Sunday, November 10, 2019

Conversations Around Research: Let's CrowdSource (Share What You Know)

Disclaimer:  Before you read this, please know this is my interpretation of what I heard.  While I will give credit to the people who made me consider this, my interpretation may not exactly match their true point.

Please comment to join the conversation:  What I most want from this post is for everyone to share who the researchers are they follow and what are the publications that help them to find good research?  Who are the people who read a lot of literacy research and share it (with citing not just synthesis....I want people who share their sources not just their opinions)?  I'm going to start with a little intro to take you to how I got to my questions, but most importantly I want your thinking around the questions I ask.  

This morning, I woke up early to watch (for the fourth time), What Research Really Says About the Teaching of Reading - and Why That Still Matters, which is still available to members of the International Reading Association.  The talk features literacy researchers P. David Pearson, Nell Duke, Sonia Cabell, and Gwendolyn McMillon.  (Thank you, ILA, for live-streaming during your conference and keeping this available to members.  I could go on for days about that, but I must move to point.)

First of all, I'm going to admit to being a huge fan of Nell Duke.  I first saw her at the National Reading Recovery Conference in Columbus, Ohio.  I've never seen anyone who could talk with such ease and clarity about research in a way that makes such sense to me (and to be able to throw in the occasional one-liner to make the audience laugh).  In that session, she shared seven studies with the audience for consideration in practice.  When I saw her name on a panel about research during the ILA Conference, I had to sign up.  I was not disappointed by Nell - or the group.

Let's be honest, it's a hot time in literacy.  I'm a little saddened by the this or that stance people are taking.  (To be clear, I don't think the "all this" or the "all that" camp is doing us any good.  Additionally, I was going to say educators but, let's be honest, it isn't always educators leading this charge.)  The truth is, we'd all be a lot better off if we could step back for a minute and ask ourselves what we could learn.  You see, none of this conversation is without a bit of truth.  Yet, the problem has always been that we tend to take a this or that approach to teaching young children when in truth it is a this AND that approach that matters.  I always wonder what we could learn from each other that would make the work we do with children better if we'd all sit down in the middle.  If there was one answer to teaching children to read, the debate would have ended long ago, but children are different and answers are complex.  (Sorry, stepping off my soapbox to get to my point.)

I'm going to simplify a few points made by Nell Duke as she talked about the research that I've taken to heart and the reason I am writing this post.

  1. Beware confirmation bias!  For me this means two things.  The first and most important is that I am aware of the bias I have in the teaching of literacy and listen carefully to alternate points.  I (We) must remain open to alternate points-of-view.  Additionally, I try to remind myself that often the person across from me has their own bias.  What are the ways to discuss important topics with someone who comes from a different point of view?
  2. Literacy teaching is complex.  Nell makes the analogy (that I won't do justice to here) that a doctor will tell you to eat healthy foods, exercise, reduce stress and get plenty of sleep in considering your wellness.  She won't just tell you one of those things (at 50.33).  What I especially like about this analogy is that I know my doctor would focus their attention on the part of my health I'm not being as attentive to each day while not letting me forget the others.  The same is true in our teaching of literacy.  
  3. Know the research.  "When it comes to thinking about evidence based practice...the best source for understanding what the evidence says is either the studies themselves...[or] people who regularly read research in research journals," reminds Nell Duke.  I've been trying to work on this for a bit now.  I want to know the research that supports my beliefs, but also to dig into the research of the ideas that bump up against what I know.  This, however, isn't easy.  As practitioners, we don't have access to many of the publications that researchers and scholars can access.
With that in mind, I'm going to share a few of the people I follow who seem to lead me to strong research and the publications that also push me in that direction.  I will be transparent about the cost of those publications.  

Researchers/Scholars/Educators I follow that lead me to the research:
  • Dr. Nell Duke:  Nell doesn't share as much as I wish she did, but she is quite thoughtful in the studies she shares.  Honestly, I still haven't figured out exactly what her belief system is as she seems to remain so unbiased in her work.  
  • Dr. Mary Howard:  It isn't hard to figure out the bias of Dr. Mary Howard; it's best practices for children.  She is transparent about this bias, but what I do love about what she shares is that she always takes you back to the research to support these beliefs.  I have found many great research sources thanks to a blog/article/podcast she has shared.  
  • Donalyn Miller:  Donalyn is all about getting books into the hands of readers.  However, she is also good about sharing the research that supports her beliefs.  I like to keep an eye on the locations of her sources as this often leads me to new research. 
  • Larry Ferlazzo:  Larry Felazzo posts several times a week (maybe every day?) and curates collections around important literacy topics.  I especially appreciate his work in supporting English language learners.  His posts often move me toward recent research.  
  • I tried really hard to get to 5, but I couldn't.  I have a few that could maybe go here, but they didn't seem to consistently take me to research.  Yikes!  I need to get busy finding these people.  
Who are the researchers/scholars/educators that continually lead you to research of evidence based literacy practices?  

Sites/Publications that lead me to research:
  • The Reading Teacher: ($$) This journal often shares articles that lead me to the research as most of the references given in articles of interest share more of the evidence behind the practice.
  • Reading Research Quarterly:  ($$)  More than other journals to which I subscribe, this one takes me closer to the actual research that was conducted.  The articles dig into the studies and give a bigger picture of the work that was done and the implications. 
  • Google Scholar:  Thank you, Nell Duke, for sharing this gathering space of research.  It's helped a bit.  
  • What Works Clearinghouse:  This is often one of the first stops in my search for evidence based practices in literacy.  
  • Again, four seems the number.  (I really prefer lists of 3, 5, 7, or 10....lol.)
My hope is that you will share the researchers/scholars/educators you follow who lead you to strong research (especially those that can do so without bias) and the sites/publications you follow.

My final wonder today is why it is so hard for practitioners to access research.  Perhaps one of you know the secret to accessing research without cost.  I have truly considered going back to our university to take a course so I can once again access research.  If I'm a teacher in the field, doesn't it make sense that I should be able to access this research with greater ease? 

I digress.  My purpose in writing this post is truly to start a conversation so while commenting is pretty out these days, I do hope you will leave a comment to share what you know.  That being said, this is not a space for this or that conversation so I will delete any comments that go into a rant about this or that.  I truly want to know the best people and places that share information with educators about the evidence based practices in the teaching of literacy.  

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Deadlines, Challenges, and Other Writing Truths

The deadline loomed.

That morning I awoke trying to find the article I would submit for our writing group.  It was to be submitted that evening.  I'd had two weeks to write the article (honestly more), but I had not produced a word.

Here I sat with a deadline and nothing.  I'd try rereading old pieces for revision, but none of them felt right.  I tried starting a few new pieces and none of them took off.

Of course, the challenge wasn't the deadline as much as it was the writing.  I know the problem.  I just haven't been writing as much as I usually do.

Writing is harder when I'm not writing regularly, I find.  I know this, but I have to keep reteaching myself this lesson.  Because calendars.  Because time.  Because work.  Because distraction.  Because excuses.

When I got home that evening, the clock was ticking toward the deadline.  I had to do something.

Tick, tock.  Tick, tock.  Tick, tock.

Once again, I wrestled through a few older articles I had in my drafts folder, but they just weren't going anywhere.  Finally I decided the clock was running out, I had to write about where my feet were right now.  I started a draft that was related to some work I was currently doing.  Still.  Every.  Word.  Was.  Hard.

That's the challenge of not writing regularly.  It's like exercise.  The less you do it, the harder it is.

I've sworn myself back to some regular writing, but I can't help but wonder about the writers in our classrooms.  Do they have the daily time to write?  Do they have the time to play in their words?  Do they have time to write the really bad stuff that hides the gems we can tease out?

When we aren't writing regularly, our young writers can struggle to get words onto a page.  If we aren't writing regularly, we can find ourselves trying to push them through their struggle by giving them graphic organizers and strict guidelines for pieces.  We can find ourselves wondering where their passion is in their writing, where the voice is hiding, why they struggle so much to write.

Time isn't the solution to strengthening our writing, but it certainly is the first required step.

I didn't quite make the deadline, but I wasn't far behind.  (Yeah, I need an occasional deadline to push myself forward.)

It did remind me that the best way to make writing easier is to write often.

So here I am.




Thursday, October 10, 2019

Three for Your Library: Be Brave

Some days we are our own worst enemies.  The messages we tell ourselves can be the very thing that holds us back.  Some days the most important thing we can do is show up.  How do we push ourselves through these hard days?  How do we stand up and step forward?

In our classrooms, we work to help our learners be fearless.  There's power in taking risks and pushing through the hard parts of our day.   These three titles will help students to find ways to be brave.


Brave Molly by Brooke Boynton-Hughes

If you love wordless picture books, you'll love Brave Molly.  The story begins as Molly is working to draw a picture of a shadowy figure.  Molly sees some kids outside and decides to go out to where they are.  The shadowy figure seems to follow her.  As she gets closer to the kids, they walk away.  The boy leaves a book behind.  Molly heads through the woods with the book in her backpack and the shadowy figure close behind.  Molly decides to be brave and push on.  Will she ever get rid of the shadow that follows her?

The Way You Might Use It:
Community Conversations:  Being brave, doing the right thing, taking care of one another and the power of friendship are all certainly topics of conversation this book might inspire.

Anchor Text:  We learn a lot about this character across the story.  Even though there are no words, there is plenty of room to talk about what this is like.  The book also provides some great opportunities to wonder together about what the shadow represents (or even if it is real), her motivation in getting the book to the boy, and how the author wanted us to feel (and the decisions made to accomplish that).

Mentor Text:  The author/illustrator moved between panels, single page illustrations, and double page spreads.  The panels are used to move us through time quickly.  The author/illustrated used changes in color to help create mood and portray the way the character might be feeling.  Young writers might find ways to try these craft moves in their own writing.



Brave Enough for Two by Jonathon Voss

Sometimes the best way to get through hard times is to have a friend by your side.  Olive likes the adventures in stories, but she doesn't feel brave enough to tackle these adventures in real life.  However, with Hoot by her side, Olive finds the strength to try things she finds a bit scary.  This story illustrates the way hard things can be easier with a friend by your side.

The Way You Might Use It
Community Conversations:  This book could help communities talk about the things that are hard for us to do or times we've been trying something a bit scary.  Kids have many experiences that require them to be brave such as learning to ride a bike, playing a new sport, or going into the basement to get something for their mom.  There is also some space to talk about how we can take care of each other and help our friends through the hard parts of our day from working on a hard math problem, digging into a science inquiry, or crossing the monkey bars for the first time.

Anchor Text:  This book would support conversations about how characters change across time.  It also demonstrates the way we can make inferences about characters based upon dialogue.

Mentor Text:  This cumulative text gives young authors ways to think about adding multiple events to a story to help illustrate a point and clarify the message.  The use of dialogue might also help young writers think through the ways the authors carefully select conversations that help us to learn more about the character.


When You Are Brave by Pat Zielow Miller and illustrated by Eliza Wheeler

Certainly kids today have many reasons they have to be brave.  In this story, the character's family is moving to a new place that seems far from where they had been.  The character is uneasy and feels very alone as she works to take a strong step forward.  In this book, the author shares some ways we can find our courage in the hardest of times.  While there is much to love about the story, the illustrations really call readers back again and again.

Community Conversations:  Students will be able to identify the times the author shares that we have to be brave.  Communities can begin a conversation about the way they work through hard times and find their courage.

Anchor Text:  You really can't have a book about being brave without having ways to talk about the character.  How do we know how the character feels?  What clues did the author and illustrator give us?

Mentor Text:  Young writers can have much conversation about the lead in this book.  The author uses repetitive stems to strengthen the message.  The author begins, "Some days when everything around you seems scary...you have to be brave.  Brave as....".  The author does this in other places in the book as well as uses changes in sentence length to change the pace of the reading.  How does this impact the message?  This book might inspire some brave writing.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Teaching for Independence: The Power of the Practice Page


Recently, I used a video example of a small group writing lesson during guided reading.  The students were writing about their reading during the lesson.  Each student had their own blank book to use when writing about reading.  Students began by rereading their last piece of writing, turned the page and started to write about the book they had just read with their teacher.  A lot happened in less than five minutes.  As the students wrote independently, the teacher supported each in writing.  It was a small group of children so the teacher was able to easily support each writer as they composed and wrote their short piece about their reading.

After watching the video, our group discussed ways we might make our students more independent in this guided writing situation.  What are the strategies we might teach these writers that they could carry into their independent writing?  We talked about wait time.  We talked about small changes in language and prompting.  We talked about ways we might help students to better self-monitor.

For me, using a practice page is one way to teach writers strategies they can carry into their independent writing.  Using a practice page is something I learned when teaching Reading Recovery years ago.  It gives students the opportunity to build high frequency word knowledge, develop knowledge of the way words work, and creates a space for writers to ____.

Here are three ways I like to use a practice page:
Practice High-Frequency Words:  High-frequency words do not follow typical spelling patterns which can make them tricky for students.  They are also words used often so I want students to know them well.  They need to be able to write them quickly as it frees up their attention for composition and the writing of other words.  When students write these words incorrectly in their writing, the practice page can be used to write the word correctly 3-5 times.  I ask students to write the word, then we cover it to see if they can write it without seeing it.



Elkonin Boxes:  When working with students in guided writing, they often come to words they haven't written before.  When I notice them having difficulty writing a new word, I can draw Elkonin boxes on the page to help them segment the sounds in the word.  In Elkonin boxes the child listens for the sounds that would be in each box.  There is a progression of teaching that gets students ready to use Elkonin boxes and ways to adjust them as students try to spell words of increasing difficulty.  I most like to use these when I see students trying to write a word that fits word features we have been learning.  (Here's a simple explanation of Elkonin boxes from Pioneer Valley.)



Try It:  Helping students to monitor their own writing helps them make faster gains.  Students often know when they are having difficulty writing a word.  I teach students to use the practice page when they are unsure how to write a word.  When a word seems tricky, writers go to the practice page and give it a try.  Students learn to try to the word three times when they are unsure of the spelling.  This is fascinating.  If I see the correct the word, I ask them to pick the one they think is right.  Most times they know.  If none of the attempts are correct, we work to figure out the word together.  This page can tell me a lot about what learners know about words.  A child who randomly attempts different spellings is of greater concern than one who seems to know which part of the word is causing challenge.






Small-Group Writing:  Steps for Success

Building Word Learning Routines

Sunday, September 15, 2019

More Lessons Learned: The Story IS Beyond the Numbers

A few weeks ago, we received an energy report from our electric company.  It wasn't great news.  It seems we are among the highest energy users on our road.  (You might have read, Lessons Learned:  Finding the Celebrations)

So what?  

That's what I found myself asking as I looked at the report, "So what?".  Yes, we apparently are among the highest energy users in our neighborhood, but every time I look at the report I honestly am a bit frustrated.  The report doesn't help me to know anything about why we are using so much energy.  There are three adults in the house, but that doesn't help me to figure out how much energy we are using.  Is it the air conditioner?  It is rather old and likely inefficient.  Our appliances?  Our hot water tank?  

There's really no way to improve our energy use without more information.  Is there a way to measure the usage of particular items using electricity?  Yes, we can keep our lights turned off a bit more, unplug cords not in use, and turn the thermostat a bit, but I doubt that will make much of a dent in our usage.  How do we know what to change to use less energy?  

As I reflect on the information sent from the electric company about our energy use, I can't help but think about the connections to education.  In our schools and classrooms we can easily be in the same place as we look at the assessment information we collect.  While numbers might help us to find big picture strengths and challenges or ask questions to help us learn more, they can also be a big "so what?" if we aren't willing to dig for the story beyond the numbers.  If we aren't careful we can let the numbers rule our decision making in a "sky is falling" kind of way.  However, if instead of just looking at the numbers we dig a bit deeper, we can make intentional decisions to support next steps for the learners in our classrooms.  

Here are a few ways to get beyond the "so what" of our beginning of the year assessment information:

  1. Look for Patterns:  I've always found it useful to collect assessment information on some kind of chart.  This allows me to take a quick glance across different parts of the information I have collected to see if I note any patterns across our class.  For example, in our benchmark reading assessment I can look at scores for within, beyond, and about comprehension to see if there is a pattern to strengths and challenges.  I can take a look across accuracy, self-correction and fluency scores to note any connections across students.
  2. Find the Story:  Once I have the general view of my students, I usually take a bit of time to sort the assessments into three piles:  strong, average, and needs support (to simplify).  For example, if I note a pattern in thinking beyond the text, I might take the assessments and look specifically at student responses in this part of the assessment.  I'm looking for the story:  the story of what they seem to have under control and what might help to strengthen their understanding. 
  3. Dig into Daily Learning:  As I listen to conversations in mini-lessons, work with small groups, and sit beside learners as I confer, I'm trying to dig more into the story.  What truths do I see that match what I learned from assessment?  What seems to be disconnected?  What are our next steps?  
I don't know how I'm going to figure out ways to improve our energy use.  I guess I'll look for articles that talk about typical energy wasters or dig to see if there is some way to measure usage of particular household items.  I'm not really sure the data sent by the electrical company does much to change the way we live.  Hopefully, in our classrooms, we can find ways to dig to get the story that IS beyond the numbers.


Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Three for Your Library: Books to Make You LOL

There are so many great picture books in the world these days.  Sometimes I read a book and wonder what kids will think of it.  There have been some pretty serious books published that are sure to inspire great conversation.  Of course, sometimes it's just fun to have a read aloud that makes everyone laugh.  I decided to check my collection for some books that are sure to make everyone laugh out loud.

Three Books to Make You Laugh

Let's be honest, just the title will have everyone laughing.  Poor Ballet Cat can't get Butter Bear to dance.  Every time Ballet Cat thinks Butter Bear is ready to dance something gets in the way.  Students will love the back and forth between these two characters --- and the real reason Butter Bear just can't dance.  


Bear Came Along by Richard T. Morris

This book will make a fun read aloud. Kids will love the way one thing leads to another in this story where Bear comes to the river and soon finds himself in one adventure after another. This circular text is sure to make everyone laugh as Bear and his friends find themselves in quite a predicament.


Brief Thief by Michael Escoffier and Kris Di Giancomo

This book was shared with me by one of literacy coaches, Andrea Waselko, and I can't believe I hadn't seen it.  It is hilarious!  Leon the Lizard takes a quick trip to the bathroom only to realize he doesn't have a toilet paper.  What's a lizard to do?  He finds some old underwear close by, but soon what he thinks is his "conscience" tells him to get those cleaned up.  You won't believe what happens next?  


Here are a few other favorite books to make them laugh.  Have a favorite?  Please share it in the comments.



Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Balancing Assessment in the First Weeks

The first six weeks of school are among my favorite.  It's the time we get to weave our communities together with strong thread to support our work across the year.  It's the time we can get to know each one of the children who walks through our door.  It's the time that we can celebrate what our learners already know.  It's a time to observe what makes each of them tick.

In the first six weeks of school, we start to learn what matters to each of our students.  We get to know their families and their preferences.  We also begin to get to know them as learners.  For me, I like to take the first two weeks to just get to know them.  I'm focused on relationship and building a strong community.  At the end of the two weeks, I often begin to take a look at spring assessment information for my students.  Then I like to spend the next weeks determining if students are in about the same place they ended the previous year, if they've continued to build on their learning across the summer, or if they might need a bit of support to get them back to where they ended the year (this doesn't usually take long).  In these first weeks, I work to help students become solid in what it is they know so we can use those foundational strengths to grow as the year continues.

The beginning of the year also brings time for more formal assessment.  Our districts often have assessments that are required for all students.  Additionally, we often have assessments we like to use alongside our daily observations to learn more information about what our learners know.  It becomes easy to look at the list of assessments and want to get them checked off.  It is during these first busy weeks that I push myself to keep THE WHY in front of assessments.  Over the years, I found some ways to help to manage assessment alongside the important first steps I want our community to take together.

Managing the Busyness of Assessment 
  • Weave Assessment into Our Workshop:  Learning to weave assessment into my workshop was a game changer for me.  In the first weeks, our learning community works to establish routines that will free us up to do important work.  While this is my priority, it is easy to weave a few assessments into each day's workshop.  For example, our district asks that we give our students Hearing and Recording Sounds in Words.  In most cases, this assessment takes 3-5 minutes with a student, but I can learn a lot sitting beside them.  After our writing workshop begins, I confer with a few students and as students settle into their writing, I stop by a few students to complete this assessment.  It's easy to move between assessing and conferring while still helping to set the tone for the work we will do in workshop.  
  • Plan:  It's easy to feel a bit overwhelmed by all that is to be done, but I've found that keeping my eye on the WHY and my focus on learning about my students helps.  Instead of feeling like I have to get all of the assessments done in a day, I plan out the time I will take to complete them.  For example, if I do about 3 Hearing and Recording Sounds in Words for four days a week, I can have my class done in two-three weeks.  The beauty of doing them in small numbers is I always feel like I learn so much about students if I take some time to digest the time sitting beside them.  
  • Start Where You're Curious:  Typically I begin with the students that make me curious.  Maybe I've noticed a child seems to have grown a lot over the summer or maybe I notice some disconnect between a child's reading and writing.  If I've started to notice some areas of concern for a student, I will often begin with them early in the assessment cycle so that I can use the information to begin lifting their learning immediately.  
  • Complete My Own Assessment:  It can be easy to allow support teams to complete assessments for me, but personally I always wanted to do my own assessments.  It helps me to better support my learners if I have done them myself.  Often my reading support teacher wanted to assess readers she was considering.  I could understand the necessity of this so I would let her complete the assessment, but I would often find a similar text do read with the student to get a true sense of their strengths and next steps.  
It can be hard to take a breath with so much on our to-do lists, but the more we slow down to get to know our students in those first six weeks of school the stronger the year seems to be.  As you look at all the assessments on your list, I hope you'll take a breath and begin a plan.  Give yourself grace to take the time to really get to know those new learners who will be counting on you.