Tuesday, March 19, 2013

What is it like- to be a frustrated learner?

I practiced the following prescribed activity in order to put myself at the frustrational level of a student who is experiencing difficulties with reading, comprehension, vocabulary etc. I found it in
Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (Isabel L. Beck PhD)

She recommends this practice: 

Select from an excerpt from a magazine, 10 target words. Block out target words, ask adults to figure out what the missing words are.  I tried this on my own using  a BBC article on government sequester.  It was next to impossible to know what words were missing.  I tried again, hoping to share this with my colleagues in an upcoming meeting.  In this reading there are no directives that help students understand the context of the word in relation to the context of the sentence. No appositives to direct students toward greater meaning of the term.  I wonder if teachers, put on the spot could define all the terms highlighted in the excerpt below?

here is the difficult article: BBC News.
Tunisian Prime Minister-designate Ali Larayedh says he has presented the line-up of a new coalition government to President Moncef Marzouki.The new cabinet will be led by the Islamist Ennahda party, backed by two secular parties and some independents.Tunisia has been in turmoil since the killing of opposition leader Chokri Belaid on 6 February.The BBC's Jim Muir in Tunis says the announcement of the new government marked another failure, as the three main secular opposition groups which took part in intensive negotiations over the past two weeks all pulled out.This left leaving Ennahda back where it started - with two small coalition partners and a slight majority in the constituent assembly.

If I use this current events story for my sophomores I would rewrite it.  I would need students to define terms and use them on their own as they engage in a class activity.
And then I would give them the original to read.  I would ask them to rate the difficulty of the reading and then rate/evaluate themselves on ability to understand.  I might follow it up with a similar difficult text and ask them to decode it.

this sort of lesson emphasizes: activation of prior knowledge, fluency and familiarity, use of a term in different texts for building comprehension, take home work or class and independent uses.
It prevents: misdirection, non directive reading, general contexts without progress towards deeper understanding.  It emphasizes this new mantra I am following:

Must read enough text to encounter lots of words
Must read text of difficulty to include words unfamiliar
Develop skill to infer word meaning from context they read.

Notes for next time: 
Learning is defined as "owning a new word". Learn 3-7 words a day

Tier II words- can be left to teacher discretion with some broad guidelines

Frequent appearance- wide variety of text, does student already have a way to express concepts
Would students be able to explain words using words already known to them?

Vocabulary shouldWorked into variety of situations- need rich representations and multiple nuances?
General concept and precision/ specificity

When choosing vocab for a unit, set a limit # of words they must learn but allow students some choice
words as well. Research into students making up words.  Stop using a dictionary, start creating one?

Step 2- improving classroom literacy

Returning from our winter break, I have been thinking off and on about how I would reignite or engage my students.  Research into deliberate literacy practices has made it very clear to me that I need to spend class time reviewing, modeling rethinking and providing comprehensive uses of vocabulary terms in difference settings. Before break, students had learned two concepts- Blitzkrieg and appeasement.  Blitzkrieg was easily recalled.  I didn't do this but I could have had them share outloud food items that were blitzed over the weekend. Or I could have read about another battle of WWII and asked them if a blitz strategy was used or not. I could have asked them to explain why or why not.  Instead I skipped ahead to the tougher term: appeasement. (I'm going to remind myself to use blitz in this fashion in our Cold War unit.)

 In my literacy readings based on:
Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: robust vocabulary instruction. New  
    York: Guilford Press. 
Birsh, J. R. (1999). Multisensory teaching of basic language skills. Baltimore, Md.: P.H. Brookes Pub. Co..
Helman, L. (2009). Words their way with English learners. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Education.

It is important to have a teaching plan or lesson that emphasizes: activation of prior knowledge, fluency and familiarity, use of a term in different texts for building comprehension, take home work or class and independent uses.  Just as there are numerals opportunities for learning there are numerous opportunities for misdirection, non directive, general contexts without progress towards deeper understanding.  To prevent this I now know that students:

Must read enough text to encounter lots of words
Must read text of difficulty to include words unfamiliar
Skills to infer word meaning from context they read.

Here is a 5 day model for younger students. I have modified it to fit my high school students' needs.  This year, the time I spent in several second grade classrooms as a parent volunteer and reading mentor gave me an "aha" idea. I noticed that students were engaged when they were directed to daily routines. Routines were posted for all to see in several locations in the room. There was room for self direction, teacher instruction and small group instruction. Because the routines were simple and easy to follow, it was easy for classroom teachers to receive help from volunteers either on a one time basis or a weekly basis. With routines for teach instruction built around student self directed learning, classroom management issues can be maintained and small group or instructional pullout, intervention can be scheduled. Therefore, even though I have tons of work to do as a class room teacher, I can still emphasize improved attention to vocabulary without changing my teaching or my values about education.

Appeasement was assessed in our test, but I reviewed it again. I shied away from directly using the test questions but now, if I had to write this lesson for next year, I would have posted the test question and built up some positive incentives for trying to get this question right when they took the test for the  second or third time.    I suddenly remembered that Read Across America promotes Dr. Seuss' birthday. And I remembered that Seuss was actively working to not only build better readers but better citizens by creating government funded propaganda, creating children's stories to directly prmote negative messages about fascism but he was controversial. These three sites plus the 2 Seuss books found in the high school library were helpful:

  • Seuss & WWII not certain about how I will address controversy- Dr. Seuss' racist stereotype of Japanese.  but I am having students study the famous Supreme Court Case- Korematsu v. US.

  • Independent Lense- but doesn't deal with his racial stereotypes of Japanese

  • WWII museum site

Student recall and use of new vocabulary can not rely on contact with context alone. Students need to actively engage with the concepts found in the cartoons and then they need to learn how to critique a cartoon.  Critique should end with students creating something equally as thoughtful or better. 5 days into the second study of WWII, students would create propaganda or cartoons, similar to Seuss, but changing the course of racism and prejudice.

Here is my schedule for the first day of teaching WWII- part 2:
Day of week
lesson activities
Comments/ point value
Day 1
Collect info
Read & reflection   Dr. Seuss- Yertle the Turtle- read aloud. (wish I had 4 books- for small group readings) (Butter Battle Book, Horton Hears a Who)
p. 685- Italy invades Ethiopia-  (was this a Blitzkrieg?)
Japan built an empire invading Manchuria- so what? Cost/benefit of knowing why this is important.
Review vocab: fascism, appeasement, blitzkrieg, communism
Pg. 685- Hitler was a fervent anticommunist and an admirer of Mussolini

Put El Alamein on a map of North Africa- why this was strategic? Why wasn’t it a Blitzkrieg?
Take WWI test- computer lab.

Exit Poll:  review Dr. Seuss cartoons (individual) - what did he exaggerate? Why? What symbols were used?
Do you like his cartoon? What point does he make?

1 2 3 4 5
How did you do?

What did you miss?
What will you work on?


I taught new concepts while reviewing old ones. I used sentences and illustrated text pages to help students see our studies in context. I modeled notetaking on the italicized excerpts.
Day two & three: Blitzkrieg was important. It challenged the rules of war.  What other battles are in our text book.  What makes them important to study? How do we rank them, which ones do we not need to study? (study DDay- study 2 points of view of the battle, study Pearl Harbor, El Alamein) put on maps.  Watch more interviews about the war:  study podcast interviews. Choose 3 questions you can answer in regards to your new knowledge of WWII.

Day 4
Read/ Infer
Complex thinking

Read & sketch-  pg  713. How did war define peoples’ identity?
Homefront- war reshapes America pg. 728.  (riots, internment, Bracero, women)
Review Seuss cartoons- racism apparent- What could you do to combat racism & prejudice? See new apps or draw on paper- 
Class  study- What kind of sacrifices does war require? skim as a class–pg 714- 721- 
Guided questions- use guided questions to interview each other. Practice and then use iPads. 
or- start new WWII test. 

Exit:  should women serve in combat- yes/ no- reasoning   hw: read to someone! Women in combat.

1 2 3 4

Total: 10.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

F word

As of late it seems that profanity is used excessively, without reservation. Students swear so comfortably that it often peppers classroom responses. Maybe I have become old fashioned but the argument that the "f" word is arguably a reasonable noun, verb, an adverb and an adjective has set me and my colleagues on edge. We devoted a full faculty meeting to this issue and I am now a member of the potty mouth committee. Yes, teachers form committees that become fodder for sitcoms. So what. Our mantra, borrowed from Maggie Smith's Downton Abbey character reminds us that "Vulgarity is no substitute for wit". Yet conversing about language and etiquette made me realize that devoting time to the use of polite language could indeed be cause for some fun classroom banter and real learning.

Students seem to love studies in persuasion. In preparation for the atomic bomb debate I found a graphic organizer (readwritethink.org) and modeled a persuasive argument for curbing profanity. Piqued student interest and a follow up discussion was rich with opinion, counter argument and consensus on many clever substitutions for vulgarity. In fact, wit is a substitute for vulgarity.

What do you say when you are frustrated, angry, tense or explosive? Students agreed that the "f" word is overused. Forget you, "I reject you strongly" were considered but "shut the front door" was a favorite idiom. Students argued that WTF seemed conservative and acceptable. Fricking, fracking, Bolshevik! were also counted as acceptable on the swearing spectrum. Cheese and Rice was not a common substitute that I was aware of but I laughingly fell in love with the student suggested "sunny beach".
Perusing the Internet, we found this web link to the best cuss alternatives. http://tmapsey.hubpages.com/hub/101-Great-Cuss-Word-Alternatives. We voted as a class on several new possible favorites such as- Barbara Striesand! William Shatner! And "go lick a duck!"

Essentially students concluded that context and use determined whether or not substitution is acceptable. If you are going to make the effort to constantly pepper your language with substitutes, wouldn't it eventually be as annoying or offensive as actual swearing? I had to agree with their reasoning but I presented a rebuttal: when we reserve swearing for truly necessary moments or when we try to find new ways to express an idea, we invite more people of all ages into a communication. Being polite is an invitation to get to know someone while swearing sends an alert or a message that you are to be approached with caution. I do not know if students agreed with me because I am their teacher or if they hoped it would keep me quiet but it did lead one student to conclude that our school seemed to have issues with trust and that there could be more that both teachers and students need to do to improve our environment. It seems that engaging students in discussion and enjoying something serious spiced with humor might be a start.

I ended class with the question, what is gained, what is lost when we take risks to expand our vocabulary? Using the color red as an example, we brainstormed variations of the color red and then went right to Wikipedia. Common connotations and associations culturally throughout time triggered many student comments concerning feelings and emotions. Expanding our vocabulary does give us greater opportunity to communicate nuances in how we feel. And it is nice to return comfortably to those moments when we simply need to use the color red or say exactly what we are thinking ....(expletive,@:(!)

Ps- In all honesty I've never enjoyed research as much as I have when I looked up synonyms and blogs and websites devoted to the "f" word
Intercourse. Violent strike. Plow
snafu FUBAR (historically linked to WWII)

Fouled bowdlerized contempt, argumentative, intensifier, angry, hostile, belligerent
Being frank, cheapen, offends good taste, coarse,
Frack, freak, bleep, snap, cheese n rice, what the blank, frustrated, frankly ridiculous,

Contempt, despise,
abhorrence, abomination, detestation, execration, hate, hatred, loathing, lovelessness; cattiness, hatefulness, invidiousness, malevolence, malice, maliciousness, malignancy, malignity, meanness, spite, spitefulness; aversion, disgust, distaste, horror, odium, repugnance, repulsion, revulsion; animosity, antagonism, antipathy, bitterness, enmity, gall, grudge, hostility, jealousy, pique, resentment; bile, jaundice, rancor, spleen, venom, vindictiveness, virulence, vitriol; aspersion, belittlement, deprecation, depreciation, detraction, diminishment, disparagement; derision, mockery, ridicule; abuse, invective, vituperation; censure, condemnation, denunciation

When we devote this much time to negatives why can't we offer positives?
Validate, sparkle, builder upper, respect, compliment should flow as easily as expletives.



Monday, March 4, 2013

Improving classroom literacy, one step at a time

Finishing my Masters in Literacy means organizing and reorganizing my portfolio of competencies and taking one last class on reading disabilities. Instead of writing formal papers I am using my weekly conferences and readings provided by a local expert to reshape my classroom instruction.

This week, I brought the focus to US History.  My department is rebuilding it's curricula unit by unit. Instead of one unit on WWII I suggested two units.  I think an overview of global engagement is one approach followed by a unit on North American values and identities shaped by war. I am using the theme of story sharing to help students become engaged.  Storycorps became a place to start, followed by interviews and podcasts found on NPR.  I had read about the need for students who struggle with reading to gain confidence for inquiry by engaging in a culture of a particular study.  Too many of my students are too young to have living relatives connected directly to World War II.  But by listening to stories of elderly Americans I hope to build skills that will later be utilized in interviews they direct when we study the Cold War (Korea & Vietnam).

Recently, studies into improving reading skills for frustrated learners has pushed me to look closely at my daily instruction and the type of common assessment being developed. My readings have helped me narrow my focus into vocabulary instruction without dramatically changing my overall routines or the amount of time I dedicate to unit instruction. I have made a shift from notes and lectures and vocab term review towards fewer notes, repeated study of fewer vocabulary terms. I'm utilizing my research into morphemes, orthography and sound instruction. Although I have worked with word development in younger grades I have lost that important development piece with my secondary level students. In looking at individual education plans and reading disabilities, the likelihood of success for a greater number of students will increase if I spend more time with deliberate instruction of vocabulary (Birsh, J).

I reviewed and modified a list of vocabulary terms and essential questions for WWII into first and second tier terms. I admit, I went through several online assessments and Common Core sites before I felt confidence with our department's term choices. I reviewed online and book sources on how to present secondary students with word breakdown. Ted Ed provided a model: http://ed.ted.com/lessons/beyond-the-shadow-of-a-doubt-gina-cooke

Somehow, I had to familiarize students with unfamiliar terms. I had to assess what they already knew, allow for differentiation on topic choice and depth of study with WWII as a framework. students need a common base of knowledge and areas for inquiry. it is a big topic. I hope to embed the theme of storybuilding.   reading timelines and maps as well as textbook text.

For a culture of War, we begin our formative assessment and textbook base knowledge in the classroom. 1/2 way thru each block we head for the library.  Students can work on 3 book reviews of their choice, vocab lists and developing their own 5 questions/ short answers of constructed study of their own choice. This is routine for all units.

I hoped that listening and watching interviews at one of three viewing stations would inspire them to create their own storyboards of knowledge gained but video creation is relatively new to them.  Teaching them how to make a video and asking them to record their voice at the end of class is proving to be difficult.

Classroom structure- After two days of spot checking basic understanding of vocabulary, I decided to introduce three terms per day. I deliberately found text passages in the textbook for reading during the first five minutes of class.   we read about fascism.  After reading, they sketch or write a reflection in their classroom folder.  following this, I point to the posted timeline of events based on the reading.  Within each timeline event I have carefully added a vocab term.  I wrote the vocab in blue and the rest in black. I drew a box around the vocab term.  In the future I hope to improve student self reliance on identifying necessary terms in a similar manner.
Instead of having them copy the timeline, I first asked them to view the vocab term and write it on a provided slip of paper (size of an index card).  I did use my overhead projector to flash to the vocab word in isolation.  And a website.  By clicking on the term, the site provides the audio pronunciation. Students needed to practice the word appeasement and Blitzkrieg. Holocaust was familiar.
Blitzkrieg was fun. By breaking the word into Blitz and Krieg and brainstorming similar terms, some students chimes in  with suggestions. I wrote them onto the word graph.  They copied and proceeded to write more of their own.  I also introduced a lightning fast activity.  For one class, I did show them a hand slapping game. One person holds their hands over they others. The hand facing up has to try and slap the hand facing down.  Catching them off guard causes shock and fun.  We talked about the shock factor that this fast action would have had when Germany attacked Poland.  We then read about the weapons and tactics of Blitzkrieg in the textbook.  We then discussed aloud ways in which we could blitz various things in life- blitz a pint of icecream, surprise a sibling. Be lightning fast at running...
With my class that can not handle a hand slapping game (because they would be distracted and caught up in hurting each other) I thought about it overnight and thought of a different, effective blitz. I stood at the front of the room, held my hands behind my back and then flashed my fingers lightning fast, holding 2 fingers out on one hand and 3 on the other. Quick, add up my fingers, who got the right number?  It was encouraged and presented several more times with different additions. I then encouraged them to do the same to each other. No hitting involved. The concept, delivered.  Next week we will map the battles of the war on a map and encounter the term in a multiple choice quiz, the map and the textbook again.

Appeasement is a difficult word. I almost avoided teaching it.  Looking into its etymology was actually interesting. It came from the old French, apais for peace, placate. How could peace be the cause of WWII? Giving in, to Hitler in retrospect is a bad idea.  Is it wrong to appease an angry, belligerent student? Do students deserve second chances or trust? I will need to revisit this term again and again.  I'm already looking into political cartoons- pacifying the crocodile... or maybe some Seuss cartoons- connecting to Read Across America which also begins when we return from break.

Next lesson. I put battles on the board. Students put them on timelines in their notes in chronological order. After break I will have sentences describing each event, embedding vocab words already reviewed. Students will match sentences to dates. They will read about events, prepare statements in support of ranking theses events in comparison with one another. They will vote.

morphemes, roots of language
  • Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Helman, L. (2009). Words their way with English learners. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Education.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Dr. Seuss

see published article at Educator's Room. 
Normally March 2nd would pass without notice but this year I am embracing the 109th birthday celebration of Dr. Seuss in my high school classroom. Seuss is ageless and timeless. Many elementary school teachers and children's librarians have embraced Read Across America's promotion of "grab your hat and read with the cat"  but high schools tend to lose the connections to childhood things as we focus intently on preparing students for impending adulthood, college or career applications and many meaningful assessments. In our busy efforts to implement more literacy in 6 or 8 course specific areas of content each day teachers hope students will learn more. In the words of Seuss we are thinking "Oh the places they will go" instead of acknowledging how far they have come. High school students need more contact with childhood literacy.

In reading Children's Literature Briefly, (Tunnell & Jacobs) I was exposed to the purposeful nature of children's stories.  Previously unknown to me were the structures of writing and illustration that are meant to engage the child in interactions, critical thinking and page turning. I often return to my favorite stories of my childhood because I love a good story. Now I return to this authors and illustrators in search of those political messages and moral dilemmas I missed before. I began wondering what high school students would say or think if they had a similar opportunity to study literature of their childhood. I wondered what great stories students shared in common.

Once a year I spend a period of class time reading aloud, the opening lines of children's classic literature. So often I find that a chorus of excited voices will finish that opening line for me. "This is George, he lived in...." Or " In the great green room there was a telephone and a...." "I do not like green ....".  Someone always shouts out the titles of Curious George, Goodnight Moon and Green Eggs and Ham. Hands shoot up giving me indications as to a story's popularity.  What shocks me is to encounter whole classes where this literature is unfamiliar. When asked what stories they do recall the tendency is to name television shows or movies. A good story should be appreciated in many forms but I believe there is a parallel to the high numbers of struggling readers and the lost connection to a good book.

So, this year we will celebrate Seuss during the first school week in March. My lessons will allow for exploratory reading time.  Students can skim and read from piles of children's literature. Our high school library and my home collections will suffice. Once again I will have students check off familiar titles, favorites and new discoveries. Some of the students are reading mentors.  This year we have a Skype session for reading with students in a New Mexico elementary school 2,000 miles away.  All students will receive homework credit for signing out a library book to read aloud with a peer, a child, a family member or friend.  Our current classroom studies of World War II will fit in with an analysis of Dr. Seuss' political career and his stance on fascism, communism, and persecution as we read "The Butter Battle Book" and "Horton Hears a Who".

Whether students read a story for the first time or revisit their favorites they are all making gains in self esteem. To connect with peers over a simple story allows them to wear the hat of confidence. Hopefully that hat will stay on their heads all day as they confront daily challenges of all "the thinks you can think" (lyrics from Seussical).

link to literacy pages from researchers at Rutgers and Cornell, A Sort of Children's Literature Literacy Test,  First Lines

still reading and reviewing the following: Yale- New Haven Teacher's Institute- Sandra Friday

Great Opening Lines to Hook Young Readers. NPR