Monday, January 6, 2014

Who Owns the Learning?

I have a confession:  I may be a bit controlling at times.  I like to know what is going on and that things are getting done (correctly!).  In my defense, I say that I am just a "rule-follower".   When I entered the teaching world, I had no idea that I would need to throw my micro-managing ways out the window (well, at school... home is a different's a work in progress).   I learned quickly that I was not the one who should "own" the learning... It needed to be the kids.

When I reflect on my philosophy as an educator, one belief I come to time and again is the importance of teaching all students to own their learning.  When creating a classroom environment of independent learners, I have found that it is important to deliberately structure my instruction in a way that helps kids see themselves as learners.  I accomplish this by knowing my students well, teaching explicitly, backing off a bit (not acting like a control freak) and trusting the kids to do their job.  I do think this requires practice, setting clear expectations, and holding kids accountable. This way of instructing puts pressure on me, the teacher, to have a clear understanding of what my students need to move forward as learners.  Above all, it puts pressure on the learner, since I am not going to handhold and do their work for them; instead, my role is to coach them to become problem solvers, thinkers, and inquirers. 

Students Must See Themselves as Learners
If we expect our kids to "own their learning" we need to make sure they see themselves as learners.  When students have authentic learning opportunities and can connect importance to the experience they are interacting with, the learning becomes more meaningful.  This is why in Writing Workshop, writers should always know who their audience is and why student choice (in books and writing topics) is a must.  Learning should always have a purpose.  As teachers, it is our responsibility to offer rich learning experiences where students:
  • Witness an example of what is being taught (a model) - This needs to be explicit and we can't always make everything look "easy".  We should be teaching students not only deliberate reading or writing moves; but we also need to be offering tips and strategies to help readers and writers persevere when they come to trouble.  It is important to show our students what it looks like to struggle and how to problem solve.
  • Have time to practice with others, as well as independently - Learning is a social act, so it is critical that our kids are able to interact with their learning targets and one another.  Students can then see how others are putting the skills and strategies into action.  Students also need to feel comfortable trying the learning on their own.  For some, this can be a huge, uncomfortable risk.  Having visuals from when you modeled can be very helpful when students are reluctant to try something independently.  For example, in Reading Workshop, we may have created an anchor chart that provides "thinking stems" to get started.  In Writing Workshop, the class shared writing example could be available for students to model their own writing after.
  • Are given feedback - The feedback from teachers should be actionable.  When conferring with students, we should be able to identify what they are doing well and then offer tips to help them push their work to the next level. 
  • Set goals -  It is important that we teach kids how exactly to do this.  When a student sets a goal, it should be reachable within a reasonable amount of time.  Students will be more likely to buy into their goals and reflect on their goals when the timeframe is short.  Goals need to be specific and should have an action plan to go along with it. (Not: I want to read harder books. I will do this by reading more.).  For example, I have had students who love fiction reading, but struggle with nonfiction reading.  This student's goal may be: "My goal is to improve my understanding when reading nonfiction.  I will do this by selecting a topic I am interested in (ie: Pandas) and use boxes and bullets to categorize my stop and jots in my Reading Response Notebook."  
I am a believer in pushing all students from being passive learners to active and involved learners.  This way of teaching requires patience and trust.  We need to be patient and allow our students to make mistakes and try again (and not do the work for them).  We need to energize our class as readers and writers - showing our students that in order to grow, we must try new things and collaborate.  We have to trust that when we say, "off you go" after the mini lesson, that they will "go off and work".  This way of teaching puts the ownership of learning on the kids ... rather than on the teacher.. 

There are so many ways to build students who hold ownership of their learning... Comment and share your ideas :)

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Teaching the Reader... Not the Book: Preparing for a Small Reading Group

I am preparing for a book club with a small group of fourth grade boys.  We had selected the book, but I want to make sure that I am not teaching the book, but teaching the readers.  My preparation began with thinking about these boys as readers. I asked myself,
  • What skills do these two need in order to tackle more complex texts? 
  • What are these readers doing already that we can build upon?
  • How can I use what I know about text complexity in our small group lessons?
I began by reviewing and analyzing the students' running record assessments and recognized that both boys were reading at an instructional level Q.  I also noticed that a primary need was going to be comprehension (specifically: inferential understanding and elaborating using text evidence).  Below is what I noted first:

Strategy Group Focus:   Building Comprehension Skills to push through level Q

Student A Goal:  Comprehension (understanding unknown words and inferential understanding)

Student B Goal:  Comprehension (monitoring- slowing down and elaborating on inferential understanding)

Next, I brushed up the kinds of work that is called for when reading a level Q text.  As I reviewed this information, I had in mind the students' goals.  Here is what I figured I should cover to help push them to be independent at a level Q:

·  Identifying central problem in the story.
·  Synthesis: Asking ourselves, “What now does this text seem to be mostly about?”
·  It is okay to let go of our initial or first expectation as we read and fashion one that is more grounded in the text as it actually unrolls.
·  Think about why characters do what they do (“Another reason is…” / “Another part of this is…”)
·  Identify cause and effect – linking earlier parts to later parts
·  Keeping track and monitoring complex characters and their characteristics (ie: “Oh, there he goes again, acting…)
·  Monitoring our reading – (What we do when we stop and say, “huh?”
·  Figures of speech/metaphors/puns

Next, I read the book we had selected: Fourth Grade Rats by Jerry Spinelli.  As I read, I marked places that inspired thought and offered examples of level Q characteristics.  I hope to teach these readers how to effectively "stop and jot" so it isn't painful.  I plan on doing this through modeling and showing that when we jot an idea we can carry this idea throughout the text to see if questions are answered or links are made (between character reactions, character change, characters being impacted by the central idea or problem, finding evidence to support theories...)


I have a "loose" plan that I can use with these readers.  I created this plan (the teaching points) based on the above level Q characteristic list.  Though I will offer tips and lessons from the below plan, I will also be flexible and expect that I may not follow this "plan" precisely because the group's needs and reading behaviors will be what is driving my instruction.  This is why I am calling it my "loose" plan.  Because I know these students, I was able to anticipate their needs.  Here are a few of the lessons that I could uses with this small group:
  • Lesson 1: First chapters are usually jam-packed with information.  Readers absorb as much information as they can and pay close attention to some key features.  Readers make notes of these features:
    • The problems
      • Which ones are the most important?
      • Keep an eye out for evidence and problems that are reoccurring
    • Characters
      • How do they talk and interact … what does that say about their personality or the type of person he/she is?
      • Reactions to situations
      • Both main and supporting characters
      • Realizations (main) characters have
      • Identify and note parts that are confusing
  • Lesson 2:  Readers keep track and monitor complex characters and their characteristics
    • Noticing how the two characters contrast
    • Realizations and worries of characters (this links to problems/central ideas)
  • Lesson 3: Readers think about the problems in the story to help determine a central idea.  They hang on tight to this idea and see where it shows up in the story, how characters react to the problem, and how it changes characters.
  • Lesson 4: Readers monitor while they read and know when to stop and say, huh... Readers reread and think about what is going on in the story to make sense of confusing parts. (figures of speech, puns, metaphors)
  • Lesson 5: Readers are constantly thinking about why characters are doing what they are doing.  How does this link to the central idea or problem in this story?
  • Lesson 6: Readers analyze cause and effect in stories.  They link earlier parts of the text to later parts.
As I meet with the group, I will remain contentious to teach the readers and not the book.  My goal is to offer lessons and tips that they can utilize independently across any text as they move through tougher reading levels.