Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Out of My Mind

Yes, I have had people accuse me of being out of my mind, but this post is not about that. Sharon M. Draper wrote Out of My Mind, a novel about the life of Melody, a young girl with spastic quadriplegia (cerebral palsy involving her entire body). The difficult thing is that although this young girl has extremely limited control of her body and cannot speak, she is smart. The story tells of her life- both as an underestimated student in a self-contained class and as a child participating in an inclusion class. It incorporates the role of critical people in the community- a neighbor who not only provides unqualified love and babysitting, but teaching; teachers who push to try and bring out her spark; and a paraprofessional who patiently offers support and assistance both in and out of school. These people help Melody and her family survive and thrive.

Ms. Draper artfully captures the frustration of having things to say and not being able to say them, of not being treated fairly by her teachers and peers, and of not being able to control her body. It touches on the frustrations of Melody's parents, but does not really dwell on them as it is told from Melody's point of view. 

This book provides insight into a world that is hard to imagine. It suggests hope when it is easy to see only desperation. It celebrates the unstoppable human spirit. As a teacher working with students with special needs it reinforces that we must work hard to reach and develop every child because we do not know the true potential of our students.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Strategies that work: Teaching comprehension

Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis's book, Strategies that Work: Teaching Reading Comprehension for Understanding and Engagement: Second Edition, is a book that reiterates much of what is said in other comprehension books. Primarily they contend that to make comprehension a goal, you must explicitly teach kids to actively read. Without active involvement, readers are just going through the motions. The strategies they suggest are:
  • monitoring comprehension
  • activating background knowledge
  • questioning
  • visualizing and inferring
  • determining importance in text
  • summarizing and synthesizing.

They utilize two primary techniques- annotating and taking notes. By annotating, they recommend notes in margins and a heavy use of sticky notes. Taking notes is primarily achieved through various modifications of a two column chart: what the text says and what do you think about it. These two techniques are modified throughout with various examples. They never discuss teaching kids to identify how to modify the charts. I suspect this is because their target audience is elementary with a bleed into middle school. Even so it would be a good idea to discuss how to decide exactly what type of chart to use based on your purpose for reading.

One place they do think about high school kids is in reference to use of picture books across all grade levels. Cris Tovani is referenced as using them (p. 66). I have certainly used picture books with my high school kids. It is a great way to build background knowledge and vocabulary as well as capture interest for secondary students. When you first attempt this, there will be comments about picture books being inappropriate. After you share really good ones that complement the curriculum and make it more accessible, however, kids begin to catch on. They enjoy being read to and the stories help to anchor content knowledge.

They include a chapter on reading textbooks. One of their statements brought home how unique my son is. They comment on the general dislike of reading textbooks. They comment that not only do kids not clamor to read them the adults do not either (p. 233). My son, on the other hand loved reading history textbooks. I had brought home a copy of the text so that I could plan lessons at home and he read the book cover to cover multiple times. In fact he can quote many esoteric facts from its pages, much to the amazement of his teachers. Although not the reading of choice, some kids do like the content rich, authoritative style they embody.

This book is liberally peppered with references to children's books. There is an extensive appendix of nearly 40 pages of content area books, magazines and newspapers which is followed by 13 pages of children's books listed out. I am champing at the bit to get my hands on some of them. For me, this might be the most valuable part of the book.

A very readable book with lots of samples of how to teach the various strategies, this book is useful for teachers trying to expand their comprehension instruction. As mentioned, the book lists are highly valuable as well. Designed for the teacher of reading at the elementary and middle school level, this book would not be a great find for most secondary teachers who would find an absence of examples for implementation.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015


I do not visualize with pictures at all. I cannot close my eyes and imagine a loved one's face, what my car looks like, or the route I took to get somewhere. This is the precise opposite of Temple Grandin who speaks of thinking only in pictures. Wikipedia cites Silverman's research, saying 25% of the population thinks only in words. When I studied in college I transcribed sections of my notes that I thought would be important onto colored paper with colored pens; each section of information a different color. I was able to tell you that the information was on the second page at the top in pink ink, not because I could "see" it, but because I had imprinted the information along with the positional and color words. I cannot rotate things in my head. I rotate a map if I want to read it so that I am always going up. What does this have to do with anything?

One of the major strategies we teach for comprehension is visualization. We ask kids to play a movie in their heads, to paint a picture, to see it in their heads. This is a great strategy but we need to recognize that not all students can do this. They all need practice to try, but some will encode the information with a series of verbal descriptions. We need to be sensitive to those who struggle with visualization. They need to try it, but we also have to explain that it might be a radio broadcast rather than a movie. For learners trying to pick up the skill, this might be tough. They do not have the experience with radio that older people do. They are bombarded with visual media. we need to give these students who cannot visualize strategies to help them "see" the images as well.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Collaborative Peer Coaching

Over the years I have been in many classrooms. I have pushed in to teachers' classrooms in a variety of settings with a variety of cooperation. I have loved being able to watch other professionals do their job. I have learned much. In my resource rooms I have students ask if I would do the same thing Mrs. X did. Often my response is perhaps not, but we are different people with different perspectives and there are more than one way to do things. I have struggled with constructive criticism with some peers. If I am not wanted in the room (and neither is the student(s) I support), the responsiveness is very different.

Similarly, I love it when people come in to my space and observe me. Each interaction is a chance to get feedback. Perhaps the best administrator I ever worked with was my first. One practice that he did was walk throughs. He would wander in, sit down for a few minutes and then leave. He always left a piece of paper in the mailbox of the teacher with a comment or question. Once I was asked about how a particular student was responding. Once I was commending for using a computer game (back in the late 90's) on cars because it was reinforcing for the student. Unfortunately much of the feedback I currently receive now is in the category of  "Good job" or my all time favorite, "I have nothing to suggest." Yes, this is positive; I clearly am not a neophyte, but that does not mean I cannot get better or that everything I do is wonderful.

I have been privileged to mentor and coach some teachers as well. This has been a fantastic opportunity for me because it asks me to stretch to really understand the underlying rationales behind what I do. I have seen some amazing things from the people I have coached and that has improved my instruction.

In Japan the Lesson Study concept was developed. This involves a group of teachers observing a peer and then debriefing afterwards. Critical to this plan is a) trust and b) time. Teachers need to trust that feedback will be professional and useful. They need to have time to go in and observe a lesson and then meet to discuss it. Often American schools do not seem to have this level of trust among the entire staff. We also struggle with setting aside meaningful pieces of time to participate in peer observation and discussion.

Dwight W. Allen and Alyce C. LeBlanc's book, Collaborative Peer Coaching that Improves Instruction: The 2 + 2 Performance Appraisal Model, presented a format that seems like a great way to begin using peer review in professional development. The premise of the program is that you spend 10-20 minutes in another teacher's classroom and then provide two compliments and two suggestions. This is done reciprocally, hopefully on a weekly basis. The feedback sheet is given to the teacher. They suggest a copy be kept in the observer's portfolio as well. Observed teachers can implement suggestions or not as they sees fit. Ideally there are more than two people in the observation cycle so that multiple approaches to instruction can be seen. Crossing grade levels and subjects taught encourages interdisciplinary thinking and allows teachers to see kids in different settings.

The compliments section tends to be easier for teachers. We as humans like to hear positive things and so this area tends to be reinforcing and build morale. The suggestions portion can be more challenging. A glance through the research will tell you that we are not generally good at specific corrective feedback.  As trust is built and experience is gathered, this gets easier. Comments like,
  • Did you notice the students in the back corner who were off-task for most of the lesson?
  • I have used a gallery walk to showcase the art of this era. Have you thought about trying that?
  • You did not call on Johnny at all during the lesson.
can be threatening to professionals. This kind of feedback, however, allows us to examine our practice and make conscious decisions to change or maintain practices.

The other piece of the program that struck me as uber-helpful was the reflections piece. The authors provide a form that asks for the most helpful compliments and suggestions and how you changed as a result of the process. I can see this as being critical to development in a way that current performance reviews is not. In the fall I need to see if I can find a peer who would be willing to try and implement this plan. It is especially difficult for me, since my entire department is itinerant, but I think it would be helpful if we could figure it out.

This book is a fictionalized story of the adoption of the 2+2 program. It is a very easy read. The sample forms are half sheets. They could be enlarged to allow more room, or adapted to have the other half list personal, departmental or school objectives.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Strategies for struggling readers

In special education it is rare that I run across a student with grade level or above reading skills. It almost seems as if the powers at be have decided that if the student does not read significantly below grade level, their disability must not negatively impact their learning. When we look at the 12 or so percent of students identified with a disability, the 5-10% served by 504 plans (studnets whose disability is not significant enough for an IEP but still require modifications- often this catch all includes students with significant health issues or ADHD), and the students receiving remedial assistance through mechanisms like AIS, RTI and repeating a grade, a significant portion of an age group is reading below grade level. Looking at the 3-8 Federally mandated test results from 2013 for NY, a state that traditionally is in the second quartile of the nation on test scores, only about 35% of students scored at proficient or above levels. (These results were, however, typical of the first year of CCSS tests.)

Therefore it behooves us to figure out how to address the reading needs in our classes. Lois A. Lanning's book, 4 Powerful Strategies for Struggling Readers Grades 3-8: Small Group Instruction that Improves Comprehension, looks to address this concern. First I would like to interject- most students in middle or high school do not need a prescriptive phonics program such as Wilson Reading or Orton-Gillingham, but the approximately 10% of struggling readers with issues around phonics do need this area addressed. Ms. Lanning also does not address fluency or language needs that negatively impact comprehension. Assessments should be completed so that students with these needs receive instruction in these areas as well. All students benefit from attention to both fluency and high quality language instruction and they should be components of any classroom.

Interestingly, the author does give a nod to the role of language in reading. Her suggestion to approaching the book is to read the glossary first. We would be loathe to provide this instruction to students; very few would get much out of such reading. Her rationale is that we need to approach reading remediation with a common language. Many authors and researchers use the same terms to indicate different things, so coming to the table with a common understanding of what she means when she says something is a prudent attempt to maintain consistency. She does begin each chapter about a strategy with a vocabulary section which accomplishes this common language goal without reading a glossary.

Her strategies are summarizing, making connections, self-regulation and inferring. These are not sequential strategies. We weave them throughout our reading to assist with comprehension. They can, however, be explicitly taught on an individual basis. Part of strategy instruction is generalizing the strategy once it has been taught. This is where we start really interweaving the skills. She provides an explanation of each strategy and then three sample lessons. Most of these lessons address small groups reading a single grade below level. This is an optimal lowest group for many teachers. Practically speaking, in many places reading a single grade below level is no cause for recognition, no less concern.

Having taught inferencing many times I really liked her suggestion: Frown and ask students how you are feeling. This is a great and simple explanation of an inference in a real world application. This is definitely a model that I can use. I especially like the fact that it does not require any "materials" up front. As an itinerant, I have the pleasure of toting all my materials. Something that does not require stuff is always a good inclusion in my bag of many things.

Another important point that she makes several times throughout the book is that strategy instruction needs to begin on material at the student's level. If the reading is too complex for the individual, even if it is grade level work, is not good choice to begin strategy instruction. Yes, we must move them from their comfort zone of reading to classroom materials, but when introducing a strategy, the reading needs to be brought down to the student. It can reinforce content area instruction- low reading level textbooks or web passages targeting younger students on the same material the student is learning in class. It can be hi-lo novels to demonstrate fiction strategies. The important thing is to start at the child's reading level, teach the strategy and then move the to grade level material. For students who lack appropriate background knowledge of the passage, introduce the vocabulary as well. This could be through a picture book, video, realia, fieldtrip or some other experience. ELLs, students with disabilities, and students from poverty often do not have rich academic backgrounds. We need to connect their individual prior knowledge to the academic prior knowledge. This is the second strategy that she discusses. It is especially important in dealing with vocabulary.

Perhaps the most important take away for me, however, are the five pages of observer target questions- one for each phase of strategy instruction. Questions like did the teacher specifically identify the strategy that will be the teaching point of the lesson? make connections to other strategies? select appropriate texts for the students and teaching point of the lesson? provide opportunities to for students to generate their own questions and solutions? design the activity so that each student is capable of independent success? provide specific points of discussion. This form, though cumbersome, would be great for directing a conversation about the lesson with either a peer or administrative observer. For a teacher who was comfortable using video tape, it would provide a checklist of points to look for in review. I think with some juggling, it could be rewritten to include fewer pages.

This book provides a framework for thinking about how to address reading instruction in grades 3-8. It also, however, has concepts that could be easily adapted to the high school program as well. Teaching comprehension skills is critical for student success. If we truly want our students to be successful, teaching skills that are widely applicable and useful is critical.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Increasing fluency with word phrases

At the end of the year I picked up a second grade student. Usually I spend time with middle and high school students so this was an interesting twist. The fluency work I was mostly focusing on related to older students. Edward Fry and Timothy Rasinski's book Increasing Fluency with High Frequency Word Phrases is a series of books addressing this younger target. There are books for first, second and third grade. I picked up the second grade book and then failed to get it read in time to apply. I did read it and it certainly holds up to the quality and readability that I expect from Rasinski.

As a premise, Fry used computer analysis to develop sight word lists based the frequency of words. In many ways this is a modernization of Dolch's work. After Fry identified the most common words, he developed phrases to use to practice reading the sight words. The rationale being that simply reading flash cards does not adequately support fluency. Students learn the words in isolation and then struggle with them in context.

This series presents a series of 20 lessons (per book) that should be taught in sequence. Each lesson begins with the sight words being addressed. Once students have those they can be introduced to the phrases. These use both words from the current lesson as well as words from previous lessons. Following that a story using the phrases is presented with a couple of comprehension questions. This is to give students a chance to focus on comprehension and then reread for increased fluency. The next page is for independent work- some on your own exercise where the students need to go back to the text to answer questions and then a reading development concept is introduced. The lesson set ends with a fluency checkpoint and an evaluation. The authors suggest this should take about week. Perhaps only 10-15 minutes a day, but a little work each day so that rereading occurs and the students can develop fluency with the text.

Included in the book are two CDs. One that is a teacher resource and the other a student resource. The student resource has audio files of each set of phrases and passages. The teacher resource contains electronic files of the worksheets and readings.

Overall, this system is an easy to implement component of a reading program for students.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Worksheets don't grow dendrites

Over the years I have read about and taken webinars on brain based learning strategies. Jensen and Willis have a plethora of materials available in book, video and internet sources that discuss links between what your brain experiences and what you learn. Marcia L. Tate's book, Worksheets Don't Grow Dendrites: 20 Instructional Strategies that Engage the Brain, Second Edition, is a book I have been waiting to get to for a while. I was surprised at its lack of a diagram of a brain and descriptions of learning and neuroscience. This book is much more down to earth and practical than that. If you want the neuroscience, go to either of the other authors, they will provide it. This book is about how to teach in a way that utilizes the information.

The organization of the book is interesting. The Introduction is a critical piece of the reading- it explains the format and background of the book. This is followed by twenty short "chapters," each discussing a strategy. The first part is a brief definition of the strategy, often showcased with a vignette. Then she includes a summary of the research that supports the use of the strategy. This is followed by multiple examples of how to implement the strategy in a classroom. Examples are present for every grade, subject and position in a lesson. She wraps up each chapter with a teacher worksheet that asks the reader to think about ways to implement the strategy in her specific classroom. The last section, an addition from the first edition, is a sample brain-based strategy lesson plan. The chapters are short, the language inviting and practical. This book is an easy read resource for a teacher.

The title of the book comes from knowledge of neurons. Neurons are nerve cells. The brain is composed of a variety of neurons. Neurons have three parts- a cell body where the nucleus is, an axon- the long myelin coated section that stretches across distances and receives chemical messages and the dendrites- finger-like appendages opposite the axon that deliver messages. The more dendrites a cell has, the more connections it can make. These connections are what provide for memory and learning. If you grow dendrites, you increase your learning and the ease of retrieving information. Students need to grow dendrites in order to learn what we teach.

I really liked the lesson plan format that she presents. It can be found online here on the fourth page. I think it would be a great tool for working at incorporating these strategies into your lesson plans. Once the strategies became automatic, a teacher could forego the complete plan.

I found her storytelling strategy particularly inspiring. She included a story to remember the continents and one to remember to how to solve two step algebra equations. Many business texts discuss the value of stories to inspire and teach. We as teachers need to incorporate this ideal at least as much as business leaders do. Just about anything can the be the inspiration for a story. Stories link the learning to the real world applications, provide a structure to establish the memory and interest for attention.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Make it stick- the science of successful learning

Students struggle with really learning information. At test time, teachers often wonder why some students appear to look at review material as if it had never been seen before. This is especially true when comprehensive reviews occur. Clearly there is a disconnect in student learning and teacher presentation. Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel's book, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, addresses this issue.

Their eight chapter book discusses how learning is misunderstood and then addresses a spectrum of methods to improve learning and wraps up with a large chapter (55 pages) that addresses implementation and provides some case studies to demonstrate how to pull it all together. While the authors incorporate lots of stories throughout the text to demonstrate their points, they balance nicely and really reinforce the ideas.

They premise the book with three ideas: learning requires memory, we need to learn and remember throughout our lives and learning is an acquired skill. This means that it behooves us to learn how to improve our learning with a special emphasis on improving our memory.

The chart below showcases some of the authors' key ideas.

                KNOW this, DO this
NOT this
·         Learning is more durable if it is effortful
·         We do not judge our knowledge well
·         Quizzing and self-testing work to assess and cement learning
·         interleaved (mix up what you are practicing- addition and subtraction facts, volcanoes and glaciers, Civil War and geography) and spaced practice cements learning
·         retrieval practice that asks you to incorporate past and present learnings
·         solving problems related to the topic, even before you have learned it, helps prime the mind for learning
·         all new learnings require a foundation of prior learning- Ground new information in known information
·         Elaboration- expressing new learnings in your own words
·         Learners need to extract key information and create mental models
·         Mnemonics are effective at creating long term memories and enabling retrieving them
·         Learning changes the brain- correcting mistakes leads to advanced learning
·         If it is easy to learn, it is less likely to stick with you
·         We overestimate our learning
·         Rereading does not work for learning
·         Massed practice is less effective (a lot of practice on the same thing in a short period of time)
·         Cramming does not lead to learning
·         Highlighting is generally ineffective at enhancing learning

One thing that really struck me was the idea that effortful learning is more durable. As someone who did not try to bring home the good grades that I received, I had difficulty learning how to study. The idea that learning is hard work is foreign to many students. To struggling learners, they get that it is hard, but fail to see the pay off- they often use ineffective strategies, fail and give up.

Long have I spoken to kids about active versus passive learning, studying and reading. My more successful ones get it, are willing to put in the time and energy and find that even though they have learning disabilities, they can be successful. Students who try to short cut the process, ignore the process, or hope that somehow I or their other teachers can pry open their skulls and put information in there over the course of a class, do not do so well.

Repeatedly the authors highlighted the role of self-quizzing in learning and studying. Not only does this allow for accurate assessment of knowledge, it provides practice with the information and identifies where further attention needs to be focused. In a class this could be seen in a closure activity such as:
Today we learned how to factor equations. Spend the next ten minutes writing an explanation of how to do this and provide an example.
In studying it could be seen in creating flashcards, using a program like Quia or Quizlet to practice facts, solving problems at the end of a chapter of a math text, or tracking down old test questions to work through. Alternatively, it could be making and practicing mnemonic devices to assist recall. In reading, we suggest making predictions or using a reading comprehension strategy such as using a graphic organizer or SQ3R for kids reading at the level of text) or RAP.

Most current math texts get the idea of interleaved practice. Each lesson includes a couple of review problems. The problem is that we often do not assign these problems. I am working with a student in math. Everyday her homework includes several problems of the sort introduced that day, some from previous lessons within the unit and then some from past activities that she struggled with. If I fail to use this approach, she is unable to preform on tests. Social studies and ELA teachers interleave information when they ask their students to write an essay comparing something from the current unit with something from a past unit. For example,
Compare the technological innovations of the Revolutionary and Civil War. How did they determine the outcome of the war?
Martin Luther King Jr. and  Frederick Douglass both worked for civil rights. Compare their approaches and the effectiveness of them.

Authors use repetition to express theme. Looking at 1984 and The Giver, show how the authors used repetition in their novels to share the theme they explored.
Explain how Sarah from Sarah Plain and Tall is similar to Max from Where the Wild Things Are. 

Science examples might be:
Compare how you created the hypothesis for this experiment with the last one.

Compare photosynthesis with baking cookies.

Explain how photosynthesis and respiration are reverse reactions.

Even better crossing curriculums might be:
Discuss how To Kill a Mockingbird might have influenced the Civil Rights movement.
How did climate of the great plains impact western expansion?

Questions like these ask students to elaborate and create mental models. They will be perceived as more difficult because they are. To repeat myself, however, learning is hard work.

This is a wonderful text about taking ownership of learning. I am definitely thinking about assigning parts of it to my high school students to help them understand what they need to do in order to become effective learners. They are not pitchers to be filled, but rather integral parts of a complex machine. If they want to learn, they need to acquire the skill set to do so and put in the work required.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Promoting Executive Function

I was at a staff meeting and a collegue was presenting on his research into executive function. I overheard someone in the audience ask a peer what executive function was. Her answer was organization and stuff like that. We clearly need a better definition than that, but there is little agreement in the field regarding how many categories there are in executive function. Sarah Ward posited that it probably didn't matter what specific framework you used, as long as you understood the gist of it all. Dawson and Guare identify 11 categories.  Lynn Meltzer's book, Promoting Executive Function in the Classroom breaks executive function into five components:
  1. goal setting, planning and prioritizing
  2. organizing
  3. using working memory- remembering
  4. shifting and flexible problem solving
  5. self-monitoring, self-checking and self-regulating

These are pretty big categories so it is easy to see how other authors could use other breakdowns. I agree that the specifics probably don't matter. What matters is that these skills are systematically taught and reinforced. Teachers who refuse to teach these skills because they don't have time or the kids are supposed to know them are causing themselves pain: students will not learn as well or as quickly, they will not remember as well and will do less well when it comes to grades. It behooves us to teach the missing and needed skills rather than bemoan their absence.

Meltzer provides a structure for teaching strategies for developing executive function. Having a structured approach is essential in creating a dynamic in which all students learn and apply the strategy. Strategy instruction can take place side-by-side with content instruction. It is not a case of either-or.

I very much enjoyed her section on students with flexibility problems. When I took my son in to be evaluated the SLP greeted him. She asked him if he had any pets and he responded that he wanted a cat. She looked at him and said, "but you already have Cat [my daughter]." The look of confusion on his face was precious. I remember reading a book about wacky ads to him. He read the first page, did not get it and put it down. I ended up reading it to him an explaining every single entry, at which point he broke out laughing. (I hated this book as my compulsive child insisted we read the entire book in one sitting.) "Dog for sale- eats anything and is fond of children" remains a favorite to this day. We need to remember that some of our kids do not get these language plays and we need to scaffold them. Few people understood my son's limits because we did so much read- and explaining- at home.

Meltzer highlighted many techniques throughout her book. She highlighted BrainCOGS as a program that was very useful. I had trouble accessing the actual site but this link explains the program. She also frequently quotes ResearchILD, an organization that she is the president of. One strategy that I have not specifically used by name is three column notes. Having looked at examples, I have used this technique with students and found it to be effective for organizing information. Edmond Schools has a lovely page with information about this strategy. Below are a couple of examples that I put together.

Meltzer also highlighted mnemonics. These memory strategies are so powerful. We need to teach students how to create and use them. Below are some mnemonic examples.
Overall this book is a delightful, easy to read gold mine of strategies and applications. I highly recommend it.