Friday, February 19, 2010

Goal Setting in Reader's and Writer's Workshop: Dublin Literacy Conference

In central Ohio there is a common language circulating among districts: The "I Can" Statement. I can statements are being added to course of study guides, classroom walls, and student work spaces. "I can get ideas for my writing." "I can write a story with a beginning, middle and end." "I can use periods at the end of my sentences." I can understand the thinking behind these statements. However, statements like these can lose their authenticity when they are prescribed by a course of study. Statements like these can lose their power when students are not the ones making them, but they are being posted on walls. Statements like these become overwhelming when they are written for every teeny tiny skill written in indicators, but not focused on bigger ideas of conceptual learning.

I can understand the thinking behind these statements. There is power in getting students to articulate their goals and work toward them. There is power in helping students to build an understanding of ideas in all subject areas. There is power in student ownership. In our classroom community, I find self-reflection, self-assessment, and goal setting to be a powerful way to shift learners. In our classroom talking about your strengths, your challenges, and setting your own goals is a part our learning across content areas.

Today at the 2010 Dublin Literacy Conference, Deb Frazier and I talked about the way we use self-assessment in our classroom to help our students have ownership in their learning. In our classrooms, students reflect on the key understandings we have been learning and write a goal for their learning. This goal shapes the instruction we plan for our whole class focus lessons, our small groups, and individual conferences. In our session, we shared the way we set goals with our students in our classrooms. We also discussed the way we use this information to plan our instruction across our workshops. Through student work samples we demonstrated the power goal setting provides in shifting students. Goal setting not only helps students to find purpose and direction in the work they do, but also gives them ownership of their learning. Thanks to everyone who attended our session.

I have attached a link to the powerpoint and documents we used.

Templates of the reading and writing goal sheets will be added 2/22/10

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Nurturing Self-Perceptions

"Children should leave school with a sense that if they act, and act strategically, they can accomplish their goals." Peter H. Johnston, Choice Words (p. 29)

Students were beginning their independent reading, milling about in the classroom looking for books as they settled to read. Our focus lesson about asking questions in our reading had just ended. Most students began the study with an understanding of when we ask questions, but were trying to figure out how it helped us as readers. Dan grabbed a basket of books about planets. Amanda grabbed a basket of Biscuit books as she loves the character. Winston and Sarah found their place at the author stand. I watched everyone getting settled and grabbed my notebook.

Quickly Alexa approached with a serious look on her face. (I think my students have learned this is the perfect time to "schedule" your own conference.) "Mrs. Mere, you are going to have to help me with my reading," she said matter-of-factly. "I'm not a very good reader." My heart sank to the floor and a sadness took over my body. These are words I never like to hear. What had I done to give her that perception? The really crazy thing was Alexa was a reader, a strong reader. The complexity of texts she had been reading since the beginning of the year had grown. She was reading a wide variety of books. She went to the library often. She talked about books from home she was reading with her family. She wasn't just a reader, she was a thinker. She seemed to have a positive attitude about reading. Until this moment...

"You are an amazing reader," I honestly replied. "What is giving you a hard time I asked?" regaining my senses and hoping their was an obvious explanation.

"I'm trying to read nonfiction," she replied as I let out a huge sigh of relief.

"What is making it hard?" I asked gaining confidence and feeling pleased that this reader actually had come against a common challenge for all readers.

"There are a lot of words I don't know," she explained with seriousness. I glanced to her table where a basket of books about matter for an upcoming science unit were waiting for her. In a small group discussion earlier in the week, Alexa had paused to reflect on a line about a bird who put his wings down when he was scared. She couldn't understand why he would put his wings down instead of waving them to get rid of the intruders. It was a good question, and one we couldn't answer. We decided none of us knew about birds enough to answer it. As I looked at Alexa's basket, I realized she did not yet have the background knowledge about matter to read the vocabulary in these books.

"Well, Alexa," I commented. "Nonfiction is sometimes tricky. When I read nonfiction I find a lot of new things I don't know a lot about. There are words I haven't heard before and the books are set up in a different way than my regular reading. Maybe you could use a post-it to mark the places you get confused with your questions."

Alexa looked relieved. Perhaps knowing all readers struggled with this problem from time to time was comforting. Perhaps having a strategy to tackle it helped.

Actually, Alexa had found a "problem" that would help our community to learn. Not only did she discover a time readers might ask questions, she also was paving our way to our nonfiction study which I knew was where we were headed. Oh, the opportunity. "You are going to love it, Alexa." I explained. "We're going to start talking about nonfiction soon. We'll learn some of the ways you can help yourself when you are reading these books. The fact that you are trying to read nonfiction shows what a smart reader you are."

Alexa seemed pleased with my answer. She seemed relieved to know her reading abilities were no longer in question. The conversation with Alexa grabbed me for a few reasons and reminded me of a few things I need to remember.

Nurture reader's self-perceptions: First of all, it reminded me how fragile young readers self-perceptions are. Alexa had been tackling lots of new reading, a sign of her ease of entry to the reading world, but this moment could have been a bump in the road for her.

Listen (and Ask Questions): So often I find a teachable moment in the comments of my students, if I take the time to listen. I also have to remind myself to ask questions instead of immediately jumping to conclusions and providing solutions.

Provide time to read: Alexa had time to choose her own books. One might argue if she had books I had selected this moment of doubt would not have even happened, but I would say without the opportunity to read Alexa wouldn't have learned that as readers we have new challenges in what we read. For these challenges, we have to develop new strategies.

Choice: Alexa's reading choice opened an opportunity for her learning.

Respond reader-to-reader: As a teacher, I have to remind myself not respond as a teacher, but instead to respond as a reader. "Yes, I know it can be hard. It's hard for me too."

Have varying levels of books available in your classroom: My matter basket probably could use some easier books. In any classroom the challenge of having just-right books for every reader is a given. Of even greater challenge, helping students to make appropriate choices. However, it is important to note, as a reader I choose books of varying challenges. I expect my readers to do the same.

Some of our best conferences aren't planned: It seems my best conferences in my workshops are those I did not plan, but instead those in which I took the time to pause to listen to a student. It's those short moments in time - perfectly timed - which have the greatest impact on our students.

As we come back to the carpet to share, Alexa tells the class about her challenge as a reader. She is teaching us today.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Learning Partnerships

"Communication is at the heart of child development, be it cognitive, social, emotional or behavioural.”
L.S. Vygotsky, (1978) Mind in Society, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA.

As I reflect on my career I realize some of the greatest shifts in my learning and understanding have been a result of some type of learning partnership. During Reading Recovery training, my teaching partner, Jen, was trained alongside me. It was helpful having someone reading assignments I was reading, practicing techniques I was trying, reflecting on student progress in the new ways I was learning. As I trained to be a literacy coach, it was my trainer, Max, whom continually pushed my thinking. He asked challenging questions, suggested thought-provoking reading, and taught me to use student work to make teaching decisions. When I was writing More Than Guided Reading it was my editor, Brenda, who kept me on track by reflecting thoughtfully on my writing, sending periodic articles/books about writing (and its challenges!), and helping to clarify my thinking. Currently my friend and teaching partner, Deb, is taking classes to complete her master's degree. I'm learning so much from the reading she is doing, the conversations she is having, and listening to her reflect on her teaching as she considers this new learning (and she's paying the bill!). All of these shared experiences offered opportunities to shape, and often reshape, my thinking.

Partnerships have been significant in my learning. Lately, I've been thinking about the importance of these partnerships for the students in my classroom as well. I originally began using learning partnerships at the beginning of the year to help students learn to talk together. I assign partners in the first days of school. These partners are together, most often, on the carpet when we are having read aloud, learning in focus lessons, and building community. Typically, partnerships are together for 3-6 weeks of school.

Time is spent teaching students to:
1. Turn "knee to knee" so you are facing your partner
2. Look at your partner when s/he is talking
3. Take turns speaking
4. Talk softly to keep from disturbing other partnerships
5. Body language basics
6. Acknowledge/Respect your partners thinking
7. Rephrase your partners words (I often ask students to share what their partner said instead of their own thinking.)
8. Asking questions to get your partner to tell more

It wasn't long until I knew these partnerships needed to go beyond the first days of school. When I consider the significant partnerships in my learning, I realize they most often are partnerships that were time intensive. These partnerships lasted for a significant period of time. In my classroom, keeping partnerships together for awhile usually has several positive results. First of all, I find my quieter students grow comfortable in time and share more as they build a learning relationship with their partner. Students get to know each other well resulting in new (stronger) friendships and a tighter community. Students learn to listen to one another instead of just "the teacher". It gives everyone an opportunity to synthesize learning, respond to questions, and think about new ideas. Most importantly, it balances the voices in our classroom.

Yesterday my class began asking about new partners. Their current partnership was established right before winter break. As I think about creating new pairs, here are some things I will consider:

What are my learning goals for the weeks ahead? In the weeks to come we will be learning to use our prior knowledge and the words of the author to infer meaning as we think about stories. We are also beginning a study of matter in physical science and conducting investigations. I would like partnerships to be able to work in both situations.

What personalities go well together? Typically, I pair quieter students with quieter students. I find these children are often more comfortable with someone who is not talking over top of them. I consider whom I've noticed working and playing together in other parts of our day, or match students I think might make a good team but haven't discovered one another yet.

How will I group students based on academic needs? In our classroom, it seems to work best to pair students heterogeneously. Typically I match my higher students with average to high average peers, and my students needing more support in learning with average friends. I place pairs needing more support near me so I can scaffold and monitor their learning closely.

Partnerships accomplish much in our classroom community across the day. Bumping up against the thinking of others makes us reconsider our opinions, our understandings, and opens the window to new experiences. Partnerships build communication skills by requiring students to articulate and support their understandings to their partner as well as the larger group. Partnerships allow students to discuss literature, support thinking, develop math concepts, conduct inquiries, but most of all they build lasting relationships which strengthen the fabric of our classroom.