Friday, March 28, 2014

text-dependent questions

The last post was dedicated to the Close Reading (CCSS Reading Standard 1) of complex text (CCSS Standard 10), which is a way to teach students to read a text which enables them to do the work required in the CCSS Reading Standards 2-9.

But in order to maximize a close reading, teachers need to prepare complex, text-dependent questions for students to answer. Questions that ask students to go back to the text for the answer, rather than their prior knowledge or experiences. Questions that probe the deeper meaning of text, rather than move to questions beyond the text before the levels of meaning have been uncovered. Engage NY has a great video to introduce the idea of text-dependent questions. As in the last post, we have been so good at teaching text-to-self connections, we sometimes leave it at that for comprehension. Students are left thinking that comprehension comes from their prior knowledge and experiences, rather than an investigation of the text. We need students to get lots of practice answering questions that require them to go back to the text to respond.

But writing thoughtful, complex questions requires planning. The first step is really understanding the benchmarks for your grade level. These benchmarks provide the framework for the type of questions to ask. Focus on key ideas and details, then the craft and structure, and finally, the integration of ideas, just as the benchmarks are laid out. Achieve the Core has a great Guide to Creating Text Dependent Questions, as well as a Checklist for Evaluating Question Quality of your own questions or those that come with your published materials.

Something that ALL teachers need to keep in mind is that these standards, the CCSS, can be met in all classes. Close reading of text and text-dependent questions can be a part of any content area. Indeed, any class that relies on text of any sort can keep close reading and text-dependent questions in mind throughout planning.

Want to give suggestions for future topics for New Teacher Talk? Interested in participating in research around NTT and induction? Consider taking the brief survey found here.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

close reading

Anchor Standard for Reading #1: 
Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and 
make logical inferences from it; 
cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking 
to support conclusions drawn from the text. 

It seems as though everyone is talking about close reading these days. Though the CCSS (Common Core State Standards) have been in place in most states for about 4 years now, there is still a lot of unfamiliarity with the content of the standards. The CCSS are designed in a way that students need to closely read and reread (Anchor Standard 1) complex text (Anchor Standard 10) in order to achieve Standards 2-9. But what is "close reading" and how can (all) teachers support this important practice in their classrooms?

Defining Close Reading

There are a number of definitions of "close read" out there, but in general, it refers to the deep reading of complex text in order to understand key ideas and details, analyze text craft and structure, and evaluate the text in comparison with other texts through multiple readings and discussion. Basically, it is the reading that is necessary to meet the CCSS in Reading fiction and nonfiction texts.

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) defines close reading as the following:
Close, analytic reading stresses engaging with a text of sufficient complexity directly and examining meaning thoroughly and methodically, encouraging students to read and reread deliberately. Directing student attention on the text itself empowers students to understand the central ideas and key supporting details. It also enables students to reflect on the meanings of individual words and sentences; the order in which sentences unfold; and the development of ideas over the course of the text, which ultimately leads students to arrive at an understanding of the text as a whole. (PARCC, 2011, p. 7)
The movement toward close reading is somewhat in response to the pervasiveness of "making connections" in reading. Many times, the teaching of reading is dominated by asking students to connect personally to text in any way - sometimes in ways that are unrelated or irrelevant to the text - as the main means for understanding text. This isn't to say that making connections needs to go away, just that students need to be making connections as they read instead of through guidance with the teacher before or after reading. This is a time for students to dive into a text without a preview led by the teacher - students should preview the text on their own. If there is key information students need about the source or context, then teachers should include this information, but only if students can't get that information through the reading of the text.

When to Read Closely

Now, this practice is not intended to be used with every text students read. This type of reading could kill the love of reading in students if they were asked to closely read every piece of text they came across during a school day. Indeed, selection of text is key for this strategy. Not all texts are worthy of close reading. Close reading is not a good teaching tool when readers need to only getting the gist of a text, reading for pleasure, or for longer pieces of text.

For close reading activities, short pieces of text are best. The CCSS suggest using traditional literature - folktales, legends, myths, fables - as well as short stories, poetry, and scenes from plays as texts that lend themselves to close reading. Nonfiction recommendations include short articles, biographies, personal narratives, and primary-source materials, such as speeches, the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, or sayings from Poor Richard's Almanac. Appendix B of the Common Core State Standards includes many recommendations, including picture book suggestions that can be used with younger readers. As you can see, many types of text can be used for this, but the key is that it is short text that can be uncovered through multiple readings.

How to Teach Reading Closely
Once you've found a piece of shorty, meaty text, plan your close reading lesson. Lessons include:
  1. Multiple readings of a text (with a pencil) 
  2. Text-based questions and discussion that focuses on discrete elements of text  
  3. Discussion amongst students 
  4. Writing about the text
When encouraging students to annotate text, some key annotations include:
  1. Number the parts (or paragraphs) of the text.
  2. Circle important and/or unknown words
  3. Underline important parts/key details
  4. Note relevant connections to a portion of the text
  5. ?  Confusing parts
To prepare for this reading, teachers should read the text for important ideas and create text-dependent questions for students to answer. Teachers can then categorize the questions/information from the text into three levels: in the text (literal), things to think about and search for in the text (inferential), and thoughts connected to the text (generalizable/evaluative)

Here's an example of a guide for the multiple readings:

First read:
  • What does the text say?
    • Readers should focus on the essential (literal) meaning of the text, and be able to paraphrase the text. Summarizing and retell are the main strategies employed during this reading.
Second read:
  •  How does the text say it?
    •  Reading focuses on how the author communicates the message of the text (inferential). Strategies employed at this stage include identification of text structure and inference.
    • Nancy Boyles includes a really helpful chart for developing questions about craft in her article in Educational Leadership: Closing in on Close Reading.
Third reading:
  •  What does the text mean?
    • Readers now focus on an analysis (evaluation) of the text, including the author's purpose, drawing conclusions, comparing to other texts, and making connections to the text. Strategies readers might employ include determining theme, identifying author's purpose, and making text connections.
    • Some questions that might guide this analysis include:
      • What question is the author trying to answer?
      • What is the author's purpose in writing this text?
      • Is the author clear or vague and confusing?
      • Is the author precise in description?
      • What is the author's point of view?
      • What assumptions does the author make?
      • What information does the author include, or choose to leave out?
      • What does this text make you think of, or what does the author's message make you think of?
The key here, though, is that students need lots of explicit instruction in how to do a close read before they will likely be ready to engage in it on their own. MODEL everything, thinking aloud as you engage with text so that students can see the process. This will take time for students to be independent in the process.

For more information, here are a few sources:
Up Close with Close Reading
Close Reading and the CCSS
Grade 4 video example
Kindergarten video example 
Video from The Reading & Writing Project

Next time, we'll tackle text-dependent questions!

Want to give suggestions for future topics for New Teacher Talk? Interested in participating in research around NTT and induction? Consider taking the brief survey found here.

Monday, February 24, 2014

spring parent-teacher conferences

You're midway through the year and probably getting ready for the second round of parent-teacher conferences for the year. By now, you know your students well and have seen them grow as people and learners. There's still a lot of school year left, and you want to make the most of the precious few minutes you have with the families of your students.

Ahead of time, plan your main purpose/agenda for the conferences. Once this is set in your planning, prepare a note to go home for parents sharing the purpose and, of course, the dates/times. It will help have a smooth conference if there is a specific purpose in mind. I found it helpful to have a checklist of topics that I would cover in the conference that would help me and the parents stay on track. Those few minutes go by quickly! The checklist could include general impressions, progress in the academic area(s) of your class(es), assessment data, upcoming projects/assessments, strengths and areas of growth, goals for the students, and/or strategies that parents can support at home.

Preparation is critical here to help ensure that you communicate what you need to in order to help the students' progress in school. Make sure as you prepare your notes that you focus on things that can be changed, have a stance of learning from parents and working together for the good of the students, that you limit the concerns to a manageable number that can be addressed, and avoid edu-jargon when possible.

You can help make the conference go even more smoothly by preparing the parents. Have them come with some strengths and needs that they see at home. Ask them to write down their questions ahead of time, so they don't forget to ask something important.

In terms of the setting, try to have adult-sized chairs available, and avoid sitting at your desk if at all possible. Finding a more neutral spot in your room will help put parents at ease. Having some paper and pens available for parents to take notes is a great idea. I always had chocolate too.
When preparing for those conferences you might be nervous about because of student concerns in academics or behaviors, it helps to gather documentation about the concerns. This might include talking with other teachers. You will want to also think about action plans for these students, but start by inviting ideas from parents. And always start with a positive. This can set the conference off to a good start. There are more tips for preparing for conferences with parents who might be upset about something related to their child's school experience here. Learn as much as you can from parents about what has helped in the past.

At the end of the conference, settle on an action plan on which both the teacher and parents (and, if possible, student) can agree. You'll feel more prepared for the rest of the year with your students, and parents will know what they can do to support their student at home. Keeping the student at the center of the conference is key!

Monday, February 10, 2014

guest blogger: managing co-teaching

 Guest Blogger: Randy Johnson, PAR Consulting Teacher for St. Paul Public Schools
Who’s This Person in My Room? aka The Perils of Co-Teaching

For many districts, including mine, co-teaching is becoming a more and more common strategy to address both the need for less restrictive environments for students with special needs, and as a strategy to reduce the achievement gap for our students of color, particularly African American males. (The unfortunate data is, students of color are significantly over-represented in Special Education).

As a new teacher you may welcome the idea of having a colleague to bounce ideas, to provide “back up” when behaviors escalate, or to share the work of planning, presenting and grading student work.

On the other hand, you may also feel hesitant to have someone in your room, watching, and sometimes questioning, your methods. Your co-teacher may want to do things in a way that goes against your beliefs or style.

How can you develop a truly collaborative partnership where students benefit from both teachers’ perspectives, styles and areas of expertise? Early in the relationship, one beneficial activity to consider is a sit-down meeting to discuss what is important to you and to your partner.

Things to consider in this meeting could be:

  • What is a comfortable noise level for the classroom when students are working in groups?
  • What role do you want to play in the instruction of lessons?
  • When and where would you like to meet to plan our lessons?
  • How comfortable are you with changing the plan based on informal assessments in the classroom?
  • What are important expectations, rituals and routines you would like established in our class?
  • Who will address behavior concerns with our special education and general education students?
  • How will we share time delivering instruction, grading, connecting with parents?

The list could go on, but the idea should be clear:  just like any relationship, you need to know what each person brings to the partnership, where each of their strengths lie, and what each can do to enhance the classroom experience for students.  The General Education teacher is usually the content expert, knowing the standards and benchmarks inside and out. The Special Education teacher has a toolbox filled with approaches to make the curriculum accessible to more students through various differentiation strategies and behavior management systems.

Just playing it by ear can lead to a good deal of discomfort, as well as a less than optimal experience for you, your co-teacher, and especially the students.  As with most things in education, going slow at the beginning allows you to go faster throughout the year.

Friday, January 31, 2014

being a leader

As new teachers, sometimes you are called upon to be a leader. Whether or not you feel confident in this role, this sometimes happens. You may bring to your job some expertise from your preservice education, or if you are a second career teacher, experience from your previous work life. Teachers are leaders every day, both in and out of the classroom.

Teachers are leaders in multiple ways. They might be the go-to for resource ideas, perhaps they are an instructional leader in classroom management techniques. Maybe because you are the math or reading specialist, or got a STEM certificate, you are a curriculum specialist and can help others build content and curriculum knowledge. And often, new teachers are tapped for their energy and enthusiasm to lead committees and student groups, so you might serve on a building or district committee. Or perhaps you model life-long learning. All of these are important leadership roles for teachers.

There is a real need for teacher leaders these days. The shift to Common Core State Standards and, therefore, new state assessments, means a need for adjustments in curriculum, instruction, and assessment. But also, teachers know the daily concerns of P-12 teaching. And there is a need to problem-solve the current challenges that students, families, and teachers face. With changes in teacher evaluation and accountability, we need teacher voices at the table.

And one of the goals for education P-16 is to teach children & teens to become leaders. What makes a great leader? A previous post on critical thinking is a good start. Good leaders can think critically about problems. They "start with why." Lots of teachers and administrators are talking about the book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek and his corresponding TED talk. Education Week has many resources for teacher leaders with their Teacher Leader Network.

In what ways are you a teacher leader? What support and resources do you need to lead well? Share your

Saturday, January 25, 2014

planning a field trip

It's been a tough winter here in MN, with the bitter cold forcing school closings. This January weather has me dreaming of packing a bag, driving to the airport, and getting on the first flight anywhere warm. But in lieu of quitting your job and moving to South America, one way to mix up the learning in school is planning a field trip. For many new teachers, you go on the field trips that were already in place for the class or grade level. Maybe you're thinking ahead, though, for the end of the year or next year's field trip possibilities. Here are some things to keep in mind when you are planning.
  1. Find a group of teachers that might be interested in a field trip - this will lessen the burdens of planning and organizing the field trip, and can create a cool interdisciplinary or grade level learning experience for students.
  2. Scout out the possible field trip location. This will give you first-hand knowledge of the location and will help you plan instructional goals for the field trip. It will also help you prepare students for their experience.
  3. Instructional time is at a premium these days, so in order for a field trip to make sense for you and your students (and get approved), you will need to consider the educational learning goals that will be accomplished by the trip. Why this field trip? What will this accomplish that supports and extends curriculum goals?
  4. Determine what the costs will be for the field trip. This will be necessary for approval.
  5. Next is to get principal and/or superintendent/school board approval. This will hinge on having thoughtful goals and a trip that fits in the school/district's budget.
  6. Transportation - this is usually the most costly and difficult to arrange aspect of a field trip. Contact the bus or transit system (if city buses or light rail is an option) to find out the procedures to book transportation for the field trip.
  7. Secure chaperones. You will likely need parent volunteers for a successful field trip.
  8. You will be best served on field trip day by having a clear itinerary, something you can provide for students, transportation, and chaperones.
  9. Contact the school nurse in advance of the field trip. There may be medical needs of students in your class(es) that need to be considered and planned.
  10. Create a field trip file with emergency information, including:
    1. Contact for the school
    2. Cell phones of chaperones
    3. List of students who require medication/medical attention
    4. Site contact
    5. Class list
    6. Trip itinerary
  11. Then, prepare the students! Give them the information that they need to make the most of the experience. This may include teaching lessons, brainstorming, reading books, etc that build their background knowledge so that they are ready to learn as much as they can.
Field trips can be a wonderful addition to a curriculum. Though exhausting, the learning that happens can be powerful, and students gain new and deeper insights into the goals of the classroom.

What is your dream field trip? Where would you like to take students in the 2014-2015 school year?

Monday, December 30, 2013

guest post: renewal

 Guest blogger: Jehanne Beaton, Roosevelt High School, Minneapolis

Although it was more than two decades ago, I remember how desperate I was during those December weeks of my first year of teaching.  I just ached for a break.  I counted down to my two weeks away from school and teaching and my students.  My first teaching job landed me in a small, growing city on the opposite end of the country from home and family.  I didn’t know a soul there when I took the job, and it took me a while to develop friends.  Teaching consumed me.  I arrived at school hours before school started and, most days, stayed long after the students had left.  When I wasn’t at school, I was sitting in my miserable, basement studio apartment and grading stacks of middle school social studies assignments at a makeshift desk of a cardboard box covered with beach towels.  Like many young teachers, I had taken on additional work:  coaching, after school tutoring, chaperoning dances, and serving on multiple committees.  I enjoyed my students, but that didn’t mean they didn’t test me.  On the final Friday when the bell rang, signaling school’s two-week hiatus, I left my students’ papers in neat stacks in my classroom and sprinted to my car, driving three hours to the nearest airport.  I just couldn’t get home fast enough.

While away, I searched for ways to renew and sustain my energy and strength.  I reconnected with friends and loved ones, slept as much as my parents would let me, and read for pleasure, rather than out of responsibility.  And I came up with strategies to maintain my beliefs about teaching and kids and to remind myself why I became a teacher in the first place.   Since many of you may be in a similar situation of your own, I thought I’d share two that have served me well.

1.     Seek out your own teacher mentor.  Some districts have figured out that young teachers benefit from consistent and meaningful support from district and building mentors, and they have invested in hiring talented, thoughtful master teachers to serve as coaches and reinforcement.  Other districts, short on funds or foresight, may not.  When I was a young teacher, no such support structure existed at my school.  So I set about finding my own.   By winter break, I had a good sense of which veteran teachers in my building were held in high esteem.  (Ask your students who they believe are their best teachers, the teachers from whom they learn the most, whose classes they most want to attend.  They know and will tell you.)  Then, throwing any discomfort or anxiety out the window, I asked two teachers, one in my department and one who taught Spanish, if I could meet with each of them for lunch every so often to talk teaching.  Since that first year and in every school since, I have sought professional conversation and support from colleagues of my choice, most often teachers whom the students most admired and regarded most highly.  I have asked them to come and observe me teach during their prep time, or if they would give me feedback on a lesson or summative assessment.  By developing these informal mentoring relationships, you will support your own reflective practice and communicate your own growth mindset to your colleagues.  Further, it provides you with a trusted teacher friend who comes to know you and your work.  This person can be an invaluable resource for you in your early years of teaching.

2.     Create a “Why I Teach” Folder:  It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been at it:  every teacher has horrible days. Any teacher who says they don’t is a big, fat liar.  But for each teacher, we also have moments, hours, days that remind us why we entered into this work.  Maybe you’ve received a touching thank you letter from a student or parent.  Maybe one of your students has worked past the edges of their abilities and surpassed your – or even their own – expectations of themselves.  Maybe there’s this moment when you see the learning light up for a student, and they ask a speaker a question that shows you they’ve been listening, they’re thinking, the work you’re doing in class is sinking in….  These are artifacts to hang on to and place in your “Why I Teach” Folder.  I started my “Why I Teach” folder over winter break my first year of teaching.  Every year since then, I drop a few items into it.  It’s thick now, and some items are weathered and stained.  Every time I return to it, thumbing through its contents, I come away more deeply committed to teaching.  Your “Why I Teach” folder will become a place for reflection, contemplation and renewal too, especially when days are hard.  The next time you read some non-teacher newspaper editorialist bad-mouth our profession, or that student of yours, Joe Bagodonuts, has worked your last nerve, or the teacher next door has been condescending about your ‘new teacher ideas’, or you have too much to grade and lessons to write and it seems like you and your students are stuck:  dig out your “Why I Teach” folder.  Re-examine and remember the good of the work.  Of your work.  I can’t tell you how much it helps. 

These two weeks will bring a needed respite to everyone:  your colleagues, your students, even your principals. And it stands as a giant milestone in your first year of teaching:  you’re almost half way there. 

I wish you a wonderful break.  Enjoy every moment.  On your way back, whether it be a three hour drive back from an airport or just Sunday night, at your cardboard box of a desk, scrambling to get those assignments recorded in the gradebook and your lesson plan ironed out for Monday morning, ready yourself with these strategies as one more way to help take care of your professional self. 

Jehanne Beaton spent 14 years in the classroom as a secondary social studies teacher.  Currently, she works as a partnership liaison at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis and is working to complete her Ph.D in Teacher Education and Social Studies Education.