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Fostering Academic Language

11 Nov

Calvin and Hobbes often gets to the heart of what some students are thinking.  Take this cartoon, on language:

Besides the connects to current verbing trends (google it, xerox it, etc.) the idea that language confuses, rather than clarifies is a common theme for classroom students.  I remember in high school having almost exactly this sentiment:


Academic language is there just to sound fancy, right?

In the higher level grades, this may come from people using high-fallutin’ vocabulary when a few simple words would do just as well.  In the primary grades, I think it comes from students not fully understanding the vocabulary and frames they are using.  A few examples from my room:

Until the alarm went off, she woke up.”

“Too much homework is bad for students.  Furthermore, it makes them go to bed late and get too little sleep.  For example, they might not be able to play outside at all and get exercise if they have to spend all their time doing homework.”

“The dirt and rock depositioned on the ocean floor.”

In each of these examples, the student is close–he’s trying–but he doesn’t exactly have the meaning or use down right.  What results is a confusing piece of language.

Teaching academic language and conversation is hard–as tricky as reading and writing.  Like reading comprehension, its easy to get students partway there and then stuck.

Constructive Classroom Conversations: Mastering Language for the Common Core State Standards, by Kenji Hakuta, Jeff Zwiers and Sara Rutherford-Quach, is a MOOC put out by Stanford university about learning language.  The series has videos discussing the challenges of helping students to use academic language to articulate and grow their ideas, as well as example videos of students having constructive conversations and some ideas for teaching techniques that can help.

The  MOOC pairs nicely with Jeff Zwiers website on Academic Language and Literacy, which has PDFs of many of the strategies mentioned on the site.

What I appreciate about the MOOC and Jeff’s website, is their acknowledgement that getting students to have meaningful conversations is challenging.  When we initiate think-pair-shares or discussions, we often get a conversation that runs in circles or runs out of steam after a few moments.  How do you get students to take ownership of their conversations, build them in strong ways, and begin to use them fluidly?

To increase student engagement, one suggestion was to start with prompts like “create, argue, decide, or solve” rather than “evaluate or analyze.”  One is a call to create something, the other a call to “education-al-ize” it.  A good first step is also to create a humorous example.  My current class is obsessed with alien abductions, so most of our steps into new academic language centers around that.  Example:  EVEN THOUGH you take precautions, you can still be abducted by aliens.  FOR EXAMPLE, an abduction ray can beam straight through your roof, so you can’t protect yourself by locking your door.

Silly, but very engaging, and easy to transfer to content.

Jeff also talks about the need to move beyond sentence frames.  I use a lot of sentence frames–I think they’re a great support for students taking on new language.  I still remember my french teacher in college (the only one I retained any french from) teaching us “academic frames” that we could then throw out at leisure without painstakingly parsing each word.  “Quoi qu’il en soit” (french for: be that as it may) became one of my favorites.  I recognized it everywhere, and I could use it at a moments notice.  There’s no way I could have put that phrase together on my own.

However, eventually we want to pull the frames away and have students take ownership over the language.  How to do that?  Jeff uses strategies like opinion formation cards, and A-B information gap cards, to have students practice building arguments, with frames that they use as needed.  Here they can have the support of a frame, but they need to decide where and when to use them.  It’s a nice intermediary step.

The course and Jeff’s site have more resources worth checking out.  Until then, I’ll leave you with this video on common English problems in school.  It might be an oldie, but it’s still on target!

Tech and Engagement

14 Jul

I think I have a little bit of a nerd crush on Rushton Hurley and Jim Sills, two of the presenters at the Google Apps for Education summit.  Actually, I should probably add Richard deVaul in there too (he’s like the Q of Google) and, what the heck,  let’s throw some women in there too, like Lisa Highfill, tech trainer extraordinaire.

A lot of the GAFE summit was about how technology can enhance what we do in the classroom and our students’ lives, but I was struck by how the technology was limited or enhanced by the presenter.  By the end of his keynote, I’m pretty sure Jim Sills could have talked about the glory of vegemite on toast and we would have all run out to eat it for dinner.  How were these folks so good, and how can I learn from their mojo?

There’s three things that stood out: passion, humor, expertise.  I put expertise last for a reason–the first two really go a long way towards “fake it ’till you make it” but ultimately you really do have to have some meat to back up your session.







(I get a kick out of making these photos sports related, since I’m about the least sporty person there is.)

When my brother went to college, my family advised him to pay less attention to what he thought would interest him, and more attention to whether the professor teaching the class had a reputation as an engaging teacher.  It turns out that pretty much any subject can be made interesting–or deadly–depending on who presents it.  There were no deadly presenters at GAFE, but the great ones certainly brought their subjects alive.  I know this idea is a little dissonant with one of the thrusts of GAFE–student centered, inquiry based–but the truth is that the teacher matters.  It matters if you’re passionate, engaging, excited, knowledgeable.  Do you have to be the be-all end-all?  Of course not.  Can students learn with someone who is dull, dull, dull?  They better, because those teachers exist.  But wouldn’t we all rather have a Jaime Escalante or Robin Williams, or Lisa Highfill?

I’m excited to dive into some of the tech tools that can help to foster the engagement and excitement in my class next year.  We’ll continue to move ahead with the Google Drive accounts–docs, presentations, spreadsheet, and forms, and hopefully add in some more work with youtube, class blogs, and a host of mini-projects with real-world audiences.  Here are some of the links to presenter’s sites that have a host of resources you can look through at your leisure.  There’s oodles of good stuff here, it’ll take a while to go through.  Happy Hunting!

Jim Sills – youtube and film creation


Lisa Highfill – googlizing your readers and writers workshop, youtube, and much more!

Rushton Hurley – Digital Media, creating and using videos, citing sources from creatvie commons

Google Apps in Education Conference – Using Tech to Foster Literary Nerddom

13 Jul

I’m spending the weekend at the Google Apps in Education Conference, and it is wild.  I consider myself pretty tech savvy, but there’s nothing like a tech conference to break down that illusion pretty thoroughly.

I did have to laugh at this picture shared by the keynote:


It’s exciting stuff, even if the sketchy wi-fi at Sequoia High School makes things challenging.  There’s nothing like watching a room full of people trying to get on their macbooks/ipads/iphones/chromebooks at the same time, desperately searching for wireless, to make you laugh.

I wanted to share Megan Ellis’s session on Creating a Culture of Literary Nerds.  If you’ve read my posts on using music videos and movie trailers in the classroom, you know I’m a fan of using technology to teach reading skills and strategies.  Megan’s session dealt more specifically on using technology (both online and off) to help create enthusiasm around reading and to create a community of readers.

She had some great ideas:

  • Online Reading Logs – Megan teaches middle school, and she has her students log completed books in a Google Form that then populates a spreadsheet that everyone in the class can see.  Advantages are that more students fill out the log, no one can lose the log (the bane of my life, lost paperwork) and since the logs are public, students can keep track of what their classmates are reading and use it to help them pick their next books.  My students log their reading daily, and since I teach elementary, I wouldn’t want to get rid of that check-in and the chance for me to analyze how their reading rate is progressing, but I think the idea of an online completed books page is awesome.
  • – I just got on goodreads myself a few months ago–I was skeptical about why I needed a site to keep track of books, but I’m a full convert now.  I never realized how many books I want to read that I forget about, or how many great books I read that I never recommend because I can’t remember the title.  Goodreads solves that problem.  Megan has her students on goodreads, and their online completed book logs link to a goodreads review.  The result?  The class has access to tons of written book reviews that can help them decide what to read next.
  • Book Trailers – Publishers are putting more and more quick book trailers on youtube.  “Book Buzzing” about a novel is a great way to get kids interested in it, but I haven’t read close to all the books in my library, and faking your way through a book talk is pretty painful (and I’m pretty sure the kids can tell.)  Pulling up trailers will get kids excited about books, and the students who troll youtube endlessly after school just may start looking up books!  Caveat: there are a lot of bad book trailers on line.  It’s a good idea to check them out before you press play.
  • Student Created Book Trailers – Have your own students make book trailers and then play them for the class!  Another way to reinforce your literacy community.
  • – If you run around most of your reading workshop helping kids find books, this is for you.  It’s a website that shows books that are similar in genre/content/style to a book the child loves.  It’s a site in progress, so I expect they’ll continue to add books and grow as time goes on.

I think the most important message of Megan’s session was to create a community of readers — sharing their reading lives with each other — as a way to increase engagement, volume, and variety of reading.

Thanks for the great session Megan!

Practice What You Preach: Adult Reading With an Eye Towards the Common Core

11 Jun

For a week this summer, a group of teachers from my district are coming together as a literacy leadership team to study the common core, work on nonfiction units, and plan professional development for the district for the school year.  Today we were reading a section from Pathways to the Common Core, the text Lucy Calkins Co-authored with Mary Ehrenworth and Christopher Lehman about the new standards.


photo 4

We read a section about Nonfiction reading, and then broke up into small groups and did a protocol called “The Final Word.”  Text-Based protocols like this one help to facilitate a conversation that stays more targeted and equitable than you sometimes get when you have an unstructured conversation.

photo 3

The small, focused reading selection, combined with the protocol, helped me to cement what the text was saying.  I read Pathways last year when it came out (free gift from the summer reading institute at TC!), but while I enjoyed the text, I couldn’t absorb it fully with one reading.  The writing is so clear, you can mistake it for light reading.  It’s actually quite dense, and the kind of information you need to read multiple times, probably in small chunks.  I was happy to have the opportunity to read it again.

Reading the chapter reminded me of a few key ideas:

Before you teach your students, first practice out what you want them to be able to do as an adult reader or writer.

The first time I saw this idea was in Mosaic of Thought, by Keene and Zimmerman.  They wrote about trying to grasp a dense piece of poetry as adults, and then thinking about what strategies they used to comprehend the piece and teaching those strategies to children.  Pathways also uses this strategy, working through a model text, Killer, from The New Yorker, as a way to show educators what the Common Core Standards look like in practice.

Nonfiction standards mirror the fiction standards.

It’s really kind of beautiful.  The headings are actually the same:

Key Ideas and Details

Craft and Structure

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

Range of Reading Levels and Text Complexity

Within the headings, the standards are often identical as well.

Informational reading standard 4.1: Refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.

Literature reading standard 4.1: Refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.

The same is true for the majority of the standards.  The idea that the strategies a reader / writer uses for literature are often transferrable to informational texts allows us to be much more coherent in our teaching across the year.  It doesn’t have to be a total switch in our style of teaching and tasks when we move from literature to informational.  It will look different with the different texts, but we can be explicit with students how they’re taking skills they’ve already learned and using them on a new type of reading / writing.

Reading with a purpose and talk support comprehension

I had read this text before today, but reading it again, with the idea that we were then going to discuss quotes that stood out, gave me a new purpose with reading.  I read more closely and carefully than when I’m reading on my own.  The resulting discussion with the protocol made me slow down even more, and consider the quotes that everyone shared more carefully.  And it was fun!  It was another reminder of how important it is for our students to know why they’re reading, to be able to talk to support their comprehension, and to have that talk be supported with structures (such as protocols, sentence stems, or procedures for contributing and sharing the floor.)


Calkins also mentions a companion video that readers could look at along with the Killers article called The Great Office War to help compare and contrast.  It’s pretty awesome, and a reminder that all of this work can be extremely engaging and fun with the right texts.



Edconferences, the “unconference”

8 Jun

I just signed up for the SFbay edconference, billed as an “unconference” where you vote with your feet and freely explore different sessions, all of which are decided upon in the morning.  It sounds intriguing–very “design-school-thinking-y” and I’m curious to see what it’s all about.

Word on the street is these conferences are pretty inspiring and active.  Cutting edge stuff by motivated people.  My friend, the amazing tech coordinator Robert Pronovost, has attended a lot of meet-ups and informal gatherings of this sort (a recent one being a meet-up at a bar for computer using educators, #brewcue, how cool is that?) and they’re a way to not only share great information, but make connections to other inspiring educators as well.  It can be hard to get outside of our bubble sometimes, and while twitter, facebook, and blogs are great, there’s still nothing quite like actually meeting and talking to a person.  Shocking in this age of technology, I know.

Conferences are held all over the US, and around the globe!  One might be in your neck of the woods as well!

Reading Rates

21 Jan

A few days ago I posted about the reading log we developed at my school.  One of the components of the log is the goal that students will have at least 600 pages read of completed books each month.  Where did that number come from?  It came from research on reading rates and fluency, mainly by Tim Rasinski, and then presented at Columbia Teachers’ College.  Students grow more fluent as they improve as readers, but they also begin reading books that are longer, with more densely packed text.

The reading goal works for students who are in chapter books–anything from Horrible Harry on up.  I wouldn’t use it with K-1 students, or children who are still below a level L reading level.  It’s a more accurate gauge of a child’s volume of reading than just tracking the number of books finished, which is common in reading programs, because book lengths vary so greatly.  A child who finishes a Harry Potter novels has read 800 pages, for example, whereas one who has finished a Magic Treehouse book has only read about 70 pages.

Reading rate and fluency is closely linked to reading achievement.  Fluency isn’t just how fast you read, of course.  It also involves prosody (the stress and intonation of your speech), expression, and the idea that you slow down when the reading is difficult or dense, and speed up when it’s easier.  The goal of 600 pages per month only addresses the first issue, of reading rate.

A teacher at my school made up a handout, the ReadingRateBookLengthChart, to give to parents at Back to School Night that explains the relationship between reading rate, reading level, and finished books.

A Smatter of Links

19 Jan

Vocabulary results from the 2011 NAEP show that, not surprisingly, stronger vocabulary is correlated with higher reading comprehension scores.  The test measured students’ knowledge of vocabulary words in multiple contexts.  For example, students might understand the word “acute” as it refers to an angle in geometry, but not as it refers to a feeling in literature (such as “he was in acute pain.”

Kaiser family media study finds kids are watching an average 7 hours 38 minutes of media a day, or more than 53 hours per week.  Children who spent more time with media had comparatively lower grades than children who spent less time, and overall Black and Hispanic children spent more time with media than white children; Black children spend nearly 6 hours with media and Hispanics just under 5½ hours, compared to roughly 3½ hours a day for White youth.  The racial disparity has increased since 2004 from a 2 hour difference to a 4 hour difference.   The amount of reading has stayed constant, at an average of 25 minutes per day.

Engrade is a free digital gradebook that allows you to access grades online from computers, tablets, or mobile phones, as well as contact parents and input quizzes and tests.

Science Friday has a great video showing an Octopus’s ability to camouflage with its environment.


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