more civic involvement and engagement" (137).
    • My takeaway:  Our teachers are already so skilled.  We must support them and build upon their strengths.  We must create performance tasks that are authentic, rigorous and relevant.    We must come together to guide and build off one another's strengths.  We must work together; we are all in this together.  
  • "Education is at an important crossroads.  The development and adoption of the CCSS have created forward momentum, but the future is still to be determined" (180).
    • My final thought:  In Lucy Calkins and Laurie Pessah's book, A Principal's Guide to Leadership in the Teaching of Writing (2008), the authors push readers to identify values in their school culture.  To reform our schools, we must establish our values and our visions to be sure to align them to our practices and our instructional models.  This is the time!  

Oh, there are so, so many more ideas, thoughts, and conversations that I have had with this text.  This is just skimming the surface.  Please, please leave a comment if you've gobbled up this book, too.  What are your favorite parts? 

I'm really looking forward to tomorrow's workshop;  I'm finding myself invigorated and inspired each and every day.  In this society that believes that schools are failing, public schools need overhauls, unions need to be abolished, and teachers need more accountability, I feel refreshed when I read books like this one that talks about literacy and schools in a professional, common sense way.  Am I a literacy nerd? Probably.  But that's okay with me.  Nerds make change, right?  

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

#EngChat Applications

Last night I was inspired by the #EngChat Twitter conversation about transforming research from a bore to an alive, authentic processChris Lehman moderated the chat based off of his new book, Energize Research Reading and Writing, which is a get-your-hands-dirty, practical guide to help students think while learning.  As the CCSS demands more non-fiction reading and writing and our staff is thinking through Webb's Depth of Knowledge, this topic could not be more relevant and timely. Last night, educators from across the globe talked about the process of research, the difficulties of guiding students into thinking versus copying, and the exciting ideas to keep students excited about learning.   Some of my favorite take-aways/thoughts that I am still mulling over from last night are:
  •   As adults, when we research, we wander, explore, and read.  Do we give kids enough time to explore and play with texts before forcing a topic? 
  • Questions that students ponder can/should be the primary focus of research to make it relevant and meaningful.  Do we provide students enough choice?
  • Students must have an authentic audience with whom to share their research/ideas.  Do we create authentic experiences for students to share their work? 
  • Research is about habits of mindthinking, learning, exploring.  We do it every day.  We must teach students the skills and strategies to be lifelong learners in this technology driven world.  Do we guide students through critical viewing of sources enough?
Some ideas that I am pondering that were brilliant suggestions from educators during #Engchat: 
  • Ask older students to research a topic to teach to a younger grade.  Students could go to a lower grade level to teach the topic or subject to them.  (@hawkteach assigns this task to sophomores to teach fourth grade lessons- I love this idea!) 
  • Provide time for students to collect ideas and sift through topics.  Guide students through many forms of rehearsing:  drafting, note-taking, gathering of information.  Focus on the process, not just the product.
  • Use the website, Wonderopolis, to broaden and engage students' curiosity. 
  • Encourage students to carry their notebooks around with them throughout the day and jot down questions, ideas, and thoughts in a section titled "Wondering". 
This is just the tip of the iceberg!  If this inspires you to read more, click here to see an archive conversation of the chat.  Start at the bottom and work your way up. You won't regret it (though it is 74 pages, so grab a coffee and make yourself comfortable)! 

At my school, in one of my small groups, students are planning topics for a research project.   We are currently immersing ourselves in non-fiction text to: develop a purpose for reading and researching, identify important text features that readers (and writers) use, and create products that will be authentic to an established audience. 

First students studied and identified common features of non-fiction and how those features help the reader to understand and navigate the text.  This will be a running chart to which we add throughout the year.  The "my turn" part of the chart is for students to explore how they may want to utilize that feature within their own writing.  Students noticed that not all non-fiction texts contain every feature, so they are able to choose which ones best fit their topic/purpose. 

We used Chris's strategy, "a lot, some, little" to explore topics that we may want to research, and students have experimented in the Media Center to begin finding information that may suit their  guiding questions with purpose.  Actual research will begin next week, and the mini-lessons will revolve around:  main idea, note-taking, content-specific vocabulary, and thinking through the reading.  Students are excited about their topics, and I'm excited for them!   

Next, you can see that a few students started planning out their products.  Many students are choosing to create a book.  Aidan, for example, is researching dinosaurs, and he has already decided his headings and his structure.  He will be setting up his book sequentially.  As he does his research, therefore, he will have a specific focus of the information that he needs to gather.  Johyun, on the other hand, is ready to research Korean language, and she is doing a mix of structures about the history of Korean language and the process of learning it.  I'm still thinking of ways that students can present their products to different audiences.   I'm inspired from my learning last night; my head is spinning with new ideas. 


Thanks to Chris Lehman, Meenoo Rami and the Twitter Chat community for the inspiration to bring research to a new level.  I hope to expand this thinking and learning by coaching content area teachers to pick up some of these strategies as they begin to assign research projects, too.