The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Posts tagged “Reading

Book Review: Is It Working in Your Middle School?

[NOTE: The following is a review I wrote for MiddleWeb, an online organisation all about teaching and learning in the middle grades, which they define as grades 4-8. I have written four reviews for them previously, all of which can be found here. This review will likely be on their website in the next two or three weeks. In the meantime, you can read it now.]

Quick! Grab a pen or pencil or open up a new document on your computer. Ready? Good. Now, write down the name of every initiative you school or district has adopted since you started working there. Go ahead, I’ll wait. All finished? Okay. Now, circle all of the ones that you can prove are improving student learning and growth. How many initiatives did you list? Five? Ten? Twenty? More? How many did you circle? One? Two? Zero?

If there is anything that school leaders and policymakers are frustratingly good at doing, it is coming up with new initiatives for classrooms, schools, and districts. Whether the initiatives are focused on academics, behavior, instruction, culture, family engagement, teacher quality, or any number of possibilities, there is not a school in the nation that doesn’t have at least one new initiative put into place every year. But what do we do after we initiate the initiative? How do we know if it is actually making a difference? Are we even bothering to check? Or do we just start something new and keep doing it mechanically, thinking to ourselves that this, too, shall pass? Has the Shiny New Thing become so commonplace that we don’t even care if it works or not?

Dr. Nikki C. Woodson, an educational leader, and James W. Frakes, a business consultant who has spent much of his career working with the manufacturing industry, both believe that the problem with initiatives is not the initiatives themselves, but the lack of intentionality and monitoring. In their book, Is It Working in Your Middle School?, they provide a simple framework for identifying appropriate initiatives and monitoring them with consistency so that teachers, leaders, and other stakeholders can separate the wheat from the chaff and put into place programs, policies, and practices that will lead to meaningful, lasting changes in your school.

While focusing on middle schools, the authors are quick to note that their framework, based on proven quality assurance processes, can be used in any school setting and, indeed, in any organization that wants to know if what they are doing is actually making a difference. Their process will help anyone with an interest in improving their school to identify all of the current initiatives, or programs in place, eliminate the ones that have no discernible purpose, set S.M.A.R.T. goals, identifying quantifiable strategies, assess the efficacy of the strategies, monitor for success, and plan for next steps to the school improvement process truly continuous. To help the reader through the process, Woodson and Frakes provide templates for reflection, goal setting, planning, and monitoring which can be either copied from the book or downloaded for free through a website given. They also use a case study to model how their framework has been used to change a middle school’s approach to improvement plan goals.

Classrooms, schools, and districts are constantly adapting as they try to keep up with the latest research, best practices, and the ever-changing landscape of education in the 21st century. These adaptations are not, in and of themselves, a bad thing; they can push a school to grow and improvement. Growth and improvement will only happen, though, if teachers and leaders work together to monitor the changes and keep asking each other two simple questions: Is it working? How do we know? If you are concerned that the programs you are using in your classroom, school, and/or district are not making a difference in student achievement but are not sure how to prove it, or you are convinced that your programs are working but need evidence to justify continuing them, this is the book for you! You may not be able to stem the tide of Shiny New Things coming your way, but you will be able to show which ones are making a difference in the lives of your students and which ones are just passing fads.


Tweaking the Approach to Guided Reading

Right before Winter Break, my fourth grade partner and I spent a day looking at student literacy data and talking about ways we could better meet the needs of our four dozen or so students. One thing we realised was that we could more effectively and efficiently serve them by changing the way we grouped students for guided reading. Instead of each forming groups from our own classes, we put all of the data for all of our students together and made groups based on that new information. What happened was that about half of my students would be in groups with her and about half of her students would be in groups with me.

We looked at our schedules, bumped some things around, and found a way to both have our main literacy block at the same time. We started this shortly after the second semester resumed and have been meeting at least twice a week to discuss progress, strengths, weaknesses, and any changes we need to make.

Initially, I was meeting with all five of my new groups every day. Then I tried meeting with four groups each day by alternating days with two of the groups. Last week, as we looked at data further, I decided to tweak the schedule a little bit more so that I only meet with three groups on any given day. This has had the benefit of letting me a) give more time to students when I meet with them in their small groups and b) give them more time to work on independent tasks. With this newly tweaked schedule, my students now go to three of four possible twenty-minute stations: Teacher Time (only three of my five groups each day), Read to Self (every group), Writing (every group), and Front Row (two of the three groups, namely, the two not meeting with me for Teacher Time).

Yes, all of my groups are named after somewhat random and/or obscure trees.

At the same time, we decided to use an article series on the newly released Front Row Social Studies page as the foundation of our guided reading texts. Each article is published at multiple grade levels so we can differentiate as needed for our diverse groups of learners. For each article, students read it online, complete a brief comprehension quiz, and have a written response. I would like to say that the students are blowing me away with both their excellent understanding of the texts and with their detailed analyses of what they have read, but that would not be true.

What I am learning, instead, is that many of them are struggling with connecting what they have read and what they know with the questions being given to them. I am also learning that they are not writing very detailed responses. In fact, several students are only writing one or two sentences, while others have copied the entire article and pasted it into their response.

Fortunately, I am able to take this information and use it in my instruction! My student teacher is starting to take over more and more of the teaching responsibilities in the classroom, which means that I can work with more students on specific, targeted skills. I am hopeful that this will result in improved output from students, not because of a test or any arbitrary, artificial metric, but because being able to communicate clearly and effectively with others is an important life skill that I want all of my students to develop!


Switching It Up

My class schedule has been fairly consistent through the year. Students knew what we were going to do throughout the day each day because I made a point to make sure we kept it that way. But as we approached the end of the semester, I knew it was time to switch it up a bit.

At the same time, my fourth grade partner and I wanted to try a new approach to guided reading / reading workshop. We put all of our students’ literacy data into a spreadsheet, organised them by different criteria and created new groups that combined students from both classrooms. We ended up wth nine groups. She takes four of them and I take the remaining five. We decided to place our literacy block in the morning after our specials (fine arts, library, and/or physical education), moving mathematics to the afternoon.

Today was the second day with this new schedule. Not only did I switch my mathing and reading workshops, I also switched students. The transition has been remarkably smooth so far! The students have readily accepted this new format and are excited to be with some of their friends from the other classroom for part of the day each day. We will be periodically reviewing the data we are collecting to see what changes should be made to groups and changing groups to allow us both to work with all of the students throughout the semester.

Having mathing workshop in the afternoon has also been an interesting change. I feel like we are not quite as pressed for time, even though we are using the same amount of time as we have before. The students seem to appreciate having a different pacing for the day. We will still be doing our inquiry workshop in the morning, too, of course, but mathing in the afternoon allows more flexibility and it means the entire afternoon is not just literacy.

All in all, I am liking how we have switched things up. Of course, this was just day two, but I am nothing if not eternally optimistic about the future!


2017 Reading Challenge

Last year I came across a reading challenge from the folks at WeAreTeachers.com. I had hoped to attempt the challenge, but graduate school, life, and my own To Be Read pile got in the way. I had shared the challenge on Facebook so it popped up again in my feed (thank you, Facebook memories feature!) and I decided to try it again. Here’s the challenge:

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So even though it is now 2017, I am going to undertake the WeAreTeachers 2016 Reading Challenge. I am also going to challenge my students to take on this challenge, albeit with a few slight changes. (Instead of spouse or partner, it will be parent or other family member.) To help my students keep track of their reading challenge, they will use an online resource, Whooo’s Reading, to record the books they’ve read and write responses about what they read.

Of course, there are only 12 books on this list, and I plan on reading considerably more than one book a month. So the supplementary part of my personal reading goal for 2017 is to at least five books from each of the following genres:

  • Autobiography/Biography
  • Classic Literature
  • Fantasy
  • Graphic Novel
  • Historical Fiction
  • Mystery
  • Nonfiction (not related to education)
  • Picture Book
  • Realistic Fiction
  • Science Fiction

None of the books I read for the WeAreTeachers challenge can be counted toward the genre challenge, so I am setting a goal to read a total of 62 books in 2017! (According to my Goodreads account, I read 50 books in 2016, so this is going to be a bit of a stretch goal for me.) Parents, family, and friends are all welcome to join us in our reading challenge!

What will you read this year?


Author Visit

One of the many reasons I look forward to the Illinois Young Authors Contest, with its accompanying Young Authors Conference in Bloomington each year. is the opportunity to meet published authors from across the state of Illinois. I have written about several of these authors in the past and the Skype chats they have done with my class.

Last Friday, we had the chance to meet another one of these authors who was visiting as part of the Illinois Youth Literature Festival. Patricia Hruby Powell is the author of several books, include an awesome biographical picture book called Josephine. She visited with all of the fourth and fifth grade classes and then visited second and third grade.

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During her presentation, she talked about the writing process, shared two of her stories, and answered questions. I was impressed by the quality questions my students asked. I was particularly grateful to hear Ms. Powell talk about the amount of time she spends on editing and revising her work.

It was a great visit and a wonderful way to finish the week! I hope at least some of my students were able to go to the literature festival over the weekend so they could meet other authors and learn more about some of the great literature resources available in our own community.


Book Reviews: Matilda

[NOTE: This is an expansion of a review I recently wrote on Goodreads.]

Despite being a fourth grade teacher and a deeply devoted bibliophile, up until a few days ago, I had only read a grand total of two books by Roald Dahl: The Enormous Crocodile and The Vicar of Nibbleswicke. (The first is a story that has long been a favourite and I hope to eventually track down a copy for my home library. I honestly don’t even know how I ended up reading the second, but it has always stayed with me as a fascinating tale of someone doing something bizarre without even realising it is happening.) I personally own a very respectable collection of Roald Dahl stories, but I have not read any of them. In fact, I don’t actually own either of the two that I have actually read!

So, at the start of the school year, I decided it was time I read more Dahl and I realised I really only had one choice: Matilda.

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This is one of those stories that seemingly everyone knows, either because they’ve read the book, had it read to them, or they have seen the movie. (I myself have seen the movie at least a dozen times.) But reading it is most definitely a different experience. The relationships between Matilda and her parents and between Matilda and Miss Honey is much more important than the movie makes them.

This was a great read and a wonderful way to start the year with a magical story to engage my students (and myself!) in reading! It is always interesting to see how students respond when I read aloud exactly what is written. (Yes, Roald Dahl has a character refer to a child with a mild profanity and when I read it out loud, my class was shocked! But there were also smiles and looks of sharing a secret that we now had: their teacher was willing to read books that weren’t full of bland language that nobody in real life uses. I credit my blogging friend Katherine Sokolowski for teaching me this trick.)

There were plenty of “teachable moments” in Matilda, also, such as using rich descriptive language, different kinds of sentences, and focusing on small moments throughout writing. But there was also the opportunity to teach my students to do something that Mr. Dahl doesn’t do: use a variety of dialogue tags. In Matilda, nearly every character except Miss Trunchbull simply “says” things. She said this. She said that. He said that thing. He said something else. There are very few emotions in the dialogue. So I challenged my students to find better ways of describing how a character was speaking than just saying “said.”

But more than those, reading aloud is a way for us to enjoy a story together and strengthen our community. We work together, we play together, and we read together. I’ll be pulling out my Roald Dahl collection in my classroom so students can go deeper into his world of magic and mystery. And who knows? Maybe I’ll read some of them, too!


Return of the Chromebooks

It has been a long three weeks or so without Chromebooks in our classroom. There was an issue with the district’s cache servers shortly after school started that resulted in all devices having to be shut off and put away until they could resolve the issue. Today was the first day we were able to access the devices and wow, what a difference it made!

When I first got my cart of Chromebooks, I signed an agreement that I would infuse technology into my classroom practices and instruction. I spent the past two years or so researching websites and online learning tools, trying them out with my students, studying best practices of technology integration, and generally designing my classroom around the use of Chromebooks throughout the day.

Some people have expressed shock that my students access their devices first thing in the morning and keep them out until the end of the day. They are not on them all day, of course, but they are nearby and used much more than they are not.

During our mathing workshop, students use their Chromebooks to access sites such as Zearn, Front Row, Prodigy, and XtraMath to support and supplement their learning and help them improve on skills. The devices are accessed for fluency practice and for independent work while I am with small groups.

During our inquiry workshop, the Chromebooks become the principle tool for researching a variety of topics, keeping notes, and demonstrating learning through multimedia presentations. The students also use their devices to communicate with one another using shared documents in Google Drive.

During our writing workshop, students take their early drafts and type them into Google Docs, then use the available tools to edit, revise, and format as they prepare for publication. They also use the Chromebooks to research ideas and find better ways to express ideas.

During our reading workshop, the Chromebooks are used as students access eBooks through Storia, read articles on Wonderopolis and Newsela, continue writing that they started during writing workshop, and engage in creative writing through Storybird. They also record reading through sites like Whooo’s Reading.

On top of all that, we use our devices for online quizzes through Google Forms, Google Classroom, and Kahoot! Students take brain and body breaks with sites like GoNoodle and find ways to focus with music accessed through Google Play. (We have access to the full suite of Google Apps for Education.) They review and discuss digital citizenship through the Common Sense Media Digital Passport and share projects with one another, with students in other classes, and with their families.

Like I said, I have a technology-infused classroom. So we were all very excited when we were given the green light to start using our devices again! I can hardly wait to see what my students do with their devices tomorrow!