Sunday, 16 December 2012

Comfort Each Other With Dialogue

Like many of you, I've been in a daze since Saturday morning when I first woke up and learned about the tragedy in Newtown.  For me, this one hits close to home.  I grew up two towns away from Newtown, and as a kid, I often went there with my family to my mom's favorite garden center.  My daughter is a kindergartner, and watching her play with her friends at a birthday party on Saturday, I thought about the families of those "beautiful children" who won't ever have that opportunity again.  My wife and I are teachers, and as I learn about the heroic actions of the principal and teachers at Sandy Hook, I wonder if we would have the same courage given a similar set of circumstances.  Finally, I have mental illness in my family, and I'm disheartened that this remains a silent stigma in our culture.

While I don't pretend to have any answers nor am I trained to give any advice, I can't help but think how important dialogue is in the wake of this tragedy.  For at its core, dialogue is when we share our feelings and listen to others.  It is what makes us human.  It is what connects us.   It is what we need in the coming days and weeks ahead.

First and foremost, I'm having dialogue with those close to me.  I've been reading reports, checking my social network sites, following blogs, skyping with family members, and writing down my own thoughts and reflections.  In doing so, I've been able to grieve alongside others even though they are miles away.  I've sat down with my fourth grader to share the news with her and allow her to process it and ask questions before she hears about it from someone else.  In short, I've needed to share my feelings and listen to others.  

Next, I anticipate that communities in the US and around the globe will have more dialogue.  I'm sure they'll follow up on the latest safety and security measures, but I also hope that they'll discuss matters of the heart.   We need to ask ourselves questions such as these:  Is every child loved, cared for, or accepted in our community?  How can each one of us contribute to creating a welcoming and nurturing community for all?  How can we help those who seem disconnected or "remote?"   Doesn't being "safe" and "secure" begin with a sense of belonging?  As a community, we need to share our feelings and listen to others.  

Finally, I hope that there will be dialogue at the national level.  In recent years, politics has become more and more divisive, and it seems like politicians have spent more time drawing lines in the sand than sitting down to have the hard discussions.  Whether it's the fiscal cliff or gun control, the strength of our democracy depends on politicians being able to not only share their feelings, but also listen to each other so they can move toward creative problem solving. As members of a democracy, we also have a duty to share our feelings with them so that we are heard.

It comes as no surprise that on Friday night, on the very same day of the senseless shooting, hundreds of local residents gathered at places of worship to be together and comfort each other with dialogue.  We need to follow their lead by sharing our feelings and listening to those dear to us, to those in our community, and to those who represent us so that nothing like this ever happens again.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Workshop 2.0

Angry Birds, Doodle Jump, Shazam, Ocarina, Fruit Ninja.  Let’s face it, when we first heard these terms let alone the word "app," we didn’t quite know what to make of them.  Once we figured them out and how they work though, there was no stopping us.  Since then there have been well over 600,000 apps created and 10 billion downloads (see related video by Appiction).  

Those of you who download and use apps know that it's important to update your apps when possible.  After all, software developers work hard to get the kinks out and add nuanced features that increase the app's overall productivity.

Well, it's the same for teaching.  Our app is the classroom where we are the software developers who continually refine and tweak our craft all in the name of improving student learning.  While we've made tremendous progress in articulating and implementing a clear and coherent RLA curriculum through the Reading and Writing Workshop, it's time for an update.

Over the past few years, through our collective Professional Development and classroom experiences, we have come to define the workshop as the time where we explicitly teach a literacy skill through a range of strategies by modeling the thinking of a real reader or writer in real time and providing opportunities for students to try it out.  We have worked hard to structure our focused mini-lessons with meaningful connections, clear teaching points, time for student engagement, and closing links.  

With this framework firmly under our proverbial teaching belts, we can raise the level of our instruction with three additional key factors in mind:  transference, engagement, and the level of instruction.


Turning and talking to reflect on prior learning
Sometimes I forget that our students have been doing this for a while.  In fact, if they have been at SAS, they know all about the workshop before they even step into my classroom.  With the nature of new units and new mini-lessons though, I often forget to capitalize on their prior learning.

That's why when I begin my mini-lessons now with the connection and teaching point, I often ask my students, "What have you learned last week, during the last unit, or even last year that might help you with this next step?"  By listening in to their talk, I can quickly key into the connections they are making and consider any adjustments to my teaching points.

During the mini-lesson we can explicitly point out some transferable skills to our students as well.  When teaching the importance of word choice in poetry for example, we can recall a mini-lesson on word choice that we taught in our Personal Narrative unit.  

At the same time, we can craft an entire mini-lesson based on transference.  For example, if we just finish a unit on Personal Essay or Persuasive Writing, why not project a sample Literary Essay and ask, "What moves does a literary essay writer make that we just made in our previous work?"  In no time at all, students will generate the characteristics of this "new" genre.  
With this example and transference in mind, we may even reconsider our scope and sequences of units across the year.

Becky G. allowing time for reflection and partner share
before handing in a final assignment

We all know that engagement is a key factor in learning.  And while there is a specific time in a mini-lesson dedicated for students to try out some new moves, engagement should happen throughout the entire mini-lesson.

As in the example above, students are more engaged when they turn and talk to their partner about what they already know about a topic.  Here are some other ideas to keep students focused and engaged throughout the mini-lesson:

  • Students give thumbs up or thumbs down.
  • Students vote with five fingers.
  • Students write down three tips on a sticky note.
  • Teacher gives direct and pointed instruction/feedback:  
    • "Do it now!" 
    • "Eyes on me."
    • "I see _____ has written four lines already."
  • Teacher/Students point to poster.
  • Students repeat a gesture.
  • Students repeat a phrase/chant like "Snap, crackle, pop!"
Another way to raise the level of engagement is to tap into the social and intellectual power of partnerships.  When students talk with their partners, there is 100% participation every time. An added bonus is that we can use that time to listen in and hear what is actually sinking in.

A final consideration in terms of engagement has to do with pacing.  As a recovering maxi-lesson teacher, I often keep the timer on my phone running so I can see how long my lessons are going.  I try to keep track of how long my teaching takes and remind myself that I want them to spend their time doing the work not just listening to someone else talking about it or doing it himself.

Level of Instruction

The whole point of a mini-lesson is to move readers and writers forward.  Simply put, students need to become better because of it.  The challenge is that we teach to a range of abilities in any given class. 
To ensure that every student is challenged, we can think of the skills and strategies we teach on a continuum (good tools for this are the Common Core Standards and Teacher's College Continuums for Narrative Writing and Opinion/Argument Writing).  When planning, we need to determine what each skill looks like at the lower and higher levels.  We need to draw from mentor texts that show this in action, and we can pull them out and teach to them directly either in small groups or one-on-one.

As teachers of writing, we should also write through the different levels of a genre.  Recently, I rewrote my personal essay at the four different levels (Below, Approaching, Meets and Exemplary) to determine exactly what each level might look like.  An added benefit was that I was able to pull out a certain level and have students articulate what they need to reach the next level.

The interesting thing about transference, engagement, and level of instruction is that they go hand-in-hand.  In other words, students are more engaged when they are appropriately challenged, and when they are, they are more likely to transfer new skills over time.  

It's the same for us teachers as well.  Through our PLC work, we stay engaged by transferring teaching strategies that work, and in turn, we continually improve the level of instruction.  In fact, when I think about the way I used to teach, I'm sure glad that I've had continual updates along the way.  I know it won't be the last one, but for now, I feel reassured that I'm doing my best to get the kinks out and teach more productively.

  • "Writing Curriculum and the Common Core," Mary Ehrenworth.  Oct. 2012.  New York.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

The Coaches Clinic

"Now your bottom hand is the lower jaw of the shark," Coach Oscar yelled to the players as he crouched down and thrust out his left arm.  "The other hand is the upper jaw of the shark.  And when the ball comes towards you, the shark gets hungry."  A player threw a grounder towards Coach Oscar, and he clamped his hands together to grab the ball.  "Is that clear?" Coach Oscar asked.

I looked down the row of players and saw my daughter, Isabelle, and the others nodding.  In minutes, they were all crouching low and snatching up the grounders, and in that moment, the players attending the 2nd-4th Grade Baseball Clinic had become a sea of hungry sharks.

With each skill, Coach Oscar broke it down into a series of moves.   He used metaphors and connections like a hungry shark so that the kids could grasp the concepts more effectively.  He related everything he was doing to what the major league players do, and most importantly, he gave the students lots of time to practice.  

One thing was clear.  The kids were getting it.  In a matter of minutes, they were throwing the ball infinitely better than they had at the beginning.  The key to their success was that Coach Oscar was enabling them to learn by doing.  After showing them (I do), he walked around as they practiced and gave further instructions if needed (We do).  Soon enough, they were all doing it on their own (You do).

As I was watching Isabelle and the other players learn basic skills in throwing, fielding and batting in their Baseball Clinic, I couldn't help but think, where was this coach when I was a kid.  After all these years, I was finally learning how to throw a baseball.  I was also thinking that what I was watching was a form of a Reading and Writing Workshop.  

The idea of the workshop as a clinic isn't a new one.  In fact, just the other week, Sara Holbrook and Michael Salinger, our recent resident poets in 8th grade, referred to their workshops in the classroom as clinics, and now I was realizing exactly why they use that term.

The metaphor of a clinic shouldn't just stop there though.  If our time in the classroom is like a Reading and Writing Clinic for our students, our PLC work together is the Coaches Clinic.  This is when we share our own moves as professionals.  It gives us time to map out essential skills of a unit and plan how we can best assess them.  It gives us a chance to "watch the tapes" of our players after the fact and see what worked and what didn't. And it gives us the opportunity

Over Thanksgiving, a group of 25 SAS teachers and I headed to Siem Reap, Cambodia, to conduct our own Coaches' Clinics with our Cambodian counterparts from the Caring for Cambodia schools.  The focus for this year's teacher training trip was science (thank goodness for Jemma H. as I was literally and figuratively out of my element).  For two days, we met teams of teachers to discuss the content, try out some experiments, and explore effective teaching strategies. 

We used the same methods for effective teaching  (I do/We do/You do) that Coach Oscar used in his clinic, and by the third day, the teachers were ready to try the lessons out in their classrooms.  

As we traveled to the five schools on that day, we were amazed at how quickly the teachers had picked up some key concepts such as having students work in groups and letting them do the experiment.  And instead of the teachers always giving the answers, they asked questions and elicited responses from the students.  All this with classes of 50 plus students.

When we arrived at the last school, we noticed right away that the teacher had taken our experiment of mixing water with different solids and liquids and made it better.  Instead of having each group mix all of the substances with water, she had the groups do one each and then compare results across the class.  What did was exactly what we do in our work.  We learn from each other by taking good practices and techniques and making them in our own in the classroom.  

As I get ready for another week in the classroom and look forward to another Coaches Clinic with my PLC, I'm reminded of the following essentials:
  • Teach effectively by breaking the skills down into manageable steps, connecting new learning to prior knowledge or frameworks (the hungry shark), and aIlowing for lots of practice (I do/You do/We do) and timely feedback.
  • View PLCs as a time for me to learn.  I can pick up tips and strategies from my colleagues, and I can gain greater insight from our collective experiences.
  • Know my students as best as I can so that I can help them individually and ensure successful lessons for the entire class as a whole.