Deeper Learning: Recapturing the Joy in Data Driven Schools

by Colleen A. Ruggieri

While recently contemplating why so many learners choose to use outside instructional supports (Internet articles, SparkNotes, etc.), to complete their school assignments, I decided to ask a few middle school, high school, and college students about their attitudes toward their homework and classroom assignments for all subject areas. Their responses were eye opening, problematic, and alarming. During our discussions, there were surprising commonalities in the responses between grade levels, all of which should be contemplated.

It is possible to get good grades without ever reading an assigned text. This seems exaggerated and impossible, but students at all grade levels convinced me that it could be true. One high school student shared her philosophy: “If you listen to your teacher, take notes, and read SparkNotes for a novel…or an online article for a government assignment, you can get an ‘A’ and pass the state tests. I don’t have time to actually read all of the books, but I still want to do well. I know it’s kind of cheating, but it works.” An important assessment issue associated with this approach is that there is no deeper learning occurring as students progress through school. Grades are providing false positives, as learners have not developed authentic skills for reading, analyzing, and synthesizing ideas.

Traditional, worksheet driven instruction no longer inspires learners. My personal experience with this student response came in my own household. My son, an active learner, was not completing his assignments. It was only after some serious investigation that my husband and I learned that he was folding up his worksheets and creating origami animals out of them. Of course, we were disappointed that he resorted to civil disobedience. However, we had to chuckle at his ingenious approach to avoiding the work. In the end, we had to sit him down and emphasize the importance of completing his work, even if was less than inspirational. We often wonder when kids lose their zest for learning. Worksheets can be authentic instructional tools, when used in moderation, but today’s students are different from those moving through classrooms twenty years ago. Students are living fast-paced, multitasking lives; successful teachers will find ways to engage their students through active learning.

bookLearners want to succeed; most define success by passing the tests and getting  good grades. It would be untruthful to tell any aspiring student that grades and test scores do not matter. In order to test my assertion, I took this concern into my college classroom, and assigned Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. It is important to emphasize that I challenged my students to read the text—independently and without any notes beyond the text’s annotations—for themselves. To provide a comfort zone, I told them that I would not give them daily quizzes. Instead, I prepared response prompts, and I asked them to record their thoughts and analysis to each section, to the best of their ability. Many students shared that this was one of their first experiences of actually reading an assigned work. Some found the experience “overwhelming” and “daunting.” These were college seniors who had two weeks to read the two-hundred-and-twenty-four page text, and their mindset seems to be symptomatic of an educational system gone awry. However, by removing the layer of potentially punitive test scores during the reading process, most of my students actually tried to read the text and appreciate Walden on a level that went well beyond literal summarization.

Real Learning: What Can We Do? While processing all that I heard from students, I picked up a copy of Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters. I appreciated the candid call for change in teaching practices: “Innovation is the lifeblood of progress. It is nursed and nurtured in the arms of failure; in collaboration; in creativity; in curiosity; in passion; in tenacity and grit and optimism” (Beers and Probst 107).  The authors note that educators begin their planning with the best of intentions. However, things change as instructors become too heavily focused on test scores. For example, computers—though potentially innovative tools—have led to the use of electronic worksheets. Ultimately, while we have written new standards for students, procedural practices must also change. With this in mind, here are a few suggestions:

Remember that test data is just one stroke on a student’s academic portrait. Test results are used for rating and ranking, and this reality creates stress for districts and teachers. However, it is important for parents, educators, and community members to realize that one digit does not a success or failure make. A deeper look at the data—and where it shows a need for improvement—should serve as a guide to greatness, rather than a punitive measure for denigrating a district’s efforts. Likewise, students should look at their own data in the same way. Teachers and parents should sit down with learners and discuss what type of snapshot the scores are providing about a student’s progress.

Rather than feeling the need to “cover the material,” educators must be supported in their efforts to drill down and design lessons for deeper learning. Spending more time on a challenging text—and giving students the time to read, think, and process what is in that document—will change the nature of instruction. Stress is a killer, and too many teachers and their classes feel like a hamster on a wheel; the quest to finish one task and begin another is exhausting and counterproductive. By allowing students to spend more time to read a challenging work, they won’t feel so defeated that they immediately look for its online summary. By avoiding the notion to “tell them what the text means,” teachers will bring back the joy of reading and allow their learners to discover the meaning for themselves.

Reading, writing, speaking and listening “for real” should be implemented in every classroom and in the home. Students want answers to life, and their questions should become part of the school curriculum. Districts and classrooms have approached this by adding essential questions to assignments (What are the dangers of racism? What is the true meaning of success?), and this must continue. Beers and Probst emphasize that we must stop using monologic questions—questions with only one right, or best answer (152). Instead, teaching students to appreciate the dialectical tensions that exist in the world will make them think deeply about solving problems. Students see dialogic questions as authentic, and they are much more willing to complete their assignments if they see real meaning in them. Parents who talk to their kids about such questions extend learning and make their children understand that what happens in a classroom is setting the stage for life.

Final Thoughts Standards and tests can be terrific tools for teaching and learning. However, it is important for everyone involved in students’ lives to see the bigger picture.  Data, used inappropriately, can be damaging and divisive. However, by transforming our approach to teaching and learning, and using data to inform our work, we will be helping learners to find their joy, understand why they are being asked to complete their assignments, and live fuller lives that transcend their years in school.

Work Cited:
Beers, Kyleen and Robert Probst. Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters. Scholastic, 2017.

About the Author: Colleen Ruggieri, a recipient of The Martha Holden Jennings Foundation Master Teacher of Ohio award, has worked as a National Board Certified English Teacher. She is an English education professor at Ohio University, and she is a past-president of the Ohio Council of Teachers of English Language Arts.

Three APPS to Help Support Students with Special Needs: Helping all Kids Grapple with Grade Level Expectations  

by Dr. Bryan Drost

I had the best time with teachers the last few days—curriculum mapping away.  It’s what curriculum directors live for: discussions of vertical and horizontal alignment.  However, about halfway through the second day I could tell that I had “lost” two teachers: more specifically, two intervention specialists.  Attempting to bring them into the conversation, we had a bit of a heart-to-heart, and this phrase came out “My kids can’t do these standards.”

My heart broke with these sentence: of course, part of it is that we haven’t made the shift that students with special education needs are part of the “ALL” in all of our students, but at the same time, it was clear that these teachers needed some strategies to help work with their students. Although I knew that in the short time I had to work with these educators, I would not be able to solve all, I did know that they were capable and that they could use APPS to help students acquire our college and career-ready standards.

As we worked together, I shared with her my version of the acronym APPS for technology integration within the classroom: how will an application help students Acquire meaningful content standards; how will an application help students Progress through meaningful feedback; how will an application measure Proficiency of student learning, and how will an application Support the student in learning content.  (You can find more examples of this in my blogs on Achieve the Core’s Aligned blog at https://achievethecore.org/aligned/five-apps-to-redefine-your-math-class/)

The following are three APPS that I shared with her that I believe you too can use to help redefine your classroom and facilitate higher order learning activities that encourage self-directed learning and ongoing assessment for our students with special needs as well as the rest.

One of the concerns with some special needs students is that they can’t read the complex text that is required on them at grade level.  Research has consistently proven that we need to make sure kids get exposure and regular practice with grade-level text.  In other words, simply giving students texts that are not at their lexile level is problematic.  So what to do?  Why not try one of these free Google tools.  Take on an grade-level text, maybe from Newsela. Download the freeTextTeaser extension.  TextTeaser allows students to summarize the content from a webpage as a list of sentences or in paragraph form.  What’s really great is that you adjust the output using a slider to give different detail levels of the passage or article.  This gives teachers the opportunity to frontload texts for students so that they can participate in those rich, on-grade level conversations while the intervention specialist is working in small-group or one-on-one with helping the students make sense of the larger passage. An alternative to TextTeaser is SMMRY, a tool that performs basically the same task.TextTeaser

Desmos is my second APP for you all.  Often, students with special needs that are struggling math need some type of visual to represent mathematical relationships and as a result, when this isn’t provided, will shut down and become frustrated.  To be frank, many of us need those visuals.  In addition to helping provide a visual, Desmos harnesses the social nature of online interactions into meaningful math inquiry.  For example, by using the Function Carnival tooll, students are given the freedom to experiment with functions and are given direct feedback that allows them to revise their thinking and improve their mathematical practices and improve on that sense of perseverance. Lastly and what is most powerful about this tool is that the system also gives teachers the ability to randomly pair students with electronic devices, allowing students to create questions and challenges for each other based on aligned content. This can help students with special needs as it provides a model for mathematical thinking. Check it out at https://teacher.desmos.com/  In Ohio, at least, keep in mind that this is a crucial tool that students need to be exposed to as this is the same calculator interface we will be using on our State Achievement Tests.DESMOS

My final app is really one that can be used in all disciplines, and isn’t limited to say math or ELA.  As students progress into higher and higher grade levels or as content gets more and more challenging, it is essential to help students see the relationships between ideas. Often times students with special needs that have difficulty with organizing information need support in keeping ideas and these relationships straight. Ideament is a great app that allows you to draw a diagram – a mini map, concept map, flow chart, etc. and convert it to a text outline and vice versa.  This is a great way to help students with special needs organize information for something that they need to write, but also can be used to in relationship to text.  For example, copying and pasting a portion of text into a word document will allow the software to create a diagram of the text to help students organize this text and make sense of the relationships amongst ideas, perhaps say in a science text. Students also have the option of manipulating these diagrams to reorganize them in ways so that they too can learn how to process the information.  Although it is appropriate for all students, adults can benefit from it as well. I used when I started writing this blog!Ideament

While these APPS don’t solve everything, they do transform classrooms as areas of grade-level learning for all students.  Through the use of APPS, I know that you will discover additional ways to help support all students.  I encourage you to respond to this blog or e-mail us to tell us how you’re using them.  I’d love to learn more too!

 

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.

 

Teaching Students to Read Like Specialists

by Tricia Ebner, M.Ed., NBCT

Sometimes focusing on the skills and standards of the content area can make keeping an eye on reading a balancing act. Yet all teachers can help influence and support reading development in students. It doesn’t mean we have to squeeze more into our already-tight schedules. As content area specialists, we have the skills and understandings needed to help students read as historians, scientists, computer programmers, mathematicians, art historians, musicians, and more.

Think of it this way: if we’re going to hand our students a text on a specific aspect of our content, we already know what we want them to gain from that experience. There is a reason, a purpose, behind reading that. What is it? We need to take the opportunity to share with students how we’ve read that text and gained information from it. In other words, we need to teach them how to read as a scientist, historian, mathematician, computer programmer, and more. How can we go about doing that? Consider these steps as a possible process:

  1. What is the purpose for reading this text? Write a question, a deep, powerful question that has an answer clearly connected to the text and the concepts the class is currently studying. Draft the question. It can always be revised later. For example, a social studies teacher might have students read the Gettysburg Address as part of a study on the Civil War. One question a teacher might ask students is, “How is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address an important speech in the Civil War?” For a math example, consider asking, “What is the purpose of this kind of problem? Why do students need experience with this kind of problem?”Eureka Math Example
  2. What did we notice as we read the text ourselves? Think this through. As a historian, scientist, musician, or other specialist, what stood out and why? Make note of that. This can help us guide our students to notice those things as they read. Remember that in a K-12 setting, students have been reading to learn for nine years at the most. They don’t have the years of experience and practice that we do in reading and thinking like a specialist. We need to make that process transparent for students. By asking them to focus on certain parts of the text, and asking them specific questions, we can help them begin to see what is critical in our thinking as specialists. Going back to the Civil War example, a teacher might ask, “Why does Lincoln refer to the Revolutionary War and founding of the country?” Another question might be, “What does Lincoln call on the living to do? Why do you think he would do this?” Using our math example, think through how you’ve read the problem. Try asking questions such as, “How can I represent this in a visual way? ” Or “Is there information here that isn’t important for solving the problem?”Cannon
  3. Consider sharing our own thinking and observations as a “think-aloud.” This step should follow guidance and questions, so that students can develop their own “read-like-an-expert” skills, but after doing this, sharing our own thought process models for students what a specialist is considering while reading. Referring to our math example, talking through how you thought through the problem, pulled the information you needed, and then set up the equation necessary to solve it shows learners how a mathematician thought it through.
  4. Connect the text back to the concepts and skills currently being developed. While it might be very clear to you why the text is part of this study, sometimes students don’t see those connections as clearly. A couple of carefully constructed questions for small-group and whole-class discussion can help students make those connections, which deepens their understanding. In the Civil War example, questions such as, “What was happening in the war at this point in time?” Or “How might readers have viewed this speech in light of the battles happening in November 1863, such as the Battle of Chattanooga?” Could help students consider this speech in the context of the larger war. In mathematics, comparing the problem to one the students have solved before helps them see connections.

Teaching our students the literacy skills they need to be successful in our content areas doesn’t have to be difficult. By taking a few minutes to craft questions, guide students toward seeing key parts of the text, share our own thinking as specialists, and connect the text to the larger concepts, we are helping students gain deeper understanding and increasing skills in our subject areas. Their increased understanding, skill, and confidence is well worth it.

Looking for some good resources to support content area studies and reading together? Consider looking at resources from Literacy Design Collaborative, and Achieve the Core.

The math problem used here can be found on the EngageNY.org web site: https://www.engageny.org/resource/grade-6-mathematics-module-3, lesson 4.

 

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.  

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.

 

BLASTT! Blending Literature and Science Together With Technology

by Stephanie Nowak
3rd Grade Teacher, Mentor City Schools

I Wonder…..
Wonder and curiosity are inherit. From birth children learn by exploring their natural world. For many years the hands on learning approach, or Piaget’s theory of constructivism trumped, what we now call “Blended Learning.” This type of learning combines hands on or inquiry based learning while integrating technology. This “new approach” is often referred to as Genius Hour, Problem Based Learning, Engineering, Design Thinking, Tinkering, and Makerspace. This shift in teaching utilizing technology as part of “Hands On Learning” (aka Blended Learning approach) provides opportunities for students to utilize their natural curiosity in order to produce knowledge and form meaning based on their experiences. Whatever you coin it, this process is rooted in constructivist theory. It’s hands on, engaging and when done successfully can yield amazing results.

Survival of the Fittest
If you are surviving today’s educational demands you are doing so at an alarming rate and pace. You want to be innovative, but who has time when you are mandated to teach the core subjects for the majority of your day, attend PLC’s, and constantly assess and monitor data? Now add to the mix district and building initiatives and the task becomes daunting. You feel like you are on Survivor. You find a way to survive even when you feel like you are failing. You find a way to survive when the joy of discovery has been put on a shelf, replaced with test preparation, running records, and formative assessments. That’s where I found myself, in survival mode.

I have taught third grade for 23 years for Mentor Public Schools. I continue to grow and try new things but this has been a balancing act. With state mandates it’s become increasingly harder to do “Hands on Learning,” even though, I know how meaningful and effective it can be. In addition, every minute on my daily schedule has been assigned. It can make you feel like you are just going through the motions, working hard, looking for the finish line. I knew I needed to find a way to use my passion for science and integrate that passion into the existing curriculum. I was losing this race and my passion was slowly deteriorating.

Finding Your Passion 
Curiosity can be a very strong motivator. Through the years I began creating units that not only aligned to the standards cross curricularly, but were tech savvy, engaging, hands on, and utilized a blended approach. I was asked to share this approach and I hope I convince you to be a risk taker and try it within your own classroom. I have always been curious, I see connections, and when I don’t see them I look for them. I model this within my own classroom. For example have you ever wondered why our climate is getting warmer? Why are scientists studying Ohio Brown Bats fearing that they will become extinct? What about “Where did Amelia Earhart disappear to? Do Goldfish have a memory longer than three seconds? Can you build a house out of soil that the Big Bad Wolf can’t blow down? These questions may seem totally random but each is designed to create enough curiosity to engage the learner. The bonus is that each question and the unit that evolved from it are cross-curricularly aligned to Third Grade Standards in ELA, Math, and Science.

I believe that Science is the hook and technology the bait for a balanced literacy experience designed to meet the diverse learners in our classrooms. Literature and science combine to engage, excite, and drive instruction. Technology can connect our world by bringing science to life. This is key to finding your passion again, while meeting the diverse needs of learners, and integrating initiatives.

What do you do with an IDEA?
I wish I had written this book by Kobi Yamada. That’s exactly how to approach an integrated approach to learning. What do you want to do? What excites you? What do you expect the kids to learn? Is it aligned? Is it connected? My advice, start with an idea and then use the backwards design approach to create your unit. You will start to see so many connections and each year the unit will become stronger. You probably have a favorite “idea” that you have used in the past but just don’t have time for, well, it is time to resurrect that idea. By doing this, your passion is reignited and that passion shows in your teaching and your students motivation to learn.

Sharing that Passion 
I’ve been fortunate to belong to the Ohio Department of Education Science Network Regional Leaders for the last four years. I also am the District III director for SECO (Science Education Council of Ohio). These are just two platforms of many of which I’ve been given the opportunity to share. It starts with passion and mine is contagious. I’ve presented at the local, state, and national level. One of the units I’ve created is being developed by my NRL’s at the Ohio Department of Education. That unit is Save Lucy the Bat.

It started in the fall of 2015, I stumbled across Save Lucy the Bat, an interactive book online. This book is about White Nose Syndrome in little brown bats, a disease that is killing Ohio’s, and many others states, brown bat population. What we aimed to do was educate ourselves and others on this deadly disease and the impact it is having on the bat population. 98% of bats affected die. Without these creatures, our insect population isn’t controlled which can also affect our crops. With no natural predators, farmers have to rely on insecticides. Most kids and adults are scared of bats. The students looked past their fears and misconceptions and began to want to help.

My Passion
I have always had a fascination for bats. In the past my students have researched them, read about them, and spread the word to their friends and family that bats are more helpful than they are harmful. With the age of technology, I decided to try to Skype with an organization devoted to these furry little mammals. My intent was to educate my students on this fascinating creature.

The Save Lucy website is designed to allow children to explore bats and conservation by reading Lucy’s Story, then joining Lucy’s Club, where young users earn points by completing various conservation projects. This skype was the only motivation my students needed to connect to their learning. From that point on, my reading workshop centered around nonfiction text, writing persuasive paragraphs, and journaling on the behavior of bats after watching live bat cams. In Science I used Nearpod to introduce the design process building and designing bat houses. I then used a Green Screen App called Touchcast for the students to create videos sharing their persuasive writing.

The unit continues to grow each year. This past year’s class created slide shows to persuade others to help Save the Bats. This example is just one of many that shows the power of Blending Literature and Science Together with Technology. My advice, start small, learn from others, share your ideas and your passion. By reaching out to others I captured my passion and helped ignite the passion of fellow educators. What I’ve noticed the most is that my hard to reach students thrive when I approach literacy through Science. This isn’t a new concept, just a concept that needs to be find its place again in the educational culture today.

Show me the Evidence
My wise friend Char Shryock once told me if you can provide evidence of a child’s learning you are meeting the majority of the OTES indicators. This was my AHA moment! This strengthened my desire to integrate a blended learning approach that was evidence based. In her presentation on Evidence Centered Design, Char states that, “Evidence Centered Design can inform a deliberate and systematic approach to instruction that will help to ensure daily classroom work leads to all students meeting Ohio’s New Learning Standards.” In order to support claims, we must gather evidence–what can teachers point to, underline or highlight to show that students are making progress toward doing what we claim they can do? Blending learning using this focused engages students and enriches learning.

I believe I’ve shown you the evidence, I’ve shared my passion and my approach to learning. I hope this motivates you to take something you are passionate about and resurrect it. You can follow me on Twitter @StephNowak3 and I can be reached at Nowaks@Mentorschools.org. I have several of my projects on my Blog that you can read about to get ideas for integration into your own classroom. I believe in paying it forward so if you want assistance in any way please reach out!

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.

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.

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.