Saturday, December 15, 2012

True Heroes


On Friday morning, around 9:30 AM, I brought up some Christmas presents, wrapping paper, and supplies to wrap some gifts with my two year old daughter, whose cold and slight fever had kept me home from school for the day.  I had just finished my first masterpiece when the phone rang.  My husband, from his newsfeed at work, had just received word that there was a school shooting at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut.  My heart sank.  "What?" I gasped.   I called my sister, Beth.  It was just after 9:50 and she didn't pick up.  I quickly hung up the phone to call my mom, a nurse at Danbury Hospital, the closest hospital to the school.

She picked up cheerfully until she heard the desperation in my voice.  "Mom, have you heard from Beth?"  I asked, shaking and pacing around my kitchen.

"Nooo, why?"

"There's been a shooting at her school and I can't reach her."

And so it began.

We were one of the lucky ones.  Within an hour, I had a text message from Beth that she was OK.  Her husband, Matt, had raced up there to be with her, and she was safe.

Safe.  What does that word even mean to her anymore?  Does that mean that she can walk back into the school without memories of crouching in a corner with sixteen second graders, praying that the jiggling of the door handle wasn't going to result in gunfire in her classroom?  Can she hear the sound of the loudspeaker begin again without imagining what she heard and experienced on that day?

I drove there to hug Beth.  I knew she would be scared, and honestly, so was I.  At that time, the world didn't know the gravity of the situation, but as I walked toward the firehouse, I sensed it.  Media vans lined the side of the little road, yet there was just silence.  The heels of my boots clicking on the pavement was the only sound, second to the chilling roar of the helicopters above.  As I entered the firehouse, I wrapped my arms around Beth.  I was relieved; she was broken.  Then families were searching for their children.  Staff members were embracing their loved ones.  A fireman was on the phone, tears streaming down his face.

Our story is one of relief, but there were so many, too many, stories yesterday and today that ended in complete and utter destruction.   I have a broken heart every moment of every day for the parents of the children who were so unfairly taken early in a place of solace and care of a first grade classroom.  I honor the staff who bravely protected children and perished to shield them.  I pray for the staff, that they can heal together and rise up against the evil that they so painstakingly experienced.  A long road ahead of healing exists for too, too many souls in Newtown and through our surrounding area.

Every story that I have heard from Beth's colleagues sounds the same.  Their first priority was to protect those kids.  They were holding doors closed, huddling in corners, singing to their students, calming the kids down, hiding them in closets, bathrooms, storage closets and under cubbies.  They are all heroes.  True, honest heroes.  What they heard and saw yesterday morning has forever changed them, and I pray that their hearts will heal.

I am numb from sadness, as I think we all are, but I can't help but think about Beth, her colleagues, and the Sandy Hook community.  The pictures that you see on the news--- those are their friends and colleagues.  Their children.  Their students.  Their families.  Every time the news shows a picture of someone crying, wounds are reopened.  Yet, they cling to the news for more information--- to piece together a story and try to make sense of why their little community was rocked to the core by such evil and hatred.   The terror that we watch on the news and can only imagine, they lived it, and they are living it every moment of every day.   I can appreciate and respect the heated conversations about gun control and mental health on the news as people try to wrap their heads around how this could have happened to the most innocent of lives in the most cherished of places.  Yet, to me... at least today... it's about the people:  the heroes, the fallen, and the survivors...  not the guns.  At least today... it's just too close to home.


Too many lives were taken too soon yesterday.   My heart breaks for the families who, after hearing the terrifying call that I heard in the morning, were never able to wrap their arms around their loved one(s) like I did.  I pray for the families who weren't able to feel relief yesterday.  There are simply no words to express the destruction of hearts just a town away.  I pray that all of our hearts will heal and that broken hearts will mend.  Tonight, I light one candle to honor the light of the lives and souls that have been ripped from their families and friends.  I light another one to recognize the heroism of the teachers, staff, survivors, and families who will continue their healing for a long, long time.


Thursday, November 8, 2012

Refreshing Ideas to Teach Informational Writing

During the TCRWP Saturday reunion, I was excited to attend Jerry Maraia's workshop titled, "A State-of-the-Art New Unit on Information Writing:  Tools for Assessing Information Writing Alongside New Unit Plans, Mini-lessons and Expectations."  It was only 50 minutes, but boy, did he hit that title!  I furiously took notes (& pictures- ah, how the iPad has transformed my note-taking) to come back and share the information with colleagues. 

We know that the purpose of informational writing is to inform, and we also know that there are many different types, or genres, of writing that can inform an audience.  Jerry started by reviewing the types of writing that live within the purpose to inform. 

Here's a quick list of informational types, or genres, that Jerry shared: 
  • fact sheets
  • news articles
  • feature articles
  • blogs
  • websites
  • scientific and historical reports
  • analytic memos
  • "how to" books
  • directions
  • research reports/non-fiction books
  • directions
  • recipes and
  • applications
One thing that I loved about the list above is that often, teachers think of non-fiction writing (and reading) as just biographies, text-books, or news articles.  But, there is so much to learn from websites, blogs, and even written directions.  I love the idea of studying different blogs and then having students create one of their own based on the topic of their choice...  talk about authentic (and relevant) learning!  Teachers can get so bogged down with worry about resources and having all the materials in the classroom, but we could also just turn on a computer and have so many different mentor texts and opportunities to teach information reading and writing at our fingertips! 

The focus of this workshop was the creation of non-fiction books, but these strategies could be used to guide the collecting, drafting, revising and publishing for any of the above types. 

Like Chris Lehman discusses in his fantastic book, Energize Research Reading and Writing, we must raise the level of engagement with non-fiction to push students to write MORE.  Giving students mentor texts to study and analyze can model important "moves" that authors use that students can try with their own topics.  I see a lot of models passed out to kids... "Here's a model, read this and try it," without a lot of conversation about the writer's moves.  What did the writer DO to make this information come alive?  How did the writer craft this paragraph to give us a whole lot of information in a really engaging way?  What is the structure of this writing?  These questions and mentor texts give students a vision and purpose for a piece and give students a model for the work expected of them. 

Using the on-demand writing pieces to guide our teaching points and instructional topics throughout the unit is an important first-step to assess the needs of the students. Then, Jerry suggested spending less time on the collecting phase of the writing process, and instead, having students dive right into new topics after some structured and collaborative talk with peers.  Students should choose topics that:  (1) show their expertise, (2) have ideas that they can teach to others, and (3) they wish there was a book that existed on the topic.

We want students to explore their topic using many different angles.  Let's say I'm writing a non-fiction book about being a maid-of honor in a wedding.  And, yes, I have become an expert on that topic, and yes, I do wish a book would be written about it.  :)  I'm going to crack open my topic by looking at it through many different angles.  What can I teach someone about being a maid-of-honor?  I can think of the parts/duties of being a maid of honor:  throwing the bridal shower, organizing the bachelorette party, attending dress fittings, being there for the bride through her planning process, writing a speech and paying for the events.  Or, I could think of the topics that I could cover as a different angle:  duties, planning events, calming the bride down, materials to buy.  As I dig deeper, my thinking should change across ideas.  I might try out many different ideas like a pro/con list of being a maid of honor (pro: the honor of being part of the most important day of a friend's life; con: cost).  Maybe I would try a cause/effect  (if you get input from all the bridesmaids about the shower, then you will be trying to please everyone all the time because of the many different ideas.)  I'll practice all this thinking out in my notebook and talk it out with my peers to narrow my topics into sub headings.  I'll ask myself which topics/ideas that I want to cover in my book as I begin to structure it. I'll also think of the places where I might need to go find some new information, or research, to back up my claims.  Above are two pictures of Jerry's examples in his writer's notebook exploring compare/contrast and cause/effect about New York City transportation. 

As students draft their books, they come back to their notebooks for revision and to "see again" their ideas throughout the whole process.  This helps students to focus on the audience, task, and purpose of their topic throughout each step of the writing process. 

This unit hits so many English Language Arts Common Core State Standards.  Giving students the information as mentors and then sending them off to make strategic decisions based on their knowledge base and topic also aligns to higher levels in Webb's Depth of Knowledge.  Students are studying text with the purpose to transfer the skills and strategies into their own work.  And, as an added bonus:  students are analyzing text structures that may help their reading of non-fiction text across many non-fiction text types.  Thanks, Jerry, for an inspiring introduction to a strong, state-of-the art unit to help our students think deeper and more meaningfully. 



Monday, October 29, 2012

Raising Baby Birds

Photo by Arno & Louise Wildlife-Flickr
I have a love-hate relationship with Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.  Like a baby bird, I sit there in the nest with my mouth wide open, looking for energy, passion, ideas, and inspiration from Mama Bird, worm by worm.  The conversations, workshops and staff developers feed me, nourish me, fill me.  I see a staff developer on the street, and like a celebrity, point them out to colleagues.  They don't know me, but I know them.  I've read their books, their tweets, their blogs, and listened to their words in workshops-  learning, applying, sharing.  They fly off to get more information and knowledge, and I sit, waiting for their insight.  They're my Mama Birds.

But, I also walk away feeling somewhat frustrated.  I don't want to just sit and wait for more. I want to explore, too. I want to fly out of the nest and find the worms on my own.    I sometimes walk away from TC realizing how far we still have to go to implement change.  I can't jump out of the nest yet, because the fall is so far.  So far.  I talk to the staff developers about our situation and they shake their heads.   Core novels?  Only 40 minutes of literacy instruction... TOTAL?  How many teachers?  they ask.  We're so far behind, and it's all a bit overwhelming...  it feels hard to spread our wings.

So try as I might, I begin the journey.  Step by step, worm by worm, I will do what I can to feed the soul of the district.  Dr. Tony Wagner, author of Creating Innovators, says, "Schools need reinvention, not reform."  Amen.  And, he says "Critical thinking is the ability to ask really good questions."  So, I need to figure out what questions, really, really good ones, to ask that will help to reinvent our teaching and learning... it's critical.

I have an iPad filled with worms (Well, not literally. I was going for the extended metaphor here, but I just realized that I may have crossed over into creepiness).  Over the next few days, I'll try to put them into logical words to share.  Here are the topics that I've been exploring at the TCRWP Coaching Institute and TCRWP Saturday Reunion that have nourished me so far this week.  I'm hoping that Hurricane Sandy doesn't keep me from TC, because the love outweighs the frustration, and my mouth is wide open waiting for more, before I'm ready to fly.  

Some future posts that I'm drafting:

  • Using the new writing continuum and checklists to help students and teachers self-assess and lift the level of student writing 
  • Planning and implementing informational and opinion/argumentative units that will engage students and teach habits of mind
  • Writing about reading to raise the level of comprehension 
  • Creating study groups that nurture relationships and enhance learning communities in our schools
Check back soon for more ;)  

Monday, October 22, 2012

Putting All the PIeces Together: From Initiative Overload to Meaning Making

Like most schools, our school is in an "initiative overload." We've been swimming in professional development about RtI/SRBI, CCSS, iPads, SBAC, behavior management practices, SSP/advisory state mandates, performance tasks and shifts in instructional and curriculum models.  You give us an acronym, and we have PD about it.  Yet, we have been left to wonder how all the pieces fit together.  What's the vision? How do these mandates all jive? we wonder.  Then last week, I attended a curriculum writing session with my ER9 colleagues to revisit our thinking about Grant Wiggins and Jay McTigue's backward design model of curriculum design, aptly titled Understanding by Design.  I've been trained with UbD before, but this time felt different.  This is the first in a series of steps recently put into place to review and rewrite our curriculum to align to the Common Core State Standards while following best practices of instruction with Reading and Writing Workshop, and the stars started to align.  Despite the things we cannot control, the pieces are finally fitting together into a set of values and beliefs that I can understand and wrap my arms around.  I believe that exciting times are ahead as our group refreshes our thinking to make sure our instruction revolves around student understanding and meaning making in our journey of curriculum redesign.

In our conversations about backwards design, our group discussed the important conversations that need to continue with our staff to propel our instructional practices to teach twenty-first century learners.  At the top of that list is the discussion about performance based assessments/tasks and project based learning.  Great conversations continued about enduring understandings and essential questions.  McTigue comments that we need to "focus on performance, not coverage."  With rigorous content and student perseverance, we can make learning relevant and authentic by focusing on the learning and understanding.  Cris Tovani, in her book titled Do I Really Have to Teach Reading, also describes the conundrum of content versus depth that teachers often feel.  To take this on, Wiggins and McTigue challenge teachers to seek out opportunities for growth, support each other in the process, and take ideas from colleagues.  We have a lot of work ahead of us, but I feel confident that it is meaningful work that will make our students better thinkers.

The Common Core State Standards defines students who are College and Career Ready in Reading, Writing, Speaking, Listening and Language.  They describe the students to be learners who:

  • demonstrate independence,
  • build strong content knowledge,
  • respond to the varying demands of audience, task, purpose and discipline,  
  • comprehend as well as critique, 
  • value evidence
  • use technology and digital media strategically and capably, and  
  • come to understand other perspectives and cultures.  
To me, these are the pillars of our future curriculum design.  Our enduring understandings in language arts must build upon these pillars to engage students to be lifelong thinkers and learners on their journeys to become College and Career Ready.  

I hope that an Understanding by Design curriculum model, which focuses on enduring understandings and essential questions to make meaning, matched with the best practices through Reading and Writing workshop will help us bring back authenticity, joy, and strategic habits of mind into our daily instruction.  We must make our decisions based on student learning, not on standardized tests.  We have a trained, trained staff.  It's now time to put all the training to good use in the hands of our students to make them critical, independent thinkers.  The pieces may not fit perfectly all the time, but it's a first step toward making a pretty picture.  

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Crossroads


"Image "Crossroads" - (C) by www.martin-liebermann.de"
I'll be brief.  But, I wanted to jot a few notes that I had from today's seminar with Lucy Calkins and Mary Ehrenworth in Danbury, CT after yesterday's post about Pathways to the Common Core:  Accelerating Achievement.  The day was filled with a wonderful mix of refreshing review of what I know, believe, and value; new insights and learning; and inspiration to innovate and reform literacy instruction.  Today was a breath of fresh air amidst the hustle and bustle of the start of a new school year, and it was just what I needed to propel me forward again.  Lucy reminded us of the important crossroads at which we stand and to slow down and take stock of what we are doing and how we are doing it.   She challenged us to view the CCSS as a mission, not a mandate, to push what we already do well to great heights.  I walked away with $100 worth of professional texts  and many new insights.  In the essence of being brief, here are a few (repeat: few) of many:

  • "The most important role is the role of the teacher." ~Lucy Calkins 
  • High level thinking and achievement accelerates in classrooms/schools that:  (1) nurture relationships between children and teachers, and (2) coach students (and teachers) with strong, specific feedback.  (Based on John Hattie's work)  
  • The CCSS puts a higher emphasis on higher level, critical thinking.
  • Among other personal touches, schools that are making progress:  
    • provide students time to read and write huge volumes of text 
    • review and analyze assessments (student work) in collaborative teams to move kids through an established continuum 
    • track reader and writer's progress through text 
  • Students should be reading "just right texts" at least 2 hours every day
  • It takes deliberate practice and good instruction to move students through learning progressions of sophisticated thought processes.  
  • We must continue to inspire teachers and professionalize teaching through think-tank discussions, peer (teacher to teacher) led groups, book clubs and writing groups. 
I could go on and on.  I'll stop there.  I agree that we are at an important crossroads with many paths possible.  I sleep at night hoping that we, teachers and educators, are leading our profession down the right path to do what we know is right and true and based on our values and beliefs.   I rest assured that the future holds exciting rewards for the groundwork that is being laid.  And, I hope that we can all come together to embrace change to create critical thinkers and lifelong learners.  Thanks, as always, to the TCRWP for the work that they do to inspire the work that we do.     

Oh, one more thing.  Lucy also highly recommended the book, Professional Capital by Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan, which isn't part of the $100 purchase today, but I'll be sure to pick up this week.  Shh, don't tell my husband.  Oh, come on. That was brief for me. ;)

Monday, October 8, 2012

Revisiting Pathways

I am attending a conference tomorrow with Lucy Calkins and Mary Ehrenworth centered around their new title, Pathways to the COmmon Core:  Accelerating Achievement.  Chris Lehman is also an author of this book, but he will (unfortunately) not be there tomorrow.

In preparation for the discussion, I reread Pathways this weekend, and was struck, again, by the insights and practical solutions to the CCSS.  I highly suggest that everyone who teaches reading and writing devour this book:  write in it, sticky-note it, and dog ear the pages.  The conversations that I have had with, and inside, this book about our school, our community, and our next steps have been the ones that have inspired me into bigger, deeper communications with our staff.  It's like the authors spent a week in our school, identified what works and doesn't work, and then wrote this book about us.  It makes me realize how similar our school really is to so many others across the country, Blue Ribbon status or not. It makes me realize that we're all in this together.  It makes me realize the wonderful things that we already do, and the long road ahead of us to accelerate achievement in reading and writing.  

My book is filled with sticky-notes, margin high-lights, and reactions.  It was really hard for me to pick out a few of my favorite points.   But, I wanted to share a few with those of you who haven't read the book yet, perhaps to get you thinking, or perhaps I'm hoping to inspire you to read the book, too.  
  • "Some middle schools have made ninety minutes for literacy or even double that when leveled reading is inserted in content areas, and students in those schools have surged ahead, but it takes educators wrestling with the schedule to make sure kids get time to read (and write) in school"(69).   
    • My takeaway:  We had a structure set up to allow students this time.  We need to revisit our schedule and our instruction to match our values.  Or, we need to revisit our values to match our vision.  
  • "As long as kids are reading, they are bound to be ready to read more closely" (65).
    • My thought:  Our students read.  A lot.  We can take them to new places with strategic, focused instruction.  
  • "You will probably need to start by owning the problems in your classroom and your school- and frankly, our hunch is the problems are serious" (88). 
    • My connection:  Yes!  We need to take a closer look at the non-fiction content area reading to make sure that students are actually reading (and researching)  45% of non-fiction throughout the day.  
  • "Finally, students may be reading without engagement-  and engagement is the sine qua non for learning."  
    • My question:  How can we integrate more reading and writing choices in content areas?  A plug for Chris Lehman's book, Energize Research here.  A great resource for teaching non-fiction with choice in the content areas.  Click here for recent blog posts about Chris's book.  
  • "... writing is treated as an equal partner to reading, and more than this, writing is assumed to be the vehicle though with a great deal of the reading work and reading assessments will occur.  The CCSS, then, return writing to its place as one of the basics of education" (102).  
    • My reaction:  Bravo!  Bravo!  Bravo!  Writing IS so important, so integral, and so critical for student success:  academically, socially, and emotionally.  I'm happy to see it regain its importance.  Now, (and back to the first bullet point), we must restructure our values and TIME to approach this call to action.  
  • "Human beings grow up on narratives, on stories.  We come to know our parents by hearing their stories of growing up.  We make friendships by sharing the stories of our lives" (113). 
    • My takeaway:  I love that this book discusses the importance of all three genres of writing high-lighted in the CCSS; not just one.  Click here to see an earlier post that I wrote discussing my embrace of the CCSS writing standards.  
  • "Both teaching and learning should be visible.  That is, teachers need to monitor student learning, provide feedback, and let students know when learning is successful" (124). Paraphrased from  pg. 37 of John Hattie's work, Visible Learning:  A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement (2009).
    • My thoughts:  Yes!  This reminds me of the Grant Wiggins article from 1996, "Embracing Accountability" that we just read in our PLC's last week.    Our teachers need to be coaches, providing specific, relevant feedback to students along their journey.  Likewise, teachers need specific feedback from colleagues, students, community members, supervisors, and inner reflections to help them celebrate successes and improve weaknesses.  
  • "Writers need time to write, which means they need time to take their writing through the steps of the writing process" (125).  
    • My reaction:   Seems like such common sense.  So, how can we reframe our schedule and our instructional approaches to match our values and what we know is right?  
  • "Reforms in writing instruction, in contrast, take no additional resources; schools can right now begin to emphasize writing in general and opinion writing in specific, and we believe this work will empower writers, make learning more active, help vitalize reading, and elicit more civic involvement and engagement" (137).
    • My takeaway:  Our teachers are already so skilled.  We must support them and build upon their strengths.  We must create performance tasks that are authentic, rigorous and relevant.    We must come together to guide and build off one another's strengths.  We must work together; we are all in this together.  
  • "Education is at an important crossroads.  The development and adoption of the CCSS have created forward momentum, but the future is still to be determined" (180).
    • My final thought:  In Lucy Calkins and Laurie Pessah's book, A Principal's Guide to Leadership in the Teaching of Writing (2008), the authors push readers to identify values in their school culture.  To reform our schools, we must establish our values and our visions to be sure to align them to our practices and our instructional models.  This is the time!  

Oh, there are so, so many more ideas, thoughts, and conversations that I have had with this text.  This is just skimming the surface.  Please, please leave a comment if you've gobbled up this book, too.  What are your favorite parts? 

I'm really looking forward to tomorrow's workshop;  I'm finding myself invigorated and inspired each and every day.  In this society that believes that schools are failing, public schools need overhauls, unions need to be abolished, and teachers need more accountability, I feel refreshed when I read books like this one that talks about literacy and schools in a professional, common sense way.  Am I a literacy nerd? Probably.  But that's okay with me.  Nerds make change, right?  

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

#EngChat Applications


Last night I was inspired by the #EngChat Twitter conversation about transforming research from a bore to an alive, authentic processChris Lehman moderated the chat based off of his new book, Energize Research Reading and Writing, which is a get-your-hands-dirty, practical guide to help students think while learning.  As the CCSS demands more non-fiction reading and writing and our staff is thinking through Webb's Depth of Knowledge, this topic could not be more relevant and timely. Last night, educators from across the globe talked about the process of research, the difficulties of guiding students into thinking versus copying, and the exciting ideas to keep students excited about learning.   Some of my favorite take-aways/thoughts that I am still mulling over from last night are:
  •   As adults, when we research, we wander, explore, and read.  Do we give kids enough time to explore and play with texts before forcing a topic? 
  • Questions that students ponder can/should be the primary focus of research to make it relevant and meaningful.  Do we provide students enough choice?
  • Students must have an authentic audience with whom to share their research/ideas.  Do we create authentic experiences for students to share their work? 
  • Research is about habits of mindthinking, learning, exploring.  We do it every day.  We must teach students the skills and strategies to be lifelong learners in this technology driven world.  Do we guide students through critical viewing of sources enough?
Some ideas that I am pondering that were brilliant suggestions from educators during #Engchat: 
  • Ask older students to research a topic to teach to a younger grade.  Students could go to a lower grade level to teach the topic or subject to them.  (@hawkteach assigns this task to sophomores to teach fourth grade lessons- I love this idea!) 
  • Provide time for students to collect ideas and sift through topics.  Guide students through many forms of rehearsing:  drafting, note-taking, gathering of information.  Focus on the process, not just the product.
  • Use the website, Wonderopolis, to broaden and engage students' curiosity. 
  • Encourage students to carry their notebooks around with them throughout the day and jot down questions, ideas, and thoughts in a section titled "Wondering". 
This is just the tip of the iceberg!  If this inspires you to read more, click here to see an archive conversation of the chat.  Start at the bottom and work your way up. You won't regret it (though it is 74 pages, so grab a coffee and make yourself comfortable)! 

At my school, in one of my small groups, students are planning topics for a research project.   We are currently immersing ourselves in non-fiction text to: develop a purpose for reading and researching, identify important text features that readers (and writers) use, and create products that will be authentic to an established audience. 

First students studied and identified common features of non-fiction and how those features help the reader to understand and navigate the text.  This will be a running chart to which we add throughout the year.  The "my turn" part of the chart is for students to explore how they may want to utilize that feature within their own writing.  Students noticed that not all non-fiction texts contain every feature, so they are able to choose which ones best fit their topic/purpose. 

We used Chris's strategy, "a lot, some, little" to explore topics that we may want to research, and students have experimented in the Media Center to begin finding information that may suit their  guiding questions with purpose.  Actual research will begin next week, and the mini-lessons will revolve around:  main idea, note-taking, content-specific vocabulary, and thinking through the reading.  Students are excited about their topics, and I'm excited for them!   

Next, you can see that a few students started planning out their products.  Many students are choosing to create a book.  Aidan, for example, is researching dinosaurs, and he has already decided his headings and his structure.  He will be setting up his book sequentially.  As he does his research, therefore, he will have a specific focus of the information that he needs to gather.  Johyun, on the other hand, is ready to research Korean language, and she is doing a mix of structures about the history of Korean language and the process of learning it.  I'm still thinking of ways that students can present their products to different audiences.   I'm inspired from my learning last night; my head is spinning with new ideas. 

 


Thanks to Chris Lehman, Meenoo Rami and the Twitter Chat community for the inspiration to bring research to a new level.  I hope to expand this thinking and learning by coaching content area teachers to pick up some of these strategies as they begin to assign research projects, too. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Writer's Notebooks: Yes, Please!


 My dad was the coach of our high-school volleyball team, so I grew up dreaming about being part of his team.  I attended each game and watched the matches unfold in front of me as I cheered from the stands.  I learned the rules and the joy of the game long before I was old enough and strong enough to play competitively myself.  Then, when the time came for me to learn how to play, I practiced.  I built up strength by running and lifting weights.  My dad brought me to the weight room on Sundays and we hit the ball against the wall until my arm felt like it would fall off.  He taught me how to hold my hand,  how to take the right steps, and how to float, or spin the ball into the opponent’s danger-zone.  When we won the conference championship, I knew that it was due to the teamwork, practice and hard work over many years.  My dad, my coach, shared the journey with us.   

We know that kids need to read and write a lot to become better writers.  We, as teachers, are sharing the writer’s journey with them to help them improve.  We are coaches:  guiding, mentoring, and training.   Writers need to watch the game and appreciate the joy of it before they begin; they need to read often and be read to frequently.  Writers need to get strong; they need to practice writing and take risks.  Writers need to have different “serves” in their repertoire; they need to analyze mentor texts and try many different strategies to make their point.  Writers need a coach; they need feedback and teachers to guide them through the process. 

A writer’s notebook, therefore, is integral to helping students improve as writers.  In Notebook Know-How, Strategies for theWriter’s Notebook, Aimee Buckner says, “The purpose of a notebook is to provide a place for students to practice writing.”  We, as coaches, need to tap into the experiences in a student’s life to help them create meaningful, cohesive writing.  The writer’s notebook is the perfect place to take risks and expand thought.  Ralph Fletcher writes, "A writer's notebook gives you a place to live like a writer, not just in school during writing time, but wherever you are, any time of day" in the must read,  A Writer's Notebook.  (Sidenote:  another great resource by Ralph Fletcher about the importance of writing notebooks is Breathing In, Breathing Out.)  

Here are a few thoughts to consider about writer’s notebooks that I’ve gathered, learned, and used over the years:

Launching the Writer’s Notebook: 
  •   Establish expectations for the notebook with students.  What size should the notebook be?  How often should students write in the notebook?  Can students take the notebooks home or should they stay in the classroom?  
  •  Organize the notebooks to suit your values and expectations.  Where will students collect ideas?  Where will students draft?  How will students take notes/strategies from mini-lessons?  How will students label entries? Click here to see Nancy Atwell reflect on the importance of organization and routine in the writer's workshop, which is true to writing notebooks, too.  
  •  Provide students time for writing in class and model the stamina for writing.  The CCSS requires students to write long over extended periods of time, and the writer's notebook offers the place for students to do just that. In addition to students writing daily, teachers should keep their own writer’s notebook to model the importance of writing and share the notebook with students often.   I like this short video (click here) to remind middle-school students early in the year about 5 habits to increase stamina for writing.  

Using Notebooks Throughout the Year: 

  • Coach students to take risks in their notebooks.  Notebooks should be a place for students to try out new strategies, expand ideas, and dig deep into their experiences and their writing. 
  •  Encourage seed ideas.  As a student collects topics, encourage them to “write long” about the ideas, opinions, and stories from the world around them. 
  •  Give specific feedback.  While teachers don’t need to read and assess every entry, teachers should see a progression of student writing through the notebook.  Flip through the notebooks to monitor student growth through your unit and through the genre studies.  Provide constructive feedback to students as you quickly assess their notebooks qualitatively. 
  •  Provide relevant and authentic reasons for students to write in their notebooks.  Allow students to explore their thoughts and opinions about what’s happening in their social, academic, and emotional world.
  •  Celebrate success.  As students’ stamina increase and writing volume improves, high-light the successes.  This will keep students engaged in the notebook and will affirm expectations. 
  •  Teach “habits of mind” mini-lessons.  What do you do if you’re stuck with a topic?  Where do you find new ideas?  How do you reflect in your notebook?  How do you think through a revision?   
  • Share writing.  Allow students to share their writing in their notebooks with other students.  While not all “experiments” will be published, the purpose of writing is often for students to share their thoughts.  Give them the opportunity to read their writing aloud to partners, groups, or writing circles. 
  •   Integrate mentor texts into the experiments that students are trying.  In the revision process, ask students to rewrite a topic or idea in a different way, perhaps using a mentor text as a guide.  When students go to draft, they could have multiple experiments of the same ideas in their notebooks from which to choose.
  •  Show examples of high-quality writing.  Aimee Buckner states, “Students are going to write shallow, simple entries.  They’re going to do what they think you want.  Keep plugging away an keep showing examples of high-quality writing” (20). 
  • Play with genres.  Using similar topics or themes, ask students to write in different genres.  This will help hone students' skills as they develop the awareness for audience and purpose in their writing.  

Assessing the Writer’s Notebook: 
  • Use the writer’s notebook as you confer with writers to recognize, high-light and assess growth in stamina, volume, and product for the writer.  This provides specific feedback to students and reaffirms expectations.  Identify teaching points from notebooks to use in conferences. 
  • Use a rubric and student models to grade based on your identified expectations and values.  This should be clear and consistent for students. 
  •  Ask students to choose one or two entries to be graded- don’t try to grade them all.  Collect notebooks and grade the entries based on the criteria and values previously established. 
  • Ask students to reread their notebooks periodically and reflect on the growth of their writing.  Students can self-assess their writing process on a rubric and write about their goals and successes as their writing improves. 

Aimee Buckner says, “My foremost task with my writing workshop is to help my students believe in themselves as writers-  in what they have to say, from the stories they have to tell to their opinions on school and world issues” (5).   Writing notebooks are an important component of writing workshop, and with effective coaches guiding students, can be a launchpad for dynamic relationships and partnerships to expand and embrace student thinking and learning through the writing process. 


I didn’t become a college or professional volleyball player; many of our students won’t become professional writers.  Yet, the thinking and analytic skills that we teach students as we coach them will create the foundation for learning that will extend far beyond the academic essay or volleyball serve.  Writers cannot and will not improve just by telling them how to write.  They must also practice writing, a lot, and they must be coached through the process.  It’s a journey that teacher and student can celebrate together.  

I'm always looking for new and exciting ways to use the writer's notebook and keep it alive and vibrant in the classroom.  I'd love to hear any strategies or ideas that are tried and true in your classroom, too, as we continue this journey together.  

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Celebrating Success!

Last night, a striving reader (and writer) emailed me at 6:00 to ask if she could stay after school or come in early to get some feedback on her Article of the Week due on Friday.  Let's call her Jessica.   She had read the article coded it like we had practiced last week, and drafted a reflection.

I teach in a middle school. 

As a caveat, I am not Jessica's ILA teacher;  I provide intervention to Jessica in a small group setting.  Typically, if she asks for help at all, Jessica emails me a few days AFTER the due date.  But, not this time.  It was a Wednesday night and the assignment is due this Friday.

I was blown away. 

What is happening in Jessica's Integrated Language Arts (ILA) class that made her so engaged?  Simple:  through reading and writing workshop, her teachers are inspiring her. An environment for risk taking and success has been established, and this student feels it.  She wants to please them and she wants to become a better learner.   

Bravo to our seventh grade teachers for the inspiring work that they are putting in the hands of our students.  Here are a few things that I've seen happening in their classrooms that may be exciting students like Jessica to keep reading, keep writing, and keep trying. 
  • Minute Reading:  I was excited to be a "guest reader" in a sixth grade class to share, aloud, an interesting part of a novel.  Students listened intently to Things Not Seen by Andrew Clements. 
  • Articles of the Week:  Inspired by Kelly Gallagher, teachers are energizing students with authentic and relevant texts.  Click here to see my previous post about the assignments. 
  • Sentence of the Week:  Also inspired by Kelly Gallagher, students are looking at editng and revising differently, and teachers are looking for students to apply the learning into their writing. 
  • Writing Notebooks:  Teachers have set up success for writers to experiment and take risks through the use of their writer's notebooks.  
These are just a few instructional examples.  The classrooms are lively and full of conversations about books.  The walls are lined with inspiring quotes and teachers are listening closely to student stories.  The joy of reading and writing are at the heart of our classrooms.  Students are the heart of our classrooms.   Did I say this is going to be a great year?  Jessica thinks so, too. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Webb's Depth of Knowledge


Rigor.  Text Complexity.  Difficulty.  What do these words all mean in the world of thinking?  Teaching?  Learning?  In my last post, I wrote about a “take away” that I had from our ILA narrative scoring session.  In that reflection, I realized that our students have the mechanics (mostly) and drive (mostly) to write well; however, we need to extend student thinking to develop more complex, meaningful pieces.  One way to do that is to become familiar with (and use) Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DoK) to develop and expand rigor and complexity in student thinking

I learned about Webb’s Depth of Knowledge just last year when I was at a Larry Ainsworth Professional Development workshop about unwrapping Common Core State Standards and aligning our instructional sequences to those standards.  Except for unwrapping standards, I humbly admit that I never really used it.  I put it on a mental shelf with things that I learned about in PD sessions but would probably never use again.  Then, this past summer, Chris Lehman Extraordinare (follow him on Twitter to learn every day:  @iChrisLehman) refreshed my thinking by showing and modeling the importance of using Webb’s Depth of Knowledge to plan daily lessons and assessments.  Chris, as always, broke it down in user-friendly terms that helped me to understand and apply the information.  And then again today, we focused on DoK at an assessment consortium meeting about the item development of Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) with an emphasis on the performance task assessments.   Ok, three times in one year:  I think it's something I should research, I realized.  

So, what is Webb’s Depth of Knowledge and what’s the big deal? Well, like Bloom’s Taxonomy, Webb's theories are based on research about student thinking to extend student learning.  Bloom's Taxonomy focuses on the tasks that students complete to deepen student understanding.  However, Webb's DoK centers on the thinking process, not just the product.  Webb’s Depth of Knowledge is about the cognitive demands (thinking process) of instruction, tasks, and/or assessments.  While Bloom's Taxonomy relies on the verb, Webb's DoK extends beyond the verb to what follows--- beyond the 'what' to the 'how'.    As we know, a verb alone can vary in terms of difficulty and complexity.  “Create”, for example, is a high level on Bloom’s taxonomy.  However, if you are asking students to “create a model of the human eye based on a textbook model,” little independent thinking has actually occurred from copying the model.  Students may not need additional background knowledge to complete the task.  There is little transfer of knowledge.   How many "creates" have you inserted into an objective and thought that you were tapping into higher-level, and perhaps even- critical- thinking?  We all have.  But Webb’s Depth of Knowledge challenges us to dig deeper beyond the verb and into the thinking process to expand student learning. 

Branching off of a “flipped classroom approach” and because I don’t pretend to be an expert on Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, click here to review (or learn about) the four levels of Webb’s Depth of Knowledge continuum: 
         DoK1.     Recall and Reproduction
         DoK2.     Skills and Concepts
               DoK3.    Short Term Strategic Thinking
               DoK4.     Extended Thinking

I believe that each unit needs a mixture, or a balance, of all of the levels above.  There is a place for recall and reproduction.  I would even argue that the CCSS leans to recall and reproduction (DoK1) in the reading standards when "close reading" is high-lighted.   Daily lessons, even, can be a combination of these levels.  However, to help students grow and manage the multi-dimensional world ahead of them, we can't stop at DoK Levels 1 or 2.  Just because we ask students to create or analyze doesn't necessarily mean that we are providing a deep level of thinking (nor does it mean that we haven't provided it either).  We must consciously ask students to extend their thinking in order to teach them to improve their thinking

How do we apply Webb's Depth of Knowledge into our classrooms?  Strategically.  Click here for a video that walks through a social studies example addressing the content of the Gettysburg Address through the four levels of Webb's Depth of Knowledge.  

If we are asking students to research, for example, here are some ways that we might be able to integrate DoK into a research unit sequentially: 
DoK1.    Students identify and list topics that may interest them to research.  They search for books that may relate to the enduring understandings or essential questions for the unit.
DoK2.    Students choose a topic and expand on it by utilizing multiple sources.  Students collect and display notes based on structures that have been provided for them. 
DoK3.     Students choose the note-taking strategy or structure that works for them based on many samples and practice activities provided.  Students draw conclusions about different ways to assimilate the information to the reader based on the structures that we have provided and reflect on those processes in writing.  Students have used differentiated reasoning to make their informed decisions.  
DoK4.   Students analyze and interpret the information provided to them and relay the research in any way that they choose that best exemplifies the learning process.  Students make strategic choices about the information presented based on task, audience, and type of product based on their level of knowledge and analysis from multiple sources. 

How does that look in Writing Workshop?  I'll give it a tentative shot in the revision process (and open for feedback or better examples, please!): 

DoK1.     Teacher shows students how to revise writing in a mini-lesson by adding details.  Students go into their writing and identify and locate places to revise using the same strategy. (I do- you do). 
DoK2.     Teacher provides students strategies to revise their writing.  Students go back into their writing to use some of the strategies throughout their writing and identify patterns of their own writing.  The teacher may guide the student.    
DoK3.  Using mentor texts, teacher mini-lessons and revision strategies, students compare and critique writing strategies and structures to revise their writing by choosing appropriate and strategic parts to enhance their meaning.  
DoK4.  Students develop generalizations about the types of revisions used in different parts of texts to apply multiple revision strategies to their writing. Writers are synthesizing information across many texts to think critically about the choices they are making in their writing process.



Levels 1 and 2 usually have finite, or correct, answers.  Moving into levels 3 and 4, students are reasoning and exploring without the answer being exact, or "right"-- this is where the real thinking happens! Levels 3 and 4 involve a more time intense activity that requires real world investigation and application.  Independently, students are accessing their resources to apply their knowledge.   If we don't set students up for exciting experiences that can extend their thinking to level 4, our level 1 experiences are doomed!

Click here to view Karin Hess's Cognitive Rigor Matrix, or a professional development video with Karin Hess, which parallels Webb's Depth of Knowledge with Bloom's Taxonomy.  It's a complicated chart to read, but this chart will help you recognize the difference between Bloom's Taxonomy and Webb's Depth of Knowledge.  Sound a lot like differentiation and gradual release of responsibility?  Yup.  Sounds like that to me, too.  Here are additional tools that we can use to use to set students up for success based on the scaffolding and structure that all students need. 

As we continue our journey of curriculum review into curriculum alignment, we must remain conscious of our questioning, our modeling, and our guidance to teach students how to extend their thinking.   Students will be asked to extend their thinking on the new assessments, be it PARCC or SBAC; we must prepare them for these expectations.  And is that so bad?  Even if we shoot high and slightly miss the mark, haven't we developed our students to be better, independent thinkers?   Sounds like a win-win to me.  Rigor.  Text complexity.  Difficulty.  Thinking. Teaching.  Learning.