Text Levels– Tool or Trouble?

 

By Irene Fountas, Author and Director of the Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

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This post was originally published on October 23, 2013

When my colleague Gay Su Pinnell and I created a gradient of text for teachers to use in selecting books for small group reading, we were excited about its potential for helping teachers make good text decisions to support the progress of readers.

Our alphabetic gradient is widely used by teachers for this purpose and has become an essential tool for effective teaching in guided reading lessons.

With every good intention, the levels may have been applied by professionals in ways we would not have intended. We did not intend for levels to become a label for children that would take us back to the days of the bluebirds and the blackbirds or the jets and the piper cubs. Our intention was to put the tool in the hands of educators who understood their characteristics and used it to select appropriate books for differentiated instruction.

We are well aware of the importance of communicating student progress accurately to families. Rather than the use of levels in reporting to families, we have encouraged the use of terms like “reading at grade level expectation” or “reading above grade level expectation” or “not yet reading at grade level expectation” on report cards along with other clear indicators of a student’s processing abilities such as understanding, word-solving abilities, accuracy or fluency. In addition we have encouraged the use of indicators related to amount and breadth of independent reading.

Students actually experience a variety of books at varied levels in a rich literacy program. They may experience complex texts as read aloud or shared reading selections and a range of levels in book discussion groups or independent reading. Highly effective teaching provides a range of opportunities with different texts for different purposes.

In our best efforts to use assessment indicators, we want to be sure that our purposes best serve the children we teach and give families the important information they need. This may not mean using labels such as book levels that hold more complexities and are intended for the use of the educators as they make day-to-day teaching decisions.

Immersion Helps Children Envision the Possibilities

By Stacey Shubitz, 2018 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker

Instagram Stories have been around for two years. They came onto my radar about six months ago since several people I follow started creating them. I thought about dabbling in Instagram Stories, but knew I needed to watch a bunch of them before I tried on my own. (Even though Instagram Stories disappear from your profile after 24 hours – unless you save them to your profile from your private archive – I didn’t want to make a fool out of myself!) Therefore, I immersed myself in many Instagram Stories before creating one.

LFA2018-Stacey-ShubitzJust as I needed to view many Instagram Stories to help me figure out how one of my own would go, immersion helps young writers envision what their end products will look like. Regardless of the genre, time spent immersing children in the kind of writing you expect them to produce in a unit of study is time well-spent (Bomer, 2010; Caine, 2008); Eickholdt, 2015; Ray, 2006; Shubitz, 2016). After all, it’s hard to understand what’s expected if you don’t know what the finished piece could look like.

Typically, teachers share mentor texts with students during read aloud time. The first reading of a text should be to experience it as a reader. The second reading of a mentor text should be to notice craft or, rather, how the text is written. After reading a text twice, it is time to dig deeper to notice and note what an author did that made the writing come alive. Many teachers provide time for whole-class discussion of a text so that all students’ responses are honored and recorded on an anchor chart for future reference.

In addition, students can work with partners to read like writers. You may provide students with a variety of mentor texts (i.e., published, teacher-written, student-written) to read and explore together. Provide students with a variety of mentor texts – at different levels – so all students can engage in immersion with a partner.

There are many ways to help students read like writers.

Katie Wood Ray (1999) suggests:

  1. Notice something about the craft of the text.
  2. Talkabout it and make a theory about why a writer might use this craft.
  3. Give the craft a name.
  4. Think of other texts you know. Have you seen this craft before?
  5. Try and envision using this craft in your own writing. (120)

Ralph Fletcher (2011) encourages students to:

  • Make a copy of the writing and put it in your writer’s notebook.
  • Copy a sentence or short section of the piece in your writer’s notebook, maybe mentioning why you chose it.
  • Share it with a friend, zooming in on one part or craft element you really liked.
  • “Write off the text” – that is, create a similar piece of your own. (13)

While Katherine Bomer (2016) provides a third way to examine texts:

Step 1: Read Out Loud.

Step 2: Respond as a Reader.

Step 3: Reread.

Step 4: Read with a Lens.

Step 5: Talk.

Step 6: Record. (10-11)

There isn’t one way to read like a writer. Therefore, it’s important to provide students with a variety of ways to read texts – some are more structured than others – so students can find a process of their own to adopt. After all, we want kids to continue to do this work independently in the future.

After spending two to four days at the beginning of a unit of study to immerse students in a genre, it’s time to determine what they’ve absorbed. After immersion, set aside a day to administer an on-demand writing assessment (Calkins, Hohne, and Robb, 2015). On-demand writing assessments give students the opportunity to try out what they’ve learned after immersion. The data you’ll glean from an on-demand writing assessment will help you modify your whole-class instruction, if necessary, if you notice there are some big understandings about a genre the entire class is missing. In addition, you’ll be able to look at each student’s piece to determine strengths and areas for growth, which can help you set goals for one-to-one writing conferences. Furthermore, on-demand writing assessments provide you with data to create groups of students so you can create a series of small-group strategy lessons to meet multiple needs at one time.

We want students to feel confident when they begin the first non-immersion lesson in a unit of study. One of the best ways to empower kids to feel like they can create writing is to help them understand what it is they’re going to create from the start.

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References:

Bomer, Katherine. 2010. Hidden Gems: Naming and Teaching from the Brilliance in Every Student’s Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

—————. 2016. The Journey Is Everything: Teaching Essays That Students Want to Write for People Who Want to Read Them. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Caine, Karen. 2008. Writing to Persuade: Minilessons to Help Students Plan, Draft, and Revise, Grades 3-8. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Calkins, Lucy, Kelly Hohne, and Audra Robb. 2015. Writing Pathways: Performance Assessments and Learning Progressions. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Eickholdt, Lisa. 2015. Learning from Classmates: Using Students’ Writing as Mentor Texts. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Fletcher, Ralph. 2011. Mentor Author, Mentor Texts: Short Texts and Craft Notes. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Ray, Katie Wood. 1999. Wondrous Words: Writers and Writing in the Elementary Classroom. Urbana, IL: NCTE.

—————. 2006. Study Driven: A Framework for Planning Units of Study in the Writing Workshop. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Shubitz, Stacey. 2016. Craft Moves: Lesson Sets for Teaching Writing with Mentor Texts. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

The Importance of Doing the Laundry: Maintenance Matters

by Kate Roberts, 2017 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker

A little while ago, I attended a keynote on the importance of innovation in our schools, classrooms, and nation. It was a rousing speech, and I agreed with all of it. Of course, we need fresh, inspiring ideas to help solve some of our most pernicious problems in education. Of course, we want educators who are able to think in new and creative ways about how to best reach and raise our children. I left energized and rearing to go.

Kate RobertsAs I began to implement these innovative ideas, I hit wall after wall of reality. I didn’t have the resources I needed. I didn’t have the experience to truly teach or guide the new ideas I had, so that when my students had trouble, I was not sure where to go. I still had my old, “un-innovative” curriculum to contend with, plus the assessments that seem unmovable, plus the grading system of my school. My foray into innovation gave me a few days of shiny new practices, but they soon gave way to the gravitational pull of normal.

I was tempted to say, “This just doesn’t work.” (Ok, I did say it.)

I was wrong and, at the same time, right. Many innovative ideas can work – as long as we are able and supported in devoting great amounts of labor to them for the long haul.

Innovation needs maintenance. So does normalcy. In fact, without maintenance, the whole thing (our classrooms, our homes, our world) just falls apart. But there are few keynotes given or books written in praise of the need to carry on and keep things going. There are few PD sessions on the power of grinding away at the same old stuff making sure things are working well enough.

But there should be.

In their Aeon article “Hail the Maintainers,” Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel make a case for the importance of supporting the maintainers in any profession. From the fall of the Iron Curtain to the inequity arising out of Silicon Valley, they point out that while novel ideas are integral to our evolution, these ideas wind up really taking on a very small percentage of the actual work.

Russell and Vinsel argue that the hard (and mundane) work of maintenance opens up the space for innovation to exist:

“…focusing on infrastructure or on old, existing things rather than novel ones reminds us of the absolute centrality of the work that goes into keeping the entire world going. Despite recurring fantasies about the end of work or the automation of everything, the central fact of our industrial civilization is labour, and most of this work falls far outside the realm of innovation.”

I would argue we do not spend enough time talking about and celebrating the labor of teachers – all the maintenance it takes to get great and innovative ideas up off of the ground and into the world. And we do not spend enough time helping each other to find sustainable ways to practice that maintenance and keep it going.

If innovation requires the essential and mundane work of maintenance, we must carve out ways to support and nurture this unglamorous work. Here are a few ways that we can support the maintenance that takes innovation going:

  1. Consider the systems and structures first.

When an innovative idea comes along, create systems in your classroom to maintain and support that idea, keeping it accountable for you and your students. For example, you go to a workshop on student blogging and expanding their intellectual social network. Great idea. Now, how much class time per week will you devote to this practice and when will that happen? Wednesdays for 20 minutes? Every Friday? Without repetition, innovative ideas will stay flashes in the pan.

Next, ask yourself, where will they do this work? What platform will they use and how will you make sure your kids know how to use it.

Finally, what is the expectation for the outcome? How will you hold them accountable?

When creating a system to maintain innovation, lean on the building blocks of reality:

TIME: When will students practice this innovation and how will they be         reminded?

SPACE: Where will students practice this innovation and how will you know?

MATTER:  (Ok, this is a stretch in the science metaphor) How will the work    take shape, as in, what is the accountable expectation in your classroom.

Without these systems in place, any new idea will be a flash of something promising, yet struggle to take root.

  1. Listen when it feels like too much work.

If you are listening to a speaker or reading a book and begin to feel overwhelmed (like, what is being presented is way too much work for you to actually get up and going), then, honestly, it probably is, at least completely. The answer to innovation cannot be that teachers just take on more and more work into infinity. And yet that is often the implied suggestion behind every professional development session, every new idea, every exhortation to “lift the level of …”

I am not suggesting that you shut down when things feel like too much work. But when you feel like you cannot do it, I am suggesting that you pause, step back, and realize that you will not be able to get everything in place – at least not right now. Ask yourself, “which part of this do I feel like I can tackle right now? Which part feels like it will take some work, but not so much work that my sliver of work/life balance won’t be obliterated?”

This way, you can begin.

  1. Focus on what matters and be willing to let go of the rest.

Innovative ideas can often come packaged in ideals. And yet, as often quoted, perfect is very much the enemy of the good. We can strive to always ask ourselves, “what is truly important about this work? What is the heart of it? Often, when we name what the most important work is, it helps us to set priorities or to simplify the work ahead of us. We can always work on perfecting things, but let’s get the good stuff going first.

When I was in my 20’s, it felt like I was innovating my life. New relationships, new jobs, new cities and friends. But with each new huge life changing experience, I noticed things were falling apart around me. Heaps of dirty clothes piled on the floor. Stacks of bills to be paid. Unreturned phone calls. Before long, the new things  – relationships, jobs and experiences – paled in comparison to the need to maintain. I realized then that the only way I could create this new life for myself was to keep up the day-to-day stuff; this behind-the-scenes maintenance helped me create the headlines in the newspaper of my life.

We can be innovative. But in order to do so we must also maintain.

References

Russell, Andrew and Vinsel, Lee. “Hail the Maintainers.” Aeon.com. https://aeon.co/essays/innovation-is-overvalued-maintenance-often-matters-more. (Accessed August 6th, 2017).

Singing: A Joyful and Meaningful Bridge to Literacy

by Renee Dinnerstein, 2017 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker

Renee Dinnerstein“Look Renée, it stopped raining!” Akhira pointed to the window and twenty-four pairs of eyes followed her finger. Sure enough, the incessant rain had stopped and we could, at last, have outdoor play. But for my kindergarten children the ceasing of the rain also meant that at our morning meeting we would all happily sing Blue Skies.

Singing together infused my classroom with good feelings. When Vicky had a problem separating from her father one morning, we all solemnly sang our Comfort Song – “What should I do if my best friend is crying? What should I do? I don’t know what to say. I take my friend in my arms and I hold her.” Of course the children then wanted to continue singing verses for their daddies, mommies, uncles, aunts, sisters, cats and puppies. Eventually Vicky too forgot her separation anxieties and joined in the singing.

I believe that singing is a powerful tool for building community, and not only in classrooms. During the civil rights movement, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, group singing helped freedom fighters hold onto their courage in the most difficult of circumstances. “The freedom songs are playing a strong and vital role in our struggle,” said the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., “they give the people new courage and a sense of unity. I think they keep alive a faith, a radiant hope in the future, particularly in our most trying hours.”

Community building in the classroom is probably our first goal as teachers. When we form a cohesive, caring community, class rules seem to easily fall into place. Children help and support each other, bullying becomes practically a non-issue and maintaining discipline is not the teacher’s priority.

Before I continue writing about the importance and joy of singing with children, I must address the issue of voice. Many teachers have told me that they really cannot sing in school because they don’t have good singing voices. Truth be told, my voice is somewhat flat and I have difficulty carrying a tune. However, that never seemed to bother the children in any of my classes.

We sang every day and for many different purposes. As we studied bridges, we sang Love Can Build a Bridge, which led to an interesting discussion of metaphors. Maggie described a kiss as the bridge of lips between two people and Nils noticed that a rainbow could be a bridge from our earth to the sky. During the years that I co-taught with Connie Norgren, combining her first grade class and my kindergarten class each day for Choice Time, Inquiry Studies and group sings, Connie, a wonderful guitarist and folk singer, taught us many ecology songs (Think About the Earth; The Garden Song), freedom songs (Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around; Rosa Parks; This Little Light of Mine) and songs from different cultures, (Des Colores; Que Bonita Bandera; Santa Lucia)

Many literacy skills can grow out of the joyful experiences of singing together. Here are but a few of them.

Phonemic Awareness

When children sing and clap out songs, they are also playing around with sounds. They segment them and then put them back together again.  They tap and clap out rhythms. Consider the song Baby Beluga where the rhythm spaces the song into syllables, “Ba-by Be-lu-ga, in the deep blue sea” or the chant Miss Mary Mack:  “Miss Mar-y Mack, Mack Mack. All dressed in black, black, black. With sil-ver buc-kles all down her back, back, back.”

Rhyme

Because there are so many rhyming songs it’s almost difficult to know which ones to highlight. For starters there’s Down By the Bay, Jenny Jenkins, and This Old Man (which is also a counting song). Singing songs that mix up initial consonants such as in Willoughby, Wallaby Woo bring out lots of giggles but also involve children in thinking about the sounds of the consonants in addition to the rhymes.

Alphabetic Awareness

Besides the old standby of the ABC song, don’t forget about A You’re Adorable. My class loved to sit in a circle and write the letters on each other’s back as they sang. Then they rubbed their hands across the back that they wrote on to erase the letters, turned around and re-sang the song as they wrote in upper case! It was a non-threatening way for children to practice writing the alphabet and it gave me the opportunity to casually walk around the circle, singing and noticing who was still having difficulty with letter formation.

Phonemic Awareness and Spelling Patterns

A song that opens up opportunities for the engaging activity of going on hunts for spelling patterns is I Can’t Spell Hippopotamus.  After we’ve had many opportunities to sing that funny song and come up with some simple spelling patterns (can, man, pan or bet, let, set) children set themselves up in partnerships, get sticky-notes and pencils, and peruse the classroom looking for spelling patterns on charts and in books around the room. Then we get back together and sing again, incorporating their notes into the song. It’s a game, it’s a song, it’s a spelling lesson, and it’s fun!

One to One Word Recognition

After children know a song really well (“by heart”), put the lyrics on a chart and the children will begin making connections between the words that they have been singing and the words that are written on the paper. Children can then take turns being the teacher and, with a wooden stick (I’ve used a chopstick), point to the words as the class reads and sings along. Children might take turns looking for sight words on the song chart and underlining them. Then they might put circles or boxes around words in the song that keep repeating. The key importance here is to wait until the children have internalized the words of the song aurally before making them visual. When you do that, the print is meaningful to the reader.

In June, I often celebrated our year of singing by recording the children singing together, making copies of the tape (would it be a CD today?) for each child and adding a sing-along songbook.  I recently met a former student, now a college graduate, who told me that for years after kindergarten she listened to the tape and that the family played it when they went on long trips so that they could all sing along together, karaoke style!

I like to keep in mind the words from an African spiritual that encourages us to “sing when the spirit says sing,” and to bring spirit and joy into each school day. Joyful singing can become a bridge to many joyful literacy learning experiences!

 

Renee Dinnerstein is a featured speaker at our 2017 Literacy for All Conference, October 22-24th.  She will be presenting on Monday and Tuesday of the Conference.  Click here for detailed information on all of our workshops.

Student Choice – Building Mindful Confident Learners

by Mary Anne Buckley, presenter at the 2017 Literacy for All Conference

At an early Parent / Teacher conference Jacob’s mom was telling me how much he liked art and science but he what really loved this year was writing workshop. Jacob’s dad then chimed in, “And I’m sure you know you get “Best Teacher” points for letting him sit wherever he wants.” I was a bit taken aback by the somewhat accusatory tone, as if it was purely an egocentric act on my part to not assign seats. I stumbled through a quick explanation of student choice but felt pressed to cover the other, more typical topics of conferences.

Mary Anne Buckley - low resThe comment stuck with me and I spent the next hour ruminating about parent conferences and why I don’t assign seats. Typically parents ask, “Is she making good choices during reading?” or “Is he making good choices with his friends?” We all want our children/students to “make good choices.” Learning HOW to make “good choices” is an essential component of education and it takes time, mindful observation and patience. I happily realized the rest of my conferences could completely revolve around how choice drives our K/1 multi-age classroom!

Often we confuse student choice with lack of “teacher control”. Teachers have shared with me the panic they feel if a student doesn’t choose an “easy” topic for non-fiction research so…they control the topics. They feel frustrated when Grace sits next to Joshua and talks the whole time so…they control the seating chart. A typical worry is that student choice will throw off the Pacing Guide so…they keep the students’ discussions focused on an “logical path”. (Personal Pet Peeve sidebar: try to remember folks, it’s a GUIDE.)

As educators we have an enormous amount of outside demands placed upon us. Standards that seem to change yearly (even though they don’t really change at all), progress reports, benchmark assessments, allotted time frames for language and math instruction – sometimes it feels like I’m barely keeping my head above water from November to May! And it’s easy to fall into thinking that more control will ease that overwhelmed feeling. I thought imposing more control on my class would gain me time but the contrived compliance (or lack of it!) only increased my frustration and created a sense of distrust with my students. Now to I stay sane by nurturing student choice.

Control belongs in our classrooms when it means nurturing students to gain control over strategies in reading or developing conversational control during math share or gaining self control on the playground. The goal of control needs to be for students to become more independent, more mindful and more invested in their learning. We want students to make choices, evaluate outcomes and make adjustments in reading, writing, math, science – all academic arenas. We can only get to those higher levels of control if students are given opportunities to practice them in real life situations.​ When we provide social and emotional choice opportunities and explore them through explicit discussions and instruction students begin to trust that their school cares about them, the adults respect their feelings and listen to their concerns. And after building that relationship we can extend choice opportunities to our academic endeavors.

​Here are some ideas for exploring student choice in the beginning of the school year:

Try starting with no seating charts – not at desks or tables, not on the carpet, not at snack. And then watch what happens. There will be favorite spots and favorite friends, there will be giggles and disputes, collaborations and hurt feelings. And this provides fabulous opportunities for establishing what it means in your community to make choices. Use these real moments to discuss with the whole class what it means to “include” and “exclude” people. Read a book about Martin Luther King Jr. or Jackie Robinson or Trudy Ludwig’s ​Invisible Boy​ or ​Red ​ by Jan de Kinder. Students easily identify with being left out but the discussion can also lead to admitting to being the one who left someone out. This discussion, in early September, instantly raises the trust factor in your classroom.

Next try to loosen the reins of your Reading Workshop control for two weeks. Open the library all at once and tell them, “Stuff your book box with any book you want.” And then watch what happens. There will be favorite books and favorite topics. There will be focused reading buddies and there will be jokesters avoiding work. Use these observations of student choice to discuss with your class what reading ​really​ is. Every class is different and by involving them honestly in developing their reading community you build trust and respect. (Looking back on my first years teaching I see that without these real life classroom examples my anchor chart of “Reading Workshop Is…” should have really had the title: “Do What I Want So I Can Teach.”) Try the picture book ​Reading Makes you Feel Good​ by Todd Parr or Patricia Polacco’s ​Thank You Mr. Falker​ to start the conversation about why we read and how we can help each other love reading.

Recess is next. Ahhh, the sigh of relief that is released when we get to the playground – by kids and teachers! It can be easy to let go of control here and let kids be kids. And they need that. There will be negotiating, debating, collaborating, disagreeing, arguing and compromising. Recess is filled with tremendous opportunities to help students develop the skills of learning HOW to make choices. Use the incidents on the playground to exchange ideas on what is a “real tag” or how to tell a friend you don’t want to play with them today. ​Recess Queen​ by Alexis O’Neill or Mo Willems’ ​A Big Guy Took My Ball​ are great books to open up deliberations on playing fairly.

Our students face tricky and weighty social and emotional choices every day and when we explicitly teach them the tools of HOW to make choices the skills will carry over into our academic conversations and problem solving activities. ​Ultimately teachers are the decision makers in many ways. Deciding to keep the essential learnings our focus, we can pose questions, provide choice opportunities, and step back to watch our students learn HOW to make choices, find answers, and share their learning with confidence and joy. It’s then we know we’ve made a good choice.

Mary Anne Buckley is presenting at our 2017 Literacy for All Conference, October 22-24th.  She will be presenting on Tuesday a session titled “If We’re Not Mindful, It’s Not Education (Grades PreK-8)”.  Click here for detailed information on all of our workshops.

Navigating The Literacy Continuum to Guide Responsive Teaching

by Helen Sisk, Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative Faculty

 

helen-siskTeaching in a responsive manner requires us to think reflectively about literacy growth by noticing and analyzing student talk and written work. We reflect on why students respond in certain ways and know how to help them take on next steps in building a complex and flexible literacy processing system. It takes a skillful teacher to do this effectively.

One tool that can guide our decision-making is The Literacy Continuum: A Tool for Assessment, Planning, and Teaching (Fountas and Pinnell, 2017) It is a valuable resource to support us in observing what students know and understand as readers and writers and it informs our teaching. It is organized around eight literacy learning continua that span grades PreK-8. Not only is it aligned with literacy standards, it includes detailed descriptions of student progress over time.

The Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative at Lesley University is excited to offer an introduction to this continuum during our summer institute for teachers of grades K-6: “Navigating the Literacy Continuum to Guide Responsive Teaching,” This institute is an opportunity to delve into the new, expanded edition of the Literacy Continuum, and learn how to use it as a guide to observe, plan, teach, and reflect on literacy teaching.

The reading focus in this institute includes extending teacher and student talk for effective processing during interactive read aloud and shared reading. Two other components that further address comprehension include guided reading and writing about reading.  All of these literacy elements will be explored.

The writing focus begins by understanding the continuum of word study and how it progresses over the school year and across grade levels. We will study student writing to develop purposeful mini-lessons and the talk surrounding teacher-student conferences to identify strengths and next steps to address in teaching.

Come hear Irene Fountas discuss the Literacy Continuum and its impact on teaching and learning. Work in small groups with literacy trainers and other teachers to refine your practice and expand your knowledge about the teaching of reading and writing.

We hope to see you here at Lesley University for our Summer Literacy Institute, July 10-13, 2017. Register now!

Making the Invisible, Visible: 5 Ways to Illuminate Learning in Our Classrooms

By Paula Bourque, Literacy Coach/Author and Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker

Paula Bourque

  • A student returns to class after pull-out support, looks around, and asks, “What are we doing?”
  • I’ve finished my mini-lesson and call on a student with a raised hand. “I don’t get it.” he says.
  • I conference with a student who holds out her paper and asks, “Is this good?”

These interactions remind me there is often a mismatch between teaching and learning.  Learning is that “in the head” process only perceptible through the work, behavior, or conversations of our students. So I need to keenly observe their words and actions to get inside their heads, see my teaching through their eyes, and better align pedagogy to student need. I need to find ways to make my intentions and expectations more visible and accessible to them. If I have any hope of cultivating self-directed learners they truly need to see the direction we are headed! Here are a few approaches I have found to be helpful.

Give them the box to the puzzle! For some of our students, school is a big puzzle. Routines and structure can be like the box to that puzzle for students; the big picture for how all the pieces fit together. Frameworks that use a workshop model, mentor texts, exemplars, anchor charts, and posted learning targets give a visible structure to the expectations. This predictability can free up working memory from what are we doing to focus more on how are we doing it.

For students who are pulled from our classroom for supports, it is critical that consistent structures are in place as they come and go. They should see assignments, anchor charts, exemplars, and/or learning targets posted so they can join in with minimal difficulty. They should have an idea of what the class was doing while they were away so they can continue to make connections to their learning. If students seem disoriented, confused, or disconnected, we need to find ways to take the mystery out of how school (or at least our classroom) works for them.

You can’t hit a target you can’t see. Unless students clearly understand the intended learning, it is difficult to meet the expectations. Students are shooting blind when the teacher is the only one who knows the exact location of the bulls eye. They may be aiming in the right direction, but their accuracy is severely compromised.  When we create ‘kid-friendly’ learning targets that address ‘bite-sized’ amounts of learning, it removes the blinders and allows for greater self-direction from students.  It makes the intention of the lesson visible and accessible to everyone, not just the teacher.

Try to see our expectations through our students’ eyes.  What would “right” look like? What would comprehension/understanding sound like? How will I know when I’ve “hit” the target? Many teachers use a framework for targets using this stem to increase visibility:  Today I will____, So I can____. I’ll know I have it when____. Students need to see how the activity they are engaged in moves their learning and skills forward. Time is too precious of a commodity in schools for students to engage in activities that do not explicitly advance their learning or understanding.  Making our expectations clear and visible can eliminate wasted time and energy for students trying to figure out what we want from them.

Learning Target                  LT w SC

Post Look-Fors. Anytime we hang student work in the hallways or publish it to an audience, we can’t be sure what others will notice. I encourage teachers to post Look-Fors that direct attention to the learning that happened while completing a piece of work.  If word choice was a focus for a writing project, a Look-For that illuminates this for the audience will give equal time to process as well as product. Ex: “We’d like you to notice our 4th graders worked hard on using more precise and descriptive words in this writing.”  Look-Fors invite others to appreciate the learning and encourages other students to try out those skills and ideas as well.

Student Look Fors          Look Fors

Good demonstration is good communication. Think alouds and demonstrations are nothing new, but I think they are often underutilized in classrooms that feel time-compelled to fit more and more into a busy day, but they are one of the best ways to make the invisible (thinking) more visible (words and actions).  They require us to slow down and accurately recreate the thinking and behaviors that go into successfully completing a task or understanding a concept.

However, I would encourage us to reflect on our demonstrations and consider how closely they mirror the thoughts and behaviors of all the students in our classrooms. Frequently we model or think aloud the right way to do something, yet we have students who don’t grasp what we are doing. Our modeling is outside their zone of proximal development. If we asked ourselves, “How might a struggling student approach this task?” and offer a demonstration with this in mind, we may provide a more accessible model. What are some typical misconceptions we are seeing with students? How can we offer demonstrations to address and support them? What if our think alouds walked students through common confusions?

The best demonstrations offer our students a visible path from where they are to where we want them to be. Modeling expectations without contemplating the starting point of our learners may end up leaving many behind.

Create/document a learning history.  Sometimes it takes visible proof to help students see their learning and foster a growth mindset. Because it happens so incrementally, students often don’t believe they are growing. Keeping samples of student work in portfolios (either digitally or on paper) can be a powerful visual documentation of their learning history.

Students who keep writer’s notebooks are often amazed near the end of the year when they look back at their early work. (“I never even used to paragraph!”) Students who keep reading logs/lists are frequently stunned at how much they read. (“Oh wow, I forgot I read all those Flat Stanleys!”) Keeping samples of math work can demonstrate the increasing complexity and variety of math work students worked on during the year. (“That’s so easy now.”)

Opportunities to reflect on learning over time is a powerful way to develop a growth mindset that can sustain students when they encounter new challenges. Invite them to reflect with stems like: I used to ________ but now I ______.   Some things that used to be hard for me were: _____.  Then encourage students to lean on those revelations to buoy them in the future: “When I have assignments that are hard next year, I’m going to remember_____.”

In the same way, we make physical growth visible with lines drawn on door frames, and we can make their cognitive growth more visible as well. For many of our students, seeing is believing. We need to make the invisible, more visible.