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:

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.

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