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.

The Power of Good Questioning

by Tricia Ebner, NBCT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Resources in Action: NewsELA and Analyzing Arguments

by Tricia Ebner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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