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.