Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Everything in Moderation

Today I visited a fourth grade classroom.  In this fourth grade classroom, there is a girl who is currently reading below grade level at approximately a Level L/M.  We’ll call her Danielle.   During today’s lesson, I presented Danielle with a grade level complex text (lexile: 840) titled Smoke and Mucus. 

During the course of this lesson, I watched this reader mark up her text with a highlighter as she noticed captions and photographs.  She engaged in animated discussion with her peers.  In fact, at one point, another girl raised her hand to question the validity of the title wondering out loud if it should really be called Smoke and Mucus because it seemed to her to be more about smoking.  When Danielle heard this, she cocked her head slightly to the side and raised her hand to disagree.  She said, “Mucus is related to coughing and in this article they talk about that a lot.” With that statement, she buried her head in the text and proceeded to reread and share three different examples in the text that backed up what she was saying. 

As I watched, I thought to myself, This is a below grade level reader? Because at that moment, she did not appear to be.  What’s more, I couldn’t help but hear the echo of David Coleman’s words addressing the importance of children reading grade level complex text.  When I first heard him speak of allowing children the opportunity to experience dissonance, I was skeptical.  I am a firm believer in the reading tenet that says that in order to become more proficient, most of children’s reading should be at their instructional level.  But here I could see what he was talking about.  This text was within Danielle’s zone of proximal development—harder than what she would read in guided reading but yet not so hard that she couldn’t wrestle with it and use what she knows to piece together meaning and experience the satisfaction of successfully completing a hard task. 

I think the lesson for me here is an important one: good reading instruction depends on teachers striking a balance between presenting children with instructional level and grade level complex text.  If children are to be successful on their reading assessments, and more importantly, “college and career ready,” we don’t want their first (and only) experience with grade level complex text to be the day of the test.  And conversely, if children only work with grade level complex text in preparation for the test, we risk creating situations where children do not read eagerly and voluminously and that, too, would be counterintuitive to the idea of “college and career readiness.”

So where this leaves us as teachers is trying to puzzle out what our instruction should look like.  What percentage of a child’s instructional time should be spent with independent text?  What percentage of time should be spent with instructional text?  And how much time should be spent should we spend working in whole groups with grade level complex text?  The Common Core is still new to all of us and I’m wondering if you are grappling with this too?  What do you believe is the right “balance”?  

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Energizer Bunny Problem

If there is one thing that I have learned about teaching writing through the years, it’s that we cannot assume anything. If we’re talking to students about writing sentences, we cannot assume that they understand that the word “sentence” implies a subject and action working in harmony to formulate a complete thought. When we talk about paragraphs, we cannot assume that children know that topic sentences set the stage for what is to come and that everything that follows should be organized and focused around a central idea.

It is for this reason that when planning mini lessons, I try to look at the components of writing through a child’s eyes and try to figure out what pieces they will need to know in order to best build their understandings of how to compose text. I know that writing volume and pleasure are contingent upon success and so I try to figure out how to make the building blocks of writing tangible and concrete.

This week, I worked with a group of third graders working within a unit of study of compare-contrast essays. My charge was to help these students develop their ideas into well rounded paragraphs. When I looked at a paragraph through a child’s eyes, it occurred to me that paragraphs appear to be ideas stretching down the page so when I began my mini lesson, I talked about how a single sentence leaves readers wanting for more and paragraphs step in to fill the need by providing the details that “stretch” an idea down the page. Knowing that understanding “what” writers do would not be enough, I searched for a way to show students “how.” I settled on telling students that writers accomplish the work of stretching out ideas within paragraphs by asking themselves, “What would my reader want to know next?” and set about the work of composing a paragraph together.

Our paragraph went like this:

Lunch is one of kids’ most favorite times of the day. They love lunch because they can talk to their friends and they don’t have to do school work. With busy mornings, kids get hungry so kids love lunch because they get to eat.

From there, children paired up to write a paragraph about another school day favorite: recess.

As they talked, they wrote, and as I circulated the classroom, I heard them asking one another, “What else would my reader want to know?”

At the end of this guided practice exercise, the classroom teacher and I observed that all of the children had successfully written a detailed paragraph about recess. However, when we looked closer, we noticed something. Take a look. Do you see it too?

In case you’re having trouble reading, Angie and Jake’s paragraph goes like this:

Recess is loved by kids, too because you can run around crazy. They can spread out and play games like tag. There is a lot of things to go like slides, swings, monkeybars, and soccer. You can also play on the blacktop and play games like jump rope, hop scotch, and hula-hoop. Recess is fun for everyone! Kids think recess is cool and fun and awesome. Another thing you can do is go on the spider web. You can play sports like baseball, basketball, tennis, ping-pong, and exercising. Recess if fun!

Perhaps the verb tense and pronoun switches are glaring at you, but we were looking at this from a stretching the paragraph point-of-view and what we saw was a paragraph that kept going and going and going and going…It felt like this paragraph could have or should have ended at the first “Recess is fun for everyone” but in asking “What else would my reader want to know,” these writers marched forward, just like the Energizer Bunny.

So what does this mean? Can we call ourselves effective teachers if in the course of teaching one thing, we create the need to teach another?

When children are learning new skills and strategies, it is not uncommon for them to overgeneralize. What has happened here is not unlike when children first take note of apostrophes and periods: they sometimes appear where they belong but they often turn up where they don’t belong. In this case, children have stretched the details down the page to craft a paragraph, but they’ve stretched it a little too far. Now we get to teach them the next part of a paragraph which will be how to know when enough is enough because after all, when you stretch a rubber band too far, it will break and no longer be functional.

So was this lesson effective? Well, it all comes down to instructional decision making. If tomorrow I decide to return to the teacher’s manual that says that on the day after “how to write a paragraph,” I need to teach “how to write a good beginning,” and do it because the books says so, then yes, I have been ineffective. If, however, I decide to teach that lesson about how to know when to end a paragraph, well, then, that is a different story entirely. Effective instruction is teaching children what they need when they need it.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Importance of “Why Do You Think That?”

Last week I shared the story of the exasperated teacher who wondered why children who demonstrate such great understanding when they talk about text can’t seem to demonstrate the same understanding when faced with multiple choice test questions.  Ever since she posed this question, I have been on a quest to find answers that help explain this apparent lack of transference.

In the past week, I have led numerous close reads of text and have been informally researching what seems to be behind this problem.  Today I had one of those moments that we all covet as teacher-learners: the epiphany, the moment when what was once very confusing begins to make a lot more sense.

This is what happened:
As I worked with a group of fifth graders to look closely at the “The Great Mouse Plot” from Roald Dahl’s Boy, we zeroed in on the following paragraph:
When writing about oneself, one must strive to be truthful.  Truth is more important than modesty.  I must tell you, therefore, that it was I and I alone who had the idea for the great and daring Mouse Plot.  We all have our moments of brilliance and glory, and this was mine.

Knowing that the shift in focus here can be confusing, we puzzled through the question who is Roald Dahl addressing when he says “when writing about oneself, one must strive to be truthful”?  The students postulated different responses including “himself,” “his friends,” and “his audience.”  We took great care to eliminate incorrect choices one-by-one as we noticed evidence like “I must tell YOU…” and “we ALL have our moments…”and that there were not quotes around this part of the story as opposed to what was happening just prior when the characters were speaking to one another.  All of these examples supported that Roald Dahl was speaking to his audience.  The conversation was pointed and rich but of course the question about transference lurked in the back of my mind so after all was said and done, I gave the students the following question:

When Roald Dahl, writes, “When writing about oneself, one must strive to be truthful.  Truth is more important than modesty,” who is he concerned about lying to?
  1. Mrs. Pratchett
  2. His friends
  3. Thwaites
  4. His reader

Based on our conversation, I was certain there would be unanimity about the correct response being 4. 

However, that was not the case.

Many students answered 1.  When I asked why, they said, “Mrs. Pratchett is mean.  He knows that lying to her would get him into trouble.” 

Because I asked, “why do you think that?” I now understand that part of the problem is that they are not giving full consideration to the entire question.  They saw the word “lying” and had just finished reading about and discussing Mrs. Pratchett so that made A seem like a reasonable response.  That’s a problem I can fix.

Other students answered 2.  At first, I was stunned because these children spent no less than ten minutes discussing why he wasn’t addressing his friends in this part of the story.  But then I asked, “why do you think so?” and a boy raised his hand and explained that it seemed to make sense because “look Mrs. Yaris, it’s in quotes and didn’t you tell us that when words are in quotes, that means that people are talking?”  The skies opened up for me.  The problem here isn’t understanding the text, it’s understanding the function of quotation marks in text. In this case, these readers couldn’t distinguish dialogue from a direct quote. That too is a problem I can fix. 

So in returning to the question about why the apparent lack of transfer, I am beginning to conclude that students do achieve new understandings when they have rich discussions of text.  When they fail to demonstrate the same understanding on test questions, very often the error is not in understanding the text, it is in understanding the question being asked which leaves us wondering how to rectify the situation.   

I think the answer to that returns to the Common Core suggestion that we train students to gain and integrate new information through the close, careful analysis of text.  What we must realize is that text does not only mean passages and poems, it also means test questions as well.  I’m wondering when close reads become part of our regular classroom practice if it will naturally begin to occur that students read questions more thoroughly and subsequently begin to do better on tests?  Will one good practice beget another? 

Only time will tell…