Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The More We Know

Last night, I laid alongside my first grade son Nathan as he read a book aloud to me. As he read, I found myself listening intently. On the heels of finishing Preventing Misguided Reading, I wanted to understand his reading process better. The authors of this book, Jan Miller Burkins and Melody M. Croft, emphasized time and again the importance of helping children develop “smoothly operating systems” for reading and understanding text. As I listened to Nathan, I thought a lot about his mistakes. What were they telling me about what he knows about text? How did he solve problems that caused him difficulty? Was his system smooth and efficient?

To most people, Nathan is an exceptional first grade reader. However, as I listened to him, I realized that though skilled, he tends to over-rely on guessing words he doesn’t know. Rather than attending to what he knows about letters and sounds, he looks at the first letter and approximates what should go there. Up until now, this has worked well for him. But as I listened, I realized that as the texts he reads grow increasingly more difficult and are supported with fewer picture cues, this won’t be efficient. He is going to need to integrate other strategies into his repertoire to support him as he moves forward.

As I sat analyzing Nathan’s reading behavior, it occurred to me how the work of the reader in a guided reading group is similar to the work of a teacher of guided reading. When children gather to read a book that has been carefully selected by the teacher to present a reasonable challenge, children call upon all of the skills and strategies they know to be able to read that text. With the support of the teacher, children put all of their information together in an effort to nudge forward, to gain greater proficiencies in reading. All the while, the teacher is doing the same thing—calling upon everything she knows about how children learn to read to assess and understand the readers who sit before her. Whose system is efficient? Who is having decoding issues? What, specifically, characterizes those decoding issues? Who is understanding? Who is going deep? Who is fluent? Who understands character? Who understands theme? For whom is this book too easy? Who is ready to move groups?

I read Preventing Misguided Reading because I have so many questions about how to make small group instruction more effective. As I sit here reflecting on what I read and what I learned, I think that it comes down to this: Good guided reading instruction relies on what we know about HOW children develop “smoothly operating systems.” It’s not the materials and it’s not the methodology. Very simply, the more we know and understand about the complex process of learning to read, the more effective our guided reading instruction will become.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Something New Every Day

Every time I receive an email from one of the administrators I work with, I smile each time I see her signature. She has cleverly placed these words in bright blue letters to remind educators each and every day of this important message:

“Learning from a teacher who has stopped learning is like drinking from a stagnant pond.”

Indonesian Proverb

At the moment, I am in the process of defining one hundred terms related to literacy. Until I began this venture, I felt confident about my understanding of teaching reading and writing. I am finding that each time I sit down at my computer to write, I toil with the subtleties of language and question what I know. Each definition becomes a quest to confirm my understanding and as I read for validation, I find I don’t know some things as well as I thought.

Two of the terms that I recently set out to define were “mentor text” and “touchstone text.” My first thought was, “Easy! We use these terms interchangeably so whatever I write for one I can cut and paste for the other.” Oh, how I wish it were so simple.

As I sat thinking about these two terms and synthesizing the information in my head, it occurred to me: These terms do not mean exactly the same thing. A touchstone text is a book or piece of writing that a teacher uses as her “go-to” text for classroom discussion and demonstration. A mentor text is the book that a writer lays alongside her when she writes to guide her decisions about writing. The difference is subtle but significant.

My understanding of these terms will impact how I teach students and teachers about the role of mentor texts and touchstone texts in the writing workshop classroom. It reminds me that in my recent teaching, I have forgotten to encourage children to find and use mentors to guide them as they write.

Some days I am absolutely overwhelmed by what I am learning. Other days, I am awed and inspired. But I can safely say that there is not a day that I do not learn something new that humbles me and reminds me of how much there is to learn about being a good educator. A recent IRA publication by authors Jan Miller Burkins and Melody M. Croft called Misguided Reading came in the mail yesterday. I am devouring its short 130 pages because I need to know and understand Guided Reading better. I suspect I’ll have some new learning to share with you next week but in the meantime I ask you this: What are you learning?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Involve Me, I Understand

When it comes to planning reading and writing instruction, there is an old Chinese proverb that I live by:

Tell me, I forget.
Show me, I remember.
Involve me, I understand.

I recently taught a group of first graders how to place line breaks in their poetry to help them achieve the sound they desired. If you’ve ever taught this to first graders, you know this is not an easy concept for six and seven year olds. So I started by modeling. I wrote one of the poems written by a child in the class on a large piece of chart paper. The student read how he wanted the poem to sound and as he read it, I marked the pauses with an orange line. Afterward, I showed them how line breaks change the look of the poem.

At one point in my teaching career, this would have been the time when I would have sent my students back to their seats and said, “Now I want you to try this with your own poems.”

And I know what would have happened. I would have been bouncing from frustrated student to frustrated student re-explaining line breaks and what I wanted them to do. While they would have remembered what I wanted them to do, they would not have understood the task.

This is why I don’t stop at modeling when I am introducing new concepts. The Chinese proverb says: “Involve me.” Guided practice is my answer to “involve me.” At this point in my poetry lesson, I asked students to pair off and look at the first part of a poem written by Christiana, another student in the class. We listened to how Christiana wanted the poem to sound and as she read, we used red pens and drew line breaks. Afterward, we practiced rewriting the poem so that it looked the way Christiana intended it to sound.

While students practiced in pairs, I easily visited the eleven groups huddled around the classroom. I knew right away that Mark and Tatiana were having trouble. I knew Dylan and Skylar were struggling too. So I pulled them all together and we worked out the kinks as a small group.

Then, I knew they were ready to try it on their own.

When they went off to write, it was calm and peaceful in the classroom. The poems written by these first graders were inspired and beautiful. And most importantly, they appeared on the page the way these writers wanted them to sound.

As a student teacher nineteen years ago, I had an outstanding mentor who reminded me daily of the importance of modeling. For years, as I sat down to plan, I’d hear Patti Reagan’s voice saying, “Model, model, model.” Today, these words still echo in my planning brain but I’ve modified the mantra just a little bit. Because I am so committed to helping children understand, I chant:“Model, model, model. Involve, involve, involve.”

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

To the Left of the Box

I admit it. When kids read, I am always wondering what is going on in their heads. Do they get it? How can I know for sure?

I know that I am not alone in this concern. Teachers everywhere worry about comprehension and that’s why if you visit reading workshop while teachers are quietly conferring, you will hear murmurs of the inquisition. What’s your story about? Where does it take place? Who’s the main character? What’s the problem? Has it been solved yet? How?

When kids read, we want proof—are they getting it or aren’t they? When I was a classroom teacher, I had my kids keep a reading response journal. I’d have them jot a few notes—EVERY DAY—about their thinking about their book. I shudder to think how many kids I might have turned off to reading because they hated writing. Ugh.

That said, I do think that writing in response to reading is a good thing to do in moderation. It teaches kids to reach deeper into their thinking. Many teachers have wisely adopted the practice of reading response letters where students reflect on their books in a letter to the teacher and the teacher writes back. Children are invited into a dialogue about reading and write for a real response. Literacy utopia.

But, there are those kids whose writing seems uninspired no matter whether they jot down a thought or write a letter. Are THEY getting it? Do their responses lack depth because their reading lacks depth? Or is it simply a matter of not wanting to write? These are the times when I wish I had a window into kids’ heads so that I could see what is going on. I need to know—do they understand?

My colleague, Danielle Erardy, has found just that window. Inspired by a strategy that was shared at a recent Teacher’s College reunion day, Danielle invited her students to fill a page of their reading response journals in an interesting way. She modeled by sharing a flow chart that she created for their class read aloud, A Dog’s Life by Ann Martin. Then, with little guidance, she asked the students to try it. Their insight was astounding. Hunter gave a glimpse of how he saw Squirrel’s heart. Emma illustrated Squirrel’s voyage, including the significant events that allowed Squirrel to grow. Throughout the journey, Squirrel’s voyage was represented by isolated paw prints. Once Squirrel met her final caregiver, Emma drew footprints alongside the paw prints to indicate that the two had bonded.

Trying this out reminded Danielle, and in turn, me, that sometimes we need to think outside of our box. Writing letters and stopping to jot might work for the masses but what about the Hunters and the Emmas? There may be amazing thinking going on in their minds but unless we change the box a little, we may never know.