Friday, February 24, 2017

Teach How You Learn: Gradual Release of Responsibility

When was the last time you learned to do something new? Maybe it was how to use a new electronic device or program. For me, it was getting my Japanese driver’s license last May. Now, I’ve had a U.S. license for many decades, but a Japanese one is another whole story. I’ll skip most of it for now and just say that I didn’t jump straight from reading the rule book to passing the driving test any more than I did with my first license when I was a teenager. 

I did start with reading—rulebooks, blogs, helpful hints and personal experiences. I practiced walking through the school halls and up and down stairs on the “right” (i.e. left) side, making righthand turns across traffic. Next a friend drove me around, explaining all the idiosyncrasies of Japanese driving law, driving examiners, and the driving course I’d be tested on. I became a master at observing other drivers who were and weren’t doing everything I’d been told I needed to do. I talked with a lot of other foreigners’ about how many times they had to take the test before they passed, and what tricks and wisdom they had picked up. Then I got behind the wheel and my friend coached from the passenger’s seat. In spite of all that, I failed the driving test the first time. The examiner told me the two errors I’d made, and I practiced some more, even driving around on my own. The next time I took the test, I passed.

I was thinking about that because I’ve just started a weekly book discussion with some colleagues on Better Learning Through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey. I was thinking about how we all know deep in our bones that effective learning starts with the teacher mostly running things, and gradually releasing responsibility to the students. Fisher and Frey have identified 4 phases of this release:
  • Focused instruction
  • Guided instruction
  • Collaborative learning
  • Independent learning
I moved back and forth but generally forward through those phases as I prepared to get my Japanese driver’s license. And yet I don’t always move my students through those same phases as they are preparing to be more skillful readers, writers, thinkers, speakers, and listeners. So I set a goal this week to be intentional about including all 4 of those phases in each lesson. 

What difference did that make?

Monday 10th graders began planning their writing response to the prompt “Who am I culturally, temperamentally, and spiritually?” They came in primed with content we had studied: Henrik Ibsen’s drama A Doll’s House, Robert L. Kohls’ essay “The Values Americans Live By,” an introduction to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and a lesson on a Biblical perspective of identity. 

I remembered that before they began brainstorming and planning (independent learning), they needed more than my direct instruction on organization: Don’t just put your points in the order of the prompt (cultural values, temperament type, and spiritual beliefs)—put them in and order that makes logical sense to you, and articulate that logic in your transitions. They needed practice doing it. They needed some guided instruction and some collaborative learning.

I also remembered a piece of advice I heard several years ago: Have students work on a new skill or new content, but not both at the same time. So I started with familiar content. I asked them to complete the following thesis statement: “I like/dislike living in Okinawa because ___, ___, and ___.” While they worked on their own (this was clearly familiar content), I wrote my model on the board: “I like living in Okinawa because of the natural beauty, the friendly people, and the community at OCSI.” I also listed several examples under each point. 

After a few minutes, I recalled students’ attention, showed them my model, and explained that my organizing principle could be most impersonal to most personal. I asked them to share their thesis statement with a neighbor and explain their organizing principle: level of significance, of permanence, of realization, of experience in daily life, etc. Conversations erupted. After a few minutes, I reclaimed attention and reminded them that the conversations were fascinating, and the purpose of them was to think about organizing principles for ordering points—specifically the points in their “Who Am I?” paper. 

We looked at the three model papers I’d given them earlier, and how each of them put the points in a different order for different reasons. I handed each student 3 note cards and asked them to write one of the three points on each card: culturally, temperamentally, spiritually. Then write a couple of illustrative examples or supporting points on each card. Then arrange them in a logical progression and explain that logic to a partner. 

Then they could get a Chromebook and begin writing their paper.

The next day they spent a lot more of the time in the independent phase, planning or drafting their paper. But I did remind them at the beginning of the period that we were working on organizing points according to a principle, and as they worked, I would come around to confer with each person, and my first question would be “What order are you putting your points in and why?” And each student had a well-reasoned answer ready for me, and each student was deeply engaged with their writing.

I haven’t been that successful hitting all the 4 phases in every class on every day this week, and maybe it’s not always absolutely necessary, but I’m doing better just for paying attention to it, and I think my students are, too.

How effectively and intentionally do you release responsibility to create engaged, independent learners? Do you spend some time each lesson in focused instruction, guided instruction, collaborative learning, and independent learning? 

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?