Friday, January 11, 2013

Chuckles and thrills

To demonstrate the authentic value of chuckles and thrills that I mentioned in the last post, I present here a few "oh man, you just had to be there" moments in the informational text carousel:

Every class has a funny guy, right? The student who loves attention and amuses his or her peers endlessly. This was the exact person who chose the penguin book with a chapter title "Jackass Penguin" boldly emblazoned across the page to share when I asked for volunteers to show "interesting visual text" from their books.

Every class has students who love cats and students who love dogs, but one class has a cat lover who shared extremely adorable cat and kitten photos from the book he chose. I promptly oohed and ahhed over every one in total agreement even though I don't love cats (or dogs), but a dog lover in the class insisted that every single cat in that book and in the universe was UGLY. This same dog lover then found a photo of a hairless cat in another book to emphasize her point, SEE? End of story.

Well, all that doesn't sound very funny when I tell it here, but like I said, you had to be there!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

How wide and how deep is your love of public education?

In the informational book carousel, everyone finds at least a few interesting books even though most of my students don't like to read, don't want to read, and/or don't think reading is cool. A variety of books is critical to holding student interest in the lesson itself, which is usually a reading and/or writing skill practice. It also exposes students to the Big Wide World of Life that's typically more than they see in their own life and in the social media they choose to ingest. Additional benefits: physical activity for students, quiet classroom for teacher sanity.

Two main carousel complications:

1. Set-up of materials takes time and effort, but the payoff of solid planning is excellent. Invest in authentic reading material, and keep the paper/writing materials simple. I usually write my own questions, based on the goals for student learning and student needs. If I don't have stellar school library resources, I would borrow public library books since I can monitor student use closely.

2. Managing the flow of students through stations requires constant vigilance. I try to vary the the questions based on learning goals/needs, but there will always be some students who work quickly and some slowly.


Say what we will about the ills of high-stakes standardized tests, but the vast majority of students who score below grade-level proficiency and have to take my class are not strong readers, meaning (to me) they don't read deeply or widely. A small minority may enjoy reading a narrow range of genres or topics ("Do you have any more Wimpy Kid books? The Hunger Games? Football or hockey?), and they tend to read for chuckles and thrills. Both are authentic reader experiences, but neither wide nor deep reading.

How wide or deep should students be reading? I'm not sure that's the right question, considering generally low to mediocre expectations of academic character in American society. Let's focus on excellent academic character, emphasize the value of struggling through challenges with hard work and determination to realize long-term goals. Sometimes working harder is smarter - apply Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour "outliers" rule.

As for the use of standardized tests to scapegoat educators and bankrupt public education, I bet the enterprising folks pocketing insane millions of tax dollars (Pearson, I'm talking about you and your buddies) are happy with their 10,000 hour investment in the study and practice of making money. How wide and how deep is your love of money compared to your love of public education?

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Close reading workshop (?!)

Last week I started a short unit on close reading of informational books (borrowed on a cart from the school library). The first lessons involved writing summary paragraphs of books they chose from the cart based on personal interests. The lesson-within-the-lesson was how to generalize from specific details. For example, in a book about pugs, don't include details about taking care of the pet in the book summary, just include the sentence, "This book explains how to take care of pugs."

The next lesson was using the index to find information. I chose books from various nonfiction genres (natural science, technology, history, cooking, sports, arts and crafts), one book per station per student, and wrote a question that required students to use the index to answer. My largest classes have 13 students, smallest 6.) Students worked independently at each station for about three to four minutes, then moved to next station. Managing the flow of the stations "carousel" was tricky, since no matter now hard I try to equalize the question difficulty, students work at different paces, so I need to encourage the fast ones to do a thorough job (and practice patience) and the slow ones to move along (with nudges toward the right path of discovery as needed).

The third major lesson will be using maps and charts in informational books (by this time, I have traded in a fresh set from the library). I'm writing multiple choice questions to prompt students to read visual information and related texts carefully. I'll use the stations/carousel format for this.

Based on the terrific selection of books available, thanks to a fantastic Library Media Specialist, I've been challenged to study internal combustion engine diagrams, solar-powered turbine towers, how to draw manga faces and poses, graph charts of how many professional baseball games are completed by starting pitchers over the past hundred years, just to name a few. This unit is an interesting blend of reading workshop and close reading practice. I think we are enjoying it!