Google it: 3 Ways to Turn Students into Vocabulary Explorers

So, I’m about to make an argument that we should take a cue from Google when it comes to vocabulary instruction, but before you roll your eyes and click ahead to the next post, hear me out for a second:

A few years ago, if I were to use Google as a metaphor for vocabulary instruction, we’d probably be talking about the lowest level of learning when you analyze it with Bloom’s Taxonomy. We’d be talking about running into a word you don’t know, googling it to find a definition, then moving on. Not ideal when we equate that to our vocabulary instruction.

I think it’s fair to say, though, that in the past few years, Google has become much more than an answer-finding machine. Sure, we can still google a quick answer. But we also use it to compose emails, host virtual meeting spaces, and collaboratively design presentations. Google’s very mode of existing has extended beyond the lowest level of understanding upward through the levels of understanding to help us create.

Vocab SnipEarlier this year, as I was typing away in a Google Doc, I noticed that even their approach to vocabulary is moving upward in its depth of knowledge. Try it: Right click on a word that you’d like to look up. You get two options: define or explore.  

As teachers, we need to take this cue from Google and teach vocabulary with a similar approach. Sure, there are times when we should teach our students to find a definition, but we must also shift our instruction to really explore vocabulary in our classrooms.

How do we teach our kids to be vocabulary explorers?

Continue reading

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Puzzling Through a Movement

One of the reasons I love eduTwitter and the friends I’ve made here on Moving Writers is because it makes me feel less like I’m on my own teaching island. The other day, I tweeted a question about a resource for evaluating bias, and Tricia responded that she was looking at the same site with her students. Then, as I started to piece together the ideas for this post, I read Mike’s latest and realized he, too, was grappling with very similar issues.

Now, with an event as staggering as Parkland and its fallout, it’s no surprise that teachers are on the same wavelength. This time feels different, though.  And I know we’ve heard that so many times it almost seems trite. But I don’t just mean that it feels different from a political standpoint. Maybe it’s the students and how crazy-proud we are of their activism, but teachers this time seem to be digging deeper into our literacy practices.

In Mike’s post, he makes the case for reading like a writer to analyze angles to help students process modern news cycles. My thinking stemmed from a very similar goal, but also from the way that I stumbled through a (somewhat) failed lesson.  

My failed lesson

I presented my students with several articles following the Parkland shooting and asked them to sort the articles. I assumed they’d sort them on a range of opinions: left to right slant, pro-legislation restricting access to guns and against. I was wrong. They had trouble sorting because, many times, they weren’t even recognizing that the article conveyed an opinion. They fumbled through headlines and quotes and graphics, and I stumbled my way through helping them make some sense of what they were reading.

As they finished sorting, we took a look at what they’d come up with. One group sorted their articles by the ideas that each author focused on (gun control legislation, arming teachers, Parkland students as activists) while another group sorted the articles into those that seemed to be persuasive vs. informative in nature. It was pretty clear that they weren’t going to land where I’d hoped they would, so I tried to claw towards a takeaway.

Puzzle ReadingWe ended up agreeing that, when we’re trying to process an issue as big as this one, there’s a lot that we have to think about as readers. When we encounter a text, we have to approach it with the understanding that it’s just one piece of a puzzle.  In order to start putting together the puzzle, we have to work to understand the ideas presented, the author’s opinions, and the purpose for the text we’re reading.

Backing up

The next day, we revisited this puzzle concept, and we zeroed in on how to start understanding the authors’ opinions. So, we put on our “Reading Like a Writer” lenses, and I asked students to revisit one of the articles from yesterday in order to start answering the question:

When do we see clues that the author’s opinion is showing through?

The conversation started off fuzzy. They said things like, “I don’t know. It just sounds like she’s got somethin’ to say.” So we drilled into that. Continue reading

Permission to Play

The other night, my four year old broke my heart. “Why don’t you ever play with us?” he asked.

“What do you mean? I play with you all the time!” I responded, obviously feeling defensive from the sting of his question. My kids are the loves of my life. I try to spend as much time with them as is humanly possible for a mom who’s also a teacher.

“No,” he pushed back. “You are always makin’ dinner or doin’ somethin’ else.”

I paused and, in my head, did a quick inventory of what I’d done during the time we’d spent together recently:

  • prepare meals
  • empty and reload dishwasher
  • pick up mess
  • schlep the kids to the store to pick out a birthday present for their cousin
  • read stories

He was right. I was with them, but I was so busy with the day-to-day work of being a parent that I wasn’t doing what they really needed: spending time with them doing what they were doing.   

This struggle reminds me of one I’ve noticed in the classroom, too.

My students regularly keep track of how they spend their workshop time, but aside from conference notes and formative data, I hadn’t really been keeping track of how I’d been spending my own time, so I challenged myself to start. In a week, my inventory for how I spent my workshop time included:

  • Conferences – lots of them
  • Get kids caught up after absences
  • Pull small groups for guided instruction and re-teaching
  • Answer emails
  • Read over a mentor text I plan to use the next day
  • Pretty up an anchor chart
  • Enter notes on goals into the online gradebook

I’m sure that inventory looks familiar to you. But there’s a big, gaping hole there. My students were hard at work writing. Why wasn’t I? I see myself as a writer, but I wasn’t actually spending my time that way. Sure, I was busy. We’re teachers. OF COURSE we’re busy. But I worry that sometimes I get so wrapped up in the work of being busy that I neglect what’s really important: playtime.   Continue reading

The SAT Essay: Preparing Students for the Test & Tips for Sealing the Deal

 

National Leave the Office Early Day!As a part of their graduation requirements, every student in Michigan must take the complete SAT, including the essay. This is relatively new for us in the mitten state; previously, our required test was the ACT. As with just about any major change in education, when this first became law, I went through the stages of grief. But now, I’ve moved beyond acceptance and have learned to embrace the newly revised SAT*.

*Ok, “newly revised” requires a bit of perspective. It’s been in place for a couple of years now, but if you haven’t thought much about the SAT since you taught it, it’s changed – a lot.

Now, I’m never going to go bonkers in support of lots of mandatory, standardized testing. But, let’s face it: it’s not going away, so if a test can supply me with reliable data to help inform my instruction, I can deal.

Plus, the SAT is hard, which is one thing that frustrates a lot of people about the shift to this test, but I’d argue that because of its particular type of “hard,” the SAT – especially the essay – is making me improve my teaching.

See, when I say that the SAT is “hard,” part of what I mean is that you can’t really prep for it like you might for other writing tests. That’s because the SAT essay doesn’t just grade kids on how well they can perform with a particular kind of writing. There’s still the kind of icky, unnatural pressure of timed writing, but there’s more to it than that.

A quick look at the rubric will tell you that you’re not dealing with a formulaic response, here. A third of it is devoted to students’ comprehension of the argument they read and another third is devoted to their analysis – their thinking – about the text. That means that a full two thirds of this rubric measures skills that can’t be taught with any kind of formula. And the third that deals with writing? Take a look at the language. It values effectiveness, precision, and variety above structure – all skills for which there simply is no formula.

When we first made the switch to the new SAT essay, my colleagues and I sat down with the rubric and the sample student responses that had been released. We wanted to wrap our heads around this beast to figure out what kids need in order to do well. The discussion was long and at times fraught with emotion, but we were eventually able to agree on a couple of non-negotiables that students would need to be able to succeed on this test. And the really good news is that, to meet these needs, we don’t need to teach to the test or do test-prep; we need to double down on really good instruction. Continue reading

3 Moves Toward Better Teaching Tone and Voice

If I was lucky enough to see you at our #NCTE17 session this year, you know that tone and voice are both something that have been on my mind as a teacher a lot lately. I think most of us can agree that the standard of “maintaining a formal style and objective tone” falls a little short on this nuanced topic. Our voice is in many ways how we convey who we are in our writing, and our tone is immeasurably influenced by it, so it seems to do a disservice to our writers to always expect “formal” and “objective” if we want our students’ writing to be meaningful and effective. In order to dive into a deeper exploration of these concepts, I’ve made three major teaching moves that have helped tremendously:

1. Right a wrong: Move the tone lessons up front where they belong

Okay, so maybe this isn’t a mistake you’ve been making, but it sure has been for me. For the past I-don’t-know-how-many years, I’ve been teaching tone and voice by tacking a lesson on to the end of the writing process – in the revision stages. Once students’ pieces were all but finished, we’d do some quick checks to make sure the tone was appropriate for the audience. Every once in a while, we might catch a phrase or two that seemed a little off, but otherwise, the lesson almost always fell flat as a waste of time.

And then I had one of those lightbulb moments. Our tone is something that we develop before the words ever leave our mouths – not something that we revise once the words are already out there. It’s shaped by our attitude toward our subject and our audience, and in this way, it’s inextricable from our writing purpose. If our voice in writing is made up of a combination of our personality, our experiences, and our culture, we must let it inform our tone as we approach a subject. Continue reading

GRIT: A Reflection Protocol for Risk-Taking

GRIT ReflectionAs a Curriculum and Instruction Consultant in my district, when I’m not working with students as learners, I’m working with their teachers. Over the past few years, we’ve been digging into some really hard work. I mean really hard. We’re working on moving away from teaching novels to teaching reading, away from prescribing a formula to analyzing mentors, away from grammar workbooks to grammar in context. Like I said, it’s hard, hard work.

Throughout the process, I’ve come to realize that we as teachers aren’t all that different from our students when it comes to digging into new, hard learning. We come with diverse experiences and understanding, and we learn at different paces and in different styles. And, when something is especially difficult or unfamiliar, it terrifies us. Some brave souls embrace the fear head-on while others avoid it or deny it or deflect it. (You’ll usually recognize that approach when you hear, “but that won’t work with my kids” in the break room.) Most teachers, though, fall somewhere in the middle: willing to try it out, but with a healthy dose of skepticism.

One teacher bravely confided in me about letting go of control and allowing students to make observations in a mentor text. “Megan, I feel like I’m jumping off a cliff, here.” My initial reaction was to assure her that I, and the rest of her PLC, were there to be her parachute, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that metaphor wouldn’t hold up.

When we’re taking risks, learning something new, making big changes, a swan dive off of a cliff is sometimes what it takes to get things moving. More often, though, what it takes is the kind of grit that gets you to the top of the cliff in the first place.

Now, grit has been an awfully buzzy word lately, and usually I do my best to avoid that kind of buzz. But, in this case, it has helped me to embrace and support risk-taking by encouraging thoughtful, honest reflection that is grounded in learning. The following is a protocol I’ve used with myself and with teachers in my district whenever it’s time to embrace risk-taking and move forward.  Continue reading

No Happy Endings

You know, I had my blog post for this week all mocked up. The rough edges were in, I was filling in the details and ironing out the formatting. It was supposed to be about my go-to mentor texts for starting units – a handy little collection. Neat and tidy.

And then, as it tends to happen in our profession, my teaching feet were knocked out from under me.

We were wrapping up a mini-lesson on endings in personal narrative writing. We had collected some noticings, discussed how they worked, and charted strategies on the board. Notebooks were rustling as kids were going back to their drafts to play with their own endings. Some would add reflection while others might try to tie back to where they started. It felt like I’d taught this lesson a million times. And then a student looked over her notebook pages at me and asked, “but what if there isn’t a happy ending?”

I pulled up a chair. I was ready for this question; I’d tackled it before. I started to direct her back to some of our mentors, but she pushed back. “No, what if I don’t have an ending like this?” she sighed, starting to sound a little exasperated. “These are happy endings,” she waved her hands over her folder of texts we’d studied. I noticed that another student had looked up and was listening. He nodded in agreement; he was struggling with the same question.

I’ll admit, that wasn’t something I’m used to hearing. I usually get the question “Why is everything we read so depressing?” about the literature we study. And it’s true. It seems like in middle school and high school, we’re always trotting out the books about death and dying, but she was still seeing these as having “happy endings.”

“What if I don’t have an ending like this?”

Her question had a weight to it that told me this was more than just a question about craft.   Continue reading

Organizing Instructional Time

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food organization

I don’t know about you, but I feel much better now that the slice-able carrots are in the same bin as the plastic bok choy.

Organization. When we first kicked around the idea of organization being a common thread for our first series of the school year, I had to take a few deep breaths to keep from panicking. As I racked my brain for something I could write about, I was coming up empty. Well, unless you count Organization or Procrastination: You Decide as a worthy topic, in which case I could write all day. Take for instance the deadline for this blog entry. Before finally sitting down to hammer it out, I didn’t just tidy up my kids’ toys, I organized their pretend kitchen by food group.

 

Aside from this particular habit, anyone who has seen the mountains of file folders on my desk could probably attest that organization is not exactly my area of expertise. In nearly every case of organization I could think of as a possible topic, I found more questions than answers. How we organize our instructional time is no exception, but it is one that I’ve been especially invested in lately.

How we organize our instructional time is a big question in itself, or rather, it is comprised of several smaller questions:

  • How do we strike a balance between reading and writing?
  • What about the speaking and listening standards? Where do those fit?
  • How much time do we devote to reading shared vs. choice texts?
  • What role does independent reading have within the class structure?
  • How do we gradually release responsibility so that students can confidently take on the lessons independently?

These questions have been churning around in our department over the past few years, but this year, they’re mixed in with another big one:

How does lesson planning change between a standard period and a block?

Continue reading

F.A.Q. (Or How to Take Ownership of Writing)

Untitled drawing-1

photo via imdb.com

At my school district in Michigan, we’re in the home stretch. Just a few more days of instruction, and then we’ll be on our final exam schedule. So, for this post, I planned to write about creative lessons that will keep your class engaged and fresh throughout these dog days.

 

From my past tense, though, you can probably tell by now that I’ve failed miserably in that endeavor. I’m at that point in the school year where I feel like I’m just barely making it through the school day. Creativity? What kind of crazy pie-in-the-sky teacher did I think I was? I’m trying my hardest just to maintain the basics: confer, revise, read, reflect.

Come to think of it, it’s the basics that have me so exhausted this year. I think it’s because I took on a new challenge this year at our district’s alternative high school. Instead of two semesters during each of which we teach half of a consecutive, year-long course, we teach four terms of non-consecutive classes. So, in the past, at this point in the year, I’d be in my final weeks with kids I’d known since September or, at worst, January. Now, I get a new class full of fresh faces every 10 weeks. I’ve known my current students since the end of April. The end of April! That’s when, as a teacher, I used to return from spring break and state testing, put my feet up (figuratively, of course), and settle in to cruise through into summer. This was the point of the year when I realized I was really reaping the benefits of a well-established classroom culture. Now, it feels like we’re still working on getting to know each other, yet I have to be ready to assess them and send them on to their next step.

Part of the reason why this is so exhausting to me is because I refuse to treat my classes like credit recovery. Instead of powering through content and assignments, I work to establish trust and relationships, notebooks, reading goals, intrinsic motivation, and growth mindset. I love a good ice breaker as much as anybody, but man, this is tiring!

Which leads me to my point: As I gear up for next year, I want to do more (okay, hopefully not more, but let’s say better) in getting kids to own the classroom values. Continue reading

Beyond the Baked Goods: Appreciate Teachers by Supporting Them

Whether you recognize it for a day or a week, it’s that time of year: teacher appreciation. If you’re an elementary teacher, I apologize; you’re probably thinking, “Don’t remind me. I’ve eaten so many baked goods, I feel a little queasy.” Secondary teachers, your eyes may have just bugged out of your head as you thought, “What!? You get baked goods!?”

 

I joke about teacher appreciation celebrations, but they’re important. And they’re well-timed. This is the stretch of the school year that can feel a bit like pushing a Buick uphill

…in the mud

…with four flat tires.

I’m incredibly thankful for everything our community does for teacher appreciation, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that we could do better. Don’t get me wrong; at this time of year, a lunch or a coffee cart can seem like a godsend. But, I’d argue that more than appreciation, we need support.

I imagine we could probably get together at one of these teacher appreciation celebrations and lament all day about how we need more support from our legislators and our community. But I don’t know how far we’d get beyond sharing the same concerns. At least not in one conversation around the coffee cart. There is, however, a lot that we can do within our own buildings to move beyond baked goods to support teachers all year long. Continue reading