Friday, February 17, 2017

Using Reading Strategies with High School Students: Asking Questions

Students using the reading strategies of asking questions and envisioning images to create a chapter poster.

Why did Hester stitch the A on herself?
Why does Hester dress herself plainly?
Was it man’s place to punish Hester?
Was Pearl a blessing or a curse?
Is there a meaning behind the name Dimmesdale?
What was on Dimmesdale’s chest?
Who’s more wrong, Chillingworth or Dimmesdale?
Will Dimmesdale confess?
Will the new happiness last?
Why was Pearl reluctant to come to Hester and Dimmesdale?
Is this 7 years later because in the Bible 7 is the number of completion?
How much power does Pearl have over Hester?
Why is Dimmesdale changing?
Which is Dimmesdale’s real face?
How did Chillingworth find out about their plans?
What are Chillingworth’s intentions?
Will the people’s view of Hester and Pearl change?
Did everyone get what they deserved?

I did not ask my 11th graders those questions about The Scarlet Letter. They asked them. They asked each other. They asked me. What a difference from the early days of my teaching career when I gave students lists of questions to answer for every chapter of every novel we studied! It may have taught some students to be careful readers—for the answers to other people’s questions. But it never taught them to do what mature readers do—read for the answers to their own questions.

Mature readers ask many different types of questions, as can be seen from the list above, and all of them are important. Some are for clarification—you can look for the answer in the text or in an outside reference. Some are about the author’s craft and intent. And then there are the great questions of motivation and meaning that we’ll be chewing on for the rest of our lives. 

The unit didn’t start out on this high note of student engagement. (See this blog for that story.) I forgot to remind students of the reading strategies they use unconsciously and fluently with simpler text, but need to be intentional about employing with difficult text. 

Of those strategies, asking questions is one of the most important ones to teach, model, require, encourage, and foster because students can so easily form the false impression in school that questions are a sign of weakness—good students understand, and bad students have questions. But nobody understands without first recognizing what they don’t understand and asking questions and looking for answers until they do. 

So after the first day debacle, every day I asked students to come in with enough notes on their reading that they would have something to contribute from each chapter to a group poster that had a central image, at least one quotation, and at least one question. I gave them about 10 minutes, and if they finished early, I encouraged them to add more quotations, questions, and commentary/connections. Then we presented the posters to each other and posted them on the wall. (Side benefit: This posting gave us a running plot/symbol summary to refer to, and when we finished, the structure of the scaffold scenes at the beginning, middle, and end was so obvious the students realized it practically on their own.)  

Our finished wall of chapter posters gave us a plot summary and symbol chart. 

Sometimes the strategies of asking questions and envisioning images are related, as in this interaction over chapter 27:

“When it talks about Hester ‘flinging herself on the fallen leaves beside him,’ was it like this?” and one student drops to her knees on the classroom floor. 
“I thought it was like this,” says another student as he falls onto his back. 
A third student finds the page and reads, “…[s]he threw her arms around him, and pressed his head against her bosom.”
“Oh, so it must have been like this,” says the first student, flipping over sitting up, and cradling an imaginary head in her arms.

So what happens when students ask questions, envision images, and make connections to engage with an old, dusty classic by a dead, white man? They begin coming to class bursting with questions. I stopped them one day and said, “Do you hear yourselves? This is so different from the first and second days when you were so overwhelmed and scared! And no action really happened last night.” They replied, “But there were so many reveals!” 

A group presents their chapter poster.

And they leave the last discussion with final thoughts like this about what they learned:
  • To be honest, I think, and not let all my feelings internalize, like Dimmesdale when he was alone in the closet.
  • I really like that Hester made her mistake a lesson instead of making it something completely shameful.
  • I learned how hardship can help someone else out. 
  • Even if you don’t know or won’t like the outcome of a confession, you should.
  • Humanity is not perfect. 
  • I realized, or saw more clearly, that sins don’t stay hidden, whether it is closed to people or not, nothing is hidden from God.
  • Forgiveness.

Do your students engage their reading with questions? What questions do you ask while you are reading? How do you let your students know? How do you model, require, and foster questions? What results do you see?

**Spoiler alert!** Our final two chapter posters

Friday, February 10, 2017

Reading: Do It; Talk about It

Hidden Figures
I just told students two books were dull. What was I thinking? Me, the English teacher, who wants students to devour books! Thursday night I was kicking myself.

By Friday night, two students had add one of those books to their GoodReads “to-read” shelf, and one student had added the other book. No students had shown any interest in the book I thought I might actually be able to interest someone in.

It made me laugh, but it also made me think: Maybe we don’t need to “sell” books to kids as much as have a reading life ourselves and share it with our students. 

Here’s what happened: This week I found myself two weeks into the new quarter, and I hadn’t done any book talks yet. Partly because for the last month I’ve been bogged down in the same two books. Books I want to have read, but, well, I get drowsy actually reading them. So Thursday I scanned my shelf for a book I’ve read fairly recently and haven’t book talked yet. 

The Boys in the Boat
My eyes fell on The Boys in the Boat. I hadn’t expected it to hold my interest the way it did—what did I know or care about the sport of crew and the 1936 Olympics? Yet it drew me into the main character’s story, and the stories of characters who touched his story, and wove together a lot of history that the book made me care about through introducing me to the people who had lived it. 

As opposed to Hidden Figures, which I’d really expected to love—the stories of women, and mostly black women, who while the men were off at World War 2 became the unsung brain-power that drove the research behind NASA’s precursor. Why did it keep putting me to sleep? Maybe because, unlike The Boys in the Boat, it tried to tell the stories of too many people too equally. They didn’t have separate voices. I admired and cheered for them all, but I couldn’t keep them straight. I’m glad it’s been made into a movie: More people will become familiar with those women's stories that way. Maybe more girls will be inspired to follow an interest in math. 

Yes, I wandered all those byways in my book-talk which definitely ran longer than the planned 2-3 minutes. Then before we settled into our independent reading, I briefly showed the students what I’d be reading—Okinawa: The History of an Island People. Really long, old, and dry—but since I live in Okinawa, how can I not have read “the definitive work on Okinawan history”? And I’m really excited that I’m currently on page 411 of 475—gonna finish this weekend!

The next day, giddy with relief that I hadn't killed all interest in Hidden Figures, and also truly curious about how I hadn't, I asked one student why he had added Hidden Figures to his “to-read” list after the negative press I gave it. He said, “If it has anything to do with NASA, I have to read it.” (Glad I know that—I have a couple of other recommendations for him now!)

So that is my tale of the anti-book talk, or “Don’t Worry about Making Students Like Reading—Just Do It and Talk about It.”

Which leads to my last question: What are you reading, and how are you sharing that with students?

Friday, February 3, 2017

Vocabulary Lists and Beyond: Walking the Word Talk

Last week after school I was having a conversation with a student about the practice of writing a lot of big words and hoping the teacher would give up trying to understand and just give credit. 

“Oh,” I paraphrased, you mean they thought they could…um…what’s that word? 
“Yeah, I know the word you’re trying to think of,” the student said. “It has a b and two o's.
Of course—it’s on our word wall.

“What does betwixt mean?” a student asked. I asked for the context, and he read a line out of The Scarlet Letter, “…betwixt speech and a groan.” Easy context lesson, I thought, and asked him what he thought betwixt meant. He shrugged his shoulders, opened his mouth, and let out a sound like a dying baby elephant. It left me speechless for a moment, and then I realized he was reading betwixt as an adjective rather than a preposition. He’d made what he figured must be a betwixt speech. We all had a good little laugh, and we’ve known what “betwixt” means all the other times it came up in the book. 

“What does flag mean?” Other students offered “flagging a train” or “flagging a web page,” but the meaning in context was tire. We wondered if those two different meanings could possibly have the same etymology. Turns out, they do: Flag as in tire is related to how banners hang when there is no wind. 

I was recently part of a group brainstorming strategies for raising vocabulary scores on PSAT/SAT tests, and it reminded me of how much I’ve worked on building vocabulary learning into my classes in the last several years, and it made me especially aware of all the vocabulary learning happening in my class in the last week.

It all started about 3 years ago when I was part of a discussion group of 1st through 12th grade teachers reading The Vocabulary Book: Learning and Instruction by Michael Graves. (See some of my blogs about my learning at the time here, here, and here.) Graves helpfully lists 4 components of a strong vocabulary program: rich and varied language experiences, individual word learning, word-learning strategies, and fostering word consciousness.

Some specific practices I use include the following:
  • Handing out a list at the beginning of a unit—20 words for every 2 or 3 weeks—taken from texts we will read. 
  • Having students preview the list and mark each word with a +, o, or -, then discuss in their groups the least known words—can anyone help?
  • Putting the lists on—2 Quizlets for each list—one with a definition and one with context sentences. (And, yes, a traditional matching quiz for accountability.)
  • Asking students to bring in words from their reading. (See above conversations.)
  • Playing games with words: Quizlet now prints double-sided flashcards for easy 5-minute low-prep activities. 
  • Talking about words. (See above examples.)
  • Making a word wall—yes, even in secondary. I just added this one a year ago, and I'm still learning to work it, but it does keep all those words right out there where you can remember them and talk about them. Students revising writing will frequently swivel their heads around, searching for that perfect word they know they learned this year.
Here’s a good list of 10 do’s and don’t’s for vocabulary teaching.

But really, effective vocabulary teaching is more than a particular trick or assignment used a couple of times a year. It’s a way of being—being aware of and interested in words yourself, fostering a word-rich environment, requiring and giving students opportunities to engage with words in the ways you model, and being sure the class-context is safe for curiosity and exploration. Even for a "betwixt speech" every now and again.

How do you create an environment that stimulates vocabulary learning?

Friday, January 27, 2017

Rise to the Occasion of Student Confusion: Reading Strategies

Students presenting their chapter poster on A Scarlet Letter.

If I understood the words, I think I would understand the story better. 

Not an auspicious beginning to our AP Language class discussion of the first assigned reading in The Scarlet Letter when the above comment was the first response to my query, "How did the reading go?"

I guess the moral of this story is don’t assume that what worked with last year’s students will work with this year’s students. Last year a little introduction to the context, a modeled reading of the first chapter, a double entry diary, a couple of purpose-setting questions, and the challenge to see if we can find out why people today still consider this “old dead white guy” significant.

But I had a bad feeling as this year’s students left the classroom after that introduction. They weren’t rising to the challenge; they were nervous, hesitant, unenthusiastic. 

So at least I was prepared when they returned with their confusion. We regrouped with a review of reading strategies, some vocabulary discussion, and some group posters. 

Reading strategies: I’d been meaning to get that anchor poster up—and now it is! What we’re particularly targeting this unit is (1) plan and monitor, (2) determine importance, (3) ask questions, and (4) visualize. (True confession: I might not have specifically covered any of this this year, because I had taught it to most of these students last year in 10th grade, and they had not significantly struggled with any reading the year.) Here’s what those reading strategies looked like over the course of the next couple of days, especially in the context of the daily group poster:
  1. Plan and monitor: Students know now what they are reading for—to create in a group a chapter poster with a central image and surrounding quotes, connections, questions, observations. 
  2. Determine importance: They know they need to think about that central image, and what ideas and quotations are important enough to make that poster. The finished poster gives us a summary—visual and verbal—of the chapter.
  3. Ask questions: Questions make their appearance on the posters from time to time. Sometimes they emerge in the group talk as the poster is created. Some questions are clarifying and really important for getting at misunderstandings and significance (Why did Hester have to wear the scarlet A?” “Is the ‘pearl of great price’ actually a Biblical allusion?”) Others show young minds engaging with predictions (Who is Pearl’s father? Current guesses range from the beadle to Dimmesdale to the husband of the most vindictive woman at the first scaffold scene. Shh…don’t tell.) Still others are the ones that lead us toward the ambiguity and complexity of human nature and the challenge of a good work of literature (Why won’t she reveal identity of the baby’s father? Is Pearl a blessing or a curse? Why are there so many allusions to God, the Bible, and Christian topics like sin and guilt, but not one mention of Jesus?)
  4. Visualize: This might seem like one of the most basic, and also, obviously, the center of each chapter’s poster. And it fascinates me what clarifications emerge as the groups work on the central image and then run into questions. For example, for chapter 4, “The Interview,” a group drew a picture of Chillingworth handing a cupful of medicine to Hester and the baby. Suddenly someone asked, “Which one did he give it to?” And then, “Did he give 1 or 2 draughts of medicine?” Factually, he gave 1 to each. The students answered that for each other. And it led to a discussion of motivation and symbolism.
My chapter 1 poster model

Student group posters on chapters 2-4

Students seemed more cheerful and ready to tackle the challenge of the next 2 chapters by the end of the second day, after I’d introduced the strategies and group poster activity. Sure enough, they walked into class the following day bursting with questions and predictions. 

Is there anything you need to tweak for this year’s students because they aren’t last year’s students? Is there anything that your expert’s blind spot has led you to forget students don’t know? How have you helped your students read and respond to complex text in your discipline this year?

Friday, January 20, 2017

One Easy Trick for Better Group Work

One easy group work hack: Give each student in a group a different colored marker, have them sign their names with their pen on the front of the poster, and then tell them you expect to see an equal amount of every color on the poster.

Here are some group posters my 10th graders produced recently when doing a group close reading and annotation of a poem—“The Guitar” by Federico Garcia Lorca.

First student did individual annotations, and then they combined their individual annotations into one poster. One of their objectives was to pay attention to the things that other people notice that they don’t—because the goal by the assessment at the end of the poetry unit is for their individual annotation to be as full of brain-work made visible as their group annotation is now.

The multicolored poster is just one idea I got from reading Better Learning through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility over Christmas vacation. The key to good group work is finding a way to hold individuals responsible. This is a really simple way.

Group work is the third step in the framework for the gradual release of responsibility named in the subtitle of the book. It moves from focused instruction to guided instruction to collaborative learning to independent learning, and I’ve caught myself several times reversing a classwork and a homework assignment as I realized I’d skipped straight from focused instruction to independent learning—you know, like when the IT person gives you verbal instructions about how to fix a computer problem you’re having, then expects you to go fix it yourself? Yeah, it’s not going to work really well, and there will be a lot of frustrated people.

I’m excited about reading and discussing this book with 13 other K-12 colleagues over a 6-week timeframe in February and March. I’m excited about what I’ll learn, about what we’ll all learn together, about the collaborative culture we’ll build, and about the better learning all our students will experience as a result. 

How do you scaffold students through a gradual release of responsibility to become engaged, independent learners? How do you hold individuals accountable for group work? What are you going to do to forestall the February doldrums in your teaching and in your classroom? If you wish you had more answers to these questions, maybe you should get together with a couple of colleagues and read this book because there are a lot more tricks where this one came from!

Friday, January 6, 2017

Be the (Reading) Change You Want to See

This is how we do Christmas in my family: books for the Grandma (yep, that's me, now!), books for the grandkid, and books for everybody in between. (I'll spare you all the photos of "everybody in between.") Great fun.

We've been back to school for 3 days. The first day back, a student walked into class and asked me, "What books did you get for Christmas, Mrs. Essenburg?" I was sure to tell all my classes about my second favorite gift--Hamilton: The Revolution. (My first favorite being getting to meet my first grandchild!) 

The second day, a student returned Ready Player One to me, and I passed it on to the technology coordinator. Another student returned An Ordinary Man, the autobiography of the man who inspired the movie Hotel Rwanda. I recommended Just Mercy, but she decided she was ready for a fiction book and took Underground Airlines. A teacher returned Return of the Prodigal Son and admitted she'd borrowed Half the Sky from my classroom over the holidays for a visiting relative, who'd loved it. I recommended The Heart and the Fist, which has gone missing from my library and I really need to replace, and she took down the information for an Amazon gift order. (This one made me a little nervous. I don't often make second-hand recommendations that require outlay of funds....) 

The third day, as I was doing walk-throughs of other classes in my role as curriculum coordinator, a student whom I don't even teach, in a class that was doing some independent work, raised his hand at me. I looked over my shoulder to be sure the classroom teacher wasn't behind me, then with a quizzical look, I walked over to him. "I finished that book." Oh! The Girl on the Train. I'd seen him reading it when I was on before-school locker bay duty before Christmas break, and I'd asked him if it was his and if I could borrow it when he was done. "Was it good?" "Yes! I'll bring it for you on Monday." Nice.

I've been writing a lot recently about instructional and assessment strategies, tricks of the teaching trade, so to speak. But don't forget the most basic precept: practice what you preach, walk the talk. As our school's values say, be the "living curriculum." As Gandhi more famously said, "Be the change you want to see." 

You want to see students reading? Read. It's a communicable disease of the best possible type. Let them see you reading. Talk to them about your reading and about their reading. Take their recommendations, and recommend books to them...and to your whole community! (Don't take my word for it--see this article on "7 ways to promote positive reading habits for older children" from the Washington Post.)

Reading correlates with more sophisticated writing, higher level vocabulary, greater knowledge of the world, higher IQ, empathy, success in college, and income level after. Why wouldn't we push this habit? 

You want to read, but you need some traction to get around to it? Here are a couple of suggestions. Join GoodReads and sign up for the annual reading challenge. (I'd joined GoodReads a number of years ago but shunned the challenge as too stressful--I wanted reading to stay fun. But this year I set myself an easily attainable goal, and it was fun to see progress, and SUPER FUN to see my reading year-at-a-glance when I was all done! See below.) So much data! As well as a graphic reminder of every book I'd read.

Or challenge yourself with the variety of one of those posters that challenge you to broaden your reading horizons, like the following photo.

Or follow my Pinterest board on reading (For the Love of Books)--or set up your own--and see a bunch of lists from "43 Books You Won't Be Able to Stop Talking About" and "A Reading Guide for Those in Despair about American Politics" to ""Top Ten Books to Give to Adolescent Boys Who Say They 'Hate Reading'" and "Ten Books for Teaching Kids the Importance of 'Taking Care of Others." (Btw, those last 2 are from The Nerdy Book Club blog. If you've read this far, you should subscribe. They've recently published their 2016 top-tens for everything from non-fiction picture books to YA lit.)

There are so many more ways to find great books to read and motivate yourself to read them. What are some ways you use?

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Give an Exam to Celebrate

You know the old story about the guy who was asked why he was banging his head against the wall, and he answered, “Because it feels so good when I stop”? Does it sometimes seem that semester exams right before Christmas holidays are a little like that? There should be a way of both assessing and stimulating student growth in a way that celebrates the journey of the first semester and sets the stage for the second. 

This year, for a portion of my exam, I simply asked students to respond to the following prompt: Write an assessment with support of how you have grown as a reader, writer, thinker, discusser/speaker this semester. So I sat on the airplane to my holiday destination reading, not a stack of essays, but testimonies to the learning that had happened during the semester, sprinkled with hints of where we can head next. One of the best Christmas presents ever. Merry Christmas to me!

Here are some of the things my students said:

How I grew as a reader…

I used to only read dystopian…books, but now these aren’t the only things that interest me. I’ve read historical fiction and non-fiction, which is something I actually never thought would happen….The books I’ve read this year have actually been catalysts of conviction for me. I’ve been thinking more about the meaning of the books.

Keeping a “to-read” list is important because it reminds you that once you finish a book, you’re still not done. Reading is important, and it expands knowledge.

In this class you pushed me to read outside of my comfort zone, most noticeably by giving me Sophie’s World. At first I was quite bored with that book, Mrs. Essenburg, but then I began to become more interested in the content. Because of my love of books, I have always had a philosophical outlook on life, I just haven’t really used that outlook in recent years. This book reawakened that dreamy-thinly part of my brain.

How I grew as a writer…

I’m writing more about things I care about, which makes all the difference in the world. My conclusions when it comes to essays have gotten a lot better. I used to just restate my facts and condense the main points down into one paragraph. Now I find a way to engage the reader and relate them to the paper so they can feel connected.

I have begun trying to improve my writing, and now think a lot more about what I’m saying…I do still, however, find myself struggling to form my own voice when writing, as I think a lot of it is either inconsistent, suspiciously reminiscent of other writers, or just poorly done. I hope to work on all of this next semester.

How I grew as a thinker…

Topics like genocide and human dignity really made me think differently. For example, the book Night put me in Elie Wiesel’s shoes (or feet, I guess). It’s different from textbooks or documentaries, as reading allows you to paint your own picture and experience similar feelings.

I think more, and more often. Before I would think without purpose when I read something. However this class has forced me to put my thoughts on paper and this made me think harder and deeper into things that I would usually never care about. I learned how to compose my thoughts…and create things that are comprehensible to others. I would ask more questions …that would stimulate me and my brain much more powerfully. Before I would…think a thought then let it drift away. Now my thoughts and facts remain with me, and I can say what I always meant to say.

In “Justice in an Unjust World,” the author talks about how God cares and suffers with us. How he never grows numb to the world as most do…. Paul [Rusesabagina—the movie Hotel Rwanda and his autobiography An Ordinary Man] was like that. He never grew numb to others’ suffering and saw it all in black and white, clear as crystal, that when so many people are being hurt, or when anyone is being hurt for that matter, that as a human being, possessing human dignity, it is your duty to help. People like him have also changed my way of thinking because I was beginning to grow numb to the suffering myself. Like when that shooting happened at the night club in Florida. I walked into the living room the next morning, saw it on the news, and said, “Really? Again?” Not in a concerned way, just a kind of, oh, the cat missed the litter box AGAIN kind of way. Now, I don’t think that would be my reaction. I was getting so used to hearing bad things that I didn’t really care any more. Is that how people felt about the reports of the Rwandan genocide? Now, because of reading all of these accounts, I am on permanent wake-up call. As a thinker I have become more aware of other people, their needs, and the world around me in general.

How I grew as a discusser/speaker…

I was very nervous because I never discuss things with other people, especially not books and plots and themes of them. However, with these daily discussions I can articulate my thoughts into words and say them with confidence and, yes, in moments I will stay silent, but when I must speak I would speak loud and proud my thoughts and ideas. These are the things in which I believe. I will listen to others and bounce off of them and understand what they mean, to learn and to quote them. To be able to comprehend what others say so that I may learn from them and they may learn from me.

With support from the journals and a different way of thinking, I learned to start and keep a discussion going on with a lot of questions and confidence to speak.

I really just always thought I would be bad at discussing. I was wrong. I got comfortable with my classmates and became more open with anyone. I realized that everyone’s ideas matter and that discussing really helps you think and assess what you’re talking about.

I have learned to come out of my comfort zone and express my thoughts.

I feel that discussion is a big part of your class because it helps us to think, understand, and learn from each other rather than having the teacher feed us their own ideas and thoughts. I think that your class helps us grow individually and teaches us to make our own ideas. I think this is especially good because we won’t always have someone to tell us everything. I’ve also learned to give other people chances, as well as bring people into discussion. As a loud individual…I [formerly] would make everyone else’s ideas change to mine by telling them the answer and not giving them room. I think your class has given me a larger value in listening and applying the ideas of others.

It is so energizing to hear from your students that they are getting the big ideas you’re trying to teach. Bring on the eggnog, and let the holidays begin! May all teachers everywhere get such lovely Christmas presents!