Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Time Quote Mash-Up

Wherever I go, I listen as teachers share their frustrations about time.

“I know I have to teach reading AND writing, but I don’t have TIME for both.”

“I know I have to teach small groups, but I have so many pull-outs, I don’t have TIME.”

“I know kids need to do more independent reading, but I only have a forty minute period, I don’t have TIME to do everything!”

In Star Trek Generations. Jean-Luc Picard says “Someone once told me that time is a predator that stalks us all our lives.” And as a busy teacher-educator, I can’t help but think, “he’s got that right.”

However, bear this in mind: Time pressures and constraints are not a condition unique to teaching.  My husband works in social media and he races the clock to complete projects and meet deadlines. My mom stays at home and cooks and cares for the house and she complains there isn’t enough time to water her flowers or walk along the trail after the first snowfall.  Jean-Luc was the captain of the Starship Enterprise in approximately 2371 and what was he lamenting? Time.  While it seems like education is wrought with an unfair share of time pressures and constraints, not having enough time is not unique to any one job or profession, it is simply a part of being human.

Each and every day is comprised of twenty-four hours and as Randy Bomer once said at a workshop I attended long ago,  “There’s only time, no more or less, and we have to decide how to use what time there is.”   When he says it like that, it seems simple but it is true. As people and educators, we have important decisions to make about how we will spend our time because like Katie Wood Ray once shared,   “If we fail to set aside time for getting the work of [writing] done, we send the message that we don’t value the work.”

As we sit amid the holiday frenzy and listen to more bad press about teaching and learning, we need to be asking ourselves what is it that we value?  We need to prioritize and think hard about what we aim to achieve because after Jean-Luc Picard personified time as a predator, he went on to say “but I rather believe that time is a companion who goes with us on the journey and reminds us to cherish every moment because they'll never come again. What we leave behind is not as important as how we've lived.”

And on that note, I ask you, how do you choose to live?  What part of your journey will you cherish?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Defending the Reading Workshop in the Common Core Era

No matter where you go, conversations about the Common Core dominate.  While educators are at all levels of understanding the Common Core, there seems to be one question that everybody is asking: What will it mean to my instruction? 

Some doomsayers have declared the end of the Reading Workshop asserting that the goals of the Common Core do not align with this approach.  I would argue that nothing could be further from the truth.  As a document, the Common Core dictates “what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach.”  And as a way of teaching, I believe that the components and practices inherent in the reading workshop are not only a well-founded methodology for approaching implementation of the Common Core, but probably our best option for effective implementation of the new standards.

To illustrate why this is true, let’s look at the first anchor standard for reading: 
Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions from the text.  Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions from the text. 

When I look at a standard like that and ask myself, what will I need to do to be in compliance, I can see that children will require an understanding of inferential thinking.  They will need to understand how to go back into the text and find evidence to support their thinking.  How will I help students unpack these heady concepts?  By providing explicit, focused instruction.  What is the best way I know to provide this kind of instruction? Mini lessons.

While mini lessons are the cornerstone of the reading workshop, they are but one aspect of the reading workshop.  The standard goes on to specify that students cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions from the text. This implies that our instruction build in opportunities to write in response to reading.  The reading response journal is another key ingredient of the reading workshop.  Very often, we have students “Stop and jot” so that they can experience what it means to respond and have an opinion about text.  On other occasions, we have them write extended responses as a way of developing and defending their positions.  Both offer students opportunities to practice drawing conclusions, using evidence from the text, and afford us the rare glimpse into children’s thinking processes that enable us to respond to where they are as learners and plan instruction that meets their needs as readers.

In addition, this standard asks for students to be able to defend their position when speaking.  This implies that students will require ample opportunity to speak with their peers to develop their ideas.  How do we do this in reading workshop?  Through partnerships where students turn and talk and eventually, when students learn to talk effectively, we release children into literature circles and allow them to develop theories and ideas that will shape and change their thinking about text, and subsequently, the world.

Another thing that I want to point out about reading workshop and the common core is this: The Common Core calls for all students “to be able to read grade level complex text.”  I have encountered many teachers who have latched onto “close reading” as the means for making children increasingly capable of reading grade level complex text. While I agree that we do need to instill a value for rereading, I whole-heartedly disagree with how some teachers have proposed meeting this challenge:  Handing out a short passage on Monday, reading it, talking about it, putting it away and taking it out again on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday for the purpose of rereading it and getting something new out of it. The goal of close reading is deep understanding and careful analysis.  That is achieved through purposeful rereading and accountable conversation.  Once again, these components are built into the reading workshop. 

People who are “college and career ready” have been described as being able to do the following four things:
  • Think critically
  • Communicate effectively
  • Collaborate
  • Create and innovate

I fear that loose interpretations of the Common Core will lead to people embracing bad practices which will do nothing to help our cause of helping children become more proficient readers so that they are college and career ready.

However, if we are thoughtful about what needs to happen so that children can read increasingly complex text and gain the knowledge that helps them to solve complex problems in the workplace, we will see that children will need to read widely, they will need to read a lot, they will require explicit, expert instruction in whole groups, small groups, and one-on-one, they will need to talk and write about their ideas and where do all of these things happen?  In a reading workshop. 

In my opinion, reading workshop should be on the radar in every school district across the United States. Not only does it provide a good possibility for meeting the standards of the Common Core, it offers the best possibility of being successful.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Assigning Reading Comprehension vs. Teaching Reading Comprehension

When it comes to comprehension instruction, we have data that says that we spend as little as 2% of our instructional time teaching children how to make meaning.   (Lanning, 11) What we tend to do instead is give students a passage like this:

Some fire is a natural part of the life of a forest.  Fire cleans out dead brush by burning it to ash.  Then animals that live in the forest can find food more easily.  New plants and trees have more room and sunlight to grow.
(From Fires and Floods by Kate Waters, p 11)

And ask questions like:
What is this passage mostly about:
  1. How fires destroy forests
  2. How fires can be helpful
  3. How fires help animals
  4. How fires clear away dead brush

And when children respond anything but answer 2, we conclude that this student does not understand main idea. 

However, foregone conclusions like this are not particularly helpful in helping us make decisions about how to correct the problem.  We are left wringing our hands, wrought with worry over what will happen come April when these students take the ELA.  We know we need to fix the problem but we are all left wondering the same thing: How?

The sample question that you see above actually came from a group of six fourth grade students working together to figure out the main idea of the paragraph about fire.  This group of children had received explicit instruction on what a main idea is and how identifying main idea helps readers monitor text for meaning.  Next they took a look at this paragraph and worked with partners to figure out what it was mostly about.  As they did that, the teacher listened closely and took notes about what they said and discovered that sometimes children were too broad and general when identifying the main idea.  In other cases, she recognized that  students were too specific and pulled details from the story and dubbed them “the main idea.”  And in yet other instances, children relied solely on their background knowledge about the topic to identify the main idea.

The small group structure allowed the teacher a rare glimpse into the otherwise invisible process of making meaning.  In returning to the original dilemma of knowing that there’s a problem but feeling stuck knowing what to do about it, this glimpse provided the answer to the original question of HOW to fix the main idea problem: Responsive small group strategy instruction. If we are to effectively raise children’s reading proficiency, creating situations where children are active participants in their learning is imperative.  We must listen closely to clues they provide about their learning processes and then work with the diligence of Sherlock Holmes to solve the mystery of what is standing in the way of growth.  In the end, good assignments don’t make children better readers but good teaching…wow!  What a difference that can make!

Lanning, Lois A. 4 Powerful Strategies for StrugglingReaders, Grades 3-8: Small Group Instruction That Improves Comprehension. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2009. Print. (Amazon affiliate link)