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.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Explosive Child

Ross Greene is a doctor of psychology affiliated with Massachusetts General Hospital. He has created a non-profit organization designed at collaboratively working with families and schools to help improve the behavior of children who exhibit explosive and inflexible behavior. Information about his non profit is available at .  Dr. Greene gives many workshops on his approach including one on October 4, 2012 in the Rochester, New York area which I hope to attend. (see ).
The Explosive Child by author Ross Greene, is a wonderful book that details an approach to dealing with problem behaviors in children. While inflexible-explosive children may have a variety of diagnoses ranging from ADHD to ASD to Oppositional-defiant disorder, he has clustered the characteristics of behavior under this global title. Children with this title exhibit the following characteristics:

  1.  difficulty managing and controlling the emotions associated with frustration
  2.  an extremely low frustration threshold- easier to become frustrated
  3.  low tolerance for frustration- it is more intense and less tolerated by the child
  4.  limited capacity for flexibility and adaptability
  5.  tendency to think in concrete, rigid, black and white manner
  6.  persistence of inflexibility and poor response to frustration despite high levels of extrinsic motivation  [emphasis added]
  7.  explosive incidents that come from "no where."
  8.  some issues that he is especially rigid about
  9.  may be fueled by other disorders
  10.  often set off or exasperated by tiredness and hunger                p. 16-18

One of the striking things about these children is that they do not seem to improve significantly under traditional behavior management techniques. Consequences are based on the idea that a rational and coherent child can choose one behavior or another. Dr. Greene has found that for these children, they struggle because they enter a zone where they are not in control of themselves; they are incoherent and consequently they cannot modify their behavior based on thinking. They are developmentally delayed in both flexibility and frustration tolerance and need to be taught how to become both more flexible and how to better manage frustration. They are not acting out for attention, because they do not know who is an authority, or they are not motivated to behave. These children often are upset with themselves for losing control. They know that their behavior marks them and they know who is an authority in their lives. They get to a point where they cannot make a better choice.

Several models of intervention being used at schools such as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and Theraputic Crisis Intervention (TCI) incorporate elements of Dr. Greene's work. They acknowledge that children may not have the knowledge of alternate approaches or the fluency of use of such knowledge to effective self-regulate their behavior. I think this is critical. Intervention needs to occur prior to the breakdown. We need to teach skills and strategies to use in times of challenges. We need to develop tools for recognizing and handling frustration. We need to acknowledge the need for proactive flexibility- we organize their lives. We have it in our power to help them transition with warnings, schedules and collaborative problem solving.

Although it may seem cliche, a key component of the approach is to pick your battles. There are three types of expectations- non-negotiable ones, ones that you can work on and unimportant at the moment ones. The nonnegotiable ones are primarily safety related. There are few of these because the rules are set and cannot be changed and are worth dealing with a meltdown about. Then there are the ones you can work on- THIS MUST BE LIMITED, TOO. You can only address so many things at once. I'll never forget my son's teacher who was rewarding and punishing him for respect. The problem was when she explained the program to me, she actually used the phrase, "really, everything boils down to respect." You cannot use such a vague descriptor because you cannot teach it all at once. Specify the behaviors you are working on. For example using words to appropriately recognize frustration or use either a peer helper or aide to assist with writing to address handwriting challenges. Finally there are the things that are unimportant. They may not always be unimportant, but at the moment, you have put them lower on the prioritization. Carefully identifying key behaviors to focus on at one time allows the time teach the skill. Some things just need to be ignored because the bandwidth to address problems is full.

One quote that really hit me was, " punishing a child to set an example for or to be fair to others- especially when there's no expectation that the punishment will be an effective intervention for the child being punished- makes little sense" (p 284). How often have we heard or thought that we needed to implement a punishment because others needed to see the example? It does not make sense for our children. True, when law enforcement gets involved there may be little choice. Justice is blind and often stupid. In schools and at home we can use a better solution. Punishments are designed to modify behavior, not set examples for others. If there is no likelihood that the result will be modified behavior, the punishment is really likened to abuse. We need to know our kids and treat them as unique individuals. Their history tells us much about how to be successful or unsuccessful. We need to mine that history and use it to help our children.

Although punishments are not necessarily useful, celebrating success is. It provides hope. "I can learn a new skill, make a new friend, do this seemingly impossible thing..." This message is important in preserving or developing the self esteem of children who seem to be at the mercy of their emotions and behaviors. The focus on the baby steps that lead us to better outcomes is essential to having adults that will not be our next prison generation. That is where these kids will end up if we cannot help them.