Science or craft

If you’re anything like me and live in a world surrounded by elementary education, you have certainly heard about the “Reading Wars.” If you aren’t sure what that is, it’s basically a back-and-forth debate among many educators about what is the best way to teach students to read. A quick Google search will show that articles about the reading wars have been in existence for years. In a search today, I see reference to Horace Mann arguing a whole language approach in the 1800s, or Rudolf Flesch arguing in support of systematic and sequential phonics instruction in 1955. Since the 1980s, the debate has gone back and forth between explicit phonics instruction as compared to a whole-language approach. I learned to read in a school that bought into a whole language approach, but I know I had friends who struggled to learn to read that way. Personally, I started my career as a teacher in a school that utilized the Four Blocks Literacy Framework. For years as a classroom teacher, I referred to Guiding Readers and Writers by Irene Fountas and Gay Pinnell constantly (my version is marked up, dog-eared, and tabbed from years of use). Most recently, the buzz has been around The Science of Reading, which refers to the research of cognitive scientists on how we learn to read and what is needed to reach a level of proficiency.

Now, I must be completely honest here, I feel I am relatively early in my learning about the Science of Reading, and that’s not really what this post is about. I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the topic because I want to be knowledgeable, and as a former science teacher, I believe in the importance of learning from the most recent research available.

What I have learned about the Science of Reading drove me to a book by Mark Seidenberg called Language at the Speed of Sight. Seidenberg is a cognitive neuroscientist (in case you need a definition, cognitive neuroscience is the study of the biological processes that underlie human cognition – in simpler words, it’s the study of how people learn). His research has been focused on learning and early childhood development. While there are many directions that I could choose to dig deeper based on this book, the piece I want to examine first revolves around the role of teacher education as a potential lever to lead to further growth in the reading proficiency of students.

Before I dig too deeply into that, I want to say something first – I’m not sure how much I buy into the whole “Reading Wars” argument. I don’t know how we grow together in our learning when we equate something to a war. In general, based on my studies of history, there are no winners in a war. Ultimately, as an educator, I am constantly trying to grow so that I may have a greater impact on my students. One of the things that I have noticed as I dig deeper into articles and research on the “Reading Wars” is that it seems that there is little willingness to find a middle ground. People are entrenched in their beliefs about what is right and what is wrong. I have long believed in the power of growing together. At times I read and research topics I don’t completely agree with because if someone believes in that thing so strongly, maybe there is something I can learn from them, and often, I do learn something. That idea of being better together does not seem to really be in existence from the two sides of the “Reading Wars” argument.

There was something that Seidenberg said near the end of the book that stood out to me. In Chapter 12, he talks of “the absence of a strong commitment to basic science as a source of evidence within the culture of education…” He goes on to argue that this absence of science has potentially had detrimental effects on reading education. So often in education, decisions about teaching and learning are made in the classroom by teachers who truly believe that the steps they are taking will support students. Those decisions might be based on feeling, experience, or something that is working for a colleague. What Seidenberg argues is that those decisions need to be based more in the realm of science and research. But in most Schools of Education, prospective teachers were not taught to cultivate a “scientific ethos” that allows them to be able to identify meaningful and recent research, and then make teaching moves based on what the science says. I’d argue that unless you have an advanced degree in education, you probably haven’t learned a lot about how to seek out research-based tools and interventions. I know that before my master’s program, I don’t think I had a solid footing in what it meant to be an educational researcher.

I’m not ready to say that I completely agree/buy into all that Seidenberg shares about education, but I will say that this scientific ethos does seem to be lacking in some schools of education. Part of this point from Seidenberg relates to the fact that so much of what schools of education focus on is developing philosophical beliefs in educators. I know for a fact that one of the courses I took required me to write a philosophy of education. I don’t recall much work on learning how to be an educational researcher until I was forced to research while completing my master’s program.

Many in education, myself included, have defined teaching as heart work and referred to it as a craft. But as I dig more into an understanding of cognitive psychology and the study of how people learn, there are certainly some long-held beliefs of my own that I’m being forced to reflect upon because the research tells me I might be wrong. We probably can’t get by purelyon feeling and heart and craft. Those things are a piece, but we also need to have a solid grounding in the science of learning as well.

So, there’s a question that I’m left to continue to reflect upon: What if educators saw education as science, in addition to craft? I believe there are some important areas that all of us as educators might be able to learn and grow.

Part of the role of educators is to figure out how to support our students who are not growing as learners in the way that we might hope they would. Maybe they are reading at a level that we consider below proficiency. When this happens, as teachers, we put into place interventions to support our students. Too often, it seems to me, we put in place an intervention based on what we “feel” might work best. But we do so without making sure that the intervention is research-based, and at times without making sure that the intervention supports the area of weakness for that student. I think that part of why this might happen is that many educators were not trained to look at the research.

In addition, many of us may not know how to do our own action research on strategies we try within a classroom. In action research, you identify a question or problem, test out a strategy, gather data, and determine if it works. In true action research, there is a phase of literature review where we try to gain a deeper understanding of research that may have already been done that is tied to our question or problem. This is where I think that sometimes action research falls apart because many educators haven’t been trained in the process of reviewing research. Our background gave many of us a solid background in philosophy, but not as solid of a background in research.

And here’s the issue – learning to do this takes time! It isn’t insurmountable, but on top of all the other things that are on the plate of teachers, it is challenging.

As I continue to reflect on these points, I’m challenging myself to find ways to support teachers in their efforts to learn about research. I’ll be looking for ways to share knowledge and provide sources of quality research. Luckily, we live in a day and age where Google allows us to find scholarly articles quickly and easily on just about any topic in education. Hopefully, through this continued exposure, we can expand our knowledge as researchers. In addition, I’ll be seeking opportunities to help guide teachers through action research of our own.

I’m curious to hear from you – what is your experience with education research? On a scale of 1 to 5, how well prepared do you feel you were to do your own research on educational tools, interventions, and strategies? If that number is lower than you’d like, what do you plan to do so that you know the decisions you make in the classroom are rooted both in research and science, as well as feelings and experience?

Literacy as the foundation of everything

About a month ago, the Indiana Department of Education put on the Get Your Lead On (GYLO) conference for leaders all over the state. I heard about it, thought it looked interesting and signed up as soon as possible. I am a big fan of the learning that happens at events like this – there are keynote-style presentations, break-out sessions, and then a closing session. And of course, there’s also the time to chat with others in between sessions – those are some of my favorite moments (and best learning moments) at any conference! The first thing that I’ll say about GYLO is that it was fun!

One of the speakers that day was Todd Nesloney. I first heard of Todd as an author when I was introduced to the book Kids Deserve It! He was a teacher, elementary principal, and is now the Director of Culture and Strategic Leadership for the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association. He led the second session of the day all about Literacy.

As an elementary principal, I see literacy as the key to everything we do at school, which was in line with what he had to share. In today’s post, I want to share with you some of what I learned from Todd, as well as some next steps that I want to lead in our building.

First and foremost, Todd made it quite clear that he sets the expectation that he will celebrate reading in all that he does. Let’s take a moment to reflect on how much we use reading and writing in our daily lives – from the start of my day check-in with my to-do list to some bedtime reading, text is something that I see constantly, and it’s going to be something that our students will use throughout their lives as well. Even more reason to put literacy front and center in our schools! One of the ways that he celebrated literacy during the day was that he took small moments out of each of his presentations to do a quick book talk. He’d share a title, a bit about the author, and a bit about the story. I walked out of the day with several new items in my Amazon cart!

Next, he talked about ways that he would celebrate reading as a leader. The bullet points below are just a few of the ideas he had. I encourage you to think about how/what you might implement in your setting to celebrate reading.

  • What we’re reading – When Todd was an administrator, he created a graphic in Canva that he then printed out for every staff member. At the top it said “What is Mr. Behrman reading?” then there was some space, and then at the bottom, it said, “What are you reading?” The document was laminated. If you wanted to, you could print out a picture of the book cover, or you could just use a dry-erase marker to write the title of the book. This was for all staff members, not just teachers. He included secretaries, custodians, cafeteria staff, and more! This is something I hope to get rolling at my school soon!
  • Book Talks – Todd started adding short book talks to the morning announcements. In time, he asked teachers to share their own little book talks for the announcements. Eventually, they got to the point that students were creating book talks on the things they were reading. What better way to celebrate the reading that was happening than allowing students to share the books they loved!
  • Reading Photo Wall – Each time a student finished a book, they could bring their book down to Todd’s office. He’d take their picture, print it out, and then hang it on the reading wall in the cafeteria. It made reading visible to all students. What if you did this within your own classroom? Or on the wall right outside of your classroom?
  • Guest Readers – Anytime someone visited Todd’s school, they were asked to bring a book along. Before they did anything else, Todd would take them to a classroom and have them read their book. If someone forgot, they’d go to the library to pick out a book! A variation of this is the mystery reader. As a teacher, you can ask parents to sign up for a day to come and read. Have them share a few clues about who they are so the class can try to guess. Then, on the day of the reading, the class can find out of their guesses were correct or not.
  • Email signature – Those of you who are reading this blog and who receive emails from me may have noticed I already implemented this. At the bottom of my email signature, I added a place that says “What I’m currently reading:” Then I went online, copied an image of the cover of the book, and pasted it into my signature. If you notice that the same book is in my email signature for more than a few weeks, let me know you noticed! That means I’m not reading enough!

There were a ton of other ideas shared during this hour-long session, and while I’d love to share more of them, I think this is a great place to stop for now. One thing I would leave you with was what Todd shared about high-interest books:

One of the most difficult conversations for me to have with a student is when we are in the library, and I offer to help a student find a book, and when I ask them what they want to read they say something like “I need a level L book.” Where is the celebration for reading that comes from that? As a fifth grader, I read Garfield books like crazy, but wouldn’t challenge myself. My 6th-grade teacher allowed us to pick what we wanted, and I read a ton of Stephen King books. Something about the suspense kept me engaged, and I read more that year than I ever had before. Because my teacher allowed me to pick a book I loved, I became a reader who always had at least one book to read at any given time (currently I’m reading 4 different books, and will pick up a different title depending on my mood).

What are your thoughts? Do you have ways to celebrate reading that are not included here? Let us know in the comments below. We can all learn from one another!

The innovators

I’ve recently been reading a book called The Innovators by Walter Isaacson.  If you don’t know anything about Isaacson, he’s written biographies about Ben Franklin, Henry Kissinger, Albert Einstein, and Leonardo Da Vinci, but several of his other books are more about groups of people who have played a role in some way – one book, titled American Sketches, is about some of the great leaders and creative thinkers of our society.

The InnovatorsThe Innovators has the subtitle “How a group of hackers, geniuses, and geeks created the digital revolution.”  This book caught my attention for a couple of reasons – first, I’ve always been something of an early adopter of technology.  I love to check out new and exciting innovations.  A second reason that this caught my attention is that I’m always curious about how people made the leaps to take us from the earliest computers (devices that took up entire rooms in the basement of college buildings or at military bases), to the technology that I can hold in my hand every time I pick up my iPhone.

Innovation is something that we often think of in terms of those big leaps.  When I was in sixth grade, my elementary school was renovated, and one of the classrooms was converted into a computer lab.  The first time we walked into the computer lab as a class, we saw a room with about 30 IBM computers.  The only thing that I remember being able to do on those computers was a keyboarding program that began the process of teaching me to type.  For me, this felt like a HUGE innovation.  Little did I know how much more our students would be able to do in the future.

The chapter that I am reading right now is all about software, and one of the big names in the development of computer software was Bill Gates.  Early in the chapter is a quote from him about what an innovator is:

An innovator is probably a fanatic, somebody who loves what they do, works day and night, may ignore normal things to some degree and therefore can be viewed as a bit unbalanced.

Reading about Gates, and many of the others who appear in the book, I can see how this definition certainly applies to innovators.  Here’s the thing though – I think there are times that you could substitute the word teachers for innovators and that definition would still work (I know my friends think I’m a little unbalanced to spend so much of my time with 10, 11, and 12 year olds!).  We are all something of a fanatic about what we do – we’re fanatics for our kids.  We love them, we want to help them learn and grow, and we want them to be successful.  I know that our efforts to get there make us all feel a little unbalanced at times.

One of the things that I have taken away from the book The Innovators is that the transition to the digital revolution was NOT made up of several giant leaps.  Instead, the innovations that have led to the amazing technology that I am able to carry in my pocket has happened because of little steps layered on top of one another.  And more often than not, those innovations were not made by any one person.  People such as Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing, Robert Noyce, Grace Hopper, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Larry Page (along with so many others) all played important roles in the digital revolution, but the steps of each of these people built on the ideas of others.

We as teachers need to remember that as fanatics, it may not always be easy to get our students to learn and grow as quickly as we want them to.  They may not be immediately successful, but if we continue to innovate in our teaching, if we continue to try to reach kids in new and exciting ways, we are going to be able to reach more of them.  We also need to remember the value in teamwork for our students to learn.  Just as so many of the innovators mentioned above found success by building on the ideas of others, you may find success with a student through strategies others share with you. Whether it be a teammate, your PLC team, someone down the hall, or any one of the multitude of other people in the building, there are others who might have an idea that helps you get that kid to move forward.

What are some of the things that you are fanatical about?  Have you ever tried something new that seemed to be the key to reaching that kid?  Share you experiences in the comments below!

What did you do this summer?

It’s that time of year – my summer break has ended and I am back in the office preparing for a new school year and the new group of Hawks that will be coming into our building.  As I’ve been at school, I’ve been running into a lot of people that I haven’t seen much during the summer.  Invariably one of us ends up asking “What did you do this summer?”  It’s exciting to get to hear about the awesome things that my friends have been doing, or to share the fun things that I did with my family.

In all my years as an educator, there is one other thing that I have done consistently every summer – it’s been an opportunity to learn.  I always have a stack of professional reading that I want to complete (currently there are 12 books in that stack).  At the beginning of the summer, I grabbed a couple of books from the stack that I really wanted to read, and they came home for the summer.  When someone asks about what I did during the summer, this isn’t something that I always think to share in those conversations, but I think there’s great value in sharing our learning.

The first book in that stack was one that I had started reading prior to the end of the school year.  Launch: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani was so intriguing that I ended up putting together a PD session to share at Launching Inquiry.  Design Thinking is all about creating the conditions to allow students to use their curiosity to find things that they can make and share with a real audience.  Innovative activities like this will empower our students to find problems in their own world, and then seek out meaningful solutions – we can help to give them the tools.

My second book this summer was Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters by Kylene Beers & Robert E. Probst.  In this book, the authors lay out a framework (called Book, Head, Heart) to help us all understand that there are multiple types of thinking going on when they are reading.  While it is important that kids know what’s happening inside of the book (able to summarize, notice what the author is doing, and understand the theme of the book) Beers & Probst also point out how important it is to recognize what you’re thinking about in your head, and how the book makes you feel.  Each piece is an important part of the interaction that takes place between a reader and the text.

The third professional book, and one that I haven’t yet finished, is Daring Greatly by Brene’ Brown.  In this book, Brown pushes us to understand that vulnerability, or the willingness to put ourselves out there, is part of what brings meaning to our lives.  Without being vulnerable, and willing to dare to do great things, we risk not really living.  It’s scary to make ourselves vulnerable, but only through going out on that ledge can you accomplish great things.

I look forward to continuing my learning – it truly never stops.  As you think about what you did this summer, I’m curious – what did you learn about?  As educators, we’re all committed to being lifelong learners.  Sharing with others, including our students, is a great way to further our own learning.  Share below anything that you learned this summer!

#BookSnaps

This is a BookSnap I created while reading the second chapter of the book Launch by John Spencer and AJ Juliani
This is a BookSnap I created while reading the second chapter of the book Launch by John Spencer and AJ Juliani

If you are on Twitter and follow any of the same people that I do, you have probably noticed people posting pictures of text, sometimes with highlighting, adding emojis, bitmojis, or text, and then posting it on Twitter with their own comments.  Normally if you look at the comments, you will see the hashtag #BookSnaps linked to it.  Even if you aren’t on Twitter, you can see what people are posting by clicking this link: Twitter #BookSnaps

If you go to Twitter and check this out, you will probably notice that most of the posts here are educators who are sharing their personalized professional reading with their Twitter followers.  If you look closely though, some of what you will find is teachers sharing BookSnaps that students created in their classroom.  It got me started thinking about how some of you might be able to use them in your classroom.  Check out this student created BookSnap that the teacher then added some additional comments to:

This BookSnap was created by a student on SeeSaw and then shared by a teacher.
This BookSnap was created by a student on SeeSaw and then shared by a teacher.

Most of the ones that you see are using SnapChat in order to create and share.  For those of you that know what technology your students are using, SnapChat is a pretty popular app.  But here’s the thing, there are ways that BookSnaps could be created using other apps that don’t involve the social network aspect of SnapChat.  Any app that allows you to pull in your own pictures and add text, drawings, and emojis could be used in the same way.  The student created example to the left was created using SeeSaw.  Some other examples that come to mind are Skitch, Google Drawings, various PDF annotating apps, and even Instagram.

Think of the potential engagement for your students if you asked them to create their own BookSnaps.  Could you imagine what they would say if you told them to open SnapChat or Instagram in class?  In ELA classes, you could have students create a BookSnap when they run into a Notice and Note signpost.  You could have them create one to identify the climax in the book they’re reading, or create one based on their own writing, identifying specific plot points.

And don’t say “I’m not an ELA teacher, this doesn’t apply.”  I could see real potential for BookSnaps in nonfiction reading as well – identifying the main idea in a science article.  Sharing things that surprised them as they are reading about some historical figure.  Responding to the 3 Big Questions from Reading Nonfiction by Beers and Probst.

I could even see integration into math class – MathSnaps could be a thing (acutally I just checked, and it is a real thing on Twitter)!  You could have a kid snap a picture of the answer to a problem and then add text describing how they came to that answer.  Or there could be ArtSnapsMusicSnaps, or GymSnaps.  The limitations are only bound by the creativity of how to integrate this technology.

As for how to share, again, the options are probably endless.  If you’re already using SeeSaw, that’s an easy option.  Other ideas I’ve seen include Google Slide Decks, a class shared PowerPoint (these options allow everyone can see what BookSnaps other kids have created based on the same reading assignment), or even something as basic as emailing it to you (although a way to share with classmates would make the audience so much more authentic and meaningful).  Once kids have shared them with you, find a way to share beyond the walls of your classroom.  If you’re on Twitter, tweet it out with the #BookSnaps hashtag – others will see it.  You could also put it out on Instagram or Facebook – both have people actively using this hashtag.  If you don’t have social media, you could have students print them out and put on their locker, or create a BookSnaps bulletin board.

If you are still at a loss for how you even create a BookSnap, there are some great resources from Tara Martin.  You can find her on Twitter at @TaraMartinEDU or @BookSnapsREAL.

On Martin’s blog, she’s also created some how to videos that could be useful to see how she puts a BookSnap together.  Check it out here: http://www.tarammartin.com/resources/booksnaps-how-to-videos/

I know I’ve got some creative people in my audience.  If you have an idea for how BookSnaps could be used in the classroom, please share in the comments below.  My ideas above are simply ones that have come to me in the past couple of days.  You might have something that I haven’t thought of – or possibly never would.  Let us know!

If you begin using BookSnaps in the classroom, please share them!  Use the #RSIHawks or #RSIReads hashtag in your post!

Media literacy

democracy-cannot-succeed-unless-those-whoexpress-their-choice-are-prepared-to-choosewisely-the-real-safeguard-of-democracytherefore-is-educationAccording to the Center for Media Literacy (CML), the most basic definition of media literacy is “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and create media in a variety of forms.”  However in today’s world they have expanded that definition a little further and now define Media Literacy as:

“a 21st century approach to education.  It provides a framework to access, analyze, evaluate, create and participate with messages in a variety of forms – from print to video to the Internet.  Media literacy builds an understanding of the role of media in society as well as essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy.”

If you aren’t sure why I’d be writing a post on this topic, I have 2 questions for you… 1) What bubble have you been living under? and 2) Might I join you there?  It seems that wherever you look – news, Facebook, Twitter, websites, etc. – you can never seem to get an accurate answer.  One location you might see a story that says something definitely happened, elsewhere they say it might have happened, and in a third place it definitely didn’t happen.  Scrolling through my Facebook and Twitter feeds, the people I am friends with or follow have all kinds of different beliefs.  Within a couple of minutes of scrolling, I often see links to articles or headlines for articles that directly oppose one another.  It’s completely overwhelming!  One good thing to come of it?  I’m finding more time to read books, and I’m spending less time on other forms of reading.

So, if we feel overwhelmed, what in the world are our students thinking?

As I was thinking about this article, I spent some time looking at various resources for media literacy, and there were tons.  One of the resources that I found was on the Center for Media Literacy’s website.  They share that the heart of media literacy is informed by inquiry and share a four-step process:

  1. Access information from a variety of sources.
  2. Analyze and explore how messages are “constructed” whether through social media, print, verbal, visual, or multi-media.
  3. Evaluate media’s explicit and implicit messages against one’s own ethical, moral, and/or democratic principles.
  4. Express or create their own messages using a variety of media tools, digital or not.

So what might a lesson in media literacy look like in one of our classrooms?  As a brief overview, it might be something like this:

  • Choose an interesting, provocative, or possibly even controversial topic that is in the news – or if this seems too far, pick advertisements for similar products.
  • In pairs or teams have students seek out different sources that have shared that story. If this makes you nervous, maybe select the sources in advance and share those sources with the students.  Don’t limit them to print media – use videos, radio, podcast, YouTube, etc.
  • Have students analyze and evaluate their resource – I’ll share more about this process below.
  • Finally, have them use what they have learned to share their own message about the topic.

On the CML website you can download a free resource titled “Literacy for the 21st Century.”  One of the things you will find in this document is a list of Key Questions and Core Concepts.  While the free resource on the CML site will go into a lot more detail, here are those Key Questions and Core Concepts:

Key Questions:

  1. Who created this message?
  2. What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?
  3. How might different people understand this message differently?
  4. What values, lifestyles and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message?
  5. Why is this message being sent?

Core Concepts:

  1. All media messages are constructed.
  2. Media messages are constructed using a creative language with its own rules.
  3. Different people experience the same media message differently.
  4. Media have embedded values and points of view.
  5. Most media messages are organized to gain profit and/or power.

medialiteracy-image-11

And why do we need to be thinking about media literacy?  With the current political climate, it can be tempting to bury our heads in the sand in terms of talking about issues with students, however our students need to have the 21st century skills to be successful.  Media literacy is an important part of those skills.  In fact, according to CML, “helping our students to be media literate is an alternative to censoring, boycotting, or blaming ‘the media.’”

Hopefully you also see some connections between this post and our work with Reading Nonfiction by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst.  Teaching that questioning stance will help our students be more media literate as well!

What are your thoughts on this topic?  Have you been thinking about media literacy for your students?  Have you used news articles or topics in your classrooms?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Civil discourse

It’s a fact that we cannot control what happens every moment of our student’s lives.  We can’t prevent poor choices in the hallway, unkind statements in the lunchroom, or hurtful words on the bus.  However, we can try to right the ship in our own classrooms.

As a member of our building’s diversity team, this message came through loud and clear during a presentation at our most recent Diversity Coaches Meeting.  During this meeting, we spent an hour with Janet Chandler discussing the concept of Civil Discourse.  During the most recent presidential election cycle we saw endless attacks from various candidates, and many were not living up to the decorum that we might hope for from our elected officials.  The facts are that this type of climate has been in existence for a much longer period of time than just the past couple of years.

“A supporter of Thomas Jefferson once called John Adams “a hideously hermaphroditical character.”  Former Treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton called Vice President Aaron Burr “bankrupt by redemption except by the plunder of his country,” an attack so heinous that the men dueled, and Hamilton died.

Go through the nation’s history, and the noise and heat in public political discourse have always been there, rising with the cycles of economic distress, immigration and cultural upheaval.” – Ann Gerhart (The Washington Post, In Today’s Viral World, Who Keeps a Civil Tounge?, October 11, 2009).

Although uncivil discourse has been a part of our history, with today’s world of 24-hour news, social media, and technology, the noise of the less than civil statements seems to be nonstop.  So what are we to do when that spills over into our classroom?  Here are some tips that I took away from our conversation last week, as well as a link to a great resource from Teaching Tolerance (the link will be at the bottom of this post).  These tips are in no particular order, but hopefully will provide you with some ideas about how to handle discussions that may be a little difficult within your classroom.

If not us, who?

maslows-hierarchy-of-needsIt would be easy to say that these conversations on civil discourse are not our responsibility, but the fact is, there are uncivil things being said in our school building.  We simply cannot have the attitude of “it’s not my problem.”  When we become aware of issues, we have a responsibility to step in.  I can’t recall, nor can I find, where I first heard this, but the quote “we’ve got to take care of the Maslow stuff before you can ever hope to get to the Blooms stuff” comes to mind.  Our students can’t learn without their basic needs being met!

Set the example, not just the expectations!

It’s easy to talk about expectations.  We can say again and again what we expect.  But if, even once, we slip up, some of our students may follow our lead on this.  In a civil discussion we use titles: Mister, Misses, or Miss; President; Senator; Representative, etc.  If we refer to people without those terms, we diminish their role.  Just looking at my Facebook feed in the past couple of weeks, there have been a lot of people who aren’t using titles.  I’ve had people tell me that they won’t use certain titles because of a lack of respect in a person.  Isn’t that part of the issue here?  If you then read through Facebook comments on political posts, you see less than civil statements being made.  When you use a title, you add a level of civility and respect.  By modeling civility in your classroom discussions, you will help your students understand what that looks and sounds like.  Remember – kids act in a way they they see the adults in their lives behaving.  Modeling civil discourse will help lead to more civil conversations in the hallways.

Facts vs. Alternative Facts

I’ve referred to social media a couple of times, and I’m going to do so once again.  No matter your political beliefs, your party affiliation, etc., I think that any of us who have been on Facebook can agree that there are some outrageous statements being made.  The phrase fake news and alternative facts has become something of a joke.  Earlier this school year I posted a blog titled “Finding the author’s purpose” (if you want to go back to it, click here: http://wp.me/p6BRrr-6J).  In this post, I reminded you of the definition of nonfiction that Beers & Probst used in their book Reading Nonfiction:

“Nonfiction is that body of work in which the author purports to tell us about the real world, a real experience, a real person, an idea, or a belief.” (emphasis added)

In that post, I went on to encourage you to teach our students to have a questioning stance when reading nonfiction.  Every author has a purpose in what they have written – sometimes that purpose is not simply to inform.  Facts can be twisted and manipulated to support either side of the political spectrum, and social media is one of the most likely places to see this play out.  More often than not, the articles with the most extreme language seem to be coming from sites that are extremely liberal or conservative, or from sites you’ve never heard of before.

One important piece of a civil discussion is that it has to be based in fact (I could probably do a full post on the definition of the word fact…).  If you are having a civil discussion and someone shares a “fact” that is truly extreme, or is something that is not agreed on by most in the class, it’s time to talk about the idea of triangulating sources – can we find that fact from more than one source?  Do most people agree on this fact?  These conversations are so important because as Beers & Probst remind us that there is a greater purpose to teaching our kids the nonfiction signposts:

“Far more important than the ability to capture a teacher’s information and thoughts is the ability to acquire information on ones’ own, to test ideas against one another, and to decide for one’s self what notions have merit and which should be rejected or abandoned.”

If you read through the Teaching Tolerance link at the bottom, you’ll find a whole section on the three parts of an argument.  Here’s a quick breakdown:

  1. Assertion – The simple statement that is the basis or main point of the argument.
  2. Reasoning – This is the because part of an argument.
  3. Evidence – This is where you truly back your argument.  This may include statements from experts, statistics, data, or other research that supports you assertion and reasoning.

If you’re trying to have a civil conversation, encourage your students to include all three of these parts of an argument.  If you’d like more info on this, it can be found in Teaching Tolerance link below.

Respect

Probably the most important reason to work with our students on the concept of civil discourse is simply the idea of respect.  We are all entitled to our opinions, and we are all allowed to disagree with one another, but we have to make sure that these conversations are happening respectfully.  Our students need help to learn that it’s okay to agree to disagree.  Again, we can’t control what happens everywhere for our students, but we can do our best to make things right once they come in to our classrooms.

What experiences have you had in working with your students on civil discourse?  What has worked well?  What hasn’t?  Does the idea of having conversations like this in the classroom simply freak you out?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.  We can all learn from one another!

http://www.tolerance.org/publication/civil-discourse-classroom

Finding the author’s purpose

AuthorsPurpose

This post is the final post in a three-part series based on my learning from the book Reading Nonfiction as well as recent PD that I attended that was led by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst.  In the first post, “How do we take them further?” I talked about those 3 questions that should guide our thinking when reading nonfiction:

  • What surprised me?
  • What did the author think I already knew?
  • What changed, challenged, or confirmed what I knew?

When we get our students to think about these three questions as they are reading nonfiction, they will notice more, question more, and dig deeper into the text.

In last week’s post, “Defining Nonfiction” I wrote about how we define nonfiction.  I first shared a word cloud based on our own definitions of nonfiction reading:

Nonfiction_definition_wordle

But we then transitioned to a much deeper definition of nonfiction:

Nonfiction is that body of work in which the author purports to tell us about the real world, a real experience, a real person, an idea, or a belief.

To be able to truly dig deeply into a nonfiction text, we must understand the author’s purpose.  In this post I’m going to be sharing with you a couple of the signposts that Beers and Probst recommended as a starting point to really get our students thinking about the author’s purpose.

The first signpost that Beers and Probst shared with us specifically during our PD was the concept of Contrasts and Contradictions.  For those of you who have been using the Notice and Note to teach fiction reading strategies, this one should sound familiar.  In fiction you look for things that the characters do that contrasts or contradicts what you might expect.  In nonfiction we should notice if the author shows us “a difference between what you know and what is happening in the text, or a difference between two or more things in the text.”

Think about it for a second.  If you are reading a news story, and it contradicts something that you have seen in a different story, or something that you believe you already know, that is going to give you pause.  When you stop to think about those differences, you might come to the conclusion that an author is trying to change your opinion – this is a hint of what the author’s purpose might be.  Remember, our students can’t just think of nonfiction as not fake.  Our students have to have that questioning stance so that they can be a bit skeptical of the opinions being shared.

Once we recognize the signpost for contrasts and contradictions, students then need to take it a step further – just noticing the signpost doesn’t get the level of inquiry we want.  Next we need our students to ask themselves a question about that signpost.  I love the chart on page 121 of Reading Nonfiction because it shows anchor questions for different levels of students, or questions that could be asked in the content areas.  The most basic anchor question for this signpost would simply be “What does this make me wonder about?” while a deeper anchor question might be “What is the difference and why does it matter?”

The other signpost that Beers and Probst said was so important in finding the author’s purpose was Extreme or Absolute Language.  This is defined as language that “leaves no doubt about a situation or an event, allows no compromise, or seems to exaggerate or overstate a case.”  Virtually any statement that includes the words all or none would be an example.  It seems this year that you can’t listen to a political speech or read an article about the presidential race that doesn’t include some form of extreme or absolute language.  The extreme language can range from obvious and probably harmless to the subtle and potentially dangerous.  Take the following 3 statements that many of us may have heard at some point:

  • It’s freezing out there!
  • You have to let me go to that party! Everyone is going to be there!
  • Simply stated, we know that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction.

As you can see, the first statement is probably pretty harmless, the second might give the parent of a teenager pause to think about whether or not it is appropriate for their child to attend the party, but that last one is an example that led to the loss of many lives and history has come to show us it was not accurate.  We need our students to understand that when they encounter language that is extreme or absolute, they need to “be alerted either to the strength of the author’s feelings or to the possibility that the writer is exaggerating and may even be deceiving or misleading the reader.”

Just like with any other signpost, simply noticing it is not enough.  We need to continue to remind our students to stop and think about the anchor question.  Just like with the contrasts and contradictions signpost, the most basic anchor question is “What does this make me wonder about?” while a deeper version could be “Why did the author use this language?”  Again, you can see content specific anchor questions on the chart on page 121.

Between teaching our students about the importance of a questioning stance when reading nonfiction, a true and accurate definition of nonfiction, and at least a couple of the signposts, our students will have the tools they need to be able to read deeply, think deeply, and understand an author’s purpose.  It is so important for our students to develop these skills not only so that they will be successful in school, but also so that they can be productive members of a democratic society.  If we don’t teach our students to have a questioning stance, they will believe whatever they see on the news, no matter whether it is ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, or any of the other multitude of news outlets that are out there.  I love this following quote from page 32 in Reading Nonfiction:

“Far more important than the ability to capture a teacher’s information and thoughts is the ability to acquire information on ones’ own, to test ideas against one another, and to decide for one’s self what notions have merit and which should be rejected or abandoned.”

We need thinkers who can listen to political speeches and read political writings and decide who will best serve their needs.  We need students who can look at the writings of a so-called nonprofit and decipher if a donation will be used in a meaningful way.  Instead of accepting what they are told, our students “need to develop intellectual standards that open them up to new possibilities and challenging ideas and give them the courage and resilience to change their minds when they see persuasive reasons to do so.”

Share with us your thoughts on the importance of nonfiction reading.  Why do you feel understanding nonfiction is important for our students?  What have you noticed about student’s thinking as you push out a questioning stance and the nonfiction strategies?  Let us know about them in the comments below!

Defining nonfiction

Think back to when you were in school.  We all learned the difference between fiction and nonfiction, but take a moment to think about how you would define that term for your students.  I specifically remember one of my teachers reminding us that NF stood for nonfiction and not fake.  Last week I asked you to share your own definition of nonfiction in 5 words or less.  Here’s a word cloud I created based on the definitions you all shared:

Nonfiction_definition_wordle

You’ll notice as you look at this that the terms that appeared most in our definitions were informational, factual, facts, and real.

As we all know, when reading a nonfiction text, we cannot always accept everything at 100% factual.  Think of just about any controversial topic.  You can find nonfiction pieces written in support of and against global warming, evolution, or the risks of tobacco use.  Does that mean that both sides of the story are true?  Or are they both lying to us?  Most of the time, it’s much more nuanced than that.

For a variety of reasons, authors may omit information, tell us little white lies, or manipulate their research and data.  The reality is that nonfiction can be so challenging because it forces us to interact with the text in ways that fiction never expect us to do.  As Beers and Probst say, we must understand when reading nonfiction that “the author is not offering the truth, but one vision of the truth.”  Sometimes a nonfiction author will go so far as to explicitly tell us the inference they want us to make.  The author wants us to accept their version as the truth without questioning, but we must think about the purpose the author has for writing.

This brings us to the question, how do we really define nonfiction?  I love the definition that Beers and Probst put forth, and is much deeper than the definition I was given of “not fake”:

Nonfiction is that body of work in which the author purports to tell us about the real world, a real experience, a real person, an idea, or a belief.

To me, the key word here is purports.  Every author has a purpose in their writing, and depending on that purpose they may lead us to conclusions that we wouldn’t generally make if we were in possession of all the facts.  This definition reminds us of the importance of reading with a questioning stance.

By seeking the author’s purpose while we are reading, we will be better able to look at nonfiction and understand why an author made the choices they did.  If you want to see a great example of an article that can be used to look at author’s purpose, take a look at “Vampires Prey on Panama” found on page 261 of Reading Nonfiction.  As you read the article, pay close attention to the words that are used to describe the farmer compared to the words that are used to describe the scientist.  Who’s the antagonist?  Who’s the hero?  Why does the author choose to write in this way?  If our students learn to have that questioning stance as they read nonfiction, they will be better at identifying the author’s purpose.

The nonfiction signposts will also help our students to get the author’s purpose.  During our PD with Beers and Probst last week, they identified 2 signposts in particular that help us better understand the author’s purpose.  I’ll share with you a little about each of those signposts next week.

In the past week it’s been great seeing so many of the teachers in our building working to integrate the 3 main questions that were the basis of my post last week.  So I’m curious, how do you define nonfiction for your students?  I’d also love to hear more about how you have been implementing the questions into subject areas other than reading, or what you’ve noticed about the thinking that your students are doing as a result of these questions.  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

How do we take them further?

Reading NonfictionOn Monday I was able to attend a PD session that was led by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst, and one of the things they said early in our day struck a chord with me:

“Some teachers don’t realize that if they just stay out of the way, the kids who do well will keep doing well.  How do we take them further?”

This is such a challenge in our district.  Most of our classes are filled with compliant students who generally do what we ask them to do, they show gains in the normal way, and then they move on to the next grade.  But is that what we want for our students?  Show gains in the normal way?  Don’t we want them to gain spectacularly in the time we have them?  For most of these students, they will hit a wall sometime.  It might be a high school AP class, it might not be until college, and there may be some who can get by until they are out in the “real world” in their job/career.  But eventually their act of going through the motions won’t be enough because they won’t be able to truly think deeply and problem solve.

I think we can all agree that nonfiction reading skills are important.  But research shows us that strong nonfiction reading skills are one of the highest indicators of success.  Unless you’re a literary critic, a novelist, or a teacher (I know, we’re teachers), you probably only read fiction as an escape, but you read nonfiction every day.  That means our kids need the tools to be able to dig deep in the text, think through the text, and figure it out.

And here’s one of the amazing things – if you teach the kids the tools, and you give them the time to read a text, think deeply about it, and talk with each other, they will start asking themselves the same questions (or possibly even better questions) than the ones you would be asking.  During the PD, Probst said “Our goal should be to get our students to be able to have deep conversations about their reading without needing our help.”  Don’t you love the idea of students walking out of the building at the end of the day so tired because of all the deep thinking they have been doing, and you walk out with a smile on your face?  Our students should be doing the hard work, not us.

Too often as teachers we spend our time filling in the blanks for our students, and that is hard work!  We give them the background knowledge, we ask the questions, and then what do we get back?  Low level answers without much deep thinking.  When you ask the question, that leads our students to believe that there is one answer, and if they’re lucky they can find it in the back of the book – that’s how school works, and we all know our students can play school.  But if students were to ask those same questions, on their own, the conversations will be so much deeper.

Sound good?  I think so, but where do we start?  Beers and Probst suggested that the initial starting point would be with their 3 main questions:

  1. What surprised me?
  2. What did the author think I already knew?
  3. What changed, challenged, or confirmed what I knew?

As your students are reading, have them code what they read (this means you need something that they can write on, some post its, or a digital format that they can annotate).  Beers recommended using an exclamation point for question 1, a question mark for question 2, and the letter c for question 3.  Then, after they have read, have them talk in small groups about their thinking.

Next week I plan to go a little deeper with some more of the information that Beers and Probst shared on Monday, but as you get your year rolling, start with the 3 questions.  These 3 simple questions will make the reading more personal and relevant.  It will push thinking and learning to a much deeper level! (If you want to see a great video of where these questions can push students, scan the QR code on page 88 of your copy of Reading Nonfiction – it’s a 3 minute video clip of 6th graders in a 1:1 classroom).

If you haven’t yet read the book Reading Nonfiction by Beers and Probst, I can’t recommend it highly enough.  There is so much there to take your reading instruction to a greater level, and this instruction can take place in ALL classrooms.  We all use nonfiction reading skills in our lives, no matter what subject we teach, to help ourselves increase our knowledge and understanding.  Let’s help our students develop the skills to be more successful nonfiction readers.

Share your thoughts in the comments below.  Have you used the 3 questions in your nonfiction instruction?  What changed for your students?  What things were great?  What struggles did you have?  As a community of teachers, we are also a community of learners, and we can learn most from one another!