Encouraging Reading

by Tricia Ebner

In the past few years there has been a strong focus on close reading to foster deep understanding and analysis of text. It’s also important, though, for students to continue reading lots of books, stories, articles, and poems. One of the key strategies in growing and strengthening vocabulary is through volume of reading.pablo-44

This can get particularly difficult as students move through their middle school years into high school. As studies become more involved in upper grades, the homework load can increase. Schools also offer more extracurricular activities, including clubs and sports. The demands on a student’s time increase, and oftentimes, pleasure reading slips down the priority list. I’ve observed this drop in reading among my eighth graders. In my school, my eighth graders are in English language arts for 50 minutes a day, while sixth and seventh graders have more minutes of ELA instruction. This makes it difficult for me to provide significant, routine independent reading time. I considered requiring a reading log. Past experiences with reading logs weren’t successful, though. Avid readers were annoyed by them, and reading logs only served to make reading an even less-appealing activity for apathetic readers. I needed to find a way of encouraging reading without making it a chore.

I decided to try quarterly “book projects.” Each quarter I ask students to read a book entirely out of class and then prepare some kind of presentation about the book they’ve read. In the first quarter, students select a book and then choose from a variety of options for presenting, including a Siskel-and-Ebert partner review kind of presentation. For the second quarter, I take a bit of time to explain Paul Harvey and his “The Rest of the Story” segments from years ago. Then students select a biography and prepare a presentation to share their own “Rest of the Story” segment about their biography subject.

The third quarter project is my favorite. We call it the “Outside the Box” project. This project challenges to read something they would not normally ever pick up. They need to read at least 75 pages of whatever they select and then prepare a presentation about it, sharing what they liked, what they didn’t like, and why.

Last year was the first I tried this particular project, and it seemed to be the favorite of our projects for the year. A number of students read books they said they would never have selected normally, and discovered a new author or genre they had never imagined themselves liking. One boy, for example, shared that he had picked Twilight by Stephanie Meyers because what could be more opposite of his reading tastes than sparkling vampires? By the time he gave his presentation, he was halfway through the fourth book in the series and readily admitted that the books were far better than he had expected.  

We are about a month away from presentations for this project this year. When I explained the project to my eighth graders, several of them went to each other and asked classmates to select books for them. It didn’t take long for my students to check out books that they normally wouldn’t have selected. Another way I know this is an engaging project: already students have finished their books and prepared their presentations, and the due date is March 13.

I’ve decided to have my students give oral presentations rather than write a review because it’s a great opportunity to practice speaking and listening skills. My students prepare three to four minute speeches, and as they listen to their classmates, they note titles and authors they might want to consider reading.  

I am still trying to figure out the best approach to fostering a love of independent reading in busy eighth graders. While I continue to consider possibilities, these quarterly book projects are encouraging independent reading, and we know that ongoing reading is one of the best ways to continue strengthening reading skills.

What classroom challenge have you faced recently? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.

Flexing Student Writing Muscles

How a 4th grade team created flex time to help students be more reflective about their writing once a piece is done and get better at critiquing their own writing to improve on it.

By Char Shryock,  Ohio Standards Advocates State Captain

What happens when you pair fourth graders from two separate classes, being sure that at least one is comfortable typing in a Google Doc, and ask them to collaborate on a piece of argumentative writing?  If the students are in Kelli McMaugh and Dawn Robinson’s classrooms, great writing happens.  These two teachers at Westerly Elementary in Bay Village, Ohio decided to create flex time for writing by rethinking their daily schedule.

During the first Friday flex time, the class watched as Kelli and Dawn modeled a partner discussion.  Then the students selected from 4 possible topics, Sports Teams, No Homework Policy, Lockers or No Lockers, or No Sugary Treats.  Using a blank sheet of paper, the partner teams worked together to create their own graphic organizer and a solid topic sentence.  Instead of writing sentences right from the start,  they were given 5 minutes to pick the topic, 5 minutes to generate their topic sentence and 5 minutes to brainstorm bullet points.  The remaining hour was spent using their graphic organizer and working in a Google Doc to write a first draft.

The following Monday, the teachers split the pairs up, creating small discussion groups. The groups were able to look at draft paragraphs shared on Google Docs one at a time.  For each draft, they discussed how they would decide if it was a good paragraph. With the teachers as facilitators, the kids generated a checklist of characteristics including a hook, middle organization, transition words, and closing sentences.  With each draft, they refined their thinking about their checklist.  The end result? Because all of the drafts were included in the discussions, students saw a wide range of paragraphs within their combined classes.  Kelli and Dawn heard comments from students that included, “ I am going to work on hooks” or “I need to use my reference sheet for transitions more”.  All of the students thought concluding sentences are hard!

Kelli McMaugh shared her reflection after the first set of flex writing times, “ I was excited because they were completely engaged in looking at the pieces. Because they were looking at a variety, a range, they could see that everybody had things to work on. It was authentic because I wasn’t teaching what to look for, they picked it out,organization, using specific sentences.”

She also reflected on how the writing flex time has helped her to use class time in a more powerful way, “I feel like so often they get their writing done, it takes a week to grade, and they don’t care anymore. It is so much more valuable to see it Friday then Monday, the take-away was much stronger. It was evident that at least half of them needed some additional teaching on transition.”

Both Kelli McMaugh and Dawn Robinson are continuing to refine their own thinking about how to best use the flex time.  They both agree that giving students time to collaborate and reflect on writing has given their students the opportunity to become stronger writers.

Writing Resources:

 

Test Prep: Literacy Assessments

by Tricia Ebner

As we turn our calendars from January to February, one of our school-year realities begins to come into focus: the state assessments are on the horizon. This raises the annual question and dilemma for many of us: what is the best way to prepare our students for these assessments?

The answer is simple and complex, all at once. The best possible test-preparation we can give our students for the Ohio literacy assessments is solid, well-crafted, standards-aligned instruction and activities throughout the school year. After all, our assessments are based on nothing more and nothing less than Ohio’s standards. Having a laser focus, daily, on students’ needs and the standards and expectations of our content and grade level is optimum.

While this this is true, many of us still want to do something to reinforce test-taking skills and strategies. After all, we want to be sure our students can approach the assessment with confidence, not feeling nervousness over the testing platform or format. There are three simple strategies we can use to help our students become familiar with test and question format as well as the technology platform.

  • Give students frequent practice with questions designed in the same format as the state assessment. By taking a little bit of time to study how questions are structured, especially the multi-part questions and the technology-enhanced questions, we can craft the same format of questions for texts and skills we are currently addressing in our classrooms. Is there a critical vocabulary term in a piece your students will be reading soon? Why not craft a two-part question as a means of working with that word and also showing students how that kind of question might look on the spring assessment? If you have technology readily available, consider crafting these kinds of questions on a web site such as Edulastic, which gives students the technology practice as well as the question format practice. Another good strategy is having students work on their writing tasks on the computer, using whatever word-processing program is readily available.
  • Use released passages and items on occasion as a practice tool. I’m going to reveal my bias here: I am not a huge fan of test-prep packets. I resist spending a week on packets, with lessons focused day-in and day-out on passages and questions. Instead, I select a passage and question set that we then use for bell work over several days. My students have been much more willing to meaningfully engage in an analysis of a question or two at the beginning of class, and then move into our more routine work. I’ve also found that these “bite-sized” efforts tend to be better for my students who struggle with test anxiety. Usually we’ll work through two or three passages and related questions over the course of a few weeks. I always make sure we address a literature passage and a nonfiction passage that addresses the history/social studies or science/technology standards.
  • Use the practice test or half-length test. Putting the kids on the platform and having them work through released or practice items is also helpful. Personally, I don’t have my students keep a paper-and-pencil record of their responses; instead, I have them jot down the item numbers of questions that give them more difficulty, and then we “debrief” on the experience after everyone is finished. Again, I try to keep this activity low-risk and low-stress.pablo-41

 

Our statewide spring assessments are important in a number of ways, from students showing what they know and can do to building and district report cards and even our own teacher evaluations. When I keep specific test-preparation activities balanced with our routine class work, and I keep the activities low-risk and low-stress, we all approach the spring assessments with confidence. As a result, my students are more likely to give their best efforts and performance, and I will see more accurate data about what they know and can do, and what areas of instruction might need improvement for the next year. Keeping a balanced perspective on assessment keeps the focus on learning and growth, and that’s a win-win for everyone.

In case you missed it: the Ohio Department of Education announced on Friday, February 3, that it has released half-length practice tests on the Test Portal. You’ll find released items from the Spring 2016 assessment there as well.


How have you faced a lesson-planning challenge? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.

The Challenges of Teaching College Credit Plus

The persistent inner voice  questions me daily.  How do I build and maintain a post-secondary course culture in my high school classes?  I’m a second-year college credit plus (CCP) English teacher.   I’m also a professional and a standards advocate.

Ethics and guidelines matter to me.Though it would be easy to teach students the same way I taught AP English or even a junior or senior English class, CCP Comp 101 and 102 are not traditional high school courses.  High school students are taking these courses for transcripted college credit.  Therefore, the college board requirements and the 11-12th grade Ohio writing standards are no longer my guide.pablo-39

When we first received this teaching assignment 2 years ago, my colleague who also teaches CCP Comp and I knew that we needed to meet with our community college’s English rep.  Since collaboration is an integral aspect of our high school teaching culture, it was natural to reach out and link arms with our higher ed colleagues.  Building rapport took time because we were not on the same campus and assumptions about our domains (secondary vs higher ed systems) needed to be clarified.  However, after orientation and emails, we built the communication bridge.

I’ve learned and developed my approach to instructing the CCP classes.  Initially, I believed that there were no guidelines.  I foolishly thought I had total freedom because my erroneous assumption was that college instructors do their own thing.  Ha! The guidelines that the college English department has for Comp 101 and 102 have clear objectives and learning outcomes.  From rhetorical knowledge, to critical thinking, reading, and writing, students would be building their knowledge of the composing process.  They would be developing collaborative skill, applying knowledge of writing conventions and be composing in electronic environments.

My second awareness hit me when theory and practice collided.  Yes, based on test data, many students were college ready and most of them had the college-ready “survival skills,” of self-direction, independence, self-advocacy, ability to handle the rigor of the syllabus and keep the pace, and thoughtful ownership and engagement in developing their writing skills.  However, they are still 16 and 17 years old. So, making professional decisions about whether to hold steadfast on expectations or to seize the opportunity of teachable moments became commonplace.  For example when a girl came to me and asked how do I cite a work in an anthology, I sat down and cognitive coached her through the process instead of giving her the answer or telling her to go figure it out.  While many others navigated the electronic resources on their own, those that cared but were slightly lost needed extra attention.  Therefore, incorporating conference time aka office hours into my syllabus, and encouraging students to initiate the contact has been helpful for CCP students.

No matter what, CCP requires students to be accountable. As well, teaching CCP demands my accountability to the college and to my students.

What classroom challenge have you faced recently? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.

The Power of Good Questioning

by Tricia Ebner, NBCT

During one of my first post-observation conferences as a novice teacher, my principal told me that while I had many strengths as a teacher, my questioning skills were weak. He said I needed to improve those in order to continue strengthening my practice. It was something that I stewed over for days afterward, but then I began to reflect on my practice and expectations. I wanted my seniors to be highly engaged, excited about the British literature we were studying and eager to share their ideas in discussion and writing. I was working really, really hard to generate that kind of engagement, and yet nothing was happening. The texts were rich, the writing tasks seemed solid. When I was truly honest with myself, I had to admit the questions were the weak point. It simply wasn’t possible to generate the kinds of rich discussion I wanted with basic who-what-where questions. I needed to pose better questions.

While this observation and my subsequent realization happened over twenty years ago, my reflection on question hasn’t stopped. At the time my first principal made his observation, the internet was new enough that I didn’t have access to it. (Yes, this was shortly after dinosaurs stopped roaming the earth, or so it seems to my middle school students today.) I read all I could. I perused the college textbooks I had kept. I searched my growing library of English Journals from NCTE. As I worked on my master’s degree, I read resources in the university’s library.

My quest for asking good questions still continues. While I have changed and improved, my students have also changed. The types of questions that resonate well with my 6th, 7th, and 8th graders are those that dig deeply into our studies. When I ask deep, powerful, open-ended questions, we all learn. The connections and insights students make through these kinds of questions are key. They foster critical thinking. Asking these kinds of questions also models the kinds of questions students need to ask independently, of themselves and their reading and research.

I’ve found the lessons on the www.achievethecore.org web site to be particularly strong and powerful. They’ve helped me better understand what strong, solid question about text look and sound like. Recently I used the questions surrounding the short story “Eleven.” After reading the text independently, we began going through the text a second time, this time stopping to note various plot, characterization, vocabulary, and writing style choices. At one point, I asked the student to consider why Cisneros had chosen to start five sentences in the first few paragraphs with the word “And,” a question suggested by the lesson plan on the web site. As they shared various thoughts, the class realized that this approach conveys a more conversational style and gives the narration the voice of an eleven-year-old. Then one student said, “It reminds me of what Gary Paulsen did in Hatchet.”

This kind of powerful connection was possibly largely because of the kinds of thoughtful questions we were discussing. Asking questions like this gets students to consider the author’s purpose and reflect on how writing style can support the purpose. The critical thinking that goes into answer questions like these and then extending them into observations and connections with other texts is powerful. It’s also the kind of reading we need our students to engage in as they continue learning and growing in this 21st century.

The challenge of questioning in the classroom isn’t one solved quickly. There are no five-minute strategies to developing strong, powerful questions. It takes time, effort, and practice. Sometimes question sets I have developed have been flops, with students quickly answering in short, surface-level responses. Every flop has taught me more about crafting better questions. It’s a journey and process, and one that is well worth pursuing. By crafting deep, powerful, meaningful questions, we are helping students to stretch their learning, use texts as resources, and become more independent, empowered learners.

One tool for crafting good questions about text is the “Guide to Creating Text Dependent Questions,” also found here on the www.achievethecore web site.


What classroom challenge have you faced recently? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.

How To Encourage A Wonder Mindset In Elementary Classrooms

By Char Shryock, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Bay Village City Schools

When was the last time you stopped to wonder about something? Sometimes in our quest to get in 90 minutes of reading, 45 minutes of math, lunch, art, music, and phys ed in our plan for the day, we miss those moments of wonder.   Building in wonder time into a lesson can open new windows into the thinking and problem solving process of your students.  I have been working with a kindergarten class this year,  integrating science, math and ELA.  These kids are “wonder-full”.  I like to start off a discussion by making my own wonder statement.  This past week I wondered why the back side of the Moon looked different then the front side.  This led to a great conversation with the kids.  Some things they wondered about included, how big is the Moon? How do we know? How old is the Moon? How does the Earth move?  How do clouds move? Could astronauts feel the Moon moving?  By leaving space for wondering in my lesson planning, I gave the students a chance to engage in building their own learning path.  From this discussion, I was able to select a read aloud book, The Darkest Dark, written by Chris Hadfield.  Students wondered about the darkness of space, and what the Earth looked like from the Moon. We found pictures of the Earth taken from the Moon and from Mars. We talked about the size of the Moon. For a math activity, we learned the words circumference and sphere.  Using fact statements about the Moon and Moon exploration, we worked with the numbers 6,9, 12 and 27, talking about which number was bigger, and how many more or how many less one number was from another. Then we wondered about what moons from other planets looked like? How many moons are in our solar system?  All this from a 5 minute wonder conversation.  

Do you have 5 minutes in your day to build in wonder time?  The first step in building a wonder mindset is for teachers to model wondering by doing “ wonder think out louds” for students.  The next step is to create collaborative discussion norms that encourage all students to wonder out loud, without any immediate judging of the idea or question.  Teacher facilitators can capture the wonder ideas and questions, then, with the class, make decisions about prioritizing or clarifying the list as a way to plan additional lesson or small group work.  The last step in building a wonder mindset classroom is creating hands-on centers and selecting read aloud books  that encourage wondering.  A wonder center might include blocks, Legos, Hot Wheel cars and track, coloring materials, craft sticks, glue, a variety of interesting pictures, magnifying glasses and anything else that will encourage kids to act on their “I wonder if…” ideas. Sounds a lot like a makerspace!  Informational text sets are great starters for wondering.  Students who want to learn more about something can use the text sets to find answers to “I wonder why… “ questions.  Pictures and stories can be the spark for additional wondering.

Once a culture of wonder starts to grow in a classroom, feedback can continue to grow a wonder mindset in children. Start feedback on an activity with, “ I wonder how you might try this in a different way?” or “ What else did this make you wonder about?” or even “After reading/listening to this, I began to wonder about ____”.  Student reflection journals might include wondering pages or boxes to capture their wondering as they work they way through reading, science, math or other lessons.  Build a wonder board in your classroom for kids to post their wonderings. Help them connect to classmates who may be wondering about similar things. This is a great way to start a collaborative project!

Resources that focus on wondering include:

Resources in Action: NewsELA and Analyzing Arguments

by Tricia Ebner

Like many teachers, I spend a bit of time on my winter break working on lesson preparation for the time ahead. I’ve learned that good planning for the first weeks back makes the days easier for everyone. This year, as I looked over my plans for January, I saw that I had one of those situations I’ve come to dread: a one-day “gap” between units.

After looking at possibilities for shifting activities around, I decided to live with the one-day gap and use it as an opportunity for a review and preview. A look through my plans suggested that a focus on argument, specifically reading and analyzing another’s argument, could be a good goal for the day.pablo-37

With this in mind, I turned to some of my favorite text resources. While I love the text sets and mini-units on Achieve the Core, most of those take more than a single 50-minute class period. CommonLit had some possibilities, too, but since it is a tool new to my students, I suspected that the fascination with a new site would overshadow the review I wanted my students to do. So I turned to NewsELA. There I found a Pro/Con text set on the feasibility of self-driving cars. This was exactly the kind of resource I needed. Neither text was long, and NewsELA had them paired together into a single document. A brief four-question quiz followed the paired texts. Furthermore, since the set was on NewsELA, I could use the texts at different reading levels to more specifically address my students’ needs. It didn’t take me long to arrange my students into smaller groups for the purposes of our reading and discussion.

My next step was to find a good way to review the elements of argument. I started by pairing two pictures on a Google slide. One was of two birds sitting on a branch, with one hunched down and the other squawking at the first, wings outstretched. The second picture was a courtroom scene, with a lawyer addressing a judge and jury. The title of the slide was, “Which picture best represents the kind of argument we use in language arts?”

Then I searched for a brief video overview of the elements of a strong argument. I found one through XtraNormal, a computer-generated animation site. I knew the animation would keep my students’ attention, and the dialogue between the two characters, a teacher and a student, would provide the kind of “cobweb-clearing” review we needed before reading the text.

I used this lesson with my eighth graders last week. They had just finished a cold-read assessment the day before, taking the skills and standards we had been focused upon during our reading of A Christmas Carol and applying them to a passage from Tuesdays with Morrie. The paired photo slide generated some chuckles and comments, with a few students telling the class that they wished argument meant the kind of “discussion” going on between the two birds. Our brief discussion and comparison of the two photos set the stage for our work for the class.

The video worked well. At first, some students focused more upon the quirks of the computer animation, but by the end of the video, the students remembered the elements of argument. We had a brief discussion about a couple of points within the video, and then I handed out the text pairs. Students read individually and then answered the four questions. Then they gathered into the small groups I had organized before the lesson, and they worked to answer seven questions I had posed for them:

  1. What is the claim of the pro article?
  2. What is the claim of the con article?
  3. What are the reasons used in the pro article?
  4. What are the reasons used in the con article?
  5. What evidence is used in the pro article?
  6. What evidence is used in the con article?
  7. Which of the two texts is the stronger argument?

As I circulated among the groups, I heard students debating finer points of the texts, especially the qualities of the evidence. One of the strongest ideas generated by several groups was that the evidence for the text in favor of self-driving cars tended to be weaker, because there simply aren’t enough instances of self-driving cars yet. The class as a whole decided that because there are specific examples of self-driving cars failing, the con argument is stronger. One student noted that as testing continues, stronger evidence supporting the value of self-driving cars may become available. I was pleased to hear students not only analyzing the qualities of the two arguments, but also considering how the quantity and quality of evidence available will continue to grow as tests and experiments with self-driving cars continue.

I was pleased with how this one-day lesson worked. The integration of photos, videos, individual questions, small group discussion, and whole-class discussion provided good variety. My observations of the students at work confirmed my thinking that students needed to refresh their understanding of elements f argument. The results of the four-question “quiz” also showed some interesting results that I will be considering as I continue preparing for our next unit, which will focus on argument.

When faced with this situation again, I will take similar steps. Using texts from a variety of sources gives me a broader range of options. NewsELA worked beautifully for my goals in this particular instance; the next time I have this kind of situation, however, I may want to focus on standards that could be better addressed by texts offered by other resources, such as CommonLit or ReadWorks.

Using readily-available resources, like NewsELA, made it easier for me to plan and use a single-period lesson geared toward my students and their needs.

How have you faced a lesson-planning challenge? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.

Five Favorite Apps for ELA–and More

by Tricia Ebner

This year it happened: one-to-one computer access became part of my school district in grades 8-12, and computers became more easily accessible for other grades as well. In all three of my assigned grade levels (6-8), my students now have daily access to computers. When this was announced to us last spring, I was thrilled. This easy accessibility was going to make technology integration so much easier for me. Then reality struck: I needed to find technology-based tools that could help me more easily do what I wanted within my classroom.


pablo-31I’ve been keeping my eyes open to other teachers’ favorite apps and web sites, often checking out recommendations on Twitter. When I’ve had the opportunity, I’ve attended professional development sessions devoted to sharing apps useful for classrooms. My focus throughout this process has been on finding tools that will be useful for my students and me as we continue to learn and grow. My foundational principle has been that the app or web site must help us toward our goals; the technology is not a goal by itself. Then I consider three additional factors: privacy protection for my students, cost, and ease of use. When an app meets these criteria, I will try it within my classroom to see how successful it is with my students.

So far, I’ve discovered a number of apps that help my students and me with our work. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Padlet:  This free app allows me to set up virtual “bulletin boards” where students can respond to questions or post ideas for consideration. It’s a great springboard for class discussion. Sometimes I’ll use it to start class by posting a question or thought-provoking quote, and then individual students post their responses. At other times, I’ve used it after students have discussed a question in pairs or small groups. The groups craft a responses to the question, and then we can look at the various ideas when I project the page on our interactive white board. By keeping my Padlets secret, so that only those who have the link can participate, I am able to maintain student privacy.
  • Backchannel Chat: This has revolutionized certain activities in my classroom. I learned about this tool at the NCTE Convention in November, and since then I have used it with both sixth and eighth grades. In fishbowl discussions, this app allows those students in the outer circle to participate in a silent, virtual discussion, while those sitting in the inside circle conduct their verbal discussion. I’ve also used it while showing a video. When my eighth graders watched a filmed version of A Christmas Carol, I was able to pose questions encouraging them to consider why the director selected particular camera angles, lighting, or how an actor’s delivery of certain lines impacted the meaning of the words. We had these discussions in our Backchannel room, without interrupting the flow of the movie. One of my favorite features of this tool is that students who are normally reserved and quiet in whole-class discussions will often share terrific insights in the Backchannel. There is a free version, and the paid version ($15/year) provides some excellent additional tools to help manage the chat, including the ability to “mute” individual students and download a transcript of the chat.
  • Edulastic: This free tool provides a huge range of questions and question formats, making it a great way to design and use computer-based assessments. There are question banks aligned to standards, so that teachers can select items aligned to standards students have been addressing in their work. Teachers can also write their own items and note which standards are being addressed. There are four levels of privacy for questions, too, including private only to me (teacher), school, district, and public. This tool is being used more and more often for common assessments in my school. The question types available include tech-enhanced options, such as drag-and-drop and multiple-part questions. This is a great way to give students more regular experience with these kinds of assessment items, reducing the need for focused, dedicated test prep work around technology tools, because students are seeing these kinds of questions on assessments throughout the year.
  • PearDeck: This tool allows teachers to create interactive slide decks. It has revolutionized how I use slide shows, such as PowerPoint or Google slides. I can share information, ask questions, and even embed videos. Now I can present a skill or idea, and then I can have students practice it, so that I can conduct in-the-moment, real-time formative assessment that helps me decide upon next steps. There is a free level, which allows limited use, and a paid subscription level. (There is another tool available, called Nearpod, which has similar features and also includes a library of lessons for use, with free and paid membership levels.)
  • EDpuzzle: This free tool provides the ability to embed questions within videos. It makes watching videos more interactive and helps me see what students understand–and don’t understand–about video segments we watch. There are lessons available for use, and I can also make my own. It’s a great option for flipped instruction and self-paced activities because students can watch independently, and I can still track how well they understand what they understand the video and its information.

 

It’s worth noting that a none of these tools are focused exclusively on English language arts. These could be very useful in just about any class and subject. Using these tools has streamlined work in my classroom, making certain activities more efficient and giving me feedback faster. For example, I used to have students complete a paper chart comparing the Christmas Carol movie to the novel. Then I would take time to read through each chart and note individual student understanding. This year, with Backchannel Chat, I could ask questions and track student understanding in the moment. Tools like Peardeck and EDPuzzle make multimedia presentations much more interactive and engaging. Having regular one-to-one access isn’t a requirement for using these; there are creative ways of using these tools in a variety of settings. If you’re looking for technology tools to make work more efficient in your classroom, consider trying one of these.

Do you have favorite apps you use within your classroom? Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.

The Challenge of What Next

by Tricia Ebner

Even though it’s not the true middle of a the school year when the semester ends in mid-January, I’ve always viewed winter break as the midpoint in the year. I’ve found that this is a great time to pause and reflect on what my students have learned so far, and what we need to address in the coming months. It is sometimes easy to lose sight of the big picture of what students need to learn and be able to do by the end of the school year when we’re working on the more detailed parts of skills like research, reading informational text, and writing arguments. It’s not a good feeling to return to school in January wondering, “Are we working on the right things?”pablo-29

Taking some time in December and early January to reflect on what we’ve done so far and what we still need to address is critical. I have several resources to help me reflect on what my students have learned, where our demonstrated needs are, and what I need to be sure I address in the coming months.

  • Lesson plans: I use a lesson planning web site for writing up my weekly plans. This site enables me to access my plans anywhere, and it also allows me to conduct an “audit” of the standards I’ve focused upon. This helps me ensure I’m not overlooking standards.
  • Student performance on assignments and activities: Looking through student work samples and my anecdotal notes also gives me information about what’s going well and what needs attention. I often ask students for their thoughts, too, and they are usually honest about what they know and what they don’t know. Occasionally they will surprise me and say they don’t really know a concept or particular skill, when their work suggests they do. That tells me they aren’t yet confident, so I need to give them more opportunities to work with that and increase their confidence.
  • Progress monitoring information: I also use information from the benchmarking & progress monitoring assessments we use in my district. I appreciate having this “outside” perspective to provide another look at how my students are performing on particular skills.

 

This year I am seeing some results that have prompted me to consider changing my approach in the coming months. For example, the eighth graders I teach are generally performing well. There are no major gaps in our work so far. However, I am not seeing the kind of growth I want for them. This has prompted me to look carefully at the kinds of activities I’ve used in past years, and I’ve already eliminated one option, a literature-heavy unit, in favor of one that has a better balance of literature and informational text. I am now considering a couple of options I’ve never used before.

On the other hand, the growth I’ve seen in my seventh graders’ reading and vocabulary skills in the past quarter has been impressive. They have been focused on a unit that utilizes text sets and integrates academic vocabulary, reading, speaking, listening, and writing skills in a beautifully seamless way. Seeing how powerful this has been for the seventh graders has prompted me to consider how I might revamp activities in all of my classes to incorporate more text sets..

Over the winter break, I’ll spend time reading and making decisions about next steps for my students. I’ll get some plans sketched out, and in January, as my classes wrap up the second quarter and get ready to launch the third, I’ll continue reflecting on what student work is showing me about what we still need to learn. Taking time now to consider where we are and what we still need to do helps me ensure we’re addressing the standards and students’ needs, supporting their ongoing growth this year. A little time in reflection now can pay off in the months ahead.

For more information on using text sets, check out Char Shryock’s blog post found here.

Would you like to share a story of how you’ve solved problem related to standards, instruction, and assessment in your classroom? Do you have a specific problem you’re facing, and you’d like to know how other teachers have solved that problem? Use this link to share your ideas with us, and you could see your own blog posted here, or read about how others have solved that problem in their classrooms.

 

Giving Students Power Tools For The Holidays

The Power Of Building Working Vocabulary Across Content Areas

by Char Shryock

     Put power tools on your students’ holiday gift list.  Words are the most powerful tools you can give to your students, no matter what age or content area you teach.  Just like any other power tool, the best way to learn to use it is to actually use it on authentic tasks!  For students in your classrooms, giving them many opportunities to read, listen to, write, and speak using academic and content area words will strengthen their working vocabulary. Reading a textbook alone is not enough.   It is our challenge as teachers to provide opportunities for all of our students to add words to their vocabulary toolbox. There are many effective ways to do this.  What research does show is that doing rote vocabulary memorization is not the most effective way to build long term vocabulary skills. Let’s look at some strategies that have been proven to work well for all students:

Use of Text Sets:  Creating a set of 3 or more texts that center on similar topic is a way to expose students to content words, in context.  Multiple exposures to vocabulary helps students to build expertise. This increased expertise allows them to read increasingly complex texts in your classroom.   Developing tasks that require your students to read text sets, then write or speak about the content further strengthens their ability to use key content words.

Living Word Wall:  The key word is placed in the middle of the working area.  Students then add pictures, sentences and related words to the wall.  The teacher refers to the wall often and encourages the students to use the word in their classroom work.

Frayer Model:  This is a graphic organizer that puts the key word in the center.  The top left corner of the paper contains the word.  The top right corner is definitions – both dictionary and in their own words. In the bottom left corner, the students can draw a picture or provide examples to go with the word and the bottom right corner is usually used to include words or pictures to show what is NOT the word…or providing connections to other words or concepts they already know. Maybe include using it in a sentence. Once students have made a Frayer model – have them think pair share to exchange ideas or do a gallery walk to allow them to see and comment on other student’s interpretations.

Marzano Notecard:   Similar to a Frayer model, but more portable, the notecard starts with the word in the middle.  The top left corner is the dictionary definition. The top right corner is the student’s definition. The bottom left corner is a diagram or picture – this works especially well with science terms. The bottom right corner is a list of other related terms.  On the back, the student writes two sentences that not only use the word, but make a connection to other terms in the content area or a real world situation.

Two in One:  In this strategy, students must write sentences using the vocabulary words for a unit or for the week.  The twist…they must use two words in one sentence.  They may change the form of the word if necessary.