Archive | March, 2013

How do You Know What’s Worthy of Noticing?

29 Mar

We just concluded our book club unit, and as the kids closed Love That Dog with a sigh of satisfaction, I gave a mental cheer as well.  I’m not generally much of a Pollyanna in class, but there were so many moments where they would gasp as I read aloud, and then furiously jot down a note to share with their group, or where I would ask them to discuss a small section and they would quickly erupt into a larger discussion that connected different pieces of the text together and looked for larger meaning.  Pretty neat, huh?

I had to wonder, why were the kids so actively engaged in making meaning this time, when at other times (other read-alouds, other classes) it’s felt like more of a struggle?

This year, more than any other, we’ve been working on a few consistent signs that tell a reader something important is happening.  And not just plot-important, but craft-important, character-development-important.  We’ve been working on the idea that when something is repeated, or something changes, it’s a signal that the reader should get up and take notice.  I’ll re-post the chart from an earlier post on the subject:

Chart for good places to Stop and Jot

Chart for good places to Stop and Jot

Love That Dog has a significant amount of repetition–it repeats objects, lines, and feelings.   But it also has some clear changes.  Jack, the main character, shifts from disliking poetry and feeling shy and scared, to being an avid poetry fan and confident poet.   Every day reading the book was an opportunity for students to make another discovery, and they loved that.

Kylene Beers and Robert Probst recently came out with another book that identifies signals as well, only they have six.  They call them “signposts”.

9780325046938Their signposts, in a nutshell, are:

•   Contrasts and Contradictions:  a sharp contrast between what we would expect and what we observe the character doing; behavior that contradicts previous behavior or well-established patterns  like our “things that change”

•   Aha Moment:  a character’s realization of some that shifts his action or understanding of himself, others, or the world around him

•   Tough Questions:  questions a character raises that reveal his or her inner struggles

•   Words of the Wiser:  the advice or insight a wiser character, who is usually older, offers about life to the main character  maybe a little like “lingering” but more specific?

•   Again and Again: events, images, or particular words that recur over a portion of the novel I  like our “things that repeat”

•     Memory Moment:  a recollection by a character that interrupts the forward progress of the story  maybe a little like “lingering” but more specific?

I had a moment of validation when I saw they had repetition and change on their list as well (though I guess those are hardly groundbreaking ideas I suppose!).  I thought their signposts were a great next step for kids.  I would continue to start my class on just the idea of noticing repetition and change for a while, but as they grew solid, I can see introducing these other signposts to add to their toolbox of “when readers should sit up and take notice.”

This is all to say that in order for readers to have successful conversations (and for book clubs to last longer than 30 seconds) they have to have some idea of what is notice and talk-worthy.  Especially when we move into differentiated books, it’s important that students be able to notice these kinds of important moments themselves.  Having consistent ways of labeling what’s worth noticing is one way to support students in making these kinds of discoveries themselves.


24 Mar

The New York Times had a post titled The Stories That Bind Us a few weeks ago.  Essentially, the article says that children who know a lot about their family, who have a strong narrative sense of where they come from, do better in the face of adversity.  Specifically, children are more resilient when their family narrative contains stories of not only success and adversity, but overcoming hardships.  The “oscillating family narrative” allows children to connect to something greater than themselves, and to identify with the idea that they too can bounce back from setbacks or failures.

Identifying yourself as part of a group that overcomes hardships connects back to Carol Dweck and growth mindset.  The idea that narratives can tie an individual’s identity to a group, and to the success, failure, or mindset of the group, is a powerful tool for us to use to help children.  Families can certainly use this to build a family narrative, but so can teachers, schools, coaches, etc.  What would happen if we started telling students the stories of our (and our class’s or school’s) successes, hardships, and resilience?  Could we build that identity and mindset in our students?

Book Club Materials Management

24 Mar

Book clubs create a new materials situation.  Now you have many people joining together to talk and grow ideas–how do you organize the thinking and notes?  Jenny and I decided on folders last year, and it worked fairly well.  This year we modified (and simplified) them slightly.

Each team has a folder filled with:

  1. Sticky Note Sheets: The materials manager makes sure that every participant places two sticky notes in their square.  The first is the sticky note they initially discuss.  The second (the one on top) is the new note they write at the end of the discussion, with their new thinking.
  2. photo 2

  3. Inference Chart: Some of our lessons deal with noticing characters, and students record their thinking on this chart.  They’ll use the chart throughout the unit, so we should see their thinking about characters grow and 3
  4. Role Cards: They tuck these cards in the front pocket to use. photo 1

It’s been a nice way for them to keep track of their work, and for me to be able to follow up after the conversation to take a look at how their ideas are changing.

Book Club Roles

18 Mar

In my last post I referenced the roles that Jenny and I created for our introductory unit for book clubs.  They were an experiment, to see if more formal roles would help students to learn how to work and talk together in groups.  I think, overall, they’ve done their job.  We created four roles: fantastic facilitator, curious questioner, materials manager, airtime avenger.  Yes, yes we do love alliteration.

Our third book club lesson taught students how to use these roles.  We videotaped our model book club group doing this roles (four, 1-minute clips of each person demonstrating their role) and then showed them to the class.

We also created role cards, which had the job description and sentence frames, that students could place in front of them during discussions.

photo 1Finally, we had a grid with each book club’s participants written in columns.  The roles were in the left-hand column, and we could rotate the roles so that everyone in the group experienced each job.

photo 4Most of the roles deal with how to improve the conversation.  The facilitator keeps everyone on task, the questioner extends the discussion, the avenger makes sure everyone participates.  This keeps our focus on what’s really important in book clubs, which is using the conversation to deepen our understanding of the text.  Within the roles, we also tucked in some other habits we want students to create, such as referencing the text, using examples, and extending an idea.

Possible Pitfalls

The students love to use the role cards.  Initially, students used them indiscriminately.  Every time someone said something, they all grabbed their role card and tried out a sentence frame.  The facilitator told everyone to get back on topic even when they were all on topic.  The questioner asked someone to say more…again, and and again, and again.  It was very amusing for one lesson, but of course not the point.  We had a whole class conversation after the first time using the roles, and talked about using the purposefully and strategically.  After that, except for one group that I needed to talk to privately, they began to use them appropriately.  It’s a work in progress, for sure.

We’re on our 5th lesson with the roles, and they are becoming increasingly natural.  The ultimate goal is to be able to get rid of roles altogether, and have students internalize these questions and routines.

Gearing Up For Book Clubs

17 Mar

We’re in the middle of book clubs right now, with students meeting in groups of four to discuss their books.  This year, Jenny and I decided to run a first round of book clubs in a more structured and scaffolded manner than we ever had before.  The goal was to provide heavy support in the management of clubs (what book to read, how much to read, where to meet, roles) so that students could focus primarily on how to talk and grow ideas.

Love_That_DogWe chose to use Love That Dog, by Sharon Creech, as a class read-aloud, but also as a the novel for every book club.  Using a read-aloud as our first book club text allowed us a few advantages:

  • we all read the book together, avoiding the issues of students reading too far or not far enough
  • we scaffold thinking during the read-aloud through prompts and think-alouds, which helps students to be prepared for discussion
  • we know the book extremely well, so we can help support groups who might struggle
  • the extra support in comprehension allows us to work on procedural issues for this first round of clubs

We noticed in previous years that book clubs had two major pitfalls.  Some students struggled with the procedural aspect of clubs.  These might include reading an appropriate chunk of pages between meetings, coming prepared for conversations with sticky notes, speaking up, or letting others speak.  Some students struggled with the academic aspect of book clubs, like knowing how to build off of another person’s ideas, noticing moments in the book that were “conversation worthy” etc.

We’ve been working on both of these set of skills throughout the year, in read-alouds, grand-conversations, and partner discussions, but it’s a brand new level of complexity when we ask students to work in a groups of four without a teacher guiding them.  Since there are 7 or 8 groups in clubs at one time, I often struggled with one or two groups that sucked up most of my time with managerial issues.  I wanted to listen in, and help push student conversation.  Instead I was putting out fires or struggling with a group that seemed lost.

The new, introductory book club unit has been very successful.  I’d like to go into the details of some particular lessons later, but for now, here are a few innovations that helped.

1. Video examples of a successful group

We pulled four 5th graders who had been strong participants in book clubs the previous year, and asked them to help us model some great meetings.  We asked them to model having a conversation where they showed what great book clubs looked like and sounded like.  They modeled making eye contact, leaning in, quiet bodies, sitting knee-to-knee, sharing, and listening.  The clip was about 2 minutes long.  I shared the clip with my class, and then we talked about what we noticed the group doing that helped them to be successful.  Then my class had a first conversation.  Gosh darn it if they didn’t model themselves exactly after the group they had just watched.  Modeling is really a powerful thing :).

We followed up that video clip with later lessons where we watched the group demonstrate having a first conversation about the book (things to notice included referencing the text, making predictions, discussing first impressions of characters) and book club roles.  Each clip was between 1-2 minutes long, so very quick.

2. Roles

I’ve never used the official roles from Literature Circles, because they always felt like they compartmentalized the discussion a little too much.  Summarizer, discussion director, illustrator, word wizard…I wasn’t sure I wanted students to focus on just one skill.  However, the purpose of this round of book clubs was to teach students how to sustain a conversation and work together, so Jenny and I created some new roles for that purpose.  I’ll go more into the roles in a later post, but I’ve been fairly pleased with them.  They’ve helped students to maintain their discussion but they haven’t felt limiting or restricting.

We did a lesson where we taught students the roles, and we also provided small sentence frame cards for each role, so that students had a very clear idea of how to fulfill their job.  The cards have been extremely helpful.  When discussions begin to falter, I see students pull out their cards and think of what they can do, and then say, “Can you tell me more about ____?”

3.  Communal Meeting Spot

I used to have students all pick a spot they wanted their club to meet in, so that it felt special and so they had some ownership.  I still think that’s a great idea–eventually.  For this round, the clubs are all meeting on the carpet.  With them all in one place, I can see everyone at once,  I can listen in to multiple conversations at once, and I can jot down who needs more support and who is being very successful.  It’s both a management strategy (harder for students to be off task with their teacher 10 steps away) and an assessment strategy–I can actually tell what’s going on in almost all the groups each day.

Twice, I’ve noticed clubs having a lot of difficulty–more difficulty than a quick teach-in or redirect would fix.  Each time, I asked the clubs to stay on the carpet when the rest of the class was dismissed to independent work.  Each time, we were able to problem solve, and the next session was much improved.  Everyone meeting in one place has helped keep the hiccups to a minimum.

Those are my tips thus far!  More to come on the unit.  In the meantime, what have you done to make book clubs successful?  I’d love to know!

A Smatter of Links

16 Mar

Some uplifting clips for your Saturday viewing enjoyment!

I love this article about a Jerry Reid, a 68 year old who not only goes back to college, he joins a fraternity. Rushing the court at basketball games, advocating for more continuing studies courses, joining the debate team–I get a kick out of how he’s providing the campus with “a 20 year old that just has 48 years of experience.”

And this is what I wish sports were more often about.  Mitchell, a team manager for a high school basketball team, is disabled.  Everyone works together for his last game to make sure that he gets a chance to make his shot.

And this last one is just for fun, although I am planning to use it in my language class to help students develop vocabulary.  Instead of “threw the ball” or “shot the basket,” I think we can come up with much more interesting terms, don’t you?


Enjoy the Moment

6 Mar

Most of us get far more positive feedback and reinforcement than negative during the day, but somehow it’s the negative that can burrow into our brains and stay there, gleefully building a pyramid of worry and anxiety.  We get so caught up in the details (admiring the problem, I heard a colleague say yesterday) that we fail to step back and look at our situation objectively.

Students do this too, become so obsessed with one thing they want, or one thing that goes wrong, that they struggle to pull back and think, “How important is this?”  When I see children having an argument, the first thing we often discuss is, “What’s the size of this problem?” (i.e. Does it really matter if you write with the purple pen or the red pen?)  Grudgingly, they will often acceed that the problem is on the small scale rather than the master-disaster-tornado-blew-down-your-house-scale.

Wisdom comes from Spanish NBA player Ricky Rubio, consoling his teammate (who’s been having some trouble hitting his shots lately.)

I’m sure both of these guys have a lot riding on these games, but if they don’t enjoy it now, when will they?

It brings to mind the kid president video I posted earlier.  Even more amazingly, kid president (otherwise known as Robbie Novak) was born with osteogenisis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease.  But instead of worrying, he prefers to dream like he’s flying.  Good advice kid president.  Good advice.


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