Imagine students wanting to improve their writing—just because!
What if students improved their writing because they wanted to, not just to get a good grade? What if their motivation to do better was fueled by teacher conferences and quick feedback?
That fantasy could be closer to reality than you ever imagined.
At Danville Middle School in Danville, Pennsylvania, our path to improved writing began with changes to our state-mandated assessments. When Pennsylvania's Department of Education unpacked the text-dependent analysis (TDA) question, it sent an enormous ripple into the stress pond for both teachers and students.
AMLE talks with Joy Smith and Pelle Nejman about Analytical Writing
Text-dependent analysis questions call on students to synthesize answers based on specific evidence within a reading passage and demonstrate their ability to interpret the meaning behind that evidence. Students must construct a well-written essay to demonstrate their analysis of the text rather than simply summarize the content.
We pushed our students and ourselves to master text analysis in writing, but after the first year, our results were mediocre at best. At worst, the students began to hate writing and we were all stressed out. Clearly, our plan needed work.
Part of the frustration we felt stemmed from students' inability to do what we asked of them. We expected our middle school students to analyze, yet we had not taught them the concept of analysis. For years, the push had been on comprehension, but it stopped short with the deeper literary analysis through writing.
Our initial throw-it-all-at-them-and-hope-for-the-best plan had proved unsuccessful for the majority of our students. So last year, we started with the basics, modeling our expectations and creating graphic organizers to help students map out the steps required for the reading analysis. We also included another key component: interdisciplinary collaboration.
When the language arts and social studies teachers began to discuss the TDA and its ramifications for all of us, the blurry line between content areas slowly vanished. We adopted the "divide and conquer" mentality.
Our first step as a team was to develop a common language. Students no longer needed to guess what this teacher wanted in an essay versus what the other teacher wanted. Our students heard a unified message about the importance of writing with an academic focus. We were on the same page. And so began what was in many ways a learning process for us all.
We started slowly. The language arts team collaborated to write the first TDA of the year. We read three passages as a class, and teachers modeled how to construct strong introductory and body paragraphs. We presented students with the state grading rubric and evaluated state-released samples that we scored and discussed as a class. When they were able to analyze the work of others, students were closer to being able to recognize and emulate the components in their own writing.
Students typed their first TDA response and, with the convenience of Google Classroom and Chromebook technology, language arts teachers printed their essays without their names and distributed them with detailed scoring rubrics that focused students on the specific skills required in each paper.
These essays were shared with groups of students wielding colored pens—perfect for positive reinforcement or gentle revision suggestions. For three days, students pored over their classmates' work, focusing on specific aspects of the writing and comparing them to the state evaluation tools.
During this exercise, small groups were able to discuss their opinions, compare responses, and recognize both good and poor examples. More than one student remarked, "I have a new respect for what you do for a living, Mrs. Smith," after muddling through a paper with typos and sentence structure issues.
When students got their original papers back, now covered in multi-colored comments from their peers, they set about revising them with renewed enthusiasm. Their only grades at this point were for class participation—a reward for a job well done when it came to wearing the editor's hat.
It was in social studies classes that students sank their teeth into their first "independent" TDA. By this time, our four-person social studies/language arts team had revamped the previous graphic organizer for writing and developed a student-friendly rubric that made expectations clearer for students and grading easy for teachers. The rubric also threw in a few tips for those students who struggled along the way:
- A checkmark system for "observable skills." (Did your teacher see a thesis statement? Was a graphic organizer completed?)
- A column for identifying "skills to practice" in order to improve.
- The all-important ownership section where students complete the sentence, "On my next TDA I will…"
Along with the ownership piece, one of the most valuable aspects of this collaborative effort has to do with the one-on-one attention students receive after each TDA. It may seem impossible to get 100 student-teacher conferences done within a short time period (we work with an average one-week turnaround time for grading and conferencing), but somehow we make it happen. Part of that success comes from expertly managing class time; the other part calls for maximizing "free" time during the day like advisory and RTII classes where groups are smaller and students can use that time for revision as needed.
Key Ingredients to Success and Sanity
How can teachers fit "one more thing" into an already overflowing to-do list? We work together. We split the team of 100 students into two classes each, and we alternate who grades which classes after each TDA
so we can track all students' progress.
Something miraculous happens to teachers when the daunting task of scoring 100 essays is cut in half. It's like a rush of adrenaline. Suddenly, the marathon has become a half marathon, and we just scarfed up a box of energy bars. Sure, it's still 50 essays, but the TDA rubric that's student-friendly is also kind to teachers. It makes scoring essays much less painful. We use a system of checks:
- Thesis statement: That gets a circled "T" on the paper.
- Text-based support in the form of a quote: That gets a circled "Q."
- Well-placed analysis: That gets a circled "A" (and sometimes even a few exclamation points depending on how excited or tired the grader has become).
We do very little, if any, line editing. As writers and teachers, and teachers of writing, it was difficult to train our brains to overlook glaring errors at first, but the reality of the state's holistic scoring process dictates that teachers be more concerned with content and analysis than the finer details of perfectly placed commas. Also, students who are not strong writers don't see their page saturated with purple ink, and therefore don't get discouraged from continuing to improve their essays.
After we score the essays, we divide and conquer again to review TDA results with individual students. They are eager for our undivided attention and task-specific conversation. As teachers using the same language, graphic organizers, and expectations across the board, we are sure our students are well-versed in what we expect, striving to improve, and seeing the evidence in their scores.
With manageable goals, even the students who struggle the most are making strides without feeling overwhelmed. The key is baby steps. Through scaffolding, we target the small pieces—structure and solid thesis statement writing—before moving on to analysis. More advanced writers get a nudge toward strengthening transitions and varying word choice.
The Home Stretch
As a final push before test season was upon us, the students filled out a bar graph charting their progress on TDA writing for the year. They honed in on the areas where they continued to struggle, but they also celebrated their accomplishments—and there were many.
Whether the standardized test results prove that our strategy worked is almost irrelevant. We have witnessed the progress, celebrated individual milestones, and instilled strong writing skills and structure in our students.
Although we have scored their TDAs, we have not counted them as grades to include in their average. No one seems to ask, and no one seems to care.
Joy Mushacke Smith is a seventh grade language arts teacher at Danville Middle School in Danville, Pennsylvania. Her awesome middle school team includes fellow language arts teacher Pelle Nejman, who contributed to this article, as well as social studies teachers Rebecca Blansfield and Christy Yohe, who helped develop the content discussed in the article.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, September 2016.
Exploring the five plagues of complex text.
One of the most important aspects of teaching literacy in the classroom is text selection, the process by which teachers choose what their students will read.
For many teachers, text selection boils down to choosing something that will engage students and motivate them to read. Reasonable diversity in genres and authors should be enough. But in fact, what students read shapes how well they read and how well they comprehend the topic in far more ways than what might at first seem obvious.
Common Core State Standards emphasize the importance of student interaction with complex texts. As teachers identify which texts to select for their classroom, they should be aware of some of the unique challenges—we call them plagues—of reading and understanding complex texts.
Plague 1: Archaic Texts
Charles Dickens' classic novel Oliver Twist begins with a 98-word first sentence crammed with not only anachronistic words and phrases such as "to wit" and "inasmuch," but also with the syntax of another era—as in "in this workhouse was born … ."
People spoke and wrote differently 50, 100, and 200 years ago. They used different words, in different sequences, within different syntactical structures.
No amount of practice reading even the richest contemporary young adult fiction will prepare students to be able to read those older texts, be they Oliver Twist or the Declaration of Independence. However, the task will clearly be required of them in college, so it's important that students be exposed to more dated as well as contemporary texts.
Plague 2: Nonlinear Time Sequence
Donald Crews's book, Bigmama's, is a meditation on the nature of memory and time. The narrative subtly switches back and forth between recollections about a specific trip to the narrator's grandparents' house and recollections of a series of visits made over the course of several years. It's the similarities of those trips—and just maybe the way the memory of them all blends into one—that make the book both a beautiful read and a challenging one. Even strong readers would struggle to tell you what happened when, making it a good choice for young readers.
Plague 3: Complexity of Narrator
R. J. Palacio's popular youth novel, Wonder, uses six different narrators to tell its story. One of them is the protagonist, Auggie, a middle school student with severe craniofacial disfigurement. Auggie narrates three of the chapters; five other characters narrate a chapter each—each one in a different voice, and in one case, without uppercase letters and with idiosyncratic punctuation.
It's a useful book, first and foremost as an object lesson in kindness and understanding. But it's also a starter kit for understanding books with complex and potentially confusing narration. The challenges that narrators present can be tricky and, like the other plagues of complex text, can challenge students' comprehension regardless of their skills.
Plague 4: Complexity of Story (Plot and Symbolism)
Grace Lin's Newbery Honor book, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, is a modern story that melds the tradition of Chinese folk tales with a western journey-of-discovery narrative. Lin describes it as a bit like The Wizard of Oz retold as a Chinese fairy tale, although the novel is more complex than that; it weaves fairy tales into the plot of the book. Characters tell other characters' stories, and those stories are inserted within the novel—texts within a text.
Not only that, but the characters in the book, who are imagined to hear the fairy tales as the reader reads them, often react to the tales, which shapes the plot. It's recursive—the tales change the story; the book reacts to itself.
A plot that happens on multiple levels like this poses challenges to readers. This makes Where the Mountain Meets the Moon an especially good book to prepare students to read the complex narrative structures of William Faulkner, for example.
Plague 5: Resistant Text
Some texts set out to be difficult to understand, often because part of the point is that the story cannot be told simply. Telling it stretches the bounds of the tools storytellers have available.
Consider the beginning of Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse-Five, written in the form of a memoir of a fictional writer who, like Vonnegut himself, was taken prisoner in World War II and experienced the fire-bombing of Dresden firsthand, and has set out to tell the story of that destruction, but struggles to do so.
Many readers find Vonnegut exhilarating precisely because of these resistant elements. The elements create a thrilling narrative unbounded by traditional rules. But confused readers—readers unaware that a text might deliberate try to disorient them, readers who have never struggled with that disorientation—may in fact be confused by the premise, not comprehend that they are not supposed to comprehend, and fail perhaps even give up on the narrative. What to do here?
As the example of Slaughterhouse-Five suggests, highly resistant texts are often made resistant by the use of a combination of the other four plagues. Exposure to those elements will help students unpack even the densest texts.
Poetry frequently does not conform to the "expectation of logic" that is characteristic of (most) prose. Because of this, poetry can be an outstanding tool for preparing students for resistant prose. Imagine the benefits of a lighthearted reading of Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky," a primer in filling in the gaps between tiny islands of meaning in a text, as a prelude to reading Slaughterhouse-Five.
Closely reading and unpacking short examples of resistant text are great ways to expose students to intense challenges without overwhelming them.
What About Student Choice?
Do students benefit from occasionally reading exactly what they and they alone desire? Yes! But it is important to recognize that the books students read and study in school are finite—a scarce and valuable resource.
From middle school through high school, they will only read and discuss with their peers a handful of books. Because these few books form the foundation of their knowledge of how literature works within and interacts with society, teachers must select them like the precious resource they are. Teachers should consider not just whether each book their students read is "good" but also what the totality of the texts they themselves choose for students achieve as part of their broader education.
It is also worth reflecting on the fact that what students "like" or more precisely think they will like is inherently limited. We can all name a handful of texts we read against our better teenage judgment—infallible though it seemed at the time—but which turned out to be transformative—instantly in many cases, years later in others.
A Balancing Act
To ensure students are ready for the rigors of college, teachers must give text selection greater attention and intentionality. This does not mean that every book needs to be selected based on a "maximum value for learning" calculation. Some should be; we hope many will. Choosing books for pleasure or on a lark is fine as long as the overall portfolio of books is intentional and balanced.
Thinking more deeply about aspects of the texts we choose for students does not exclude enjoyment as a criterion—even a major one. Part of the joy of teaching, in fact, is seeing the joy students derive unexpectedly from texts that surprise them.
Doug Lemov is managing director for the Teach Like a Champion team at Uncommon Schools.
Colleen Driggs is director of professional development for the Teach Like a Champion team at Uncommon Schools.
Erica Woolway is chief academic officer of the Teach like a Champion Team at Uncommon Schools.
They are the authors of
Reading Reconsidered: A Practical Guide to Rigorous Literacy (2016, Jossey Bass), upon which this article was based
Published in AMLE Magazine
, September 2016.
Meeting new science standards can be hard for students who struggle with reading and writing.
How do you teach the new science standards to students who struggle with reading and writing? Many middle school science teachers face this dilemma, which is especially challenging for science educators at my school. Like many urban schools across the country, we have a large population of students who are behind academically; many have specific learning difficulties. We also serve a large population of English Language Learners.
How can we ensure the success of these students and bridge their literacy gaps?
The South Carolina Department of Education (SCDE) developed new science standards in 2014 that are based on the Framework for K-12 Science Education. These new standards require students to develop and use models, obtain and use information, analyze and interpret data, and construct scientific arguments. SCDE also expects students to use reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills throughout their scientific processes. Meeting these requirements can be difficult for students who struggle with reading and writing. They also challenge teachers to bridge the learning gap and develop students' abilities to successfully use these higher-order literacy skills.
AMLE talks to Theressa Varner about Bridging the Literacy Gap in Science
Students are expected not only to be immersed in authentic science investigations, but also to effectively communicate what they learned during those investigations using observable and measurable information and accurate science terminology. With that in mind, I combined several tried and true, research-supported strategies to scaffold my students' learning and bridge their literacy gaps.
Prior to doing an investigation, students learn key vocabulary terms in order to communicate their findings. They use graphic organizers to compare and contrast concepts, and they engage in argument writing using evidence to support their claims.
According to Nicole Stants in her 2013 NSTA Science Scope article, "Parts Cards: Using Morphemes to Teach Science Vocabulary," teachers can use morphemes—prefixes, suffixes, and root words—to help students learn vocabulary. So, we break down words into these basic components. When students become familiar with common morphemes, they can use that knowledge to determine the meaning of unfamiliar words.
Each week, I also present four new science stems that are associated with our current vocabulary terms. The scholars keep a master list of the stems in the front of their science journal; an entry includes the stem, its definition, the concept that it is related to, and a vocabulary term. They also keep an index card book that includes modified Frayer models for each stem (see Figure 1) that they've constructed.
Another learning strategy is graphic organizers. Students use them to organize notes, classify or categorize information, or compare and contrast concepts. Some graphic organizers also require the students to draw visual models of concepts. BrainPOP (www.brainpop.com) is a great source for a variety of activities that reinforce science concepts.
Following the 5E Model
All of the lessons follow the 5E Model of Instruction: engage, explore, explain, evaluate, and elaborate. We begin with an engagement activity such as a video or question related to the content being taught, then follow up with an exploration activity. If the engagement or exploration involves text, I use a variety of strategies to help bridge the literacy gap.
For example, sometimes I think aloud while reading the text and have the students follow along. I may divide the text among the students and have them do a jigsaw activity. Each group of students reads and annotates the text using annotation marks that have been standardized and used school-wide. Then, each group presents what they have learned to the rest of the class. As the other groups are "teaching" the rest of the class, students are writing information in their journals.
When the students have completed their presentations, I provide direct instruction related to the text, followed by a check for understanding, such as exit slips or a quick write. Quick writes may require students to answer a question, write a summary, complete a Venn diagram, or write a question of their own.
Next, the students engage in an authentic lab experience or performance assessment. For example, when studying acids and bases, the students participate in an investigation using indicators to identify solutions. They then demonstrate a neutralization reaction between an acid and a base. The students record their observations and write an explanation of what happened when the acid and base were combined.
Writing a descriptive explanation is the most difficult part of a lab experience for my students. I have been working with them on writing from the third-person point of view.
Some educators make the argument for using the first-person in argumentative writing because they believe texts using "I" can be just as well-supported as those that don't. However, my students struggle with starting every sentence with "I think." If they take themselves out of the experience, they are forced to think more critically and objectively about what they want to communicate. I also encourage them to avoid the use of pronouns wherever possible and to write technically using proper science terminology.
Finally, to reinforce the concept, students write an argument based on a real-world scenario. They copy the scenario into their notebook and create a graphic organizer. I provide them with sticky notes on which they write down the evidence to show what happens when an acid and base are combined. All the students place their "evidence" sticky notes in a designated area on the board, and we group them with other similar responses. As a class, we review all of the responses and determine what evidence we want to use.
Step two requires students to repeat the process by writing an inference as to how the scenario could be solved based on the evidence we chose to use. The final step requires them to make a claim by combining their evidence and inference. We review all of the responses as a class.
After the group activity is completed, the students work independently to construct an explanation that solves the scenario. Again, students are required to write in the third person using technical vocabulary.
Bridging the Gap
It is still too early to tell what effect these strategies will have on bridging the literacy gap and helping all my students learn science concepts, but I am confident they will make gains. The strategy extends and expands their scientific reasoning and motivates and focuses their learning, helping all scholars bridge the learning gap.
Theressa Varner is a seventh grade science teacher at the ARMS Academy at Morningside Middle School in Charleston, South Carolina.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2016.
Writing and reading "I Am" poetry through different lenses.
"Read this article about The Great Pandemic of 1918–1919 and then answer the questions on the board," the teacher directed as she handed out the printed pages.
Where did the pandemic start?
How did the pandemic spread?
When did the pandemic end?
How many Americans died from influenza?
From the article, what do you think a pandemic is?
Some students began to read; some peered at the questions on the board and skimmed the article for the answers; some stared at the board, not knowing how to begin.
When they finished the assignment, they had gained neither deep understanding of the pandemic nor empathy for its victims. They had all approached the subject from one perspective—that of middle school students reading about an event that took place a century ago and affected people with whom they felt no connection.
Had students read from a variety of perspectives through the eyes of citizens, doctors, and even President Woodrow Wilson, they might have developed a deeper, broader understanding of the significance of the influenza pandemic that swept the globe, killing an estimated 675,000 people in the United States alone.
They also would have begun to develop life skills, such as empathy, openness to new ways of thinking, and the ability and willingness to think reflectively—all skills that support the Common Core State Standards.
"I Am" Poems
One of the most effective ways to engage students with a text is through "I Am" poems. The I Am poetry format (see chart above) puts the readers into someone else's shoes, so to speak, requiring them to read more deeply, closely, and critically as they explore text from a particular point of view.
I Am poems can be used in all disciplines. In English-Language Arts texts, readers can take on the perspective of major and minor characters and even characters who don't directly appear in the text, such as the residents in the convent across the street from Mr. Pignati's house in The Pigman.
Social studies offers countless opportunities for students to consider the perspective of persons in history, from General William Tecumseh Sherman to a nameless Confederate soldier or a native child forced to walk the Trail of Tears.
Science students can write as a famous scientist, as a scientific phenomenon, as someone affected by a scientific event, or even as a tree. In health classes, students can respond to articles about issues such as concussion in "I Am a Victim of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy" or "I Am a Football Coach."
Incorporating I Am Poetry
Use the following steps to incorporate reading and responding in the I Am poetry format:
Distribute the text to be read.
- Assign the reading.
- Brainstorm with the class perspectives from which the text can be viewed.
Explain how students will choose the perspective(s) from which they will re-read the text.
Assign students to re-read the text from their chosen perspectives, marking details important to them from that viewpoint. This includes text evidence and inferences based on the text.
Explain the I Am poem format and examine and analyze the text for ideas.
Invite students to revise any verbs that may better fit their interpretations and responses and to add research from other sources.
I distributed the article, "The Great Pandemic of 1918–19," to a class of eighth graders. As they read, they used a during-reading response strategy that I refer to in my book, The Write to Read: Response Journals That Increase Comprehension, as marginal notes. As they read, they marked in the right margin of the article:
√ = I knew this
N = new information (I didn't know this)
! = important information about the pandemic
I then assigned the activity: Write an I Am poem, "I Am a Philadelphian in 1918–1919." The class reflected on the content of the article and brainstormed various perspectives from which readers could re-read the article and write a response.
I Am a Man/Woman Living in Philadelphia in 1918–1919
I Am a Child Living in Philadelphia in 1918–1919
I Am a Victim of The Great Pandemic of 1918–1919
I Am a Funeral Director in Philadelphia in 1918–1919
I Am the Mayor of Philadelphia, 1918–1919
I added an option to encourage creativity : I Am The Great Pandemic of 1918–1919.
Students based their poems on the facts given in the article, plus personal knowledge and research about influenza, Philadelphia, or the time period.
Students read, wrote, highlighted the facts they used in their poems, added "because" statements wherever appropriate, and shared their favorite lines. Some took their poems home to revise and further research. As they read each other's poetry, the students observed that some classmates focused on the same facts in the same way, some perspectives interpreted the same facts in dissimilar ways, and some regarded different facts in distinct ways.
Hinton wrote from the perspective of a victim. Here is an excerpt:
I am one of the many victims of the Great Pandemic of 1918-1919.
I wonder about the other 675,000 Americans who died, leaving orphans or widows.
I hear about the eighteen cases of influenza that were reported in Kansas.
I see the results of the three waves of the Pandemic that occurred in late spring and summer of 1918, the fall of 1918, and the spring of 1919.
I don't want the recovered men to develop secondary pneumonia, "the most virulent, deadly type."
I am starting to become fearful for the world.
I pretend to be strong.
I feel that the Pandemic shouldn't have spread from the military to the civilian population.
I touch my chest to make sure my heart is still beating.
I worry it will be too late before this outbreak is over.
I cry at the fact it has spread to Asia, Africa, South America, and back to North America.
I am trying to believe that everything will be all right.
The same format in a sixth grade science class required students to choose a famous scientist and conduct online research about that person. Integrating their class notes, they wrote I Am poetry from the perspective of the scientists.
Phoenix wrote as Maria Tharp, a female scientist born in 1920. Here is an excerpt:
I am Maria Tharp.
I wonder if the ocean floor is really flat.
I see girl scientists being neglected.
I want girl scientists to be excepted [sic] and respected.
I am Maria Tharp.
I pretend the ocean floor is rugged and bumpy.
I feel rejected because I was not allowed to board a research vessel that was going to cross the sea when all the men did.
I touch the maps that I create.
I worry that my theory of the ocean floor is incorrect.
I cry because girls are not being able to become great scientists even if they are smart.
I am a mapmaker of the ocean floor.
From this student's poem, it is evident that she not only learned what Maria Tharp contributed to society but also recognized the struggles Dr. Tharp endured at that time in order to make those contributions, something this young reader may have missed if she had written from the perspective of a young woman living in 2016.
Choice, Creativity, Comprehension
In addition to encouraging, and training, readers to read and interpret from multiple perspectives, I Am poetry can be used as an after-reading response strategy for readers to take themselves back to the text multiple times, comprehending at a deeper level as they analyze to synthesize and manipulate text. In that way readers actually learn material.
And because writing I Am poems allows for choice, creativity, and fun, more students are engaged, the point of any academic activity.
Lesley Roessing, a middle level ELA-humanities teacher for over 20 years, is a senior lecturer in the College of Education at Armstrong State University, director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project, and editor of
Connections, the journal of the Georgia Council of Teachers of English. The ideas for this article were taken from strategies included in her book,
The Write to Read: Response Journals That Increase Comprehension.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2016.
Literature circles bring reading to life for these sixth graders.
What did we just read?
I am so bored!
Why are we reading this?
What's the point?
Sound familiar? These were some of the responses to reading that I received during my first year teaching bright and talented sixth graders.
How could 24 students, who for the most part liked reading, have those attitudes? It had to be the way I taught. How could I engage all 24 students?
I needed a reading instruction strategy that engaged the students and held them accountable. Literature circles seemed to fit the bill. Literature circles keep students accountable within their group, incorporate discussions about what they read at each meeting, and provide a choice that will keep them interested and invested.
When I decided to implement literature circles I kept five things in mind: (1) students get a choice in what they read, (2) teacher models literature circles to the class, (3) students remain accountable due to roles assigned within the group, (4) students have discussions about what they read and complete journal entries, and (5) students have a final project by which the teacher can assess comprehension and understanding.
1. Giving students a choice.
I asked my students what types of books they were interested in reading. I had an idea, but wanted to show them that they had a voice in their learning and had a choice of what to read.
After discussing the types of books the students were interested in, which included dystopia/utopia novels, I began to research new and forthcoming novels that my students had not read and that seemed interesting to their age group.
I presented a list of books to our librarian.Not only was she enthusiastic about finding the books on my list, she gave me other options from schools around the district. We came up with the following books based in part on being able to have enough copies for the students in my class:
Barcode Tattoo by Suzanne Weyn
The Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
People of Sparks by Jeanne DuPrau
Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix
Life as we Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer
- Enclave by Ann Aguirre
I presented the titles and authors as a book talk and asked the students to rank the books in order from those they most wanted to read to least favorite or already read. Based on the results of the survey, students were assigned to their literature circle group.
2. Modeling the literature circle.
To help students understand the basics of book discussions I modeled the roles within a literature circle by reading a picture book to the class and then leading a discussion about the book using a fishbowl strategy.
In a fishbowl strategy, a small group of students are in the middle of a circle discussing the book while the majority of the class members are listening from outside the circle.
I followed the demonstration with a video of a literature circle. As a class, we talked about the positive and negative aspects of the literature circle discussion presented on the video and how they could improve it.
Now that the students understood how the discussion should work in a literature circle, I modeled the roles of connector, discussion director, summarizer, literary luminary, and illustrator which the students would rotate through during each meeting.
3. Holding students accountable.
Students each received a schedule indicating which roles they were to play each day. Having assigned roles made the students not only accountable to read the assignment, but also helped them prepare for discussions within their group.
Students had 15 days to read their book front to back and were responsible for calculating how many pages they had to read each day to complete the novel in the time allowed. Role sheets helped prompt discussions at the beginning, but toward the end of their literature circle, students were having open discussions about what they had read and did not need their role sheet for guidance.
4. Discussing and journaling.
Before each literature circle meeting, students spent 10–15 minutes in their small groups discussing what they had read and asking questions before jumping into their book. Every student had a voice and was accountable to discuss within the group.
Students made journal entries five times during those 15 days, writing about the characters, setting, plot, problems, and resolutions. Across the five journal entries, all students increased their higher-order thinking skills. They credited the discussions with helping them understand what they had read and their ability to write about it.
5. Assessing reading comprehension.
At the end of the 15 days, students completed two final projects based on their novel.
One project was a tic-tac-toe board where students completed three small projects relating to character, setting, and plot. Students had a choice of activities such as write a newspaper, create a wanted poster, write a skit, write a song, or develop a sketchbook with captions.
Given choices, students were invested in the project and had a voice in their learning. They had the motivation to complete their projects and were enthusiastic about presenting them to the class.
For the second project, students created their own society and tried to persuade their classmates to be part of it. Since these students were reading utopia/dystopia novels, the society project fit nicely. They could implement what they knew about societies and incorporate the information they gained from their novel, including social studies, technology, math, reading, and science. Students had the option of working independently or in pairs.
To "recruit" their classmates, students prepared a Google slideshow to present to their peers. Students' slides addressed all elements of a society, including money, government, family, education, recreation, and transportation. Students developed the presentations using Google Classroom, which made it possible for me to see their progress as they added slides.
Above and Beyond
Literature circles not only improved my students' reading comprehension, they also increased their love for reading and their motivation to read.
During the 15 days we spent with literature circles, every group finished the assigned book and three finished their assigned book plus the next one in the series. One group not only finished their assigned novel, The Uglies, but they finished the whole series! I didn't suggest that they read the whole series; I simply told the class to have their novel read front to back in 15 days. They enthusiastically read not one, not two, but four novels in 15 days!
With literature circles, the students take control and the learning is driven by the students, for the students. The teacher takes on the role of facilitator—and isn't that what we really want?
Samantha Schnoor is a fifth grade teacher at Century Elementary School in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2016.
A student-produced magazine celebrates middle level student voice.
In October 2015, a team of seven editors—all eighth grade boys at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Virginia—met during lunch to compare two digital publishing platforms. They judged entries for the Cover Art Contest and debated the potential of QR codes.
By mid-November, a staff of 36 students released the fall edition of PaperBoy, a 58-page magazine focused on student culture. Within a month, the digital magazine had been read by 700 viewers in the United States, plus a dozen viewers globally, including several from Australia, Thailand, and the UK.
Why a Middle School Magazine?
Authentic writing experiences have been credited with motivating students to compose their best work. Nancie Atwell's In The Middle, along with her subsequent publications, have validated the importance of empowering student voices. Writing for a publication allows students to explore a choice topic, serve as an "expert in residence," and build social connections with peers who share common interests.
Students write in an authentic way, collaborate meaningfully, and often strengthen their personal identity. Nate reviews classic movies, Brett writes humorous pieces, Lane views video games with an intellectual lens. Voices emerge with increased confidence when students have the safety net of a team initiative.
Although a school newspaper offers those same features, a magazine offers many more and varied advantages for young adolescents. Consider that if each student is given a page for free expression, that student has complete ownership of the space. Some may choose to tell their story with images, simply select a suitable background color, or designate fonts to customize the appearance of their pages.
And, there's plenty of room for partnerships: a student writer can pair with a friend who is a page designer. A savvy mathematician can collect survey data and analyze it with a peer journalist who translates findings into narrative form.
A "newspaper column publication" requires time-consuming page formatting to ensure consistency, yet each magazine page is formatted independently. Cohesion is achieved by shuffling pages into a reader-friendly sequence.
Paper Boy wasn't always this big or this popular. Five years ago a staff of seven boys worked the entire school year to produce a 20-page publication (http://stcmsnews.edu.glogster.com/1/).
Our first edition was a recap of an event we call Activities Day. During this biannual event, all students sign up for an extracurricular field trip or focused project that runs for half of a school day.
For our first edition, our student reporters each chose a different activity, carried old-school digital card cameras, and wrote a short synopsis of their chosen activity. They loaded their content into Glogster Edu pages and hyperlinked the pages together. The first edition went live online.
The next year, three boys who were already contributing to a library-inspired book blog were invited to try something new: input their book reviews into a Glogster page and add some images. What would they think about publishing with the PaperBoy staff?
Not only did they accept the invitation, they harnessed animation tools to create Harry Potter-like moving-news images. By pairing Activities Day articles with reviews, PaperBoy increased its readership. Merging these two small groups also helped cultivate new friendships and generate more recognition within our school.
In addition to releasing the magazine digitally, we printed each page (about 12–15 pages at that time) and hung them on a hallway bulletin board with the URL address printed in large type. "Visit http://stcmsnews.edu.glogster.com/glog-3888-3190."
Students gathered around the display to note who was caught by the camera, to chat about Activities Day, or to point out books they had read.
We were able to quickly recruit book reviewers and serious writers, but staff growth exploded when we asked, "Would anyone be interested in writing movie and video game reviews?"
We initiated a policy that limited reviewing games to those rated for teens or younger audiences; movie reviews covered those marketed as PG-13 or younger. Other popular features now include technology reviews, top ten lists, student survey results (favorite products, music, or hobbies), and teacher interviews. Offering a menu of categories can spark student interest, but individuals always feel free to propose original story ideas.
This is not a club and there are no cuts. Students "join" the staff by submitting artwork, a creative story, a feature story, or a review.
Platforms for Publishing
Students need a canvas on which they can work. Any digital word document can serve this purpose. If you select a specialized publishing platform, first ensure that it complies with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (www.coppa.org). Then, check end-user agreements and subscription costs.
We started with Glogster Edu (edu.glogster.com), which offers a multitude of design options, but requires a subscription for a "class account" where multiple students can create. The class account is key for its faculty-editing privileges.
This year, many students opted to work with Lucidpress (www.lucidpress.com). Our director of academic technology, Hiram Cuevas, added Lucidpress to our Google School account as part of our suite of apps. In addition to being free, Lucidpress allows us to share pages with digital collaborators. We collate our finished pages into a singular pdf document and upload them to issuu.com. Issuu requires a subscription, but it is far less expensive than printing paper copies and allows student work to be shared in the digital domain.
We do not offer a journalism class. We do, however, ask writers to model best practices. Reviewers are required to read professional reviews on Amazon or video game websites. Feature story writers are reminded to cover the 5Ws and 1H (who, what, when where, why, and how). All interview questions and student surveys are submitted to the faculty advisor before they are sent to their target audience.
We publish what students write as long as it is appropriate for our middle school community and respectful of the values and ideas of others. If the story needs extra work and doesn't make it in the upcoming edition, editors help the students revise it so it can be published in the future.
With regard to reviews, if a student dislikes a product, he is welcome to share his views in an objective way based on details. He may be asked to balance his perspective by citing a few strengths or by sharing a marketing quote from a vendor.
When we started the magazine, our school had two computer labs that housed a total of 30 desktops. We are now a 1:1 school, which has been an asset. If your school isn't there yet, allot more time for students to complete their pages.
How does our process work for staff members? A "draft deadline" is set for each edition, and a Google Document is established for story proposals. Students sign up digitally to request a story and/or to complete a page design. Drafts are submitted to the faculty advisor and a section editor via Google Drive. Feedback is returned within a week so students can make revisions and resubmit by the following week. At that time, page design begins.
Students search for copyright-free images and record all image links for the advisor to check. Text is pasted into the designed page and then shared with the advisor and editors for final review. Study halls and lunch periods have provided ample time for team communication and collaboration. If a one-to-one writing workshop is needed, a student can meet with the advisor or an editor during recess.
To celebrate the release of each edition, all contributors are invited to the library for a pizza party during lunch. We've never asked English teachers to give extra credit to staff. I do share the publication directly with teachers and parents to ensure that students' efforts are recognized.
You can see our fall 2015 edition at http://issuu.com/stc678/docs/pb246.
A Match with Middle School Culture
Launching a student publication presents challenges, but those very challenges empower student growth. With flexibility and creativity, the entire staff develops problem-solving skills to meet team goals.
From the start, we have been able to offer a meaningful realm for adolescent development. Ownership, leadership, peer relationships, and collaboration skills are all cultivated in authentic ways. Digital citizenship, writing skills, and technological savvy are embraced purposefully.
If you want to engage students in active literacy and celebrate middle school voices, a magazine may be the perfect match.
Lisa Brennan is the middle school librarian at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Virginia.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, May 2016.
Incorporating writing into math helps students understand their thinking.
In the minds of middle grades learners, math and writing typically don't go together. With the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) things have changed!
If you'd asked me not too long ago about the challenges of teaching pre-algebra to adolescents, I would have talked about procedural questions such as "What is the square root of 121?" or "What is the formula for volume of a sphere?" Today my response is very different because what counts as math in the middle grades is also shaped by notions of academic language within and across content areas.
Beyond the Numbers
More than strictly procedural fluency and factual recall, students today solve language-rich, complex, real-world application problems. For example, a problem from a unit on the laws of exponents today might read something like: "A shipping box is in the shape of a cube. Each side measures 3c^2d^2 inches. Express the volume of the cube as a monomial."
In short, adolescent learners need to not only know the exponent laws, they also need to apply prior knowledge about volume as they interpret and process a multi-step word problem.
Finally, and perhaps at the center of CCSS math reform, learners need to articulate on paper the thinking behind their solutions—step by step. Common Core math pushes students to think deeply and apply what they know and what they are learning. Freewriting on paper can help take adolescent learners there.
Sometimes students reject writing when it comes to solving mathematical problems. However, exploratory writing—thinking aloud on paper—can provide access to higher-level questions, word problems. Or, to paraphrase a quote by British novelist E. M. Forester, "I'll know what I am thinking when I see what I say." Discipline-specific exploratory writing allows problem solvers to tease out their reasoning and work behind each step of a solution with words.
Stop and Jot
One technique that I use is called "Stop and Jot." The Stop and Jot strategy is a brief moment when everybody pauses and writes about what we've been learning. I tell my students that they don't need to worry about correct grammar, spelling, or punctuation—they simply need to write their thoughts about the day's math activities: what they understood or what they are still trying to figure out. The idea is for students to see what they and their classmates are thinking.
For example, when a September lesson centered on the laws of exponents, the Stop and Jot prompt went like this: "Describe what law of exponents would help solve this problem. What do you already know about this question?"
To guide them, I provide the following instructions: "Write between 3–5 sentences about the day's problems. You can write about your understanding or you can extend a problem. You can write a question you have or you can explain how you solved the problem. Write silently and independently. We'll share our thinking on paper with desk mates."
Here's what three students wrote about the shipping box container:
"The question is asking me to multiply, so I use power to a power law."
"I know it is multiplication because in the volume formula you multiply; I know the volume of that shape is length x width x height."
- "I am not sure how to write the exponent law using those numbers."
Talking About Math
The great thing about Stop and Jot is that we can choose to freewrite as often or as little as we need. Students only need a journal, a pen or pencil, and a quiet place where they can write and then share with peers. Having my math students see what they think on paper has made them confident about doing math and talking about math!
Rebecca Stelfox is an eighth grade math teacher at Northeast Middle School in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2016.
Even the most technical STEM jobs require verbal and written communication skills.
John Engler, president of The Business Roundtable and former governor of Michigan, recently wrote an article for U.S. News and World Report entitled "STEM Education Is the Key to the U.S.'s Economic Future."
Engler pointed out the United States' reliance on more qualified workers to fill the increased number of jobs in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, or STEM. "We need STEM-related talent to compete globally, and we will need even more in the future. It is not a matter of choice: For the United States to remain the global innovation leader, we must make the most of all of the potential STEM talent this country has to offer," Engler said.
While students are being encouraged to explore the STEM field, it would be unfortunate if the humanities fields and skills were deemed to be less important. It is precisely skills like effective written and oral communication, written expression, and interpersonal skills that can make a qualified STEM candidate stand out from the crowd.
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration report, STEM: Good Jobs Now and for the Future
, STEM jobs are projected to grow at a rate of 18% from 2008 to 2018, compared to 9.8% for non-STEM occupations. The job force needs prepared college graduates to fill these jobs, and candidates' communication, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills they learned in the humanities are
more vital than ever.
For example, in a LinkedIn job posting for a senior software engineer search algorithms and data analytics position at The Home Depot, the first skills listed are "strong interpersonal skills, written and verbal communication" and "strong decision-making, problem-solving skills, critical thinking, and testing skills." Clearly, even the most technical STEM jobs require verbal and written communication skills.
STEM and Beyond
Holcomb Bridge Middle School in Alpharetta, Georgia, operates a STEM Academy as a "school within a school" model. Teachers and administrators select students with high science and math scores and place them in a cohort for integrated science, math, and engineering classes. Students participate in a science fair, hear guest speakers from STEM professions, and complete a STEM portfolio with artifacts from their three STEM classes.
The STEM Academy gives high-achieving students with an interest in math and science a great place to grow their talents and gain experience in these high- demand areas.
Beyond the STEM Academy, to prepare all students to be effective communicators, the humanities department at Holcomb Bridge promotes the continuous development of our readers and writers. This year, our language arts and reading classes focused heavily on reading and analyzing technical documents. Teachers challenged students to read and use data from technical documents in their writing in order to better understand the often-difficult nonfiction texts.
Our school also implemented a writing portfolio. Students save one example of persuasive, narrative, and expository writing from throughout the year, along with the prewriting and preliminary drafts.
The portfolio travels with them from sixth to eighth grade and serves as an artifact of writing improvement for high school admissions. Students have the chance to reflect on their improvement throughout the year, as well as throughout their middle school career.
To encourage our students' love of reading, the humanities department created a monthly book club. Teachers in all the humanities content areas (reading, English language arts, world language, and social studies) volunteer to sponsor a book club session once a month.
Teachers choose books that are high interest and do not necessarily apply to the curriculum. Students are more interested and involved when they are given the chance to work with students from different grade levels and share their thoughts on the complex plots and themes.
Finally, the eighth grade language arts teachers started a program they call Literacy 4 Life. Students follow "Lacey," a cartoon girl posted on the classroom wall, through her life, using literacy skills to navigate complicated documents. Students scour documents such as the Georgia Driver's Manual, a college application, and job applications. They learn the importance of being able to apply an understanding of nonfiction documents in real-life situations.
Many of our students speak English as a second language; some of their parents do not speak English at all. As such, they often are challenged to read and interpret nonfiction texts for their families. As young adolescents, they are tasked with reading, interpreting, and sometimes writing for their parents.
Understanding student and family needs makes the Literacy 4 Life initiative even more applicable and important.
English language arts, reading, and social studies teachers: have no fear for your future in education. Although technology is rising in importance and the STEM areas are gaining in popularity, there will always be a place for the humanities.
Students still need to learn history. They need to know how to communicate effectively and they must learn strategies for deciphering difficult nonfiction texts. That is where English language arts, reading, social studies, and foreign language come in.
The humanities give students a foundation on which to attach new information and build a deeper level of knowledge.
Brittany Durkin is an eighth grade reading and language arts teacher and humanities department chair at Holcomb Bridge Middle School in Alpharetta, Georgia.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2016.
These simple strategies put students' voice in their writing.
Some students come to class ready to engage and offer their voice, but others wish to go unnoticed and remain silent observers to the educational scene. The following is an assortment of creative writing, image writing, and cross-curricular writing ideas that may encourage young adolescents to become actively involved in their learning.
To encourage freedom in narrative and deeper thinking, involve students in a What If writing activity. This strategy lends itself to a variety of texts; the example here involves pairing the strategy with the Jack London story "Up the Slide," found in many middle grades textbooks.
In "Up the Slide," the protagonist must overcome several man-versus-nature struggles. Teachers may ask students to imagine the story in an alternative setting and to reapply the narrative and protagonist to a new set of struggles revolving around nature or another type of conflict. Students may also rewrite the narrative from a first-person or third-person point of view, addressing the Common Core point of view standards.
An Open-Ended Narrative activity provides part of a story, then asks students to complete it—like a choose-your-own-adventure story. This open-ended strategy can be applied to other writing genres, such as explanatory or argumentative writing. In that case, teachers provide portions of an already-created brainstorm web, essay outline, or a roughly drafted essay and ask students to use these elements to create a more fully developed writing product.
For the Genre Optional strategy, teachers create a list of writing styles, such as poems, memos, and digital texts, and ask students to reach objectives through the chosen genre. For example, students may use a digital text or poem to teach three to five vocabulary terms related to algebraic equations. Or, they may create a memo to demonstrate their understanding of a scientific process or historical event.
With Single-Image Writing, teachers select an image of a character or setting and ask students to infer to describe or respond to the image. These descriptions and responses can take the shape of a character web, a dialogue, or a paragraph structure.
Multiple-Image Writing requires students to use their cognitive skills to connect images. These images can revolve around an already-identified theme, or teachers can help students construct a narrative or expository response to the image set.
Created-Image Writing requires students to visualize aspects of a single character or story element or create an extensive storyboard design based on the events of a longer text. This storyboard design can emphasize discrete language concepts, or it can be used to demonstrate the overall structure of a typical plot, requiring students to identify and explain which panels in the storyboard relate to the exposition, resolution, and other segments of the plot.
When technology tools are available, students can create Informational Websites using digital tools like Blogspot (blogspot.com) or Weebly (weebly.com). Teachers can model this strategy using their own informational websites.
Reading and Responding to a variety of texts across the curriculum is also important. The more students explore a variety of texts, the better prepared they will be for standardized assessments.
Some students are eager to share their thoughts in the classroom; others lack the confidence, interest, or even skill-set to immediately dive into the world of language. These strategies may give them their voice.
Jason D. DeHart, an eighth grade English teacher, is also a student in the Department of Theory and Practice in Teacher Education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, March 2016.
Turning negative perceptions into positive outlooks.
Common Core State Standards require that students read at complex levels. Guiding students through these increasingly complex materials can be daunting for teachers of mixed ability students, special education students, English Language Learners, and students considered to be Level 1 and Level 2 readers.
Some students do not have the same ability as their classmates; other students lack the motivation needed to read complex texts. Still others are hampered by negative attitudes toward reading.
Among the several strategies teachers can use to motivate reluctant readers is keeping a growth mindset at the forefront of their thinking.
Carol Dweck's work on growth mindset is described in her book, Mindset. Dweck describes the growth mindset as the belief that regardless of talents, aptitudes, interests, or temperaments, "everyone can change and grow through application and experience."
Students must be explicitly taught how to embrace this mindset in the content areas. Unless they have fully embraced the growth mindset, they are vulnerable to academic and social stagnation , or worse, their abilities may decline in these areas.
By the time students reach middle school , the enjoyment of reading, or lack thereof, has been instilled. As their minds become full of technology and social media, and academic expectations grow more complex, we must teach them how to approach reading in a positive way. Tackling a lackluster attitude may be enough to light the fire and give adolescents at least some desire to engage with the reading materials in each class.
Each student is unique and has a different approach to reading. Teachers can begin to adjust their instruction to emphasize positive viewpoints on reading. Overemphasizing the difficulty of the text may shut down apprehensive readers. Instead, teachers might say a text is challenging, but then explain ways the class is going to strategize to understand the text.
Rather than saying, "This is a really difficult text, so we need to pay attention to understand it," try saying, "This text is a challenging text, but we are going to look at different strategies to help us understand the content. These strategies will help us understand this text and make it easier to read other texts later this year because we all will know how to apply these strategies effectively."
The latter statement helps students see how they can be successful. The language is more positive, which transfers to a positive classroom environment.
Another way to address students' negative attitude toward reading is to refuse to allow it to permeate the classroom environment. When students make statements such as, "I don't like reading" or "Reading is boring" or "I'm not good at reading," teachers can introduce positive statements that help students see value in what they are reading:
"It's okay not to like everything that you have read. Today, however, I would like us to think about how this text can help us understand the world. This will allow us to see why our textbook might have included this selection and help us locate other texts that may answer questions we have about the content of what we are reading."
This generic statement can be modified for a specific text or content, but it may change a negative comment into a yearning for knowledge statement. Relating the text to something in an adolescent's world helps alter his or her mindset and delivers a sense of intrigue about a topic.
Some texts in a prescribed curriculum may not relate to adolescents. If teachers take time to find additional text, related to first text or as an alternate text that appeals to the interests of students in their classroom, a reading resister may be more likely to engage with the content.
Appealing to the interests of students is key to creating an equitable classroom as teachers form positive relationships with students and get to know them as individuals. This is also a way teachers can differentiate for the needs in the classroom. However, appealing to the interests alone may not be enough to engage students who resist reading.
A fixed mindset is the opposite of a growth mindset. In a fixed mindset, students believe they have only what Dweck describes as a "certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character." Once this mindset takes root in a student's mind, it is difficult to shake. When a student determines he or she has failed at something, this belief tends to stick and the "I am not good at reading" and "I dislike reading" comments become reality statements rather than avoidance techniques.
The belief of not being good at reading typically takes root in third or fourth grade and is particularly problematic at the middle school level. By the time students reach seventh or eighth grade, this mindset is creating a foundation that is academically dismal.
However, challenging the adolescent fixed mindset regarding reading gives students the opportunity to change from taking a defeatist approach to learning to embrace the tools needed to be successful in the future. To address this mindset, educators must first recognize it exists. They also must believe a student is capable of reading complex material at the appropriate grade level.
It's important to recognize that a fixed mindset will not change immediately. It takes persistence and patience to work with a student who has a "failure" response to reading. Providing students with adequate feedback can help them adjust their thinking patterns. It takes work to provide positive feedback, but it will pay off.
Teachers can follow a simple formula to provide effective feedback: Area Addressed + Present Behavior + Future Implication. This formula can be adapted to any situation for any student. Before giving this type of feedback, the teacher must understand the root of the problem.
For example, let's say a student is struggling to comprehend a particular text. The teacher may say, "It seems that you are having some trouble identifying the main idea of this text. I notice that when you read, you are skimming through one section and then moving on to another section. Try slowing down and when you come to the end of a section, identify any words or phrases that you may not know. I can help you understand these terms. If you continue to use this strategy, you will begin to answer some of these questions on your own and texts similar to this one will become easier to understand later in the semester."
A teacher using the feedback formula might say, "I hear you say you are not good at reading. When we read in class, you seem to be able to follow along and you ask some great questions about the characters. Sometimes you don't know all the answers to these questions, and I think that is what is troubling you. When you can't find an answer, try re-reading the text. If you still don't know the answer after you have read the text, continue reading. The answer may come later in the text. If you become confused, let me know. Together, we can find these answers. When you are able to find these answers, and if you continue to question characters, you will be better prepared for the narrative we will be writing in our next unit."
There are many reasons students enter our classrooms as reluctant readers. Initially, addressing these readers can be taxing; however, with the appropriate tools, educators can begin to change
the mindset of resistant reader.
John Helgeson has taught middle school students for 17 years. He is currently the Secondary English Instructional Specialist in the Northshore School District in Bothell, Washington.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, March 2016.