My Journey As A Literacy Teacher

In January, we had an in-service day at school. During the morning staff meeting, teachers were tasked with creating an exhibit that would communicate “Who We Are,” as literacy teachers. I decided that my theme would be my ongoing journey as a literacy teacher.

As I sorted through possible artifacts on hand in my classroom, I considered what has shaped and continues to shape my journey as a literacy teacher. I quickly realized that it is the questions that are always at the wheel, driving my interest and development.

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Mapping my questions.

I mapped my questions on the white paper you see in my final exhibit. Next I linked them to concepts and resources that drove my inquiries into each question.

I noticed that my questions evolve as I progress through my career. The first question was posed 20 years ago when I first began working with young readers and writers.

My Questions:

  • How best can I teach reading and writing?
  • What does the research tell me about language and literacy development?
  • How am I providing access to students for whom English is not their mother tongue?
  • How am I providing access for students with different abilities?
  • What is the role of language in my student’s identities? How does language instruction in my classroom affect this?
  • How do the frameworks, philosophy, and practices that have worked for me (and countless others) fit in with the philosophy and framework of the PYP?
  • What am I doing to ensure that my students have equitable access to the learning at our school? In our grade?
  • How best can our school support a consistent and coherent experience for our students given their transient nature as well as that of the faculty?

My Exhibit:

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Artifacts in “My Journey As A Literacy Teacher.”

My artifacts included student work, some favorite mentor texts, recent professional reads and some old standards that I always have on hand. The exhibit is certainly not complete. Many of my professional texts and mentor texts are personal property and stored at home. The absence of some of my own mentors is conspicuous and had they been on hand, Lucy Caulkins, H. Lynn Erickson, Ralph Fletcher, Carl Anderson, and countless students who have taught me so much, would also have been represented.

What are the questions that have shaped your journey so far? Who are your gurus?

Collaboratively Constructing An Assessment Using GAFE

I am a firm believer in collaboratively constructing assessment criteria with students in order to determine what has been learned. I also know from experience that the process of creating, reviewing, revising, and applying criteria with fourth-graders can be a lengthy process. It is also one which can lose effectiveness if we don’t maintain momentum. We need time to discuss, chart ideas, categorize, test-through-application, and revise our criteria. This year, as I prepared for 4JR’s first collaboratively constructed assessment, I decided to try using Google Apps For Education-GAFE.

Using Google Docs To Chart and Draft Criteria:

As my fourth-grade class neared a stopping point in our nonfiction and research unit, we started discussing how we would know what we learned. The students knew throughout the unit that they would do a post-unit assessment. They expected to evaluate what they took away from the unit and what might need to be reviewed or extended in a later unit.  When it came time to discuss criteria, I gathered the students together in front of our SMART board and asked:

Original Assessment on Google Doc

I set up the google doc prior to the lesson. As we discussed the criteria, an assessment tool was born. Where there was confusion, we discussed what could be observed to know if a researcher had met the criteria. These discussions were captured in the third column.

I originally planned to categorize the criteria at this time, but as we continued the discussion, I sensed they needed to work with the criteria first. I decided it was enough to generate criteria and discuss how we would know for now and to come back to categorizing later.

The students first applied the criteria to the post-assessment they had completed the day before. Once we had our working document, I immediately pushed the doc out to them using our Google Classroom and sent them off to assess their research skills and behaviors with their reading partners. Here are a few samples of what I got back:

Student Assessment Using Google Classroom and Google Docs
Student: KN

Student Assessment Via Google Classroom and Google Docs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After actually applying the assessment to their own work, evidence emerged on what students were doing as researchers. It also became evident which criteria students understood enough to discuss in detail when applied to their own work.

Ready to Revise:
Revised Assessment Using A Google Doc
The “final” tool, complete with categories.

We reconvened at the end of the session. At that point, I felt the students were ready to consider how we might organize our criteria. I asked them if any of our criteria could be categorized into groups. We use Project Zero’s Visible Thinking routine, “Generate, Sort, Connect, Elaborate,” often in our community, so this was a fairly accessible question. The students discussed how we could reorganize our criteria and we ended up with a “final” tool for future use. The students can now access this rubric at any time using our Google Classroom.

Reflections:
Use comment feature on google docs to make assessment clearer
Using comments to annotate the discussion leaves the reflection boxes open for student’s individual reflection. Next time, I want to record the initial discussion about how the criteria might be observable in comments, instead of in the green column. I think that will make it clearer to my students that they should back up their assessment of their own work with evidence.

This lesson took just under 90 minutes. Some students did not make it all the way through the criteria when they were self-assessing but I was confident that they’d had enough interaction with the criteria and tool to discuss the categorizing and other possible revisions. Those students finished their individual assessments at home that evening for homework.

I will definitely use this process in the future.  As the students become ready to evaluate themselves in more depth, we can move into more of a rubric than a checklist-with-explanation.

Classroom Libraries: What’s in there and why?

 

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Some of our nonfiction collection.

How Do We Decide What Goes In Our Classroom Libraries?

My classroom library is a vital part of the classroom culture.  I spend as much time and thought curating my library as I do setting up my room and planning units. I know that a classroom library can inspire imagination and ignite reading lives but it can also deter readers and dampen enthusiasm. Making sure that our classroom library is a place kids want to spend time is crucial. Here are some of the ways I inform the selection of books on hand for my fourth graders:

  • I focus heavily on series and authors. Experience has taught me that if a reader, especially a reluctant reader, can get into one book in one series, they’ll continue reading and actually benefit from the support of the structure and familiarity of the series. Automatic scaffolding. Win-Win!

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    Stand of series and author collections
  • I consider genre, making sure I have a balance of fiction and nonfiction and a good variety of each.
  • I keep track of what’s hot. Right now fantasy and sci-fi are in with both boys and girls. Fairies used to be a female favorite but now they are so three years ago. I hadn’t seen much interest in straight-up adventure (no magic or post-apocalyptic civilizations) in the past few years but see that it is starting to make a comeback.
  • I consider hot topics for nonfiction. Cars, soccer (European), jewelry-making and ancient civilizations are big right now. The usual animals also have a strong showing.
  • I consider my curriculum and am always on the
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    Unit-related collections. Some stay out all year, some are introduced later in the year and some are put away after a period of time.

     lookout for titles that support my units AND are appropriate for my readers. That last bit can be tricky.

  • I troll teacher blogs and book lists more than I troll facebook. Donalynn Miller  is one of my biggest influences when it comes to how I organize my reader’s workshop and of course, my library. (I highly recommend that teachers who are interested in selecting books and organizing for engaging and effective reading instruction check out what Donnalynn has to say.)
  • I find out what other teacher’s kids are into.
  • I ask my students. This is likely the most powerful method I have for selecting engaging, relevant books that my readers will want to actually read. Being in touch with what the kids will actually read is the most important thing. No matter how many awards a book has received, no matter what the education field or curriculum documents say is quality reading for my fourth graders, a book that sits on a shelf doesn’t help any reader. A book that a child is dragged through can do more harm than good.
    • At the start of the year, I ask them what books they think their classmates must read. I use google forms and compile lists of recommendations. This autumn, kids asked for: Warrior Cats, Dork Diaries, Land of Stories, Pegasus, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Norm, Tom Gates, Horrible Histories and books by David Walliams, to name a few.
    • When we have book fairs, I ask kids to make a list of recommendations from the displays for our classroom library. When I worked in schools that didn’t have book fairs, I gave kids scholastic catalogs and asked them to make wish lists. Even in inner city NY, money could be found to purchase a selection of those lists and honor the student’s selections.
    • At the end of the year, I ask again, this time for them to tell me what I must have on hand for the incoming class that August. The graduating fourth graders are more than happy to keep me hip to the trends.
    • I pay attention during reader’s workshop, noticing which titles are being fought over and which topics are being discussed.
    • I watch how my students organize the library. They are welcome to change the organization and their choices often let me know what’s important and interesting to them.
    • I’ve found the local bookstore that also has an impressive English language kids’ section. It’s not Barnes and Nobles but it’s a close second.
    • I wander into other classrooms and see what they have that we don’t.

One thing I don’t have to worry about too much is funding. We have a very generous budget that allows not only for updating our libraries regularly but also for doing so in a timely manner. In other words, when three of my reluctant readers got into the Alfie the Werewolf series last year and they were fighting over the few copies in the lower school library, I could go to Amazon and stock them in our class library while the demand was still hot. Three boys who spent two-thirds of the year bored by books were engrossed for the final three months of school in all things Alfie.

How Do You Decide?

I’d love to know how other teachers find books and make decisions on what to put in their libraries. What series, genre and topics are hot with your kids? What websites are great for finding lists and updates?

Happy reading!

 

 

“Notice and Note” and Reflecting On Rigor

The heat wave that has been plaguing Amsterdam has finally broken. I’ve been taking advantage of the cooler weather and a quiet weekend, spending the bulk of my time on the couch with Notice and Note, by Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst.

I’m just through the first section and find myself nodding in agreement, jotting down notes of my own, and following suggested resources. I can’t help but notice my own process as I read this text! Here are some of the things that I’m really excited about so far:

Rigor and Reading Instruction

Beers and Probst dedicate a chapter early on about rigor in the classroom. If I was using a project zero thinking routine as I describe my interactions with this chapter, it would be “Connect, Extend, Challenge.” I made many connections between the text and my work as a Grade 4 teacher. I feel as though I am more able to articulate what appropriate challenges are for my readers. I am inspired to make those challenges accessible to them.

One of my big connections came when Beers and Probst described reading as “transactional.” In other words, the making of meaning happens through the interaction between the reader and the text. It also happens readers interact with each other over a text. Yes, yes, yes! Sadly, many of my students, not to mention their parents, see rigor as dealing with texts that are far too complex for them.

Parents, Students, and Rigor

At the start of this school year, I was dismayed to see the responses of my students when they were asked what they should work on as a reader this year. “I need to read harder books” and ” I want to read fatter books,” were common replies. The parent surveys communicated similar goals. Every year, I am confronted with parents of fourth graders who want their kids to read books like The Hunger Games or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. I look coach kids who are trudging through texts which are way too complex for them, striving to help them find the texts that will engage and sustain their interest and foster the types of interactions that will give them the rich experience that skilled readers enjoy.

What Rigor Really Is

I am grateful to Beers and Probst for extending my thinking about this incredibly important facet of literacy education. They have given me the language to discuss what rigorous reading does entail. Here are some of my highlights from their chapter on rigor:

“Rigor is not an attribute of a text but rather a characteristic of our behavior with that text.”

“Rigor resides in the energy and attention given to the text, not in the text itself.”

And, in a comparison to weight-lifting:

The quality, rigor, does not reside in the barbell but in the interaction with it.”

After reading this chapter, I feel as though I have some ideas on how to help my students understand that success as a reader is not the complexity of the text itself, but the energy and commitment that the reader brings when interacting with the text.

It’s time to start planning some lessons!

 

 

Extending PLC’s As International Educators

In the international school community, there are many opportunities for professional development. Big international schools like mine generally hire experienced and highly trained faculty, giving educators a powerful PLC (professional learning community) to begin with. They also tend to have generous professional development budgets which enable their teachers to learn from a variety of courses and conferences. A teacher in such an organization has many options if they want to continue to develop.

Of course, with these opportunities come challenges in any educator’s development, which could vary depending on the individual circumstances as well as the school. Ken Blanchard describes four stages that a professional might be in at any given time of their career, depending on the situation, as shown in the graphic below.

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Blanchard holds that personal and professional circumstances/experiences affect the level of competence and commitment one might have in any given situation in their career. For educators, PLC’s are a great way to inspire and support strong commitment as well as increasing competence.

Reflecting on my own development, I realize that experienced educators who spend an extended time in one organization may move from D4 to D3 if they don’t reach out beyond the bubble of their own organization. It could be that things are going really well, and it would be easy to leave a well-oiled machine alone. Except that even well-oiled machines can be outperformed by newer models and upgrades. If things are going really well with the status quo, then this is an indication to branch out and take things to the next level; not to mention the fact that international educators should strive to be globally informed! There is a powerful argument for educators to reach out to find the PLC or PLC’s that will help them best develop!

Over the past two years, one of my goals was to extend my PLC in the hopes of learning as much as possible about how teachers in PYP schools are approaching literacy instruction. In this endeavor, I’ve had the opportunity to engage in a multitude of  face to face as well as virtual conversations, and I’ve been exposed to a  plethora of resources. I have learned so much, not only about literacy and the PYP, but about education in general, and I am filled with tons of questions to move forward with.

Many of my current and future blogs have been and will be informed by, inspired by, and a product of my collaboration with my PLC’s old and new. Here are some of the communities and resources that have, and continue to inspire me and help me grow as a professional:

Evolving Ideas-Looking Back and Ready To Move Forward

When I first started working at my #IBPYP school, I was already a long-time TCRWP enthusiast. Having worked in a district in NYC at a time when we were mostly literacy-focused, I spent a lot of time at TC and with TC staff developers. My students have a much better experience in my class as a result of this.

The faculty at the project get to spend all day, every day, thinking about literacy and how best to support development in our young learners. Their insights and focus are invaluable, and I draw from them every day in my practice. I continue to learn from their work and find ways to apply that learning to my context as a PYP teacher.

I am on an ongoing quest to find the most powerful way to implement what we know works from TCRWP and from PYP. I know that there are schools out there who run the PYP and TCRWP side by side. The philosophies match in so many ways. But for a long time, I’ve been thinking that running them together is not enough. I wonder, is it truly supporting genuine, student-centered #inquiry? Are we grounding the learning in carefully selected concepts? What about when schools teach TCRWP units of study as they are published by Heinemann? Experienced workshop teachers can attest to the magic that happens when readers and writers get to experience the workshop approach but I worry about indoctrination. Even when something works well, isn’t it our responsibility to ask ourselves how could we make it even better? Especially when we work under multiple belief systems?

Looking back, one of the ways I have worked to integrate my reading and writing workshops into my program of inquiry is by lining up the reading and writing units with the transdisciplinary themes. I saw this as one way I could ground my reading and writing units in specific concepts.

Here’s an example of how I fleshed these out for the purposes of my own planning:

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It’s always a work in progress and I would welcome feedback on how to make my generalizations even better!

For the past several years, I have planned out my reading and writing units this way, starting with the transdisciplinary theme, then I move on to generate “central ideas” and “lines of inquiry” for each workshop. I then plan out the related concepts and possible/probable skills that will be taught within the conceptual constructs of the unit. This varies from year to year depending on the student’s prior experiences, as well as the evolving program of inquiry. In most cases, this creates opportunities for my students to make connections to the units of inquiry. Sometimes it doesn’t and the degree to which always varies. This makes me think that I need to continue on my quest to make my program even more transdisciplinary.

This year, when planning the “what” of my curriculum, my plan is to try to move away from fitting my “units of study” into my program of inquiry. I hope to work towards building a truly concept-based language curriculum that is open enough to student-direction. I don’t plan to abandon the valuable lessons from the TCRWP, rather I will take with me some of the core philosophies and attitudes, as well as the time-tested practices and structures and apply those to the “how” of my curriculum after I have planned the “what.”

As always, I’m on the lookout for collaborators and resources!