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Friday, September 27, 2013

Let Your Students Do the Talking

Think about the last great conversation that you participated in.  What made this a good conversation?  Were you able to follow an argument, understand the point-of-view of another, expand on your beliefs, or even debate an alternate perspective?  Now, imagine if you engaged in a discussion only to be led through a serious of scripted questions for which there was only one answer?  And imagine if the person asking you these questions already knew all the answers.  When we feel like our voices matter and that our questions mean something, we feel more invested and engaged in the conversation.  However, if the goal of the conversation is for the listener to become a passive recipient of knowledge, then why would we join this "conversation"?

Unfortunately, these are the types of text "discussions" that often play out inside our classrooms.  In their book Notice and Note, Beers and Probst describe this inauthentic, authoritative classroom talk as monologic (2013).  Typically during monologic talk, the teacher imparts knowledge to students in the form of a lecture, explanation, or set of guiding questions.  We might think we are engaging our students in conversations around a text--we might even lead our students through a carefully scripted list of questions--but these are merely pseudo-conversations.  Think about it: when we ask a question for which we already know the answer, hoping kids share out the correct response for all to hear, then are we really having a conversation at all?  It's no wonder why so many students are disengaged.

On the other hand, dialogic conversation involves asking authentic questions for which we don't know the answer so that both students and teachers work together to create meaning.  According to Beers and Probst (2013), these conversations involve a give-and-take as the speaker becomes the listener and the listener becomes the speaker.  Through this discourse, the students act as "co-constructors of their knowledge" where their voices count and their ideas matter (p. 27).  If we want our students to engage in class discussions, then we need to critically examine the role of talk in our classrooms and make sure we encourage students to question ideas, allow them to take ownership in their learning, and help them to tackle the challenges of rigorous texts.

Beers and Probst offer several tips on how to improve student-to-student discourse in our classrooms.  The following list is based on their suggestions:

1.  Listen to the conversations in your classroom to determine if there is evidence of rigorous thinking.  Although students might be engaged in the conversation, it's important to make sure they refer to the text to deepen and expand on their knowledge and that they are reflective, patient, and tolerant of other students' ideas and perspectives.  We want to encourage dialogic conversation, but we need to make sure it's rigorous talk.

2.  Let the students pose the questions.  It is easy to ask students lots of questions that help guide them to an understanding; however, this line of questioning simply guides them to our understanding.  As teachers, let's encourage kids to think through the text and bring their own ideas, refections, and interpretation to the table.  Just because the kids are asking the questions doesn't mean we have to accept anything as an answer.  Remember, we are looking for rigorous and accountable talk.  So when students misread or offer an interpretation with no justification, we need to push them to the text to reread, rethink, and support their views.

3.  Provide students with strategies to help keep the conversation going.  Students who are not used to dialogic talk might not know how to engage in the discussion.  Although we might be tempted to takeover, instead pass out conversation prompts on notecards for the students to refer to when there is a lull in the conversation.  Provide students with mini-lessons and plenty of modeling on how to frame a response to a comment they wish to elaborate upon, disagree with, or need clarification on.  Just as students need our help using reading and writing strategies, they need explicit instruction, modeling, and practice speaking and listening during class discussions.

4.  Provide students with specific feedback about their conversations.  Offering students specific feedback such as, "The point you just made about Roger's connection to Mrs. Jones really helps us understand why Roger chooses to stay rather than run away," not only encourages students engagement, but it also promotes more discussion.  Simply offering up a "Nice job" or "Good point" here and there is disruptive to the flow of the discussion and doesn't help others understand why the comment is "nice" or "good."  We want to seize on these unobtrusive, golden opportunities to instruct whenever possible.

5.  Encourage students to elaborate.  When we set the expectation for rigorous and accountable talk, then we need to push students to "tell us more" or "give us an example" when sharing comments that lack text support.  If students struggle to provide support, take advantage of the opportunity to model elaboration for them.  For example, if the student claims that Mrs. Jones must have stolen things when she was young but provides no evidence to support this claim, then the teacher could prompt the student by saying, "I understand your ideas here, and if I look toward the end of the story, I see a passage that would support your comment."

6.  Ask high-level questions to all our students--even to those students who struggle with reading.  Underachieving students benefit from deep, thoughtful engagement with a text and should not be sheltered from the experience of dialogic conversation.  All students deserve the opportunity to grapple with challenging texts and challenging questions.  If they don't learn how to work through these challenges with us during school, how can they be expected to do it in college and beyond?

7.  Arrange the desks to allow students to see each other's faces.  Simply moving the desks out of rows and into a circle makes a world of difference in promoting class discussions.


Students recognize when they are simply being led through a series of scripted questions.  It's inauthentic.  It's fake to them.  Just as we adults don't appreciate monologic talk, neither do our students.  If we want our students to experience deep, meaningful discussions full of aha moments and critical thinking, then we need to put down the question and answer list, pull up a chair, and let our students do the talking.

Works Cited:
Beers, G. K., & Robert, P. (2012).Notice & note: strategies for close reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Word Up...It's Woodlawn Middle School!




       Those of you who have young children might already be aware of the TV show Word Girl where a young female superhero sets out to protect the world while simultaneously teaching new vocabulary words.  A girl after my own heart, really. I'd like to believe that Word Girl, if she actually existed, would be pretty darn excited about the amazing instructional practices that are currently happening here at Woodlawn Middle School in the area of vocabulary.

          Gone are the days when teachers are assigning lists of words to students to look up in a dictionary, asking them record a definition (that they probably do not understand in the first place), and requiring them to write a sentence using the word without any explicit teaching ever taking place.  Research has shown that this archaic practice is simply a waste of time if our goal is to increase students' word banks, helps them to understand more challenging texts, and provide them with better words to utilize in their written and oral discourse.
          Many English teachers across the building are engaged in what the research says are best instructional practices:  explicitly teaching Tier 2 vocabulary words to students that will soon be encountered in class readings.   According to Beck, McKeown, and Kucan, Tier 2 words are those words that learners are "less likely to run into ..as they listen to daily language" and "come mainly from interaction with books" (2008, p. 7).  Thus, by selecting words that have endurance (will be found in many disciplines and contexts) and are essential to the comprehension of class readings,  teachers are helping students to navigate more complex texts with increased comprehension success.  
              So what does the actual instruction of these words look like in the classrooms?  Currently 7th grade English teachers at Woodlawn have been selecting the recommended number of five words to explicitly teach each week.  These words will come from an informational text or "article of the week" that students will encounter later that week.  On the first day, teachers use Beck's research-based "word conversation" method which involves having kids say the word while also sharing a visual image and simple definition with student.  Additionally, teachers provide examples of ways in which the word can be used in various contexts, and hold conversations that require students to answer questions related to these new words.  Students should have opportunities during this initial lesson to discuss the new term with peers before being asked to create their own definition of the new term.  If students simply copy a teacher's definition, the lesson will be less meaningful.  See below for a sample template used during a word conversation for the word contradiction.

        After the initial exposure to the new words occurs, the words are ideally placed on a Word Wall as a visual reminder for both students and teachers to use the new words in speaking and writing about class content.  What follows this initial instruction is pivotal in ensuring that students are able to add the new word to their internal word banks.  Research has shown that students require repeated exposures to a word in different contexts to truly understand the word on a deep level (Stahl & Fairbanks, 1986;  Mezynski, 1983).  Thus, teachers need to provide students with multiple opportunities to connect these new words to old words daily.  What this looks like may vary but a few examples of how this might happen are the following:
  • Create a visual picture of their own.  Especially important for English Language Learners (Boyd Zimmerman, 1997;  Brown & Perry, 2012), students can be given an opportunity to create a non-linguistic representation of the word.  Asking them to explain how their picture connects to the word helps to solidify the connection between old and new background knowledge.
  • Give students sentence stems to complete using the words.  For example, if the word is nonchalant, students might be given the following sentence to complete:  The character in the story "tried to be nonchalant when she...... " (Beck, McKeown, and Kucan, 2008 p. 85).
  • Ask students to respond to questions using the new vocabulary words.  Since teachers often struggle to fit everything in,  it is important to point out that every repeated exposure to vocabulary does not or should not occur in the form of a worksheet.  Skilled teachers will weave questions using the words inside authentic classroom discussions.  For example, if the new vocabulary word were urgent, teachers might begin by asking students to list examples of urgent situations.  When reading a story or article,  they might ask: What text evidence did the author give to signal to the reader that the main character needed to act urgently?  Good, solid vocabulary instruction is embedded within literacy instruction and should not feel like we are dropping everything right now to "do vocabulary."
  • Connect 2:  Only after a few opportunities to learn about the words, teachers could ask students to write one sentence connecting two new words together.  Understanding the relationships that exist between words helps increase the likelihood that students will own and use these new terms independently.
        Just as it is important for teachers to provide kids with multiple opportunities to manipulate and utilize new words, it is equally important to continue to revisit previous words repeatedly throughout the school year. Playing games with the words not only motivates students to want to learn new words and makes learning fun, but it helps students retain their new learning. Marzano's book, Vocabulary Games for the Classroom, is an excellent resource to help keep word learning fresh and exciting.
              So if you are a parent of a student at Woodlawn Middle School, do not be surprised when you notice the sophistication of your child's word choice in speaking and writing increase dramatically as a result of these best practices being implemented.  And if PBS is smart enough, the network will use Woodlawn as the backdrop for a future episode of Word Girl.  Word up!

Works Cited
     
Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2012). Bringing words to life: robust vocabulary instruction. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Gulliford Publications, Inc.
      Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G., & Kucan, L.  (2008).  Creating robust vocabulary.  New York:  NY:  Guilford Publications, Inc.
Boyd Zimmerman, C.  (1997).    Do reading and interactive vocabulary instruction make a difference?  An empirical study.  Tesol Quarterly, 31(1), 121-140).
Mezynski, K. (1983). Issues concerning the acquisition of knowledge: effects of vocabulary training on reading comprehension. Review of Educational Research, 53(2), 253-279.
Stahl, S. A., & Fairbanks, M. M. (1986). The effects of vocabulary instruction: a model based meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 56(1), 76-110.


Sunday, September 8, 2013

Teaching a Discipline Rather Than Covering Content

As part of my literacy coaching responsibilities for this school year, I have been working more closely with our social studies department to help them implement Common Core Standards and bring literacy into their classrooms.

When working with social studies teachers in previous years, I devoted much of my energy to providing them with generic reading comprehension strategies that I hoped would encourage students to read and write "like historians."  However, after much research and rethinking, I have come to realize that teaching generic comprehension strategies within the social studies curriculum does not necessarily help students navigate the demands of a historical text.  In his book Developing Readers in the Academic Disciplines, Doug Buehl argues that simply providing students reading instruction through a literary lens will not prepare them for the reading and writing practices that are specific to their content classes (p. 14).  In other words, in our history classes, we need to address disciplinary literacy rather than content literacy.

Content area literacy involves teaching literacy skills--the skills we typically teach in LA classes--using content texts, such as textbooks, primary source documents, or journal articles.  On the other hand, disciplinary literacy requires students to use knowledge, skills, and reasoning that are specific to a discipline in order to master a text.  Many of us bemoan that our students "can't read" and therefore must be sheltered from the frustration of reading challenging texts by spoon-feeding them content through lectures and presentations.  However, this assumption is simply wrong.  Most of our students are perfectly capable of reading.  As noted by Shanahan and Shanahan (2008), many of our students appear as though they "can't read" because they have never gained "proficiency with the more advanced skills that would enable them to read challenging texts in science, history, literature, mathematics, or technology" (p.45).  When we eliminate reading in the content classes and simply hand our students information through lectures and class presentations, we make kids totally dependent on the teacher for their learning.  The ability to read complex disciplinary texts independently and proficiently is essential for success at college, on the job, and throughout life.  We need to give students appropriate literacy instruction from disciplinary experts--the teachers who "read, write, and think through their chosen disciplinary lenses" every day (Buehl, 2011, p.29).

Does this mean content teacher need to be reading teachers?  No, nevertheless, you do need to help students tackle texts within your own field of expertise.  According to the Alliance for Education, all content teachers "should know what is distinct about reading, writing, and reading processes that go on in their discipline" so that we can give students "frequent opportunities to read, write, and think in these ways" (Pearson, 1996).  So what does it mean to read like a historian?  According to Buehl (2011), students tend to view history as a series of chronological events that must be studied for the purpose of fact-collecting.  Students look to their textbooks as the authority on the social, political, and economic phenomena that have occurred throughout history.  On the other hand, historians critically examine a text in order to understand why events happened, how these events changed things, and how the author arrived at these conclusions.  Historians read a text as an argument rather than as truth statements.  When reading about history, we need to mentor students not only in how to understand the events that occurred but also to recognize the interpretations of the author.

This seems like quite a challenge--a challenge that compels us to rethink our curriculum.  What if we pared down the topics we covered and didn't feel pressured to race through a curriculum that's a mile wide and only an inch deep?  What if we had time to slow down and really dig into the essential questions and themes that recur throughout history?  When we can focus our instruction on teaching students how historians read, write, and think, then we no longer have to cover content and instead gain the opportunity to teach a discipline.