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Friday, October 18, 2013

Noticing Signposts and My Love Affair With Common Core Standard 10

          Literacy experts have often gone on the record as saying that the one of the two most important targets when instructing the English Language Arts Common Core is Standard 10 which reads as follows:  By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, at the high end of grades 6–8 text complexity band independently and proficiently.  In plain English, this target requires that students  know how and when to apply varied reading strategies independently to challenging text in order to understand on a deep level.  Standard 10 is the most important target, in my opinion, because without the ability to comprehend tough text, students will be unable to master many if any of the other grade level standards connected to literacy.  A student cannot analyze sections of text, determine the theme of a text, or critique the author's use of argument techniques when he or she is still unable to extrapolate the literal meaning from the text.
            I think it is safe to assume that most educators make the choice to join the teaching profession because they appreciate the learning process and wish to help others share in the learning as well. Thus, it makes sense that we who have a natural tendency to help others would want to limit the amount of time that our students feel frustrated and anxious as the readings and tasks become increasingly more rigorous.  Unfortunately, what happens is that we end up doing a huge disservice to students under the guise of "helping" them.  We lower the text complexity.  We give students audio books to help them through tough reads.  We remove "tough" vocabulary words and replace then with simpler words before handing out an article.  We read everything aloud.  We ask only our most fluent readers to read.  We call on another student when the first students pauses and can't immediately produce a response.  We talk so much about the text that students need only to listen to our lecture and can virtually bypass the actual act of reading altogether. 
           I would argue that all of these behaviors that occur with the best of intentions are not helping our students to be better equipped to demonstrate proficiency of Standard 10.  In fact, these types of choices actually create a vicious cycle of learned helplessness where students are forced to rely on their teachers and resources they provide to get by in life.  Our students must experience struggle and be explicitly taught strategies to handle the challenges that accompany struggle instead of simply being sheltered from struggle altogether.   Recently, I used the website goanimate to create a video that satirizes just what could happen to these same students who enter the work force and are not equipped with the literacy skills needed to get the job done:
Click on the picture to be directed to the site to view the video.
           As educators, we need to be careful that we do not inappropriately equate "struggle" with "frustration."  Simply handing a child a rigorous text and telling him that is healthy to struggle will not suffice.  In his blog "Common Core or Guided Reading," Tim Shanahan states eloquently that "The success of the common core depends not just on the use of more challenging texts (that’s the easy part), but on whether teachers will have the patience and foresight to provide sufficient and appropriate scaffolding that will help the students to figure out the meaning of a challenging text without being told what it says."    In other words, we, as teachers, should be  scaffolding our instruction as a means to help students learn to do on their own what they can first only do with guided support.
         Recently, many of the 8th grade teachers at Woodlawn Middle School asked for my assistance in implementing the six signposts that good readers use while reading literature as outlined by Beers and Probst in their book Notice and Note:  Strategies for Close Reading (2013).  Although noticing and noting signposts while reading is not spelled out in the Common Core as a specific learning target, 8th grade students are adding this instructional strategy to their toolkits in an effort to gain valuable insights about the texts they read.   Ultimately, students utilizing these signposts should be better prepared to master learning targets because they are working toward development of Standard 10.  Beers's and Probst's signposts aid in removing the mystery that sometimes exists when students attempt to determine what they should devote their energy to analyzing and questioning as they read. The 8th grade LA teachers who are employing these strategies with students recognize the importance of continuing  the development of students' literacy skills by explicitly teaching strategies.  They know that making time for these lessons in class will ultimately save them time teaching other targets in the long run.  They don't view these lessons as "something extra" or "one more thing."  They know that they are a prerequisite needed to encourage critical readers and writers.
           When teaching a new strategy, such as the Notice and Note signposts, it is essential that teachers not only explicitly teach the how of the strategy, but that they also thoroughly explain the why and the when to students.  After exploring and modeling a new strategy several times with students, I want them  to understand specifically why they are spending time learning it, how it will help them to better understand when they read, and when they should elect to use it on their own.  This is a step that I think is often forgotten or only implied in many classrooms today and is essential if we wish to have students leave our rooms and use the skills we've taught them when we are not hovering over them, requiring it.
           Knowing that I wanted to express the why behind learning the signposts, I've always found that the best way to begin a new lesson in middle school is to incorporate an embarrassing tale from my own life into the lesson opening. And, luckily, I have plenty of experiences from which to draw and have no need to embellish.  I began with the story of my first failed attempt at getting a driver's license at age sixteen.  I was driving in a residential neighborhood.  I noticed a STOP sign.  I proceeded to roll through it and ended up failing the exam as result.  Even though I was smart enough to notice that the signpost, (in this case, the STOP sign) existed, I did not do anything as a result of my noticing.  I kept driving. ( In my defense, I didn't think I needed to stop...after all, none of my friends stopped at them.)  But not doing something about the signpost resulted in my having to get right back in line and try for my license a second time.  How does this example connect with reading?  I explained to the students that  it is not enough to just notice clues or "signposts" that writers leave for us in the text.  We must, also, NOTE the significance of them.  Otherwise, we run the risk of only having, at best, a surface level understanding of the text.  It wouldn't have helped my case at all if I had turned to the driver's license examiner and pleaded, "But, honestly, I NOTICED the stop sign."  Simply noting is not enough.  Today, I told them, I would be teaching them to notice one of the signposts that good readers should notice while reading.  In addition, I would help them to NOTE the significance by teaching them ONE specific question to anchor their thinking.  Both parts are needed for successful comprehension.
               The lesson then involved teaching students one of the signposts as outlined by Beers and Probst in their book Notice & Note:  Strategies for Close Reading that my colleague Erica Martin and I have described in greater detail in previous blogs.  Through explicit modeling of how to use this strategy with short stories that connected thematically to upcoming novels, students practiced noticing the signposts and noting the significance of each as a way to gain a deeper understanding of the Common Core Learning Targets that focus on theme, character development, and conflict.  It was pointed out repeatedly why the strategy should be used.  I shared with students that I am often a person who likes to get to the point.  Occasionally, if an author starts lapsing into a lengthy description of the same body of water, I may struggle with paying attention and miss a sign post.  The sign posts help me to slow down.   I should be aware of the signposts while reading whenever I read literature as a way to anchor my thinking, but especially when I am finding it difficult to differentiate between what is important and what might be a superfluous detail.
          To conclude the lesson and to quickly review the signposts in a more entertaining way than having me simply regurgitate the same information I gave them earlier,  students were given approximately five minutes to create a skit that portrayed one of the recently learned signposts to the class.  The students made sure to incorporate the anchor questions that they should ask themselves inside the skit to remind us one last time of how to note the significance once the signpost is located.  For example, when the "words of the wiser" signpost is noticed, and students have recognized a place where a more experienced character is imparting his/her wisdom onto the main character, the question 'What's the life lesson and how might this affect the character?" is used to help students note the significance of the moment.
Students in Ms. Keehnast's class acting out the Words of The Wiser Signpost.  Apparently beards always symbolize wisdom.

           Common Core Standard Ten will never be achieved if we simply try to bypass it in an effort to teach the other standards that target more specific literacy skills.  I would encourage all middle and high school educators to take a long, hard look at their instructional practices, especially if they find students are not mastering standards that they have been instructing on for weeks.  Could it possibly be that Standard 10 has not been explicitly addressed in your instructional practices?  If the answer is yes,  beginning to employ some solid literacy strategies with students might be a place to start.

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