Thinking About Authentic Literacy…

Authentic literacy is defined as “text-based discussion, dialogue, and argument” and provides the focus of any study of literature in which my students participate (National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges, 2003, p. 65).

When I taught high school English classes, I loved exploring literature with my students as we read, wrote, discussed, wrote, read, discussed, and well, you get the idea. In fact, I cannot imagine reading a novel such as William Golding’s (1954) Lord of the Flies using the approach of my high school teachers thirty-five years ago, which was the routine of read, discuss, and write, the end. Reading and writing, with discussion, are so interwoven that they happened simultaneously, and even spontaneously, in my classroom. Using Lord of the Flies as my core text, for example, my students found themselves journaling from the point of view of one of the characters, explaining the irony of characters’ words, and writing from the point of view of the philosopher Hobbes about the novel’s themes in a response to Hobbes of Calvin and Hobbes. These activities lead us through the course of knowledge and comprehension, application and analysis, and synthesis and evaluation (Benjamin, 1999, p. 10).

When reading a novel, teachers desire that students understand the sequence of events, the setting, the conflicts, and the characters. According to Benjamin (1999) this is level one thinking and includes recall of facts, summarizing, retelling, and asking “what?” (p. 10). To achieve this purpose with Lord of the Flies, after we read the first two chapters, I asked students to choose one of the characters to be for the rest of our reading. Each day, students wrote a journal entry from their chosen character’s point of view, sharing what happened to them or what they observed or what they thought as that character during the day’s portion of reading (we did something similar with Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar because the activity so succeeded in engaging the students with the text). The journal writing required students to consider the text and explain it in their own words. As students wrote, I moved around the room, reading over their shoulders, and positively commenting on interesting entries. I also asked students to share their entries with their group members (my students always sat in base groups) and to discuss the text from the various viewpoints represented. This provided me with a quick means of assessing students’ comprehension and enabled me to clarify or answer questions as needed. As students read the novel and wrote their journal entries, they “made knowledge their own” as they “struggled with the details, wrestled with the facts, and reworked raw information and dimly understood concepts into language they could communicate to someone else” (National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges, 2003, p. 9).

Furthering the process of making knowledge meaningful and providing my students opportunity to deepen that knowledge through application, I asked them to consider the words of characters and discuss the implied meanings. For example, on a test, I asked students to write a paragraph explaining why the following words spoken by Jack are ironic: “I agree with Ralph. We’ve got to have rules and obey them. After all, we’re not savages” (Golding, 1954, p. 42). This lead students into higher level thinking as they analyzed the quote, considered the use of irony, and then related the two. The prompt clearly framed the task by providing students with the needed guidelines of length, focus, task, detail, language, tone, and terminology. In this way, students could show what they knew, and I could assess their understanding as they gave examples, analyzed and defended, and engaged in literate thinking.

The writing activities that I enjoy most are those moving students into even higher level thinking, synthesis and evaluation. Often I asked my students to interact with additional related texts through discussion and writing. For example, we read the words of philosopher Thomas Hobbes who wrote that the “natural condition of mankind, a state of violence, insecurity and constant threat” and then discussed how Hobbes’ view related to Golding’s view as conveyed in the novel. After discussion, I gave the students a Calvin and Hobbes comic, in which the young boy, Calvin, asks the tiger, Hobbes:

“Do you think human nature is good or evil? I mean, do you think people are basically good, with a few bad tendencies, or basically bad, with a few good tendencies? Or, as a third possibility, do you think people are just crazy and who knows why they do anything?” (Watterson, 1988, p. 71)

The prompt with the comic states:

  • After discussing the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, write an answer to Calvin from Thomas Hobbes’ point of view.
  • Your answer must show an understanding of the key points discussed, must be written in 1st person as if you are Thomas Hobbes, and must be at least one paragraph in length.

This writing task scaffolded students’ thinking by developing complex activities and by asking questions that required that the students look more deeply and more critically at the content of lessons. As my students analyzed the philosophy of Hobbes and applied it to the question in the prompt, they also explored the relationship of those ideas to the text of Lord of the Flies, and “exercised the most relevant intellectual capacities–the ability to detect patterns of meaning and to weigh words and evidence for specific purposes” (National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges, 2003, p. 61). This prepared them for a culminating writing task of an essay in which they agreed or disagreed with Golding’s view of human nature.

Currently, I am not teaching high school English, but as I reflect on these activities that I have used in previous years, I find myself wishing to return to that teaching role. I love hearing my students interpret the text from the view of a character; I enjoy the AhHa! moment when students identify later uses of irony themselves; and I enjoy modeling how to write an essay agreeing with or disagreeing with Golding’s and Hobbes’ view of mankind. Too often, instruction in English classes “focuses on content or skills rather than on the process of learning” as “teachers concentrate on covering the required information;” I much prefer integrating reading, discussion, and writing and helping my students “internalize the methods and strategies for accomplishing tasks” and enjoying literature (Langer, Close, Angelis, & Preller, 2000, p. 10).

References

Benjamin, A. (1999). Framing the task: Be careful what you ask for . . . you just might get it. In Writing in the content areas (pp. 3–26). Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.

Golding, W. (1954). Lord of the Flies. UK: Faber and Faber.

Hobbes, Thomas (1994 [1651/1668]) Leviathan, ed Edwin Curley. IN: Hackett

Langer, J. A. (with Close, E., Angelis, J., & Preller, P.) (2000). Guidelines for teaching middle and high school students to read and write well: Six features of effective instruction. Albany, NY: National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement.

Langer, J. A. (2004). Developing the literate mind. http://cela.albany.edu/researcher/langer/IRA_Develop.pdf

National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges. (2003). The neglected R: The need for a writing revolution.  http://www.writingcommission.org/prod_downloads/writingcom/neglectedr.pdf

Sanchez, S. (2001). Using journals for a variety of assessments. In C. R. Duke & R. Sanchez (Eds.), Assessing writing across the curriculum (pp. 109–118). Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

Watterson, S. (1988). Something under the bed is drooling. NY: Andrews and McMeel.

 

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The Myth of Sisyphus, or Why Sammy Can’t Write

Image   Hypothetical discussion between two teachers:

 

Teacher: Mel Levine shares the myth of Sisyphus as an introduction to his book, The Myth of Laziness. Sisyphus not only had to push a massive boulder up a mountain, but he was doomed to repeat this effort for eternity because the boulder kept rolling back down. Sisyphus could push and push, but he would never succeed, no matter how many times he tried. In Chapter 1, “Getting the Mind to Work,” Levine then introduces the term “output failure” to describe what some children experience in school. How is a child’s experience of output failure analogous to Sisyphus’ fate?

Colleague: Like Sisyphus, the child with hidden disabilities exerts extreme effort only to have that effort miss the goal or the “success point.” Often, like Sisyphus, the child must start over, and in fact, for the child whose hidden disability is not recognized, the school years must seem like an eternity of pushing boulders, with no success. For example, perhaps the child is presented with an assignment to write a summary of story he read. The child begins pushing by reading the story, and as Levine points out, may read quite well so the reading proves easily completed by the child. The child finishes the story, and like Sisyphus, has his boulder just about to the top of the mountain, but then when he sits down to write the summary, it’s as if he never read a word…and the proverbial boulder rolls back down the mountain. Thus, the child experiences “output failure” –he was able to receive the input of the language, but unable to demonstrate his understanding through a well-written summary.

Teacher: If the student reads well and understands the text, why is he unable to write a summary? It seems that a summary is a relatively simple writing assignment requiring only the time it takes to decide three to five main points and to then write them out in a paragraph. If the child focuses and he does indeed understand the story, why can’t he write the assigned summary?

Colleague: Levine presents several possible reasons for this child’s “output failure” and in fact, Levine states that “difficulty with writing is far and away the most telling sign of output failure during the childhood and teenage years.” Levine lists the number of processing activities that must take place, almost simultaneously, within the child’s brain in order to write. If there is even slightest “miswiring,” the child will not be able to wrangle all of the muscles and brain’s regions into one cohesive working unit — “output failure” will occur as the child is unable to gather the materials he needs (pencils, reference books, or computer equipment), as well as his time, generate good ideas, organize his thoughts, encode his ideas into clear language, remember many things at once (such as spelling, rules of punctuation, facts, and instructions), coordinate his fingers so they can keyboard or form letters, plan and monitor the quality of his work, and complete the assignment with a neat, well-written product — again, the proverbial boulder rolls back down the hill with each effort to write. Levine asserts that “Writing is the largest orchestra a kid’s mind has to conduct.” If like Sisyphus, the child repeatedly experiences this type of failure to complete the task well, he will most likely come to hate writing. Later in the book, Levine explains this, saying, “When you commit an error in reading, your miscue evaporates into the atmosphere, but when you mess up in writing, you leave behind a permanent document of your inadequacy.” Some children will come to simply refuse to write, producing the bare minimum on paper, and as a result, their teachers will consider them lazy. Other children will continue to try and try and try, but the process is so labor-intensive, they literally will experience physical pain — much like Sisyphus must have felt pushing that boulder up the mountain time and time and time again.

Teacher: Okay, so if the child’s inability to complete the summary isn’t due to laziness, which would be the assumed cause, why is the inability to write caused by this “output failure?”

Colleague: First, we want to distinguish between cause and effect here. True, if a child were lazy, that would cause him to neglect or put off or ignore the writing assignment. In the case of “output failure,” however, failure to complete the assignment, this “output failure,” is the effect, not the cause. We are seeing the effect of one or more hidden disabilities. For example, these disabilities may affect the child’s ability to physically grasp a pencil correctly (graphomotor control), or impede his ability to store information in long-term memory for later retrieval when needed, or impact his mental stamina rendering him unable to focus long enough to meet the cognitive demands of writing. These hidden issues are actually called neurodevelopmental dysfunctions. Some children are born with these dysfunctions, others acquire them. Some dysfunctions are genetically caused and others occur due to environmental factors. Because we often don’t know the exact cause, we sometimes make assumptions about a child’s motives and abilities rather than considering what may be happening neurologically. This is especially true when the child takes in information without difficulty, such as through reading. For this reason, the dysfunction is not a processing issue, but a production issue. To make a long answer short: “output failure” is misidentified as laziness, but unlike laziness, it is not a cause of weak writing; it is an effect of neurological dysfunctions which impact writing ability.

Teacher: Well, clearly this means a paradigm shift for me as a teacher. I may never have told a child that I believe he’s lazy, but I’m sure that I’ve thought it and communicated it indirectly. In my defense, however, if these dysfunctions are neurological and do not manifest themselves as visibly as say, a reading disorder where the child clearly cannot sound out words for example, how am I supposed to know whether or not the child who doesn’t write well struggles with “output failure” or with a lack of motivation?

Colleague: That’s an understandable concern. But the very fact that you’re asking the question will lead to the answer. These children need teachers who recognize the need for that paradigm shift; they need teachers who will care enough to seek answers to why the child can take in and process information well but cannot produce; why the child continues guaranteeing and expecting to do things, yet can’t seem to deliver on the promises; why the child can read much better than he can compose; and why he can translate information, yet can’t put what they figure out to use in written format. We look for clues such as does the child hold the pencil awkwardly or seem to experience pain after writing. During in-class writing activities, we note how the child begins – does he have a system for brainstorming ideas or does he just sit because he doesn’t know how to gather the ideas in his brain and collect them onto paper. Does he start writing and then suddenly wad up the paper and start over, repeatedly (like Sisyphus and the boulder)? And of course, assessments can reveal clues; does the child express insights and understanding during class discussion, but fail to write such lucid and meaningful responses on written tests. When we look for these clues, we will see the signs, and though we may not know the exact neurological cause, we will certainly be able to avoid making negative judgments. Levine says it best when he admonishes us that “when we call someone lazy, we condemn a human being.” This first chapter “Getting the Mind to Work” enables us to make that paradigm shift allowing us to look for clues with Levine as we read the case studies, and to see his application of the understanding of the difference between laziness and “output failure.”

Teacher: When we recognize “output failure,” do we excuse the child from writing so that we don’t continue the Sisyphus-effect of repeated failure?

Colleague: Writing provides so many benefits beyond simply meeting the needs of a specific assignment, so we do want the child to write. Writing aids in developing and maintaining the brain circuitries that connect various functions such as language, memory, and motor control. We do not want to hinder this development by excusing the child from writing. Instead, we want to help the child by providing instruction in specific skills so that the child can better deal with the neurological miswiring – that’s why Levine’s book is so important. He hasn’t just “demystified” the problem of perceived laziness for us, he also provides specific guidance for working with children affected by output failure. For example, if the issue seems to be related to motor control, Levine shares specific interventions that can be used to assist the child with pencil grip and the physical act of writing; or if the problem lies in the area of language, Levine offers strategies for working with the child in the area of spelling. The book actually contains 7 case studies, each of which demonstrates Levine’s work with a child to determine the nature of the production failure, the possible interventions, and results. The final chapters present specific strategies for working specifically on writing output, breaking the task of writing into manageable tasks that the child can learn to do independently after practicing with his teacher. As a result, we can work with our children so that they can enjoy positive experiences with writing and move that boulder up the mountain with confidence.


If you’re looking for a quick, yet impactful book to add to your summer reading list, I highly recommend Mel Levine’s The Myth of Laziness

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Dyslexia and Implications for the Classroom

Cerebrodiversity:

A Discussion of the Research on Dyslexia and Implications for the Classroom

Laurie Hagberg

Research has determined that observable differences in brain structure and function exist in the brains of those with dyslexia. Though I found some of the explanations complex, generally speaking, I understand that in the dyslexic brain, the magnocellular system, or pathway, functions differently. It is made up of large cells which carry out fast visual processes and appears disorganized with groups of smaller cell bodies than the magnocellular system in non-dyslexic brains. These disorganized bunches of cells and nerve fibers are called ectopias (“ectopic” meaning abnormal position). Scientists believe that ectopias occur in the developing brain of the fetus before its sixth month, and this belief coupled with the observation that dyslexia often runs in families, leads to the belief that genetic differences affecting early brain development cause ectopias. The differences in the magnocellular system may cause interference with the rapid processing required for changing visual signals such as those involved in reading changes in the cortex. Interestingly, the system that performs slower visual processes, the parvocellular system, is similar in both types of brains.

In addition, researchers have discovered a cortex difference. The planum temporale, an auditory region that is part of the language network, is typically larger on the left side of the brain, and it is believed that the asymmetric brain design provides for efficient processing of sequential information and for learning certain language skills, including reading, writing, and spelling. Studies show that the planum temporale is the same size in both sides of dyslexic brains. In other words, dyslexic brains are more symmetrical. Symmetry of this area may interfere with learning to read and write.

The primary similarity between the brain of the dyslexic and the non-dyslexic is that in both the brain of the dyslexic and of the non dyslexic, processing activity occurs in Broca’s area, though to varying degrees; a key difference is that activity is also occurring in the Parieto-temporal and Occipito-temporal regions of the non dyslexic brain. Even when subjects used the same brain regions that non-impaired readers typically use, the time it took for different areas to become activated, as well as the order in which they became active, was still noted to be different.

The purpose of most research on dyslexia is to establish the entire chain of causal links between certain genes, certain parts of the brain, certain cognitive functions, and the ability to read and write; Gordan Sherman emphasizes that no two brains are alike, with variations of variations among brains (Sherman & Cowen, 2003).

Sherman defines cerebrodiversity as “the collective neural heterogeneity of humans as well as individual neurocognitive profiles of strengths and weaknesses,” and then continues the explanation with this fantastic sentence: “the underlying neural design may embody wonderful even pivotal possibilities” (Sherman & Cowen, 2003). The idea behind cerebrodiversity, and that I completely agree with, is that we want to view dyslexia in a larger context and understand the implications beyond its negative impacts. I enjoyed reading about this idea in other publications and found Sherman’s and Cowen’s (2010) discussion of Geschwind and his work really interesting. They write that Geschwind “often spoke and wrote about – what he called ‘the advantages of the predisposition to dyslexia’ or ‘the pathology of superiority” (Sherman & Cowen, 2010, p. 14). Sherman explains this as the brain developing in a subtly different way, but not in a deficient way, and that the negative impacts of this difference play out in the context of learning to read. He believes that in other contexts, this negative consequence might almost be considered negligible, but the fact is that we operate in a society that not only values literacy, but demands it. Sherman states that this conflict between what society demands and how the dyslexic brain processes is due to how reading is taught — or more accurately, how it is not taught. Sherman says that “for the most part we do not teach reading in ways that play to the strengths of people with dyslexia” (Sherman & Cowen, 2003).

So what are these strengths? I wanted to learn more so I kept reading. I learned that a British neurologist named Macdonald Critchley, who personally examined more than 1,300 patients with dyslexia, found that “a great many” of these patients had shown exceptional abilities in spatial, mechanical, artistic, and manual activities, and that they often pursued occupations in these areas of strength (Eide, 2011, p56). In his book Thinking Like Einstein, author Thomas G. West shares a conversation with dyslexic computer graphic artist Valerie Delahaye, who specializes in creating computer graphic simulations for movies. She told him that at least half the graphic artists she’s worked with on major projects like Titanic and The Fifth Element were also dyslexic. I actually laughed out loud when I read that West also quotes MIT Media Lab founder and dyslexic Nicholas Negroponte as stating that “dyslexia is so common at MIT that it’s known locally as the ‘MIT disease’” (Eide, 2011, p55). I had fun sharing these findings with a student today – he told me that indeed his ability to mentally visualize 3 dimensional spaces, objects, angles, and trajectories gives him a definite advantage on the hockey rink.

As Sherman points out, it’s all about context and I agree that this view helps us move beyond the disability mindset. We need to view dyslexia as “a dynamic gene-brain-environment interplay” that “yields tiny neural differences (anatomical, cellular, and connectional) that, depending on environmental demand, can translate into socially defined talents and disabilities” (Sherman & Cowen, 2003). For example, one may have “strength in the big-picture reasoning needed to combine multiple perspectives into a complex, global, interconnected, 3-D model of a virtual house” while struggling with memory and processing of fine details: this shows “the pattern of trade-offs” (Eide, 2011, p52). Geschwind (2010) put it succinctly: “Context determines advantage versus disadvantage.”

With this in mind, teaching matters, and clearly we need a paradigm shift among classroom teachers regarding delivery methods, assessment procedures, and reasons for what is being taught. As Sherman asserts, “We must understand the complex interplay between unique brain designs, environmental variables, and resulting learning differences” (Sherman & Cowen, 2003).  We have overlooked the significance of environment and thus missed recognizing the elements of effective reading instruction and the part played by ineffective reading instruction in general education classrooms. What have resulted are misdiagnosis or missed diagnoses, inadequate interventions, and frustrated students, parents, and teachers. I thought it interesting that it’s been noted that the IDA took this into consideration when revising the definition of dyslexia as (underlining mine for emphasis):

“characterized by difficulties with accurate and / or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.” (IDA, 2007)

Implied here is that if there is not effective classroom instruction then these difficulties are expected in the classroom.

When Sherman discussed this, he used the word “contaminated” to describe the impact on research into the prevalence of learning disabilities and in particular, estimates of developmental dyslexia; that is a loaded word, carrying much more connotative significance than other words he might have used such as “skewed” or “influenced” or even “distorted”!  As a result of Sherman’s work and the work of others, it is clear that children with the following weaknesses or deficits are not adequately identified, understood, or helped:

  • executive/metacognitive skills such as setting goals, initiating, monitoring behavior, organizing, planning, anticipating, and adapting
  • social communication skills
  • adaptive functioning in predictably challenging environments, such as adopted status and socioeconomic disadvantage (Dickman, 2008)

We need to have a better understanding of the complexities and the inter-relationships of genetic factors, brain differences, and environmental influences because “things are as they are because of their relationships with everything else. You can’t just look at anything in isolation.” (Eide, 2011, p79).

For this reason, teaching matters; more accurately: appropriate, purposeful, research-based teaching matters.

All this leads to the belief that we must weigh the risk of altering programs now in place to provide help to students with dyslexia vs. the risk of doing nothing at all in terms of change. As Sherman cautions, this does not mean throwing out the “disability model” — it is valid in some contexts, and we recognize that literacy is and will continue to be integral to the lives of individuals (Sherman & Cowen, 2003).  The fact that we all value literacy and want the best for our students’ lives in and beyond the classroom is the binding similarity that keeps many striving for change and improvement through organizations such as IDA. What we need to do is ensure evidence-based instruction in every classroom.

As I thought about this, I contemplated what this would look like in the general classroom here in southern California, in both public and private institutions. Here’s what I see:

  • assistive technology the norm in the general education classroom as a means of enhancing instruction and learning for all students (not yet in our local public schools)
  • all content delivered in multiple ways using multiple modalities (increasing in our public schools)
  • emphasis on quality of instruction over coverage of content (depends on the school’s overall test scores)
  • emphasis on training teachers to recognize signs of dyslexia and how to effectively teach phonological awareness in the general education classroom (still a weakness in credentialing programs, in my opinion, and limited in scope in public schools due to funding issues)

I know I should conclude with my own words, but the following quote sums up the topic so much better than I can:

“The unexpected consequence of attempts to standardize educational practices has been to handcuff our educators, stifle creativity, create conflict and competition between general education and special education, and deny our children access to meaningful early intervention. If the system is indeed ‘broken,’ as seems to be the political consensus, then the injury is self inflicted. In this case top down problems need bottom up solutions. We must reject that which is ineffective and immoral and we must demand the knowledge, training, and freedom to be effective. The “we” of whom I speak is parent, advocate, teacher, principal, and everyone who is in the position to see, touch, and influence the life of a child” (Dickman, 2008).

References:

Dickman, G. Emerson. “Roads Less Traveled,” Perspectives on Language and Literacy, Fall 2008, 5, http://www.questia.com/read/1P3-1639897981

Eide M.D. M.A., Brock L.; M.D., Fernette F. Eide (2011-08-18).   The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain. Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

Geschwind, Norman. “Pathology of Superiority: A Predisposition to Dyslexia May Have Advantages,” Perspectives on Language and Literacy, Winter 2010, http://www.questia.com/read/1P3-1995238211

IDA web site: http://www.interdys.org/FAQWhatIs.htm

Sherman, Gordon F. and Cowen, Carolyn D. “Neuroanatomy of Dyslexia Through the Lens of Cerebrodiversity,” Perspectives on Language and Literacy, Spring 2003,

Sherman, Gordon F. and Cowen, Carolyn D. “Norman Geschwind: A Man out of Time,” Perspectives on Language and Literacy, Winter 2010, 14, http://www.questia.com/read/1P3-1995238201

 

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Mess is Best!

Wordle: writing

Remember Magic School Bus and  Ms. Frizzle’s motto? “Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!” This is the way I like to teach writing.

“Mess is best” has always been my motto in my classes during the process of writing — my students know they can begin any piece of writing in the middle, the end, or at the beginning. They know that I want them to show their work, just as they do in math. They know that means that if the ideas they have jumping out of their brain and landing on the page first, should actually make up the third body paragraph, they can number it or label it or draw an arrow on their paper. In other words, when my students are writing, from pre-writing through editing, their papers are a mess! For some, this is very hard to get used to. They find it difficult to believe that I don’t want them to write a new draft with every revision and editing session. They find it difficult to believe that I want their unpolished, messy pages to discuss with them as they make decisions about the piece. They laugh when I tell them that I don’t need papers suitable for framing because I don’t have room on my wall. Because “most students are proficient at the brainstorming and freewriting stages…but most students don’t have strategies beyond correcting surface errors and adding more,” I am simply encouraging revision and editing of any piece my students write by eliminating the tediousness of rewriting until they want to do so or until they are ready to publish the piece (Benjamin, 2000, p. 181).

I remember when I was in school and the teacher said we had to turn in a rough draft with our final copy of a paper; typically, I wrote only one actual paper, copied it over, and made some cross-outs on the copy and turned it in as the rough draft (okay, so I wasn’t the best student in school, but probably like many). It seemed to me, when I first introduced my mess-is-best system that my students would be more willing to make substantial revisions in meaning and content and organization, if they did not have to rewrite the paper to do so. That turned out to be a correct hypothesis. Without the burden of having to physically rewrite, I can encourage students to revise by giving them “a revising goal that directs their attention to more substantive concerns,” a specific revising goal to add three sentences of dialogue, for example (Graham & Harris, 1996, p. 350). In addition, when students do physically rewrite the paper, they do so more willingly because they are eager to see what “real paper” looks like after revising. For those papers that are composed on computers, students insert their revisions via the comment insertions, so that the “before” and “after” are obvious and seen simultaneously.

References:

Benjamin, A. (2000). English teacher’s guide to performance tasks & rubrics: Middle school. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.

Graham, S., & Harris, K. (1996). Self-regulation and strategy instruction for students who find writing and learning challenging. In C. Michael Levy, Sarah Ransdell (eds). The Science of Writing: Theories, Methods, Individual Differences, and Applications. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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Focus this year…

“The teacher is probably the single most important factor affecting student achievement — at least the single most important factor that we can do much about” (Marzano, 2003, p. 1). The second half of that statement strikes me as the most crucial to consider. The classroom environment today is affected by so many variables such as the increase in students with diagnosed learning differences, the increasing number of students coming from varying language backgrounds, the increase in the number of students living in or near poverty, the prevalence of social issues/influences toward negative behaviors, and more students, from a younger age, living in families that undergo redefining throughout the child’s school years. All of these changes affect student behavior in one way or another, and therefore, we are wise to prepare for those effects by understanding our own role in the classroom, by preparing our classroom expectations with as much foresight as possible, and by striving to create a culture of caring and learning in the areas within our control.

With this in mind, I recognize a key area in which I would like to improve as I learn to establish a positive classroom environment for my students. I don’t face classroom management issues, per se, because I work with students individually, yet, as I look at my daily interactions, I ask myself if my words and actions are helping students to learn. For me, this means to not only know my students’ grades, but more importantly, to establish relationships with each student so that I understand how to best support their learning. I’m reminded of an illustration depicting a pot cooking over a fire on a tripod like one used when camping. The legs of the tripod are lashed together at the center to form a cradle for the pot, and the legs must work together to avoid collapse and the toppling of the pot. Student’s academic success is the pot and the three legs are the student, the parents, and the school; if we are missing one of those legs, we may lose the pot. As suggested in the earlier quote, I often can’t do much about the other two legs, but I can definitely take responsibility for my own sturdiness in supporting my students’ success. I want to show my students that I see their effort and I respect them…my role in this relationship is “one of engaging students in the hard work of school: the continuous cycle of studying, producing, correcting mistakes, and starting over again” as a coach, listening between the words for feelings of discouragement or doubt or even of accomplishment and always visibly respecting and accepting the student…this is the type of relationship that will “encourage both confidence and high achievement in students.” (Alderman, 2004, p. 14)

A by-product of the relationships established with students will be the influence I can have in helping them more effectively solve their own learning problems and conflicts. I do have the role of liaison between teacher and student, but I would like to do more with role-playing and showing students how to positively interact with their teachers to resolve concerns before I get involved in the situation. In the past, I have found myself engaged in conversations that really the student should have had with the teacher. My students may come to me flaming with indignation at the unfairness of a grade or classroom situation; I want to improve my ability to diffuse the anger and help the student work through the issue. Role-playing with the student will enable the student to vent, and if I play the role of devil’s advocate, the student may be able to better understand the teacher’s motives or reasoning. At that point, the student and I can brainstorm possible ways to handle the situation and practice what the student can say when talking with the teacher so as to avoid a confrontation. Many of my students need social skills training and do not realize that their approaches do put their teachers on the defensive, which rarely leads to positive resolutions. As Jones and Jones (2007) point out, although I cannot necessarily change my student’s attitude toward a teacher or situation, I can show him “more positive and productive methods for responding to corrections from” or differences of opinion with adults (p. 418).

According to Alderman (2004) “four broad conditions…clarity of purpose, fairness, personal support, and success—are integrated into a climate of caring” (p. 204). By continuing to study the social factors and school factors that influence behavior, by working closely with parents when possible, by communicating acceptance to my students, and by serving as a model to my students of conflict-resolution and problem-solving, I hope to more pro-actively meet the needs of my students and create that positive learning environment this year.

References

Alderman, K (2004). Motivation for achievement: Possibilities for teaching and learning. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Jones, V., & Jones, L. (2007). Comprehensive classroom management: Creating communities of support and solving problems (Laureate Education, Inc., custom 8th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Marzano, R. J., Marzano, J. S., & Pickering, D. J. (2003). Classroom management that works: Research-based strategies for every teacher. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Phelps, P. H. (2006). The three Rs of professionalism. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 42(2), 69–71.

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Whatever It Takes

Critical to any student’s learning is a teacher asking the right questions at the right time, and perhaps the most important question a teacher can ask is “how do I know if all of my students have learned what I think I have taught, and what will I do to help those who have not?” In this content-driven world, many students do not learn what we think we have taught and we just keep on moving. We rationalize this by arguing that the student didn’t try hard enough or that we do not have the resources to change the situation. This book addresses all of the above with practical advice and examples of how schools can ensure that students have a better chance of learning, not just being taught.

Notes I would like to discuss with my colleagues —

Intro:
* three critical questions — p2,3
* goal — p5
* Systematic, timely, direct intervention – p7

Chapter 1
* “all children can learn”
* three critical questions — p2,3

Chapter 2
* teacher “lottery” should not be characteristic of education
* “Darwin” theory (failure to succeed indicates student should not be at school) and “Pilate” theory (failure to succeed reflects irresponsibility of student)
* paradigm shift as necessary, if not more so, than additional resources – p35-37
* Must have a plan — school admin and faculty must implement plan together

Chapter 3
* Pyramid of Interventions – p60ff
* summer study skills course

Chapter 4
* grading periods of 3 6-week sections each semester, rather than 2 9-week sections
* paradigm shift: “think positive, not punitive” — approach to assessments

Chapter 5
* needs of the middle school student – p83
* key question – p85
* crucial at all levels: steps 5 through 8 (step 5 often skipped — reteaching/support for those who didn’t “get it” the first time) – p87

Chapters 6 and 7
* team learning process
* SSD needs – work directly with grade-level teams – p111
* two-way system of communication/synchronization of schedules – p112,113
* focus of SST – p126
* “learning will be constant…time and support will be the variables” – p128

Chapter 8
* commonalities – p134
* is there an “if” factor – p134
* structured collaboration and shared knowledge and action
* analyze results/targets for improvement — just because it was taught does not mean it was learned – p140
* key question – p141
* collective commitment works through conflict

Chapter 9
* honest dialogue between “change zealots” and resisters
* questions we may face – p150, 158 (teach to the top philosophy), p165

Chapter 10
* paradigm shift about teaching – p 173
* key question – p175
* from “fixed” to “flexible”
* from “average learning” to “individual learning”
* from “punitive” to “positive”
* honor improvement/effort, not just the success of elite few – p179
* misapplication of “rigor” as “more” and “more difficult” – p180
* assessment “for” learning – p183,184
* collaborative culture w/ timely interventions
* look for and share evidence of small-term wins – p189

The appendix
* mission and vision statements – p201
* job descriptions
* sample correspondence
* program descriptions
* graphics to illustrate intervention plans
* graphic representation of Adlai Stevenson’s Pyramid of Interventions – p210

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Gifted With Learning Issues

Many of the students with whom I work could be considered gifted by most scales, and definitely score in the gifted range on the ISEE Entrance exams used by our school. Most people praise, admire, or wonder about gifted students, those students who eagerly interject thoughtful and thought-provoking comments during class discussions; those students who not only write the assigned essays with clear syntax and correct grammar, but also engage in insightful analysis; those students who offer to help their peers and often take leadership roles during group work. A gifted student is defined as having “demonstrated potential high-performance capability in intellectual, creative, specific academic and leadership areas or the performing and visual arts” (Friend & Bursuck, 2009, p. 289). In general, gifted students display wonderful curiosity, engaging personalities, strong problem-solving skills, and “an advanced ability to comprehend information using accelerated and flexible thought processes;” thus the challenge in the classroom for the teacher is sometimes to keep up with these students, to develop absorbing learning activities that tap into those intellectual and social qualities.

As odd as it may sound, though, those are not the students I want to discuss. I want to discuss those students who enter the classroom with a backpack spilling out its contents; those students whose hands never rise before their mouths open, and whose mouths open before their brains pause to think; those students who gaze out the window halfway through class or doodle constantly in what appears absolute mindless activity. These students may be known as lazy and/or not working to potential; in fact, some researchers suggest that “this group of students is often rated by teachers as most disruptive at school” (Baum, 1990, p. 1). These students are often “failing miserably in school” and they get “noticed because of what they cannot do, rather than because of the talent they are demonstrating” (Baum, 1990, p. 1). Then, on the other hand, some of these students may not be noticed at all because their “superior intellectual ability is working overtime to help compensate for weaknesses caused by an undiagnosed learning disability” and they just seem to be an average learner (Baum, 1990, p. 1).

There are essentially three categories of Gifted and Talented/Learning Disabled students:
(1) identified gifted students who have subtle learning disabilities,
(2) unidentified students whose gifts and disabilities may be masked by average achievement, and
(3) identified learning disabled students who are also gifted (Baum, 1990, p. 1).
It is important to note that because a student may be working at grade level or are considered gifted, she is “likely to be overlooked for screening procedures necessary to identify a subtle learning disability” (Baum, 1990, p. 1).

Baum (1990) notes that if teachers “view below-grade-level achievement as a prerequisite to a diagnosis of a learning disability…an extremely bright student who is struggling to stay on grade level may slip through the cracks of available services because he or she is not failing” (p. 1). Others note that the Gifted & Talented/Learning Disabled student often is failing because he does not complete assignments (or loses them before turning them in), has difficulty with writing — with the motor skills required for hand-writing as well as with producing a clear, cohesive development of a topic; yet, at the same time, this student’s comments during class may show insight and understanding and in fact, an ability to think beyond the level of his peers (Lovecky, 2004, p. 150). Either way, whether failing or not failing, noticed or unnoticed, the Gifted & Talented/Learning Disabled student often faces issues with self-esteem, generalizing “their feelings of academic failure to an overall sense of inadequacy” and misunderstanding that will only increase if not recognized (Baum, 1990, p. 1).

We may be tempted to lower our expectations for students who struggle in our classrooms, but for these students, that would work against them and us; instead, teachers are encouraged to maintain a classroom environment characterized by “interactive participation, flexibility, high standards, student participation in cooperative groups, individualized programming, active listening, and practice in conflict-resolution strategies” (Weinfeld, Barnes-Robinson, Jeweler & Shevitz, 2002, p. 226).

It is also sometimes tempting to encourage our brighter students to study more, give more effort. This will prove counter-productive, however, with the Gifted & Talented/Learning Disabled students because often these students really do not know how to study more, or try harder, or why they can’t seem to do what they should be able to do according to their parents and teachers. These “learning disabled students who are also gifted and talented or ‘twice exceptional’ require opportunities to promote their own individual strengths and talents to achieve the accelerated academic proficiency expected of nondisabled gifted students,” and we need to provide them with “the gifted instruction and the special instruction, adaptations, and accommodations provided to other students with special needs” (Weinfeld, Barnes-Robinson, Jeweler & Shevitz, 2002, p. 226).

I could share so much more — the reading I’ve done just to write this much fascinates me! I know there is much more to consider regarding the specific needs in the classroom of these learners. I will sum up by saying excellent pedagogy applies to helping these students — using graphic organizers, providing clearly structured assignments, developing challenging learning activities in the students’ areas of interest, modeling, and using think-aloud strategies — which actually provides sound pedagogy for all students. In addition, Friend and Bursuck advise curriculum compacting, which involves assessing the students’ “achievement of instructional goals” and then allowing those students who have met those goals to engage in alternate activities such as individual research, working with a mentor, or some other more advanced study (p. 292). As I have noticed before, “when a student’s gifts are identified and nurtured, there is an increased willingness on the part of the student to put forth greater effort to complete tasks,” and I would add that I believe that is true for all students regardless of learning styles, disabilities, or preferences (Weinfeld, Barnes-Robinson, Jeweler & Shevitz, 2002, p. 226).

References:

Baum, Susan, (1990). Gifted but learning disabled: A puzzling paradox. The ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education (ERIC EC). Retrieved March 9, 2009 from http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/eric/e479.html

Friend, M. & Bursuck, W. (2009). Including students with special needs: A practical guide for classroom teachers (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Lovecky, D. V. (2004). Different minds: Gifted children with ad/hd, asperger syndrome, and other learning deficits. [Electronic version]. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Weinfeld, R., Barnes-Robinson, L., Jeweler, S., & Shevitz, B. (2002). Academic programs for gifted and talented/learning disabled students. [Electronic version]. Roeper Review, 24(4), 226+.

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