Thursday, December 18, 2014


Enjoy this winter break, dear readers. It is most certain to be earned and is likely happening not a moment too soon. As a teacher I chatted with in the hallway said a few weeks ago, the weeks between Thanksgiving and winter break fly by, until the last two, when time stands absolutely still.

Take this time to recharge in your most favorite winter ways. Drink hot chocolate, read a book for pleasure, go ice skating, take a walk in the snow or build a snowman, listen to holiday music. Rest up and recharge.

See you in the new year!

Monday, December 8, 2014

disillusioned, the 2014 edition

There comes a point in almost every teacher's academic year where they begin to feel disillusioned. This is particularly true for novice teachers. It usually happens after the excitement of the beginning of the year wears off. Disillusionment is characterized by the stress that settles in after the beginning of the year flurry. You have likely been evaluated by your principal, made it through the first set of parent-teacher conferences, and might be struggling with aspects of your teaching that aren't going as you'd envisioned. Things seem different than you imagined them.

 It's important to acknowledge the way you feel, first and foremost. This doesn't mean that you don't enjoy teaching. It is a very common phase of teaching. Check out the New Teacher Center phases of new teachers for more info. Or, check out previous blog posts about this topic here, here, here, here, and here.

There are a lot of things you can do if and when you begin to feel this way. First, take care of yourself. Taking care of yourself makes you a better teacher. Get sleep, enjoy a night away from the gradebook with your spouse or children or friends or doggie. Exercise. Try a new healthy recipe. Watch videos of cats or the beaches in Bali. Spend some time every day thinking about what you are thankful for. Whatever it is that fills your soul, find a way to make it happen.

Then, focus on what might be contributing to your disillusionment. Next time you feel frustrated, write down things that are causing your frustration. From your list, think about what is in your control and is ongoing. What is one thing you can do to make a change in this factor? Think about ways to let go of those things that are not in your control.

The upcoming winter break can serve as a chance to reset - to gain some perspective, to refocus on the big goals for the academic year, to recharge with family and friends and fun.

What is your plan to get through the disillusionment? If you have experienced this before, what has helped you in the past?

Reference: Mendler, A. N. (2012). When teaching gets tough: Smart ways to reclaim your game. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Monday, December 1, 2014

teaching about Ferguson

Though the grand jury decision was announced a week ago, students still have questions and are working through their responses to Ferguson. Teachers and classrooms are often the safe spaces where conversations about controversial topics can happen. So, if your students want to talk about Ferguson, here are some resources to help you.
How have your students responded to the news in Ferguson? How have you facilitated discussions with your students about this, or other controversial topics?

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

formative feedback

In the best classrooms, grades are only one of many types of feedback provided to students.
― Douglas Reeves
Feedback. We know we need to provide thoughtful, thorough feedback to students in order for them to make progress in their learning goals.
The importance of feedback has been widely studied and documented. We all know from our own educational careers that feedback was important to us. It helped validate our work, identify strengths, and show us areas to continue to improve. Formative feedback is usually the most helpful, as it provides us with tools in the midst of learning rather than presenting achievement after learning. Time is a factor, of course, with providing feedback to students, and especially at this busy time of year, time is at a premium.

There are a number of places to look for suggestions to make formative feedback work for you. An article in Educational Leadership describes 7 keys to formative feedback. Edutopia has a link to some formative feedback ideas here. Here is a list of 10 tips to make formative feedback most effective. Across these articles, the keys are that effective feedback is practical and timely, and specific to the learners' needs and the learning targets. While this type of feedback is challenging, finding ways to incorporate specific feedback, rather than simply a "good job" at the top of a paper, can really help propel students' learning.

What are your favorite tips for providing formative feedback to students? What challenges do you face? Comment below with your thoughts and ideas!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

alternatives to withholding recess

“Those of you who did not finish your math homework
will be staying in from recess to complete the assignment.”

I’ll admit it – I was guilty of saying this. When I was teaching 5th grade, I occasionally had students who missed homework chronically. Managing missing and late homework is such a difficult aspect of teaching, and there were times when I felt I needed to hold students back from recess in order to finish this assignment or that.

American Academy of Pediatrics’ Policy Statement on The Crucial Role of Recess in School states:

Recess serves as a necessary break from the rigors of concentrated, academic challenges in the classroom. But equally important is the fact that safe and well-supervised recess offers cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits that may not be fully appreciated when a decision is made to diminish it. Recess is unique from, and a complement to, physical education—not a substitute for it. The American Academy of Pediatrics believes that recess is a crucial and necessary component of a child’s development and, as such, it should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons.

I realized that, after reflecting on why students were not completing homework, there were things I could do proactively to support students and avoid withholding recess. I made sure that students’ planners were updated with the homework, and had some positive consequences if they got their planner initialed by a parent each night. It might be the case that students forgot what was assigned by the time they got home, so having an accurately filled out planner was one step.

Because I was teaching in a self-contained classroom, I was able to adjust my schedule a bit to include 20 minutes in the day that was choice time for students that were caught up and homework make-up for those that were behind. This time was really valuable for students, so they were motivated to get their homework done so they could have choice time. I know that not all teachers can play around with the schedule, but it could work to have 20 min / week out of your teaching time work for this if missing homework is a big problem in your classes. It can allow you time to work in small groups or individually with students that might not be completing homework because they need additional instruction.

Now, if the misbehavior is during recess time itself, then the consequence of missing recess might make sense. But in the case of missing homework, this wouldn't seem like a good consequence. And as an educator writes in this Edutopia article, you can talk to the student. See what might be behind the missing work. But try to avoid withholding recess.

Thursday, October 16, 2014


It's hard to believe that it is already mid-Oct, and for those in Minnesota, that means it is MEA weekend. The Education Minnesota conference is going on today and tomorrow, and it provides teachers a chance to connect, learn, get some freebies, and have lunch for longer than 18 minutes with friends and colleagues. For others, this weekend is a chance to get away - one last fall weekend to the cabin. The chance to play with your children, read a book, knit, work on the yard or house projects that desperately need finishing before the winter. Whatever you do this weekend, take some time for yourself. Take a few minutes to do something YOU love to help you handle the stress of being a teacher. It is HARD WORK being a teacher, and you are pulled in many directions all at once. Sometimes we need a break.

While you're at it, perhaps you can develop some ways to handle the stress of teaching during the week too. Some teachers I talked to recently said they started to walk around the block at lunch. They ate their apples and yogurt on the go while chatting and getting some exercise. Since we all know how long the winters get, being able to get outside, even for 10 minutes, can boost our spirits and make us happier and more patient in the classroom. Maybe you could start noticing things your colleagues are doing well and write them a post-it note to leave in their mailbox. It might start a trend of positive feedback throughout your building. Maybe you want to learn about meditation and think a few minutes a day might help. Of course, there's an app for that. Or maybe, just maybe, you can ask for help. Think about what really stresses you out the most and ask for help.

Check out other posts about taking care of yourself here.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

what new teachers want

I was out at a school last week and ran into a new teacher. She said that of all the things she needed support on, she was currently struggling the most with grading. She wasn't sure about her expectations for student work and how to evaluate it. Was she on the same page as the other teachers at her grade level? This conversation reminded me of an article in Educational Leadership from a couple of years ago. The article, What New Teachers Want From Colleagues written by Deborah Bieler, shared themes from conversations with new teachers about what their experience colleagues could do to help support new teachers.

Bieler, in her conversations with new teachers, found that above all else, new teachers are looking for help with teaching ideas, curriculum questions, classroom management, and someone to observe and reflect with them. And, the idea that connected to my conversation, help with grading. Grading is something that many teachers get less practice with throughout their preparation, while they get lots of practice writing lessons and teaching lessons, but collecting assignments, evaluating them, and using them to plan future instruction is something many new teachers feel less confident about. Grading an assignment given by the new teacher or a common grade-level assignment together with an experienced colleague could help enlighten the goals of the school/grade/department and help the new teacher feel more confident in their grading.

So what does this all mean? Well, maybe you have a faculty mentor and you can ask them for some support in these areas. OR, you can request that some of your grade-level or department meetings be devoted to curriculum, management, and grading. If you don't feel confident yet having this conversation with the whole group, perhaps bringing it up with one colleague and asking them if this could be a focus for common planning time would be a good place to start.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Adopt A Classroom

New teachers know that setting up a classroom in your first year is challenging. You have fewer supplies and less access to instructional materials that a veteran teacher who has been saving materials for several (or many) years. But even veteran teachers spend up to $1000 of their own money every year on supplies for their classrooms. 

Adopt A Classroom, created in 1998, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with the mission to support teachers in need of supplies and instructional materials. This year, they are launching a new program specifically for first year teachers in the 7-county metro area. Eligible teachers who register with will automatically receive a minimum of $100 of funding for their classrooms. See the website to register your classroom and for more information. This is a great opportunity for some financial support for the needs of your students and your classroom!

Know someone who might want to donate to this great organization? All donations go directly to teachers, so supporters can know their donations are going to a great cause.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

team building

While the first day and week of school is great for getting to know you games and activities, this is work that can and should continue throughout the year. Building a community in the classroom takes time, and doesn't end after the first crazy week of school.

Below are some getting-to-know-you and team-building activities that you might try in your classroom, even though we're beyond the first week of school. Though you are waist-deep into curriculum now, you can make these fit your content needs so you can not only meet standards, but have fun getting to know your students too.

Time Capsule Activity: Have students divide a page into three columns. The first column can be "5 things I know already," the second can be, "5 things I wonder about," and the third can be, "5 things I hope to accomplish." Now that they've had some time to learn about grade X or your content, they're more likely to have informed "wonderings" and accomplishments to think about. Have students share with partners or small groups, and then keep these to hand back at the end of the year.

Snowball Fight: This is a more active version of the previous suggestion. Students draw 3 columns on a plain piece of white paper. In the first column they write what they are excited about, the second is for what they are nervous about, and the third is for something they want to learn. Students crumple their paper into a "snowball." Divide the class in half and students toss their snowballs to the opposite side of the room. Students take a snowball and try to find their partner.

I Am From:  One of my favorite getting-to-know-you activities is having students write "I Am From" poems based on George Ella Lyon's famous poem. There are templates out there to use, but I tend to like giving students freedom to really play with the style and make it their own. You can read about an example of teaching this poem structure here.

If You Build It: A classic problem-solving / team-building activity where students are given a set of materials and need to build a boat/castle/table in a given time period. Student teams can write about their process and then also write about what they would change for next time.

Worst-Case Scenario: Students are given a scenario (stranded on a deserted island, lost in wilderness) and come up with a plan in which everyone safely gets home. They can be limited to 5 items they have with them (and you can nix certain things like planes or time-machines :) Students can vote on the best solution.

I've written about building relationships here and here for "getting-to-know-you" activities. This is a year-long process, not one that is done the first week or month of school. I always love that I can learn new things about students the last week of school, that they can surprise me even then. Allow yourself that surprise and keep getting to know your students all throughout the year.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

keeping the students in the room

For those of you that are about to begin your first year of teaching, "back to school" doesn't quite capture the feelings you likely have. While you have experienced the beginning of a school year many many times yourself as a student, there isn't anything quite like your first year as a teacher.

Those of you who have 2 or 3 or 20 years experience, this time of year probably has that bittersweet excitement - mourning the end of summer just a bit, but also energized for a new year.

When I was first teaching, during back to school workshops and early in the school year I focused much of my time on making my classroom cute. I color coordinated and played around with just the right border on my bulletin boards, and perfected the stickers on the mailboxes and laminated everything in sight. But after a few years, I realized that it was really only me (and sometimes the parents) that noticed all this work. What did my students want to see in their classroom? Themselves. Ann Marie over at Choice Literacy came to the same realization, and figured out how to make her classroom more for her students than for herself.

This year, as you're decorating and organizing, keep doing the things that make you happy to be in that classroom. But also think about ways you can leave room for the most important people in that class - the students.

What are some ways you incorporate your students into the decorating and layout of your classroom?

Monday, August 4, 2014

guest blogger: mindframes

Rob Reetz is a Professional Learning Specialist for Mounds View Public Schools. He teaches Introduction to Education, General Methods/Classroom Management, and Foundations of Education for TC2. Rob also advises residents on the completion of their Portfolio of Effective Practice and manages TC2's Google platform. Rob has an Ed.S from the University of St. Thomas.
Within weeks, school doors will once again open to a rushing flood of eager students, wishing to reconnect after a beautiful summer. For them as well as their teachers, the first weeks of school are filled with optimism and excitement. There is perhaps no group more excited for learning to begin than that of first-year teachers. Despite being new to the school and profession, an experience similar to that of drinking from a fire hose, first-year teachers must immediately immerse themselves in a process of teaching and learning that includes:
  • the establishing of authentic and positive relationships with their students and colleagues
  • the creating of protocols and processes crucial to classroom management
  • the constructing/delivering of lessons that are engaging, measurable, and aligned to standards
  • the embedding of ‘assessments for learning’ intended to illuminate student understanding
  • the generating of a grading policy heavy on feedback that is fair, accurate, specific and timely.
  • the learning of how meet and exceed the needs of special learners

First year teachers should do all of these things and they should expect to fail. Hattie (2014) says of effective teachers that what they think is often more important than what they do. To maximize their effect, first year teachers, as well as their more experienced colleagues, must view hard tasks as worthy challenges, and failure, both their own and that of their students, as an invitation to grow.

To learn from mistakes and to ensure teachers are continually aware of their impact on students, Hattie (2012) writes that we must address the underlying mindframes that shape our thinking about teaching and learning. First year teachers who develop the ways of thinking outlined below are more likely to have a major and sustained impact on student learning.

Mindframes of teachers, school leaders and systems comes from Visible Learning for Teachers by John Hattie (2012):

Mindframe 1: Educators believe that their fundamental task is to evaluate the effect of their teaching on students’ learning.
The ultimate requirement of all new teachers is to develop the skill of evaluating the effect they have on their students’ learning. When teachers view their students’ results as a major indicator of their effectiveness, they are far more likely to alter their approach to teaching and learning when it’s clear students aren’t progressing.

Mindframe 2: Educators believe that success and failure in student learning is about what they as educators did or did not do.
Efficacy, a teacher’s belief in his/her ability to produce a desired result, is more crucial for learning than any instructional strategy. First year teachers must adopt the mindset that all students can learn and embrace the reciprocal relationship that exists between their effectiveness and students’ success or failure.

Mindframe 3: Educators should talk more about the learning than the teaching.
Many teachers, but especially those new to the profession, are not comfortable observing their students struggle. This often results in surface level learning, which is tantamount to giving a student water skis when they really require a snorkel. Teachers and their students need to become comfortable when learning is uncomfortable. Hattie (2012) writes that student achievement increases when teachers view learning through the eyes of students, and students begin to view themselves as their own teachers. The most effective teachers invest significant time learning from their students about what is working and what isn’t.

Mindframe 4: Educators see assessment as feedback about their impact.
Teachers new to the profession need to abandon many of their K12 learning experiences. Gone are the days of “gotcha” tests. Teachers must begin to view assessment results (both formative and summative) as a major indicator of their effectiveness. The most successful teachers wonder what they taught well and not-so-well, and more importantly, who they taught well and not-so-well.

Mindframe 5: Educators engage in dialogue, not monologue.
What are the characteristics of an effective learner? If words like quiet and compliant come to mind, you’re preparing students for a world of work that no longer exists. Effective learners are curious, persistent, determined, and selfaware. Unfortunately, most classrooms are dominated by teacher talk. First year teachers need to embrace their role as a listener they should listen to students’ ideas, questions, struggles and strategies for learning. They should promote student collaboration and teamwork and foster a classroom culture whereby students view error as a common component of the learning process and each other as learning resources.

Mindframe 6: Educators enjoy the challenge.

Learning is hard work. Students seek to know more about things for which they already have some surface level knowledge. However, the gap between what students know and what they are to learn has to be perceived by them as bridgeable. It is crucial that first year teachers have a strong sense for what comes next if they are to ensure the learning challenge for students is daunting but feasible.

Mindframe 7: Educators believe is is their role to develop positive relationships in classrooms and staff rooms.
Students learn as much for their teachers as they do from their teacher (Delpit, 2012). While it is important for first year teachers to develop warm relationships with all of their students, it is far more impactful to develop a culture of learning that embraces errors. Students have to feel comfortable taking risks or making mistakes in front of their peers. When it comes to learning, it is important for students to know it always okay where they’re at, it’s just never okay to stay there.

Mindframe 8: Educators inform families about the language of learning.
Effective school to home communication is crucial. Too often first year teachers rely on email to connect with parents. Phone calls home, both positive and negative, are far more likely to invite parents into the learning process. All parents wish for their children to experience academic success, but not all feel welcomed in schools or have schedules that permit them partner as much as they might like. First year teachers must avoid the tendency to makeup stories as to why a parent appears disengaged, and employ the same persistence they wish to impart upon their learners when or if communication home proves challenging.

Delpit, L. (2012). Multiplication is for White people: Raising expectations for other people’s
children. NY, NY: The New Press.

Hattie, J. (2012) Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. NY, NY: Routledge.

Hattie, J. & Yates, G. (2014) Visible learning and the science of how we learn. NY, NY: Routledge.

Monday, July 14, 2014

preparing to start

The most successful people I know got that way by ignoring the race to find the elusive, 
there's-only-one-and-no-one-has-found-it right answer, and instead had the guts to look 
at the infinite landscape of choices and pick a better problem instead.

- Seth Godin

When I first started teaching, every new situation I encountered seemed like a monumental problem to be solved. I was exhausted all the time from solving problems, most of which stemmed from just not knowing enough. I struggled to keep up with the pace of planning, instruction, assessment, reflection, planning, instruction... and balance committees and parents and find time to learn more about the areas in which I needed further professional development. I didn't know how to pick the better problem, because I did think there was one right answer and I was sure to mess it up. I know now, of course, that this is not true. And that even the solution to a problem one time is not likely to fix the situation the next time. So it is more important to spend energy on the big picture. 

Summer break is a wonderful time to reflect on the past year and plan for the future year. For teachers unsure where they will be teaching in the fall, the summer, though, can also be a time of anxiety. One thing that you can consider doing is joining one of the free MOOC (massive open online course) for new teachers through the New Teacher Center. The New Teacher Center is offering MOOCs designed specifically for new elementary and secondary teachers to provide them will some tools to start the year successfully. Each 4 week course starts July 21st, with an expected work load of 2-4 hrs/week. Not too much time involved, it's free, and it might be a way to channel any nervous energy for new teachers.

If you decide to try it, stop back and comment on this post to let us know how it went!

Monday, June 16, 2014

guest blogger: reflections on fieldwork

Guest Blogger: Kelsey Riesterer, Teacher candidate from the University of Minnesota, Student teacher at Earle Brown IB World School in Brooklyn Center, MN

As the year comes to a close and I finish the first half of my student teaching I am both happy and sad. I’m sad to be leaving wonderful fifth grade students that I have gotten to know well. Next year they will venture onto middle school and I look forward to them experiencing their next step. I am also happy to be able to meet a new bunch of kids in the fall. In the fall my cooperating teacher and I will be transferring to fourth grade. I’m excited to work with a new grade and experience the differences. 
I am worried about classroom discipline as I get to know the students and they get to know me. I will try to stay firm so the students know my expectations. If I need help I hope to be able to ask my fellow fourth grade teachers for guidance. I may make mistakes but I will take each day at a time. I will get to know each of my students so I can teach in a way that helps each student. 
I believe that my grade level professional learning community and International Baccalaureate meetings will be beneficial each week. Each week I can talk about what I have been teaching and receive feedback from the other teachers. I will reflect on this feedback and change my teaching and plans as necessary. I will use these meetings as important personal development. Each day I will reflect on my teaching with my cooperating teacher. During this I will be able to reflect on what went well and what didn’t. This will be important as I continue to work on my teaching skills. 
Overall I am incredibly excited to continue my student teaching, learn more each day, and help each student on their way to success.

Monday, June 9, 2014

coming to a close

Everything has to come to an end, sometime.
― L. Frank Baum, The Marvelous Land of Oz

For those of you dear readers in the midwest (a.k.a. the land of the polar vortex), many of you had your school years extended due to school closings for cold and snow. Those days were necessary at the time, but for many, those added days are challenging now that summer has finally descended. 

The end of a school year is frantic, busy, and bittersweet. I find the reflecting stage of the end of the year invigorating. Many teachers find that they have them most interesting ideas for improvement during the ending weeks of the year and through the summer. Make sure you have a place where you can keep track of your ideas and that they don't get lost in the hustle and bustle of end-of-year packing (and throughout the summer at home). 

This time of year can also be a bit disheartening. There's so much I didn't get accomplished! This can lead to new ideas, though, and you can't forget all that you did accomplish! 

Congratulations on the end of the 2013-2014 school year. For you first year teachers, this is a particularly momentous ending. But with that ending comes anticipation for the 2014-2015 school year. Just don't forget to enjoy a bit of summer before then!

I'll be continuing to post throughout the summer!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

student reflections on the year

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.
  - Soren Kierkegaard

Spring can be a particularly challenging time of the academic year. With testing and IEPs and professional development added on top of the regular curriculum (not to mention squirrely students), it can be hard to keep the big picture in mind. Taking some time at the end of the year to prompt students to reflect on their learning can help show them (and you) the big take-aways from the year. Not only can you find out what students found valuable, you can also see what might not have been prominent (that you wished was) and use this as a formative assessment in your planning for next year.

I'll be honest - here at St. Kate's where I teach preservice and inservice teachers, we love to reflect. We do it all the time. But as the opening quote indicates, the ability to understand our lives (teaching or otherwise) only really comes when we reflect on where we have been. So how can you do this with your P-12 students? Begin by asking students to reflect on what they've learned, how they've grown, and goals for continued learning.

Some blog posts with reflection prompts for students can be found here and here. I found this article from Choice Literacy a thoughtful one in thinking about planning for the end of the school year. And hey, while your students are reflecting, maybe you can do a little reflecting of your own.

Sunday, April 27, 2014


In the midst of testing season, it can feel as though the end of the year is right around the corner. In one way, it is. But most schools have 6 weeks remaining - valuable learning time - to the academic year.

One way to make this an even more valuable time is focusing students on their self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is someone's belief in their ability to succeed in a given situation. Many underachieving students do not believe they will be successful when facing tasks, and this lack of self-efficacy contributes to their ongoing struggles in school.

There are direct ways teachers can influence students' self-efficacy. Robert Marzano discusses seven phases for self-efficacy in an article in Educational Leadership.

The phases include helping your students reflect on the following questions:
  1. What do I want to accomplish?
  2. Who else has accomplished the same goal, and who will support me?
  3. What skills and resources will I need to accomplish my goal?
  4. What will I have to change about myself to achieve my goal?
  5. What is my plan for achieving my goal, and how hard will it be?
  6. What small steps can I take right now?
  7. How have I been doing, and what have I learned about myself?
Perhaps a focus on these phases can help support students in the finals days of the year. And as I reflect on these questions, I think I will go through this process myself to improve my teaching for the remainder of the year. These questions can be just as helpful in supporting teacher efficacy as in developing student self-efficacy.

How do you support your students' self-efficacy through the year?

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.

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!

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?