Archive | November, 2012

Professional Development and Coaching

24 Nov

I’m a little bit of a professional development junkie.  I sit in on seminars and lectures and institutes, and in my head, grand visions form of my future classroom.

Then I return to reality.  The reality that there’s not enough time in the day for my grand lessons.  The reality that not all of my students want to work on strategies as they read (I just want to finish the book Mrs. Stavis!).  The reality that no matter how many ways I think I’ve differentiated a lesson, it’s still not clicking for some.

Usually, at this point the institute is over.  Here’s where PD can get really frustrating: you have a tantalizing glimpse of what’s possible, but it feels oh-so-far-away.

This is where observation and coaching becomes key.  A coach provides feedback that is specific and in real-time.  She knows you, she knows your students, she’s watched your lessons.  A good coach will take the information from professional development and help you to apply it to your kids and your school, in digestible nuggets.

Sometimes people have a negative reaction to coaching.  It can be seen as punitive or evaluative, i.e. “I’m being coached because they think I’m bad at my job.”  But coaching is anything but.  Who else uses one-on-one coaching?  Top athletes, business executives, politicians—anyone trying to get better at what they’re doing.  Teaching is complex, and the more eyes and minds focused on the job, the better.

To be really effective, coaching needs to be specific and ongoing.  In other words, it should be targeted at something you are trying to improve (rather than many different areas), and it should be repeated and sustained over a period of time.   A single coaching session is nice, but it’s hard to create sustained change or progress with a one-off deal.  Multiple sessions over many months, or years, is the key to growth.

In a later post I’ll go into details about how we’re using coaching at my school, but I will say that it’s been the driving force that has pushed our professional development from discussion in our staff room to implementation in the classroom.

Read-Aloud: to use a CD, or not to use a CD

22 Nov

I’ve been waffling back and forth between doing the reading myself in read-alouds, and using audiobooks.  There are advantages and disadvantages to each method.

Reading Yourself

  • You can read at your own pace, slowing down in parts you want to emphasize or have students notice.
  • You can repeat important lines or passages easily.
  • You don’t have technology problems with finding the right chapter or place in the book.
  • You can roam the room with you book as you read-aloud, vs. staying close to the technology.


  • With an audiobook playing, you can monitor the class more closely since you’re not actively reading.  Are students engaged?  Do they seem to understand the story?
  • Audiobooks do a great job of incorporating appropriate accents and voices.  If you’re not dramatically inclined, they add some theater.

Currently, I’ve opted to read it myself.  I find that I pay better attention when I’m reading, vs. having a CD play.  I notice more in my read-aloud books every time I read one, and reading it out-loud gives me more flexibility to change what I’m teaching on-the-go.  Plus, I found I was chained to the iPod when I tried to use an audiobook. I had to be right next to the speaker, ready to stop in the correct spot.

In the end, there’s probably not one right answer.  If I were reading a book where different character voices were very important to the story, I might go back to an audiobook. By the Great Horn Spoon, for example, a great gold-rush text by Sid Fleishman, has characters from all over the globe.  I might use an audiobook for that one.  Changing it up can add some spice and variety to the read-aloud.

Teaching With Taylor

22 Nov

Two summers ago I was at the Reading Institute at Columbia’s Teachers’ College, and Jen Serravallo was sharing ways that media could enhance reading instruction.  She showed us something brilliant: using music videos as a way to focus on symbolism and theme.  As You Belong With Me, by Taylor Swift, played, Jen paused the video at strategic points to think-aloud about the meaning behind Taylor’s outfits, or the symbolism of viewing the two main actors separated by a framed window.  She asked us to talk to our partners about the meaning behind the color choices in certain frames, and to predict what might happen next.  Thirty educators were on the edge of their seats to watch the video and see what she would ask us next.  The enthusiasm in the room was palpable, and I couldn’t wait to try it out in my own classroom.

Back in California, I did run into a slight snafu.  It’s challenging to find videos that are appropriate for elementary school age children and that still have a story that incorporates literary elements.  Over-zealous dancing or soulful camera-gazing have overtaking most of the tween-video market, and the market for teenagers is, for the most part, inappropriate.  A few videos I’ve found that can work are:

Taylor Swift, Mine: Use to teach time shifting, repetition

Taylor Swift, You Belong With Me: Use to teach inference from details: clothing, scenery, actions

Taylor Swift, Mean: Use to teach foreshadowing, object symbols, details

Notice a pattern in the singer?   Taylor loves story telling in her videos, and they tend to be appropriate in terms of language and visual elements.  I’d love to have some other videos and artists in this list, but they’re tough to find!

I started out with the video Mean, both because I thought the subject would appeal to fourth graders (bullying) and because there are objects that carry symbolic importance. This matched a major goal of my reading unit: noticing important details, especially objects that repeat, and thinking about their meaning.

I marked down stopping points where I would pause to think.  My first few stopping points were for my think-alouds, and later on I stopped and asked students to talk to their partners about what they noticed.

I wanted students to notice how authors describe characters in books, so I focused on a scene where there’s a marked contrast between the way different characters are portrayed in the music video.  In one scene, some popular students tease a dowdy waitress.   I thought aloud myself in the first, modeling for students how to notice key details.  In a later scene, where the waitress has become an important executive, I asked students to talk to their partners about what details they think are important.

What Worked:

When you do this kind of work with videos, you tend to find lots and lots of places to stop.   It’s important to limit your pauses and target just one or two teaching points so that students remain engaged with the video.  I stopped at three points to think aloud myself, and another two spots for students to think with their partners.

The class loved it.  Not only did the media aspect engage them, but you could audibly hear them gasp when they noticed objects like a piggybank appear in multiple scenes.  We’d been discussing the importance of repeated objects in the read-aloud, and now they saw it in a video.  The noise in the room was tremendous as they hurried to tell their partners what they noticed, and talk about the possible significance.

Right after watching the video, I reminded students that they could do this same kind of thinking work in their books.  I asked them to be alert to important details and to objects that repeat in their own story.  I saw a renewed excitement for finding these kinds of important details in their own books during their independent reading time.

Next Steps:

I would like to come back to the same video multiple times, using it like a touchstone text.  Each time you view the video you can have a slightly different focus.  Like a touchstone text, students will grow to know the story well, which will free their minds to focus on whatever element you choose to highlight.


Real Life Math Problems

22 Nov

I stumbled upon this post by Matt Ives about Real Life Math Problems and I knew it was something I wanted to try.   Matt’s problems are typical word problems, but with all of the numbers removed.  For example, instead of, “You want to buy a cookie for $2 and some milk for .50 cents.  If you have $5 to spend, how much money will you have left over?” the problem might read, “You want to buy a cookie and some milk.  How much money will you have left?”  Students then need to figure out what information they need to solve the problem, and ask the teacher, “How much money do I have to start with?  How much money is a cookie?  How much does the milk cost?”  If children ask a relevant question, the teacher gives them the information needed.  If students ask an irrelevant question, the teacher asks them to rethink about what’s important and what information would help them.

There are so many advantages to this method of problem solving.  It avoids the classic problem of children grasping on to the numbers in a problem and immediately and randomly trying out different operations.  How many times have we seen students read a word problem and then look at us and say, “I multiply right?  Divide?  Add?  Subtract?” without any clear understanding of why they would be using a particular operation.   They’re desperate to plug and chug.  Without numbers, they have to consider what the problem is actually asking before they dive into finding a solution.

This method is also highly engaging.  Students are talking and brainstorming what possible information would be helpful.  My room was loud, but it was on-task loud, with students trying to figure out what information they needed and then what they could do with it.

Students also remain engaged with these problems for more time.  One group was stuck on the first problem for almost ten minutes.  Ten minutes is an eternity for a nine year old, but they kept trying to find the necessary information and failing, trying and failing, until eventually  they succeeded.  Their exuberance when they nailed it was that much sweeter because they’d been working at it for so long.

What Worked:

Students were placed in groups of three.  I find that 3-4 students per group tends to maximize participation of each person while providing for a lot of different ideas to be heard.   If students struggle to collaborate, I might drop it down to pairs.

The math problems grow in order of difficulty, so students began at problem one and worked down through problem 5.  They wrote what information they needed to gather, and then showed the work they did, with numbers, pictures, or words, to get the answer. Students worked on large whiteboards so they could all see and access their work (and I could see what they were doing at a glance.)  I made these whiteboards by buying showerboard at Home Depot.  They come in 8 x 4 foot sheets, which I had Home Depot cut to 2 x 3 foot boards, and then I wrapped the edges in duct tape.

One norm we’ve established is the idea that all students must “share the pen” meaning everyone gets a chance to record.  For this session, I gave each group one pen, but sometimes I give each member a different color pen, with the expectation that I should see three or four colors on the board at the end of the math period.

I required different members of the group to ask me the questions about additional information, so everyone practiced asking clear questions.  Some students had to go back to their group to clarify what they were asking me, so they got even more practice in listening and speaking to others.

At the end of the session we put the boards on a table and had a “gallery walk” of every team’s work.  Then we debriefed in a circle and talked about what went well about working together on these problems, and what was hard.

Next Steps:

I’d like to incorporate this kind of problem solving about once a week in my math class.  My class does a nice job overall of listening to each other and working together respectfully, but we probably need some more instruction in helping each other with wait time and inviting everyone to take participate, even those shy or more struggling.

Mission Blueprints with a Side of Academic Language

22 Nov

I recently finished up a unit on the California Missions, and I was wracking my brain trying to think of a way to incorporate more writing strategies into Social Studies.  Then I looked over some of the writing assignment my husband, who teaches high school biology, had assigned to his students.  (On a side note, I’ve found that there’s a remarkable similarity between things that work for high school students and those that work for elementary).  He had asked his students to write a reflection on a science project, and had given them specific vocabulary and sentence frames to include in their writing.  The result was conclusions that were lengthy, academic, and high quality.

I thought, “why not try it with fourth graders?”  I took the last assignment of our Mission Unit, where students took “blueprints” of buildings that existed on missions and arranging them on a large piece of construction paper, and asked students to write about how and why they arranged their mission in that particular fashion.  Their directions included a word bank of academic vocabulary, and sentence frames divided into three categories: giving examples, cause and effect, and conclusions.

Image ImageOver the course of two days, students wrote an average of 1-½ pages, with writing that made sense syntactically and grammatically.  The majority of them even using commas—the dreaded punctuation mark of elementary school–appropriately.  True, some were still writing sentences like “The Church is the most important building of a mission so, I put the soldiers’ barracks close by to protect it,” but at least they gave the comma try.

What Worked:

The word bank and frames made students more independent and increased the quality of their work, without limiting their creativity.   Since students already had a strong understanding of the historical concepts through previous lessons and the actual creation of the missions they were free to focus on the writing.

Next Steps:

The more I use sentence frames, the more convinced I am about their power to improve the sophistication of students’ writing.  In particular, when you teach students how to use them orally and then repeatedly come back to them in writing students begin to internalize them and use them independently.   I’d like to come back to this writing method in science, but I’ll need to do a little more instruction with students about where the comma goes (Jeff Anderson has a great chapter on FANBOYS, which he calls “comma causers” in his book Mechanically Inclined, which I highly recommend).


22 Nov

Welcome to my blog about literacy in education!   I hope this will be a resource for strategies and lesson ideas for the classroom, as well as a forum for thoughts and inquiry on literacy in general.  Whether you’re new to teaching or a veteran, you’ll find something useful and relevant to your practice.

Literacy permeates every area of education, from social to academic, math to science, oral language to reading comprehension.  Although as teachers we understand the importance of helping students become active thinkers who can fluently read, write, speak and understand others, it can be such a challenge to address in the classroom.

If you have something to add, please do!   Comments, corrections and new information are welcome.




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