The Most Important Part of Strategy Instruction

By Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris, 2018 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speakers

With the publication of Mosaic of Thought by Ellin Oliver Keene and Susan Zimmerman
in 1997, ideas about comprehension instruction began to shift towards teaching students  to be strategic. Since then, powerfully influential books–such as Strategies that Work by Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis and The Reading Strategies Book by Jennifer Serravallo–have helped us understand how to consider the strategic work of reading as a collection of processes that work together to help children comprehend text. While we agree that strategy instruction should be an instructional mainstay, we invite you to consider some of the more subtle aspects of teaching students to be strategic.

LFA2018-Kim-YarisLFA2018-Jan-BurkinsHere are five things to think about as you are working to develop strategic readers in your classroom:

  1. You can better teach reading strategies if you understand the reading processes of students.

    Listening to students read, talking to them about their understanding of texts, and knowing how they idiosyncratically approach and process text is quintessential to knowing which strategy will be most helpful to them. As a teacher you can know 1,000 reading strategies, but if you don’t know your students well enough to understand them as readers, you will not be able to effectively match the strategy with the reader.

  2. Students do not need 1000 strategies to be successful, in fact this may make them less successful. 

    The value of knowing a lot of strategies as a teacher is that we can then differentiate our instruction to meet the individual needs of students. Teaching lots of strategies to all of your students, however, will likely produce a cognitive overload. In the moment of figuring out the tricky part of a text, having three very-versatile strategies will prove more beneficial than having 15 specific strategies. In the moment of reading, problem solving must be on the run. Having too many strategies to sort through slows the whole process, which interrupts comprehension. Sometimes, less is more.

  3. It doesn’t matter how many strategies students know, if they don’t actually use them. 

    The real value of reading strategies is in their application! If students don’t–independent of teacher reminders and prompting–use a strategy, then it is of little value. The reading rubber meets the literacy road when you evaluate strategy instruction through the lens of student transfer–Do students know when, as well as how, to use strategies, and are they doing so independently?

  4. Isolated strategies are not the end goal. 

    The ultimate purpose of strategy instruction is that students integrate new strategies into their larger reading process. Knowing how to infer (or question or predict or clarify, etc.) is not enough. Proficient readers integrate strategies, flexibly using them in fluid ways. Putting all the strategies together is the ultimate goal.

  5. Not all students need explicit instruction in specific strategies. 

    Students who have balanced and integrated reading processes, who are already strategic and agentive as they work through text, probably need little (or even no) strategy instruction. They simply need more time to read. Their reading processes are already what Marie Clay referred to as “self-extending systems.” Be careful about one-size-fits-all strategy instruction, particularly if it replaces actual reading practice for students.

LFA Banner for Blog

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.

LFA Banner for Blog

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.

My First Favourite Year

By Allyson Matczuk, 2018 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker

As the school year moves into first term, I have been thinking about my all time favourite year of teaching.  Over coffee with a couple of close colleagues it all came back and I felt that pleasant rush of excitement as I walked home later.
LFA2018-Allyson-Matczuk

We had a district early years team with one or two reps from each school.  The meetings rotated from school to school and were held after school hours with a pizza dinner served. Even though I had four children at home, my husband was accommodating enough to take over and give me that one evening a month free to indulge my appetite for all things “teaching”. Our early years team got to visit each other’s teaching environments and every meeting opened with a little “tour” of the classroom we were meeting in.  While the equipment and the organization of the room was always of interest, the ‘why’ of the room looked as it did was a richer conversation.  We all had the “same stuff” but how it was used and why we had made the decisions we had was fascinating.  We found that we were able to personalize our contexts so that others could understand that what mattered about the experiences we created for the individual children we worked with.  The team from my school consisted of myself and my teaching colleague.  We carried the things we had discussed at the team meetings back to our own school where we couldn’t stop talking about the possibilities.  It led us to arrange to do recess supervision together — twice the amount of time on the playground but also twice as much time to talk with each other and with the children.  We found that our plans about how to implement the curriculum were coming from what we knew about our context… our students.

In a radical move, we proposed a change to the principal.  We would combine our classes and our classrooms and teach together. My classroom was a blended first- and second-grade and my partner’s was a blended second- and third-grade class. We were convinced that we would more than double our enthusiasm for teaching and not double the duties each of us had.  Much to our shock, he agreed and the next year we were a team with open doors between our adjoining classrooms.  The next year was my first “favorite-year-of-all-time”.

During that “favorite year” one girl in first grade stands out.  Within the first day or two of school she informally demonstrated she could tell tall tales better than anyone…ever! Rather than stifling her enthusiasm for story-telling by suggesting she was making things up and grumbling about her sense of honesty, my teaching partner and I embraced her skill and built our plans around it. The year revolved around stories of tall tales, legends, and fantasies.  By contrasting them with narrative non-fiction and informational texts, the students learned to distinguish reality from make-believe and everyone had a favorite they liked to think and talk about. They may have been in grade one, but they had taught each other about genre. We all were fanatical about reading and writing in different genres and trying new ways on for size. First grade students were able to classify the little stories they heard, wrote and read.  The older students motivated the younger ones to read more, to listen more, to write more, and to find others who enjoyed the same types of text as they did or suggest different texts to each other. All the while, they were all having fun and the amount of time-on-task was amazing!

As we welcome new students into our schools, I wonder how much we still are able to do that.  Are we able to wrap experiences around the students? Do we greet the new immigrant student, or a student whose home life has changed, or a student who has just moved across the country, or a student who is differently abled with the same respect for their individuality, their diversity and their hidden expertise as my partner and I did with the students in my first favorite year of teaching?

As P. David Pearson says, “Children are who they are.  They know what they know. They bring what they bring. Our job is not to wish our students knew more or knew differently. Our job is to turn each student’s knowledge and diversity of knowledge we encounter into a curricular strength rather than an instructional inconvenience.  We can do that only if we hold high expectations for all students, convey great respect for the knowledge and culture they bring to the classroom, and offer lots of support in helping them achieve those expectations.”  I’ve had other favorite years since, but I’ve learned that harnessing the power of diversity makes teaching my “favorite” thing to do!

LFA Banner for Blog

Are We Opening the Door Wide Enough for Our Readers?

By Vicki Vinton, 2018 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker 

VV1.png

LFA2018-Vicki-VIntonRecently, I’ve been starting PD sessions by asking teachers to engage in what Harvard’s Project Zero calls a “chalk talk.”  A chalk talk asks participants to consider a question then silently write down their ideas about it, without talking to each other. Then once they’ve gotten their own ideas down, they’re invited to respond to others—again, without any talking.

As you can see, the question I ask is “What do you think are the ‘right reasons’ to teach reading?” And to spark their thinking, I share this passage from Vicki Spandel’s preface to The 9 Rights of Every Writers, where she lays out what she believes are the “right reasons” to write:

Our reason is not—or at least it should not be—to help students meet the standards we set…[Instead] I believe the most worthwhile goals of writing are: writing to think, to move another person, to create something that will be remembered, to find the most salient personal topics that will weave a common thread through virtually all the writing text in one’s life, to develop a unique personal voice with which one feels at home, to develop and maintain a spirit of unrelenting curiosity that drives the writing forward.”

 Every time I ask teachers to do this, they come up with many worthwhile and meaningful reasons to teach reading:

  • To become a more empathetic human being
  • To acknowledge the complexity of human experience
  • To help us understand how we fit into our world
  • To feel more understood and accepted
  • To not be satisfied with the status quo

Yet often, in their classrooms, these same teachers spend much of their time teaching discrete skills, standards and strategies that, in and of themselves, may never touch on these deeper reasons for reading. To be clear, this isn’t always the fault of teachers. Many schools use packaged or scripted programs, which they require teachers to implement “with fidelity,” and the lessons in those programs are mostly framed around discrete strategies, standards and skills. And in schools that aren’t using packaged material, teachers are often expected to write a specific outcome in the classroom each day—often presented as an “I can” or “Students will be able to” (SWBAT) statement—and then assess who’s met the outcome, or not, by the end of the period.

VV2

Inevitably, what this does is narrow the door for readers in a way that can give them a warped view of reading—and it prevents us from seeing all they might be capable of. To see what I mean, let’s imagine two groups of students both reading the following passage from Patricia Reilly Griff’s Fish Face, which is a Fountas & Pinnell level M book. One group is being asked to identifying character traits, a commonly taught skill, while the other is reading the passage more holistically to consider what it might mean in a broader way.

VV3

When asked to identify each character’s trait, many students will read this passage and conclude that Emily is nice, friendly or kind and that Dawn is shy. In each case, they’d be able to support these conclusions with evidence from the text: Emily is nice because she wants the new girl to sit next to her and says friendly things, like “You have a pretty name,” while Dawn is shy because she’s a new girl and doesn’t always respond to Emily. They might meet the outcome on the board by doing this, but they’d be missing a lot. I’ve seen many, for instance, who miss the fact that Emily has lied to Dawn because, having already identified a trait, they think their work is finished. And by missing that, they also miss the chance to engage in meaningful reasons to read: to realize how complex people are.

Now, let’s see what can happen if we opened the door wider and set the task, not on practicing a skill, but on exploring what the writer might be trying to show her readers. And let’s say we do this in a way that encourages students, not to rush to make claims, but to consider multiple possibilities. Those students might think that Emily could be nice, kind and friendly and also envious, while Dawn might be shy but also mean or snooty. Many might also consider that envy could lead to lying, which would help them understand that people are complex—and might make feel understood and empathetic.

So how do we open the door wider to give students more room to engage in deeper thinking and reap the real benefits of reading?

VV4

Shift from Answers to Thinking

While standardized tests are all about answers, reading is an act of meaning making, and the first thing we need to do is shift our focus from looking for answers to thinking. To do that, we need to be, as Walt Whitman once said, “curious, not judgmental.” That means not hopscotching from student to student until we get the answer we’re seeking, but accepting a wide a range of thinking—not to debate, but to consider. It also means honoring provisional thinking, which uses words like might, couldandmaybe. After all, the only way to really know what’s going on with the characters in Fish Face is to suspend judgment and keep on reading with these possibilities in mind, revising your ideas as you go.

Use Kid-Friendly Language

 I’m often in schools that want teachers and students to use academic language because, after all, they’re in school and that language will be on the tests. Much of that language, though, consists of abstract words connected to abstract concepts, like theme, and while we can teach students to use this language, it doesn’t mean they really understand it.

Take, for instance, the small group of fourth graders I used the Fish Face passage with. Like our second group, they inferred up a storm, though they hadn’t explicitly been asked to. After they’d shared their thinking, though, I asked them—in front of all the fourth grade teachers—if they knew what the word inferringmeant. To their teachers’ dismay, some said they’d never heard it before, while others said they’d heard it, but couldn’t remember what it meant. But finally, a boy said he knew what it meant: reading between the lines.

Of course, that definition is abstract as well. So to help them see what inferring meant, I named for them what they’d done: they’d added up small details in the story to figure something out the writer hadn’t said directly. And to make that even more concrete, I took one of the inferences they’d made and wrote it out as an equation:

Dawn had curly hair and ladybug earrings

+ Emily had straight hair and no earrings

+ Emily wanted earrings (“She flicked at her ears” and has begged her mother)

Emily is envious of Dawn

“Ah,” they all said, now they got it. What they needed was an experience and a concrete example drawn from their own thinking to attach the abstract word to.

Trust the Process

In our current climate of teacher evaluations, accountability measures and mandates, trust is often in short supply. And I’m aware that some teachers are afraid that, if they open the reading door wider, they’ll be seen as not doing their job.

I’m reminded, though, again of something else Vicki Spandel says about writing:

The problem with standards is not that they aim to high but that often they do not lift us up nearly enough. The great irony is that when we teach writing for the right reasons. . . the little things tend to fall into place anyway. . . What’s more, the writer learns to care about such things, not because we said we said she should, but because they took her to a place where her writing became powerful.

 When we open the door wide enough for students to engage in real meaning making—which involves continually revising your thinking and considering multiple possibilities—the strategies and skills we can belabor often seem to magically appear. Like the fourth graders, students reading for meaning often infer at higher level than students who are charged with practicing a skill. Also, the claims students reading for meaning make tend to be more nuanced and complex than those of students reading to identify a trait. And when it comes to standardized tests, they’ll be ahead of the game. Instead of starting to think once they’ve read the passage and get to the questions, they’ll be thinking from the very first sentence.

Finally, when we open the door wider, we create enough space for students to feel the power of reading to help them better understand themselves, other people and the world around them. And if those chalk talks are any indication, that’s just what we want to happen.

 

References

Spandel, Vicki. 2005. The 9 Rights of Every Readers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Giff, Patricia Reilly. 1984. Fish Face. New York: Random House Children’s Books.

 

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.

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.