Tag Archives: Methods and Theories

Readers Read…and so do my middles!

goodreads exampleIt’s Christmas break and I update my latest reading on my Goodreads account, and then it hits me! I’d been lamenting the lack of enthusiasm for reading among my 7th and 8th graders, and I couldn’t seem to motivate reading for fun. My middles were used to reading for points, for prizes, for grades — but not for any of the reasons that last after school gets out. This was last year, my first year back in the classroom as a middle school teacher in 30 years, and my first year back as a classroom teacher in 12 years. So much had changed in terms of popular culture, technology, and standards. Nothing, however, posed more of a frustration to me than this apathy and even antipathy toward reading among my students. And then, as I said, it hit me!

My kids don’t see people reading; they don’t encounter peers who read or adults in their lives who read just for the fun of it. I knew this because early in the semester, when we talked about “active reading,” I asked my students to interview three adults about their reading habits. Questions included: “What and when do you read for your job?” and “What and when do you read for pleasure?” Most students interviewed adults they knew; some interviewed people on the street. All found that many people admitted that they don’t read much for pleasure, but they do read during their work-day — texts, emails, memos, and professional reading, for example.

When I updated my progress that day during Christmas break last year, I thought about all of the books I’d read, and all of the people I’d met through Goodreads, and all of the books I’d tried because of Goodreads recommendations. My yearly thrill is completing my Goodreads Reading Challenge and seeing my stats at the end of the year — okay, so that is kind of like reading for points, I’ll admit. Anyway, I suddenly realized that my middles need two things: time to read and people with whom to share their reading! So I revamped my whole approach when we returned to class after Christmas break.

First, I gave my students 15 to 20 minutes each class period to read. We have 90-minute class sessions, so I just reworked my planning and that time for reading became sacred. Secondly, I created a Goodreads group for our school. I invited all of our school’s staff, administrators, and counselors to join “Legacy Reads” so that my kids could see what their teachers and principal are reading — and that they do read. I did have to keep the group private because I need to ensure my students’ privacy with parents. During that semester, I posted a question each week for students to answer on our group page, and each student kept track of their independent reading on their personal Goodreads page.

During the summer, I scoured thrift stores for books to add to our classroom library, bought throw pillows, a chair, and the softest rug ever to surround our library area. This year, kids could opt to read wherever they felt comfortable — and they did! why people read - 3 We set reading goals for the year, noted books we completed with stars and reviews, and shared opinions on our group discussion page. I could see which books kids loved and talk with kids about what they were reading as they were reading, rather than logging in to a program to check a quiz score. I also encouraged parents to take pictures of their kids reading at home and send the photos to me. I then enlarged the photos, printed them, and posted them on the bulletin boards and on our class web pages. I wanted to immerse my kids in an environment of reading for fun. So satisfying to hear a student say, “You have to read this!” Or to see kids smiling as they read silently. Or see that one student has sent a book recommendation to another. Or have a parent stop me in the hall to express wonder that her active 8th-grade son reads after baseball practice because he wants to and asks her to get more books!

The real joy came, however, two weeks after school got out. I was updated my Goodreads page with my latest reading and saw several updates from my students. I wasn’t checking up on them; they didn’t have to update for class. They just continue to read and give stars and share opinions about books. Readers read…and so do my middles now!

 

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Reflecting on 35 Years of Teaching Writing

Teaching and using writing to explore, to expand, and to explain is what we do; how to use writing is what we teach. With this in mind, “writing is best understood as a complex intellectual activity that requires students to stretch their minds, sharpen their analytical capabilities, and make valid and accurate distinctions” (National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges, 2003, p.13). Thus, I teach with writing.

As both a student and a teacher, I have lived through numerous trends and theories of writing instruction. As a high school student in the early seventies, I methodically wrote the assigned five-paragraph essays about literature; then in college, used the same basic format to approach the longer papers assigned. When I entered the credential program at UCSB in the early eighties, I entered the world of Peter Elbow as I participated in Sheridan Blau’s South Coast Writing Project. Suddenly, writing shifted from form to freedom. Commenting on that time period’s emphasis on social values of individualism, personal expression, equality, and freedom, D. Bowden observes that “outlets for self-expression in writing were suddenly highly valued” and “that both the process movement (which paid attention to how writing was produced) and voice (which privileged the expression of emotions, passions, ideals, and a writer’s inner character) not only took hold but also became quickly entrenched (Clark et al., 2003, p. 287). When I began teaching, I faced a tug-of-war between teaching the form by which I had learned to write for school and avoiding what Macrorie termed Engfish, “standard academic writing in which students attempt to replicate the style and form of their professors” (Clark et al., 2003, p. 289). My early years as a teacher produced many standard English, five-paragraph essays because frankly, I could more objectively explain grades to students, parents, and colleagues. In the early nineties, I met Rae Jean Williams who invited me to work with the UCLA Writing Project. Through that involvement with colleagues, sharing experiences and theories, I discovered freedom in using writing to teach, as opposed to trying to teach writing.

One of the most important lessons I learned from Rae Jean is that students need a reason for writing, that writing is a response to some stimulus, a means to an end rather than the end. Some may disagree, and in fact, in my early years of implementing writing workshop in my classroom, I believed that the objective was simply to get kids writing. My writing workshop followed the usual protocol of encouraging students to write frequently and allowing for students to work on several pieces at a time, keeping every piece of writing, from notes to outlines to rough drafts to final copies, in their English folders. As students completed rough drafts, they spent time with me during a conference session discussing possible revisions. These rough drafts were not graded, in order to motivate revision, rather than create frustration. Students were required to submit revised pieces as part of their final exam grade — these pieces were graded on revision work shown. Two days a week in class were Writing Workshop days during which students worked on their own writing, shared writing with peer groups, and individually conferred with me about writing problems. I encouraged individuals to write about topics that interested them personally; I rarely assigned one topic to all students. I challenged students to experiment with various modes of writing such as autobiographical, poetry, journaling, short story, persuasive, and observational. The basic workshop approach provided a safe environment for writing, which does motivate as “they had ownership over the learning activities,” but did not provide a reason to write (Shellard & Protheroe, 2004, p. 13).

A better use of writing workshop provides a safe environment to approach the writing tasks presented in students’ core classes. Research indicates that one of the problems with the romantic rhetoric approach of my initial workshop is that it was “based on the idea that writing has only one purpose, self-exploration. However, in reality, it has multiple purposes” (Williams, 2003, p. 66). Because reading and writing are so integrated, students need to understand the use of specific genres of writing for specific purposes, not only as readers of text but as responders to text. When teaching the use of writing, teachers need to understand that “writers and readers use similar kinds of knowledge…in the act of making their meanings: knowledge about language, knowledge about content, knowledge about genre conventions” and help students make those connections (Langer & Flihan, 2000). Correct grammar can signal skillful writing – correct structure does indicate a sense of organization and coherence. “Correct” writing, however, is often boring and according to a recent study:

Teaching students the grammar raises tacit knowledge to a conscious level in ways that interfere with the efficient language processing necessary in writing. In other words, students…probably were thinking more about the grammar rules than they were about writing, with deleterious effects. (Williams, 2003, p. 50)

Here, once again, is the tug-of-war between personal and academic discourses. However, when I ask students about audience, purpose, and the key question of “so what?” I help students learn how to use those formal elements of style to elicit the answer they desire.

In the workshop setting, students can look at form and structure of an essay, for instance, as the “basic outfit” that needs personal identity. In groups, or individually, students can consider how the writing can be improved by adding elements of style specific to their purpose, personal choices made by each writer including the choice of genre that best addresses their needs. Depending on students’ background knowledge, students can be asked to add their own style by adding rhetorical devices, varying sentence structure, changing passive voice to active; this is best achieved by break ing this into steps and modeling, rather than direct instruction/drill of grammar. We may discuss, for instance, rhetorical devices and then students add one device to a piece of writing on which they are currently working. When we look at sentence types, I can then lead students to adding a periodic or cumulative sentence, for example. In this way, students develop understanding of grammar and rhetorical structure in the same way they look at what their favorite performers are wearing, choosing to add the elements they like best to their own personal wardrobe. Referring back to where I began, with writing, I teach students to use writing to achieve their purposes, to generate the answers they desire to the questions they and/or their teachers ask, to write meaningfully.

Teaching with writing applies to all content areas because it is teaching students how to use writing as “Powerful discourse…discourse that makes a difference; has a rhetorical purpose; and informs, persuades, or moves an audience from their present state of mind to a new one” (Clark et al., 2003, p. 296).

References:

Clark, I., Bamberg, B,, Bowden, D,, Edlund, J., Gerrard, L., Klein, S., Lippman, J., & Williams, J. (2003). Concepts in composition: Theory and practice in the teaching of writing. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Langer, J., & Flihan, S. (2000). Writing and reading relationships: Constructive tasks. Retrieved April 28, 2008, from http://cela.albany.edu/publication/article/writeread.htm

National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges. (2003). The neglected R: The need for a writing revolution. Retrieved April 28, 2008, from http://www.writingcommission.org/prod_downloads/writingcom/neglectedr.pdf

Shellard, E., & Protheroe, N. (2004). Writing across the curriculum to increase student learning in middle and high school. Arlington, VA: Educational Research Service.

Williams, J., (2003). Preparing to teach writing: Research, theory, and practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

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Modeling Leading to Transfer

2543351480044258467fFzOdb_fs   As an academic success counselor, teachers will often approach me about particular students. Sighing heavily, a teacher laments that the student cannot read or the student does not read. Students who are not engaged or appear unable to meet the academic expectations of the course do discourage teachers who are experts in their subject areas and who are eager to share that expertise with their students. J. Guthrie (2001) observed that “student engagement affected teacher involvement as much as teacher involvement influenced student engagement” (Guthrie, 2001). If this is true, then we need to look closely at the inter-relatedness of teacher involvement and student engagement in order to reduce the frustrations of teachers and students related to reading. As a result of reading and researching, I am convinced that we cannot continue to assume that students know how to read by the time they reach our middle and high school classrooms if we desire their engagement and involvement in our classes (Alvermann, Phelps, and Ridgeway, 2007, p. 4). We must actively, explicitly teach our students pre-, during-, and post-reading strategies that will help them read to learn, to make connections, and to more deeply engage with us and our content.

April Nauman, Ph. D. (2007) observes that “high school students must read, comprehend, and remember information in a variety of high-level content area textbooks, which are packed with new concepts and vocabulary…these expectations occur at a time when students’ motivation to read tends to decline” (p. 31). As I have worked with students struggling to read sections in their history text, I have observed that teaching them to use specific strategies aids not only their comprehension, but also increases their motivation to read. The history text presents two columns of text, at least one chart, and an inset box per page. My students tend to gloss over the pages, skimming for what might be on the quiz that their teachers will inevitably give the day after the pages are to be read for homework. A difficulty that I face as a Learning Specialist is that I cannot choose the assignments and the means of assessments that my students encounter in their classes; I can, however, use those assessments as literacy teaching tools. For example, when a student points out difficulties he faced in responding to questions based on history text reading, I can use that experience to show the student how to actively read the text to learn. Vacca (2002) points out that “continued literacy development is of critical importance because it helps to shape the core strategies by which adolescents learn to negotiate meaning and think critically about the texts in their lives, whether in the context of school or the world outside of school” (p. 186). Students need to see this type of thinking modeled, as it is not an intuitive skill that they activate simply because the learning task demands it.

I have learned that this modeling and guided practice means that I am actively thinking out loud as I read with my students, and that I offer my students a variety of strategies. For example, I can show my students how to use strategies such as KWL charts or SQ3R to set a purpose for reading. I particularly like the SQ3R strategy for use with my students’ history textbook because the students learn to look over the chapter, change section headings into questions, and can at the same time, set up Cornell Notes (two-column notes) or a 5-W Chart (who, what, when, where, why) to use as they read to answer the questions. The most important step in this strategy for my students is the question phase because they tend to not even notice titles and subheadings. Yet, each title, when rephrased as a question, becomes the guide for determining the main ideas in that section of the reading. For some of my students, reading has always been a passive activity, either due to family background (lack of education, lack of involvement, lack of emphasis relative to other activities) or perhaps due to educational experiences (poor instruction, behavioral issues that masked reading difficulties left unaddressed, moving from one school to another preventing engagement promoting reading). For these students, learning how to take notes, summarize, and draw inferences are new skills requiring much guided practice which I can give them during our meetings.

Although, I realize my students may not see their history reading as fun, I have learned that “teachers can affect student motivation to read through explicit reading strategy and reading comprehension strategy instruction and practice” and do so when they “show how, practice, tell why, and tell when” (Mccrudden, Perkins & Putney, 2005). My students need to learn for instance, that “note taking is not simply a way to record facts; it also leads to deeper student engagement and reflection” (Fisher, Frey, & Williams, 2002, p. 72). Metacognition, or thinking about thinking, is the goal of during-reading strategies and therefore, teachers must make a conscious effort to “teach comprehension strategies that empower students to internalize the strategies and to develop a conceptual framework for understanding content area topics” (NASSP, 2008). With this goal in mind, and understanding the difficulties that my students have reading their history textbook, I use active reading strategies that guide their reading. For example, the RAP strategy teaches students to read one paragraph, ask what it says, and put it into their own words before reading the next paragraph. The emphasis in this approach is helping the student recognize that reading the history text book involves new skills which he is in the process of learning and that he actually understands more of the text than he believed he could. My students benefit from looking at the reading assignment in chunks, rather than pages, with each section read to answer a question seen as a chunk of text to be understood and summarized. The notes taken affirm to my students that they have understood what they read; so often they have lamented reading the “whole chapter” but not remembering or understanding anything they had read.

I integrate the use of the RAP strategy with another strategy, Questioning the Author, moving students beyond facts to thinking about why those facts are important. My students have written many reports during their years in school, all of which asked for facts. Now, in high school, it is not enough to know the facts and just the facts. Students have to analyze the facts, relate those facts to prior knowledge, consider how those facts might relate to the future, and develop an understanding of the significance of those facts to their own lives. According to its creators, “Questioning the Author begins by taking stock of what we want students to learn from a text and noticing what might interfere with that understanding,” then “prompts student response to text through such queries as, ‘What is the author trying to say?’, or ‘What did the author say to make you think that?'” (Beck, & McKeown, 2002). To implement these strategies together, as they seem a natural pairing, I first preview the text, noting sections that may pose interruptions in comprehension and preparing questions that will help students over the bumps. As we read the text together, I ask the students questions to engage them in interacting with the text and to monitor comprehension. I may begin with an active comprehension question such as ‘What would you like to know about this chapter’ after reading the title and the first paragraph; then after reading further, I may pose a questioning the author query such as ‘What distinction is the author making here’ at a point where the students may not infer what is needed for full comprehension. This active reading encourages students to “respond to queries by contributing ideas that other students and the teacher may build on, refine, or challenge” (Beck, & McKeown, 2002). In addition, students not only think about the text as I am asking questions such as ‘What do you think the author meant by saying that…,’ but they also observe when I choose to ask the question. I want my students to understand the text, but I also want to model how to think while reading. Ideally, students learn to ask questions themselves while reading. This approach leads my students to an understanding of how to apply the strategies on their own; “modeling, coaching, and fading” provides my at-risk readers “with the scaffolding necessary to incorporate the procedural and conditional knowledge they were learning into their own repertoire of reading strategies” (Dole, Brown, & Trathen, 1996, p. 73). Research emphasizes that the key to effectiveness is to model and guide students through the process; showing students just once and then expecting them to apply any strategy is idealistic, if not simply unfair. Fisher (2001) points to “significant improvement in student quiz scores after graphic organizers had been implemented with teacher guidance” (p. 116). This guidance is on-going and repeated; Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock (2001) caution, “simply directing students what to do, however, is not the same as showing them how to do it” (p. 32). Dole, Brown, and Trathen (1996) further remind us that “with its emphasis on making abstract cognitive thought processes explicit, strategy instruction can be difficult for students to understand, especially if the instruction is not sequenced clearly and systematically” (p. 67). This instruction, meaning modeling and thinking-aloud to show students the process is worth the effort and the time; “long-term instruction of sophisticated comprehension strategies clearly improves student understanding and memory of texts that are read” (Pressley, 2002, p. 291).

Finally, as students learn to preview the text, read for a purpose, asking questions as they read, they are moving toward deeper comprehension that will be demonstrated through the use of post-reading strategies. Our history teachers use an acronym “GRAPES” (geography, religion, achievements, politics, economy, and society) to indicate what students should know about each people-group studied, and this could easily be applied with the Compare and Contrast matrix. The basic idea is that “readers compare and contrast the target concepts listed across the top of the matrix according to attributes, properties, or characteristics listed along the left side” (Vacca, & Vacca, 2005, p. 402). By completing the chart, students focus on the items their teachers are highlighting, and in addition, they create for themselves a study guide for use when preparing for tests or essay assignments. Another post-reading skill that I want my students to develop is the ability to summarize notes and what was read. I, again, use a modeling approach with the whole class first, asking students to contribute sentences, as we summarize a text together. I take an active role and encourage active learning.

Galda and Liang (2003) note that “educators who want to capitalize on the potentially rich experience that seems to motivate students to read…need to carefully orchestrate the questions, tasks, and tests” (p. 270). I take an active role in “planning instruction; establishing the structure necessary for successful implementation; observing, assisting, and guiding students and groups as they work; and assessing and adjusting the process” (Ruddell, 2004, p. 107). As freshmen in high school, my students are no longer learning to read, but as noted earlier, reading to learn, “a matter of meaning-making, problem-solving, and understanding” (Jacobs, 2002, p. 59). Because I work with what content area teachers assign my students, I do not get to choose the students’ textbooks; my explicit teaching of reading strategies, showing and not telling, though, may help my students navigate texts with greater success and confidence.

References:

Alvermann, D. E., Phelps, S. F., & Ridgeway, V. G. (2007). Content area reading and literacy: Succeeding in today’s diverse classrooms (5th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Beck, I. L., & McKeown, M. G. (2002, November). Questioning the author: Making sense of social studies [Electronic version]. Educational Leadership, 60(3).

Dole, J.A., Brown, K.J., & Trathen, W. (1996). The effects of strategy instruction on the comprehension performance of at-risk students. Reading Research Quarterly, 31(1), 62–88. Retrieved February 11, 2008, from http://www.reading.org/Library/Retrieve.cfm?D=10.1598/RRQ.31.1.4&F=RRQ-31-1-Dole.pdf.

Fisher, A., (2001). Implementing graphic organizer notebooks: the art and science of teaching content. [Electronic version]. The Reading Teacher, 55, 116.

Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Williams, D. (2002, November). Seven literacy strategies that work. Educational Leadership, 60(3), 70–73.

Galda, L., & Liang, L. (2003). Literature as experience or looking for facts: Stance in the classroom. Reading Research Quarterly, 38(2), 268–275.  Retrieved February 8, 2008, from http://www.reading.org/Library/Retrieve.cfm?D=10.1598/RRQ.38.2.6&F=RRQ-38-2-Galda.pdf.

Guthrie, J.T. (2001, March). Contexts for engagement and motivation in reading. Reading Online, 4(8). Retrieved 01/04/08 from  http://www.readingonline.org/articles/art_index.asp?HREF=/articles/handbook/guthrie/index.html.

Jacobs, V. (2002, November). Reading, writing, and understanding [Electronic version]. Educational Leadership, 60(3).

Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D. J., & Pollock, J. E. (2001). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Mccrudden, M, Perkins, P, & Putney, L Self-efficacy and interest in the use of reading strategies. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 20, Retrieved 1/12/08, from http://www.questia.com/read/5014088133.

NASSP, (2008). During-reading strategies. Retrieved January 30, 2008, from National Association of Secondary School Principals Web site: http://www.principals.org/s_nassp/sec.asp?CID=887&DID=52915.

Nauman, Ph.D, A. (2007). Reader’s Handbook, Grades 9-12, Research Base. Retrieved January 4, 2008, from Great Source Web site: http://www.greatsource.com/rehand/9-12/pdfs/9_12NaumanArticle.pdf

Neufeld, P. (2005, December). Comprehension instruction in content area classes. The Reading Teacher, 59(4), 302–312. Retrieved February 13, 2008, from http://www.reading.org/.

Pressley, M. (2002). Metacognition and self-regulated comprehension. In A.E. Farstrup, & S. Samuels (Eds.), What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction (pp. 291-309). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Ruddell, M. R. (2004). Engaging students’ interest and willing participation in subject area learning. In D. Lapp, J. Flood, & N.Farnan (Eds.), Content area reading and learning: Instructional strategies. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Singer, H., & Donlon, D., (1989). Reading and learning from text. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Vacca, R.T. (2002). Making a difference in adolescents’ school lives: Visible and invisible aspects of content area reading. In A.E. Farstrup, & S. Samuels (Eds.), What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction (pp. 184-204). Retrieved 1/12/08 from http://www.reading.org/Library/Retrieve.cfm?D=10.1598/0872071774.9&F=bk177-9-Vacca.html .

Vacca, R. T., & Vacca, J. L. (2005). Content area reading: Literacy and learning across the curriculum (8th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

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GOOOOAAAALLLL!!!!

goal   In keeping with the sports world’s focus on the World Cup, this week’s post discusses “Goal-setting” and “Perseverance” – two more of Langston’s 6 Success Attributes. When my students look in the “mirror” of self-assessment, the natural next step is to set goals for moving forward. I shared this with a dozen 6th-graders taking my summer school “Study Skills” class. The first day, the kids completed an “Interest Survey” and answered the question “Why are you taking this class?” Kids are honest, and this bunch didn’t lie: “because my mom made me.” Okay, so do I tell them why they need the class? Nope, that’s not going to work. So I gave them a self-assessment sheet and they rated themselves on various academic strategies such as “I write my assignments on a calendar” or “I look up words I don’t know when I am reading.” After they finished their assessments, I wanted them to see their strengths, so I wrote on the board, “Academic Skills for Success.” I then asked them to put a “Star” by each item they had rated as “Almost Always.” I looked around the room to be sure that every student had at least one star, and then I said, “Okay, I’d like each of you to pick one of your starred items and write it on the board under ‘Academic Skills for Success.’” They eagerly raised their hands to volunteer, and after the first student wrote her skill on the board, I suggested, “If you do what’s already listed on the board, go ahead and put a check-mark by it before you write down your own starred item.” In this way, all twelve students recognized their own successful activities and those of their peers. The students were now ready to look at areas for improvement. The next day, I asked the students to review their assessments and choose one of the areas rated as “Almost Never” to focus on for the day’s activity. Using the acronym “SMART”, I explained that goals can help us improve if we make goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, rewarding personally, and timely. The kids shared their understanding of each of those words as each was presented, and I gave examples as needed. Then they wrote one Academic Smart Goal, and we put these goals on the board as our objectives for why we are in the class.

My Academic Success Program students are used to SMART goals, as we start the year in a similar way after they complete their self-assessments. I really like the 5-step process that Langston presents and plan to share it with my students. When they set that goal, we’ll note how they can also become educated on the best way to achieve the goal, then visualize taking the steps necessary to reach it, focusing on the path to getting what is desired), and then taking whatever physical steps are necessary to reach the goal. This process fits with the mini-goal setting we do each week, as well, when students look at upcoming assignments and tests. If, for example, the student has a unit test coming up in a week, we will look at the study guide and set goals for incremental preparation. I show the student how to determine what he feels most confident about and least confident about, and then how to break the guide down into manageable sections to work with over a period of days before the test, setting a goal date on his calendar for completing each section. My students by setting SMART Goals and incremental goals are able to as Langston points out, “distill small goals from a big goal and then educate, reinforce, focus, and act on each smaller goal that’s necessary to reach the big goal.”

Langston observes that “successful people with learning disabilities often possess the ability to learn from mistakes and pursue goals despite difficulties, as well as the flexibility to find alternate pathways to a goal or modify that goal as needed” and I capitalize on that when I meet with my students. When I meet with a student who has been knocked down so many times that he just wants to stay on the ground rather than try again, I can’t just say to him, “toughen up, cupcake” or “rub some dirt on it” – the kid is down. I need to get back to that first attribute of self-awareness. The student who is down is not self-aware of what he needs and what he can do; he is only aware that he has “messed up again.” One of the ways that I help these kids re-see themselves and revise their perceptions is by holding up the “mirror” again and showing them their strengths that we identified when we began meeting together. For example, in a school of gifted students, great significance is placed on grades. For many of my students at the end of each quarter, when grades come out, the need to look in the mirror proves essential to moving on into the next quarter.

I also created a “Strengths Evaluation” that I send to the teachers of each of my students at the end of the first semester. The form asks, for instance, the following:

Meaningfulness: Consider the following areas and check each area in which the above-named student exhibits strength:
Meaningfulness (emotions) Overview: Does the student find the learning interesting and/or meaningful? Does the student care about the content being learned? Does the student find the experience of learning valuable or worth the effort? Is the learning relevant?

  • Relates Content to Personal Interests/Experiences/Skill sets
  • Imaginative Thinking
  • Cares About the Content Being Learned
  • Other strength related to emotions

This is the type of strength that may not be evidenced by the letter grade on a grammar test or on a math quiz. When the first semester grades reflect deficiencies in achievement, I show the student the teachers’ evaluations of his strengths. When a student is aware that others see his strengths, he is reminded of them himself – then he is ready to persevere. At that point, we can discuss setbacks in terms of what can be learned from the experience. For example, when Brett, whom I mentioned in the first post in this series, came to me for help at the end of third quarter, he had many missing assignments in several classes. He could have given up. Instead, he knew from experience with me that when an assignment is missed, rather than reproving the student, I help the student trace back, through questioning, and determine what got in the way and then how to take steps to repair the damage. In Brett’s case, we saw a pattern of postponed assignments during the weeks he was involved in an extra-curricular activity. We could therefore identify the cause as a response to an external situation, rather than a response to an internal lack of knowledge or skills. At that point, Brett could put the problem in perspective and could work on setting goals and taking steps to complete assignments that would still be accepted and get on track with his current work, and persevere. And with that, Brett and those like him,

GOOOOAAAALLLL!!!!

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I can’t do it alone…Hold my hand, my hand, my hand…

Alt-rock group, The Fray, sing:

Hold my hand, I can hear ghosts calling
Help me stand, even if the sky is falling
And I want you to know, I can’t do it alone
Hold my hand, my hand, my hand

One of the concerns some teachers at my school shared when I first introduced my Executive Functioning Skills program was that I would “hold students’ hands” rather than hold them accountable for doing what “they should be doing.” This concern evidenced a lack of understanding that a student could have a learning issue or executive functioning issues and yet still be gifted intellectually. The teachers thought that an intellectually gifted student should be able to read like the other students in the class, take tests in the same amount of time as all other students in the class, remember and follow through on every assignment just as every other student, even if directions were only given orally during the last 10 minutes of class. Initially, I was surprised at some teachers’ lack of understanding about the nature and impact of learning issues; then I recalled my own credential coursework and how little time is given to the teaching of students with learning issues. I cannot fault those who don’t understand. I also learned quickly that I can’t hammer teachers with articles and resources to read so that they will understand. I must simply show my students how to demonstrate their competence, their intellectual strengths, so that their teachers see what they can do more than what they can’t/don’t do. Developing the attribute of Pro-activity in my students has been crucial to my program’s credibility, to showing teachers that some students are what we call “twice-gifted,” and of course, to moving the students themselves toward becoming independent learners, which is the goal of the program.

One of the primary ways I help students become pro-active learners is by requiring that they take notes in classes or find a way to get notes. Some of my students’ accommodation needs suggest that their teachers provide copies of class notes. Some teachers are more than willing to do this; others see this as an “extra” that they really do not have time to do. So, the answer is to show students that they should pro-actively take responsibility for any needs they have related to note-taking.  We brainstorm options together, which gives me the opportunity to explain why taking this pro-active approach shows the teacher that the student cares about learning the material. I may say to the student, “You know, if the teacher hands you copies of his lecture notes, that’s great for you but what impression might it give the teacher about your interest in the class?” The students, usually after some additional questions from me, realize that if they pro-actively seek out a peer with whom to compare notes, or even ask the teacher if they can “fill in gaps” in their notes by reviewing with the teacher, then they show the teacher that they aren’t looking for a “way out” of doing work, but as we understand it, they are looking for a “way into” the learning. Robert Langston shares in The Power of Dyslexic Thinking the story of how he couldn’t listen to lectures and take notes at the same time so in a class, he would watch and notice “whose pencil was flying across the paper the most” and then check to see if the person had neat handwriting, and if they did, he would “go up to them after class and say, ‘I have dyslexia. I was wondering, could I xerox your notes?’” and then he would pay them for the privilege” (Langston, 2014). What a fantastic pro-active solution!

I also help students determine when they need to meet with teachers; this is critical to my students’ success in the immediate and to their future interactions with teachers. When a student has struggled in school, sometimes the teacher is not seen as an ally, but as a “judge.” They may not even know how to approach a teacher for help. I have role-played conversations with my students, helping them see how a teacher might respond to various types of questions. If the very thought of talking face-to-face instills fear in the student, I will help him word an email requesting a meeting with the teacher. While we work on the email, I’m able to share with the student how his request will show the teacher that he recognizes his need for help (that self-awareness, discussed in last week’s post) and that he recognizes that his teacher can and wants to help him. Whether he truly believes that last point or not, it’s crucial to plant that seed of expectation in the student’s mind. After sending the email, I follow up with the student, asking how the meeting went, and asking the student to share with me one or two things he learned during the meeting. The follow-up is what will nurture the student’s belief that meeting with a teacher for help is beneficial and the confidence to pro-actively request help from teachers in the future.

Holding a student’s hand is not the same thing as teaching a student a strategy by modeling, helping the child apply the strategy, prompting the student as to when to use the strategy, and then gradually fading the cues as the student learns independently and pro-actively. And the latter is so satisfying to both the student and the teacher.

 

This post is Part 2 in a series begun last week, based on Robert Langston’s “6 Success Attributes” described in his book The Power of Dyslexia.  The first attribute, discussed in last week’s post, is “Self-Awareness.”

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“Find out what it is in life that you don’t do well; and then, don’t do that thing”

One of the best hugs I received at this year’s high school graduation was from a student named Brett who literally exuded both pride and relief as we lined up for the ceremony; he’d made it! I’d worked with Brett when he was a sophomore, helping him develop independent learning strategies and executive functioning skills. I hadn’t seen him much since his sophomore year until the end of 3rd quarter, this year, his senior year, when he walked into my room and simply said, “I need help.” With those three words, Brett exhibited several characteristics that led to his successfully completing his senior year. According to Dr. Marshall Raskind, (2004), “there is a ‘spirit’ of optimism…based on knowing that, despite an early ‘poor prognosis’ or having to face great adversity, some individuals with LD ‘beat the odds’ and go on to lead productive, satisfying, and rewarding lives” because they have “certain factors like self-awareness, internal locus of control, proactivity, realistic goal setting, and strong support systems promote positive life outcomes” (King-Sears, Boudah, Goodwin, Raskind, & Swanson). Brett, self-aware, recognized he was in trouble, pro-actively determined on his own to seek help, knew where to find support in setting goals for repairing the academic damage done during that 3rd quarter, and took action steps with the first one being coming to my room that day.

Brett knew where to come for help because when we first worked together, two years prior, we had worked on several of the 6 Success Attributes listed in Robert Langston’s book The Power of Dyslexic Thinking. I didn’t realize that we were doing so, but I’m glad that I had made developing students’ self-awareness, pro-activity, perseverance, goal-setting, use of support systems and coping strategies part of my Academic Success Program. In fact, this knowledge of the 6 Attributes fits with the name of my program. When I first created the program and introduced it, I called it the Academic Support Program; after a few months and working with the kids, I realized that the name didn’t inspire. Some kids felt it meant they “needed special help” and checked out of the program, either physically or mentally. So I suggested to my administrator that we change the name to the Academic Success Program because the program’s purpose is to help students develop the executive functioning skills needed to “do school” successfully. We knew that the students were intellectually capable, but they needed to develop the strategies for success that other students seemed to inherently know or be able to do. The name stuck and for the past 10 years, without realizing it, my kids have been working on learning independence and developing attributes for success.

I will admit that imparting the value of the attributes to my students is more challenging than engaging my students in activities that develop the attributes. Perhaps this is because they are high school students who do not want to be talked “at” when they meet with me. If we get involved in doing something immediately, I can talk about the values, but an activity’s relevance to the student’s success often speaks louder than my words can. With that said, I plan to share in a series of posts how I approach sharing with my students and helping them develop these 6 Success Attributes, beginning this week with “Self-Awareness.” I’ll also mention now that I highly recommend reading The Power of Dyslexic Thinking – every teacher should dare to read this book — guaranteed paradigm shift!

Self-Awareness

Langston notes that “self-aware people with learning disabilities know the types of problems they have and how they impact their lives, as well as their strengths and talents. While they recognize their limitations, they’re not defined by them.” Sometimes when a student first starts meeting with me, he does see himself as “lazy,” or “unmotivated,” or “dumb” – a label, either directly or indirectly attached to the student, has become how he defines himself. I’ve seen those kids who sit across from me and expect me to point out their bad grades and say “this is why you need me.” I’ve had to deal with tense moments when the parent comes with the student and points out bad grades and says, “This is why you need her!” I find that often in order to help a student develop self-awareness and ‘redefine’ himself, I need to do all I can to “learn” that kid. I use questionnaires to guide conversations with the student. I like the suggestion from Ficksman and Adelizzi (2010) about using “questionnaires regarding likes and dislikes, executive functioning skills, writing samples, how well the game of school is played, and the like” (p.36). I also like questionnaires because they keep the conversation somewhat focused – I have ADHD, I am often meeting with a student who has ADHD, and I wish I could have recorded some of the meetings I’ve had when this is the case because our conversations do not follow any type of a linear path at all and I find it completely ironic that I am in this role of leading the way.

The learning issues that I typically see in my students are ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, central auditory processing disorder, Asperger’s, Autism, and related issues. When I have a sense of who the student is, how he feels about himself, his temperament, and what he understands about his own strengths and weaknesses, I can move forward in building on my own sense and helping my student develop a clear sense of his strengths. This may involve first demystifying his learning issue. For example, when I take out my picture of the brain and show a kid where his “pre-frontal lobe” is and then share that that part of the brain doesn’t mature until the early 20’s, I have his attention. I can then say something like, “You know what, Jon, your pre-frontal lobe works differently, and not only that, it’s still maturing. So you’re not “Irresponsible” when you forget about an assignment; your brain just didn’t file that input as expected. Let’s figure out a way to sort out your brain’s filing system.” When Jon realizes how his brain functions, and that he does not need to define himself as “ADHD” as if it’s a synonym for “irresponsible”, he begins to see what he CAN do because he emotionally is ready to do so.  Langston explains this in the chapter about Paul Orfalea when he reasons that when society says you should be able to do something and you can’t do it, “then in your mind—whether anybody’s saying it or not (and a lot of times they are)—you think you’re stupid. What we need to get out there is that dyslexia is about how the brain is ‘wired,’ not about being stupid” (Langston, 2014).

The kid, who believes the labels, can’t build on his strengths – too much emotional energy is being used up with the negative thoughts. When Jon says, “Oh, okay, I guess if I keep a planner, I can help myself remember,” he exhibits a positive self-awareness that then allows him to move forward so that he can later say, “I am really good at thinking up ideas for group projects” and offer that strength to others, letting someone else in the group keep track of monitoring progress on the project completion. I plan to emphasize some of the stories in our text with my students that relate to this self-awareness and building on strengths. I loved the comments from Paul Smith, who avoided his office because it was filled with paperwork that he couldn’t do and who noted, “I never did those kinds of things. And fortunately, being president, I really didn’t have to, and I think it made me a better president; ” Langston follows up Smith’s words with the insight that relates to this self-awareness I just discussed: “Paul knew what he wasn’t good at, so he focused on what he could do well” (Langston, 2014). This reminds me of a commercial that I find funny and yet true – the “Most Interesting Man in the World” philosophizes, “Find out what it is in life that you don’t do well; and then, don’t do that thing.”

References

Ficksman, M., & Adelizzi, J. U. (2010). The clinical practice of educational therapy: A teaching model. New York: Routledge.

King-Sears, Margaret E. et al., “Timely and Compelling Research for the Field of Learning Disabilities: Implications for the Future,” Learning Disability Quarterly 27, no. 2 (2004), http://www.questia.com/read/1G1-121279906 .

Robert Langston (2012-04-26). The Power of Dyslexic Thinking AuthorHouse. Kindle Edition.

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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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