Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Students Learning the True Value of Literacy

As educators, we know learners sometimes fail to see the connection between their work inside classroom walls and their lives beyond classroom walls. A question that often arises in many of our students’ heads is, why do we need to learn this?
As their teacher, I wonder how I can help my students see that their time within our classroom is valuable, not just for the few months we are together, but for a lifetime.
One practice I employ is asking students, “Why do you think we need to master this?” Once they get beyond the idea of “We need to know it for the test” or “We need this for next year,” my students begin to discover some interesting ideas about how their learning affects them now and in the future.
This winter, our sixth grade had our annual Innovation Day. This day is built on the 20% principle where students can choose any topic, wondering, or problem that interests them. Students get to spend an entire day becoming experts and creating something to use to teach their peers about their area of expertise on the following day during our Gallery Walk, where they get to share their findings.
This year, we challenged students to make something that would be interactive for their peers (and the others guests we invited). We had an incredible day filled with excitement, passion, and creativity as each project was as unique as the student behind it.
I spent more than two weeks working with each of my students in the planning stages. One task they were expected to do was explain what skills or strategies they had taken from their academic classes that would support their learning on Innovation Day. Seeing that “eureka” moment when students realized how much they would rely upon their literacy abilities to discover answers, solve problems, and create something to share with their peers was exciting.
Because of our Innovation Day, I had the opportunity to see some of my students in a new light. I saw enthusiasm I had not seen before. Students who had been hard to reach or difficult to connect with through our usual classroom activities were now strong, confident, and excited to share their learning with others.
Several students used Lego Mindstorm kits to build and program robots. Another student created authentic, interactive games teaching peers how to make financial investments. Other students built motors, created inventions, or learned the chemistry behind dyeing hair. Some wanted to create a children’s book using tools like StoryJumper or LINTOR Publishing. Others wanted to create videos using WeVideo, PowToon, or iMovie. Some students wanted to create a how-to guide on a Wiki, Tackk, or a Weebly.
As I took time to visit them during their Gallery Walk, I asked each of the students, “What can we do to bring this type of learning into our ELA classroom?”
Even though each student created something unique, students’ answers to my probing question were very similar. They each expressed an interest in composing something that could teach others what they had learned. They all wanted to pay forward their learning.
Using their newly gained experience, my students clearly saw how their mastering of ELA standards supported them in anything they wanted to accomplish. They truly have gained an understanding of the importance of literacy in their lives, not just for a grade or a test, but as a vehicle for taking them anywhere they may want to go—now and in the future.
And their answers to my question, well, that opened the door to a whole new adventure...

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Growing Empathy in Today's Tumultuous Society

In light of recent events, I know that many of us are wondering what has happened to bring about these horrific acts upon fellow humans. While at ILA, many of the informal chats face-to-face and on the conference hashtag revolved around What can we, as educators, do to equip our students for the world in which they live? ILA saw this pressing need and scheduled an impromptu conversation facilitated by Cornelius Minor. The room was filled to over capacity with literacy leaders and advocates from all over the world. Mr. Minor did an outstanding job modeling and guiding us through some of these difficult conversations. There was a lot of fear, worry, and tears during this conversation. We all have one purpose: leading our students to making this a better world. And that requires bravery. It involves speaking up and speaking out for all of our students. As I continue to marinate on all of this, I have determined that there are some thoughts that I need to express to my fellow "in-the-trenches" teachers.  If I want for my students to be open and honest, I must be willing to do the same.

One comment that was made during this discussion that has continued to ring in my head is:

Our students leave our classrooms and live different realities.

For the last couple of years, I have striven to bring in literature, historical events, and change-makers who are from different ethnicities and backgrounds so that my students can see themselves in their reading. They need to know that literacy is not just for one part of society. It is a key cog for every person, everywhere. And while I've spent two years reading research and growing my practice into one that is much more culturally responsive, I can't help but ask myself if this is enough. After this difficult conversation at ILA and discussions with respected colleagues and friends I can determine that NO, it is not enough.

Our world is greatly lacking in kindness and empathy for others. As literacy educators, we have the opportunity to use powerful stories to help our students experience the difficult realities that the peer sitting next to them may be living. Many of our students are able to turn off the heinous acts happening worldwide and their lives don't change. For other communities, it turns them on end; turmoil, fear, worry and anxiety blankets their neighborhoods and communities. Distrust builds between communities. And our students are ill-equipped to have the language or ability to have difficult conversations.

Unfortunately, what I hear too often from teachers and parents is that it is not for the schools to discuss. I respectfully disagree. Last year, I had students dealing with mental illness, homelessness, the loss of a parent, attempted suicide, abusive home lives, foster care, addiction, and questioning their sexuality. This is in addition to the usual, middle school drama of being "different," whether it's due to ethnicity, language, religion, appearance, or ability level. Those are very heavy topics for 11 and 12-year-olds to process and deal with in healthy avenues.

Cynthia Lord, author of Rules, said,

"Great stories are about being human."

If our students can walk for a mile in someone else's shoes, experience what lives are like for those who are different from them, they are gaining insight into a reality different from their own. Those characters become our "friends." And when readers meet a new peer, the experience gained through walking around for a time with those in different realities will evoke kindness and empathy for others, even if they are very different.

As teachers, it is crucial that we get these powerful stories into the hands of our students. I am not advocating that every book is for every student. We must know our students and their parents. Have conversations with them about difficult topics. Make sure that they are ready to wear another reality for a time. We no longer can afford to brush difficult conversations under the rug and ignore them.

Our job as educators is to prepare our students for lives outside the classroom walls. So let's dig into these great stories and nurture empathy in each of our learners. Because our students deserve a better present and future than what we have now.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Teaching Writing: What do you do with all the other students?

In my last post, Teaching Writing: Is it a race against time?, I shared some ways that I have found to give my students the benefit of quality writing instruction within our limited class time. The most common question I hear is, "What do you do with all of the other students while you are conferring and doing small group lessons?" This has been quite a journey for me; I have found a lot of things that didn't work. Like you, I want my students to be engaged in meaningful work, but they also have to stay focused so that I can dedicate my time to the student(s) with which I am working. I am still working at fine tuning my practice, but I have found that literacy centers have been the key to meeting my goals.

I spend over 90% of my time with students either in small group lessons or in one-on-one conferring. Much of the success of using literacy centers comes from having my students set the expectations for themselves while they are either working independently, in pairs, or in a small group. They become the monitors of their own (and their peer's) choices. It puts them in control of the choices that they are making. By letting them have that ownership, I discovered that engagement increases and off-task disruptions are kept to a minimum.

Also, because this is a new for most of my students, we have a gradual release into centers. They need the time to build the endurance to self-monitor and stay engaged for longer periods of time. At the beginning of the school year, we may only devote 10-15 minutes to Lit Centers. As students show that they have an understanding of what the expectations are and they learn how to self-monitor and engage themselves in their work, we slowly increase the time until they are able to devote an entire ELA block to staying focused and on task. To be transparent, my middle schoolers become very adept at this quickly. However, they are middle schoolers. On occasion, I will stop and remind them to evaluate their choices: Are you actively engaged in your work? Are you being as productive as possible? What will change/increase your growth? 

Another crucial cog in this process is for students to be engaged in meaningful work. Learners want to know that their work is worthwhile; it's helping them reach their individual goals. As classroom teachers, I'm sure we've all given students work that is a time filler. Students know when an activity, assignment, or project is basically a glorified babysitting tool. The danger in that is we are sending a message to our students that they aren't the most important entity in our classrooms. They need to know that we all have very important work to complete. Our time is valuable. When designing Literacy Centers, each center needs to provide students with choice. They need to push student's learning and growth wherever they are on the learning continuum. Lit Centers should be a time where students can practice, fail, reflect, and retry. Learners should know not just the "what" but the "why" behind each of the centers in which they are engaged.

To design my Lit Centers, I have combined many different schools of thought (The Daily 5, Writer's Workshop, etc.) to make them work for my middle level learners. Typically, we have six centers that students rotate through each week. Some of the centers may last for several weeks, but most of them can be completed within a week. The centers are: Read to Self, Liberating Lexis (meaningful, individualized vocabulary development), Read with Others, Reflection (typically done on KidBlog), Grammar Grabber (using mentor texts with authentic practice), Publishing Studio (as a project based classroom, we always have a working project). Some centers are independent, some are for student pairs, and some are for a small group.

The learning activities change each week based on the standards learners are working on mastering. Because our 6th grade team plans cross-curricular units, sometimes they are working on the ELA piece of a cross-curricular plan. These centers include the freedom of choice while allowing students the creativity to pursue interests, capitalize on strengths, and grow in areas of weakness. Students know that they are accountable for completing all centers within a given time frame. They understand that the work in which they are engaging is practice to push them towards mastering content standards and reaching their personal goals.

I have found that by combining Lit Centers with writing conferences and small group differentiated instruction, my students grow tremendously. They are happy, enthusiastic, engaged, and self-motivated. They are not only growing to demonstrate mastery of ELA standards, but they are also developing crucial life skills: time management, accountability, collaboration, communication, perseverance, problem solving, and creative thinking.

That is what all of my others students are doing while I'm conferring and conducting mini-lessons. I'm working on making a few tweaks for next year. I'd love to hear how you keep your students actively engaged while you work with small groups of students.

Further reading: