Sunday, November 27, 2016

What a child doesn't learn

The most recent Parenting for High Potential- December 2016- includes an article "What a Child Doesn't Learn..." by Dr. Tracy F. Inman that briefly discusses some concerns that I have had about not addressing my child's educational needs. The soft skills that she lists include:
  • work ethic
  • responsibility
  • coping with failure
  • self-worth from accomplishment
  • study skills,
  • decision making and problem-solving skills
  • sacrifice.

When I was in high school, I managed to acquire A's with little effort. I paid attention in class quickly completed my homework- only rarely actually reading the assigned readings from textbooks. I had to learn how to learn from reading when was in college. I had a midafternoon class that consistently put me to sleep. I began to read to the book in order to learn the material. When I managed to do , the work became especially easy. I put more time into that class all my other classes combined, and yet it still only amounted to about two hours per week. I am not gifted.

My daughter does not need to put in the effort I did to achieve the A's. Fortunately she has a work ethic from home- she does work that she does not need to do in order to achieve competence. She learned responsibility, decision-making and problem-solving from home and Science Olympiads. Classwork was not involved. In elementary school I would lie about studying because studying without does not teach skills- it wastes time. I do not worry about in high school. She has not ever studied for a final exam or AP exam. I do not know that her undergraduate program will require any study skills for her, but somewhere along the way, she will have to harness discipline and learn something  her own.

Sacrifice and self worth from accomplishment. These are tough ones. Now that she is working 23+ hours a week on top of school she has had to sacrifice some of her reading time, but it is pretty much unrelated to school. As the author points out, it is hard to really feel good about something you achieve without effort.

These soft skills are the skills that will be essential as our children grow up. Without giving our gifted children a chance to develop them, we condemn some to crash and burn when they encounter the challenges of adult life. We need to push our schools to find ways to push our children to learn these skills or at least to offer opportunities to  them. Things like clubs can help- if they are well coached. Parents need to find ways to help develop these skills in spite of school's ease. The CTY program at Hopkins certainly helped, but that level challenge was not available until middle school. We need to find challenge before then. It might mean acceleration beyond grade level while in elementary class. It might mean differentiation in which students are allowed to deeply pursue passions that may seem too old for. The move toward whole group instruction in math and ELA can be devastating to these bright young minds. Let's see what we can do for them.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Research on graduation of students with specific disabilities

We have long known that students with disabilities do not graduate at the same rate as students without disabilities. NCLB's core ideas around subgroup assessment acknowledged this achievement gap and wanted to push programs to better meet the needs of all students. New rules governing how graduation rates are reported has made the reported numbers more compareable. Overall graduation rates are not where we wish they were. Overall graduation rates Rochester, NY, the nearest city to where I live, consistently lie well under the 50% mark. We know that issues that put children at risk of not graduating on time include poverty, single parent households, changing schools/student mobility, parents without a high school diploma, English language leaners and yes- disability. Vanessa Barrat, BethAnn Berliner, Adam Voight, Loan Tran, Chun-Wei Airong Yu, and Min Chen- Gadgini dug deep into Utah's graduation information to identify what difference there were in disability  categories related to graduation outcomes in their report School mobility, dropout, and graduation rates across student
disability categories in Utah.

What they discovered was mostly expected, by me anyway. Here are some of the highlights:
  1. Approximately 1 in 5 general education students dropout whereas 1 in 4 students with disabilities drop out with students with emotional disabilities (ED) leading the pack at twice the rate of nondisabled peers
  2. Students with multiple disabilities (MD), intellectual disabilities (ID), traumatic brain injury (TBI) and (ASD) had lower graduation rates and continuing their education in school past grade 12.
  3. Students with hearing impairments and speech and language impairments (SLI) had graduation rates on par with their nondisabled peers and were more likely than students with other disabilities to be in a grade consistent with their age.
  4. Students with ED had the highest rates of changing schools- approximately 3 times that of the general education population
  5. Students with disabilities were approximately 50% more likely to change schools than the general education population, but students with MD and SLI were significantly less likely to experience school change

Why are these not a surprise?
1. drop out rates: Students who struggle are more likely to decide to quit than to persevere when compared with their peers. This is especially true for students who are facing the knowledge that they cannot graduate with their peers because of credit concerns. It makes sense that ED population has the highest rate of students who run away and are more likely to come from the most challenging home life situations. When you struggle to respond socially-emotionally the way a typical peer will you find school a less appealing place than your peers do. When your ability to control your behavior is challenging- you miss classes, are less likely to pass and are more likely to be suspended. If you hate school or are allowed to be home alone, suspension may be a holiday to these kids.

2. The more complicated your disability the more time it takes for you to learn and consequently the more likely it is that you will need more years to meet the requirements graduation or, if you are functioning significantly grade level, you may just age out of the system. Since school is about compliance and verbal/math skills. People who lack strengths in these areas will not be as successful as their peers.

3. Students with hearing impairments or SLI are more likely to have average cognitive functioning than those with MD, ID, TBI, and ASD. We have good supports for helping these groups.

4 and 5. The more often you change schools the more likely you will not fit . Developing social bonds helps students be successful. When students do not form bonds with peers and adults, they are more likely to learn maladaptive behaviors. When a family is dealing with a child with MD, once they find what they determine to be a good place, they are more likely to stay there because they know the challenges mobility creates for them.

The next question is so what? This study did not go into that idea. For some the information we should not be surprised and probably need no interventions. MD students functioning at levels far below age level will likely never be able to attain a high school diploma and the goal should be as satisfying a life as possible. When you talk about non-mobile, nonverbal, ID individuals, you are not talking about independence, but this is a small piece of the disabled population.

How do we address the students who drop out. What interventions  we put into place to help the students with average cognitive capacity  a diploma- the key to the door of many post school opportunities? Clearly we need to focus on our ED kids. They need support that does not begin in high school.
  • Their families need help dealing with the concerns that are present. Connecting with housing and food aid so that poverty impact is minimized and housing insecurity is addressed. Safe community housing needs to be available. Assistance with job training, job acquisition and maintenance as needed. Help navigating health insurance supports. High quality, affordable day care needs to be available so that parents can work and go to school to support their children. Transportation issues need to be addressed.
  • Mental illnesses need adequate, early intervention. All too often there are inadequate therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists to deal with children. Insurance companies limit treatment protocols. One adolescent I worked with was repeatedly discharged because insurance had run out rather than adequate treatment had been established. His emotional issues continued to spiral out of control. Guess what? It impacted his education. While expensive, inpatient treatment programs need to become more readily available to deal with drug addiction, issues around ting and food, and significant mental health needs must be provided before crisis points. Intense early treatment is far more effective than delayed crisis management.
  • Address the educational gaps formed when students have a history of mobility or poor attendance. This might mean providing summer school services for bringing students up toward grade level rather than maintenance and avoidance of regression.
  • Provide training and support so that teachers have the tools to try and reach these struggling students. We may say that it is great that co-taught classes exist and students are mainstreamed, but if the expectations are not present for the students with disabilities, what is the point? Smaller classes and extra instructional time may be necessary for these kids to learn. I remember one of my early special ed classes in college going over the disability categories. Most included the characteristic of they need longer to learn the same material as their age peers. In part, that is why students with disabilities can attend school through age 21. They need more time. Some may never be able to attain a diploma, but with extra time, many will.
  • Normalize alternative paths to graduation- this could be a five/six year plan, career training, or summer school.
  • Begin early with birth to 5 programing to help children learn language skills, provide adequate nutrition and health care, and housing security.

We know the steps. We have learned the target subgroups. We just need to harness the will to make it happen. It is doable, just not with a four year, high school building target.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

technology and feedback systems

Smartboards and other whiteboards are all the rage in education today. Every classroom should have one- right? Too many of these very expensive platforms ineffectively used and underutilized. If you are going use one effectively to maximize learning, why have one at all? Overhead projectors are far cheaper and less finicky. What makes them effective- two things increase response rate from children and increased feedback from teachers. 

Ryan Lacy's article in District Administration Magazine talks about the feedback element in his article, "Richer Responses, Faster Feedback." He talks about wanting to know where his kids were in understanding material and how various response systems have enabled this. Clickers are purchased with whiteboards, apps on smart phones and tablets, and website enabled programs are all available now. His article highlights many of these programs with. One caveat- if you are relying on student provided technology, be careful that everyone has a way to participate. Assuming everyone has a smartphone is a problem- they don't- and even if they do, they may not want to or be allowed to use their data for your activity.

Total participation response systems are highly effective in increasing achievement for students. It can be done cheaply through dollar store magnet, personal whiteboards, hand signals or paper cards or expensively through response systems. A key to performance is use. If a teacher is uncomfortable using Total Participation Techniques without technology, technology will not improve the situation. We can use this information to formatively assess learning and alter instruction to maximize learning or not. When we choose to ignore the wealth of research that says it is important, we are not committed to learning success for our whole class.

Interactive whiteboards do tend to increase engagement, but if it only passive entertainment style engagement, there is no point to it all. We need to use these programs to enhance instruction, eyes on us silence.

label gifted kids

Lisa Van Gemert wrote an interesting blog about labeling gifted kids. Often parents are against labels- a bias I have run into in special education. Parents worry that their kids will be labeled. I tell them that:
  1. the other kids have labels for your kids- jock, brainiac, stupid, tall, best speller, class clown, preppy, bad reader, etc.
  2. labels get you the support your child needs.
These are both items that Lisa highlights. She is very focused on the get your kids what they need. Just as students with learning disabilities need different kinds of support in school, so too do gifted kids.  She also argues that some people perceive "gifted" as an arrogance. If you have a kid who is gifted- defined as two standard deviations above the mean (IQ > 130)- your child is gifted. Just as if your child can run the 50 dash in under 6 and a half seconds, he is fast. This is not arrogance it is fact. Yes, IQ tests are not without problems, but they do tend to indicate who will perform well in today's schools. These children deserve an education that challenges them. If these kids live in an environment that suppresses them, their IQ will decrease. If they do not have adequate diets, their IQs will decrease. They need an environment that challenges and supports them so that they can make the most of their potential. Just like any other kid.

One often overlooked feature of gifted kids is that they tend think differently. When my daughter attended the CTY program at Johns Hopkins she alked about being surrounded by kids who thought like she did. We seek our friends from people share interests and values with us. We congregate around people who think like us. We try hard to deny our gifted kids this priviledge and this is simply not fair to them. We need to help them to have friends that enrich them.

The final two reasons that Lisa says we should embrace labels is that it allows for support. Both parents and children need support in navigating this world where they are often criticized being eliteist and racists and not looking out for all. I had to investigate programs for my daughter. I was lucky because I knew how to do this and that there were groups out there. I have been approached by other parents about how to get their children's needs met. Many parents and children are not that lucky.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Why Ed Tech has made so little difference

Marc Tucker wrote an article for one of Ed Week's blog entitled "Why Ed Tech has Made so Little Difference?" He questions why the past two decades have wrought little change in how we teach in regards to technology. In fact in places with higher tech use, there is lower performance on international tests. In no way is this a reflection of technology not being out there to support learning or teachers being untrained to teach using technology (although I might argue this one).

Our classrooms are often full of technology. Interactive whiteboards are becoming a mainstay. Teachers who use them as projectors miss the value of the technology and would be better off with a TV and an overhead projector for a tenth of the cost. (For interactive whiteboards to be educationally enhancing they need to increase student response rates and feedback- clickers are required to be used, every day.) One-to-one programs have generally demonstrated poor educational results because we are doing the same thing- read and answer these worksheet questions- we did with textbooks. We need to know how to use the technology to enhance the learning, not just to use the technology.

He argues that "change in the whole paradigm of the way education is organized in our schools" is required. This would be one that emphasizes problem solving and deep understanding of concepts. It would mean that technology supports the curriculum and the curriculum supports technology use. Interestingly, this focus on problem solving and deep understanding is at the root of the Common Core's math curriculum. Students are supposed to understand concepts rather than simply memorize. They are asked to be fluent with basic arithmetic but also to be able to solve word problems with ease. Here is the essence of the disconnect: we put in place a curriculum that was a slightly shaved version of the previous one with the addition that students think much deeper about the ideas and were surprised when teachers continue to complain that there is too much to teach in the school year.

Simulations are brilliant opportunities for students to explore complex systems. Back when I first started teaching Oregon Trail was a hallmark program. It showcased the challenges of traveling across the country during our period of western expansion. Unfortunately, it took approximately an hour and a half  to two hours to cover what a lecture might in about 15 minutes. Students in my resource room were encouraged to use it because it brought home some critical ideas and we had time, but the whole class did not get exposure to it. Years later my son's fifth grade teacher used it as a station during her American history program. The kids loved it, but only three computers in the room meant that it took practically forever to get the kids who worked in teams through the experience. Simulations take time. Simply put, without re-envisioning education so that the point is not merely getting through the curriculum, they will be sparingly used. Marc is right our current paradigm needs a shift.

I do believe that the other place that technology can really enhance learning is in the area of personalization. Students can move through lessons as quickly or slowly as they are able to master the content. Programs for this sort of personalization abound. Districts often use them for interventions when students are struggling, but they can be used as more than support- they can be the center of the program.

Back when I was a student I had two experiences with learning contracts. Teachers had spelled out the curriculum, put worksheets with learning experiences in folders and let students go through the program at their own speed. There were targets for achievement per quarter, but no penalty for soaring past or taking too long. Teachers were available for help and small groups were separated for extra support through difficult topics. You received more teacher time to help you get through the trouble spots. We worked independently and learned the material- this was fifth grade ELA and seventh grade advanced math. Computers allow for an enhanced program. instruction can involve video and podcasts instead of just reading. Mini quizzes within a program can be the gates to progress- we had to wait until the teacher graded our work. One challenge becomes what to do with students who soar. If they finish the program by the end of September, then what? A good program allows for "grade acceleration" within it. The other side is also a concern- students who do not progress because of learning disabilities, poor motivation, or weak executive skills need a plan as well. They may need to have access to extra time to move through the program- perhaps extra time during the school day, at home through weekends and vacations, during the summer or ungraded school programs with an allowance for extra time.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Communicate the message with simplicity and power

John C. Maxwell is a leadership guru. He has written many books, led many leadership training programs and been a leadership trainer for virtually his entire life. His book, Good Leaders Ask Great Questions: Your Foundations for Successful Leadership, is the latest that I have picked up. One section of a chapter spurred my thinking this morning: "Communicate the message with simplicity and power."

He says that leaders need to "communicate the vision for change" with "reasons for it" (p. 239). Leaders are constantly being confronted with a need for change. If is it a growing or shrinking work force, a new product challenge, market shifts or, as in education, a new school year with new students and regulations, standards and laws. Do our leaders- principals and superintendents- clearly and effectively communicate the vision? At its most basic, the mission of most schools is to raise or maintain test scores so that the powers at be will be happy. That incorporates improving instruction, meeting students physical and health needs, providing a safe learning environment with adequate resources and much more. At our most basic level though, it seems the driving force is test scores. Therein is a problem. If test scores are what the community at large is using as the yard stick, then that is our goal- whether we acknowledge it or not. If school leaders want a different goal, they need to communicate it as simply as possible. Skip the fancy language of politicians and bureaucrats, we need to the core and share it so that everyone understands and is on board with it.

Last year my department spent a couple of faculty meetings on refining and unpacking our mission and vision. We went from a three line of text vision statement to a three bullet point statement. The mere fact that it needed two faculty meetings to unpack the message should have been a clue that we were not looking at the vision and mission from the appropriate altitude. I was trying to find the reference to something I read years ago about mission statements: for many years the mission of Coke was "beat Pepsi." Two words encapsulated the entire movement of the organization. There was plenty of movement around how to do that- create the best, consistent product; develop markets in new areas; increase sales in current markets,... Everyone in the company knew and could provide the mission. I am not sure that my boss, who has the mission on every one of her emails in the signature line could state verbatim the mission. I know the rest of my team cannot. This is not unusual. The mission statement at my children's schools is full of wordy nonsense that cannot be restated and thus cannot be achieved by the team. That is danger of the complex mission- it cannot be the focus of the team. We need a "simple clear message" (p. 239) if we want our message to be consistently demonstrated in our ranks. If you ask me, our department's mission is "to help school districts meet the needs of their students." Words like professionalism and teamwork are the means to the end. Why cloud the mission with the mechanism for achieving it?

We also see this the classroom level. The fancier and more complicated we make our language, the less likely our students are to understand it. We use statements like, "Stop" or "walk" when we see a problem developing because that simple word gets attention. Too many words become the Charlie Brown adult, "wha, wha, wha, wha..." I have had teachers tell me everything they say is important and kids should learn it all. Very rarely is this the case. Let's drill down, find the essential elements of the instruction- that is what everyone needs- you can provide more for the more motivated and higher achieving, but know that everyone does not need to know it.

Simplicity of directions is essential. I have read some ridiculous directions over the years. If what the kids need to do is select the right choice- that is all the directions need to include. If there are many steps, break them down to bullets or a sequence and help kids to accomplish each part. You could and should teach them to do this, but it must me taught not expected. We have more power if we communicate simply than if we complicate it.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

How to raise a genius

Scientific America's article by Tom Clynes, "How to Raise a Genuis: Lessons from a 45-year Study of Supersmart Children," has a somewhat misleading title. This article is not a recipe for turning your child into a genius. Rather it summarizes a study that originated out of Johns Hopkins University. A professor started with a superbright young child who was able to run circles around his undergraduate math colleagues, progressed to a small study of bright middle school students who took the SAT and emerged as a huge undertaking spanning both the country and the world. Hopkins runs the Center for Talented Youth, a program that takes exceptional young people- in the top 1% of their class- and allows them to take college classes in three week periods over the summer. [Disclaimer- my daughter has attended this program for three years- NO this is not bragging any more than saying my son had a resource room for two years is. It has been the one place where she has encountered challenge.] Holding the program has given researchers access to a unique subgroup. The researchers have followed these students beyond school and assessed their impact on society compared with the "average" American.

The results are not especially surprising to me. These students have doctorates, STEM doctorates, research journal publications, patens, and income in the 95 percentile at sometimes double the rate of the general population. This group truly represents the movers and shakers of society.

It is not enough to merely label these kids. They need the education and support to back them up. When my daughter sits in her accelerated classes, playing games on her graphing calculator because she is bored- we are not appropriately educating her. We are occupying her time. When I hear that these kids would learn in a blank room with a stick for an instructor, I agree that for some, they would, but that is not an education. For students with special needs, the law of the land decrees that they have access to a free appropriate public education. Unfortunately our gifted kids are not entitled to the same. For students with special needs, we provide additional teachers and aides. Our gifted kids sometimes have access to a teacher but it is district dependent- mine only has one for the entire five building program. For students with special needs, we modify curriculum. We need to fight for modifications for our gifted children- acceleration, the most cost effective modification available is a black sheep because it takes kids away from their age peers. For students with special needs, we have a federal testing protocol that allows for some students to be tested with alternative tests. Our gifted kids must take the same tests as their age mates- schools are greatful for the proficient scores they bring. We are not meeting the needs of our kids, we are using the cries of eliteism and fiscal stress to detract from their needs.

If we want to raise genius kids to help our society to innovate and succeed, we need to figure out who is gifted, provide enriching and challenging material, and emotional support to handle the differences they face as they move on. China, India and Singapor are doing this. We will be left behind if we neglect our great opportunities- our gifted children.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Maybe my child is gifted, maybe it doesn't really matter response

I just finished reading a blog by Farrah Alexander entitled “Maybe My Child is Gifted. Maybe Not. Maybe It Doesn’t Matter.” The piece has been roundly commented upon since its publication. See some examples by Scott Berry Kaufman and MBA Mom here.

First I would agree that in some programs, lots of anxiety surrounds identification. Often more on the parent’s side than the child’s as Alexander assured us she suffered as a student. This anxiety might mimic the anxiety surrounding our current testing battery that determines if a child (teacher, principal and school) is proficient or not. If she believes that gifted identification is wrong, I assume she is a proponent of the opt out movement as well. Actually, she may not be since her entire experience with children expands across the vast three years of her own children’s lives.

To assert that “Every child is gifted and talented” is patently false. We can say that every child has special skills that they are strong in. To discount the educational definition of giftedness. New York state, where I live defines giftedness as "pupils who show evidence of high performances capability and exceptional potential in area such as general intellectual ability, special academic aptitude and outstanding ability in visual and performing arts. Such definition shall include those pupils who require educational programs or services beyond those normally provided by the regular school program in order to realize their full potential." To paraphrase, it refers to kids who show extraordinary talent in academics and performing arts and consequently need different services to meet their needs. Just like we do not say that every child with a learning disability can perform adequately in school without assistance and modifications to the standard educational approach, students who are gifted need different approaches to education. If we support the view that every child is gifted, we eliminate the idea that some children need different educational experiences.

We have no trouble identifying special athletic talent and appealing to it. We have varsity sports that cut less talented players. We have travel sports teams where some children warm benches. If eliminating special educational experiences for gifted kids is appropriate, then we should level the playing field for sports. Let’s have no cut all play sports activities—oh wait, then we might not be the winners. In this day and age we can accept winners and losers in sports, but in academics it is passé.
Farrah can argue that it does not matter if her kids are labeled gifted. She has not lived with a child who is painfully bored in school. Whose teachers recognize that they are not teaching her much, but have few or no ideas or options of how to help. Too many programs do not have programs for the gifted. Too many schools are eliminating “tracking” or differentiation where students get challenging material based on where they are rather than what grade they are in. Yes, tracking has problems- overrepresentation of minorities and rigid lines that prevent flowing from one level to another as appropriate. Tracking can, however, be applied in ways to meet student needs- to differentiate instruction so that students are not bored stiff or sitting like a deer caught in the headlights. Flexibly so that as students learn, grow and develop or struggle and stagnate can be moved to different groups for instruction. Children are individuals; they learn in bumpy paths, not straight consistent trails. We need to meet them where they are and push them farther. If we do not recognize that they have different starting points and 50 yard dash speeds, we fail to recognize their uniqueness.​

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Becoming a reflective teacher

Becoming a Reflective Teacher by Robert J. Marzano, Tina Boogren, Tammy Heflebowe, Jessica Kanold-Macintyre, and Debra Pickering is like the other books from Marzano in that it is well researched and easy to read. This particular volume is part of His The Classroom Strategies Series which springboards off The Art and Science of Teaching. The goal of this series is to provide additional guidance in the key elements of instruction that were identified in The Art and Science book.

Overall the book provides guidance in how to develop a more reflective stance toward teaching. One of the key elements of improving professional skills is reflection on practice. This element is seen in both Danielson and Marzano's teacher evaluation protocols. Interestingly, the majority of the book is in the compendium. This part of the book isolates each of Marzano's 41 elements of effective instruction with possible strategies to address the element. For example Element 35: What do I typically do to acknowledge adherence rules and procedures? includes strategies of verbal affirmations, nonverbal affirmations, tangible recognition, token economies. daily recognition forms, color coded behavior, certificates, and phone calls, emails and notes. There is a brief description of each. If someone wants more information they are frequently referred to Marzano's website.

If you need to evaluate yourself on the various elements of instruction, the book includes rubrics and descriptions of performance for each element. Although this part of the book comes after the compendium, it comes first in action. If you can evaluate your skill set and identify areas in need of improvement, then you can search out strategies to improve in those areas. That being said, Marzano emphasizes that people focus on a couple of elements to develop. Picking too many will  result in not developing to potential in any.

This book will be a useful resource as I look at selecting personal goals for the year. The compendium will undoubtedly be a place I look to again and again.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Teaching Adolescent Writers

When I went off to teach in Hawaii, I brought along a trunk full of math teaching materials: lesson ideas, manipulatives, games. I used some of them and made up more. While I was reading Kelly Gallagher's book, Teaching Adolescent Writers, I thought about that trunk. He speaks about having mini lesson ideas gathered to cover the various things he will teach in his high school English classes. From his descriptions, this must be an impressive, well-organized collection.

This books, like the others I have read by Kelly, was a delight to read- jam packed with ideas that I know I will want to reference at some point. One of my favorite was on his description of how to develop a rubric with a class in order to evaluate writing. This is certainly an idea that I have encountered before- have the class help develop it so they have ownership and understand it. (Not usually evaluating material, this is not something I have had the opportunity to do.) He describes how to have students develop this rubric. He presents a meets standards and an exceeds standards sample of the targeted skill. He has students identify the better piece. Then students identify features the meets the standards demonstrates and then how the exceeds standards one is different. He provides clarification as necessary. These samples provide the guidelines students can follow when revising their work.

He proposes creating a five category rubric for a writing piece. The first three to relate to topics that have been targeted as whole class instruction. In his example he addresses effective introductions, level of analysis and sentence branching. Other options abound such as effective conclusions or theses, effectively addressing audience or purpose, or using STAR (substitutions, take things out, adding or rearranging) to revise writing. The final two categories he reserves for individual categories. He reads rough drafts and identifies two areas for each paper that need improvement. This may not be the only areas that the need to be addressed, but students can only address so many things. Those two things are the areas that each individual will be assessed on, thus each rubric is unique. Usually he picks one content and one editing focus. During revision time in class, he holds mini lessons to address individual issues. For example, students who need to work on transitions are called together for a small group mini-lesson, then the next group- perhaps working on using strong verbs- to have a lesson. This way the students get targeted instruction and evaluation based on individualized learning. Students who have success with the skill area are not subjected to instruction they do not need.

We have all experienced students that receive a graded paper, look at the grade and then never look at the notations that teachers made. Teachers spend lots of time on assessing papers. We need to make that time well spent. One of Gallagher's strategies for dealing with this problem is described in the book. On the final draft he identifies six sentences that need improvement- no more than six- with a focus on those related to the personal evaluation goals set during rubric creation. Each student is required to copy each sentence onto a sentence correction page, use references, peers or the teacher to write a corrected view of the sentence and identify the problem that was corrected. Students who fail to do so lose a letter grade from their essay score. This approach allows students to work on individual areas of need and to really work on learning from the feedback provided. This approach to evaluation addresses many of the problems that students and teachers encounter on a routine basis.

One of the common themes of Gallagher's is that we need to concentrate on good teaching and motivation before we focus on standards. In order to be successful adults, our students need to be successful writers. This means we need to willingly engage them in meaningful writing. If the only writing they do in English class is the literary essay they will not be motivated to learn to write better. We need to begin with motivation and then move to other assignments. We need to weave motivating activities within the assignments that are more standard. Then we can develop better writers.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Working with Memory Deficits

I have worked hard to improve my understanding of teaching reading. I have learned about developing phonics and phonemic awareness, fluency and comprehension. Vocabulary development has interspersed my work for years. There has always been a piece missing; not all reading weaknesses are due to issues with any one of these five aspects of reading. Some people have working memory deficits that interfere with their ability to carry out these skills. Jenny Nordman's article, "Working with Memory Deficits," in the July/August edition of Literacy Today tackles this concern.

Below is a table summarizing her suggestions:

Play memory games
·         I’m going on a picnic,...
·         Animal sounds
·         Disappearing pictures
Practice makes perfect
·         Timed repeated readings
Do two things at once
·         Clap and chant
·         Reading, marching and questioning

This makes me think of the kindergarten and preschool classes I have experienced and taught in. I used memory games extensively in the car with my kids growing up. We played a version to appeal to my son- A my name is ____, I come from ______, and I drive a _______. Each blank was filled in with a word starting with the letter of the alphabet named and you had to remember the whole rhyme. We played concentration with an assortment of various decks of cards. We engaged in nursery rhyme contests where the object was just to repeat a rhyme that had not yet been recited. I am afraid kids are playing fewer and fewer of these games as cell phones, tablets, and lap tops with videos and games proliferate through our society. This is a lost opportunity for our kids who lose the chance to play these games. As teachers this might mean our students need these kinds of games more than ever- even if our curriculum is more full than ever.

Timothy Rasinski has written extensively about the value of repeated reading: dramatic reading recorded online, reader's theater for the class, poetry teas, etc. I have blogged extensively about Dr. Raskinski's work; see here, here and here for some samples. The biggest concerns with repeated readings are in two areas: kids reading for speed, not comprehension and kids memorizing it and not reading it. Various techniques can be used to address these issues such as focusing on comprehension after the first or second reading and not rereading endlessly.

Nordman's third suggestion is another primary school favorite. Kids sing the months and do the motions of the Macarena, they sing and accompany the song with hand motions. We count and show fingers. Finger rhymes and stories like "Five little pumpkins sitting on the fence" are preschool favorites. We know that adding gestures to math work helps students to learn the processes faster and better. It stimulates more regions of the brain. In music classes, teachers often find the songs with hand motions are the favorites of the kids. They can read the words and do the motions. It makes them practice keeping two things in their heads at once and helps them improve their memory skills. I worked with a librarian who had kids listen to audiobooks while walking around a track. (Yes, audio books develop reading skills.) At the end of each session they recorded how far they walked, how much they "read" and summarized their listening. Kids loved the activity. Wouldn't that be popular with our ADHD populations or kids who are struggling readers? This is easy enough to do with our older kids, not just the little ones.  I even read a piece of research where a young lady could not learn the material when she was not jumping on a mini-trampoline. She even brought one with her to college so she could chant and jump to practice material.

We can help develop our students memory by having them do these multitasking activities and thus help them read. We probably need to brdge between the games and the reading. Nordman does not address this. Just building some memory skills is not enough. Kids need to see how memory is involved in reading. We need to decode the words, recall what the sentence and paragraph said Graphic organizers can help focus this work, but we need to teach kids to do it independently, not just under our guidance. This means providing individually rigorous material with which to practice. Not rigorous for the grade level or age of the student, but rigorous for the ability of the student.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

I read it, but I don't get it

One of the big moves of the nineties was that every teacher was a teacher of reading- yes, it truly has been around at least that long. We came to realize that children needed to continue to be taught how to read and access information in every class in every grade. Clearly we have not fully embraced this idea, but we are making progress. In 2000, before Common Core and NCLB, Cris Tovani wrote I Read it, but I don't get it: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers. This classic book make it to my summer reading this year and I was amazed at not only how pertinent the ideas are today, but how we have shifted our thoughts in some areas in response to these developments.

One of the first big ideas that Tovani presents is that piece of literature, he can make connections to it and understand it better" (p. 16). At some level we all accept this. We know that if you bring that prior knowledge in to the picture the reading is more relevant, comprehensible and memorable. If we think of Taylor Swift's song, "Love Story," or a soap opera's long triangle before reading Romeo and Juliet, our student's will find the play becomes more comprehensible. If we bring a monarch caterpillar into the classroom and watch its transformation into a butterfly, metamorphosis makes much more sense. If we talk about riding on a roller coaster, Newton's laws become clear. If we are reading about a current event, we might talk about the situation preceding the event that we know about now. We know that this is how we build knowledge. Unlike the assertion that CCSS authors present that students should read only within the walls of the text, we know that such an approach is highly limiting. I worked with a student on a reading test comparing two passages about Paul Revere. Students who had a working knowledge of Paul Revere had a huge advantage on this assignment. IN order to get something out of text, we innately use what we have- by we I mean good readers. Poor readers are often not adept at using what they know when they read. They need to be taught that what they know helps to unlock what is Teaching our struggling readers this skill is important.

Tovini talks about teaching accessing background knowledge with annotation. A BK and a note in the margins when you see something that connects to what you know is helpful for teaching and developing the skill of connecting what you know to what you read. One interesting thing is that she advocates teaching one annotation technique at a time. If kids have a laundry list of annotation symbol those that struggle often will not be able to learn to do any of them with skill. By focusing on one at a time, they can really learn the skill.

Another of Tovani's points is around comprehension monitoring. We all have had the experience of reading something and then realizing it made no sense. Perhaps we were too tired to read, bored with the content or the reading level and the content combined to be too challenging to be easily comprehended. Good readers recognize this and have strategies to fix things up when they go awry. Struggling readers often do not even notice that things do not make sense. Many a time I have had a student come to me with no idea of what was read. She offers a set of six signs to these students that meaning is being lost.
  • Our personal voice is no longer interacting with the text.
  • The camera shuts off- we are not visualizing what we read.
  • The reader's mind wanders.
  • The reader can't remember what was read.
  • The reader cannot answer clarifying questions.
  • The reader reencounters a character and has no recollection of them.  p. 38
Giving kids a way to recognize they are lost is important. I have read and written about fix it strategies. Kids need the clues to figure out when they are lost. So much of what they experience leaves a struggling learner lost. They are, in many ways, comfortable there. We need to shake them up and get them on board with keeping track of what they are reading. These ideas need to be taught carefully and slowly. Posting a list and reading them off is not enough.

The third biggie that Tovani includes is questioning. Reciprocal teaching includes this idea. (You can see my thoughts on Reciprocal teaching here and here.) So do strategies such as SQ3R and Reading for Meaning (see here and here). Tovani shares that adolescents often have lost the skill of questioning. We need to get students to learn to ask good questions. This helps them set a purpose for reading, keeps them actively engaged in reading and helps with retention of information. Teaching questioning leads to inferences. We can figure out what the text helps us to know- literal clarification- and then what else we might need to know. Students need to be aware that "they need to go beyond the words and supply their own thinking" (p. 93). When we think about what we know and apply it what we read, we better understand what we read. We need to help students become more active readers and this is perhaps one of the simplest and useful activities a reader can engage in.

Overall a great book. Tovani takes the reader into her classroom, discusses the problems struggling readers have and then presents some ideas to fix them. Many people may want a more prescriptive strategy. Some of the ones highlighted above fit that bill. Do be wary. When teaching a strategy, start with accessible reading. Starting with stuff that is too hard for an individual is not a recipe for success. Different articles that students read based on their reading levels is a great beginning point. SQ3R is not a strategy that is successful for students reading below grade level. Save this useful strategy for on target kids or have all the reading at the individual's level.

As the Common Core has rolled out, reading has taken on a new priority among our secondary programs. We are supposed to be adding rigor to our reading shelf. If students lack the comprehension skills to access this more challenging material, we need to teach them strategies to use to move closer to where they need to be. Tovani's book highlights some important insights in this arena. We need successful readers. We need to reach these kids who read it but don't get it.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

In the best interest of children- what's wrong with the standards

Kelly Gallagher's book, In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom, takes time to examine the CCSS. He points out both strengths and weaknesses. Below is a chart copied from the book.

Common Core Anchor Reading Standards
1.       Students are asked to read rigorous, high-quality literature and nonfiction.
2.       Students are asked to determine what a test says, what a text does and what a text means.
3.       Close reading of rigorous text is emphasized.
1.       Readers should not be confined to stay “within the four corners of the text.”
2.       Prereading activities are undervalued.
3.       Recreational reading is all but ignored.
4.       There are no reading targets in terms of how much students should read.
5.       The reading standards may be developmentally inappropriate.
6.       There is a misinterpretation regarding the amount of informational reading.
7.       CCSS is driving an overemphasis on the teaching of excerpts.
8.       The exemplars are problematic in terms of relevance and reading levels.

Gallagher 2015, p. 61

I will address some of the shortcomings. First staying with in the walls of the text. This is preposterous. The Gettysburg Address cannot be viewed without the lens of the Civil War. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I have a Dream" speech without knowing about segregation and prejudice lacks impact. The manual that comes with your dishwasher might be simple enough for novices without dishwasher experience, but the repair manual is not. A jury is given a brief informational blurb every time DNA evidence is provided so that they understand what is going on. If you are in college, the textbook for the 101 course might have the same reading level as the 305 level, but you are going to struggle to read the book for the 305 course if you do not have the background information. Try to understand the young love concept of Romeo and Juliet without knowing about how loving relationships work-- not going to happen. Utilizing prior knowledge is essential for comprehension. For the CCSS authors to promote isolated reading is preposterous.

Recreational Reading is a cornerstone of few programs, but many programs have seen remarkable growth as a result of independent reading. My favorite was that reading three, self-selected, at reading level books is enough to virtually eliminate the summer reading slide, and since that is responsible for a significant portion of the poverty reading gap, reduces the gap between the haves and the have nots. Self-selected reading is responsible for the vast majority of vocabulary growth, especially as kids get older. Further it develops a love of reading. Call it what you will- DEAR, SSR, SSI- it is reading individually chosen books that are accessible to students based on individual reading levels and interests. Going with this is the idea of how much. Donalyn Miller of Book Whisperer fame, suggests 40 books per year. New York state recommends 25. Importantly, this includes required reading books. So if a student reads 4 novels in English class, that is four you can check off the list. Kids need to read extensively to develop reading, vocabulary and writing skills.

Next is the informational reading split. The CCSS authors recommend that by high school 25% of reading be narrative and 75% be informational. I have argued this point since the standards came out. Do students read outside of ELA? I sure hope so. We spend a lot of money on textbooks for history and science as well as other subjects if our kids do not read them. If you have four core classes that means nonfiction rules in the content area (75% of the classes) and fiction can have a large rein in ELA. We have traditionally taught some nonfiction in ELA- when we talk about American Literature, speeches play a large role. Poetry- found in the 811 section of nonfiction- qualifies. We read or are presented with information about time periods and authors before we jump into Twain, Shakespeare or Orwell. This is the nonfiction ELA teachers present. We do not and should not eliminate fiction from the dominant ranks of  ELA class.

Exlemplars are problematic. They are isolated from the rest of the curriculum. In high school we read A Tale of Two Cities in ELA while we studied the French Revolution in history. They support each other. Much literature supports history in this way and many schools utilize this approach. Students who are learning about the American Revolution are primed to read My Brother Sam is Dead and those reading Animal Farm should have background with the Russian Revolution. Just because someone said this is the type of work we expect does not mean that it is appropriate for the students in front of us. Further the standards ignore the fact that many of our students read far below grade level. The NYS modules for eighth grade included the book Unbroken- the tale of survival in Japanese prison camps in WWII. It discusses bullying in, at times a positive light, and talks extensively about torture. It has a 10th grade reading level. Why is it recommended for 8th grade? This is a stretch text for kids reading slightly above grade level. Take a moment to think about those reading below grade level. This is approximately 1/3 of the average class- not to even think about a class from a struggling urban school. Some of them are reading within two years of grade level. They will not read this material. It is not rigorous- it is impossible. All the scaffolding and previewing (that we are supposed to limit) will only make it slightly less inaccessible. We need different strategies for those kids. Just plopping the book, or an excerpt, in front of them will not make them better readers. More often than not, it turns them into nonreaders.

As teachers we need to embrace the strengths of the standards, but then we need to adjust them or adjust the curriculum to meet the needs of the students in front of us. We have the opportunity to create a generation of readers- let's not ruin it.

Monday, July 25, 2016

the Best Interests of Children do not always align with the standards

Kelly Gallagher is one of my favorite ELA writers. His style is easy to read and practical. He gets that good teachers make compromises in the course of their instruction. The premise of In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom is that those compromises always need to favor what is right for kids. When we put teachers in the middle of the standards movement, they may be confronted with mandates to meet all the standards or teach to the tests in ways that do not promote achievement in literacy- both reading and writing. He cites data that since NCLB our students performance on the SATs has gone down. Students who have been exposed to the testing regime of NCLB performed lower on the verbal section than any other students before them
Now we are changing the SAT, and guess what? The test scores rose. For the average student, the new SAT scores are 40 points higher than the scores they would have received on the old SAT. What this truly showcases is one of his main points in the first chapter, that standards are necessary but insufficient. He comments that under NCLB with its mandated or sanctioned move toward proficiency, test cut off scores were reduced. We can indeed make a test that everyone is proficient on. That being said the test itself does nothing to improve skill. State test score proficiency levels rose and international test scores stagnated.

An interesting corollary to this idea. In New York when we adopted the new CCSS and tests, we were warned that test proficiency rates would drop significantly. Only 30 percent of students would "pass." Once the tests were administered and scored this was nearly the exact result. Why? The cut score was determined by the commissioner of education. If I want only 30% to be proficient, I send my psychometricians that goal and the cut score will be adjusted so that the vast majority of students fail, demonstrating that our students are woefully in trouble and we need the new standards to fix education.

Kelly emphasizes that what our focus needs to be is on good teaching- not meeting all the standards, something that would take far more than the 13 years of free public education our average student is expected to receive. He supports standards, but suggests that they fit in around the good teaching, not the other way around. He suggests that we not fixate on the tests but on the instruction. If we want to raise the level of education among our students that is where we must focus.

As another author once pointed out, we do not have students able to jump a high jump better by raising the bar.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Good thinking

Erik Palmer is an excellent communicator. His first book, Well Spoken, which  I blogged about here and here, was well-written and informative. His newest publication, Good Thinking: Teaching Argument, Persuasion, and Reasoning, is similar in its easily accessible style, practical suggestions and informative direction. The book starts with exploring the idea that the Common Core Standards (CCSS) include argumentative writing and reading throughout the grades. We need to persuade people as adults and the CCSS have it right that this is an essential skill students need. Further we need to back up our assertions with support. Now a day does not go by when I do not hear a teacher reference finding evidence to support an assertion. Rarely do they discuss what qualifies as good evidence, just the right or wrong information (afterall, workbooks have a correct answer.)

Palmer argues that one of the first things we need to do is share a common vocabulary.

  • Statement, conclusion, position and claim--> results of thought
  • reasons, premises, warrants --> help lead us to the thought

Palmer uses the term argument to mean the "group of statements that leads to a conculsion." (p 15) Using this defition he then goes on to explore the idea that an argument is cold- it is a detailed listing of inforamtion that lead to a conclusion. Persuasion, however, he sees as hot- it is the manner of presentation designed to get you to agree.

The first section of the book is devoted to argument. What makes a sound argument? He explores logic in depth. The major principle of logic that he uses is syllogism. Teachers of algebra and geometery often teach syllogism. (Think back this is the "If p then q" statements many of us had to work with during our logic unit in high school.) Syllogism is one of the main underlying reasons we want students to take higher level math- they learn logic. Wouldn't it be better if kids didn't need to wait until high school or beyond in order to learn logic. With the push for agumentative writing we can now see this move. Palmer introduces the term, but sadly, never makes the math relate. We use syllogisms all the time without even thinking about it. While we may not structure our statements in the strict logic format, we could.

If you have money, you can buy an ice cream.
You have money.
You may buy the ice cream.

If you behave in the store, you may have a quarter to buy something from the machines outside.
You behaved.
Here's the quarter.

If you revise your paper, you will get a better score.
You did not revise.
Your grade sucks.

We see examples like this all the time. This is logic embodied as a syllogism.

He then extends the syllogism discussion by addressing what is evidence. He describes five types of evidence: facts, numbers, quotes, examples, and analogies. Unfortunately, CCSS tests seem to reduce evidence to merely quotes. We should definitely teach students to identify quotes that support our conclusions, but we also need to teach students to use other types of evidence as well. We could have students examine argumentative pieces and highlight the evidence provided and how they explain it and put it together to build an argument. (This technique then can be used to showcase elements of persuasion and rhetoric.)

From there Palmer moves to discussing persuasion. This would be the ethos and pathos that Aristotle described. He describes various persuasive techniques like bandwagon, loaded words, and plain folks. Then he moves on to other rhetorical devices like hyperbole and rhetorical questions. These devices and techniques abound around us. Examining advertisements is a great place to start teaching these skills. Further it helps our students become savy consumers- another life long goal. Then you could move to speeches and see how these tools are present in what people say. Since we are knee deep in political commentary as the presidential campaign is reving up, many interviews with candidates and their supporters are available. Critically ask students to look at them. See how people use these devices to make their points. Often they either side step the argument/questions; sometimes they use poor logic to make their point. We should use these short snippets to help us teach children to become critical citizens- another life long goal of education.

This book offers helpful minilesson ideas across multiple subject areas and grade levels. Most teachers could pick it up and find easy ways to integrate his ideas into their curriculum. The importance in teaching logical thinking cannot be underestimated. This book demonstrates how it can be done, not as a stand alone unit, but as a component of units that you already teach.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Differentiated Coaching

In Differentiated Coaching: A Framework for Helping Teachers Change, Jane A. G. Kise uses the Myers Briggs personality type framework as the lens through which coaching can be viewed. She views the personality types as a view point for assessing communication styles. According to her thesis, only by understanding the communication styles and preferences of others can you design coaching to meet the needs of each teacher. When there is a mismatch between presentation of information style and individual, poor outcomes result from the professional development. People can coach others with whom they do not share personality styles, but the coach then needs to adjust to meet the needs of the individual.

First a quick down and dirty summary of Myers-Briggs style. This format has been used by the business world for decades. The book goes into some detail about personality style, but an interested party should pursue more detailed information from the website above and other sources.  Myers and Briggs identify people as belonging to one of each of the following groups:
  • Judging (planning) v. Perceiving (open and flexible) --> J or P
  • Extraversion (energy through the outside world and people) v. Introversion ( reflection and solitude) --> E or I
  • Sensing (information, facts, details) v. Intuition (open-ended, creative, big picture) --> S or N
  • Thinking (decision making through logic) v. Feeling (decision making through emotions and personal impact) --> T or F
People then are identified as one of 16 four letter styles that highlight how they like to interact with the world. Although the author correlates framework with other learning style and personality style systems, such as Gardner's multiple intelligences and Gregorc's Mind Styles Model, the links are tenuous at times. The common thread could be that our inborn traits determine who we are and what we excel at as well as areas where we struggle. While research has shown that attention to multiple intelligences does not improve academic results, it may be true that communication style differences do.

One useful feature that I found was her chart on different coaching styles. Pages 146-8 detail four types of coaching preferences and how individual needs can be met. Below is a summary of the chart.

Want a coach as a …
To meet their needs
useful resource
·         Hands on relevant lessons
·         Provide evidence of effectiveness
·         Provide easily customizable examples
·         Listen to concerns
Encouraging sage
·         Provide encouragement, clear goals, and concrete tasks
·         Join in the classroom and highlight the good, suggestions for trouble spots
·         Limit the number of choices
·         Model one strategy at a time, document success
Collegial mentor
·         Conversation to engage creativity
·         Demonstrate concrete examples of abstract concepts
·         Step by step assignment procedures and graphic organizers to keep everyone focused
·         Classroom management support
·         Talk through the scenarios before choosing a strategy
·         Provide credentials and references- be able to answer their questions
·         Balance theory with hands-on experimentation
·         Allow them to question and improve upon ideas
·         Provide evidence and data

I am a T person with a mix of S and N. When I was at a workshop and the three questions I asked were not only unable to be answered by the presenter, but she did not go find the answers for me. I was very unsatisfied with the program because she did not meet my need to have an expert in the subject material present information to me.

Some of the type information that I found intriguing included:
  • SP students who struggle in school tend to test and enjoy the discomfort of teachers that results Gifted students tend to be N, perhaps as a result of testing bias
  • Teachers tend to be INFJ, INFP, ENFP, ENFJ or ENTJ. Those with different types may struggle to fit in well with their peers.
  • American culture tends to prize J, but that is not true of all cultures. Cultural preferences tend to be overrepresented in the population.

This book presents an interesting viewpoint on learning. While it does present ideas for large scale initiatives and incorporating them in light of personality types, it does not in any way discuss implications of the Common Core Standards on classrooms. The author's view on how instruction has shifted in light of CCSS adoption and how personality styles are addressed would be interesting. One shift in the mathematics realm, for example is an increased emphasis on understanding and articulating the why of a solution or algorithm. This will appeal to the J, S and Ts but could be a challenge for the P, N and Fs.

The book includes a fantastic appendix which describes each personality type, their general strengths, stressors, what they are best at in the classroom, their needs during change, typical areas for growth and suggestions for a coach to meet those needs. Understanding myself is, perhaps at least as effective as understanding the needs of professionals with which I work. Knowing that professional development (PD) that does not meet my needs for clear connections between current and new practices, information to answer all my questions, careful attention to details, time for reflection, and opportunities to provide influence is likely to not be well received means I need to adjust and seek out the opportunities that I do need. I am unlikely to respond favorably to PD that does not meet my needs, but I am not everyone. It does explain my thirst for details and knowledge as I approach new experiences.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Examining Similarities and differences

The third book in the Marzano Center series Essentials for Achieving Rigor that I have read is Examining Similarities & Differences: Classroom Techniques to Help Students Deepen Their Understanding by Connie Soles West and Robert J. Marzano. This book is arranged much like the other books I have read in the series: description of the technique, lesson plan steps, common mistakes, elementary and secondary examples and non examples, evaluation of student success and scaffolds and extension activities.  It includes a conclusion with self reflection questions and a short appendix of graphic organizers. Again, the approach is a practical implementation guide rather than explore the research behind the technique explanation. The text would also be useful to organize a PLC around.

Marzano and West  continue with the idea that in order for the technique to be effective for learning content, it must be taught. In order to use this particular group of techniques, students must be somewhat familiar with the content. These are not things to have students attempt when they are just learning information. The authors do not go into using teacher provided metaphors, similes or analogies to help provide initial instruction; their approach in this text is purely in using comparisons to increase content learning from the student's end.

The six techniques that the book covers are:
  • comparing using sentence stems, summarizers and constructed responses
  • comparing using graphic organizers
  • classifying using sorting, matching and categorizing
  • classifying using graphic organizers
  • comparing by creating metaphors and similes
  • comparing by creating analogies.

Throughout the book, sentence stems are seen as a preliminary step. This is a strategy that is highly effective for students with language disabilities and non-native English speakers. For students struggling with the more complex metaphors, similes and analogies, this step could be very useful. Stems like
  • ______ and ____ are the same because ______
  • Cities are like cells because __________________
  • conjunction is to _______________ as ______________________ is to _________________
  • Hamlet is like lion king because _____ and _____ and ____, but different because ____ and ____ and ____.
are helpful in getting students going, but before they approach this, many will need to brainstorm what is critical about the things being compared and share this information in groups before they start writing.

I have used sorts a couple of different ways to work on understanding:
  • Give a list of words and categories and have kids sort them out.
  • Give a list of categories and have students pull important terms out of a reading in each area
  • Give a set of subtitles from a chapter and have students order them in a way that seems to make sense- explain why the students selected the organization they did, read the chapter and compare with the author's organizational approach and evaluate if their method would have been as effective.
  • Provide a list of vocabulary terms and have them sort them into groups of their own making.
Kids do need to have these types of activities demonstrated for them before they go off and try on their own.

One strategy that I really liked was an affinity diagram. In this approach students brainstorm ideas around a topic with each idea going on a post it note (index card, strip of paper,..). Once the ideas are generated, they are sorted into groups. This approach could be used when thinking about an essay, discussion or debate- how are Romeo and Juliet showcasing hubris? Discuss three causes of the Revolutionary War. Should kids wear uniforms to school? Is chocolate the best ice cream and how do you know? Or they could be used to review before a test- how are polygons related? Distinguish between depositional and erosional glacial impacts.  This approach reminds me of mind mapping in that you manipulate the information generated in order to organize thoughts.

An important part of all the techniques was summation at the end of the activity. It is not enough to brainstorm and complete the Venn diagram. Students need to summarize what they learned- not restate the diagram. The image below is an example from science that I used years ago when I taught earth science.

My student had to arrange the information onto the chart (sort) and then come up with a statement. This level of information helped him to differentiate between two similar things. I have also used the technique with latitude and longitude, peninsula and strait, Romeo from Romeo and Juliet and Oedipus from Oedipus Rex, and congruent and similar (math) among others. I love comparing things to help students get it better and remember it more clearly.