Monday, March 26, 2012

Finding Their Voice - As Writing Shifts From Narrative to Informative In the Common Core

Writing has been existing in the shadow of reading in many teacher's lounges, classrooms, curriculum meetings, and homes across our country.  There has been a significant emphasis on reading and improving reading scores.  The importance of reading as a life skill can not be argued, nor can the need to teach students to be more active readers of more complex text.  The Common Core Curriculum has pulled writing back into the light, putting equal value on the literacy skills and the writing skills of students across the curriculum, not just in English/Language Arts classrooms.   With writing and reading on equal footing comes the challenge of how to help students find their voice as writers along a continuum of writing standards ranging from fiction to technical writing and narrative to argumentative or research writing.  

Students are doing more casual writing than ever - summarizing information in 140 characters or less. This isn't a bad thing. One of my biggest complaints as a teacher was that kids didn't know how to summarize information. Texting is forcing them to put ideas in their own words...using as few words and characters as possible!  How do we capitalize on their desire to share every idea, opinion, moment of their lives with their peers?  From Kindergarten on, young writers need opportunities to read different types of writing - narrative, poetry, informational -as models for the kinds of writing they will be expected to do.  Just as we encourage them to speak up in class, share answers, participate in discussions verbally, they need to see that they can have this same active voice through their writing.  If you want to persuade someone to go along with your idea or accept your opinion, you need to have facts or information to back up what you are saying...or writing.   Students can develop a confidence in how they have built their own thinking by spending time in class learning how to synthesize ideas from multiple sources.  Students can learn how to have deeper, more meaningful conversations with their peers by learning how to write supported arguments defending a "thesis" or an answer to a research question.  This isn't just for high school students.  Six year olds have a natural curiosity and a willingness to come up with an explanation and an opinion on any number of things. My 12 year old wrote a well defended argument on the topic "Why I should have a cell phone" complete with quotes from other sources.

Story telling, descriptive writing, poetry all have a place in the Common Core Classroom. Narrative writing skills transfer to persuasive and argumentative writing.  All require a precission to the writing - an attention to detail and word choice.  Good narrative writing flows, using transitions, and a plot diagram to keep the reader moving through the story.  Persuasive or argumentative writing requires a clear framework or outline to build upon. Instead of specific details, the focus is on providing evidence or facts to back up what you say. Narrative is a way for writers to put themselves and their readers in situations that they may not be able to experience in their real life, a way to try out new ideas. Persuasive or argumentative writing takes this concept to the next level, allowing the writers to express their ideas or new ways of thinking based on research or the iterpretation of the ideas of others.

As we plan for the shift to the Common Core, we should support teachers of all content areas as teachers of not just reading - but of writing.


Monday, March 19, 2012

Fiction vs Non-Fiction How Do You Find A Balance In Your Classroom?

Once upon a time, there was a teacher who had a magic clock.  Everyday, she would carefully take the polished brass clock down from the classroom wall and whisper the secret words (they are no, I am not telling them to you)  Gently, she would hang the clock back on the wall before her students arrived for the day.  This clock adjusted time during the school her exactly the right amount of time she needed to complete all of her activities, and still send the students home promptly at the end of the day.   Don't we all wish that we had a magic clock?  But, we don't, so the struggle begins to figure out how to include time in our teaching day for extended reading of fiction and non-fiction content materials while still meeting all the other content standards we are responsible for.

Here is my secret for "time stretching".
First, begin to plan your units on a web rather than a linear unit plan.  Put your main theme in the middle. Around it add specific content area standards you will address in the unit. From there, look at ways to integrate rich reading experiences. This may include finding a fiction book that has a theme, setting, plot line or character that connects to your content standards.  Then, look beyond your textbooks for content based textual reading for your students.  Sources include websites, e-zines, traditional magazines, and Infohio Gale Data bases.   Use a combination of reading strategies to expose students to the broadest range of materials.  I used jigsaw reading, providing a selection of 4-5 articles on a similar topic.  Students worked out of a "home group" with each student choosing a different article.  They then grouped with students who had read the same article to talk about key points and discuss questions or ideas they had while reading. They get back together with their" home group" to each share again.  This encourages Close Reading.  What other reading strategies can you think of to use with your class?  You can even extend the web planning idea to include related standards for other content areas.  I worked with the English teacher on my team to plan an integrated science unit on genetics around the novel Ghost Boy by Ian Lawrence.  The lead character has Albanism. The supporting characters, members of a circus freak show, exhibit a variety of other genetic disorders. The novel was a good starting point for lessons on genetic mutation. In addition, we looked at biodiversity and ethics.  The ELA teacher focused on the strong character development, identifying plot conflict and descriptive language.  The unit also included a research project that covered standards for ELA and science. Students were given credit in both of our classes.

Here is a sample of a unit web using a 4th grade Social Studies Topic - Heritage.  The book and article resources surround the colored standards.

Article Resources

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Text Complexity ...Is It In the Stars?

Deep down I am a science girl with a passion for reading.  I have surrounded myself with books of all lengths, genres and points of view.  I read blogs, magazines, news articles and...when there is nothing else, cereal boxes.   Tonight, as I stood outside on my front porch, telescope focused on Jupiter and Venus, I thought about how the reading that students do in a standard school day - worksheets, chapters in a textbook, an occasional news article, a chapter in a novel is very much like looking at the night sky with the naked eye.  You see a few bright stars, maybe a familiar constellation, the moon and not much else.  This is especially true in the city where lights around you block all but the brightest stars from view. People who grow up never experiencing the night sky in the country or through a telescope have a very limited exposure to all the millions of stars and galaxies there really are in the night sky.  Students who have not learned close reading strategies and students who are given less complex reading materials may only focus on obvious, surface level ideas and limited vocabulary words.  They miss the opportunity to wrestle with more sophisticated ideas, connect content to existing background knowledge , learn new vocabulary and make new insights into material. Kelly Gallagher, in his book Readicide, shares some informal research he did with an average high school class.  He asked them to track how much time they spent reading in a school day.  When he tabulated the results, he found that even his honor track students were actively reading on average 17 minutes during a 6 hour day. 

Just like I can use my telescope to focus in on an unfamiliar star or Jupiter and 4 of its moons in orbit around it, I can give my students reading material at a higher level of text complexity that challenges them to read and comprehend new words or find familiar words in a new context.  I can share reading materials that challenge them to expand their world view, test their existing beliefs, or build background knowledge that they may not be exposed to in their daily life.

What is text complexity?  It is a combination of vocabulary use (tier 1, tier 2 and tier 3 words), sentence complexity, content, knowledge demands and matching the reader to text and task

How can I learn more about text complexity?
Common Core Shift 3 - Staircase of Complexity   (NY Engage website) Video and resource links
Understand Lexile As A Measure of Text Complexity
Common Core Appendix A - with definitions of the 3 components of text complexity
Ohio Resource Center - links for how to evaluate text complexity
Engage NY Rubrics for Qualitative Analysis of Text Complexity and Determining Appropriate Task to Text Complexity balance
Minding the Gap - Focusing on Vocabulary  Char's prior blog focusing on Vocabulary
Reversing Readicide (ASCD EdLeadership Article) Kelly Gallagher