How to engage teacher teams in whole-school literacy and learning improvement
It's 7:30 Tuesday morning and groups of teachers are sitting in their first meeting of the year for their professional learning communities (PLCs). Thick binders filled with colored tabs and volumes of files of student literacy achievement data are in front of them. Teachers look at each other with a variety of feelings ranging from cautious optimism to bewilderment to dread. All they know is that they need to come up with a cross-discipline literacy improvement plan based on all these reports of data. They just wish they had some type of roadmap to guide them to not only make sense of the data, but to implement a literacy improvement plan that really succeeds this time.
Unfortunately, this scenario describes a common beginning of well-intentioned attempts to use data for improving reading, writing, thinking, and content area achievement. Clearly, the idea of teachers working together in PLCs and reviewing data together is important, but without guidance and support in how to collect, analyze, and use data to inform the design of their initiatives, the effectiveness of their work will be diminished. There is plenty of evidence to support the use of high-functioning PLCs to increase achievement and reduce achievement gaps. But the effectiveness of teacher teams is often contingent on a shared commitment to and optimism for improvement, a viable plan, skillful execution of research-supported strategies, and sincere dedication to taking and monitoring decisive actions.
Many PLCs may feel hesitant to choose to go on a new journey to improve literacy and learning because prior attempts have been met with too many challenges and less than expected results, especially for struggling learners and underachievers. Teacher teams often develop low group self-efficacy and lack a group growth mindset because they have not succeeded in prior initiatives together as a team. The resilience of teacher teams also gets worn down, and solving a compelling problem like low reading and writing performance seems farfetched. When teacher teams don't "win" (i.e., succeed) together, they often lose their desire to work together and lack the confidence and perseverance to improve student literacy and content achievement.
Taking the road to improving literacy and content area achievement can bring positive, measurable results for all students—especially for struggling learners and underachievers—and sparks new life and group efficacy into PLCs. The journey described below illustrates how teacher teams can "cause" student growth when the entire school is moving in the same direction, at the same time, and with sincere effort and skillful execution.
Determining the Vision
As with any successful journey, we need to have a clear vision. The school's PLCs should answer the following essential question before the journey begins: What will it take to ensure that students become confident, self-directed, and successful when they read, write, think, and learn in content areas? There's plenty of direction on reading, writing, and thinking expectations in state and national standards, and PLCs can benefit from unpacking those standards and literacy skills required for success across all content areas. Teachers often envision students who can independently read and summarize literary and informational text, process information, create meaning, and demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways including open and closed-end response tests, performances, and products. Teachers envision students who feel confident and competent in their literacy and learning skills and who demonstrate enthusiasm for learning. Finally, teachers envision PLCs that can work collaboratively to arrive at their destination because they had the will, skill, and ability.
Determining the Need
Teacher teams have to feel the need to leave their existing conditions to take even the first steps on the reading, writing, and thinking road to content achievement. The desire to embark on the journey results when teachers engage in guided and efficient collaborative examination of achievement data, student work, and learning practices. Groups use guiding questions to analyze and transform data into actionable knowledge so they can put it to work to improve student literacy and learning. Group process protocols efficiently yield rich conversations and useful insights about the data including patterns, comparisons, strengths, needs, and effects. Teams identify the strategies and interventions that have been previously used in the school to develop student literacy and content achievement and determine the effectiveness of previous actions, especially for struggling learners and underachievers. Finally, teams engage in an analysis of contributing factors that may cause literacy and learning problems. This actionable knowledge helps the school match strategies and plans for improvement efforts to the greatest areas of student need and the most prominent contributing factors.
Planning the Journey
There is no doubt that large groups can make planning for school improvement quite challenging. A smaller representative group of teachers from the PLCs—the planning team—can act as liaisons for their PLC and more efficiently draft plans for the improvement journey. The chief goal of this school team is to match the PLC's and school's vision of literacy and learning, knowledge about existing student performance, and contributing factors with research-supported practices. The planning team examines professional literature and research to identify promising instructional and assessment strategies and practices and best practices for effective school improvement and professional development. For example, published meta-analysis results related to literacy and learning demonstrate that the use of graphic representations, summarizing, focused skill questioning, explicit teaching, and differentiation yield percentile gains on a variety of measures, including content achievement. Also, professional literature illustrates that ongoing professional development, PLC collaborative inquiry, consistent progress monitoring and adjustment, instructional coaching, and administrative support yield positive results for school improvement.
The culminating activity for the team is to create a template plan that will be used by all the PLCs. Figure 1 illustrates a plan that assists teacher teams in selecting two literacy skill targets for 30 to 60 days and identifying indicators, measurements, strategies/methods, and actions. PLCs complete their planning in their meetings, and team plans are then shared with all staff so cross-PLC sharing is possible, their commitment is public, and PLCs can create partnerships to accomplish similar goals.
Taking Decisive Action
In the first implementation stage of the journey, PLC members and instructional paraprofessionals/aides participate in professional development on the use of graphic organizers, summary templates/frames, focused skill questioning, explicit teaching, and peer-to-peer interaction. Then teachers in each PLC select a compatible graphic organizer, summary frame/template, and question stems for the two comprehension targets identified in their planning template (see https://tinyurl.com/ybk4nyv7 for examples). Figure 2 illustrates instructional strategies for a specific literacy skill.
Stage two of the implementation involves collecting and analyzing the baseline information needed to determine progress. Teachers assign students to read or listen to a text or topic in their content area, and students complete a graphic organizer and write a summary. Teachers examine their students' work with a three-point rubric and then select a high, average, and low quality example from each task above to bring to their PLC meeting. Teachers use a group protocol in their team meetings to analyze student work and gain insights about the qualities of student work that made it high, average, or low quality. They discuss aspects that need to improve (e.g., key ideas, detail, organizational pattern) and share how each member will commit to helping students improve during the next couple of weeks. Teachers then keep student artifacts and lesson descriptions from at least two lessons per month in their teacher portfolio. Teachers are also provided with support for creating lessons that explicitly teach targeted literacy and thinking skills using graphic organizers, summaries, question stems, and peer-to-peer interaction.
During the third stage of the journey, teachers frequently utilize lessons or tasks in which students use selected graphic organizers and summaries and respond to question stems that match the PLC's target literacy skills. Teachers also learn to use rubrics to engage students in self-assessment about the use of graphic organizers, summaries, and questioning. Once again, teachers select a high, average, and low quality example from each task above, and they use a group protocol in teams to analyze student work. The second group of protocols has PLC members share their lessons, observations of student use, and changes from the original samples. Teachers create student improvement needs and identify needed coaching and other professional development and support. They also continue to place sample artifacts of student work and lesson descriptions in their professional portfolio for this initiative.
Instructional coaches, teacher leaders, and administrators provide support for the improvement initiatives during this part of the journey. Coaches and teacher leaders can conduct demonstration lessons in the classroom. This type of support provides teachers with an opportunity to observe the process of explicitly teaching content and literacy skills concurrently. Coaches, teacher leaders, and administrators also work with teachers to design lessons that use the selected strategies. After the first 30 days it may be useful to use walkthroughs to determine levels of implementation and talk with students about their perceptions of the improvement initiatives and strategies.
During the fourth stage of the implementation, teachers bring their samples of student work to PLC meetings and they share how often they are using graphic organizers, summaries, question stems, and peer-to-peer interaction to determine that there is a high level of implementation. Different protocols are used for troubleshooting, measuring progress, and determining student and teacher learning needs. Teachers also respond to guided questions to examine artifacts in their professional portfolio. Professional development focuses on differentiation techniques that address the needs of high, average, and low achievers. Special Education, RTI, ELL, and other student services specialists provide additional strategies and coaching. Opportunities are created for cross-discipline and grade groups to meet and discuss the implementation progress and to reinforce a whole-school commitment to the literacy and learning improvement initiative during the first 60 days.
The last stage of the literacy and learning improvement journey is ongoing. PLCs continue to use group process protocols and their professional portfolios to recognize progress, make adjustments, and celebrate successes. PLCs reflect on what they are learning during the implementation and identify their professional learning needs. Instructional coaches, teacher leaders, specialists, and administrators continue to provide differentiated professional development and support for various PLCs and individual teachers.
Making It Successfully to the Destination
There really is no end to the journey to improve literacy and learning. Student learning needs, accountability, teachers, and the art of teaching and learning seem to always change. Yet, it is still important for schools, and especially PLCs, to check on progress toward their literacy and learning vision. Standardized test scores and content area achievement illustrate that this journey has yielded increases in student achievement and reduced achievement gaps. This journey helped many students develop confidence and competence related to literacy and content achievement. It has strengthened the professional efficacy of individual teachers and PLCs and helped them develop and sustain a culture of inquiry and continuous improvement rarely experienced before by some PLCs. Finally, this journey injects new life into a whole-school improvement initiative where PLCs work with students to make a literacy and learning vision come alive.
Bobb Darnell is president of Achievement Strategies, Inc., as well as an educator, presenter, and author.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2019.
How poetry written from a new perspective deepens knowledge and encourages synthesis of new ideas
Much of the writing we assign our students is public writing—writing to communicate with others. Writing-to-learn is personal writing, writing that helps students increase comprehension of texts—fiction and nonfiction—in all disciplines. Reader response compels readers to interact with the text and makes visible for readers and their teachers the depth of text comprehension. This is the eighth in a series of columns on scaffolding writing-to-learn by teaching a variety of reader response strategies before, during, and after reading.
The first six Write to Learn columns focused on before-reading response and a variety of during-reading response strategies. The previous column, this column, and the next two columns in the series will share strategies for employing after-reading response across the disciplines. Effective after-reading response employs a text reformulation strategy where readers reconstruct text read into another type of text. This synthesis, a critical thinking skill that involves putting together assorted parts to make a new whole, helps readers in all disciplines not only relate information learned, but also rethink the meaning of this learning and connect to other learnings and readers' developing views of their world.
The "I Am" Poem
In "I Am" poetry, readers write from the perspective of something they have read in a text or textbook. They could be writing from the perspective of a character in a story or poem; a person from a memoir or biography; a scientist or a scientific theory, element, or concept; a person, event, or place in history; a mathematical concept or principle; or a disease, condition, or issue in health.
The "I Am" poem follows a format that requires readers to read and analyze how the character, person, item, or event would view its world and its place in the world, returning to the text multiple times to apply what they have learned. This writing also causes readers to synthesize new material with information they already know or new information they may research to create their poem. In the case of items, events, or even places, particularly in social studies, science, math, and health classes, the writer would employ personification.
There is a standard format readers/writers can follow (see Figure 1), but they are encouraged to modify the verbs to fit their topic and their own visions. This format places the reader into another's shoes, so to speak, and requires that they read more deeply, closely, and critically as they explore text from a particular point of view (Roessing, 2016).
"I Am" Poetry Standard Format
|I am __________________________
[character's name and identity]
I wonder _______________________
I hear _________________________
I see __________________________
I want _________________________
I am __________________________
[not the name in Line 1, but additional information about the character]
I pretend _______________________
I feel __________________________
I touch _________________________
I worry _________________________
I cry ___________________________
I am ___________________________
[not the name in Line 1, but additional information about the character]
I understand _____________________
I say ___________________________
I dream _________________________
I try ____________________________
I hope __________________________
I am ____________________________
[character's name, including more information about the character as a conclusion]
To plan their writing, the class can first brainstorm perspectives from which the text they read can be viewed. If students are reading different texts, individually or in a small group, a short article, story, or poem can be read to provide an example. For example, in the poem "Casey at the Bat," someone could write from the perspective of Casey, one of his teammates, a fan (one of the "patrons of the game"), or the Mudville coach. For the article, "The Great Pandemic of 1918-19," students brainstormed that they could write from the perspective of a man, woman, or child living in Philadelphia in 1918-1919; a victim of the Great Pandemic; a Philadelphia funeral director; the mayor of Philadelphia, 1918-1919; or even The Great Pandemic itself (Roessing, 2016).
Students choose the perspective(s) from which they will revisit the text. As they reread, they first mark details that now become important from that viewpoint. Students consider the "I Am" poem format and examine and analyze the text for ideas, considering what the character or entity would see, feel, worry about, say, understand, or any of the verbs they will substitute that may better fit their interpretations and responses. Readers, especially in the disciplines, may add research from other sources.
When readers alter perspective, they modify and amend meaning, the details that they notice, and the facts and evidence that become important. Teaching readers to read from varied perspectives leads to reading through multiple lenses, thereby, discovering differing points of view. This practice results in considering differently and understanding more profoundly and meaningfully (Roessing, 2016).
In ELA classes, the students read Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman. This small novel is comprised of chapters that are each written by a different character. After readers read and discuss the novel, they can choose a different character from whose perspective they will write an "I Am" poem. The "I Am" poem should incorporate more than that character's chapter as the characters interact and influence each other throughout the book. In the example in Figure 2, the first two stanzas are the poem of Kim, the character of the first chapter, and all information is extracted from that chapter or inferences from the Chapter 1 text.
Example from Seedfolks, I Am Kim
|I am Kim, a 9-year-old Vietnamese girl.
I wonder if my father would have loved me if he had lived until I was born.
I hear my mother and oldest sister crying past midnight on the anniversary of his death.
I see the candles, incense, rice, and meat offered to honor my father.
I want to plant beans because my father had been a farmer.
I am going to plant them in the vacant lot across the street; our apartment has no yard.
I pretend that my father will be able to see my beans grow and know I am his daughter.
I feel the hard ground as I dig six holes with my spoon.
I touch my cheeks which feel like marble in this cold Cleveland April.
I worry if I will be safe because the lot is full of trash; I show bravery.
I cry when my mother and sister cry but think of something to do.
I am the first gardener in a poor, ethnically and racially diverse neighborhood where no one talks to each other.
A third stanza would be comprised of critical thinking about her relationships with characters and events from other chapters so all students review the entire novel—or their during-reading response journals—on all chapters.
When all students have written their poems, they can assemble in a circle around the room reading their poems in the order the characters appear in the story. As they read aloud, each can take on the persona of their character through their voice and attitude. Readers can each present their first two stanzas, based on the characters' chapters, and then circle again, reading their third stanzas, which demonstrate the relationships built through the novel.
Writing "I Am" poetry causes readers to reflect on their reading, the characters, their environments and relationships, their personality traits, and how those traits determine their goals and decisions—positive or negative. Creating this poetry causes readers to look more critically at texts, synthesizing what they are reading with what they know, have read, and have learned.
Responding to novels, readers can not only write from the perspective of a character but the creative writer can pursue an innovative direction. For example, in Linda Sue Park's novel A Long Walk to Water, readers can create poems from the perspectives of either of the two main characters, Nya or Salva, a minor character, or even, as happened in one class, from the perspective of Water. In response to Seedfolks, a student may write from the perspective of the developing garden or from the viewpoint of an inhabitant of the neighborhood who does not appear in the story. This is a format that encourages creativity in thinking, rather than inhibiting it.
In social studies classes, students more commonly read textbook chapters and articles while studying a unit. When studying a unit on the Holocaust, students read supplemental articles on different topics within the unit, one topic being the Warsaw ghetto. They then may write "I Am" poetry about people, real and fictitious, who were impacted by the topic they explored. When reading articles about the Warsaw ghetto, the poem in Figure 3 was written as an after-reading response.
I Am Poem, Warsaw ghetto
|I am a child of Warsaw, October 12, 1940.
I wonder what it would be like to live out in the open, in our own house again.
I hear the sounds of 400,000 people crowded together in this ghetto in a 1.3 square mile area, surrounded by a wall, the largest ghetto in Poland.
I see Nazi soldiers yelling at people and taking families away—To where?
I want something to eat; food is becoming more and more scarce.
I am a Jew in a time and place dangerous to be Jewish, wearing a white armband with a blue star as identification.
I pretend life is as it once was—Warsaw a major center of Jewish life; 30% of the population was Jewish.
I feel that life as we have known it has now ended.
I know that Poland was invaded by the Germans in 1939 and nothing has been the same since.
I touch the sides of the truck that takes my friends out of the ghetto. It is August 1942.
I worry that I will never see them again; we hear that "work" camps are really death camps.
I cry as people die even here in the ghetto—83,000 from starvation and disease.
I become part of the Jewish Combat Organization, a self-defense resistance unit in the ghetto; in January 1943 we forced the Germans to withdraw.
I understand that when Hitler came to power everything changed for the Jews and others who are not Aryan and that these troops will return.
I dream there is a chance that life will be as I planned with my own family practicing my own religion accomplishing in my own profession.
I take part in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944; 7,000 Jews died.
I try to hide in the ruins of the liquidated ghetto where the Nazis had leveled every building.
I was shipped to a labor camp and am one of the few Jewish survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Not only were facts from the article such as dates, names, places, events, and statistics included, but when composing the poem, the writer had to reflect on what someone in this young man's situation would have seen, wanted, worried about, dreamt, and hoped. The reader of the poem can observe not only what the writer has read, but also what the writer has inferred and synthesized with prior knowledge he had or what he learned about the Holocaust in the social studies unit. The poem necessitates and demonstrates critical thinking, and the format encourages and promotes many trips back to the text for clarification and deeper comprehension and learning of the material.
In science class, students were asked to review the past unit on forces and motion and choose a topic as the focus of an "I Am" poem. They could use their text and were to review their notes. The teacher helped the students brainstorm appropriate verbs, and students wrote as gravity, force, friction, inertia, Newton's Laws of Motion, or a stomp rocket (which they were designing and testing in class). Asleigh's poem (Figure 4) about friction personifies and explains friction and illustrates what she has learned.
I Am Poem, Friction
|I am friction.
I engage when two objects rub together.
I yank back objects from moving.
I supersize when the object gets heavier.
I slip between the sled and the snow.
I am friction.
I slide between the brakes and wheels when the car tries to stop.
I pull to the opposite side where the object is trying to go.
I struggle to keep the object from moving.
I worry when there is less of me because it is harder to stop.
I cry when it is raining because there is less of me; rain causes accidents because objects have no grip.
I am friction.
I take many forms: static, sliding, rolling, and fluid.
I crackle when two hands rub together to create heat.
I am stronger on solid objects when they rub together than liquids.
I activate when you are running and you stop quickly.
I like to shock you when I build up and you touch metals.
I am friction, and just know that the next time you go down a slide, I will be there.
Chase's poem "I Am Gravity" reveals, "I make it harder to get off the ground. I wonder why people even bother jumping because I will always win," concluding that stanza with "I am the pull that keeps everything down." Later in the poem he adds more information about this topic, "I become weaker on planets such as Pluto, Mars, Venus, and Mercury because they are less massive," and he ends the poem by making the point, "I am Gravity, and I keep the planets in orbit around the sun."
Students can also find topics to write about in mathematics, such as I Am a decimal, a fraction, area, a rational number, a variable, an exponent, or the Pythagorean theorem. In health class, students can write an "I Am" poem from the perspective of someone affected by a disease or a condition, such as "I Am an Athlete with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)," "I Am a Smoker," or "I Am a Teenage Mother." Or students can write from the viewpoint of the topic, as "I Am Alcohol."
In these examples, besides encouraging and training readers to read and examine topics from particular perspectives, "I Am" poetry is employed as an after-reading response strategy encouraging readers to return to the text multiple times, manipulating text to comprehend at a deeper level as they analyze to synthesize learning. Because writing "I Am" poems allows for choice, creativity, and fun, students are motivated and engaged, the key to successful learning.
Roessing, L. (2016). "One text—Many perspectives: Writing the "I am" poem to read through divergent lenses. AMLE Magazine, 4(1), 42-46.
Lesley Roessing taught middle school for 20 years before becoming the founding director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project and senior lecturer in the College of Education of Georgia Southern University, Armstrong campus. Lesley has published four professional books for educators, as well as chapters and articles on literacy. The ideas in this column were based on
The Write to Read: Response Journals That Increase Comprehension (Corwin, 2009).
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2019.
How one South Texas school district is taking middle school reading comprehension to another level
Nearly six million middle school students today are reading below grade level—a shocking number. The National Center for Education Statistics' 2017 report, The Nation's Report Card: Mathematics and Reading Assessments, shows minimal improvement in reading scores for middle school students on recent assessments. School districts are extremely concerned about these literacy deficiencies and are struggling to find methods to improve reading comprehension. Laptops are one solution for schools looking to encourage collaboration and engage students in the classroom during literacy and core subject instruction.
Middle school reading deficiencies can affect student success in all subject areas. If middle school students cannot read, they struggle with comprehension in each core subject classroom, from social science to math. Creating an environment that promotes collaboration and active learning in middle school classrooms can facilitate improved comprehension, but it is an ongoing process for school districts.
Laptop usage has sparked educators' interest with its versatility and ability to provide technology on demand. Since many students are already plugged into technology 24/7, it makes sense that using these familiar technology tools in the classroom will further motivate and engage students. Laptops can be utilized to promote collaborative and active learning for academic instruction, encourage students to work together and solve problems collaboratively, and bring the learning process to life before their eyes. This approach makes real world content more accessible and applicable for students.
At a South Texas school district, laptops are proving to be more than a classroom furnishing. These mobile devices are a successful digital tool providing document sharing, collaborative problem-solving, and access to real world content at the touch of a student's fingertips. The additional benefit of document sharing, etextbooks, and less paper usage is reduced expenses for school campuses.
Assessing Middle School Reading Deficiencies
The results from the National Center for Education Statistics' National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 2017 Reading Assessment found that 24% of eighth grade students nationwide scored below the basic level of proficiency, with only 36% of the same group of eighth graders performing at or above the proficiency level. Educators and administrators have been alarmed by these results and have begun to seek other teaching methods for improving student literacy and comprehension.
Old and New Methods of Reading Instruction
Past methods of middle school reading instruction involved using hard-cover textbooks and paperback novel series, which often made collaborative work among groups of students more difficult. Computer-based technology has also been used previously in many middle school classrooms via desktop computers in conjunction with software programs such as READ 180, Accelerated Reader, and Scholastic reading programs. However, usage was limited since bulky desktop computers could not be moved, and the limited number of computers often prevented easy collaboration and sharing among classmates. Since their earlier classroom computer use, many software reading programs have added mobile applications for use with more portable classroom devices like laptops.
Laptop usage for literacy instruction can be a positive approach and potentially improve middle school reading comprehension and proficiency. Understanding that technology has altered the way we live, work, and communicate, it is important that schools hone in on these technological resources to improve reading instruction. Student use of laptops in an educational environment contributes to collaborative and active learning environments in the following ways:
- Provides access to online search engines for real world content (news stories, periodicals, ebooks, journal articles, etc.)
- Allows use of educational apps, digital tools, educational games, and activities specifically designed for literacy instruction to heighten students' literacy learning experience
- Encourages collaboration as students work in teams to solve problems and develop research skills
- Enhances inquiry-based learning through online research
A school district in South Texas addressed the challenges of middle school students' poor reading assessment results by providing every middle school student with a laptop. This district was interested in confirming that laptop usage enhances reading comprehension. The study addressed teacher perceptions concerning laptop usage and its effects on reading instruction to promote collaborative and active learning environments.
Teacher participants consisted of middle school instructors who were directly involved in classrooms where laptops were being used for reading instruction. The participation number was comprised of 12 teachers from each of the seven middle school district campuses, totaling 84 potential participants. From the total number of teachers, 70 participants (83%) responded. Data were collected using a survey distributed through Survey Monkey that featured a Likert scale format and open-ended questions, which provided teachers the opportunity to share perceptions and experiences. The survey questions were developed to reflect the 2016 International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) student classroom standards.
Interpreting the Results: How do Laptops Help Students?
A high percentage of teachers agreed that laptops contributed to collaborative and active learning environments. Participants found that laptop use promoted students' active learning and inquiry-based learning through access to real-world content, enhancing collaborative problem-solving, developing online research skills, and usage of digital tools, apps, and resources.
How do laptops help students with reading comprehension? According to teachers with students using laptops in their classroom, these devices can positively support students in the reading classroom in the following areas:
Digital tools—Students have immediate access to their etextbooks online, along with access to a multitude of educational tools and websites, from online encyclopedias to electronic books and research databases.
Apps and resources—Students can access applications and resources such as online dictionaries, thesauri, highlighting tools, and comprehension tools that can bring additional clarity to their learning experience.
Online research—Students can search beyond their etextbooks to engage with and incorporate more real-world content, including news stories and online articles.
Document sharing—Students can share documents with their classmates and instructors at school and at home, taking their collaborative learning beyond the classroom.
Student engagement and active learning—Students develop ownership in their own learning process. By exploring and sharing content from their laptops with other students, they take control of their learning environment and often become more independently motivated.
Inquiry-based learning and real-world content—Students become more engaged when they can make real-world connections that render their learning authentic and meaningful to their existence.
Connecting the Findings
Teachers' perceptions of laptop usage in the middle school reading classroom revealed many factors that contribute to students' improved literacy experience. Some of the teachers' comments and reflections concerning laptop usage include:
Students can collaborate on documents using cloud storage and students develop a sense of ownership for their education. It really transforms the classroom.
It gives my students opportunities to think beyond textbooks and passages, utilizing real world experiences as they learn reading objectives.
Students have the tools they need to collaboratively work together, in real time.
Access to research tools makes research seamless—educates students for group work in the workforce.
It is a wonderful tool we use that allows students to have what they need at their fingertips.
Step Up to Improving Literacy and Comprehension
Finding positive approaches to promote collaborative and active learning in middle school classrooms is an ongoing process for many school districts. Study findings reveal that laptops can be a solution for middle school teachers seeking to encourage and engage students during classroom instruction and improve reading comprehension. The South Texas school district study showed that laptops in the middle school classroom provided many positive benefits that can contribute to students' improved literacy experience.
Laptops are one technology that can assist in improving the middle school reading deficiencies that plague many school districts. Engaging students with this type of familiar technology in the classroom may not only further encourage collaboration and engage students, but could potentially result in improved student performance across subject areas, including social studies, math, and science—ultimately making them more college and workforce ready.
Maridale Still, Ed.D. is an adjunct professor in the Digital Learning and Leading Master's program, Department of Educational Leadership at Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas.
Cynthia Cummings, Ed.D. is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas.
Tilisa Thibodeaux, Ed.D. is an assistant professor in the Digital Learning and Leading Master's program at Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas.
L. Kay Abernathy, Ed.D. is a contributing faculty member in the Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership, Walden University and retired associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, February 2019.
Using code-switching to improve writing
IMHO, LOL, OIC, OMG. If you've recently graded middle school or high school writing, chances are you've read terms like these; or my favorite, "wtf - idk" which also happened to be an answer on a student's quiz. As a middle school English teacher, I became more and more perplexed to see students using texting talk on their homework and classroom writing assignments; not to mention answers on the writing portion of the state standardized test. My students were not differentiating appropriate writing contexts. The answers written on the unit test were written the same way they invited their friends to hang @ *$ (Starbucks).
It was 2005, and almost every one of my 140 eighth graders had their own cell phone; much of the time it was a model newer than mine. In my school district, the majority of discipline referrals between 2006 and 2008 were written due to student cell phone misuse. The clever students were able to text answers to a student in another class by blindly texting from their hoodie pockets. Students who could escape teacher view would take a photo of someone else's completed work to copy later. Sneakiness had a new platform. Confiscating cell phones meant calls l8r (later) from angry parents. My colleagues and I were fighting a losing battle and our students were ROFL (rolling on the floor laughing).
The greatest challenge from cell phones was the birth of text talk. It was the first decade of the 21st century and the plague of textspeak was spreading. Textspeak is not limited to a few localized, quirky acronyms; sociolinguistics accept textspeak as its own genre of reading and writing. The texting language has become so ubiquitous that phrases are being included in dictionaries as an accepted word in the English language. The pervasiveness of texting among adolescents has even earned the term "youth code" because it is the primary language of America's modern youth (Durkin, Conti-Ramsden, & Walker, 2011).
Those most affected, by far, are adolescents. Kids between the ages of 13 and 17 send an average of 3,364 text messages each month, which is more than any other age group (Cingel & Sundar, 2012). This doubles the amount of text messages sent by adults aged 18–24, which is 1,640. Text messaging is becoming the most preferred method of communication, as exhibited by the 200,000 text messages sent per second across the globe (Grace, Kemp, Martin, & Parrila, 2013).
Chances are, if you teach in secondary education, you are currently dealing with a similar issue. You are not alone. Across America, middle school and high school teachers are simultaneously banging their heads against whiteboards. They are frustrated by the lack of capitalization and punctuation; with each missing vowel their discouragement grows.
There is hope for the English language and optimism for our moldable students. The answer, however, may be one that you aren't quite ready to accept. The remedy isn't in a new and improved cell phone school policy, screen surveillance software, or reinstitution of spelling curriculum. It's in the adjustment of educator attitudes and our understanding of the evolution of language.
Everyone is a new language learner despite cultural demographics, age, or situation. Humans are constantly learning new words, phrases, and terminology, and being exposed to new dialects and accents. Essentially, textspeak is a new and acceptable language constructed by its authors to meet their communication needs. This may be heartbreaking news for the classroom teacher. I know my high school English teacher would roll over in her grave if she thought a lowercase "i" had become an acceptable practice in English language. However, textspeak isn't any different from other practices that have created an efficiency in communication.
It's Like Old-Style Communications
Think of the telegraph. This was a turning point for communication. When communication is costly or cumbersome, abbreviations are necessary. Morse code is a prime historical example. Stenography, or shorthand, also was invented to expedite communication. In 1837 an educator by the name of Sir Isaac Pitman developed the most widely used shorthand system based on omitting vowels; the most popular strategy used in textspeak. A stenotype machine was also invented, which used a keyboard and required the operator to use all fingers and thumbs. Hmmm, that sounds familiar.
Various connections can be made between shorthand and texting. Nearly 300 research studies have been done on the reading and writing of shorthand. The results indicate that, "Good readers of shorthand were also good readers of print," (Anderson, 1981, par. 3). One study (Bloom, 2010) found that there was an increase in the reading ability of children when they began texting, which again illustrates that an individual must have a solid understanding of language in order to manipulate it creatively.
Language in Context
As educators, we tirelessly teach students to identify the speaker's tone and the author's purpose in a text (major components in the Common Core Career and Readiness Standards). Similar to identifying the author's tone, digital natives are well rehearsed in recognizing virtual body language, or the voice of the author in a text or an email.
Our job is to teach the appropriate utilization and further students' understanding of language in context. It's not necessary to know all the latest terms in textspeak. What's important is that educators are open to the possibilities of translanguaging and the depth of learning that various codes can bring to a classroom.
Code-switching is the skill of transitioning back and forth between formal and casual registers of language depending on context and setting. In an academic setting, which relies on technology, lines between codes can become blurred. This is especially true as more schools are moving to one-to-one technology programs. Students' academic work is now being housed in the same platform used for their entertainment and social exchanges. This can create blurred lines for adolescent brains.
Teachers need to give explicit instructions about the type of language that is appropriate to use in each classroom platform, like discussion board forums or online communications between classmates. Negotiating the code or allowing students to help decide which rules of language will be followed during certain class activities can assist both students and teachers.
What Can Teachers Do?
Teachers are encouraged to adopt a new flexible attitude towards language and permit students to journal, communicate, and brainstorm in textspeak during appropriate times. If students are journaling, or collaboratively brainstorming for a research project, then their primary mode of communication should be acceptable. For middle and high school students this will most likely not be standard English. Students may find it easier to get thoughts out if they do not have to translate to formal language during the brainstorming process.
A common teaching practice for students who are learning English is to allow them to think and initially respond in their primary language. Asking students to identify what type of language in which they "think" will help them to identify their primary language.
Primary language, usually defined by what language you speak everyday or were taught by your parents, does not have to be limited to English, Spanish, or Arabic. Drill down to the actual dialect and register in which students communicate. That is the space where their primary language lies; it's the voice they hear when they think.
During a research writing process, students will read excerpts from articles and peer reviewed journals. Examine the writing of these documents with students and contrast the language used with your classes' previous work. How does it differ from higher academic writing? What does the writing style, vocabulary, word choice, and tone say about the author? Students quickly identify the expert tone of the formal writing style, and the credibility easily given to works with specific and well thought academic word choice. This can be done in every subject area and with any writing assignment.
Translating text calls on a student's highest order of thinking. In order to translate, one must decode, read for meaning, synthesize the information, formulate ideas, then reassemble the information in a new way, while keeping in mind appropriate vocabulary and tone. This function is an excellent form of formative assessment to gauge the depth of student understanding. One way to engage students in this task is to ask them to review recent text messages, or chat history. Ask them to rewrite the message as if they were writing it to the principal or an employer, all the while reviewing the discussion on language registers.
It's not easy to allow students to comfortably express themselves, while preparing them for a professional world built on written and verbal communication. The key is in understanding the evolution of students and their language, and to constantly be ISO (in search of) strategies to support our textspeaking learners.
Anderson, R. (1981). Research in shorthand and transcription. The Journal of Business Education. 23(6).
Bloom, A. (2010). Texting aids literacy: Study confounds popular prejudice. The Times Educational Supplement, 17.
Cingel, D., & Sundar, D. (2012). Texting, techspeak, and tweens: The relationship between text messaging and English grammar skills. New Media Society, 14(8), 1304-1320.
Durkin, K., Conti-Ramsden, G. & Walker, A.J. (2011) Txt Lang: Texting, textism use and literacy abilities in adolescents with and without specific language impairment. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 27(1), 49-57.
Grace, A., Kemp, N., Martin, F.H. & Parrila, R. (2013). Undergraduates' text messaging language and literacy skills. doi: 10.1007/s11145-013-9471-2
Jennifer French, ED.D. is director of curriculum, instruction and assessment at South Vermillion Community Schools, Clinton, Indiana.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, February 2019.
Independent reading assignments open students' minds and hearts
One of my favorite days of the year is when I give students their first independent reading assignment. I believe the best way to keep the love of reading alive is for students to read what they love and share their experience with their peers in a way that is novel and doesn't detract from the experience of reading itself, but instead deepens it.
When I hand out the menu of options, I share some examples of what others have done before them. I watch as my self-proclaimed "theater geeks" bubble over with excitement that they can write a skit, do a monologue, or design a set for a scene from the book. They can barely contain themselves when I tell them about my student a few years ago who staged a wake for a character in the book who had not had a proper funeral, at least according to my student.
As I tell them about the sheet music a young pianist handed in, along with an audio file that she had created, I can see the musicians begin to wonder what they might play to accompany their book. I encourage them to use Garage Band, confer with their music teachers, and create music that reflects the climax of the book, or maybe is a great resolution of the story. For those less talented at composing, they have the option of creating an "album" of music to accompany the book—a mix tape for a generation whose playlists are always handy.
I have sculptures in my room, paintings, drawings, and plenty of videos of acoustic sets my students have performed or scenes they'd recreated. There's a short parody film, a longer video of students acting out a scene from Divergent, and copies of monologues students have written and performed.
The art and music teachers in my building love seeing the excitement students bring to their task, and I love how careful my students are to capture just the right emotion or focus on a specific symbol. It is an amazing chance to collaborate across the curriculum when we can help children translate the emotional responses they have from reading into art or music. There's always a detractor here or there, but I show them the written response where students reflect on the entire experience of creating as a response to reading, and I usually have converts to this way of thinking. Most importantly though, I have what I call "full contact" reading experiences that deepen learning while building the social and emotional needs of students as well.
In a few weeks, I'll have a student come up to me and say, "I have this idea ..." and we'll have an amazing conversation about their independent reading. I'll end up approving something that I can't quite get my mind around, and teachers in my building will help a child's vision develop. Independent reading can be an amazing portal into the hearts and minds of our students if we are willing to loosen the reigns of control long enough to allow responses that are more than reading logs and response questions.
Amber Chandler is an ELA teacher and the ELA department chair at Frontier Middle School in Hamburg, New York. She is a 2018 AMLE Educator of the Year and was recently elected to serve on the AMLE Board of Trustees.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, February 2019.
Found poetry encourages readers to choose important details from text that they can use to demonstrate and share meaning
Much of the writing we assign our students is public writing—writing to communicate with others. Writing-to-learn is personal writing, writing that helps students increase comprehension of texts—fiction and nonfiction—in all disciplines. Reader response compels readers to interact with the text and makes visible for readers and their teachers the depth of text comprehension. This is the seventh in a series of columns on scaffolding writing-to-learn by teaching a variety of reader response strategies before, during, and after reading.
The past writing-to-read columns have focused on before-reading response (preview response) and a variety of during-reading response strategies and types: employing response starters, double-entry response, marginal notes, notepassing, and visual response or drawing through the text. Equally important is after-reading response, response that takes readers back to the text for synthesis and increased learning. This column and the following columns in the series will share a variety of strategies for employing after-reading response across the disciplines.
Effective after-reading response employs a text reformulation or "text re-write" strategy where readers reconstruct text read into another type of text. This synthesis, a critical thinking skill that involves putting together assorted parts to make a new whole, helps readers in all disciplines not only relate information learned, but rethink the meaning of this learning and connect it to other learning and their developing views of the world in which they live.
One mode of reformulation is to create found poetry. Poetry was defined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge as "the best words in the best order." That being true, poetry can help readers look for the "best" or most important words or details in a text and use their "best" or most effective terms to analyze and evaluate the text to show their learning. Putting words in their best order is not only a writing skill but also an analytical skill and a way to combine what students learned with what they already know and make new meaning.
Found poems take words, phrases, and details from existing texts and cause readers to modify them, reorder them, and present them as poems, much as one does when creating a collage. This can result in learning and showing understanding in new ways. A classic found poem consists exclusively of words from the outside text(s), but in the interest of true synthesis and showing one's learning, the found poetry employed in after-reading response writing includes some of the reader/writer's own thoughts about the text. Other decisions of form, such as where to break lines and spacing, are also left to the poet.
Writing found poetry involves determining the important details in a text and the ways in which perceiving and even recording these details leads to increased comprehension of the text and its meaning.
To create their found poems, readers read through the text once, possibly annotating or using marginal notes as they read [see AMLE Magazine. 6(1), 2018 for writing to learn with marginal notes]. They then return to the text and highlight important or significant details—words and phrases—analyzing the text and employing critical evaluation skills. As they reflect and respond to the text, readers use those words and phrases to create a found poem, adding any necessary words to make or determine meaning.
Directions for Writing Found
Poems for Synthesis
- Read through the text.
- Return to the text and highlight only important words and phrases.
- Refashion, reorder, and/or reorganize those words, phrases, and details you chose into a poem.
- Decide on the most effective format. Poetry doesn't need to rhyme; it can be free verse. Think about line endings or line breaks, formatting, and spacing.
- Add necessary words and thoughts of your own to make meaning, showing analysis, connections, and inferences you have made.
- Add a conclusion: the theme (author's message) or your own understanding, the point you took from the article.
This strategy takes readers through the critical thinking taxonomy of analysis, evaluation, and synthesis and teaches readers to look for and then determine important, not interesting, details. Considering the found poetry responses, teachers can ascertain what and how readers read and comprehended and whether students are able to determine which details in a text are critical.
Students read the article "The Kind of Face Only a Wasp Could Trust," a short article that explains how the black splotches that naturally occur on female paper wasps indicate strength and status on a social hierarchy that allows them less work. Wasps who cheat with fake splotches (paint applied by researchers) are harassed as social fakers under a zero tolerance policy.
One student read the article through and then highlighted the words and phrases she found important: (The sample below with terms highlighted (bolded) is from the first paragraph):
Paper wasps establish hierarchy within the all-female colony. After female wasps mate, they fight each other to establish their rank; the higher it is, the more egg laying and less work they have to do. [Researchers found] a lot of fighting is not necessary because the wasps signal their strength and status with the number of black splotches on their bright yellow faces—more splotches denote higher status.
When finished, she made mindful decisions to write her found poem in free verse format and designed her poem to show her understanding of the article. She then added a thoughtful conclusion that illustrates an understanding she realized from the article:
Black Splotches (naturally-occurring) on yellow faces
Signaling social status for the female wasps, Giving less work for those higher in the hierarchy, Signifying body strength.
Revered - always.
Cheaters lying (painted-on splotches)
Indicating sign of weakness, Causing harassment; Zero tolerance for social fakers.
Caught - always.
Paper Wasps or Human—It doesn't pay to lie.
Disciplinary Example—English-Language Arts
In an eighth grade English-language arts class, students were reading Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories. For one of the pivotal chapters in this fairytale about the importance of "stories that aren't even true," Jen wrote a found poem, capturing the details and power of the climax and showing her comprehension of the significance of this event:
The ocean pure, unpolluted,
So many different colors, shining white lights,
To ruin an ocean, you add Khattam-Shud,
The dark ship,
The poison blends, creating the death of story.
What was in his pocket? Wish-water?
Happening by a process too complicated to explain,
The minutes p a s s e d.
The sun rises on Chup again.
The ship fizzles away.
Things can return to what they were.
Disciplinary Example—Social Studies
And as part of a study of 9/11, social studies students read articles, watched videos, and read novels about the events. As a final text, they read an article, "I Was 11 on 9/11." In this article Emily Sussell who, on September 11, 2001, had been a sixth grader in a school near the Twin Towers, recounts the events of that day from her point of view then and ten years later.
Teachers used this appropriate article as a final text to synthesize student learning. Students used found poetry to determine the details that were important in understanding how these events affected young people who were their ages at the time of 9/11 and how these events may have impacted their futures.
September 11, 2001
2001: Fourth day of sixth grade
Was in the shadows
Of the Twin Towers
8:45: A crash
We evacuated school
The feeling of heat on my face
10:28: North Tower collapses
Safe—us, but not others
The Pentagon attacked
In Shanksville airline passengers save
the White House or
The nation and the world is
3,000 people were
2011: Twenty-one years old
I and a nation changed.
Other students, such as sixth grader Isabella, focused on many of the same words and phrases, also including such details as
21 years old,
that dark day
is still a big part of her life.
Isabella also added a conclusion that showed her interpretation of the article: You never know how much you have until you either lose it or risk it.
Text contains many and diverse details and facts—some true, some interesting, some critical to understanding. To increase comprehension and become proficient readers, students need to be able to distinguish the facts essential for understanding and learning, not only in informational text, but also for following, comprehending, and analyzing fictional texts. While determining important details may appear to be a during-reading response activity, readers cannot establish what is important until the text has been read and the author's purpose and message ascertained; therefore, this strategy must take the reader back to the text. Found poetry not only encourages readers to choose the most important details, it gives them the opportunity to work with those details to show the meaning they took from the text and share that learning with others.
Modigliani, L. (2011, September 5). "I was 11 on 9/11." Scholastic News Edition 5/6. Retrieved from http://www.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=3756391
Netting, J.F. (2005, February 6). The kind of face only a wasp could trust. Discover Magazine. Retrieved from http://discovermagazine.com/2005/feb/face-that-wasp-trusts
Rushdie, S. (1991). Haroun and the sea of stories. London: Granta Books in association with Penguin Books.
Lesley Roessing taught middle school for 20 years before becoming the founding director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project and senior lecturer in the College of Education of Georgia Southern University, Armstrong campus. Lesley has published four professional books for educators, as well as chapters and articles on literacy. The ideas in this column were based on
The Write to Read: Response Journals That Increase Comprehension (Corwin, 2009).
Published in AMLE Magazine
, February 2019.
Classroom strategies for using literature to help students with daily struggles
It didn't take long to realize Marissa was not going to be focused on the day's lesson. Shortly after arriving in class, she took her seat, placed her head in her hands, and started crying. She shared that her best friend had betrayed her. "She doesn't listen! I don't know what to do." She wiped her face with her sleeve and composed herself as classmates filtered into the room.
As middle level teachers, we witness the daily struggles of adolescent life. We are consistently reminded of our responsibility to teach the whole child. It is not enough to focus our instruction on academic standards. Rather, we must find ways to encourage our students in their development as social and emotional beings.
Social Emotional Competencies
The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) refers to five interrelated competencies for social emotional development. These competencies include:
- Self-awareness – recognizing one's values, strengths, needs, and emotions
- Self-management – understanding how to manage one's behavior and emotions to achieve one's goals
- Social awareness – recognizing and understanding emotions and experiences of others
- Relationship skills – forming and maintaining positive, healthy relationships
- Responsible decision-making – understanding how to make ethical and constructive choices about one's behavior (2005)
In our effort to merge the academic with social and emotional learning, we centered these competencies within the study of young adult (YA) literature.
Strategies for the Classroom
If It Happened to You…
This multi-day activity encourages empathy and emotional regulation by addressing students' needs for self-management, self-awareness, and social awareness.
This activity works best when paired with a YA novel or short story. As an example, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999) by Stephen Chbosky provides relatable scenarios for many of today's middle level learners. The novel encompasses situations that include mental health, sexual orientation, alcohol abuse, love, friendship, domestic abuse, and more.
To begin, divide students into small groups. Provide each group a scene from the selected text that addresses a topic of social or emotional significance. Be sure not to include character names or page numbers as the students must complete the activity using their own experiences and perspectives; in other words, provide a "skeleton scenario."
Once the students have been assigned their scenario, provide time to discuss their scenarios with group members and consider how they might best approach the situation they've been provided. Students may prepare a skit, short story, poem, poster, or present their ideas in any format they deem fitting. Students should prepare to discuss how they arrived at their choice of action and justify why they believe it is the best way to approach the situation.
After groups have presented, have students read their completed scenes. Hold a class discussion focusing on the differences and similarities in the way the character handled the situation, and the way the groups did: Why did the character choose his course of action? Do you agree or disagree with his approach? Why?
Focus on the factors that motivate your students' decisions. This requires insight and introspection
from the students. This activity promotes dialogue that increases student empathy while allowing them to focus on personal biases, perspectives, and emotions. In addition, this exercise allows students to relate to others' experiences and perhaps see that they are not alone in the circumstances surrounding their own life. Students should focus on what informs their perspectives; how their emotions affect their decisions and behaviors; and in turn, how those decisions affect others.
Blackout poetry is a popular strategy for today's English language arts classrooms. Students transform an informational or narrative work into a poetic wonder by blacking out sections of text to reveal only key terms and phrases. However, in an effort to focus on developing students' social awareness, we adapted this technique to include a keen focus on textual dialogue.
To start, provide students a text selection that features a dominant focus on conversation. For instance, Sharon Draper's novel, Tears of a Tiger (1994), contains chapters written explicitly in the form of character dialogue. Have students work with a partner reading the text selection—each student taking on one of the character roles and reading aloud that character's portion of the conversation. After reading through the text, ask each student to read the selection again, only this time, do so independently while simultaneously examining the meaning, nuances, and silences depicted by their selected character. What is it their character is really saying? What are they hiding? What are they feeling? Expressing? Withholding? Students should then engage in blacking out all the "background noise" in the conversation, revealing only words and phrases that embody the essence of the conversation. Finally, have the students read through the text once more with their partner. Only this time, have them read only the words and phrases that remain exposed.
In working with students to further their social awareness and relationship skills, we want them to develop a greater sense of understanding and empathy for others. Blackout conversations expose students to the importance of taking time to truly listen and reflect on the experiences of others. They engage in literature in a way that helps them understand what others are trying to say, take note of words that remain unspoken, and identify their own strengths, habits, and needs in listening and reflecting on their interactions with others.
What's Below the Surface?
When we think about an iceberg, there's always more than what lies above the surface. When implementing this strategy in the classroom, this concept remains the same. Students are invited to extend their knowledge and further develop their ideas to reach that next level: going beyond the surface.
To start, select a text featuring an adolescent protagonist. For example, The Outsiders (1967) by S.E. Hinton is a YA novel that explores a plethora of issues related to the adolescent experience. Once a text is selected, pose a question to encourage student thinking and questioning of key events from the story. For example a question such as, "Why does Johnny kill Bob?" would work well for The Outsiders, as this question can be explored deeply inside the text.
At this point, have students illustrate an iceberg with a clear water line. Above the surface, students can cite obvious scenes from the text that caused the final effect. Afterward, encourage them to dig deeper—explore the nuances of the story, character traits, and facets of identity that have led the characters to the event in question. For instance, with regards to The Outsiders, provoke students to investigate the many facets of Johnny's identity that led him to this time and place. Invite them to read between the lines by going back to various sections of the novel and building on what they believe they know. Students then converse with classmates to discuss how these underlying ideas help them understand more about the event and characters.
As students deconstruct characters in this way, they obtain a better sense of how to deconstruct, analyze, and manage their own actions, thus tapping into the self-management and responsible decision-making competencies of social emotional growth.
This approach to character relationship analysis is one that celebrates creativity and visual literacy. This strategy offers an interactive way to engage students in understanding characters and character relationships in any given text.
After students have completed their reading of a novel, ask them to select four key events in the story. For example, they might select a scene featuring a fight, a romantic connection, a turning point in the story, etc. Then, allow each student to select a focus character and consider what this character might have felt or experienced at each of these moments in the story. In scrapbooking the character's inner thoughts, feelings, and experience during each selected scene, students are encouraged to use multiple modalities such as drawings, images, magazine cut outs, and quotes as a means of sharing insights.
If you wish to transpose this activity to social media platforms (such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc.), students can respond to classmates' images and captions in a "post" format. Students can also be encouraged to add hashtags or locations, or even tag other characters in individual posts.
This assignment further builds on student relationship skills. As students share and discuss their individual entries with peers, they can unpack the various relationships within that text and examine how these relationships interact with one another. Students can then consider their own lives and how people handle or react to similar situations in different ways, thus affecting diverse aspects of our relationships with each other.
Bridging the Social and Emotional with the Academic
As we strive to address the academic needs of our middle level learners, it is imperative we maintain focus on meeting their social and emotional needs as well. Finding ways to infuse the social emotional competencies within our curriculum not only helps us fulfill this goal, but engaging students in critical reading and discussion of YA literature can motivate adolescent learners as they navigate their ever-changing world.
Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. (2005). Core SEL competencies. Retrieved from: http://www.casel.org/core-competencies/
Brooke Boback Eisenbach, Ph.D., is a former middle school English teacher and current assistant professor of middle and secondary education at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA.
Kenzie Moniz is a seventh grade English language arts teacher at Keith Middle School, Massachusetts.
Robert Forrester is a tenth and eleventh grade English language arts teacher at Bishop Guertin High School, New Hampshire.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2018.
Helping students draw meaning and demonstrate skills in discussing thematic elements
Teaching literacy skills through the story of Anne Frank has evolved for me—I've learned so much through my students and what they like in the music world! Their creativity and insights show academic progress, but even more importantly show me their middle school selves—feelings of triumph, uncertainty, and exploration. During this Anne Frank unit of study, each featured text speaks to us in a special way: the play The Diary of Anne Frank by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (McDougal Littell textbook); excerpts from the diary along with independent readings from Anne Frank's Tales from the Annex; the children's art and poetry in I Never Saw Another Butterfly; Anne's family and friends captured in the documentary Anne Frank Remembered. These texts facilitate wonderful discussions about voice, expression, and perseverance.
A simple assignment that I use to close the unit is to have the students work on their own voice by selecting a contemporary song to be used for a scene of a (hypothetical) new Anne Frank film. This assignment stemmed originally from two assignments from the McDougal Littell Literature Connections Sourcebook—the first assignment option calls students to play a piece of music that they select or even compose themselves for a scene from the play; the second assignment option is to create a piece of visual art to represent feelings evoked by Anne Frank's experiences.
About the Soundtrack Project
For my assignment, I took elements from these two "Sourcebook" assignments, but I have incorporated more writing and now call it the "Soundtrack Project"—the students make their individual selections of contemporary music, matching their song's theme and tone to any scene they would like. Using contemporary music as part of the assignment puts value on the songs the students are interested in and gives them the opportunity to become "authorities" for the project. The four main objectives for this project are: (1) to make interdisciplinary connections with art and music; (2) to make the Anne Frank unit study more meaningful to the students themselves; (3) to appreciate and analyze the lyrics of a contemporary song of their choice; and (4) to develop students' authority and style in their writing and artwork.
In their first paragraph, the students are to analyze the song—both its sound and its lyrics. On the assignment description that I distribute to the students, I have questions to help them with their analysis of the song and its lyrics, such as What instruments are used? How do the sounds build or reinforce a theme? The students also have access to resources for poetry analysis to prompt them to think about the lyrics: Who is the speaker? Are there any symbols, images, and/or personification?
The next task is for the students to share their reasons for selecting the song as an artistic complement to any scene from our study of Anne Frank. The scenes that the students select are usually from the play, but the other texts studied, such as the diary itself or the documentary, are up for grabs as well. Questions that help students discuss this aspect are the following: What is the setting? What plot events are going on? What qualities of Anne do you want to emphasize?
Finally, the soundtrack cover design calls the students to use their artistic abilities to communicate their song and its connections to Anne Frank's story. Hand-drawn designs are strongly encouraged, but images and tools from the world of technology can also be used. On the cover, they are to identify themselves as the music director of the soundtrack to this "new film."
Examples of Student work
The final assessments are exciting to see and read because of the creative and diverse ways the students make Anne Frank's story more meaningful to themselves. The following examples show the different directions students take with the assignment.
For some students the theme of Anne's perseverance resonates. One student, Bobby, uses Coldplay's song "Birds" (a recurring symbol in much of the I Never Saw Another Butterfly poetry) to discuss the power of Anne's imagination and her longing for freedom. Bobby says, "Anne is constantly having nightmares related because of this. The [song's] lyrics say that Anne would be 'up at night,' or 'standing in a corner,' which Anne would be. 'Close your eyes. We'll be birds, flying free.' This symbolizes how Anne can close her eyes and imagine escaping, flying free. Also, lyrics 'come on, raise this noise,' and 'out from the underground,' can represent how Anne is silently resisting the Nazis, in her hiding, 'underground.' Anne's voice is her written words. But she is only free when she closes her eyes. It is a false reality, and nothing more." Bobby develops how haunting and sad Anne's reality is and the importance of her writing for getting through her reality.
Similarly, Kira discusses Anne's perseverance with a literary device found in "Safe and Sound" by Taylor Swift: "'all those shadows almost killed your light,' it shows personification. That relates well to Anne throughout the play version of Anne Frank because everyone is always saying how Anne is very optimistic and thinks of things in the best way possible. Therefore, she didn't let the shadow kill her light." Kira would have this song played at the point where "everyone is in tears because they know their fate [Nazis have discovered them in hiding]." Kira focuses on Anne's optimism.
Perseverance and optimism are powerful themes; however, students are also moved by Anne's insecurities and internal conflicts. One student, whose "Butterfly" cover does not overtly represent any scene in Anne Frank's story, decides to draw upon the internal conflict of Anne's: the way she sees herself as "good" and "bad." The annex members often compare Anne to her "good" sister Margot, impacting Anne and her self-image. Referring to the song "Beautiful" by Christina Aguilera, Olivia says, "The song starts out with a slow and sad tone. The speaker is feeling very insecure and unconfident; therefore, the beginning is not very upbeat. There are only a few instruments that are used in the beginning, including a piano. As the song goes on, the speaker begins to feel more confident and sure of herself. More instruments are added, and the tone becomes more upbeat. The speaker continues to become louder as the song goes on, which also makes the tone happier and livelier." Olivia writes, "[People may] begin to feel insecure because they lose their confidence by focusing on what they have done wrong or what they don't like about themselves. Lyrics like, 'Now and then I get insecure from all the pain.'" Olivia finishes with "Anne can't let what everyone says get her down. She needs to stay confident, and she has to say to herself [lyrics], 'I am beautiful no matter what they say.' Courage in this way is closely tied with confidence and a good self-image."
Another student, Lexi, tackles the same theme of insecurity with Imagine Dragons' "Amsterdam." Lexi argues, "Verse two really connects to Anne: 'I'm sorry I bring you down, well these days I try, and these days I tend to lie.'" Lexi says, "[Anne] says that she is really trying to improve her behavior and that she doesn't want to make her mother upset. She knows what she is doing is wrong, but she can't fix her behavior." In her explanation, Lexi focuses on how "stressful and terrifying" Anne's life is and how this has impacted Anne and her relationships with the others in the annex.
Finally, the courage that Anne finds—must find—in her situation captures many students' attention. Another student, Gabby, makes connections with "Hero" by Mariah Carey. She observes how the instruments and sounds of "the music [start] off soft" but then "becomes dramatic and emotional. This is similar to the feeling when you find the courage within yourself to overcome obstacles in your life and the hero inside you comes free." Gabby returns to a line of the song: "When you face the world alone no one reaches out a hand for you to hold." Gabby finishes her analysis of the song with the observation "that a hero lies inside of every person, and it can mean many things to different people."
This project helps students demonstrate their skills in discussing thematic elements while analyzing their selected songs closely and using textual analysis to support their ideas. In addition to these language arts skills are the interdisciplinary connections to art and music: they appreciate and analyze their song while creating a "soundtrack cover" to show their connections to Anne Frank's story. The added benefit to the project is a sprinkling of character education. The students can reflect on Anne's many different virtues and the virtues played out in contemporary music, and in this way, they hopefully can draw upon these virtues for their own lives.
Patricia McClair is a language arts and literacy teacher at Park Ridge High School, Park Ridge, New Jersey.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2018.
Ideas for helping readers visualize text to promote comprehension at deeper levels
Much of the writing we assign our students is public writing: writing to communicate with others. Writing-to-learn is personal writing, writing that helps students increase comprehension of texts—fiction and nonfiction—in all disciplines. Reader response compels readers to interact with the text and makes visible for readers and their teachers the depth of text comprehension. This is the sixth in a series of columns on scaffolding writing-to-learn by teaching a variety of reader response strategies before, during, and after reading.
Good readers visualize as they read a text. They use the words from the text, in combination with background knowledge and prior experiences, connections from their lives and other texts, and inferences made, to construct mental images. When readers create images in their minds that reflect or represent the ideas in the text, they comprehend text at deeper levels and they retain more information and understanding.
The most effective way to teach students to visualize is to teach readers to draw images as they read a text as a during-reading response strategy—visual response or "drawing through the text." When drawing through text, readers draw the important details, images, people, places, and events they are reading, noting the words from the text that helped them, as readers, form the image.
Advantages for Readers
There are a variety of advantages to guiding readers to create sketches of what they read as they read. All these advantages lead to an improvement in comprehension for struggling to proficient readers.
- Readers read more slowly and carefully. In "The Bad Habits of Good Readers," (https://www.hmhco.com/blog/the-bad-habits-of-good-readers) Carol Jago writes that avid readers often "value speed over reflection." Readers who read too quickly often miss key words, details, or even plot events. When they stop to not only draw but to contemplate what they should draw or to plan a drawing, readers slow down their reading.
- Readers need to read all of the text. Jago also points out that good readers "Skip anything they find boring." When they are choosing what to draw, readers need to read everything and weigh the relative importance of parts of the text. During an exciting plot development, is the description of the "haunted" house actually important to what occurs? Does the physical description of a character influence her personality and future decisions? Is the scientific theory that was described in the article as being disproved actually more important to the meaning of the article than the theory that was eventually proven? Was the scientist's background important to understanding his motivations?
- Generating an image while reading requires the reader to be actively engaged with the text. Readers must engage critically with text to make judgments about what and how to draw. When drawing, readers are interpreting text and analyzing the ways in which texts represent ideas. Engagement is necessary for evaluation, synthesis, and higher-order thinking skills.
- Readers look for meaning in words. One can't illustrate a scene or event unless one understands what the author is saying. Some readers will draw literal representations, and others will draw symbolic representations. One student drew a simple 2-dimensional square to represent Charlie at the beginning of the short story Flowers for Algernon. As Charlie's IQ increased, the square became 3-dimensional and more elaborate in this reader's illustrations.
- Readers determine what is important in the article. Readers cannot depict everything, so they must distinguish what is significant rather than merely interesting. The teacher may want to limit the number of drawings for an article or text to engender the use of this strategy to develop more discerning readers.
- Readers access prior knowledge or make connections to their experiences in life and through other texts to create the drawings. Sometimes readers will conduct a little on-the-spot (authentic) research to consider how to draw something in the text. Students were reading a text about animal dads. In one section it talked about emperor penguins. A student asked if he could use his computer to find out if and how emperor penguins looked different from regular penguins.
- Drawing makes abstract concepts in text more concrete and personal. Through their sketches, many times readers will represent abstract concepts and complex ideas in a way that is easier to understand, a real-world skill that often becomes necessary in explaining concepts to others.
- Readers will retain more information from their reading. Cognitive research shows that visual is more memorable than verbal. Creating an image while reading requires the reader to be actively engaged with the text while reading, which not only improves comprehension, but improves recall of what was read. According to Haig Kouyoumdjian, Ph.D. in "Learning Through Visuals: Visual Imagery in the Classroom," "A large body of research indicates that visual cues help us to better retrieve and remember information" (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/get-psyched/201207/learning-through-visuals).
Directions for Drawing through the Text
This during-reading response strategy is a very simple technique as long as students connect what they draw to what they are reading and realize that they do not have to be artists. Students can be encouraged to draw people as stick figures and not to worry about how elaborately they draw.
- Teachers give students an article, short text, book chapter, or poem to read.
- As they are reading, every few paragraphs or stanzas, readers should underline or highlight key words or phrases and draw what they are picturing in the margin. Readers can be encouraged to draw arrows from the words to parts of the drawing.
- When they finish reading the text, readers read vertically down the column to review a summary of the text they read and ascertain if they left out any key details or plot elements. When artists review their own drawings, they can literally see if they have omitted any essential information or lost the sequencing of events.
- When teachers read down the column, they will realize their readers' understanding of the text.
- If they are reading a common text, readers can compare their depictions with a partner, noting there are no correct "answers." When they compare, images most likely will be different. Readers may focus on different parts of the text, or readers may have different prior/background knowledge or experience. As with any reader response, responses should be unique and personal.
- Afterwards, ask the students to write a few sentences about how "drawing through the article" helped them understand what they were reading.
Students commented on the advantages of trying this response method:
Drawing through the article is a lot of help to me because it shows how it happened. I can comprehend the information better by illustrating it. Not only does it help me understand it a bit more, but it helps me figure out what happened based on key terms and details.
Sketching through the article helped me visualize what was happening in the article. It was a good reading strategy because not only can it help me visualize an image, but you can use a picture to help you comprehend or understand the meaning of a word. This helped me because there were words in the article that I didn't know.
Their teacher commented, "This assignment allowed me to check what my students knew from reading the article. It was beneficial for the students as a reading strategy because they were able to form images in their minds. They were able to replace written annotations that we typically use, with illustrations. As the students drew, they used their margins as a miniature storyboard to explain the information from the text."
In lieu of drawing on a photocopied article, an adaptation of the double-entry journal form [see April 2018 AMLE Magazine for an article on double-entry journals] can be substituted. Teachers can direct readers to copy words, phrases, or sentences that are important to the understanding of the novel or textbook they are reading on the left side of the journal and sketch what they visualize on the right side.
Advantages for Teachers
The purpose of during-reader response in general and drawing through the text specifically are twofold: (1) readers increase comprehension, especially of complex text and (2) teachers can "see" how their readers comprehend text. Readers' pictorial response is as varied as their verbal reflections, which gives the teacher more information about students as readers. Using drawings to retell a story, a chapter, or a section of a book—whether fiction or nonfiction—is more than a simple summary of events. It is synthesis, and from the drawings the teacher can recognize and evaluate how and if the reader comprehends the text.
A teacher can observe when readers have difficulty making inferences or misinterpret what they read. For example, in Jewell Parker Rhodes' novel Ghost Boys, if a reader draws Jerome as a traditional ghost connected with hauntings rather than his invisible (to most) 12-year-old self, the teacher might question whether he comprehended the role of the character and the other ghost boys as black boys who were killed but haven't left, maybe fulfilling a purpose for the living.
A reader may not realize that a word has multiple meanings. If a reader reads that a character was "intoxicated with power" and draws a figure that appears drunk, the teacher knows he does not realize there are multiple meanings for the word intoxicated.
Teachers can note miscues. Readers may misread actual words or miss parts of phrases. One student drew a casket for a character's funeral when the text actually said, "James felt like he had died." Likewise some students, especially non-native English speakers, may take idioms or metaphors literally, which become apparent through their depictions.
Reader response ensures that reading becomes an interactive activity; constructing meaning from text begins with readers' unique connections with text. Visual response, or drawing through the text, is yet another form of during-reading response that expands readers' writing-to-learn toolboxes so that response becomes effective for each individual reader and each reading experience.
Lesley Roessing taught middle school for 20 years before becoming the founding director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project and senior lecturer in the College of Education of Georgia Southern University; Armstrong campus. Lesley has published four professional books for educators, as well as chapters
and articles on literacy. The ideas in this column were based on
The Write to Read: Response Journals That Increase Comprehension (Corwin, 2009).
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2018.
Connecting students with what they're reading by pairing texts with real world experiences
Once we've learned to read, reading becomes a tool that helps us learn. Creating a learning experience that incorporates reading deeply, however, can be a challenge for today's teachers. How can we make reading relevant for today's students? How do we convince them that what they're reading matters? At The College School, I think we've found a way.
By pairing readings with real world work in a service-learning course, students can better relate to and understand what they read.
The final course our students at The College School take before they graduate as eighth graders is a service-learning class. We partner with multiple local non-profit organizations, and throughout the trimester, students engage in a variety of service projects designed to reflect on the major pillars they've studied in their years at our school: human community and the environment.
The work varies from year to year but often includes invasive species remediation in local parks, sandwich making at a local homeless shelter, picking up trash in waterways, helping to develop urban farms for refugees, and helping rebuild houses destroyed by natural disasters. Students organize bike drives and bake sales and school supply collections. They learn some hard skills along the way including how to properly use loppers and other trail maintenance tools, how to paint and install quarter round, and how to maneuver a wheelbarrow.
They improve their soft skills, too. They work as a team, persevering when things are tough. Oftentimes, they have to work hard to find the internal motivation to maintain a positive attitude and keep working at a task they may no longer be interested in.
The service itself, and the benefits it provides to our students and to the communities we serve, is only a part of the picture.
Without some deeper understanding of the issues, without understanding why the need for service work exists in the first place, the experiences are not nearly as meaningful. The students engage with the experts in each organization and learn directly from them.
They also read. Instead of assigning just one reading, my co-teacher and I provide students with a list of resources. The students' job is to dig in and be ready to share at our next class meeting. The resources are largely academic in nature—published articles from Time, Newsweek, and Ebony, for example—articles with statistical data and facts that help students see the scope of the issues.
We have students who prepare for the discussion by reading just one article; we have other students who choose to read every resource on the list as well as some they've sought out on their own. I've found through teaching this course and others that when students are curious about a subject, they'll put more time and effort into their learning. When a topic feels real or important—beyond the fact that it was assigned by a teacher—their level of engagement deepens.
The reading and notetaking students do have a purpose beyond just learning about the issues. We ask students to read in order to prepare to discuss what they've learned with their peers. In this way, they are accountable for what they learn.
In our discussions, which are mostly student led, we consider answers to questions like these: What did you learn? What surprised you? How did you feel? Because the students aren't all reading the same resources, they have different ideas to contribute to the conversation and can piggyback off one another's ideas, furthering their own understanding and the knowledge base of their peers.
Often our learning leads to greater understanding, but sometimes it leads to even more questions. For example, when presented with the concept of payday loans in a poverty simulation one year, a group got invested in learning more about them. We worked together to find podcasts and articles exploring the nature of payday loans and their ability to both help and harm the communities their peddlers target.
The academic nature of the reading is helpful in many ways, but after teaching and reflecting on the course a couple of times, I found that there was still something missing. I wanted students to know more than just facts about the issues. I wanted them to be able to imagine what it might be like to, for example, be a refugee or experience poverty or be homeless. I wanted them to wonder what that might look like. What might that feel like?
It happens that I teach the same cohort of students for language arts, so I was able to design a thematically integrated literature circle unit, where students read and discuss books about characters facing some of the same types of issues we study in our theme. These books—mostly novels, but some non-fiction first-person accounts—help students engage on another level: they help students see the issues through the eyes of a person rather than simply through the lens of statistics and data. By reading even fictionalized accounts of what it's like to be in poverty, for example, students develop understanding and empathy that doesn't always come with reading academic articles or even doing service.
As a follow up to the literature circle unit, they take their final essay test of the year. Here's the question: Why is it important to read books with characters whose experiences are different from yours? Their answers are strong and well thought out; their answers highlight well how we help students understand that reading matters.
In response to the essay prompt, Frances, a student in the class of 2017, wrote: "If the books of children, young adult, and adult genres were more diverse and included main characters with all different backgrounds and ways of life, we would have a more understanding community and a more equal world." She argued that "one of the most powerful ways books can get people to think differently is by getting the reader to realize what they and the character have in common."
"Reading books with diverse characters dealing with all different issues in their lives," she wrote, "can also cause conversation... This leads to understanding, education, perspective, and, if we work hard enough at it, equality for all."
"Books," she wrote, "are an extremely powerful tool to move our country and world forward towards equality to all, if we use them right."
But are we, as Frances argues, using them right?
There's a paradigm in experiential education that goes What, So What, Now What. In the What? is the experience itself. So What? asks why that experience mattered. Now What? asks what a participant will do with that experience moving forward. It's from this paradigm, and at a student's suggestion, that the service-learning class came to be called "Now What?" Too often, I think, reading in school lives in the world of the "What?" If we want to help students connect to what they read, we have to dig deeper. We have to ask them—and ourselves—why it matters and what are we going to do with it?
Sarah Gravemann is a middle school teacher and experiential education specialist at The College School in Webster Groves, Missouri.
Published September 2018.