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?