Monday, December 21, 2009

Differentiated Instruction For All, and For All, a Good Workshop

A teacher recently said to me, “I have a group of four boys who won’t commit to a book. Every time I turn around, they’re in the library.” Then, in almost a whisper, she continued, “I know I’m not supposed to do this, but I picked a book for them and I’m reading it with them in a small group.”

Clearly this teacher recognizes the importance of choice and independent reading as integral components of the reading workshop. But here she is being covert, feeling like she is sneaking around the dark alleys of the reading workshop. It makes me wonder, how many times do teachers forsake good, differentiated instruction for purity?

Great reading workshops consist of some combination of mini lesson, independent reading, small group instruction, conferences, and share. Workshop teachers know that the goal is to get children to read more pages, more often in books that match their ability level. They know that with their expert guidance students will grow and soar as readers. But probably the thing workshop teachers know best is that at the heart of all instruction are readers. The most effective workshops are the ones where teachers recognize children’s needs and provide instruction that meets those needs.

As we break for the winter holidays, I leave you with this thought: When you feel like you may be committing crimes against literacy, go back to the basics. Ask yourself, “Am I doing what is best for the child? Am I helping this child to increase his/her reading volume and reading power? If the answer is yes, then absolve yourself and know that your instruction is on the right track.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Learning Boosts

As teachers, we all need a lift at some time or another. Sometimes we attend a conference, sometimes we read a book, sometimes we collaborate with colleagues, but sometimes, none of that is practical. We’re busy; but yet, our teaching needs a boost.

Whenever I feel I need a lift and there’s no professional development on tap, I take out my tape recorder and press record as I teach. Long after the lesson is over, I play back the recording and transcribe what transpired verbatim. As I type, I relive the lesson in slow motion. Sometimes I cringe at my words. “What was I thinking?” I wonder aloud. But sometimes I find myself saying, “Wow, I can’t believe what happened there.”

My transcribing sessions of late have helped me realize some important things about my teaching including:
• When pushing kids to go deeper into their reading, they need time to think. Most of them don’t say profound things when I ask one question. They need time to think.
• Most kids need to summarize the text before they are able to reflect on the themes highlighted in a text.
• When I take the time to say, “Can you say more about that?” kids rise to the occasion. They seem to always reach deeper to find something new to say. That surprises me.

When we understand what works well in our teaching, we can duplicate it over and over again. When we understand what isn’t working, we can steer clear of the obstacles. If you feel like your teaching needs a boost, take out a tape recorder. You, too, may be surprised at what taking time to reflect might teach you about being a better teacher.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Change Happens

As recently as 2007, email was a very small part of my life. I’d check in every third day or so to clear the spam and read the occasional note I’d get. But then it started to happen in my work life that people would say, “Did you get the email I sent you?” Shamefully, I didn’t and I realized I’d better start checking a bit more frequently.

Next, I started checking my email at the end of each day. By and large, I was keeping up with the updates people would send me and I was feeling pretty in the loop…until, I started missing the things people would jot off in the morning that I needed to know for that day.

From that point on, I checked my email morning and night. In fact, I now have a Blackberry so I can check it between classes and during lunch too. Never will I be out of the loop again.

The issue of assessment keeps coming up in the conversations I have been having with teachers.
They are jazzed up and excited about new ways to get students thinking and talking and responding thoughtfully in reading and writing but yet, they are afraid. They wonder, “How will I assess this? Our report card asks for letter grades or numerical percentages.”

And so, they retreat from good teaching practices because they cannot reconcile how to make their teaching match their report card.

I have begun thinking that assessment is a lot like me and email. At first, it was what it was. I didn’t have a lot of reason to change. It worked for me the way I needed it to work. And then it didn’t, so I tweaked it and it was working again. Then it wasn’t working, so I changed it a lot and now it runs like a well-oiled machine.

The same thing has to happen with assessment. It is important to remember that report cards and assessment practices are no more than ink on paper. They derive from conversations that have happened at some point in the past by some group of thoughtful professionals. When things aren’t working, it’s time to start having conversations to think about what is working and what isn’t working. Granted, the change may happen slowly, but change happens.

And most of the time, change is for the better.