Welcome to Pohl Vault, a collection of reflections on being a middle school language arts & social studies teacher.

November 19, 2016

Learning How to Teach Reading From Ellin Keene

The group of 8th graders snuggled together on bean bags and pillows in the reading corner, facing the visitor in the big blue chair. Ellin Keene, author of Mosaic of Thought and Talk About Understanding, held a picture book in her hand. "This looks like a children's book, I know, but I would never suggest elementary students read this. It's a book for older people like you because you are mature enough to handle the content." (Way to hook them in, Ellin!) The book was Rose Blanche by Roberto Innocenti and illustrated by Christopher Gallaz, a story about a German girl in WWII who discovers a concentration camp near her home. Ellin was doing a demo lesson with my class on inferring. 
image from Amazon.com

She introduced the idea of inferring by telling them that it's the thoughts, feelings, beliefs and actions that readers understand which were inspired by the book but are not written in the book. Throughout her reading, she kept coming back to those four ideas: thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and actions. Each time she said those words, she touched her head, her heart, put her fist in her other hand, and swept her hands out as if going into the world. I think she did that 7 times throughout the lesson. Repetition is powerful.

As she read Rose Blanche, she stopped and showed the illustrations. She pointed things out like, "Do you see where she's standing? Look at that facial expression!" And she would prep the kids to pay attention to details in the story with, "Wait until you hear what's next!" or "You are not going to believe this next part!" At one point, she asked everyone to gather close together to look at an especially important illustration. All the kids leaned in, almost piling on top of one another, to see what was on that page. It was magical!

After the read-aloud, she had pairs participate in a written conversation about the inferences they'd made in the book. It was dead silent in the room except for the sound of pencils scratching on paper. 
image from wikipedia.com

She quietly invited one struggling reader to confer with her (in front of 5 watching teachers-- oh the pressure!). He brought his independent reading book with him, Maus I: A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman, a graphic novel about a Holocaust survivor. Ellin asked the boy if he thought he was doing any inferring in his book. He shrugged and said he wasn't sure, he didn't really like to read, but he thought it had "deep meaning" and connected with the book that she had just read. She asked what he meant by "deep meaning", and as he explained, she nodded and paraphrased. At the end, she exclaimed, "Everything you just told me is inferring! In fact, it's the most complex kind of inferring: empathizing with the character. You are feeling right along with the character. Did you know you were the kind of reader who could do such complex reading work?" He shook his head with a shy smile on his face. "Well you are! I am so impressed with you right now!" She ended the conference by challenging him to do more inferring work on his book, and to go back to Rose Blanche to practice some more. "I'm going to gift the class with this book, but I want you to have first crack at it!"

In just 70 minutes, Ellin was able to draw in a brand new group of 8th graders to marvel in a beautiful picture book, engage in high level thinking, articulate their thinking, and have their thinking nudged by peers and/or a teacher. During her conferences, she inspired each student to re-envision himself as a new kind of reader, one who does sophisticated thinking and doesn't just read for plot or because he has to for school. It was inspiring!

Now it's my turn. Tomorrow, my PLT is designing a pre-assessment for inferring and determining importance, and a lesson plan to implement reading strategies. This week I will give the assessment, and do the lesson over several days in the coming weeks. By winter break, I will assess again to see if they are better at these two reading comprehension skills.

I believe this is important work. As texts get more complex in middle and high school, students need to apply reading strategies effectively if they are to understand their deep and subtle meanings. By assuming students know how to do this thinking work, we are holding them back from powerful learning. True, some will eventually figure it out themselves, but doesn't every child deserve to know the "secrets" of reading well?

November 5, 2016

Experiential Learning: "The service was the best part!"

I just spent a week with 80 eighth graders in rural Thailand doing service- and cultural-learning activities. To many, this seems like a nightmare scenario: goofy young adolescents? an international trip? what about safety/ managing the drama/ all that whining? did you sleep?

Yes, there was some of that middle school stuff, but overwhelmingly it was an amazing life experience. The group we worked with, Rustic Pathways, was super organized, had lots of staff on hand, and made sure everyone was involved and having fun. They organized six service projects for us to participate in over the course of our week:
  • Welcome Homes (we built an external bathroom for a family-- lots of cement mixing and brick-laying)
    • English Camp (we taught basic English words to 13- to 15-year-old Thai students using games)
  • Fish & Sticks (we built a fish nursery our of wood poles and netting, and purchased baby fish to populate it for a local family)
  • Buddhist Life (we talked to a monk about Buddhism and how he lives his life as a monk, and we planted lime trees in the temple garden)
  • Hands in the Dirt (we made new garden beds for a local family to grow long beans and sweet basil)
  • Meals on Flip-Flops (we bought ingredients at the market, cooked them up, packaged the food, and delivered meals to 30 elderly people in the local village)
We also learned a lot about Thai culture, including customs, some basic language, food, a traditional dance, and some history, especially about the King who had recently passed away. Our favorite cultural activity was No Reservations: a culinary "trick or treat" route on Halloween night. It featured foods that are traditional in Thailand that are not often seen in other parts of the world, including crickets, grasshoppers, bamboo worms, chicken intestines, and coconut rice cooked in a bamboo stick.
It was interesting to see how the students responded to both the service and the cultural activities. For some, building and digging were fun, but trying to communicate with someone who doesn't share your language was very intimidating. For others, they loved hearing the elderly people's stories and teaching the Thai students, but had never held a saw or hoe in their lives. It worked the same way with the "trick or treats": one American boy (new to international life) loved the insects and didn't really care for the coconut rice, while others wouldn't try anything. Of course, there were kids who jumped into everything-- service or cultural-- with both feet.

As a final reflection, the group leaders asked students to think about something they wanted to start, something they wanted to stop, and something they wanted to continue. Almost all of the students in my group mentioned that they wanted to do more service-- easy to say, harder to do, but if even a handful make an effort to keep finding service opportunities, then it's worth it. It also bodes well for our high school program which has service as a pillar of the program. By doing this "service survey", I hope students will be more open to signing up for projects, as well as having a better idea of the kinds of service they want to do (for example, building houses with Habitat for Humanity, working in an orphanage, or building water projects in drought-stricken areas). 

Several students also mentioned how they had tried new things or did things they didn't know they were capable of doing, and how much they learned about the value of collaboration to achieve a goal. At the tender age of 14, that's pretty big stuff! I think every student was challenged in some way this week: physically, mentally, or emotionally. That is something that is very hard to achieve by staying within the four walls of the classroom.

Yes, it was exhausting. Yes, there were times when adolescent social drama nearly did my head in. Yes, traveling internationally with 90 people is challenging. But it was so worth it! As one student spontaneously blurted out in the middle of our bus ride home, "The service was the best part!"

October 22, 2016

Reading Comprehension Strategies in the MS Classroom

Have you ever had a time when a thought or topic just keeps working in the back of your mind, resurfacing over the course of a few weeks? This has been my life lately. Last post, I wrote about making reading thinking visible through annotations, which got me going on the topic of reading comprehension, and the idea hasn't left me. What keeps swirling around in my head is this: Why did my kids miss so much in their reading? Why didn't they understand the subtleties, make the connections, notice what was missing and not just what was stated? Which leads to this thought: What teaching didn't happen, what learning opportunities were missed, and what can I do about it? 

When Stevi Quate came back to our school to consult with our secondary English teachers the week after I wrote that post, she asked my teaching partner and me what we've been working on in grade 8. I shared our work with annotations and helping kids dig deeper into their reading using text/subtext thinking. And I also shared my continuing questions. She asked us if we were teaching reading comprehension strategies, based on Ellin Keene and Susan Zimmerman's 2007 book Mosaic of Thought: The Power of Comprehension Strategy Instruction (Heinemann): Monitor for Meaning, Use Schema, Infer, Ask Questions, Create Images, Determine Importance, and Synthesize Information. We sort-of do, teaching it indirectly, but we don't label our thinking as we model, nor assess students' metacognitive use of the strategies. Thus followed a discussion about the value of that teaching, especially if it is taught across grades so that students have a consistent vocabulary to talk about their reading strategy use. 

Keene and Zimmerman's comprehension strategies are not new to me. I read their book years ago, and it changed the way I thought about and taught reading in Grade 5. However, I moved away from it in Middle School, where the curriculum focused more on identifying literary devices in order to write essays to show comprehension of texts. The unspoken belief seemed to be that students entered Middle School knowing how to read, and we needed to teach them how to dig out the "good stuff" from more sophisticated texts. We weren't teaching "reading" anymore; we were teaching "literature".  Stevi reminded me that as texts became more complex, reading strategies became more important to understand them. We left that meeting determined to do more modeling and labeling our thinking with strategies.
Keene, Ellin. Talk About Understanding: Rethinking Classroom Talk to Enhance Comprehension. Heinemann, 2012, p. 9.
A week later came Joellen Killion, a consultant who has been working with our school to set up Professional Learning Teams (PLTs) as a model that increases student learning through teacher collaboration. As the PLT facilitator for the MS ELA/SS team, I met with Joellen privately to get some advice. She asked what our team was working on, and I shared that we had examined grades 7 and 8 reading pre-assessments, and wanted to work on helping students deepen their comprehension of texts. She recommended that our PLT start by choosing a couple of reading comprehension strategies to focus on based on the student work we examined, and to build our student and educator goals around those. 

Tomorrow, I will meet with our PLT and we will do the work Joellen suggested. This will launch us into our learning phase of the cycle of inquiry. We'll need to study why reading comprehension strategies work, what each strategy looks like, and how best to teach it. We'll need to identify spots in our curriculum to give the lessons and measure its effectiveness. I know most of us are in a writing unit right now, so finding opportunities to implement the strategies could be challenging. It's a good thing we also teach Social Studies! This could open up more opportunities.

And finally, Ellin Keene is going to be in the region for a conference at the beginning of November, and we will be able to learn from her while she's here. I am excited about the opportunity to meet her, see some model lessons, and get some of my questions answered. 

How do you teach reading comprehension at Middle School? Do you use modeling and metacognition, as suggested by Keene and Zimmerman? Do you balance it with the teaching of "literature"?

October 8, 2016

Making Reading Thinking Visible Through Annotations

Our first major unit in English Language Arts is short story reading. At this point in the year, I don't know a whole lot about my students as readers. I've gotten some info about books they read (or didn't read) over the summer, and I have standardized test scores from the previous spring. However, knowing how they dive into a text and construct meaning out of it is a complete mystery at this point in the year. I needed some sense of these kids as readers before I forged ahead.

The unit started out with a pre-assessment during which students read a story new to them, annotating in the margins as they read (see my previous post about annotations as assessment), and then answered summary, theme, and literary argument questions. As I was surveying these assessments, I noticed a few things about the annotations:
  1. Although annotating texts has been taught in previous years, and I emphasized doing it when I was giving instructions, about half of the students either did no annotations or they did minimal annotations.
  2. The annotations that were done were often confirming literal comprehension or asking questions about places where they were confused. 
  3. The story we chose, "A Path Through the Cemetery" by Leonard Q. Ross, has a twist at the end that is easy to understand if the reader is paying attention to details and can make inferences. Very few students caught the ending correctly and fully.
  4. I got a lot of insight about students as readers from the annotations that I didn't necessarily get from the follow-up questions. I discovered who made inferences as they went along, who connected to other texts or the world, who did word fix-up work, and who was confused throughout (and didn't do anything to fix up their confusion).
There seems to be a logical cause-effect relationship in the above noticings: Without annotations, students didn't read closely enough nor pause in their thinking enough to understand deeper meaning. However, I still wasn't sure whether the problem was that students didn't see the point of annotating, and therefore, didn't stop to do it even though they were constructing meaning all along, or that they weren't digging deeply enough in their reading to construct meaning. Without annotations, I couldn't decipher the problem. 

image from Amazon.com
So I tackled both at once, and taught them a strategy I found in Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton's What Readers Really Do: Teaching the Process of Meaning Making (Heinemann, 2012). They suggested a two-column note-taking chart that tracked what was said in the text, and what that text meant, or "subtext". The idea is that readers pay attention to not just the literal meaning in the text, but that readers also track the implications: character motivations; what the author is showing about mood, traits, relationships; tone; connections between events and characters, etc. Doing this work gets readers to the deeper levels of inferring and synthesizing that are necessary for more complex texts like those encountered in 8th grade and beyond. Here is an excerpted example from my Reading Notebook which I used as a model for the students:

Throughout the unit, I saw students doing more and more text/subtext work in their notebooks. Some were still using it as a way to restate the literal meaning, but more and more were making inferences from the details they captured. It became a great launching point for conferences because their reading thinking was visible to me.

By the post assessment, a repeat of the pre-assessment but with a new story, their annotations were much more complete and deeper, showing the subtext and not just restating what was already there. Many more students annotated than the first time as well. This allowed them to really dig into the inferred meaning, and their follow-up answers were much richer because of it.

My next step is to have them reflect on how doing annotations helped them understand stories better. I hope that will also bring home the purpose for stopping and jotting, so that they will continue to use it as we tackle more complex texts in English Language Arts, and also in Social Studies.

What strategies do you use to get kids to dig deeper into their reading comprehension? How do you make that thinking visible?

October 1, 2016

Schedules can make or break curriculum

I really love my teaching schedule, and that's not something I've said very much in my many years of teaching. I teach both English Language Arts (ELA) and Social Studies (SS) to two classes of eighth graders, 8C and 8D. My class periods are back-to-back for each group. We have a 6-day rotation schedule, so I see my two classes at different times of the day across a week. I also teach "Oasis" which is our middle school advisory program. Here's what it looks like: 
I have chunks of planning time each day, which are the same planning times as my teaching partner and the math/science teachers. This is great for collaboration, but also gives me time to tackle some marking (though it is never enough time to get it all done in the school day!). 

Another advantage of this schedule is that I can be somewhat flexible in how I use my double blocks. Usually I teach one block per subject, as is shown here. That ensures that I give equal time to each subject so that students get a full curriculum. But I can also steal a little time from one to give to the other if we need it (for example, test or publishing days), as long as I remember to give it back at another time!

Next week we are launching our short story writing unit in ELA which will last about 4 weeks. In about 2 weeks, we will be launching our investigative reporting writing unit in SS which will last about 3 weeks. That means our kids will be juggling two writing units, with two different genres, over the course of a couple weeks where they overlap. 

I put my writing hat on and thought about that from the student's point of view. If I were them, how would I feel if I wrote furiously for an hour (ish) on my fantasy short story, and then had to switch gears in my head to write furiously for another hour (ish) on my journalism article? That seems hard to me. I predict I would still have my fantasy world swirling in my head, and it would be difficult to pull myself into the real world of informational writing. 
CC image by Samantha on wikimedia commons

I can't really move the units. The ELA units are set up so students read a genre, and then write the genre. We're finishing our short story reading unit this week, which puts short story writing next. The SS unit is centered around our Week Without Walls trip at the end of October, so it has to happen then. So... I'm a bit stuck.

But getting back to my wonderful schedule, I do have a way to make this work. If I were a student with two different writing units going on at the same time, I would want to stick to just one genre at a time and go with it for a longer period. I can alternate ELA and SS days, so that students write fantasy short stories for the double block, 110 minutes, one day, and then write environmental science investigative reporting articles for 110 minutes the next. I can do mid-workshop interruptions to tuck two mini-lessons into the time, while still giving them a big chunk of time to write write write. 

Both units will end up on the same date they would have if I had done single lessons each day. And students will be able to focus deeply on each writing piece on its assigned day. That sounds like a win-win to me!

What does your middle school schedule look like? Does it allow flexibility and long stretches of time when you need it? Do you have common planning time with your colleagues?