Planning for Classroom Shifts

by Ashli Breit & Cheryl Bledsoe, 6th Grade Teachers

While contemplating how to best meet the needs of students, we read Shift This: How to Implement Gradual Changes for Massive Impact in Your Classroom by Joy Kirr.  The ideas seem so simple, yet are far-reaching and exciting for the possibilities in the classroom.  Five small shifts were selected to begin the year: the Daily Question, virtual space, no homework (combined with choice boards) and feedback.  These shifts were incorporated into the plans, rooms were rearranged and syllabi have been updated.  Let the year begin!

The Daily Question will set the tone for the classroom: I am interested in you as a person and what you think matters.  Some of the questions are low investment (what is your favorite ice cream topping), while others ask the kids to be more introspective (Which do you think would be the hardest to live without: eyesight, hearing , smell?).  ‘What percentage (of your waking hours) did you spend outside this weekend?’ provides insight into who the student is outside the classroom, and ‘How many tries will you give yourself before you give up trying?’ provides a window into the work ethic being faced in the classroom.  This small shift will take minimal time as students enter the room, placing their magnet on the answer, but can have significant impact on relationships built within those four walls.

In a perfect classroom, students would have complete choice and voice in what they learn each day and how they learn it; in a world of high-stakes testing, this may merely seem a pipe dream, but it doesn’t have to be.  Homework and choice boards seem like a logical place to begin shifting our mindset about student learning.  As we prepare learners to be college and career ready, we must reflect on our own experiences in those realms.  When we walk out of a college class, professional development, staff meeting, project meeting, etc., we determine what we do from that point: file the information, explore the topic more, or study and ponder what we have heard.  Why have we been unable to allow students that same choice in their own learning?  Assigning no homework seems an easy step in that direction and is another small shift being implemented.  

Joy is right, “Everything is worth a second glance.” When I read the section in chapter 4 about creating/updating your class website, the only thought I had was ‘been there, done that’. We had made multiple classroom sites to put on our district page. Parents looked at them the first week of school and that was about it. I’m glad I didn’t stop reading because of my bad experiences in the past. Everything is worth a second glance, and we are very excited about the shift that Joy inspired in our classroom sites.

The main job of sites this year will be to help us communicate with our parents. We will be including our mission, curriculum, standards and videos just like Joy encouraged us to. Our hope is to allow students to be the curators of the class calendar and photo pages as the year progresses. Right now our sites are at the beginning stages. We have a lot to add, and I’m sure a lot to tweak, but we are hoping that this shift in the role of our classroom site will be a bridge between our classrooms and our parents.

Nightly reading (with reading logs) has been assigned 5 nights a week every week in our classrooms, but we had to consider the actual effect of this homework.  Too often, students were not completing the reading and it was frustrating to them and to us.  It was decided that we would give the students a choice to read and participate in the classroom reading challenge, or not to do so.  That being said, there are still required reading projects (student selected novel) every quarter and students are responsible for deciding when and how to accomplish the reading to complete those tasks.  This small shift gives students power over their learning, while modeling real-life skills such as time management and organization.  

Along with that, is more student choice in what they do in the classroom as well.  There are standards that must be taught and even a curriculum map to guide us, but within that map are multiple opportunities for students to complete work in a manner of their choosing.  Choice boards have been developed to guide the process in some areas, and Genius Hour will be used to tap student interests in a long-term project about a topic they select.  This inclusion of student choice fuels engagement, lets learners shine in areas we may not otherwise see, and gives them a unique voice in the classroom.

All throughout the last school year, we worked tirelessly to give our students feedback on their writing assignments. We stayed up late and got up early to make sure that every student had comments made on their assignment. We thought we were really helping our students. There were only two little problems with our strategy. One, students weren’t reading our comments. Two, some students didn’t understand the changes we were suggesting. We hadn’t built in the time to discuss our feedback with the students so that they could truly grow as writers.

After reading chapter 7 of Shift This, a light bulb went off. We weren’t giving quality feedback to our students. We thought we were, but we weren’t. Then, the brainstorming began. How can we make this shift? How can we give students feedback that is meaningful to them? We decided on a two-step plan. First, we will give students time to collaborate and give each other feedback. We will model what quality feedback can look look like and give our students feedback starters like Joy suggested. Second, we will build in small group time where we will give skill-directed feedback and allow time for students to work on making corrections. Our hope is that not only will these shifts make our students stronger writers, but they will show our students that we truly care about them and helping them through the writing process.

Change 8.13.17Change is hard, but can be very effective.  Is every shift going to make a positive difference?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Will there be stumbling blocks and adjustments?  Probably. But the shifts will certainly move the classroom in a direction that is engaging and productive for students.  We are excited for our shifted class to begin!


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.

One Simple Question

by Tricia Ebner

pablo-26One of the ongoing challenges we language arts teachers face is getting kids connected with the right books. Although we all dream of having a class filled with avid readers, the reality is we’ll always have students who struggle with reading, along with those students who are capable of reading but would rather do anything else. Sometimes these uninterested readers are my biggest challenge.

At the November 17-20 NCTE Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, I had the opportunity to attend a couple of panel discussions about middle school learners. Kylene Beers was part of these discussions. She used a very simple question as both an ice breaker and an example of an informal way we can get a glimpse into our students’ reading lives. She asked us to consider, and then share, the answer to this question:  “What is the title of the book that hooked you into reading?”

Posing this question to a roomful of English teachers is going to generate instant results; the conversations began immediately. Beers quieted us after a couple of minutes and then asked how many of us had named a book that was part of a series. A significant number of hands went up, and she began listing a number of popular series ranging from Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys to Harry Potter. Then she reminded us what research says about lifelong readers: at some point, lifelong readers got hooked into a series or two.

Hearing what fellow educators named was interesting, but it’s even more interesting to ask students. The answers to this question give us insight into our students and their reading. First, we can easily tell who has enjoyed a series. It also brings up happy memories, smiles, and warm feelings. After all, those who can answer this question usually have pretty distinctive memories of the experiences with that book; I distinctly remember sitting next to my mom on the couch while we read Little House in the Big Woods together. Asking, “Why did this book hook you into reading?” can also provide us with some insight into what the student looks for in a strong, memorable book. This can help us customize recommendations to those students.

We also learn quite a bit about our students who don’t have an answer to the question. First, of all, we need to recognize that the lack of an answer isn’t a “no, never.” It is a “not yet.” That child hasn’t been hooked into reading with a book–yet. As we begin to consider titles we might recommend to these students, we need to remember the power of the series books. If the right book for a student is a part of a series, we now have a few titles ready to go for the student. A resource like NoveList K-8 Plus (a database available through EBSCOhost) can also help us and our students as they consider titles they may want to read. It suggestions titles by using a system of “If you like this, then you might like . . .” Using tools like databases can help us more efficiently find the right book for those students who are still looking for their “hook me into reading” books.

In either case, knowing our students’ answers to the question “What book hooked you into reading?” provides us with important anecdotal information that can help us develop a more complete understanding of our students’ preferences, strengths, and needs as readers.

While asking “What book hooked you into reading?” is a perfect beginning-of-the-year question, there is no reason we can’t ask this question now. Consider asking your students to think about this and write about it as a warm-up activity for class. Sharing the responses with the library media specialist can also help him or her select books for book talks and recommendations. Gathering this information now can help us support our readers through the second half of the school year.  

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. 

Students Don’t Read at Home, So What Can I Do About It?

By: Lisa S. Bass, M.Ed, NBCT

Reading: What a wonderful way to open a world full of imagination, excitement, mystery, and fun! Reading is a favorite activity for me, but many students are not motivated to read at home. Many students decide that “reading is not for them” or that it is “not fun.” With so many distractions at home and outside school, motivating children to read outside the classroom is a huge task.

Research shows that the love of reading should be natural. This is not always the case for many students. They prefer listening to music, playing video games, texting, playing computer games, and interacting through social media.

I tried many solutions to help motivate my students to read at home. These young learners needed their intrinsic love for reading to be ignited! Hooking little readers into the creative world of reading was a challenge! I began my own research into why they weren’t as excited about reading as I was when I was their age.

First I realized they haven’t found the right book or type of book. I explain to my students that when I go to the library there are so many books that I am not interested in reading. They just aren’t my favorite genre or they are too long for my attention span. However, I explain that for every book I DON’T want to read, there may be a different book that I DO want to read. I am just pickier than some other readers. So, I encourage them to look at something new, different, exciting, and unique that they may not have considered reading. Suddenly there is a whole library full of books to be considered.

Next I examined students’ reading habits and thought about how I can “hook” students into realizing their own strengths in reading. I took pictures of them reading and guided them in examining their positive expressions on their faces. I Tweeted pictures of them reading various genres so their parents could see their reading success. I basically got them excited to see themselves reading and invited them to share this love of reading with their families.

Now finding the perfect place to read at home was the next challenge. I invited students to take pictures of comfy places at home: a quiet chair in the corner, a pillow and blanket curled up by the bed, grandma’s favorite rocking chair that is at home, the comfy couch by the lamp, the counter in the kitchen where dinner is being prepared, and any other creative location. Soon, students were sharing various locations and getting excited to read in the most creative, unique location in the house.

Students expressed a concern that they had “nobody to read with at home.” We solved this problem by lining up stuffed animals (We even asked for donations from others who had outgrown their stuffed animals.) and reading stories in the classroom to our new “reading buddy” animals. We practiced reading to the stuffed animals and taking them to our favorite reading spots in the classroom. The students’ love for reading aloud to the animals grew as they expanded their reading at home. They read to their stuffed animals before going to bed. They even recorded themselves reading to them and brought the recordings to school to play for the “class” stuffed animals. Suddenly those who had nobody to read to had a full audience!

Finally came the biggest challenge: “I don’t have time to read!” Creating a reading schedule with accountability (a reading calendar to be signed and returned for homework credit) helped solve this problem. This calendar was designed based on the student’s busy at-home life. Nights when soccer, dance, baseball, or other activities kept the students busy, reading in the car on the way to the events or on the bus after school was the solution for that day’s busy schedule. Other day, when time was more abundant, students made up the reading time they couldn’t get to on their busy nights. Somehow, with a more flexible schedule and unique accountability, more reading blossomed.

Be flexible, understanding, positive, and encouraging as motivating students to read at home. These solutions worked well for my students. Try some with yours, but remain understanding and creative when igniting the love for reading at home! Once the flame is lit, reading at home becomes a monumental moment that opens the doors for a lifetime of reading!