Teaching Strategies and Building Confidence when Deciphering Difficult Text — using an X-Ray!

I recently started playing ultimate frisbee on a somewhat regular basis. It’s been twice a week for about two months, and over the Thanksgiving weekend we added a Thanksgiving morning bonus match. The field has the occasional divot, and my body isn’t used to the start-stop-turn-reach-jump moves that are required in a friendly frisbee game.

After the bonus Thanksgiving match, my family traveled to Ometepe, an island on Lake Nicaragua. It’s stunning, as it was created by two volcanos.

We went on a short hike the Friday after Thanksgiving, and we climbed to the top of one of the volcanos on Saturday, where we had an elevation gain of about 1200 meters in about ten kilometers.

I share this not so that anyone gets the mistaken impression that I’m always exercising, but instead to explain why I needed an X-ray on my poor worn-out foot the following week! And trust me, I’m getting to the reading connection shortly…

Reading difficulty can be measured and categorized in many ways: number of hours, number of pages, titles, genres, Lexiles, text bands, grade levels, content, topic, interest… I’m sure there are many more methods of measurement. Students are challenged by texts for any number of reasons, and sometimes they get stumped. They hit a wall, they run out of strategies and/or confidence for handling a text.

Back to the foot… Because I am in Nicaragua, I had the X-ray taken and then brought it to the doctor to decipher and diagnose the next day, so I had 24 hours to wonder about what I was looking at, or reading. But, when I looked at the X-ray of my foot, like some of my students, I hit a wall. It turns out, I don’t know how to read an X-ray.

foot xray

I realized that some of my students might feel the same way about texts they encounter as I felt about the X-ray – how can they possibly make meaning or find the answers?

So the next day, during the mini-lesson portion of one of my seventh grade English classes, I shared it the X-ray. I didn’t tell them anything before posting it. I didn’t tell them it was mine, or that it was a foot, etc. No information. I just asked if they had ever seen an X-ray and if they knew how to read one.

students with xray

I taped it to the window and invited them to read it. At first, they were a bit baffled. It’s difficult text!

However, with a little time and collaborative conversation, they started to make some sense of it. Some realizations they made as a group:

  • It’s a foot. (Hands have shorter bones)
  • It’s not both feet, but two views of the same left foot. (IZQ is one of the codes – short for izquierda, which is left in Spanish)
  • It belongs to me. (My name was in the lower corner)
  • The date the X-ray was taken. (Very small font, but still there!)
  • My birthday. (Lower corner)
  • Where the X-ray was taken (the name of the hospital is on the bottom)

The conversation was fun, and it felt like we were investigating something together. At this point I didn’t have the answer about whether or not anything was broken as I hadn’t seen the doctor yet, so we got to wonder together, and they knew I couldn’t give them the “right answer” just yet.

What we could do, was find some answers because we did have some knowledge. We simply realized that even with some knowledge, we didn’t have enough expertise, and that sometimes reading difficult stories and articles can make us feel the same way.

Which led us to the lesson, or the connection that the X-ray had to their own reading.

While none of us are orthopedic surgeons, we could still make sense of some of the more obvious pieces of information.

We built some confidence and realized that we could rely on context and background knowledge. We all know where the big toe is on a foot, and could tell where it was on the X-ray, for example.

In the same way, if we don’t learn how to read other texts, we will only be able to make sense of the most obvious things. But texts go beyond the obvious and into the beautiful, the debatable, and the inferential. That’s why we learn signposts, for example. So we can know the important things to notice and we can ask ourselves why. Why do these things matter.

We realized that with proper training and a deliberate education, in time, we could all learn how to read this X-ray, just like we can all learn to read difficult texts, just like we are learning to read challenging texts now.

My students enjoyed the activity, which took only about 15 minutes. They could see that no one is an expert in all kinds of texts, and that I, too, have my limitations. Being vulnerable and honest with students always seems to pay off.

Oh, and as for the final answer? Yes, it was broken, but no, I can’t blame frisbee or volcanoes. Turns out it was an injury from the summer, and the four consecutive days of exercise with no time for rest wasn’t so good for it… I’d been walking on a broken foot for five months… but that’s another story.

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family have moved across the world to Managua, Nicaragua this year, where a new adventure has begun.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Advertisements

Incorporating Drawing into the Workshop Model so that Students can Show their Thinking

Teachers are adaptive. We are always ready, even when we feel never ready, and we approach new challenges with willingness and enthusiasm.

Even when the changes come as a surprise!

For the first time in many years, I am teaching middle school. I’ve taught high school exclusively for at least fifteen years, so it was quite a change to approach these students. I have been giving it my best attitude, attention, and effort, but somehow I knew it wasn’t enough. A few weeks ago I realized why: I was trying to teach my seventh grade students the same way as I was teaching my high school students, only changing the content.

While I realized that I have to approach middle school students differently, I wasn’t sure how. They aren’t just little high schoolers. They are in a different developmental stage, and I have to be attentive to that.

One of my classroom mantras has been don’t share your answers; share your thinking, and when it comes to talking to high school students about it, it seems like they “get it.” That’s not to say they always value the thinking and don’t look for the “right answers,” but they do seem to mostly understand what it means. share-your-thinking

With middle school students, I don’t always get that same feeling. I’ve experienced that they aren’t always sure how to show their thinking, but instead sometimes tend to want to parrot back my thinking, or the thinking of others.

When we’ve worked in our readers/writers notebooks, I’ve also seen that middle school students often ask if they can doodle and draw. I love it when my students get creative in their notebooks, no matter what grade they are in. I just noticed that my middle school students seem to especially enjoy this activity.

That led me to realize that middle school students can show their thinking through drawing, sketching, and illustrating, in addition to talking and writing.

I am introducing the Notice and Note fiction signposts this week, and instead of asking students to write about them, I’ve asked them to sketch and illustrate them.

middle school drawing

 

The buzz in the room while students were drawing, illustrating, and processing the different sign posts was fantastic. While circulating the room, I was able to interact with students in a fun and academic way. I learned that middle school students love to be creative, and I was able to get a window into their thinking. That was before I even saw their finished products.

Students have illustrated a couple of the signposts now, and I feel like I am on to something. Students are able to express their thinking through drawing, and even think about things more deeply than if they were only doing the discussing and writing. The illustrating has increased their processing, and I’ll keep using this strategy alongside the writing, reading, and discussing. Perhaps every other middle school teacher on the planet already understood this, but now I do, too.

I’m going to add more illustrating and drawing components to all of my classes now, no matter what level they are, from grade seven to AP Lang.

I’d love to hear how others have reached students who are in different grades and levels. How do your students show their thinking?

This post was originally published on Three Teachers Talk.

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family have moved across the world to Managua, Nicaragua this year, where a new adventure has begun.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Four Ideas for Starting a Workshop Classroom with the Right Momentum

Beginning the year is fun and intimidating, exciting and daunting, full of possibility and potential, and fraught with road bumps that we haven’t even foreseen. I find that if I can set my classroom up with the right atmosphere and environment, and my students with deliberate routines and habits, the school year will be better for it.

Below are a few things I’ve prioritized in the last couple of weeks in order to help ensure a smoother school year.

  1. Anchor Charts

I have a few posters I like to hang in my classroom for students to reference on a regular basis. The Book Head Heart poster comes from Disrupting Thinking, one of the most useful professional texts I own. Even though we are only five days into the school year, my students have already started to reference the questions that are listed for each of the three categories. As they have read different memoirs, I have asked students to respond to their reading by choosing the questions they find relevant, and responding in their reader’s/writer’s notebooks. It’s been great reading over their shoulders and listening in on their conversations as they decide which questions and categories are most relevant to respond to.

The fiction and nonfiction signposts are also essential in my classroom. These posters come from Notice & Note Strategies for Close Reading and Reading Nonfiction, also by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst. When I ask students to annotate texts, these are the best go-to ideas for students to annotate. After they have practice with these types of annotations, students start to personalize their annotations and figure out what works for them as individuals. But this is one of the best scaffolds I’ve found that helps students make their thinking transparent.

I also included a new anchor chart this year. It is inspired by Writing America, a book I picked up over the summer in preparation for teaching AP Lang. These particular questions refer to Amy Tan’s Mother Tongue, but I generalized the questions and I think they are probably good for all levels and a variety of texts.

IMG_0218IMG_0215 2

2. Reading Agreements

This is technically another poster, but I think the purpose is different enough that it deserves its own category. reading agreements

I had all of my students, grades 7, 11, and AP Lang, copy these agreements into their reading/writing notebooks on the first day of class. If they didn’t have a notebook, they wrote the agreements on paper, and then pasted that page into their notebooks later. It’s important for students to start to internalize these agreements right away so that we can get that good momentum rolling.

3. Book Talks

Students should feel like the reading agreements are realistic before they can internalize and believe in their ability to follow the agreements; it’s my job to ensure that students feel capable and confident. So on the second day of classes I took all of my students to the library, one class at a time.

I had been in the day before and pulled different stacks of books from the shelves, organizing my stacks roughly by grade level. I pulled some that specifically were geared toward middle school students, and then some for my regular eleventh grade class, and another stack for my AP Lang students. But some of the titles can move from stack to stack, class to class, student to student. I don’t worry about Lexile levels or AR levels or anything like that. I just look for high interest books for a wide range of readers. And then I talk to my students about them.

Students brought their reading/writing notebooks with them to the library and wrote their Next Reads Lists as I presented the books. The books were passed around so that each student got to hold, feel, peruse, read, and look at each one. After about thirty minutes of being inundated with a variety of genres, levels, topics, and types of books, students were instructed to check out at least one book they were willing to start reading.

Many students chose books that I had book talked, but many of them went to the shelves and found something else. By the end of each class period, my students were reading their new books, which was the goal, of course.

Now that they have had the “book talk jump start,” they can begin to authentically work on staying true to our reading commitments.

4. Classroom Library

I’m at a new school, teaching new classes, new students, in a new country this year. This means I’m also building a new classroom library. My new classroom was a blank slate when I walked in on the first day, which meant I got to get creative and have fun with it.

One of the first things I got to do was visit our school’s book room. Together, with colleagues and coworkers, we made a plan about how to respect what other teachers want to do with the books that are there as far as whole-class-novels and shared texts, but we also made a plan to distribute the underused books from the book room to our secondary English Language Arts classrooms. This quick process didn’t cost any additional dollars, respected the work of the teachers who have been here and had made plans for the school year, and also made it easier to get books into the hands of our students. classroom library

I placed the books on the edge of the shelves so they are easy to see and reach, and used small white boards to display titles more prominently. I’ll rotate these displays regularly. The captions I write on the white boards come right off of the books’ covers, so I don’t have to reinvent any wheels in order to try to drum up some interest in these titles.

None of these priorities will be a magic pill or a silver bullet; there is much more work to be done. However, I do believe that these four priorities work. They are strategies and tools that I have used in the past, that others have used, and that students have admitted themselves that they have benefitted from them.

What are some of your “must dos” in your classroom at the beginning of the year? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

 

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family have moved across the world to Managua, Nicaragua this year, where a new adventure has begun.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

 

Making thinking transparent: Annotating with Nonfiction Notice and Note Signposts

When my students read, they think. There’s no question. But as a teacher, I struggle trying to figure out what they are thinking about, what they wonder, what resonates, what is confusing, and what they reject. Because reading is a mostly solitary activity, it sometimes feels impossible to tap into their brains so that I can “read” my students’s thoughts.

One of the strategies I employ is reflective essays. Other times, instead of in writing, students reflect verbally, either through conferring or through class and small group discussions. But sometimes that’s not enough. I need a window into their brains and hearts, and annotating text in a close reading can help to serve as that window.

My grade eleven students are deep in an informational text unit. They are in book clubs, and in addition, I’m regularly assigning the Kelly Gallagher Article of the Week for them to work on at home. Because these weekly assignments are with a short text, I feel comfortable asking them to demonstrate a close reading in a way that I’m not asking them to do with their longer texts.

I spent quite a bit of time teaching the nonfiction signposts from Reading Nonfiction, and instructed my students to notice and note when they recognized the different signposts.

But when I heard repeated individual students asking clarifying questions about annotations, I realized it was to spend another significant chunk of class time going over an article that students had read and annotated as homework. In the end, I think that investment of class time was worth it.

 

I projected it on the white board, explaining that while I had skimmed the article before assigning it (teacher life is real!), I hadn’t become familiar with it, and my annotations and think-aloud were authentic and unrehearsed.

I feel that with an authentic model think-aloud, the teacher should be mostly or entirely unfamiliar with the text that is being considered. We can’t be perfect in front of our students; how else will they understand that the struggle to learn and understand is messy, and that it is rare that a person understands difficult text during the first read? That it requires multi-draft reading in order to reach sincere understanding, the kind of understanding we have when we can not only discover main idea, but describe the nuance and ambiguity we often find in complex texts?

So I demonstrated by talking my way through the article, using a purple marker to show my initial confusion, and a red marker to demonstrate my second-draft reading.

IMG_4125
This is what the white board looked like after the think-aloud. I wish I would have taken a photo while the text was projected, but so it goes…

I showed my students where I noticed the signposts, why I thought they were important to notice, and generally talked and walked them through my thinking. I made a point to show my confusion, highlighted words I wasn’t sure about, and I told them what I wondered.

I tried to show them that I don’t have all of the answers, but that I am willing to try to connect to text and find a deeper understanding of it.

I believe that teachers not only must model reading for pleasure – novels and narrative nonfiction should be a part of who we are – but we must also show the productive struggle that even mature readers often experience with shorter texts, and then show our students that the energy and effort that go into the process of understanding are worth it. And that most importantly, our students can do it too.

I think the moment of struggle is when when a lot of learning can happen. I don’t always time it perfectly; sometimes my students struggle too long, and sometimes I’m too eager to offer “the answer,” but I try to be aware of it. I think that’s all we teachers can do – pay attention to our students and act responsively.

Annotations start off sounding simple (just show your thinking!), but I think when students have different purposes for annotations in different classes and for different types of texts, they can get a bit confused. The purpose of demonstrating thinking is different from what might be the purpose in other classes, and this time, taking more time for more explicit teaching and modeling seemed to be the right call.

FullSizeRender 9

FullSizeRender 11
This is a picture from very early in the year when the anchor chart looked a little different. I realize it needs to be updated for each unit, and I’ll get better about that.

I was also reminded that I should update my “sample annotations” anchor chart with each unit, and be more explicit about how students can discover the purpose of annotations. I think I will ask my students if they don’t mind putting some of their own annotations up on our walls, as student work feels like a more authentic way to model the task. It is a good reminder that anchor charts should be dynamic instead of static. They aren’t meant to be handmade posters.

Annotations aren’t revolutionary, they aren’t high-tech, and they shouldn’t be used for every text. But they do have a place, and when done well, they can serve as a window or snapshot into how a student thinks and connects to text. I’ll keep teaching annotation and using this simple activity in my classroom. It’s one of the best ways I know for students to be transparent about their thinking.

 

Workshop Model: Introducing Notice and Note Signposts with Nonfiction Picture Books

As I started planning the move of my grade elevens from a unit focusing on narrative nonfiction into a reading unit on informational text, I debated on how to start. I had done a soft introduction the week before with Kelly Gallagher’s Article of the Week, but I hadn’t talked to my students about specific strategies when approaching informational text. I had simply told them to read the articles, annotate the text, and to write a one-page response to the articles.

The Article of the Week is a great resource. The topics are current and give my international students an opportunity to pay attention to the news. The task is straight-forward and the text provides a challenge, but it’s not overwhelming because the length of the articles is manageable. The articles are thought-provoking and I look forward to some deep discussion as we get further along in this unit. Also, it’s a great resource for busy teachers, and for that I am quite thankful!

I started a small book club at my school recently. We are reading Notice and Note, by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst, and are discovering the power in the signposts for fiction. (There are only three of us in our book club, and we meet only every eight days, but because of that, it’s not difficult to keep up with. I think all teachers should be in this practice with professional publication book clubs!) While I knew that the fiction signposts aren’t exactly what I needed to share with my students, my book club led me to thinking about the Reading Nonfiction signposts.

The five nonfiction signposts are:

Contrasts and Contradictions

Extreme or Absolute Language

Numbers and Stats

Quoted Words

Word Gaps

 

These are the signposts my grade eleven students need to know and understand, I realized. Soon they are starting book clubs of their own with some informational texts, and these signposts will be perfect for discussion starters, and to keep the conversation going as they work on their sustained, deliberate talk.

I decided to introduce the signposts using children’s books. It’s National Picture Book Month, so why not? The text is accessible, and because students are learning new strategies, I don’t need to complicate things further. So I went to our fantastic learning commons, and pulled lots and lots of books from the shelves.

IMG_3992 2

My students sit in small table groups, so I gave a few books to each group, a handout with the signposts listed with short decsriptions to each student, and provided some sticky notes for them to use.

I had put posters around the room with individual signposts as titles, and instructed my students to find examples of signposts in their picture books and then put the sticky notes on the charts. They got right to it.

They worked together, had fun reading the books – both text and pictures are important – and discovered the signposts in the different books.

Thankfully, there weren’t too many word gaps for students in these elementary level picture books!

This activity took about thirty minutes. My students had some fun and learned a new strategy in a way that was pretty low-risk. They helped each other, worked together, and indicated that they will be able to apply these strategies when they read the next Article of the Week and even when they get into their longer texts in book clubs.

In addition, one beautiful book that I noticed to be especially helpful with a few of the signposts is Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh. I’ll share some pictures with the signpost in the caption below.

separate is never equal
Even the title has a signpost: Extreme/Absolute Language
About the text
This signpost is Quoted Words and is found at the end of the book.
IMG_4005
The Quoted Words on this page come from the court transcripts: “Segregation tends to give an aura of inferiority. In order to have the people of the United States understand one another it is necessary for them to live together, and the public school is the one mechanism where all the children of all the people go.”
glossary
The glossary at the end helps students to fill in some of the Word Gaps.

Most school libraries will have plenty of nonfiction picture books to pull from the shelves, so the resources necessary for this quick introduction are easily accessible and quite flexible. I’d love to hear how others introduce these nonfiction signposts, and how the students respond!

Follow Julie on Twitter: @SwinehartJulie

Teaching “Book – Head – Heart” using Current Events

I’m a coward.

I tend to shy away from controversial issues in my classroom. I like to stick to the standards, stick to the canon, stick to what’s safe.

That means I don’t talk enough about current events with my students. It takes us all out of our comfort zones, and like many people, I like to stay in mine.

I realize it’s not the best way. Students need a safe place where they can learn to explore issues, even to get into the habit of paying attention to the news, and to discover and strengthen their own ideas and beliefs. While it’s not my place to tell them what to feel or value, I can help them to discover it within themselves.

So today I stepped outside of my comfort zone. I pushed myself in order to allow my students to explore who they are as individuals, using current events and the Book Head Heart framework as the tools.

I think it’s important to realize that students need a framework when discussing current issues. My students are polite, care about each other, and generally want to be knowledgable and feel smart about things. While that is a great start, I think they need a bit more guidance, especially with tough issues, which is where the Book Head Heart framework from Disrupting Thinking comes in.

Today I introduced that framework using Kwame Alexander’s powerful piece, Take a Knee.

I had already made an anchor chart for the wall, and then put the same information on the white board. It’s straight out of Disrupting Thinking.

BHH Anchor Chart
Small Book Head Heart Anchor Chart…It’s not artistic, it’s not beautiful, and many people could do it better…
BHH Whiteboard
White Board Notes – BHH

I instructed my students to take notes so that they could refer to the framework later when they were involved in their own independent reading. I explained that it’s the rare occasion when I will ask them to all write the same thing at the same time, but this was one of those times when I thought it was important enough to do.

I also included the information on Google Classroom, so it is now easily available in their own notes, online, and on my classroom wall.

While they took notes, I tried to explain different aspects of the BHH framework.

I talked about the fact that the Book category can mean any text, including video, infographics, short stories, poetry, etc.

By the time we were done with the discussion, they had added one more question to the Book questions: What is the story? It definitely connects to the question What is the story about, but when they were answering the second question after watching Alexander’s piece, they had to define what the story was before they could decide who was telling it.

We worked through the rest of the ideas in the Book Head Heart questions before watching the video.

My students had a lot of questions about the piece. I teach in an international school, so a few of my students needed background knowledge about what is customary and traditional during the national anthem. Some didn’t know what it means to take a knee. Some of them didn’t recognize the faces and names listed in the video. Questions like Who was Trayvon? and What is Ferguson? were cautiously asked. I had to remind myself that in 2014, many of my students were eleven years old. In 2012 they were nine. To them, some current events stem from ancient history.

What they did recognize was the power of the poetry.

 

We talked, shared ideas, provided some background knowledge and context for one another, and offered opinions in a safe place before watching it a second time. That time, in addition to the content, I asked them to pay attention to the pacing, the repetition, and when the repetition pauses or stops. I asked my students to think about how those moves impact them while they experienced the piece for the second time.

After the second viewing, I invited students to watch again and again as needed, but this time using their own devices and earbuds. They were impacted and interested enough to continue engaging with the text, and they started to answer the B-H-H questions both in small group discussions and on paper.

I loved listening to their talk, and later, reading their responses.

We gave each other permission to not have a comprehensive answer for the question in the Head category about how their thinking had been changed, challenged, or confirmed. Many of them didn’t have opinions about what it means to take a knee, but they could comment and discuss how they felt about the power of poetry and it’s ability to inspire and move an audience.

One student said that while she hadn’t been paying attention enough to the news to have an opinion, this powerful piece made her feel something deep in her heart. Comments about how one person can give other people confidence to stand up for their beliefs were quietly posed, and many students agreed that no matter what their opinion is on taking a knee, it’s important to be able to talk about it and try to understand the other side.

So there it is — the Book Head Heart framework helped to organize my students’ thoughts about a current event, about a controversial topic. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t comprehensive. But it was a start. They learned a little bit about what’s going on in the world, and they learned about themselves. I learned more about who they are and how they think.

Together, we proved that the quote I hang on my wall from Disrupting Thinking is true:

Ultimate goal of reading quote

We won’t always know how we will get better, or what we will get better at. It depends on the text and our purpose for reading it, but if we are thoughtful, we will undoubtedly be better.

Follow Julie on Twitter.