Using Model Essays: Writing Show-and-Tell

by Tricia Ebner, M.S. Ed.

During the past few days, I had the opportunity to attend a conference with teachers from across the country as we prepared presentations to showcase some work we have been doing over the past year. One of the comments I heard more than once was, “It helps to see what other presentations look like.” We like seeing examples or models as we work, so that we have an idea of the target we are aiming to hit.

Our students are no different. They, too, like to see examples of what their work my look like. When it comes to writing, we have two excellent sources of models for students to use. One is through the Vermont Writing Collaborative models available through Achieve the Core. This collection of student writing samples provides the student writing samples as well as annotated copies of the samples. Another is the Practice Test Scoring Guide for the Ohio State ELA test, available through the student resources page on the ODE web site. This provides a range of student writing samples to the prompt on the practice test, along with the scoring guide and rationale for the scoring level.

A good way to use these resources is to begin by providing students with the rubric used for that kind of writing. Consider using your building or district’s writing rubric, or you may want to use Ohio’s rubric for informative/explanatory writing or argumentative writing, depending on the student model(s) you’ll be using. Having students read through the rubric carefully, annotating key words and developing an understanding of what it means, is important. Once students have an understanding of the rubric, handing them student samples, without annotations or scores, and asking them to evaluate the samples against the rubric, is a powerful exercise. I’ve found it works well to have students work individually at first and then come together within small groups to discuss their evaluations. When I use a variety of student samples within the same class, I have the groups share their evaluations while I project the clean writing sample on the screen. The discussions around the qualities of these essays help students not only see model essays but also the process of how to go about reflecting and evaluating their own work.

As you’re beginning to think about organizing and preparing for the school year, consider including a lesson or two looking at model essays and evaluating them. By taking time in the first few weeks of school to do this, students will have a strong sense of the targets they are aiming to hit during the year. When we have an idea of what our work could ultimately look like, we can see more easily the path to reaching that goal.

 

The Power of a Poem

by Tricia Ebner, M.Ed., NBCT

There are some points in the school year where a major focus or unit is wrapping up, but starting another major unit just isn’t a great idea. There may be a break approaching, or the schedule is going to be peppered with adjusted schedules. Sometimes it’s good to change the pace a bit and work on shorter “mini-units.”

I found myself in this position at one point last year. We had finished a unit, and the next few weeks would be filled assemblies and visits from the high school guidance counselor as my eighth graders prepared to schedule their classes for their first year of high school. Since we hadn’t done much work with poetry during the year, I decided that was the direction to move. I started with one of my favorite lesson resources: the ELA lessons available on www.achievethecore.org. There I found ideas for Gary Soto’s poem “Oranges.” The discussion questions were excellent, and the topic of the poem, a boy’s walk around his neighborhood with a girl he likes, was one I knew my students would be secretly interested in, even if they played it “cool” during class discussion. What I especially liked was one of the writing tasks at the end of the lesson: take the poem, and write it into narrative form.

We have a literature anthology that includes the poem, so we used that and a good stack of post-it notes as we read the poem. As we moved into discussion, I asked students to discuss the questions in small groups, so they could work together and have more opportunity to share their thoughts than a whole-class discussion would allow. As I introduced the narrative writing task, there was a bit of groaning, but then one hand shot up. The question: “Can I write the story from the girl’s point of view?”

The complaining stopped as everyone paused to consider the possibility. This twist appealed to me. It required close reading of the poem and drawing lots of inferences on the girl’s thoughts and feelings. I agreed that this was a terrific idea. A couple of other students asked about other points of view, such as the shopkeeper’s, or the dog’s. I asked if there was enough information on those characters to allow the writer to produce a reasonable narrative of the events in the poem. With a grin, the student responded, “Enough to write the length of story I want to write–a really, really short one.” We ultimately agreed that the narrative could be written from the boy’s perspective or the girl’s, and in first-person or third-person, as the student chose.

The results of the writing were impressive. I asked students to take the piece to a polished rough draft product, but the pieces were short enough, and the students invested enough that much of what they submitted could’ve been a final draft. What surprised me was how many of them–boys included–chose to write from the girl’s perspective. It was exciting to see the students digging for clues and using everything they could to convey their main character’s thoughts and feelings. Most took key phrases from Soto’s work and embedded them into their narratives. This also meant that they had to focus on their own word choices and use of figurative language, so that Soto’s words weren’t a stark contrast from their own. I didn’t have to encourage them to get feedback from one another; most were eager to share their drafts, asking, “Do you think this works?” or “Did I get across how she must be feeling?” Their enthusiasm was contagious.

I’m not sure who learned more from this lesson, the students or me. The students certainly grew in their understanding and appreciation of poetic devices, figurative language, and narrative points of view and perspective. I learned that the right text, at the right time, set up in the right way for the students, can foster creativity and generate impressive writing. It was a lesson and activity well worth pursuing.

 

Review: Favorite Resources

by Ohio Teachers for Quality Education

Summer is a great time to investigate potential resources for use in the classroom. With the different pace of summertime, we have an opportunity to explore various web sites and tools. This week we’re taking a look back at some of our favorite blog posts about resources. Consider taking a few moments to check out some of these past posts and the resources they share. You may find something you’ve been wishing for!notes-macbook-study-conference

Technology Resources: No matter what we teach, there are apps that can support learning and teaching. In this post from January, Tricia Ebner shares five apps that can be useful in any classroom.

Literacy Resources: Selecting the vocabulary terms to focus upon can be challenging task; this post shares how the Academic Word Finder can be a great resource to helping make those decisions.

Text sets are useful not only in English language arts but also in science, social studies, and more. This post from November takes a look at how text sets can be useful in helping students develop deeper understanding.

Math Resources:  If you’re looking for resources that will help you deepen your understanding of math, Dr. Bryan Drost shares some of his favorite math tools and resources in this blog post from October.

Charesha Barrett shares how one public library put together a program to support kindergartners and their parents in working with math at home in this post.

Educator Char Shryock shares how manipulatives aren’t just for primary grades. Read here how they can be useful in high school classes, too.

English Language Arts Resources: Just as there are terrific resources for math, there are also great options for English language arts. Check out this post featuring resources for teachers.

A strategy for teaching tone is shared in this post from December. The ideas here are valuable to consider in teaching reading and writing, too!

If you’re looking for ideas to use in teaching writing, Char Shryock shares how two fourth grade classrooms partnered in this writing activity

Don’t forget that the Ohio Teachers for Quality Education web site has two tabs devoted to resources. If you’re just getting started in your teaching career, or you’re changing grade levels and/or subject areas, you may want to check out the Just Getting Started Resources. If you’re looking for tools to help streamline your work or change the routine, check out Our Favorite Go-To Resources.

 

Do you have favorite tools and resources you’d like to share with other Ohio teachers? 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 Standards Revision Process: Lessons Learned for the Classroom

Tricia Ebner, Co-Chair of the ELA Advisory Group

Char Shryock, member of the Operational Working Group – Science Revisions

Over the past 18 months, Ohio has been involved in a cycle of standards reviews. Per state law, Ohio’s standards must undergo a revision process every five years. Teams of Ohio teachers, administrators, college professors and content experts have volunteered their time to do this work. In 2016, the math and ELA standards went through this process. During the 2016-17 school year, the science and social studies standards have experienced this same process.  This five year review and revision cycle enables educators and stakeholders to reflect and consider how well the standards are working and what improvements might be necessary.

The process is thoughtful and thorough. The review starts with a period of public comment, where teachers, parents, administrators, college and university faculty, and community members can provide comments, recommend changes, and point to research supporting those comments and changes. Then a revision advisory committee made up of teacher leaders and content experts examines each and every comment, with a goal of coming to consensus on the proposed change.  If the consensus is that the comment is relevant and will potentially clarify or strengthen the standards, it is passed along to the standards operational working group.  This second team of teachers, professors and content experts then work to make the revisions if they agree they are necessary. These revisions are then sent to the public for a second round of feedback, followed by the advisory committee reviewing those comments and sending any standards still needing work back to the working group.

As members of the advisory committee for ELA and the operational working group for science, we have been involved with standards review for the past two years. We’ve gained some insights into Ohio’s standards:

  • The vertical progression is key. As educators, it is critical that we know and understand the vertical progression within the standards. In the work with the ELA standards review, it didn’t take long to see that a change made in sixth grade, for example, would have a ripple effect running towards both kindergarten and grade 12. One important strand in the ELA progression is writing opinions/arguments. Standards help to frame the increasing sophistication of students use of evidence to support their argument. In science, this progression helps to map out how students build an understanding of a concept, like force and motion, starting with simple pushing and pulling in kindergarten and going all the way up to calculating force in physics. As a teacher, It is important to understand the foundation students have as they walk into your classroom.  It’s also important to understand that if that foundation is shaky, intervention needs to happen with an eye toward the requirements of the standard in previous grades. Additionally, knowing the vertical progression  of the knowledge and skills students will be working can help educators make decisions regarding students who have already mastered standards at a particular grade level. In this instance, a teacher can make a decision as to whether to broaden the student’s experiences with the skills in that standard, or accelerate the student into the next grade level’s work on that particular standard.
  • Knowing the vocabulary is also important. As we worked through the standards review process, it became clear that some terms used within the language arts standards, for example, needed a glossary, so that all educators in Ohio can work from the same definition in addressing those standards. As we prepare to transition into the revised standards, it is important to pay attention to the glossary to ensure each standard is clearly understood. These are the definitions the model curriculum writing teams are using in their work, and because the test blueprints will be developed based on these standards, the assessments will address these terms as defined in the glossary. In math and science, content specific vocabulary was also carefully looked at to be sure that correct terms were used consistently throughout the standards.  In science, the operational working group had many discussions over exactly the right word to use within each standard being reviewed. Many laundry lists of terms were replaced with a focus on a few key terms, keeping the standards language based in the building knowledge of science concepts and skills, not just memorizing lists or tables.  Beyond vocabulary for students, essential vocabulary was also clearly defined or explained as a support for the teachers who will be working with the standards.
  • Standards build from grade level to grade level, and they also work in conjunction with other standards at the same grade level.  Part of the work of standards review and revision is to be sure that the standards articulate across grade levels and within grade levels in a way that will make sense to teachers and to students. While we as educators need to break the standards down to understand their component parts, that is not the way we should be teaching our students on a daily basis. The standards aren’t meant to be taught as separate, isolated skills and concepts. While we may need to focus students’ attention on one aspect of a standard to deepen their mastery, it is also critical that we have them then work with the standard as a whole.  One way to look at the Ohio Learning Standards is to think of them as the story of the learning that we would like students to master at each grade level.  Within each story, there are a number of strands. In ELA, these include literature, informational text, writing, foundational reading, language and speaking and listening.  The science standard story begins with the nature of science statements, and weaves in Earth/space, physical and life sciences.  Just like any good story, the standards have connections to each other.  Look closely at the literature and informational text standards for reading, and you will see the writing standards reflected in the wording.  Spend time with the physical science standards and you will see that they can be taught through the lens of life science.  Going even further, it is also possible to teach many of the language arts skills through the context of the science concepts!
  • The standards are the floor, not the ceiling, of what students can and should be doing in Ohio classrooms. The standards don’t limit us to only the skills embodied within them. We can stretch beyond those standards. For example, I’ve heard concerns expressed that letter-writing is not specifically named in Ohio’s ELA standards. There is nothing preventing a teacher from addressing letter-writing skills in his or her classroom.  One creative teacher had students write letters to an author, another had students write letters to a story character, from another character.  In science, the working group worked hard to write standard language that would encourage teachers to let students explore the world around them, use authentic data, and find real world situations to build their understanding of science skills. This allows teachers to find science in their local community or their school yard and set students up to become lifelong scientists.  The science working group spent time revising the nature of science descriptions for grade bands k-2, 3-5, 6-8 and 9-12 to be sure teachers would have the flexibility to let students be actively involved in doing science.  people-woman-coffee-meeting

Perhaps the greatest take-away we have had from the work of directly helping to review and revise Ohio’s Learning Standards is the power of teachers from various grade levels and backgrounds working together to really unpack standard language together.  If time could be spent in teacher based teams, grade level teams, professional learning communities having the same kind of focused dialogue, teachers at all grade levels would grow in their own understanding of the the standards, and begin to share best practices for how to help students to master these standards.  

What about grammar?

by Tricia Ebner, M.S. Ed. & NBCT

As an undergraduate, I was required to take a course in English grammar. At the time, nearly 30 years ago, it made sense. After all, my middle and high school English classes had grammar as part of our studies. I had spent hours with my Warriner’s textbooks, carefully copying sentences and then dividing them into subjects and verbs, or learning how to diagram prepositional phrases. Grammar is part of English, right?blog post graphic 4.23.17

Well, yes. But let’s be honest: there’s not too many of us that chose to become language arts teachers because we love grammar. I’ll bet that there are far more of us whose passion for English language arts stems from our experiences with reading and writing. Yet the question of where grammar fits into the curriculum comes up fairly often in the work I do with other classroom teachers.

The answer I have for them probably isn’t everyone’s favorite. In fact, if you’re among those amazing few who love analyzing sentence structures and grammatical constructs, I know you’re not going to like this.

The best form of grammar instruction comes in our work with reading and writing.

There’s research to back this up; it’s a subject that enough of us are interested in, that The Atlantic ran this story, “The Wrong Way to Teach Grammar,” in 2014. The article plainly states what I’ve been learning through observation, trial, and error: students gain just as much about grammar through reading and writing as they do through direct grammar instruction. When my eighth graders and I spend a class period looking at the construction of the Declaration of Independence, we’re not just studying parallel structure. We make note of how Jefferson used grammatical structures to emphasize his points. During the past week, I’ve been giving feedback to my sixth graders on drafts of informative consumer guides, and I embed little grammar “micro-lessons” into my comments, pointing out the use of the apostrophe in the contraction for “it is” and how there is no apostrophe in the possessive form of “it.” While my comments may have to be repeated on another writing piece down the road, the fact that I am helping them see the power of semicolons in their own writing makes the punctuation mark more meaningful to them.

I know this particular approach to grammar isn’t neat, clean, and orderly. I am not checking off boxes in front of my standards with this approach. There aren’t folders full of worksheets just waiting to be distributed.

So what does good grammar instruction look like these days?

  1. It’s embedded in the other activities going on within the classroom. When my sixth graders spend a couple of weeks researching the R.M.S. Titanic, for example, they learn that ship names are considered the same as novel titles, and are put into italics. When the seventh graders write narratives based on the illustrations from Chris Van Allsburg’s book The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, we work on proper punctuation around dialogue. In those instances, I may model it using the document camera or my computer and projector, but the real lessons come in the individual feedback, through conferencing or comments on drafts.
  2. It’s timely and tailored. I don’t tend to give a mini-lesson on a grammar issue unless i see the majority of the class needs it. For too many years, I taught about commas and coordinating conjunctions in April, because that’s when we were talking about conjunctions. What works is teaching this to students when they need it.
  3. It’s done with an attitude of caring and improving. When I conference with students or write comments on their drafts, I make it clear that I am doing this because I want their papers to be the best they can be. Pointing out grammatical errors isn’t done in a punitive way, with a tone of, “You should know better.” Instead, it’s done to help and support the learner. I am not simply correcting the errors for the students; they are the writers and need to make those corrections themselves.
  4. It’s done in both reading and writing. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is the focus I put on sentence fragments when we read Hatchet in sixth grade. Paulsen uses a good deal of sentence fragments in the novel, especially in the beginning, as main character Brian Robeson finds himself unexpected flying a plane across the Canadian wilderness. Almost every year, someone will ask me, “How come he gets to write sentence fragments, but we’re not allowed to?” I counter the question with one of my own: “Why do you think Paulsen does that? What is his purpose?” The discussion goes far beyond the standard grammatical construction of complete sentences. Students soon realize that those fragment are used a key moments, they reflect the way a person’s brain works when in a stressful situation. A 12-year-old boy having to crash-land a plane in a lake is not going to think in carefully constructed compound-complex sentences. His thoughts are going to come in fragments. By the time we finish our discussion, students understand that fragments have a place in writing and can be very powerful, when the timing and purpose is right.

As professional educators, we need to think carefully about our purposes and priorities. Being able to read, write, listen, and speak effectively is our goal. While grammar certainly has a role in all of those skills, it is a role that is dependent on context. Teaching grammar in isolation doesn’t help us achieve our goals; instead, it throws up barriers and tends to make students dislike our classes. By embedding our grammar instruction in natural ways, through the reading, writing, speaking, and listening we do, we are helping our students gain proficiency in strong speaking and writing skills. This is far more powerful than any subject-verb worksheet will ever be.

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.

 

Discussion: A Powerful Tool in Learning and Life

by Tricia Ebner, NBCT

There is a misconception that Ohio’s speaking and listening standards focus solely upon more formal speeches. However, the very first anchor standard in speaking and listening is: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively. If we think about this from a practical perspective, this standard encompasses much of the speaking and listening student are likely to do not only in their academic lives, but throughout their careers as adults. Work across all kinds of fields in all kinds of contexts requires people to participate in discussions, whether it’s formal meetings or more informal, spur-of-the-moment problem-solving collaborations.

So considering all this, how do we as teachers help our students prepare for these kinds of activities? One of the most direct approaches we can take is a direct one: teach students the skills and strategies they need in group discussions. By taking a few minutes to break down the skills involved, model effective and ineffective behaviors, and then provide specific feedback to students, we can help them grow in their confidence and skills in this form of speaking and listening. Whatever subject area or grade level you teach, if you have your students participating in whole-class or small group discussions, you are helping students learn the skills and strategies they need for effective participation in discussions.

One approach to help students begin to see the behaviors necessary for effective group discussion are fishbowls. A fishbowl is a strategy that takes a single small group and places it in the middle of a larger circle. Those in the outer circle observe the discussion and behaviors of those in the inner circle. To make the expected behaviors really concrete, especially for younger learners, having a group model ineffective discussion behaviors can help them get a concrete picture of what not to do. Following that with a group modeling effective discussion behaviors is a great way of illustrating “Don’t do this; do that.”

Another strategy that helps students and teacher alike is the use of a checklist. A quick internet search will undoubtedly turn up several checklists. A checklist doesn’t have to be huge or elaborate. What are the two or three skills you’d like to see students focus upon in their group discussions? Put those onto a checklist, like this one I’ve used with my sixth graders. As students participate in their discussions, circulate and use the checklist to note what skills are being used effectively, and what might benefit from additional teaching and modeling.

Using checklists to monitor students’ progress in having effective discussions is useful in any content area. By making use of checklists, we can provide students with quick feedback and also make decisions about what to focus upon next. Whatever your content area or age group, consider using a checklist to monitor students’ skills the next time you have students working in a small-group or whole-class discussion.


Do you have a favorite discussion checklist to share? Contact us using the link below.


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.

 

It’s Not Over When the Testing is Done

by Tricia Ebner, NBCT

Within the next few weeks, Ohio’s state assessments will be finished, and we will be in the last weeks of the school year. If you’re like many Ohio teachers, you’re considering the options for meaningful, engaging lessons and activities in these last weeks. After all, it really isn’t over once the state assessments are submitted. What can we do with our students that continues to build their skills and knowledge while keeping them focused and enthused as the weather warms and summer break beckons?pablo4.9.17

When I consider this situation, I like to ask myself a couple of questions:

  1. Which of the standards could I address in more depth? In answering this, I consider where my focus has been. During January, February, and March,I tend to put more emphasis on those standards I know will be included on Ohio’s state assessments. In English language arts, our writing tasks are focused on informational/expository writing and argument, since narrative writing isn’t included on the state assessment.
  2. What kinds of tasks and activities do my students really enjoy, not necessarily because they’re easy but because they’re appropriately engaging and challenging?

One of the most engaging activities I’ve done with my students is conducting mock trials. Working through the process of reading and analyzing witness statements, crafting questions, prepping witnesses, and writing opening statements and closing arguments is exciting, real–world kinds of tasks. The English language arts standards are embedded within these activities, too. For more information about mock trials, check out this blog post.

This kind of reflection and planning isn’t limited to English language arts. Consider these possibilities for mathematics, science, and social studies.

Math: Take the major work of the grade and craft a real-world kind of task involving the use of those skills and concepts. For several years, even before Ohio adopted our current learning standards, I had a colleague who loved presenting students with tasks that incorporated math into real-world situations. For example, she asked students to consider the costs of redecorating their bedrooms. Students were responsible for calculating area, the square feet needed of carpet or other flooring, the amount of paint it would take to change the color of the walls. They calculated the cost of baseboard and trim around windows. They also had to work within a budget. For several days, students almost seemed to ignore the adults in the room because they were so engrossed in planning out their ideal bedrooms.

Science: What kind of cooperative, hands-on project or experiment might engage students toward the end of the year? Projects like building and testing rockets made from two-liter pop bottles can be engaging and also practice team collaboration skills. In life sciences, students have imagined themselves discovering islands with a complete, self-contained ecosystem, filled with unusual, never-before-discovered plants and animals. Students practiced skills in the classification system, developing food webs and making plans for preservation of this fictional island. It is a terrific way to review some of the major concepts within life sciences.

Social Studies: What aspects of the year’s curriculum do you wish you could have spent more time investigating? What questions did the students have? My colleagues in social studies are getting ready to have their students investigate medieval history through some hands-on activities and creations, including manors. Or perhaps a simulation activity, like the mock trials described in language arts, could work.

Whatever your subject area, it’s worth considering how taking a more hands-on, project-oriented approach can be motivating and engaging for students as we hit these warm spring days. These kinds of activities synthesize the skills and concepts we’ve studied all year. It brings the learning together in a tangible way for students, and that’s a great note to close the year. After all, it’s over when the testing is done.

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.

 

Seeing is Understanding

by Tricia Ebner

When I have a chance to watch a little bit of TV, I often turn to HGTV. There is something about watching Drew and Jonathan Scott or Chip and Joanna Gaines describing the transformation of older, run-down homes into their clients’ “dream homes” that captivates me. Maybe it’s because I know without those computer animations, I simply couldn’t envision the promise those experts often see in older properties. It reminds me of the old adage claims that “Seeing is believing,” but sometimes I think it might be more accurately worded as “Seeing leads to understanding.”blog post graphic 3.20.17

This also applies to the changes we’ve seen in standards and assessments in Ohio in the past five years. When Ohio first began transitioning standards and assessments, one of the most frequently asked questions I heard was, “But what do these things look like?”  As we’ve become more practiced and experienced with our standards and assessments, our questions are becoming more refined. Now the questions are more likely to be focused on specific standards and how assessment questions get at the heart of those standards.

We can now easily see how standards look in assessment items by examining assessment items from a number of resources. In a recent meeting, we wanted to see how reading literature standard 7.3 in different items. (RL 7.3: Analyze how particular elements of a story or drama interact.) By using www.achievethecore.org’s search bar and typing in RL 7.3, we quickly found several assessments that included the standard. Looking at these items specifically tied to this standard helped us better understand the standard “in action” in assessments. Now we can use this understanding as we continue to develop our own assessment questions. Analyzing these items helped us identify the structure and vocabulary used in these kinds of questions.

Moving forward, we will continue to use the practice and released test items available on the testing pages of the Ohio Department of Education web site, along with the lessons and mini-assessments available on www.achievethecore.org. Having examples readily available means that the “renovations” I may need to make to my own lessons and assessments doesn’t have to be a guessing game, where I cross my fingers and hope for the best. Instead, just as the renovation experts on HGTV have computer simulations to help homeowners envisions changes to their structures, we have computer tools that can help us see how standards translated into assessment items can look. Indeed, seeing can lead to understanding.  

 

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.

Three Simple Literacy Strategies for Test Preparation (and more)

by Tricia Ebner

As spring testing season approaches, teachers are reflecting on students’ progress and planning to address those skills and concepts that might need reinforcement. There are three simple ways every teacher can support the skills students need to use on their spring assessments, regardless of the content area.

  1. Review the importance of reading questions carefully. Sometimes skipping one little word makes all the difference between choosing the correct response and choosing a distractor. This is something we can practice with students throughout the year, on formative and summative assessments in our classes. Use think-alouds occasionally to show students how we can read and analyze what a question is saying, and how doing this helps us answer the question. Have students discuss questions in small groups, coming to consensus about what they have to do in order to answer the question. Taking a few minutes to utilize these strategies from time to time can reinforce these skills and encourage the habit of reading questions carefully.
  2. Require the use of evidence in responses. This is another universal skill and concept. The use of evidence is important in any subject area. When we require evidence to be used in supporting responses to questions, we’re encouraging and reinforcing the need for critical thinking and reasoning. (One tip here: number the paragraphs on any multiple-paragraph text you plan to have students read. This makes it easier for them to refer to specific evidence, whether it’s in a discussion or written response.) Asking for evidence doesn’t have to be complicated. Sometimes it’s as simple as adding the question, “What does the text say that supports your response?” Some teachers require students to put the page number or paragraph number in parentheses behind their answers to questions as a means of encouraging students to verify their answers within the text.
  3. Use the Academic Word Finder to identify those vocabulary words students need to become comfortable with. This tool quickly finds those terms for you when you copy and paste text into it. By entering text, selecting the grade level at which the text will be read, and letting technology work its magic, you will soon have a list of vocabulary terms appropriate for readers at a variety of reading levels, also making it useful for differentiation. (To learn more about how the Academic Word Finder can be invaluable for differentiation check out this blog post.)

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Incorporating these three simple steps can make a difference in our students’ learning, growth, and even confidence on assessments. Embedding practice in reading questions carefully, requiring evidence, and developing academic vocabulary throughout the year are universal skills for any grade level and subject area. Test preparation doesn’t have to be packets of questions or a couple of weeks of drills. When we incorporate strategies such as these, we’re preparing our students for learning, growth, and even the spring assessments.

 

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.

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