Friday, September 14, 2018

Coaching Tips: 5 Ways to Make Demonstration Lessons Meaningful

Now that the school year has begun, life is starting to feel a little more normal. The students are starting to get more settled, classroom routines are in place, and the rhythm of school is taking hold.  This is also the time of year when an instructional coach starts to get her rhythm.  After weeks of building relationships, helping with planning, and just getting yourself organized, you may find that this is a great time to start doing some demo lessons in classrooms.  I have to admit, demos are my favorite coaching activity.  I love getting in classes and working with the students.  I kind of feel like Chip Gaines on Fixer Upper---I LOVE demo day! But I realize that it can also be stressful to teach in front of other people, so, I thought it might be helpful to give some tips for getting the most out of your demo days:

1. Start with the ones who want it.
If this is the first time to do demos in classes for the year, offer and see who wants you to come to their class.  Demonstration lessons require a certain amount of trust on the teacher’s part, so this lets you see who might be further along on the trust scale with you.  Typically once you do a lesson in one or two teachers’ rooms, others will start asking. If no one volunteers, ask some teachers if you can try out a lesson in their rooms.

2. Make it authentic.
I often have teachers try to accommodate me by scheduling me with their “best” classes rather than with the classes they would really benefit from seeing the lesson done with.  They are doing this for my benefit because they don’t want me to have to deal with the issues they face daily. That’s the point---I need to deal with those same issues if I am going to understand what they need. If they need to see a lesson done in their GT or Pre-AP class, I need to schedule it for then. If they need to see how you would adjust it for their class that has the most challenging behavior problems, schedule it for then.  Do it in the context that matters to the teacher.

3.Be willing to mess up.
Teaching in front of someone else can be nerve-racking.  Especially if you are there to show them best practices or how to employ a specific strategy. Combine that with having to teach students that you may not have a relationship with, and you are sure to have some flops.  That’s okay.  You are a coach likely because you were a good classroom teacher. You know how to teach...just do it.  Some of the best learning experiences (for me and the teacher) have come from demos gone bad.  When a teacher sees that we are willing to teach imperfectly in front of them, it builds trust. When we adjust a lesson midpoint because it’s not working or we talk afterward about how we would change it next time, it shows how decision-making happens. Those are also things we want to demonstrate.

4. Ask for feedback....from the students.
In the past few years, I have started doing two things in my demonstration lessons that have helped me improve.  One is I add 3 questions to the end of every lesson: 1) What did we learn? 2)Why did we learn it? 3) How did we do it?  I tell the students that I will be asking them these 3 questions at the end of the lesson to see if I have done my job.  This helps keep me (and my lesson) focused and on-track.  Besides that, I have also incorporated feedback into all of my lessons. At the end of each lesson, I ask the students to give me feedback on 2 things: 1) anything that they found helpful and think I should keep in the lesson when it is done in other classes and 2) any suggestions or ideas for how to change the lesson to make it more helpful.  When we give our students a voice, they will speak. I have gotten some fantastic suggestions from students over the years, and I have used those to improve. In addition to my own improvement, this is a powerful part of a demo because you don’t have to convince anyone that something is effective...the students will tell you what is effective!

5. Give the teachers what they need to do the lesson themselves. 
When we learn something new, we often imitate and copy before we adapt and change. Think about cooking. When you try to cook something new, you likely will follow the recipe as is.  After you try it a few times, you start tweaking it and making it your own. The same goes for teaching and learning strategies and practices.  At first, a teacher may watch you and want to try the exact lesson you did in the exact way. To do that, she needs to have the materials and resources that you used. So, try to use things that are readily available or that don’t require a lot of preparation.  I like to put my lessons in Google slides, and I just share them with the teacher.  If I use a book or excerpt of text, I try to make sure it is available in the library or give the teachers an extra copy if it is printed on paper. If I am demonstrating a workstation, I make sure the teachers have the resources to make the workstations. Once the teacher imitates your lesson, she will start making it her own, but she has to have the “ingredients” to try the recipe first.


Demonstration lessons can be an incredibly powerful tool for learning and for building trust, so it is worth our time to make them as effective as possible. I would love to hear other ways that you have found to get the most out of demo lessons.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Reading Levels for the Real World

Over the past few months, I have read more and more articles and blogs from many well-known educators about how reading levels can be misused by good-intentioned teachers.  Instead of being a tool for the TEACHER to aid in matching books with students for guided reading, they have become a label for children to use when choosing books for independent reading. That is NOT what levels are for. Now with that said, I also understand that if levels are to be used appropriately, they have to be understood.  Once teachers truly understand leveling and different systems, I know they will make better decisions for students. 

So, here’s a crash course in Leveling Systems 101...

Basically, leveling books is not an exact science. I think of levels as clothing sizes.  When I go shopping,  I may take clothes ranging from a size 8-14 into the dressing room.  Sometimes, the 8 is loose, and sometimes the 14 is tight.  Why? Because they are all made by different designers out of different materials to fit different body types.  I can’t order clothes online because I HAVE to try them on.  Leveled books are very much the same way. A level gives the TEACHER a starting point for choosing a book to use with a guided reading group, but sometimes, you have to just try it on the readers.  Sometimes a D will be harder than an E for some students. Not every D will be, but there will be some, for sure. 

So let’s talk leveling systems....
There is more than one kind out there. Two common types are what I call (1) formulaic systems (2) holistic systems. Formulaic systems (my term) are those that give you a grade level equivalent. I also consider Lexiles as an example of this type of leveling system because these systems are mostly based on readability---difficulty of the actual text based on words and sentences. Depending on the readability measure used, it may take into consideration word frequency, sentence length, number of words per sentence, number of words/sentences per paragraph, syllables in words, etc.  There are formulas that these numbers can be plugged into that will result in a grade level equivalent. These readability levels can be useful for giving a ballpark of the level of texts a student might be able to read, but they don’t take into consideration some of the factors that make books a “fit” for a particular reader.  For example, poetry always throws these readability formulas off.  Poetry is often very readable (the words can be easily figured out), but understanding poetry requires quite a bit of inferential thinking. This makes it more complex.  The same goes for graphic novels. They often throw readability formulas off for much of the same reason as poetry. The images in graphic novels carry much of the meaning, and it requires a different (and more complex) type of thinking to truly comprehend what is happening in a graphic novel. 

Holistic systems (or at least that’s what I call them) typically use A-Z or numbers for levels.  Guided reading levels, reading recovery levels, DRA, Reading A-Z, etc. use this type of leveling system to label books. The levels take into consideration different characteristics of the text such as vocabulary, topic, genre, layout, print features, themes, sentence types and lengths, and overall complexity (as opposed to just readability). Texts at each level have common characteristics that correlate with specific reading behaviors and skills that are needed to successfully navigate the texts. These levels are more helpful for guided reading because they offer a more comprehensive and detailed assessment of a book’s characteristics. The Fountas & Pinnell Literacy Continuum has detailed descriptors of each level if you want more information on how books are leveled. 

So what does it all mean? ...
Leveling systems have offered teachers a great way to shop for books to use with students, but they were never intended to be used by students for that purpose. Interest should drive student choices.  (Side note….The question I always get when I say that is, “What if I have a struggling reader who always chooses Harry Potter or a book that I know he can’t read?”  To that I say...Let them carry Harry Potter around then.  That’s an opportunity to have a conference with that student on why he is choosing that book, if he needs an audio version, and what other books that he might be interested in that he can navigate. For some of our older struggling readers, choosing those books is a way to save face in front of classmates that read better. There are bigger battles to fight. If we are diligent with one-to-one reading conferences, that issue can be turned into an opportunity to learn how to make better reading choices or how to use different modes of reading to access the book he wants.)

Now back to what I was saying….
Leveling systems can offer teachers a great tool, but that’s all they are...a tool. So, the next question is how can we use that tool in a better way? What if there was an alternative for helping students set reading goals and choose books that wouldn’t be based on a level (after all….the kids aren’t going to go to Barnes and Noble and ask for a level R!)? Why not try this?...Instead of telling students what level they are on, try teaching them the characteristics of books to look for and letting them know the reading behaviors and skills you will be working on with them.  That way, when they go to the classroom library or school library, they can make some informed choices about books that they are interested in, and they can talk about what they are learning to do as readers. It’s simple, but that’s what real readers do. I know the kind of books that I will have trouble with and the kind that I can read easily because I know books, and I know myself as a reader.  I know what types of books I prefer to have audio versions of and when I might need to read with a pen in hand.  None of my choices--none of them-are based on a level. They are based solely on me, the books, and my purpose. 

If you’d like to try this way of helping student set goals, I’ve created some goal cards here, but you can easily make your own to fit your needs: Reading Goal Cards All it requires is a teacher who understands levels, books, and kids.

I hope this helps as you start the new year, and please let me know if you have other ideas for how to use reading levels in better ways!

Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Coach's School Supply Shopping Guide

It’s the end of July, and that means school supply shopping time!!  I truly get giddy at this time of year. When I see those Wal-Mart shelves stuffed with 15¢folders, it makes my heart beat a little
faster. I am a total self-confessed school supply nerd. And I’m not sorry.  The problem is that I don’t need 50 pocket folders and 20 packages of pencils like I did when I had a classroom.  Just as coaching requires a different set of skills, it also requires some different supplies. So, here are my tips for what to stock up on if you are a coach:

1. 1-inch binders-  Wal-Mart carries these for 87¢at this time of year.  Normally, they are about $2.00.  I keep a binder for every district that I work with.  I use a Sharpie to write the name of the district on the side of the binder, and I put a table of contents sheet in the front.  As I collect things, I just use numbered divider tabs and write what each tab contains in the table of contents.  I don't take the binder with me every time I go to a district, but it houses important things that are useful as I plan my work. I also use binders to keep scoring guides, reading inventories, contracts and invoices, and special projects.  They fit nicely in storage crates or bookshelves, so I get about 8-10 of them when they go on sale like this.




2. Notebooks-  I cannot scream the praises of notebooks loudly enough.  I love them- particularly the old-fashioned kind that require a real pen. I have different notebooks for different things, so I try to get as many as I can when they are on sale for 25-50¢. The kind I use the most is the composition notebook.  I typically go through 2-3 notebooks in a year.  I label one “campus visits” or “everything”, and I take it with me wherever I go.  I count out the first 5 pages for a table of contents and put a post-it tab on page 6. That tab is labeled #1. When I go to a district, campus, training, or meeting, I write the date and the event in the table of contents and assign it to the next tab number.  I staple master schedules or school maps on the pages and keep notes of observations, ideas, or questions. I can go back and look at my notes when I return to that campus next time. I have tried lots of organizational tools, and this is the simplest, most effective way I have found of keeping all of my stuff in one place.




3. Binder pouches- Years ago, Wal-Mart carried an item that was like a book cover for composition notebooks. It had a plastic slide-lock pouch where you could put sticky notes, pens, etc.  I bought about 15 of them at the time, but I have not seen them since. So, now I buy the 48¢ binder pouches and staple them onto a regular composition notebook. This does the same thing that the book covers did.  I make sure to always have post-it tabs, sticky notes, a highlighter, and a pen in the pouch.



4. Post-its and tabs- Post-it tabs help keep my notebook in order. Everything that is in the table of contents of my notebook is assigned a tab number. This is easier than numbering pages. Some visits will use 10 pages if I am doing observations for a program review, and I don’t like to flip to find my place.  When I go somewhere, I just put a tab on the next available page and label the tab whatever number is next.  I also keep regular post-its and the lined ones in the pouch on my notebook.  The inside of my notebook ends up being a compilation of notes, papers, and sticky notes….but it makes complete sense to me.

5. Highlighters and pens-This may be a no-brainer, but you can never have enough highlighters and pens.  I like the “clicky” pens, so I get a big package of them when they are on sale. Because my notebook goes with me everywhere, I usually have a highlighter and pen in the pouch, and one pen clipped on the pages of the notebook so I can easily find my place. I use the highlighters when I go back to my notes. Sometimes I highlight patterns that I notice, or I might highlight questions that the teachers asked during a lesson. Often as I am in a classroom, I make myself notes about resources to bring next time or ideas to share. I may go back and highlight these so that they stand out in my notes as I prepare for my next visit.

I hope these tips help as you venture into the school supply aisles over the next few weeks, and I would love to hear any organizational tips or supplies that other coaches use!

Friday, June 15, 2018

The Educator's Alphabet

It's summer!  This is the first summer in probably 10 years that I can say is actually relaxing so far.  I'm working, but it's a nice pace of work, and the type of work is different than what I typically do during the year. This gives my mind a chance to think and play a bit and notice things that I may overlook during more stressful times. This week I noticed one of those things-the Educator's Alphabet-the letters that make up our educator language.

I noticed it earlier this week when I was telling a friend about some PBL PD that I provide as a part of a STEM academy at SMU, and I realized how ridiculous the sentence sounded.  Did you understand it?  If you are an educator you did.  Look at all the capital letters!  It's crazy how many acronyms and initialisms we educators have in our field and use so nonchalantly.  We speak a different language.  So, for some summer fun, see if any of your non-educator friends can figure out these stories/sentences:


  1. I have an ELL in my class who is struggling according to MAPS. His DRA and TPRI are a little concerning, too.  I think we need to begin the RtI process and maybe start him on the LLI kits.   
  2. I have a student who is being tested to see if he would benefit from SPED services. If so, we’ll need to have an ARD meeting to develop an IEP.  
  3. At our PLC today, we will be looking at our YAG to determine upcoming TEKS.
  4. Do you teach a STAAR SSI grade?
  5. I've gotten some great 1:1 ideas from my PLN


I love to hear some that I’ve forgotten. I know there are too many to count!

Thursday, May 10, 2018

4 Tips for Getting Your Creative Groove Back this Summer

3 more weeks!  That has been a common refrain I have heard as I’ve been wrapping up coaching visits this month.  The sun is out, testing is almost over, and teachers are feeling that ever-heavy load start to lighten a bit as they get ready for a much needed break.  Now, I’m no fool.  I know that most teachers may be “off” yet spend their summers teaching summer school, going to professional development, writing curriculum, and MAYBE getting a few vacation days in there somewhere.  A teacher’s summer is not always the picture of serenity that those outside of the profession sometimes perceive it to be.  And while many may criticize or roll their eyes at the “need” for such a break, I propose that summer is a teacher’s 20% time--you know, that whole thing Google started that allowed its employees to spend 20% of their work time on projects of interest and exploration. Twenty percent of 12 months is 2.5 months, so it makes sense that summer is a critical time for teachers to explore and may be the very time where the most creative, innovative teaching ideas are conceived.  So, I offer 4 tips for getting the most out of your upcoming 20% time:

1. Chill out- Seriously, for many teachers, summer can be hard.  After 9 months of constant decision making and stress, it is difficult to know how to sleep in or just do nothing.  If you want to be creative, though, you have to let your brain have some time to wander.  Don’t feel guilty.  Innovation and creativity need some breathing room.  Take walks. Lay around the house. Sit by the pool.  Color, journal, paint. Sit in the quiet. Stay up late. It may feel strange, but lean into the relaxing.  I have had to learn to do this, and it still feels awkward at times.  I am a busybody and like to be “productive”, so I have had to learn to schedule time for reading or just doing nothing.  I know my creative process.  It takes me at least a day or two to unwind from the work before my brain can truly start wandering.  Give yourself a break, and take the first few days or weeks that you have and think about things other than school. 

2. Connect- Maybe you have wanted to see what Twitter was about, but you just haven’t had time during the year.  Summer provides the perfect season to explore and build a PLN.  I have grown to love Twitter, but I used to only use it when necessary for work. I didn’t see the point.  When I started working for myself, I realized I didn’t have a team of educators that I could talk to on a daily basis and only a few that truly understood the work  I do.  So, I started exploring Twitter chats.  I’ve found a coaching chat (#educoach) on Wednesdays that has offered great encouragement, a chat of Arkansas educators on Thursdays (#eduar) that has introduced me to some fantastic ideas and has led me to other chats that I tune into as often as I can now (#kidsdeserveit, #tlap).  Facebook also offers group and bookclubs that can be beneficial.  Whatever you are comfortable with...and especially if you are not comfortable!...try one. 

3.Collect-In the past 2 months, I have probably ordered 10 or more (see pic!) professional books that I am hoping to read during a couple of the weeks of downtime I have in early July.  I am a self-confessed nerd when it comes to books of any kind, but especially professional books.  I get excited when my Reading Teacher or Educational Leadership magazine comes in the mail (yep...I get the print edition along with online because I love to highlight and dog-ear pages). There is typically a pile of magazines and/or books on any given landing space in our house.  I typically buy them and skim through them for nuggets of knowledge during the year as I am creating trainings or trying to help a district with something and need to learn more, but I don’t get time to really dig into them and internalize the ideas until I have that much-anticipated vacation time. I encourage you to not only read within your field, but also outside of your field. If you are going on vacation, stop by the Hudson News in the airport and grab a Popular Science, Economist, Wired, Forbes,etc...You’ll see so many ideas that you can apply to teaching that you may not have considered before. Aside from just reading, collect the ideas.  Whether it is in the highlights feature of your Kindle, in a notebook, or in a Google doc, capture the ideas, quotes, and activities that you find in your reading.  It makes remembering (and finding) them much easier!

4.Create- Sometime around mid-July or early August, after your brain has had some time to rest, let it create.  Teachers are some of the most creative people on the planet. I see it every day in classes. One of my favorite questions to ask this time of year is “What will you be thinking about this summer?” or “What do you want to create this summer?”  I ALWAYS get an answer because most of the teachers I know are constantly refining their craft.  Remember, creativity comes in many forms.  For me, my creativity is at its best in the form of problem-solving.  I love to have a problem, be given certain parameters, and figure out how to make it happen. Doesn't sound artistic, huh? Well, that's my art, though. Your creativity may manifest in the innovative ways you organize your room or the systems you create that allow your students to be independent.  When you are constantly pressed for time or under huge amounts of stress, you can forget how energizing creating can be.  Summer is the prime time for creating those things that have been in your mind all year.  Just do it!

I hope you all have a wonderful rest of the school year, and take time to rest, relax, and revive your creativity in the coming months! I’d love to hear what you hope to think about or create this summer!

Monday, April 9, 2018

Gumby Goals: 3 Tips for Stretching Beyond Your Comfort Zone



I have a box in my office where I keep my “stretch” projects.  These are projects that require me to learn something new, step out into the uncomfortable, or leap before I look.  This year, it seems that the majority of these projects have piled up in April, so right now, I’m neck deep in that awkward, awesome feeling of “What in the world have I gotten myself into?!”


There was a time when the thought of not knowing what I was doing or not knowing how something would turn out was terrifying to me.  I am by nature a control freak.  I am comforted by knowing the what, why, when, and how of most situations or tasks.  That’s the thing-I am comforted by those things. Comfort is nice. Comfort is cozy. Comfort is dangerous.  

A few years ago, I read Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly, followed by Seth Godin’s The Icarus Deception, followed by Jen Sincero’s You are a Badass.  A pattern emerged that I couldn’t ignore.  If I wanted to grow, I had to go to scary places. Uncomfortable places. Places beyond my control.  I set out on a mission to get comfortable with fear.  Not just get comfortable with it…….ENJOY it!  Even seek it out! What I have learned (and am still learning) in this quest is that (1) you can LEARN to enjoy fear,  (2) doing so makes you a better at what you do, and (3) not everyone will understand it, but (4) that’s okay...not easy, but okay.

Now, this is the time of year, as a coach, I find that teachers are sometimes more willing to try some new things in their classrooms that they may not have been as comfortable trying before STAAR.  So, if you are in that place where you are standing on the edge of trying, here is are some tips for teaching yourself to take the leap:

Actively seek out a stretch opportunity.  
You’ll know it when you come across these opportunities because they will be the things that your first instinct is to say “no” to.  They will be those things that makes you want to say, “I’m not cut out for that...” or “I’m not good enough for…” or “I don’t know how…”or “what if they….”  Watch this TED Talk by Jia Jiang to see how he learned how to face rejection...and actually like it! https://www.ted.com/talks/jia_jiang_what_i_learned_from_100_days_of_rejection

Start “unplanning”.  
This is probably the hardest lesson I have had to learn because I am, by nature, a planner.  Life, however, like our students, doesn’t always adhere to the plan.  In fact, I have a sign in my office that says, “It’s all about how you handle plan B”.  A colleague once gave me a birthday card about having a plan B (even though it wasn’t my birthday) because she said it reminded her of me and how I always said, “Okay, what’s plan B?” While I am still a fan of being prepared, I have come to understand that being prepared means equipping myself with the knowledge and skills to adapt and construct the plan as you go.  As a coach, I have learned to let the situation lead the plan.  I may have a goal, but how we meet the goal has to depend on the situation and the needs of the teachers at the time, and I can’t always plan for that. To do this, there is a level of uncertainty that I have had to get comfortable with. To counter the anxiety of the unknown, I can prepare myself by honing my coaching skills and building my knowledge so that I can adapt to situations, though.  As teachers, consider how you can “unplan” a piece of your lesson to invite a measure of uncertainty into your classroom. Read more about lesson “unplanning” here: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/oct17/vol75/num02/Inviting-Uncertainty-into-the-Classroom.aspx

Change the “yes, but…” to “yes, so…”
When uncertainty causes me stress, it is usually because I doubt myself in some way.  Maybe I doubt my ability or my knowledge.  Guess what?...there’s a fix for that: learn how to do it or learn more about it.  The key is to LEARN. My first reaction to most uncomfortable opportunities is to say, “yes I know _____ would be great to do, but_____.”  I have had to train my internal ears to recognize that the, “yes, but”...is a great sign. That’s a neon sign telling me that THIS is a challenge that I am not comfortable with. It ultimately boils down to a confidence issue or relevance issue--why is this important? Or can I do it? If I’m even considering it, then it must be important, so the block is usually confidence.  Confidence can be LEARNED. It’s simply a matter of changing the “yes, but…” to “yes, so…..”  So, if there is something that is outside of your comfort zone, get comfortable with it by learning as much as you can about it.  Have you wanted to try project-based learning, but you don’t know how it would work? Read up on it and figure out one thing you could do in that direction.  Have you wanted to try a workshop model in your classroom, but you don’t know how you would manage it? Go to some training or do a book study this summer to learn how to make it work.  Have you wanted to blog or join or a Twitter chat, but you don’t know how? Watch Youtube, ask someone, call me!  Just learn.

Just like our bodies, our minds and professional life need to stretch.  It helps us become more flexible, less stressed, and keeps our juices flowing.  My “stretch projects” box is staffed by a full-sized Gumby (a gift from my awesome husband) as a reminder that the “stretch” is what helps us grow. In this season of spring, I hope that you will be inspired to grow in your learning and stretch yourself beyond what you think you are capable of. Your students, and your field, need your stretch!

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Ready, Set, STAAR

Testing season has officially begun. The first administration of STAAR is right around the corner, and it’s understandable that we are now (as opposed to all year long) spending time preparing for it.  I think of this time of year as equivalent to when runners train for a marathon or any kind of race. Their training for months/weeks prior to the race involves running, of course, but at some point closer to actual race day, they need to start studying the specific trail or course they will be running. Where will the water spots be? Where are the hills? The answers to these questions affect how they prepare for race day.  The same is true of testing. By understanding the structure and content of the test, students can make better decisions about how to manage their time, manage their brain power, stay focused, and navigate the test.

In recent weeks, I have been working with teachers on doing some “testing as a genre” mini-lessons where we teach students about the actual test so that they can plan how to adapt the reading and writing skills they have been using all year to the unique genre of test reading and test writing...specifically STAAR reading and writing. As you prepare your students for the upcoming test, I wanted to share some activities to help your students become empowered test-takers as the day of the race draws near.


K-W-L
One thing I like to do before beginning the “testing as a genre” mini-lessons is to see what students know and wonder about STAAR.  I do a simple, K-W-L activity and have students write down everything they know (or have heard) about STAAR and everything they wonder or want to know.  What they write is pretty enlightening.  Simple things like how many questions should be on the test should not be a mystery.  The state provides resources like the test design schematic and blueprints that let us know how many questions will be on the test, how many possible passages, genres, and even a breakdown of how many questions for different types of reading, revising, and editing.  Give students this information.  Have them think through how they might approach the test. Will they read the long passages first or start with the short ones?  They need to be intentional.  The  way they approach a test depends on what they know about themselves as test-takers, so everyone may take a different approach. The more information they have about the test, the more intentional they can be with their approach to it.


Strategies Toolbox
Now, when I’m talking strategies, I’m not talking about a mnemonic device.  I’m talking about helping students come up with intentional tools for combatting their unique struggles. To be a good test taker, you have to have a set of strategies that work for you.  Everyone is different, so your students’ strategies will be different, too.  If there are some aspects of test-taking that are difficult for a student, it may help to ask others what strategies they use.   Does one student get nervous and over-think every question?  Maybe there is another student who has found a way to fight that….get them talking to each other.  What about if you have taught students to capture their thinking all year, and they have been doing it beautifully on sticky notes and paper, but now they are going to take an online test. While hopefully, they have also been practicing with online tests throughout the year, they may have had more practice with traditional paper/pencil testing or reading.  Why not ask them how they can transfer the things that work for them on paper and pencil to this new situation of online?  Let them come up with some strategies for transferring what helps them. We don’t always have to be the ones to come up with the answer of what to do.

Vocabulary
Testing is a unique genre that has a vocabulary all its own.  A test is designed to assess learning, so it will use academic words and words that are directly related to what should have been learned (content).  It is important to be aware of academic and content language when reading a test. Hopefully, your students have built the habit of becoming word collectors throughout the year. As they have read books, they (hopefully) have been encouraged to collect any new, interesting, or unfamiliar words in their reading notebooks.  Have them do the same thing with the test.  Show them the standards that are assessed and the types of questions that assess those standards.  Do they notice any similarities or note anything interesting about the wording used to assess the standard?  In looking at some questions related to theme, we noticed that the words message, lesson, idea, and theme all appeared.  That might turn into a “theme” word list.  You might collect words from answer choices that are unfamiliar. After all, this is where the vocabulary of the test sometimes hinders our students. There is no context to use in many of the answer choices, and most of the words are very sophisticated, academic words (ex., refute, illustrate).  In these cases, a dictionary may or may not offer much help either. Without context, it’s hard to apply the dictionary definition.  The academic vocabulary (particularly verbs) from the test can be used to help students discuss their reading by incorporating it into language frames such as-

“The author uses _____to ____(emphasize, demonstrate, illustrate…)______________. “

I’d love to hear other ideas and other ways that you help your students.  If you’d like more information about teaching testing as a genre, I recommend the book Putting Thinking to the Test by Lori Conrad, Missy Matthews, Cheryl Zimmerman, and Patrick Allen.

Resources related to STAAR can be found here: https://tea.texas.gov/student.assessment/staar/

Monday, February 26, 2018

Comprehension Killer: Assassination by Annotation


As I have been in classrooms this year, I have seen some incredibly creative teachers doing all sorts of things to promote thinking in their classes.  They have worked on helping students to become aware of their thinking as they read and ways to help them capture that thinking. In fact, after visiting one campus, I vowed to bring baskets of sticky notes (Santa Claus style) the next time I dropped by because they have become a staple necessity for guided reading groups.  I love it.  I love seeing the thinking that students are doing.  And that’s the thing....the annotations that students write on a paper when they are reading should reflect something about their thinking!  Unfortunately (and especially at this time of year), annotating becomes a gauntlet of stopping after paragraphs and writing main idea statements. For many students, this is a comprehension killer.

 When we read, we are essentially having a conversation with the author. The author’s side of the conversation is on the page.  Our annotations should reflect our side of the conversation.  When you look at a student’s annotations, and all he has written are main idea statements (or just phrases copied directly from somewhere in a paragraph), that is the equivalent of a conversation where someone is just going “uh-huh...uh-huh...uh-huh.”  That doesn’t tell me he knows anything about what the author was saying.  Can you imagine having a conversation with someone and routinely stopping him to repeat what he said? That would get annoying fast.

In a good conversation, we have reactions (!), ask questions (?), and remember important information (*).  If we want our students to engage with what they are reading and understand it, keep it simple. Why do they have to write a sentence if a symbol will do?  If a reader underlines or highlights something, it should be because it caused a reaction, sparked a question, or is worth remembering.

Like most strategies that we develop through the experience of becoming readers, each person’s way of annotating will be unique.  Rather than dictating how students must annotate, try modeling your own ways for them.  Show them pictures of notes from books you are reading and have them discuss what they can tell about your thinking based on your notes.  Have them look at each other’s annotations and talk about the conversation that is reflected. Go beyond that...have them think about their thinking.  Have students review their annotations and sort the types of things they noted.  Did they ask more questions? Have more reactions?  Does the type of thinking they do change depending on what they read?

In this season of testing countdown, remember...there is such a thing as formulaic reading just as there is formulaic writing. It is tempting to think that going through a series of steps will result in thinking, but it rarely happens that way.  Just as formulaic writing produces bland, unengaging results, formulaic reading emphasizes recall rather than deep understanding.  Annotating is a powerful tool that all skilled readers use, but we have to allow students to develop a way of annotating that works for them and that enhances their understanding.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Stay the Course: 5 Ways to Overcome the Urge to Revert Back to Drill & Kill

This year, I have watched many brave teachers dip their toes into the waters of using reader/writer workshop as a part of a balanced literacy approach in their classrooms. They have made the choice to get more comfortable allowing their students choice in what they read, moving away from worksheets and teacher-driven lectures, and designing their READING and WRITING classes to emphasize….wait for it…..actual READING and WRITING! That statement may seem ridiculous, but it is quite common for me to go into reading and writing classes and see neither of those actually happening. After all, emphasizing the skills of reading and writing is pointless if the students don’t ever apply those skills within the context of real reading and writing.  So, it has been exciting to watch these teachers (from kindergarten through high school) break away from what they are comfortable with in order to do some things that they know will be better for students in the long run.  They are taking a risk. They are trusting (with tons of research to support that trust) that this will work. 


While this has been incredible to see, I know that this is the time of year where panic starts to set in.  The test is looming, and it is starting to appear on the horizon. Benchmarks are being taken. Results are coming in. And not all students are passing.  Administrators start panicking. Teachers start panicking. Parents start panicking. Students start being put in accelerated programs, tutoring, Saturday school. Schedules start being switched. Teachers start being switched. Before you know it, we have shifted our focus from building readers and writers to making sure they can pass a test.  So, let’s stop, take a breath, and remember our WHY.  

As the crunch time nears, I want to share 5 ways to overcome the urge to revert back to endless practice of passages and questions. 

1. Look at the successes.  It is almost February. Your students HAVE grown this year.  Are they reading more?  Are they able to tell you authors that they enjoy?  Do they actually WANT to write?  Those are successes.  It is likely, though, that you have some data to back up the fact that they HAVE made progress in areas. Sure, there is still work to do, but don’t ignore the growth that has happened.  I don’t roll my eyes at the half-pound I lose just because it’s not the full 30 yet! It’s progress!  Remember and acknowledge the success so far.

2. Remember what time it is.  This can be a hard one because we want to say “Yes, but…the test is in ____ weeks, and the kids still don’t ___-.”  Remember...it is only January.  Even in February, remember it is only February.  There is still time.  If you were to work your body out intensely everyday for 4 months prior to a race, it would get too fatigued by the day of the race.  The same goes for our brain.  Yes, start weaving some testing practice in, but treat it like a training schedule for a marathon.  A long run may only be done once a week, and what is considered a “long run” at the beginning is nowhere near the length of the final race.  

3. Shift the format.   At this point in the year, I encourage the teachers I work with to start shifting their instruction to more small-group based activities if they haven’t done so already.  Usually, the curriculum begins to spiral and there is enough data by this point to tell you which students are understanding concepts that you have taught and which ones are not. Use that data to narrow down the what you need to spend time creating whole class lessons for.  Not every standard is created equal or needs as much time spent on learning it.  Acknowledge this shift with your students. Prepare them to work more independently. For some teachers, this is naturally how they teach. However, for many-especially secondary-the idea of small-group instruction may be new. For many middle school or high school students, they may not have had this type of instruction since elementary school. Don’t assume they remember how to work independently while you meet with groups.  If small group instruction is new to a teacher, I generally encourage them to begin building one day a week into their schedule to focus on targeting instruction in groups, then move to two days, and so on.  Around 4 weeks before the test, the majority of instruction could be in small groups. 

4. Use learning stations to review, reinforce, and enrich. That’s right.  Learning stations. No matter what grade you teach, they are one of the best tools for getting ‘bang for your buck’ as far as time goes.  There’s no need for them to be complicated and time-consuming to create, either.  Think of things that students can do with any text. Combine that with a pair of dice, and bam!...you’ve got some learning stations.  For a free sample pack of some learning stations that can be used with 5-8 grades, click here:  https://goo.gl/Zqo3FC These may give you some ideas that will spark your own.

5. Keep it real. Even as the testing season approaches, never forget that authentic reading and writing is still the priority.  Keep self-selected reading and writing as a central component of your class.  Make sure you distinguish between testing strategies and reading strategies. Students should know that one is for ALL reading, and one is for ONE TYPE of reading.  Same goes for writing strategies.  Acknowledge the test, but keep it in its place in the grand scheme of things.  

So, I hope these tips will be helpful, and I would love to hear other ideas!

Friday, January 5, 2018

Follow One Course Until Successful


I don’t know about you, but I have had a great year.  Honestly, 2017 was one of the best years I have had in awhile.  I know that not everyone can say the same, but sometimes, when you get those years...you’ve gotta take ‘em, run with ‘em, and be thankful for ‘em.

This was my year of “build”.  That was the word I picked last year as I started on a new journey of leaving a stable job to go into business for myself.  It has been a year of building a business, building my knowledge, building my resources, building my contacts, building my confidence, building boundaries, and building faith.  It has also been a year of discovery. I have had the freedom to follow my curiosities, try new things, have and explore ideas, create stuff, and wander down roads that led to nowhere.  That was wonderful.  I also noticed, though, that I had developed some habits over the past few years that I wanted to break. For example,  I had grown so used to being pulled in 75 different directions on any given day that I realized I had lost the ability to truly focus on something-to get deeply entrenched in a project.  I mean, I could ...eventually, but it required a mass amount of discipline.  I noticed this most profoundly with reading.  I seldom read a real book.  I listened to audiobooks all the time because I could listen while I did something else. But it had been a while since I could name a book that I actually read cover to cover with my eyes.

I started noticing this same thing in other areas, too.  I wanted to lose weight, so I would do something different for a few days, then move on to something else.  I would decide to do one kind of workout, then move to another kind 3 days later.  I would watch a show on tv while participating in a Twitter chat and texting my friend to schedule dinner.  My Fitbit would send a buzz to my arm when I got a text, so I would check it while walking and listening to an audiobook.  I found my brain just had a hard time doing one thing at a time or for very long.  

So, this year, I decided my word would be FOCUS! Follow One Course Until Successful. One thing at a time. One book at a time. One activity at a time. One job at a time.  One day at a time.  I will focus on that show, that person, that activity, that project, that goal with full attention.  That may be as simple as putting the Ipad away while I binge watch Mad Men or taking my Fitbit off while I work.  It may mean closing my email tab while I work on a presentation or leaving my phone at home while I walk with my husband.  It may mean setting a goal for a project and not leaving my computer until it’s done...no matter what.  800 words….not 700.  Blog post written….not just thought through.  Section 1 of presentation completed...not just outlined.  New product designed...not just sketched.  Book read...not just skimmed.

Over the past several years that I have chosen a word instead of a resolution, my word has just sort of come to me. Around November, I would start getting a sense of what my word should be. Not so, this year. In fact, several words came to me.  I couldn’t focus on one! THAT was my clue that it was time to back away from the temptation of “more” -and instead -do less with more FOCUS.

I hope your 2018 is full of great things, and I would love to hear your word for the year!