Sunday, December 30, 2012

Analyze This!

The December/January 2012/2013 edition of Reading Today includes an interesting article by Maureen McLaughlin and Douglas Fisher entitled "Teaching Students to Meet the Common Core Standards in Grades 6-12? Analyze This!" Since the term analyze appears in 3 of the reading standards- Key Ideas and Details- 3, Craft and Structure- 5 and Integration of Knowledge and Ideas- 9, the authors explore how to teach students to analyze before they are expected to meet standards including the skill. They define analyze three ways:

1. examining the structure of information in detail, particularly for the purposes of explanation
2. demonstrate and ability to see patterns and to classify information into component parts
3. taking something learned apart for the purposes of thinking about its parts. (p. 12)

In order to be able to analyze informational texts, the authors focus on two components: generating and responding to questions and using text structure. Questioning teaches pattern seeking and structure examination as well as breaking things apart. The authors note Ciardiello's work (1998) on teaching four levels of questions- memory, convergent, divergent and evaluative. This strategy involves teaching key words that require different types of thinking and how to answer such questions. Many questioning strategies have been developed and proven effective. Marzano's McREL group even identified questioning as one of the most effective teaching techniques It is good to teach the material; it is also effective for self-utilization. Reciprocal teaching focuses on generating questions and also provides question starters (see my blog at or Kelly Gallagher's Twenty Questions homework assignments ask student to use metacognition, as students read they develop twenty questions that will be the springboard fro discussion Question-Answer relationships involves teaching students to categorize questions to help them know where to find answers. All of these strategies develop question generating and responding skills. Teaching these strategies on both fiction and nonfiction texts is important for developing the skills that students will need to develop for analyzing material as required by the CCSS.

Long have reading and literature teachers taught text structures for fictional works. We have all seen plot maps and graphic organizers identifying the characters, setting, problem/conflict, solution and at upper grades introduction, rising action, climax, and denouement. Some content area teachers have taught graphic organizers with cause and effect, chronological development, comparisons, and problem and solution. Just teaching these structures is not enough. We need to teach how to "use the structure to predict subsequent author moves and as a memory aid" (p. 13). This is where we as teachers often fail to complete the circle of instruction. We teach the beginning, but not the why and what is it good for. Rarely do we ask students to use these structures to build metacognition. They use these awarenesses because we tell them to, not because they independently thought they would be useful to develop understanding of text. Since this is what the CCSS requires of them at the high school level, we need to teach them at the earlier grades. This is where we have the most room to grow. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

PHP Using science as a motivator for underperforming students

The latest edition of Parenting for High Potential includes an article "Using Science as a Motivator for Underperforming Students" by Dr. Christy D. McGee. She tells the tale of her gifted son being bored and noncompliant in the early grades and finally, with her support, coming into himself as a real world answer finder for his peers. The quote that  hit me was that "the decision for the adults who work with these wonderfully curious [gifted] children is making sure that that their focus is not learning and not on finding ways to be entertained" (p. 16).  For my daughter, I have seen this over and over. She was entertained by coloring, not by learning for the first three years of her schooling. My pushing was well received by the teachers who were pressed not to improve the education for the kids who got, but to get all the kids to got it. They did not often find the time to meet her needs.

The biggest problem of the entertainment model is that my compliant child may chaff at the requirements that do not challenge her, but if something does, she breaks down. She has not learned how to deal with when things are not intuitively easy. We need to build challenge for all our kids, acknowledge that the common core, especially when scaffolded for the whole class, may not provide that challenge and  provide emotional support for these kids who have not learned how to deal with imperfection and challenge.

The saddest part is that for our brightest kids, the solution is that parents need to provide the education. We are rightly required to provide an appropriate education for our neediest children, but we are institutionally encouraged to not do so for our brightest. Parents are told to do the job. It is not that I do not want to provide a rich educational home environment for my daughter, it is that I resent that school can say they are not obligated to do so as well.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Literacy Instruction in the Content Areas

Several years ago the Alliance for Excellent Education released a report entitled Literacy Instruction in the Content Areas: Getting to the Core of Middle and High School Improvement. It is available at This report rationalizes the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) movement as a way to improve education. The authors, Rafael Heller and Cynthia Greenleaf, acknowledge that one of the reasons for the weak literacy instruction is that the "existing accountability systems create incentives for teachers to drill students in simple, formulaic kinds of writing, at the expense of time they might otherwise spend teaching them to write thoughtful, independent, and varied kinds of papers in science , history and other subjects." (p.18) I would go further to state that writing is often minimized completely as a result of large student loads, enormous curriculums, accountability measures that do not value authentic writing and, in some cases, teachers who are poor readers and writers themselves. The CCSS movement intends to change what is taught, reducing curriculum and spreading out the teaching of literacy across subject areas, and changing how it is tested and the Race to the Top winners have bought into not only the CCSS but higher stakes for the teachers themselves. I have previously argued that the inch wide and mile deep mantra of the CCSS is nonsense since they do not reduce the standards by that much, so while curriculum is being reduced, it is not reduced by enough to substantially impact the volume of learning, especially when paired with the enormous increase in depth desired. Teachers are not being given more prep time or fewer students. Most teachers are not being trained to be better readers and writers themselves. So I will not hold my breath for the roll out of the CCSS to improve learning in our nation.

The report details four key considerations for policy leaders and policymakers. In light of the fact that this was written during the development of the CCSS, it is interesting to see which of these things have been addressed in the past five years.

1. The roles and responsibilities of content area teachers must be clear and consistent.
The authors assert the importance of content area teachers not being responsible for teaching basic reading and writing skills at the secondary level, but for the discipline specific skills of their academic discipline. With the CCSS we seem to have ignored this aspect. We continue to put students reading and writing far below grade level in classes without support in the basic skills. Some schools are indeed providing support under RTI programs, but this continues to be an area of concern. Intensive, high-quality intervention in foundational literacy skills needs to occur for students far below grade level. This may require the idea of a age based grading system needs to be swept aside as some students need five or six or seven years to graduate from high school. Many of our students are currently doing this because of failing classes, that is if they choose to press on to graduate at all. Wouldn't it be better to not fail the students but provide interventions that provide the time and teach the skills needed to graduate? To help develop young adults who are college and career ready. It seems that there is a major flaw in the program if we continue to press on ahead, blindly following the idea that all students learn at different rates but have the same time to learn the material anyway.

2. Every academic discipline should define its own essential literacy skills.
While some organizations like the NCTM and NSTA have identified literacy skills and specific content based reading strategies have been identified, disseminating this information throughout the community is slow and expensive. Part of the challenge is that far too many teachers are not practitioners of their discipline- just teachers (no disrespect intended). Innovative programs getting teachers involved in the actions of their disciplines have existed for decades. The National Writing Project, NASA collaborations and many more prove that this is doable. What we need to embrace is that is critical. Every teacher needs to perform the discipline to refine skills and understand what industry requires of its members. Sabbaticals and summer institutes could go a long way to helping teachers refine skills and identify critical components of their disciplines.

3. All secondary school teachers should receive initial and ongoing professional development in the literacy of their own content areas.
The authors assert that secondary certification should require a course on on literacy in the specific discipline and on-going coaching is essential to skill development and refinement (p. 27). Many states and universities are revamping their preservice training requirements to ensure that teachers will be prepared to teach CCSS. Whether these efforts are going to be adequate will only be discovered with time. While many schools have embraced the CCSS and are providing professional development in meeting the demands of the new curriculum, some have not. Furthermore, with the common professional development program of one and done, the idea of ongoing development is one that is questionable in light of tight budgets.

4. Content area teachers need positive incentives and appropriate tools to provide reading and writing instruction.
The authors believe that it is "crucial that open ended writing and analytic reading items be included in all high-stakes reading and writing assessments, content area tests, and graduation exams." (p.29) This is expensive and time consuming. The authors point out that without adjusting class sizes, teaching loads and schedules, teachers are not going to change the way they do business. Culture change at the most basic level is required. The way we do business needs to change, not just the expectations of results. Testing  or a new curriculum is not the answer. Labeling teachers effective or ineffective based on test results is not the answer. Paying teachers or students for good performance is not the answer. These strategies do not address the root of the problem- the beliefs and expectations of the students and teachers.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

NEAP vocabulary and comprehension

NEAP just released a study reinforcing the role of vocabulary in reading comprehension. (A summary of the report is available here as are links to the study itself .)  Education Week reviewed the report here

Long has it been recognized that vocabulary is the cornerstone of comprehension. Reading and English teachers have used a variety of successful and unsuccessful methods to try and address this issue which continues to persist today.  The NEAP study reveals that students in the top quartile of reading performance were also in the top quartile of vocabulary knowledge and similarly, kids in the bottom quartile of reading comprehension were in the bottom quartile of vocabulary understanding. What surprises me is that we continue to spend money researching the link which everyone admits exists rather than spend research dollars on successful vocabulary development methodology.

Kids enter kindergarten with a a huge range of vocabularies, mostly determined by their socioeconomic status (SES). As low SES students grow, their vocabulary does not grow at the same rate as kids who are from middle class homes, probably a result of exposure to rich vocabulary and experiential environments. We need to address the issue here as they just begin to learn language, not wait until they fail reading comprehension tests.

The stickler of statistics does exist. There will always be a bottom quartile and a top quartile. The test scoring is based on the existence of the bell curve. The challenge, therefore is not merely to address the needs of the lowest performers, but to move the entire bell up the scale. (Narrowing the bell, probably means not properly addressing the needs of our brightest students.) This means that teachers must use vocabularies that present challenging words to students, not in isolation, but in rich context. We can say "the twisting climbing ladder on the playground is a helix or spiral," that we will not accept "dilapidated papers ripped from spiral notebooks or crumpled from desks and backpacks," and the book that fell off the desk "plummeted." If home environments cannot or will not reinforce complex and rich vocabulary, we desperately need to do so.

We also need to embrace rich vocabulary instruction. Twenty words to define on Monday and test on Friday does not work.  My prior posts about vocabulary such as;postID=1020278193567943834 and, details some of the research and techniques that are recommended to teach vocabulary. If we are going to present complex texts to our students, it is more important than ever that they have the tools to approach complex vocabulary. Going beyond a broad and diverse vocabulary, students need to be able to identify context clues to figure out meaning, use picture clues, utilize their prior knowledge make predictions and identify irony and sarcasm in text. One of the Common Core shifts is from fiction to nonfiction. Using context clues, however, might best be done in literature as opposed to textbooks, where the new vocabulary is not highlighted and explicitly defined in context.

Saturday, December 1, 2012


I was in a used book store and ran across this classic piece of business literature from the 90’s. Fish! was authored by Stephen C. Lundin, Harry Paul, and John Christensen.  For those interested, the highlighted  Pike Place Fish market’s web address is  John Christensen has a website at  where you can explore the philosophy as well as a Fish! for schools tab. Although I had been to workshops that discussed the ideas, I had never read the book. It is a quick, easy read with a good plot line and simple but meaningful message.   If you have read it before or seen the film, revisiting the material in print is a good idea.

The first, overarching tenant of the philosophy is – choose your attitude. There is a story comparing having a child with a disability with planning a trip to Italy and getting off the plane in Holland. You can read it at . That story reinforces the message of attitude. You pick your attitude. You may not be able to pick your circumstances, but you do get to pick how you respond. Parenting is a difficult job and parenting a child with a disability is even more challenging. Regarding this life-long job I embarked upon, I have often said I can either laugh or cry and I do not like to cry. So yes, I laugh about the time my son climbed on to the roof and peeled the shingles off because he was angry at being sent inside after pulling his sister off the swings and having her head hit the ground first- it took my husband who had to repair the roof longer to laugh. Yes, I choose to laugh about the time I held a screaming child in a wrap hold at the Corning Museum of Glass to keep him from running with flailing arms through the gift shop. Life is full of these moments, we need to be able to see the silver lining and cast the terror of the moment into a positive light. Choosing to have a happy attitude is the one thing that keeps me from sinking into the depths of despair at my life.

After choose your attitude the other three guidelines presented are play, make their day, and be present in the moment. I immediately see how these things are seen and dismissed at times in parenting. We get focused on the frazzle not the moment. We over-program our kids and then focus on doing it right, not being there with them. It becomes about winning, not having fun. We can choose to life our personal lives this way or not, it is up to us.
The same goes for teaching. We can be overwhelmed with the paperwork; behavior problems; expected curriculum; difficult adults; and administrative, state and federal mandates or we can choose to be there, try to make learning fun and rewarding, and focus on the individuals. I suspect that if we give our students our attention, have an attitude that what we are doing is interesting, challenging and fun and focus on making their days both as a group and collectively, we will be better, happier teachers.

NY state commissioner King PTA presentation

At the 2012 NYS PTA State Convention, Commissioner King spoke about his goals for the department and philosophy with which he guides progress towards those goals.  Overriding all of his objectives is the idea that all children need to be college and career ready when they leave school. Today New York State has approximately 75% of its students graduating and far fewer of those meet the definition of college and career ready.  Admittedly, this is a pitiful bar for an industrialized nation no less a state with more medical universities than any other in the union.

Commissioner King touted the need for continuous improvement based on a standards map. He argued for professional development, data driven instruction, and increased principal effectiveness. (This mantra should come as a surprise for none, since it has been the statement of the Common Core State Standards, Gates Foundation, federal government and state government for the past couple of years. ) He defended the use of our 3-8 testing program and delayed results as autopsies that may not improve individual health, but may improve the health of the population. He also urged that they be used in tandem with frequent assessment to inform instruction. This philosophy has been the state education department’s defense of testing since NCLB went into place in 2001.

Some things in his speech were more novel. He promoted an improvement in the culture for learning where we protect and advance instruction with the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) as its centerpiece. He advocated for opportunities for the full range of students, both vocational and collegial.  He stated that we cannot wait to start until kindergarten. Birth to school age programs need to be in place to help level the playing field for children at risk.  Spending money on early childhood initiatives, rather than prisons after children leave school, is good for our society. He argued that we must partner effectively with parents and communities, teachers and principals to meet the needs of our children. When asked how he envisions integrating the various institutions that are part of the department of education with agencies in other departments, however, his response was weak. He commented that NY had not won federal funds to develop improved early childhood initiates so there were very few things that could be done.

In my opinion, if we are going to be dependent upon federal funds to meet the needs of our children, we will also be beholden to federal strings. People argued strongly for Race to the Top moneys and are now complaining about how they do not pay for the initiatives that they mandated, how they require testing and an anticipated narrowing of the curriculum as tests become more important to both teacher and principal ratings, and how administrations are looking at being overwhelmed by the teacher evaluation systems required to be in place. We cannot have it both ways, either we take the money and the rules or we figure out how to work smarter not more expensively to meet the needs the people in our state see for our children.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Lost at School

At the beginning of October I attended Ross Greene's conference in Rochester. If you get the chance, I would recommend seeing him speak. Listening to him speak positively about our most struggling and challenging students was wonderful. I read his earlier book, Explosive Child, and wrote about it at: Explosive Child is geared toward interventionists and families. His 2008 book, Lost at School, is focused on applying his Collaborative Problem Solving Approach (CPS) to schools.

What I found most useful from the text was the inclusion of his Assessment of Lagging Skills and Unsolved Problems (ALSUP) document, which may be accessed at as well as the appendix of the book.  The ALSUP is not designed to be a checklist, but a discussion guide. A group of concerned people get together, identify skills the child lacks or struggles with and unsolved problems- the antecedents of behaviors that are a concern. Then they prioritize them. Pick your battles. Then they begin the CPS processes of sitting with the child, getting a handle on his/her concerns, issues, and feelings; sharing your identified concern and collectively identifying a solution that addresses all parties concerns.

For my son, some skills that he appears to be delayed in include:
  • difficulty reflecting on multiple thoughts or ideas simultaneously
  • difficulty considering a range of solutions to a problem
  • difficulty considering the consequences or likely outcomes of ones actions.
In a classroom this may look like him looking at an assignment, deciding it is incapable of being completed, standing up and shouting that the teacher is a moron, he will not do the assignment, no one can make him and shredding the page. We have improved and this charming approach to problem solving is seen less often.. Years ago there were no solutions other than the one that got him into trouble. Now he can, most often after the fact or before the moment when the problem arises, identify other solutions and outcomes. The challenge remains in the heat of the moment, when dealing with his difficulty handling frustration, to be able to calm himself and select an appropriate solution to a problem. It is the skills to successfully navigate through the moment-to-moment existence that are lacking, not disrespect for the teacher, a lack of knowing the rules, or not having a desire to be successful. We need to constantly teach and reinforce skill development so that he can cope with the demands of the world around him. For him it is hard. I know that this is hard for all of our challenging children. That is why we call them challenging. They challenge themselves at least as much as they challenge us.

 If we continue to do business as usual with our challenging students, the results will continue to be the same- drop outs, prisons, and welfare. Schools are not just institutions of academic learning. We are supposed to address the whole child- social, academic and physical needs.We need to try a different a different approach. Dr. Greene's CPS model provides guidance to an approach that has been successful across the nation in situations with children with the most severe problems- juvenile detention centers, self contained schools and psychiatric centers. It shows promise for our children. We must continue to believe that children do well if they can. If they cannot, it is up to us to help them not punish them.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Teaching students to closely read texts

The International Reading Association (IRA) has a vested interest in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) as half of the standards are about ELA. The CCSS push reading into the hands of not just our traditional reading teachers, but of every teacher within the school. The IRA is working hard to help get information on how to meet these aggressive goals out to the teaching public. One such article is "Teaching Students to Closely Read Texts: How and When" by D. Lapp, B. Moss, K. Johnson and M. Grant from Rigorous Real-World Teaching and Learning Fall 2012.

One of the CCSS reading goals is to enable students to "undertake the close, attentive reading that is at the heart of understanding and enjoying complex works of literature" (CCSS, 2010, p. 3). The first question is what is close reading? The article's authors use Anderson and Pearsons 1984 definition which incorporates the need to "analyze and scaffold textually based inferences" which includes "understanding the language of the passage" and then using "context clues to support an even more precise understanding of the intent of the language" (p. 2).

My students with disabilities are not merely confronted with the need to understand the literal definition of the word, something that often baffles them, but the implied meaning. Students with language difficulties, whether ELL or language delayed obviously struggle with the first. Students with memory or processing issues struggle on both ends of the formula. Then you take the kids who struggle to interpret the squiggles on the page that we easily get meaning from and the kids with social difficulties who do not make inferences or connections easily and you have a pantheon of kids who are going to see this goal as an unclimbable mountain.

The author's suggestion is the inclusion of companion texts. This is not merely replacement texts, but companions. The purpose of such texts is to help build context around which meaning can be drawn. Their approach has the students starting with the complex text and noting areas of confusion and difficulty. (I think about Kelley Gallagher's article of the week idea and highlighting what you don't get.) Sticky notes, bookmarks, or even simple paper could be used as well. Before introducing companion texts, the teacher needs to use this first read to assess if the entire class needs some concrete or visual experience to help build background knowledge. Videos, demonstrations, field trips, realia all could be used to address holes in background knowledge that need to be filled.

Then you present your companion texts which will be used to scaffold learning. There will probably need to be at least two companion texts, one significantly below grade level and one moderately below level. They should include short passages that offer progressively more complex understanding of the theme, topic, issues or messages and use the same key vocabulary. Poems, songs, newspaper articles and lower level textbooks may be used, but teachers may have to write their own passages sometimes. (For help with identifying the readability of a passage based on vocabulary: is a website that allows you to enter the text and then evaluates its readability. Be careful though because this is a measure, not an absolute assignment of how considerate a text is or how approachable it is to a student.)

Teachers will need to model how to use the lower level texts to make connections to the complex text, to understand vocabulary, and to ensure active reading. After reading the companion text, the complex text is read again, making notes on where confusions are cleared up and perhaps, where new confusions occur. If more than one round of companion texts is needed for a group, then they repeat the process, gradually working up to the complex text. Discussion can ensue and understanding enhanced.

The major challenge with this approach is time. Teachers have broad curriculums to wade through and completing this approach for each reading is completely unrealistic. This is where teachers need to be judicious. Sometimes readings need to be at the students level so that material can be read, processed and then acted on. Other times, however, the complex material needs lots of dedicated time. This often means that instead of reading the entire text closely, only a short critical segment is read closely. Higher level students might be assigned the entire reading while companion texts are used for struggling learners. If once a month each teacher from the special areas, math, science, and social studies selects a text to read closely, the burden of teaching the skill is spread out and students can see that reading in all areas requires close attention. This does, however, require school-wide cooperation, training and dedication. Starting with a few non-ELA types and slowly spreading the idea through other areas based on success and testimonials is probably the way to introduce the strategy. Teachers may need help finding and developing appropriate companion texts. This is time consuming, especially at first. Resources may need to be redistributed, and creative solutions sought.

As a special ed teacher, I have used lower level readings to support my students' understanding of the course content. I know that this can be done. It is just another way teaching is changing to address the needs of all students and the new challenges our society is presenting to us.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Guiding Readers Through Text

Karen D. Wood, Diane Lapp, James Flood, and D. Bruce Taylor's book, Guiding Readers Through Text: Strategy Guides for New Times, Second Edition, recasts the study guide for modern times. They embrace the broadening of the definition of literacy to include all forms: from textbooks to Internet and podcast to environmental print. Using this broad idea of literacy, they have sought out ways to expand study guides from use purely with textbooks to use with information gathering. In our information age, we obtain information from many sources and our students need to be prepared to efficiently and effectively do so as well. In addition they need to integrate it with their prior knowledge and evaluate it. The Common Core ELA curriculum writers would concur.

The book is divided into three main sections: an introduction of what strategy guides are, a large section describing different strategy guides in about 6 pages each, and an appendix with sample reproducibles. Each type of strategy guide is presented with 1-3 examples, tips for diverse learners and references. The tips for diverse learners are fairly repetitive and non-specific; after reading the first few, there is not much call to read others. The examples cross many curriculum strands with the fewest in math and the most in humanities. Although many of these strategies would be appropriate in grades K-12, there is significant over-representation in the intermediate and middle school examples.

The authors admit that this book is more valuable as a resource than a cover to cover read, and I agree. Reading the introduction, first two chapters and the final chapter would be useful for all. After that, teachers should probably read the first page of each strategy for the authors' summary of appropriate grade levels, subjects and classroom contexts to identify strategies that could be useful.

This book would be quite useful for PLC use. A small group of professionals could identify a strategy they would like to learn or refine, read the description, do additional research for implementation information, design and carry out lessons, and report back to the group on how it worked. Then they could trouble shoot together and practice again. If a lone teacher was unfamiliar with the strategy he wanted to utilize, either additional research or a mentor could be very important.

Although the language, font size and sentence structure lend the book to be characterized as an easy read and the short chapters make breaking it up simple, reading the book cover to cover was slow because I just wanted to try something before I read the next section. Many of the strategies I was familiar with. Often in presentations of things I am comfortable with, my attention starts to wander. This book did not allow for much disengagement because a) it contained 21 different strategies of which I did not know them all, b) each strategy was covered briefly (if I knew it I could read quickly, if not I could read more carefully or reread), and c) the examples were well done (I am a sucker for reading vignettes of well taught lessons).

As a result of this text, I will definitely try some new things and haul out of the dark recesses of my mind some old ideas. The authors achieved their objective.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Who Moved My Cheese and Change

We tend to forget that the entire act of learning is change. While we acknowledge that change is hard for adults, we often discount this for our students. We want them to start using a planner/agenda --> change= hard. We want them to show work on math problems when they haven't before --> change = hard. We want them to unlearn a misconception --> change= very hard. Some people find change easier than others. People with autistic spectrum disorders tend to be more rigid and opposed to change than others.

Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson is a book that has appealed to the business world. Organizations such as Kodak, Xerox and Exxon have praised the insightful parable and its advice:

  • Change happens
  • Anticipate change
  • Monitor change
  • Adapt to change quickly
  • Change
  • Enjoy change!
  • Be ready to change quickly and enjoy it again and again
This advice is not limited, however, to business. It applies to all areas of life, and I think, especially to education. Adults need to model the acceptance and adaptability that we want our children to demonstrate. We need to encourage flexibility and work with our youth to develop strategies to manage our lives in a flexible manner.

I work part time. One unfortunate thing about teaching is that part time employees are the unwanted stepchild. If there is a need to adjust staff, the part timers are the first to go. The private business sector does not work that way. Family friendly business practices encourage a variety of employment options, including part time, telecommuting, job sharing and flex time. Schools often get more from their choose to be part time staff because the professionals put in the work that needs to be done. If that means in a week, extra time is needed,  teachers will stay a little late, go in early, etc. The employees are not overworked, have time to replenish drained resources, and have a more positive attitude. Due to a staffing cut, my position was eliminated. The quality of my work was irrelevant.

I knew I was vulnerable. The call was not a huge surprise. I was disappointed and am bitter, not necessarily at my employer, but at my profession that believes time served as a full time member is the only important factor. I did see it as an opportunity to explore new things. My husband and I are moving slowly developing a phone skills curriculum and hardware to implement it. The change irritated me, but I moved on. This is the message of the book.

I was rehired three weeks later. Not with the high school population that I know and love or the building I had spent years working at and developing relationships in, but with upper elementary and middle school students in three diverse buildings, mostly teaching reading. This is a huge departure from the upper level content I was comfortable with. I am excited to learn new systems and refine my skills. I am modeling what I want my students to be- open to change, embracing learning, and enjoying life.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

College success for students with LD

College Success for Students with Learning Disabilities by Cynthia G. Simpson and Vicky G. Spencer is written for students to use to prepare for college. Although it focuses on late high school and freshman year of college, it does have a timeline of activities starting in 8th grade.

Eighth grade is the time for all students to begin to think about post high school experiences. Developing a rigorous high school course load, participating in extracurricular activities and community service and thinking about jobs and their role in adolescences are all important to consider. Families need to be realistic about cost and opportunity. College should not be eliminated because of cost for any child. Work and savings, scholarships, grants and loans can make the experience possible, perhaps not at the 4 year institution of choice, but somewhere. Good grades, academic skills and a solid work ethic, however, are a foundation that need to be built.

The authors of this book have structured it for students. Parents, guidance counselors and teachers may have the background knowledge to see the text as simplistic and need more details than provided.  7 Steps for Success: High School to College Transition Strategies for Students with Disabilities by Elizabeth Hamblet is a more comprehensive text that I reviewed in an earlier blog. It offers much more detail on the legal aspects of transition and provides more scripted examples of how to go about some of the things Simpson and Spencer just tell you to do.

The book is structured so that  "learning to ask the right questions" sections punctuate areas. Although the questions are important to address, they may be intimidating and individuals with disabilities may need help pursuing the answers. Some of the areas are ones that need to be taught and discussed with all students, others are full of self-examination and reflection while others require research into student and region specific opportunities. The book does not provide guidance in locating services outside of school for support.

Each chapter ends with student interviews, resource documents and websites related to the chapter. The student interviews are with two education majors. This is a significant limitation of perspective. Education professors are likely to a) be the best instructors in a college or university because of their training in teaching and b) be most familiar with instructing students with disabilities. Furthermore, the programs are more likely to be full of students who are most likely to be motivated to react positively to peers with disabilities. Students in other courses of study may not be well represented by these two interviews.

The resource documents are useful, but the text offers limited advice on what to do with them. Chapter 3, for example is on picking the right college. It includes a two page preferences document on  pages 66-7. Individuals are instructed to fill it out and use the information on their search. They offer limited advice on how to find the information out or even how to use it when you have it. Students may need lots of support to complete this.

Overall this book is a good beginning and very accessible. It is not, however, very deep and further information will definitely be required. Good transition planning at the high school level will be invaluable to student success. Families, students and schools need to work together in the research and teaching that go into getting ready for post-high school experiences.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Parenting for high potential and grit

The September 2012 edition of Parenting for High Potential includes an interesting article called "True Grit: Some New Perspectives on Motivation and Persistence" by Dr. Paula Olszewski-Kubilius. The author discusses grit as the factor that separates star performers from others. She defines grit as the "determination and persistence it takes to reach long term goals" (p. 2). She goes on further, describing the separating characteristic as a level of both stamina and intensity to practice as well as being able to push through adversity.

While Dr. Olszewski-Kubilius is talking specifically about gifted and high ability children, this idea crosses to typical kids very easily. Malcom Gladwell has been frequently quoted about his 10 000 hours of practice to become an expert concept. While 10 000 hours of practice will not make everyone an expert, I for example will never be an expert football player, to become an expert in a field takes many hours of practice, in which failure and frustration will occur. This can be in any activity: video games, musial performance, neurobiology, hockey,... We can all achieve some level of expertise with sufficient focus and experience. The problem is that many people are not willing to devote the focus and time to an activity. Practice is indeed one element of grit.

That leads neatly to the next descriptor- having a growth mindset. Carol Dweck's research into successful people believing that their effort, not their innate ability, is responsible for their success and their higher achievement. To practice for 10000 hours requires effort. You cannot back down because you got to a hard part. Success must be seen as a direct result of work, not merely an aspect of raw talent. When we allow our brightest to achieve in school without effort, we reinforce the wrong mindset. Even though the things that will challenge them will not be on this year's state tests, we need to provide them with meaningful work that requires application of effort, not busy work that they will be tested on but have already mastered. If we do not, we encourage the slide to "I'm bright. I do not need to work."

That leads nicely to resilience. This is the characteristic of being able to bounce back from being down. It is my favorite definition of self-esteem. Self-esteem is more about how you handle doing things wrong than how you respond to success. A person with high and well-developed self-esteem is not killed by the struggle to achieve something difficult, they are invigorated by it. Therefore, it is not praise or success that leads to high self-esteem, it is the perception of being able to be successful with hard work and dedication even in the face of failure. Robert Brooks has done much research into the link between resilience and self-esteem (

In the 1960's Michael Mischel from Stanford performed the now famous marshmallow experiment. Children who were able to delay gratification were more successful decades down the road. This element of grit clearly plays a role in success as well. Delaying the gratification of success empowers them in other things they will encounter in life.

So how do we build grit in children? The author poses a series of suggestions:
  1. Help children acquire strategies to manage moods and anxiety
  2. Facilitate an understanding of learning and working style
  3. Help children be comfortable with the stress and anxiety of challenge and focus on a growth mindset
  4. Help teach how to identify and set both big goals and the small steps to get there 
  5. Model risk taking, goal setting, resiliency and coping skills in  your daily life
  6. Develop passion
  7. Emphasize and reward persistence
  8. Ensure access to challenging learning experiences
(Page 3)

The last one is of especial interest to teachers. We need to recognize that the standard curriculum, even the higher standards of the Common Core, will not be a challenge for some students and endeavor to find ways to offer challenging and enriching environments to our brightest students.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Civil War YA novel: Bloody Times

 I love the school book sales and when my daughter's school had one during open house I took advantage of the opportunity and bought two Civil War books that were specially adapted for young people. Civil War is not a particular interest, but anything that I might use in a classroom is.

Bloody Times: The Funeral of Abraham Lincoln and the Manhunt for Jefferson Davis by James L. Swanson was a delightful find. It could be a mentor text for showing students how to integrate primary documents into a text. Pictures, cartoons, letters, telegrams and other resources are incorporated into the text to support ideas throughout. Common Core Reading goals include:

3. analyze how and why individuals, events and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text,

 7. integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words

11. Respond to literature by employing knowledge of literary language, textual features, and forms to read and comprehend, reflect upon, and interpret literary texts from a variety of genres and a wide spectrum of American and world cultures

The writing goals include:

2.Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
4.Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

8.Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.

9.Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

All of these goals can be addressed using this mentor text to show how a published author performs. Be careful not to teach too many concepts at once. That would overwhelm students and result in less learning. Think about focusing on one or two CCSS goals. Students may notice other things for another lesson, but maintain focus for the duration of the present lesson.
 The book's presentation of comparisons between Lincoln and Davis is intriguing and would be wonderful to analyze. The book lists the guided reading level as X and the Lexile as 1010L. This puts it as a middle school text. Students who have not read material that switches timelines may be confused by the structure and need support to identify the parallel story lines. For some students, reading parts of the text to them may be all that is needed. For higher level readers, independent assignments based on the reading could be completed while others worked with the teacher to learn skills need to conquer the reading.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Mistakes or Errors

The smartest student in my Trig class missed getting a 100 on the Regents exam because he multiplied 2 time 3 and got 5. He made what we infamously refer to as a stupid mistake. He knew how to solve the problem, but made a mistake. When it was pointed out that he had gotten the problem wrong, he looked at it and immediately was able to pin-point his mistake and correct it.

My son received a low grade on a Trig exam and was asked to correct the mistakes and return the test for a new grade. He protested that if he could do the problems right, he would have. He did not know how to do the work, could not correct it and the request was preposterous.

How often do we ask student to correct their work with no further input? They can correct the mistakes, the things they know, like the student in the first example, but when they do not know how to fix them, they are errors. The students cannot correct them on their own. If we grade their corrections, we are giving these students a double whammy.  In September's Educational Leadership's "Making Time for Feedback," Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey point out this difference between mistakes, when you know the answer but were careless or tired and messed up, and errors, when you don't know how to do the problem. Asking students to correct mistakes does not improve achievement and students cannot independently correct errors so the task also results in no increase in learning.

Fisher and Frey point out that teachers often spend large amounts of time correcting student work. Unfortunately this is often a case of working hard, but not smart. If students are given the answers, they probably won't learn anything from the process. The further the assignment is from receiving the feedback, the less valuable it is. Students need teaching to respond to feedback and anyone who has seen students look the grade and then throw the papers away, knows that much of the effort teachers spend trying to give feedback is disregarded. We want teachers to spend time reviewing student work, but we want the time to be meaningful.

The authors of the article recommend completing an error analysis. This is something that special ed teachers are trained to do, but many general ed teachers are not. We need to look at the work, determine why the errors were made and then provide an intervention. Clearly not every error can be taught immediately, but we need to systematically address mislearning and non-learning. Daunting? It can be. Fisher and Frey, however, recommend an interesting way to evaluate student work to use it formatively. They propose selecting a few skills you want students to be able to perform. The authors' example is skills for understanding a primary source document: skimming and scanning to preview text, sourcing, and drawing conclusions (p 45). For a writing assignment it could be: using  the standards of written English correctly and meaningfully, organizing material to enhance meaning, using appropriate vocabulary, and demonstrating appropriate voice. For a math test on area it could be: knowing the formulas, applying the formulas correctly and multiplication. A science lab could be evaluated on: correct format, using the tools correctly, and drawing appropriate conclusions. For all of these examples additional or different criteria could be identified. A chart is created with the classes and errors are compared. Student initials or tallys are used to chart errors when grading. The chart is used to identify interventions to the whole class or groups that may be appropriate.

Targeting instruction to small  groups is something that elementary teachers do with reading groups, but often ends when students enter middle school. Curriculums are too dense to reteach or get stuck on something. Teachers are, after all, being graded on how their kids test. If the entire test content is not covered, it reflects badly on the teacher. Think of this paradigm instead. If we only cover 85% of the curriculum for 85% of the class (the 10 % at the top get enrichment to extend throughout the entire curriculum while the 5% at the bottom are pulled from class, experience absences or do not have the foundations to learn it at this time) and we teach it well, they learn it thoroughly. Students will do very well on the test AND retain the information for next year. Less review will be required at the next level and more time can be spent on new content. The common core has embraced the idea that we need to narrow the curriculum. (I will argue that their inch wide and mile deep is really a yard wide and a couple of fathoms deep, but that is a topic for another day.) We need to teach well so that students learn the material, not cover the material so that students experience surface learning so they can perform on the test and forget it the next day. Targeting instruction on the errors is one component of this idea.

We will not be able to teach the same thing to every class every year, but we will have more learning come out of the process. We will have the first student who experiences frustration because of his stupid mistake and focus it into an intention to be more careful, not my son who was turned off and became a behavior problem, missing the next lesson as well.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Using CCSS for ELA with Gifted Learners

Using the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts with Gifted and Advanced Learners edited by Joyce VanTassel-Baska is the companion booklet to the Mathematics one that I have discussed earlier. Although there is some duplicated material, it is not as much as I feared and it is a good reminder. This book was spearheaded by National Association for Gifted Children in response to the release of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

The ELA book offers more sample questions for implementing a differentiated curriculum than the math book- offering one for grades 3, 5, 8 and 11/12 in each strand, but considering the breadth of the challenge of teaching ELA standards across the many curricular areas that CCSS encompasses, it only brushes the surface. A great deal of programmatic development needs to occur when dealing with advanced learners. We need to thoroughly understand the stretch of curriculum so that when standards are mastered earlier or "practiced at higher levels of skill and concept" (p. 49) we know how to develop activities to continue to push learning. The appendix provides a variety of resources are provided to pursue existing curriculum and methods of differentiating material.

I liked the way the authors identified different needs across the stages of development. For early learners, they comment that "grouping of gifted learners early is a spur to their developing abilities and interests in verbal areas" (p. 39).  This runs counter to heterogeneous grouping lovers, but for children who enter school able to read, it is essential that they are clustered for meaningful instruction and have a peer group with whom to share their learning in a meaningful manner. In the middle years, the authors point out the importance of "reflection on one's potential talent fields and a clear assessment of one's own strengths and weaknesses in the talent area [to] provide another basis for judgment about how interested an advanced learner may remain in a worthwhile domain" (p. 40). This self-reflection should not be solely encouraged in advanced learners. All learners need to step back, evaluate their skills and interests and what it will take to pursue their dreams. Weaknesses do not prevent goal achievement, but they may make it harder to reach. Realistic analysis is important to show the level of work and motivation required to attempt the desired goal. Students who cannot realistically say they will put in that kind of effort should be encouraged to explore other options that may not rest so much on their weaknesses. As children grow into adolescents, the role of self-assessment becomes even more critical. Independence requires serious, unbiased self-examination. Students who want to pair their college and program of interest to their personal profile need to be able to make use of self-knowledge.

Knowing that advanced learners require more from their schools than many programs traditionally provide, what do we do? First we need to have schools answer the question: Will "they become important brokers and facilitators of talent development, or do they become barriers to it by imposing cumbersome rules and regulations that block advanced learners from their upward trajectory of progress in a talent area?" (p. 41) Some will say that this is harsh and too black and white. While there will always be irregular implementation of whatever choice is made, overall, schools do make a choice. Some will also argue that of course they will facilitate progress, it is what they do for all children. If they only do the same thing for all children, they fail and are barriers. An example of this is seen in the idea that students are "prisoners of time" (p.42). If students are locked into a program of study without opportunity to compact curriculum, to accelerate at a personally reasonable speed and are discouraged from going outside for academic advancement, we are keeping them prisoners and likely to diminish or extinguish their thirst for knowledge. Instead of nurturers of excellence we become bearers of oppression. Individualizing instruction is not easy. If we want to promote excellence, however, some level of individualization is essential.

CCSS are not the end, but the beginning. We need to take the framework they provide, deeply understand the objectives and understand how to take it farther for our advanced learners.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Using CCSS for Math with Gifted Learners

One of my concerns regarding Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is that as they roll out and school staff tries to understand them, the brightest students will be left behind. I imagine many responses to questions about educating our brightest learners. Some will be told that the new standards are deeper and require more from our students so that differentiating up is not necessary. Some will say that they will try and fit in expansion of the curriculum as needed, but never have the time or resources to do so. Other places will have the few resources available to our brightest further stretched because of the new standards and budgetary limitations on professional development leading to weak piecemeal approaches. While there will be teachers and places that are successful, I fear that CCSS will be a huge stumbling block for our advanced learners over the next couple of years.

Using the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics with Gifted and Advanced Learners edited by Susan K. Johnsen and Linda J. Sheffield, is a booklet aimed at providing guidance to schools to help prevent or limit the problem. The National Association for Gifted Children, National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) collaborated to produce the material. The booklet is more of a you need to do this directive than a how to manual. The resource section is extensive and useful, but this book does not offer enough to go on by itself.

This is the first place where I have seen the admission that the curriculum is not shrunk by much. While the CCSS say they are not an inch wide and mile deep, the authors of this book seem to disagree. Problem solving may be renewed in focus but that just makes it more challenging material. It took centuries for the best mathematical minds of civilization to come up with the ideas of statistics. We cannot expect our students to figure them out on their own in the 13 years we expect them to be in school. Just problem solving and inquiry will not be enough- direct instruction will be necessary as well.

Of note is the fact that the authors do not discriminate between gifted and advanced learners. Gifted is a title that is some circles has a bad rap and has a specific educational definition. Advanced learners is far less polarizing and easier to identify. Many school districts fail to provide any assessment with which to give an official label of gifted, but every teacher can identify their advanced students. I have personally avoided identifying my daughter as gifted because a) I have not had her formally tested at my expense, and b) it offends some people.  Label or not, these kids need more support to advance to their fullest potential. While many, if not most, teachers and administrators will say that heterogeneous grouping does not hurt the top and benefits the bottom, research has shown that the top does not proceed at the speed and depth they are capable of, are less likely to pursue advanced classes and have the same social issues regardless of placement when they are heterogeneously grouped (Colangelo, Assouline & Gross, 2004). If we want our brightest to be the leaders of the future, we cannot provide them with what they perceive to be a watered down curriculum.

NCTM is quoted by the authors, "Without properly motivating, encouraging, and intellectually challenging gifted students we may lose some of their mathematical talent forever." The National Science Board confirms that our system "too frequently fails to identify and develop our most talented and motivated students who will become the next generation of innovators" (p. 8). Clearly the professional boards at the top levels understand the resource that we are given to squander or develop. Merely giving them the same program or asking them to teach/tutor the ones who do not get it, is not enough to grow their skills and talents.

We know that "intellectually talented youth achieve at an impressively high level if they receive an appropriately challenging education," and "accelerated students clearly excel in subsequent math courses and perform better than their equally able nonaccelerated peers" (p 49). This tells us that addressing the needs is an imperative, not an option. The book contains some examples of how to differentiate within a class. The examples are however, quite limited. Clearly a teacher will need to spend time developing the alternate questions/assignments. This does not mean doing more work, it means doing different work. For example, let students opt into the more challenging assignment by answering the last four questions correctly. The dozen questions for the assignment can be either group a or group b, with group a having more scaffolding, less processes to integrate, lower on Bloom's Taxonomy or simply easier problems. This gives students a chance to practice material at a level appropriate for the individual.

The last critical point that I will mention is the idea that it takes a village. All kids need deep support, even gifted ones. The  authors identify five partners in the process: content experts, parents or families, outside entities, special population experts (special ed, ELL, SLP,...), and administrators. I would argue that there is a sixth partner in the process- the child. He needs to be empowered to say I am bored and not expect to be ignored, have to teach others or just get extra work; he needs to say where his interests lie and what might be doable for him; he needs to indicate his motivation and interest in various optional activities and so much more. The key for everyone is to systematize "an educational program that can provide progression within the disciples for talented students" (p. 63). It is not enough to address of the squeaky wheel parents' children; parents should not have to be squeaky for their children to be properly educated. As a system, we need to do better.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Reciprocal Teaching

Lori Oczkus's Reciprocal Teaching at Work: Powerful Strategies and Lessons for Improving Reading Comprehension, Second Edition provides both an overview of the strategy of reciprocal teaching and specific implementation ideas. Reciprocal teaching is a multistrategy strategy developed originally for use with struggling middle school readers. It involves teaching four major components of reading: predicting, questioning, clarifying and summarizing within the context of reading. For her it is essential to model and teach the components together so that students can begin to understand that readers do these things together. While lessons may focus on a particular skill, students are expected to incorporate all the parts.

She has a wide variety of reproducibles and posters throughout the text that can be utilized as reinforcement of ideas, checklists of stages, and evaluation of process. A teacher can easily find the things that would work best in his or her class and use that material only.

Although the text is geared to the K-12 market, I think that primary teachers would need to incorporate more support and secondary teachers might need to be prodded to incorporate this concept. If a school or district decided to utilize the approach, it would be easier. Common Core State Standards, with their emphasis on reading in the content areas, could be facilitated by this approach which focuses on comprehension.  Still, I think many high school teachers need to continually be pushed to teach reading in their classes.

Of interest is her reminder that this is only one strategy and not a comprehensive reading program. Reciprocal reading is primarily focused on comprehension with some vocabulary/ language issues being addressed. Students need instruction in phonics, phonemic awareness and fluency as is appropriate to the grade level and student skills. While significant reading gains have been documented when utilizing the program, it is not a self-contained out of the box approach. Teachers are respected as bringing lots of knowledge and skill to the table. They should not ignore what they know works, what students have previously been taught and what their personal expertise is.

Another critical feature of reciprocal teaching is teaching social skills appropriate for groups. Since much practice is likely to be in groups, students need to be taught group social skills. These skills include, but are not limited to: looking at the speaker, being polite, disagreeing appropriately, staying on topic, piggybacking comments (add on comments), not interrupting, helping others, praising, and participating (see the observation sheet on p. 203). This is especially important to students who struggle with social skills, like those with autistic spectrum disorders and nonverbal learning disabilities. These students may need extra focus, practice and reinforcement to be able to interact effectively and meaningfully in the group. Expecting students to use appropriate group skills without instruction is a doomed proposal for some. Even at the upper grades, these skills should be reviewed and assessed. If there is a problem, it should be addressed with teaching not punishment.

I liked how the author integrated literature circles with reciprocal teaching. Literature circle jobs are described and options for modification are discussed. These jobs flow nicely into Socratic seminars. If you teach students to actively read, work cooperatively in groups and be responsible for moving conversation along, they will be ready for seminars.

Overall the book serves as a nicely organized resource. The table of contents and index facilitate its use as a refernce manual. The online support will appeal to many. The sample lesson plans are designed to be genric so that any reading material may be supported using the plan. The reproducibles are varied and helpful for both the teacher and the students.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Essential Readings on Fluency

Fluency has been identified as one of the five components of effective reading instruction: phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, comprehension and vocabulary. While the last decade has seen an increase in focus on fluency as a result of NCLB and Reading First, research indicating its importance has been around for a long time.

In Essential Readings on Fluency complied and introduced by Timothy V. Rasinski, articles from the last three and a half decades of Reading Teacher are reprinted. This book is one of a series of reading topics by IRA available at  Although the articles are not recent in origin, their material is valid to teachers. The focus of instruction for the the authors is elementary and middle school. Each article is followed with a couple questions for reflection, a useful focus for PLCs or book clubs.

The primary methods endorsed by the authors to improve fluency specifically and reading in general are repeated readings, paired readings, timed readings and Reader's Theater. When trying to scale these approaches to the high school student, creative teachers need to think about how to meet the curricular needs of the individuals as well as the reading needs.

Teaching fluency requires material at the individual's instructional reading level. This means that low level texts or support materials must be sought out so as to support the student's curricular needs as well as work on reading instruction. Low level texts, however, are notorious for being far less information dense than standard texts and should not be used in isolation with students who need to be able to pass grade level tests. Publishers have produced a variety of low level texts and texts from lower grade levels may be used if funds are limited. has a list of sources of low level text material.

One concern cited by the authors is that focus on speed alone does not increase reading skill. While there is a strong correlation between correct words per minute read and reading skill, they are not synonymous. Students need to expand their vocabularies and improve their comprehension as well. Being able to read quickly will not necessarily result in being able to understand what is read, especially if a language disability exists.

In spring of 8th grade, students at the 50th percentile (%ile) read 151 words per minute (wpm), while students at the 90th %ile read 199 wpm. That reflects more than a thirty percent increase in speed for the students. Students at the 10th %ile, however, read only 41 wpm. That is a two-thirds reduction. So a student at the 50th %ile reads for 15 minutes, at the 90th %ile reads for 10 minutes and the at 10th %ile reads for 25 minutes. When we consider how this might impact students, we must consider how reading tasks may be very time intensive for our lowest level students resulting in them being least likely to read the material because of the time required to complete the task. Simply reducing the reading load, however, means that they may not achieve progress desired. One approach may be to limit non-core readings to allow a focus on reading core material. If the non-core material, however, is highly motivational this may not be a good option either.

A difficulty with fluency is that norms do not exist for students above 8th grade. As the spread between highly capable readers and struggling readers widens in high school, expectations become increasingly difficult to meet and hard to measure against standards. The push to Common Core State Standards may result in push back from struggling students who feel even more incapable of achievement. They may drop out, increase in disruptiveness, and/or cheat at increased numbers. Targeting middle school for trying to improve fluency may be very important for high school success. Developing innovative ways to target fluency at the high school level and disseminating them through the core teachers will be a challenge of the future.

Friday, August 31, 2012

In a Reading State of Mind

I picked up In A Reading State of Mind: Brain Research, Teacher Modeling, and Comprehension Instruction by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey and Diane Lapp because I enjoy brain research and its applications to education. Although there is a thread of neuroscience behind the text, there is little overt mention to it. For someone looking to better understand the brain and learning Judy Willis's materials are more explicit and easier to read.

The book focuses on using modeling to teach. This key step in effective direct instruction has been acknowledged for decades in the education field, but it often gets minimized in an attempt to wade through the curriculum. The authors clearly link the research on modeling to the skills. The examples in the text are short but effective, however there are not enough to really demonstrate the ideas presented. The book includes a CD with classroom examples and focus questions for observations. This would be useful for profession discussions on using modeling effectively.

Repeatedly the authors say that they do not want students doing worksheets merely identifying the word solving, text structure and test features that need to be understood. Rather than a worksheet identifying the literary devices in each short passage, they suggest having it be part of the whole instruction. Instead of remaining at Blooms lowest levels, it suggests ways of using those questions in a big picture to help inform the reader's comprehension.  There is some concern on my part that without some dedicated direct instruction in the techniques, if the teacher only models integrated use, students will not necessarily learn them and all the modelling in the world will not help someone to correctly use something they do not know. Exposing me to days of Greek language will not help me speak Greek without some basic knowledge level instruction. The authors share how to model using the techniques in an integrated fashion. True to modeling, it shows how real readers would utilize a skill. This is where we need to get our students.

The piece of the book that I found most useful was the comprehension monitoring guidelines that I highlighted in a previous post. Comprehension monitoring is an essential component of instruction in all subjects. Struggling students are particularly bad at identifying when comprehension breaks down. This applies to reading as well as classroom instruction. Many students have experienced feeling capable until they attempt the homework and fail. They do not monitor their comprehension. It is a major reason why the classic, " Any questions?" statement is ineffective. We need to model how to monitor comprehension of both reading and lecture. It is a great opportunity to use coteachers or flipped, video-based instruction so that someone can model this skill. Furthermore, modeling cannot be a one and done strategy. Teachers need to provide on going comprehension monitoring  modeling throughout an educational career. Seniors who have been exposed to good instruction, may or may not have internalized ways to monitor comprehension as they are taught. We cannot give up on them as they will never learn it, nor can we expect it without teaching it.

As education in this country moves to a new phase with the Common Core State Standards, we need to ensure that students have at their disposal a wide variety of comprehension enhancing strategies to help them get meaning from the text. This includes being able to identify a variety of word solving strategies, text features, and text structures and apply that knowledge to increasing the comprehsnion of the material itself. Directly teaching and modeling the use of these strategies is key to wide implementation of them by students.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

In a reading state of mind: Comprehension monitoring

The below flow chart is modified from In a Reading State of Mind by Fisher, Fry and Lapp. It demonstrates the steps in comprehension monitoring in a way that may be usable to students if they are taught the various strategies. Importantly the reader needs to implement these strategies independently and efficiently in order to become a good reader. Direct instruction needs to include identifying when a comprehension fix up strategy is warranted and which one is appropriate. The length of the passage to be read before checking for comprehension depends on many things, including the level of knowledge the individual needs to have. If someone is scanning a newspaper for details about a particular event he is merely curious about, the attention to detail may be quite low. If someone is trying to learn the processes and regulations for filing a report with the FCC, he needs to check very frequently because the details matter a great deal.

As we try to introduce more complex reading material to students, it becomes increasingly important that they have comprehension monitoring skills. They need to be able to go back when they missed something or when something is unclear. Without monitoring their comprehension, they cannot engage in this essential process. In my experience, poor readers are especially bad at comprehension monitoring. They skip difficult material, do not realize when the words stopped making sense, and are consequently content to be done, regardless of whether they got it or not. Since they do not have effective monitoring or fix up strategies and the task is often seen as tedious at best for struggling readers, rereading to improve comprehension does not happen.

In my mind, if we want to improve upper level students reading skills, we must teach them strategies to approach these complex readings, but start with readings they can master. At the elementary level we talk about the five finger test. A student is asked to read a page in the text, keeping track of errors with the fingers on one hand. If he makes five errors or more, the reading is too difficult and the child should choose a different book. As we move to older students we tend to ignore the guideline. Students are given "appropriate" books and told to read them. Without ensuring that there is reading at the child's reading level, the child will not master strategies for conquering more complex material. Yes, they need the harder material as well, but strategy instruction is premised on the fact that the material on which the strategy is initially learned is accessible. Once it is internalized, then you can move to material above the student's reading level.

This means that schools need to have content material at a variety of reading levels for students to practice skills on. It can be the introductory lessons in a unit providing an opportunity to preteach improtant vocabulary or concpets that will be looked at in greater depth as the unit progresses. For example, to teach a unit on cells, the teacher might first give students one of three or four readings on cell theory, each geared to individual reading levels. With that text, students might be expected to monitor comprehension based on vocabulary, highlihgting new or poorly understood terms that the reading or glossary will help them to understand better. A homework assignment might echo this task. Once students were successful with reading at their independent reading level, you could move to the next step. An article from Science which is written above grade level might be introduced and the students might be asked to use the same techniques in pairs using their reading, texts and each other to help understand the critical vocabulary. After a number of uses at grade level or higher material, the students could be asked to demonstrate the skill on a homework assignment. Moving too quickly will only result in the students not mastering the skill. Patience is important. Furthermore, struggling readers may master the technique in one subject but not realize they can apply it in other. Generalizing across the curriuclum is important. Talking with the other professionals working with the same students and planning such strategies together, means an increased opportunity for students to master strategies for approaching rigorous material- a Common Core goal.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

House Rules

House Rules by Jodi Picoult provides an interesting description of living with someone on the autism spectrum (ASD). One must be careful, however, to not assume all children or families are like the one depicted in the book. The author researched people on the spectrum and has some poignant descriptions of life from the perspectives of the various characters. I liked the way the author took the voice of the brother. On page 467 there is a beautiful description of the challenge of being the "big brother" when you are not. For siblings dealing with ASD in their family, Theo's voice trail through the book, shows the good and the bad of how one kid handles the role.

My first concern with the story is the emphasis on both the cause as vaccines and the treatment by diet and supplement. Numerous studies have revealed no link between vaccines and autism. While many children are first identified as "different" around the time when their children received their first MMR shots, this is also the time when a massive brain pruning occurs and developmental challenges change. These two events seem far more likely to be the culprit in the "onset" of recognizable symptoms. Looking back, I know that when my 9 month old son could sit in my lap and be read to for 45 minutes at a time, not trying to squirm away or eat the book, it was a sign of things to come. Early gaze studies show that many infants later diagnosed with ASD did not look at eyes, but rather mouths of caregivers in their first months of life. This indicates a far earlier age of "onset" than previously identified.  Do I believe that there are some children with impaired immune systems who react poorly to vaccines? Yes. It is, however, a subset. Similarly the research has said that special diets do not help. Do I believe that for some small subset of children diets do help? Yes. The author's characterization as these concerns as the cause and best treatment, however, are not based in science, but in the hopes and dreams of parents and limited case studies.

Now I will get off my soap box.

The other area I find fault with the ASD characterization by the author, is a lack of empathy. I think that people on the spectrum do experience some empathy, but it is different from how neurotypicals do. They may struggle with identifying the situation deserving empathy, may not have the words or concepts in their bag of skills for understanding the situation or showing concern, or may be able to compartmentalize emotions in a way foreign to us. On occasion they can exhibit empathy in a way that we clearly identify as appropriate. Depending on the individual, the ability to be empathic is highly variable and may be situation dependent. After all, on your worst day, you might have trouble showing compassion for someone who broke a nail. It is trivial. On a great day for you, a compassionate response is likely. I suspect that empathy for the individual on the spectrum is often like that, sometimes overwhelmed by internal stimulation.

Reading this book will provide insight to ASD, but the important thing to remember is, "If you know one child with autism, you know ONE child with autism." Each person is unique with strengths, weakness and characteristics that are different. Lumping them all together is a disservice.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Mentoring Beginning Teachers

Several years ago a young teacher I was working with needed to get a year a mentoring in as part of her certification. We were itinerant staff and our parent organization would not provide her with a mentor because of that status. Having worked with her and so having a feel for what I might need to do, I offered to be her mentor for the year. We spent about half an hour a week, sometimes more, sometimes less in collegial conversations, sharing highlights and concerns. It worked well because we shared a room and had a time when neither of us could schedule students. (We were hourly staff. If students could be scheduled, they were. If not we, mostly, were not there.) When we were each given our own space, the habit of sharing that down time was continued. It was a good experience for both of us.

Mentoring Beginning Teachers: Guiding, Reflecting, Coaching, 2nd Edition by Jean Boreen, Mary K. Johnson, Donna Niday, and Joe Potts discusses how to prepare mentors for the role. I would have benefited from this book back then. It does a nice job of outlining what an ideal program looks like and what real programs end up like and how to make the best of it. By not being too idealistic, the book ends up as a practical coaching guide.

I think that the thing I will use most from this book is a chart on page 65 adapted from Nunan, 1990, p. 82 which is a format for analyzing classroom interactions. As a consultant teacher, one of the things I occasionally have done is charted questioning in terms of who is asked and how often. It reveals interesting things to the teachers I share this with. I see this documentation strategy as good tool for looking at what types of questions and interactions teachers have with the individual students. All too often, my special ed students are not given rich, thoughtful questions to respond to.  If we want all our students to become critical thinkers, even our slow processing, language delayed, limited capacity students can be prodded and scaffolded to engage in higher level thought. It may require more time and scaffolding than some of the other students, but it helps prepare them for tasks that we want them to be able to engage in. This sort of data may be valuable to our professional discussions.

I enjoyed the examples of interactions throughout the text. They illustrate examples of concern, good practice and behaviors that mere description does not do justice. A key thought that is given is that since no one is perfect, there may not be a "right" time to engage in mentoring. The authors highlight the benefits of mentoring to the mentor as well as the mentee.  Probably the biggest weakness is the lack of real strategies to deal with time limitations. Unfortunately, preservice and beginning teachers are overwhelmed with planning, extra curricular responsibilities and coursework while the mentors have busy lives as well. Schools do not always give time for meeting with a mentor and that significantly reduces the effectiveness of the program. Squeezing in less time may not be effective or adequate to meet the needs of the individuals.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Classroom Instruction that Works

Classroom Instruction that Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement- 2nd Edition by Ceri B. Dean, Elizabeth Ross Hubbell, Howard Pitler, and Bj Stone uses McREL research on effective instruction. Marzano's Art and Science of Teaching as well as his first edition of  the above mentioned text used the previous study by his organization. Each chapter of the book begins with a description of the research that supports the strategy use and how it was evaluated differently between the 1998 and 2010 data. This part of the chapter may be tedious for some to read, and could, probably be skipped. If, however, you are asked to provide documentation for evidence based practice, this section will provide it.

Because the book densely describes the 9 categories of instruction that are proven to be highly effective, it is more like an encyclopedia than a book to read. It is a reference for finding out how to improve an aspect of teaching or which strategy to employ. One might then want to research other sources that are dedicated to a particular strategy.  If one were using it in a PLC, picking a particular strategy and focusing on it might be the appropriate approach. The introduction and chapter 10 are useful for reading and shaping ideas. The chart at the very end, p. 168-70, describes types of knowledge and which strategies are appropriate for teaching them. This chart could be the tool a teacher uses to determine strategies to expand or enhance teaching.

Throughout the text a variety of examples illustrate the strategies in use. These provide some of the framework, but are not frequent enough in a variety of subject areas to be easily applicable by everyone.

An area that struck home for me was in the chapter on Cues, Questions and Advanced Organizers. Questions are one of the most often used instructional strategies. The authors cite research supporting the use of questions with students with language difficulties. In my experience, most of my LD and speech students have difficulty with language, so too would English language learners. The authors describe four levels of questions that should be used progressively.
  1. Require students to name objects, events, topics, or concepts- assists with leaning the words
  2. Focus on the organization and classification of the vocabulary- assists with memory
  3. Focus on higher-order reasoning- assists with reorganizing, linking and elaborating on ideas
  4. Abstract questions that ask for reflection, restructuring, and advancing perceptions- assists with verbal reasoning.                                                                                          p. 52
From a numbers stand point I think of asking 5 level one, 3 level 2, 2 level 4 and 1 level 5. That way you can verify that students have the information with which to think about. Using this approach acknowledges that we need to start with basic questions and then increasingly have students do stuff with that knowledge. It facilitates memory, another area where students I work with frequently struggle. It also assists with verbal reasoning, an important step if we want our students to be able to reason in writing. Using such a framework, therefore, is consistent with the goals of the Common Core State Standards.