Monday, February 23, 2009

Entry Points: Matching Strategies to Content

In the past, teachers that teach subjects other than English have been a bit 'hesitant' to fully embrace teaching explicit reading strategies to their students for fear that it might take away from the content specific to their subjects. Many think that teaching reading strategies will slow down their pacing, or even overpower the themes and big ideas of their curriculum.

If executed properly, though, integrating specific reading strategies into the content areas should AUGMENT the curriculum, and in no way take away from it. And the benefits far outweigh the risks. Would a strengthened ability to read help a student to decode a word problem in math? Would it allow him more confidence in piecing together information on a DBQ in social studies? And would it aide her in making meaning from a complex lab report? The answers are all obviously yes, but we sometimes forget just how much reading plays a part in a student's success in all areas of an integrated curriculum.

Because of this reality, it can NOT just be up to the ELA teacher to teach reading. It is the onus of every teacher in a student's academic life to teach that student to read in very specific, strategic ways; ways that will help that student read through the lens of that content area. Do bioligists read differently from cartographers? Are journalists asked to navigate different texts than engineers? Of course! The only thing that reading has in common across all the differing areas of a curriculum is its direct impact on a student's relative success.

If reading is a necessity in each subject, and if each subject's reading is different, how can we make sure that the ENTRY POINTS we are accessing reading through fit the material and the nature of the subject? Since the teaching of reading is such a complex and dynamic process, we have to be ordered and precise in how we lead students through it. Introducing students to reading in science is going to look vastly different than it would in social studies. The same goes for the difference in student populations: low-performing students need different entry points, like phonics work and decoding, than do higher performing students, who might be ready to think about comprehension and metacognition.

So the question is, then, what are the most pressing needs of students in the different subjects we teach, when first learning how to read in them? How should they be led into this process?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Pre-reading strategy that works

When good readers pick up a text, even before they start reading they make predictions about the text. They automatically ask questions about what they are going to learn from the text and they think about what they already know about the topic of the text. Dependent readers do not have any of those skills which are a fundamental part of reading comprehension.

I've been experimenting recently with anticipation guides as means of scaffolding the pre-reading process. My experiment has taken place during my poetry unit. Before introducing a poem to the class I send my students a Google Form, which is an online survey tool, with a series of yes or no questions. For example, when we looked at Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven," I sent students a form asking if they had ever been home alone. I asked them if they believed in ghosts or if people could be haunted. Using the "show summary" function in Google Forms, I posted a pie chart of the student responses to each question immediately after administering the questionnaire. Next, I have students present the results of our anticipation guide by summing up the class's response to each yes or no anticipatory question. After we sum up the class feelings on each question I have students make a prediction about what the day's poem is going to be about.

The result of using Google Form driven anticipation guides is that students are forced to think about what the text is going to be about. Summarizing the results of an anticipation guide helps to structure the pre-reading discussion that takes place in my classroom. Students are then able to dive into a difficult poem with predictions about the poem in mind. Anticipation guides help structure many of the automatic thought processes that proficient readers use. This empowers dependent readers to more fully engage with a new text.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Schoolwide Reading Assessment System

Our Reading Task Force meetings have really evolved. I feel like the team has found a groove and when we are talking about "Reading @ 339," we are all talking about the same thing. Our visions have clearly aligned. Our work on the RTF has been amazing and a dream for me, personally. Although exciting and uplifting, I also have a nagging feeling that the RTF is still missing a big chunk of our Mission. The bump we keep tripping on seems to be our approach to Assessing Students' Reading Levels. We need to grab this thing by the horns so that we can really improve our chances of success. The "horns" of this beast are the Assessment Process, which we haven't developed completely or been able to sustain quite yet.

Schools that effectively increase student reading levels all gather comprehensive data. Without this data, our work becomes irrelevant and impossible to manage. Having said this, I think it is vital to our mission that we create a system which allows us to DRA all students 2 or 3 times a year. I think it is difficult to effectively increase anyone's reading growth if we are not actually tracking it.

Here are some suggestions:

I. We can give students an "appointment" time to meet in the cafeteria after school. There, a large group of teachers who feel comfortable or have been trained, can administer the DRA to students systematically. Within two or three weeks, we could have every students' reading level recorded.
II. We can create a similar schedule to DRA student's during AIS periods. Teacher of all content areas with an AIS period can be trained to administer the DRA. Perhaps 2-3 teachers per team would only need a week to complete the otherwise daunting task.
III. We can train teachers (all or a volunteering committee) how to DRA students using the latest and easiest version of Fountas and Pinnell's Reading Assessment.
- The new Fountas and Pinnell test that has been released is better than the older one we have in the building because
i. it's more accurate because it has more checkpoints (i.e. a benchmark book for every letter level unlike the older DRA)
ii. it's shorter
iii. the books are better
iv. it's easier to administer

I strongly believe the work we are doing in the RTF is invaluable and will change 339 drastically. With all teachers, regardless of content areas, thinking about how important reading is to our students' success, we will be successful. One of the next steps that the RTF must consider seriously is systematizing our assessment process and using all our resources to make it efficient and sustainable.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Is Test Prep Good Reading Instruction?

Our Test Prep Unit is quickly approaching. In the past I’ve struggled with this unit because it is dissimilar from a typical ELA unit of study in a number of respects. First, the culminating assessment is the New York State ELA test. Second, this unit is based on texts that many students find boring. Third, the unit falls at a tough time of year with a long break splitting it in half. The test prep unit remains a planning paradox for me because I don’t want to teach a new literacy skill each day. I’d much prefer to use quick daily assessments to gauge student strengths and drive future lessons.

This year I plan on trying something new. Instead of literacy skill based aims, I’m going to use test strategy aims. Also, I plan on walking my students through each part of the test. I want them to get practice with each of the multiple-choice questions they might see in January. To make the unit more engaging, I plan to put each lesson in the context of a Unit-long contest. Students will be divided into test-prep teams. The teams can earn points throughout the lesson based on the quality of their work.

I still have a number of lingering questions regarding test prep. First, is a stand-alone 4-week test prep unit necessary if good ELA instruction is happening throughout the rest of the year? What does effective test prep look like? How can we make test prep engaging?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Setting...then everything else.

In preparing for the 7th Grade ELA team's first session examining centers and differentiation, we tried to come up with a student-friendly reading aim that would be, at the same time, accessible enough to apply to a middle school classroom and rigorous enough to challenge adults to think critically and hold their engagement. What we settled on was looking at setting and its influence-- "How does a text's environment shape its characters?"

Once I started thinking about the implications of this question, I realized that there was probably no more important element of a story than the setting. All of the ways that the setting-- either the time, the place, or context of a story-- impacts the actual story are countless. (This also happens to be a GREAT way for readers to connect to what they're reading; by thinking about stories as life.

Even watching the news at night, a viewer (who is just a reader without a text!) is hard-pressed to get through one feature or news item without seeing setting's influence at work. When a group of auto workers lose their jobs in Michigan, it foreshadows the end of an era for American automakers. When terrorists attack a large Indian city, the world blames the regional religious conflict. The tie that binds these examples together? They would not make sense in other parts of the world, during other eras, or under different circumstances. It is their SETTING that not only allows them to happend, but almost makes them inevitable. Even our largest news story of the past couple of months, if not the past couple of years, the election of our nation's first African-American president, happens at a time when economic, societal, and political issues are all in perfect alignment for change.

So it is setting, then, and not plot, theme, character, mood, or any other element that really drives a story. The action, characters, message, and feeling a story engenders in a reader are all secondary to the overwhelming importance of where a story takes place, when it transpires, and the social elements that pave the way for it to be reality.

That is, at least, my opinion. What do you think?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Troubling data when explored turns promising

Today I gave my students a self-grading quiz using Google Forms. I wanted to see how well they understood the day’s aim, which was for students to be able to identify character motivation. The lesson was fairly straightforward. First, I introduced the concept of character motivation through a class discussion. We decided that a good definition for character motivation would be ‘why characters do the things they do.’ To practice, I asked students to find actions that the main character, Gilberto, took in the novel, The boy from Planet Nowhere and describe in writing what might have motivated him to take such actions. This part of the lesson went great, or so I thought.

After we read a chapter from The boy from Planet Nowhere the students took the self-grading quiz I had prepared for them. Sadly the class average was a 59%. As I looked over the results I became frustrated. How could such a great lesson yield such sub-par results?

Later, I had a moment to really look at the data. I noticed that question number 7 in particular did a good job of concretely testing student understanding of character motivation. It reads, “Which statement best describes why Gilberto signed up for drama class?” That is taken directly off a past ELA test. Two questions were not entirely related to the day’s objective and one question had a wording issue in the answer that may have negatively skewed the results. The good news is that 77% of the class answered question 7 correctly.

The lesson I’m going to draw from my classroom today is to plan assessments carefully. Today my assessment did not entirely measure my objective. I ended up with terrible quiz grades and a sinking feeling in my stomach that I am not as effective of a classroom teacher as I believed myself to be. In the future I will make sure all of my questions match my teaching points precisely. I will also be more careful when wording questions and answer choices.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Social Studies RE@Ding Posters

This is the second in the series of reading posters for the various subject areas. It would be good to have enough posters for teachers to be able to pick and choose from depending on what they're teaching at the time, and how much they like each poster.

Teacher Book Club

Another one of our next steps from our reading professional development day is to start a teacher book club. This cycle, five teachers have agreed to meet during their free time to share thoughts and discuss "When Kids Can't Read"by Kylene Beers.

We are all looking forward to improving our practice based on Beers' expertise. Beers writes about teaching explicit reading strategies to dependent adolescent readers as a means for increasing literacy proficiency.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Reading Posters for Science

One of our next steps after our school-wide reading PD was to develop subject-specific reading posters. To kick this off, we've produced some sample posters for science.