Future teachers encourage integrating LGBT texts.
Early adolescence has been identified as a time of great change and transition. Visible physical changes occur at disparate rates and cause many young adolescents to feel uncomfortable about their differences. Young adolescents are also exploring self and social boundaries. For gay and lesbian youth, suicide is one of the leading causes of death in the United States. According to the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network's (GLSEN) 2013 national school climate survey, 85% of the surveyed lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth reported verbal harassment at school, and 56% reported feeling unsafe at school. School supports, such as a LGBT inclusive curricula, can help create a safer space for LGBT youth (see http://www. glsen.org/article/2013-nationalschool- climate-survey).
An issue relatively unique to LGBT youth is the feeling of isolation. Many LGBT youth are fearful of being "outed" and rejected and often must keep their feelings, questions, and fears bottled up inside. For isolated LGBT youth, books mirroring their real-life struggles and challenges are of paramount importance. Middle school teachers, by including LGBT literature in their curriculum, could begin a critical conversation.
AMLE and Otterbein U Talk about LGBT Literature in Middle Grades
One appropriate choice would be the book, So Hard to Say (2004) by Alex Sanchez. The protagonist in the book is Frederick, who is questioning his sexual identity because of his growing attraction to another boy. Two key characters in the book become positive role models for acceptance, as they grapple with what it means to be a true friend to Frederick as he navigates his new feelings. As part of the Collegiate Middle Level Association (CMLA) 2016 spring conference, we were fortunate to have author Alex Sanchez come to our Otterbein University campus to speak, and our CMLA students read So Hard to Say to prepare for his visit.
The purpose of this article is to share our analysis of So Hard to Say; the intriguing aspect is that the analysis was done by college students majoring in middle childhood education who read the book, reflected on their recent middle school experiences, and then projected forward to their future roles as middle school teachers.
Can a Book Make a Difference? Thoughts from Future Middle School Teachers
Friends can push your thinking. One of the authors reflected about her high school experience: I had one friend in high school who came out as gay his senior year. He was so worried about telling me because he was afraid I would not act the same way around him or that my opinion would change about him. At the time, this astonished me and, still today, it makes me angry, but the anger was not directed at my friend, I was angry for him. I did not understand why I would possibly treat him differently because, to me, he was still the same person, my best friend.
As I reflect on all of this today, I realize just how much this says about the society in which I grew up. It has created such a negative stigma around LGBT issues that our youth grow up thinking that even those closest to them will turn against them if they know the truth. That is why I believe novels like Alex Sanchez's So Hard to Say are important and necessary in middle schools. Not only does it help LGBT youth see that there are others who understand what they are experiencing, but it creates a window for others so that an understanding can be created and acceptance can be achieved. The longer we keep these individuals underrepresented in literature, in society, and in schools, the longer we promote the idea that intolerance is okay. Maybe if my friend had novels like Alex Sanchez's in middle school, he would not have been so afraid to be himself in high school.
Learning how to take a stand. Reflecting on his middle school experience, one of the authors wrote: I remember in my middle school how hard it was to be that brave person that would stand up to defend another peer (even a friend) who was being ridiculed. I can identify with Frederick in that way. He was too scared to put a stop to the kids making fun of Iggy even though the whole time he knew it was wrong. I can relate to this feeling. I knew that it was not okay to allow students to bully other peers, but I was always too scared to stand up and say anything. This is where the real problem lies; students at this age are so scared to fall out of social acceptance that they will simply watch something happen that they know is wrong.
Developing empathy. Wondering how she could have been so "oblivious" in middle school, a different author shared: When I read this book I realized how sheltered I was growing up. For some students, this book may act as a mirror, something they can relate to and see within themselves. But for others, like myself, So Hard to Say would have created the necessary window that I so desperately needed to better understand others. A window that could have not only educated me, but given me the tools to truly make a difference in someone's life. If we wish for middle school to be a time when students are able to find out who they truly are, then we need to provide them with the opportunities to do so. Those opportunities can only be given if they are aware of the entire world around them.
Seeking guidance. One author wrote about how the characters in So Hard to Say can provide direction: In my future classroom, I would include books like Alex Sanchez's So Hard to Say because middle school can be a tough time for students and they may need guidance. They are hoping that someone will be there for them and give them the tools to discover who they truly are. Often times, teachers are not fully prepared for those students who are struggling with their gender or sexual identity. They do not know what to say or do if a student opens up to them or tells them that they are curious about exploring these topics. That is why it is important to have these types of novels because those closest to them might not know how to give them guidance, but the characters in So Hard to Say do provide this support.
Literature allows the reader an insider view to a different perspective, a chance to truly "walk a mile" in someone else's shoes. So Hard to Say could start a powerful and transformative conversation in a middle school
classroom. The book could help young adolescents who are struggling with their identity formation; it could provide support and a comforting assurance that they are not alone. Moreover, experiences based on reading the book could spark personal introspection among the middle schoolers that might result in building acceptance for differences.
One powerful scene near the end of the book comes when Iggy—who has been taunted and bullied because of gender nonconformity since elementary school—shares this sentiment: "'Think about it,' Iggy said firmly. 'People have been picking on me ever since grade school— making fun of how I talk or walk—before I even knew what gay meant. I used to come home crying every day because of them. And they have the nerve to tell me I'm bad?'" (p. 199).
It is important to note that LGBT–themed books can impact all students, regardless of their sexual identity. In his keynote address, Alex Sanchez shared this email from a high school girl: "Dear Mr. Sanchez: When I was done with the book I had a whole new outlook on anyone who is gay … So I would like to thank you so much for writing your books. Thank you for giving me a whole new pair of eyes." We implore middle school teachers to read and discuss books such as So Hard to Say with students. Let's start the conversation and work to give young adolescents "a whole new pair of eyes."
Sanchez, A. (2016). So hard to say. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Dee Knoblauch, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Education Department at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio.
Diane Ross , Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Education Department at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio.
Aaron Myers is a seventh grade science teacher in Delaware, Ohio.
Steve Palombo is a junior middle childhood education major at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio and a Collegiate Middle Level Association officer.
Lexi Roberts is a senior middle childhood education major at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio and the co-president of the Collegiate Middle Level Association.
Katie Wolfe is a junior middle childhood education major at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio and the co-president of the Collegiate Middle Level Association.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, February 2017.
Encouraging student thinking and writing with opportunities for movement.
Almost all students will experience writer's block at one time or another. Helping them work through this common experience with the use of physical activity may add success to the writing process for all students. There are several reasons why students encounter writer’s block, and it is important for middle school teachers to recognize the complex nature behind this writing process struggle that even for the most prolific writers experience. The dread behind writing that some students feel starts at varying moments. In general, the adolescent student combats the need to move with the need to be compliant during long periods of seated focused time devoted to writing over a course of multiple periods or days. Additionally, state writing assessments at sixth, seventh, and eighth grade levels often add stress and anxiety, which jumbles the thinking process and sometimes prevents down productivity.
Benefits of Physical Activity in Classroom
The use of physical activity in the classroom can benefit students on multiple levels. During writing instruction, getting students to move may benefit students who are struggling in the writing process, but also students who need to move for physical, emotional, academic, and biological reasons. As Gurian, Stevens, and King state in Strategies for Teaching Boys & Girls, the brains of adolescents, "work better if they move more," improving academic performance.
One of the factors behind writer’s block is the failure to generate plausible ideas during brainstorming or sentence construction. Students who develop the mindset of “I can’t think of anything” will endure several minutes, and potentially hours, of unproductive work. Sitting for prolonged periods of time only exacerbates the situation, creating unhealthy writing habits. Adding physical movement can create a break in this destructive pattern. Getting students to stand and move helps energize the body and mind, promoting cognitive function and increasing the likelihood that students can overcome moments of inactive work.
The inability to think of something to write may also stem from the inability to focus. Students who struggle with focus struggle even more during long periods of time devoted to intense writing composition. Providing opportunities for students to break up long periods of work time can help them regain focus. This reduces behavioral issues and helps student focus on the writing task at hand. If students are moving through the entire writing process, adding movement breaks during each steps helps students regain their composure and mentally prepare for the next step. An increase in focus creates opportunities for greater success leading to work completion and a mental shift toward autonomous writing habits.
The writing process is a cyclical process taking on many forms in the middle school classroom. The process develops as teachers assess the needs and abilities of students. Likewise, the process is refined and becomes more sophisticated as students move from grade-level to grade-level. However, there are some common components of the writing process.
These common components include: prewriting, drafting, peer feedback, revising, editing, and publishing. While some students can move through the process step-by-step, the process is cyclical and some steps may be revisited more frequently than others. Prewriting involves brainstorming topics, generating ideas, considering the audience, and setting writing goals for the process. Drafting entails creating an outline, composing the basic structure of the text, and researching supporting details. Peer feedback includes opportunities for students to share each other’s work, comment or clarify writing, and provide suggestions for improvement. During the revising step, writers consider suggestions of peers and teachers to refine the ideas and style of their text. Editing focuses on conventions and grammatical errors. The final step prepares the draft for publishing to be shared with the instructor, peers, or a greater audience.
Adding Movement to Writing Instruction
Prewriting Activity: Think-Time-Share
There are several ways students brainstorm ideas for writing prompts. In this activity, structured physical movement is added to the process. The instructor creates a series of questions related to the prompt. After the instructor asks a question, he directs students to perform an action, such as marching in place. Students perform the action for 30 seconds to build-in wait time. After the 30 seconds has passed, students share answers with writing partners or groups. Students generate a list for the responses before standing and moving while thinking of a response to the second question.
Drafting and Organization Activity:
After using a common article to research a topic, students work in small groups to summarize key facts in the article. Each student uses a piece of string to summarize the facts. While she is speaking, she wraps the string around her thumb and index finger. She must talk until the string is completely wound around the fingers, and she must stop when she has run out of string. The next person picks up where the previous person stops, or he begins summarizing the article again. The point of the activity is to recall key information that students can use in the body paragraphs of an essay. The activity can also be used by students to talk about how they plan to structure their information sequentially.
Peer Response Activity:
Traveling Commentary Analysis
One of the most difficult components of writing body paragraphs is writing a commentary or analysis statement regarding a key point or fact used to support the topic sentence of the paragraph or thesis statement of the essay. This process involves higher-level thinking skills, so getting students up and moving helps break down the steps involved while reducing levels of anxiety and stress. During the modeling phase, facts or key points can be placed around the room. Students work in groups to move from point to point adding commentary and analysis to each one. The activity combines movement and collaboration allowing students to read commentary and analysis statements from each group, so they can understand the process and see various styles of writing and thinking they can model in their own writing.
Revision Process Breakdown:
Writing Concept Hot Potato
Students can become overwhelmed during the revision process. Providing students with a clear focus and protocol helps make the revision process more meaningful and effective. The purpose of this activity is to focus students on a specific writing concept to analyze when revising. In this activity, two students are asked to leave the classroom. One is a participant and the other watches to make sure the participant can neither hear nor see what is happening in the classroom. In the classroom, a word is hidden. The entire class is aware of its location. The class decides on a movement to perform, such as clapping.
The two students in the hall enter the classroom. The class begins clapping slowing and quietly. As the participant ventures closer to the hidden word, the clapping becomes faster and louder. When the word is found, the class discusses the writing concept and what to look for during the revision process. Another word can be hidden to focus students on more than one concept, or students can begin revising and find another hidden word later to break up the monotony of seated work to refocus their energy on a new concept. A variation of this activity would be to focus on key grammar and convention errors during the editing process.
Revision Process Story:
Moving Picture in 5
The revision process can take many forms. An important part of the process involves reflection. In this activity, students work in small groups. Each student reflects on the main arguments in his essay. The student then thinks of five body positions he can create to illustrate these key points.
The instructor asks for the first participant from each group to stand in front of his group and freeze into his first body position. At the teacher’s signal, the student moves into the second body position and freezes, and so on. Group members determine what the key points might be based on the body positions and talk about the effectiveness of the arguments with the writer. The writer can then adjust his points accordingly.
In addition to the frozen body positions, the performer can also say one word per image to emphasize actions or make connections. This activity involves higher-level thinking as it grounds the basis of the writing a student is trying to communicate. The student needs to be aware of why she is making the claims she is, so communication is moving from paper to thinking to acting.
The writing process is intimidating for many middle school students as well as for many middle school teachers! Adding movement to the process may help students work through and resolve the various forms of writer’s block they may encounter. The activities suggested can be modified for any part of the writing process. The key is to break up long stretches of intense thinking while seated at desks.
John Helgeson, Ph.D., has taught middle school students for 17 years. He is currently the secondary English instructional specialist in the Northshore school district in Bothell, Washington.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, November 2016.
A middle school community intentionally creates opportunities and experiences for all students to develop a love for reading.
Only two remain. The girl and boy glance earnestly about as the votes are cast. One by one, the members present their decision to their leader. Once the elder finalizes the count, the group roars as the victor is named: the girl's beguiling storytelling has enticed the crowd and she is named the champion! What a way to end the school day, with a Book Talk Challenge (March-Madness-style, of course) in a ninth period middle school classroom!
For students to experience joy in reading—that is our goal. We strive to help students want to read, to think about what they are reading, and to share with others what they are reading and their thoughts about the text. As educators, we understand the importance of reading, of encouraging students to read and helping them comprehend what they read. We also know the joy that comes from igniting that undeniable spark in our students, that can't-put-it-down urge, of a pure love for reading. For some students, that spark is there already thanks to their parents, a former teacher, or another reading mentor, and we are the fortunate recipients of this avid reader in our midst. For other students, however, the joy of reading is not yet present. How can we help them bring that to life? How can we guide them to find and develop their passion for reading, and help them discover just the right text that might begin their reading journey?
AMLE talks with teachers and administrators at Hudson Middle School about the FOCUS program.
At Hudson Middle School, a team of staff members set out to answer that question. Implementing a dedicated period for intervention for students needing extra support, we knew we needed a meaningful enrichment experience for all our other students as well. After spending a year piloting a rotation of three-week enrichment mini-units, our committee analyzed and reflected on those mini-units that were most engaging for students, those that centered on reading. At the same time, one member had just recently read Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer, and her excitement by the thoughts in the book inspired us all. A literacy enrichment idea was born.
From that moment to present day, all our students participate in a 30-minute period at the end of each day, which allows us to individualize programming for students' unique needs, academically and socially-emotionally. Each Monday, all students are members of an advisory group. These small multi-grade groups are each connected with one advisor, with school-wide lessons inspired by the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens, by Sean Covey. On Tuesday through Friday, students are assigned to a FOCUS class, which is either an intervention class or a literacy enrichment class, and it is fluid throughout the year, depending on each student's individual needs.
During the literacy enrichment FOCUS class, students spend time reading self-selected books. Our program incorporates three fundamental components focused on helping to create readers and to inspire readers: offering choice in reading, modeling a reading culture, and having fun with reading.
Offering Choice in Reading
AMLE talks with students from Hudson Middle School about books they’re reading.
To help students develop as readers, we want them to have a genuine interest in what they read. Choice is key. We offer genre guidelines, based on those in Miller's book, and we encourage students to try texts from each genre throughout the year, but above all else, we want them to read. Once students are reading (at whatever level that may be) and we learn more about them as readers, we can then encourage more sophisticated books, taking them from where they are to where they can be as readers. Penny Kittle (2013), in her book Book Love, holds independent choice as "the center of our work" (p. xv) stating: "I believe in the rigor of independent reading. I believe in the power of guiding student choice to increase engagement, skill, and joy" (p. xiv). For some of our teachers who may not feel as experienced yet in guiding students to books, our media center specialist, other colleagues, and even students, have been incredibly helpful.
Modeling a Reading Culture
Identity development during the adolescent years is complex and crucial in students' determining who they are, who they want to be, and how they view themselves. Identifying oneself as a "reader" is essential, and at Hudson Middle School we work to promote and encourage the development of this identity as a "reader" in all members of our school community. In each literacy enrichment class, the teacher reads alongside the students, modeling reading. Those 30 minutes are not used for grading, organizing, or correspondence. One of our staff members shared his personal "reading evolution" that occurred because of this expectation. As a self-proclaimed "non-reader," he began by asking students what they would recommend, and then he started reading those recommendations. One book led to another and, by the end of that first school year, the number of books this teacher had read was astounding … and, more important, he made numerous connections with students because of these reading encounters. This culture of reading, led by teacher-readers, has enhanced our overall focus on building relationships with students, connecting with them, helping them find their passions, and helping them grow as learners and as people.
What makes our literacy enrichment FOCUS classes so positive is the enthusiasm generated by students for the books they read and love. The sparkling eyes, the animated voice—who doesn't love hearing a student share why this magical book is a must-read for someone else? I am grateful for the opportunities that our teachers create for students to not only read, but to think about what they've read, synthesize it, and share it with others. We have utilized professional development time and also created a shared electronic document for staff members to share and inspire new ideas for FOCUS activities that teach, excite, and engage students. Here are just a few:
Silent reading: allow students to sit/relax anywhere comfortable in the room
Students bring in favorite childhood book to share with class (e.g., book talks, read-aloud, guess who brought which book)
Create a group word cloud showcasing favorite book titles
Students create individual word clouds with ideas from their book; others then guess the book title
Whole class "ideal bookshelf": students write favorite book titles on different colored/sized strips of construction paper and display on classroom wall
"Shelfies": students share photos of their ideal bookshelf
Students create new title/cover for book using digital tools or paper and art supplies; others guess the real title
Play Win Lose or Draw, or charades, using book titles
Create a quote wall; students write favorite quote from their reading that day
Students write a marketing tweet for the book in 140 characters or less #hashtagswelcome!
Create Vine videos (6-seconds) of book commercials
Create book spine poetry, stacking titles to create a poem
Create whole-class anchor chart to discuss/document how we select books to read
Students write a phone message from one character to another
Reader's Theater: students act out portions of a book or short story
Students create an acrostic summarizing the book through each letter of the title
Students select a passage from their book to entice another student to read the book; swap passages with a partner; make predictions about the book based on the passage, then discuss
Read a picture book aloud and have students make their own version
Bring in a cart of poetry books from the media center, ending with Poetry Slam where students read aloud their favorite
Students write a comment or quote (in the form of a speech bubble) about the books they have read, attach them to the spines of the books and stack their books creatively (alternative: take a picture and use Thinglink)
Create a digital storytelling presentation (e.g., StoryboardThat, Puppet Pals, Pixton)
- Create a six-word memoir for a character
In The Book Whisperer, Miller (2009) shares this mission: "I want my students to know that I see each of them as a reader. All students in the class are readers—yes, with varying levels of readiness and interest—but readers nonetheless. I must believe that my students are readers—or will be readers—so that they can believe it. The idea that they can't read or don't like to read is not on the table" (p. 23). This is our role. To help our students grow, to develop this love of reading and stamina for reading that will sustain them through life.
Most of us have heard the compelling research that correlates 20 minutes of reading per day with increased vocabulary, comprehension, and overall academic achievement. What we have also seen at Hudson Middle School, after implementing 30 minutes of reading per day, is that joy in reading has increased. We are creating a culture of readers —lovers of reading—and our students continually amaze us with their passion. Just spend a few minutes talking with any student reader about his/her favorite book, and you will likely feel inspired, too! In fact, I'm reading a book right now that was highly recommended by not one, but seven students at our annual end-of-the-year reading celebration. They were right. I can't put it down.
Kimberly Cockley, Ph.D., is the principal of Hudson Middle School in Hudson, Ohio. She earned a Ph.D. in K-12 Leadership from Kent State University, focusing her research on middle level leadership.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, November 2016.
Effective ways to enhance reading and writing experiences.
Recently, I was teaching a language arts class in Logan, West Virginia. The objective of the lesson was to analyze the impact of tradition on human behavior using narrative text. Sounds really dull, doesn't it? It could have been, had I not used engaging strategies to facilitate the lesson. The vehicle for accomplishing the objective was The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. If you have not read it, you should!
Even though it was considered a short story, The Lottery contained a great deal of text, so I had to devise ways to help students. I placed students in pairs to facilitate discussion and divided the short story into sections. Before reading each section, I provided discussion questions to give students a purpose for reading the chunk. I read the first section aloud while students tracked the print in their books. Then a whole class discussion ensued that would provide answers for the designated questions.
For the second section, I continued to read aloud but paused periodically so that students could chorally provide the next word in the sentence. Section three needed some movement so we stood and chorally read this section with expression.
Section four involved partner reading where a student could elect to read a page, a paragraph, or pass his or her turn. It was during the reading of this section that many students realized that this lottery was not going to be
a good thing. By the time the lesson was finished, we had purposely used five brain-compatible strategies.
Whether you examine any of the research on how the brain acquires information, you will find there are 20 ways to deliver instruction. These instructional strategies increase academic achievement for all students regardless of grade level or content area, decrease behavior problems and make teaching and learning engaging.
Brainstorming and Discussion
Engaging students in a spirited discussion is a useful way to enhance comprehension. Teachers often ask recitation questions where the answer choice is either right or wrong. Discussion questions, on the other hand, can challenge students' thinking since there can be more than one appropriate response. As a teacher, focus on facilitating discussions between and amongst students.
Drawing and Artwork
Many students have a natural affinity for drawing. Use it! I could have stopped periodically and had students draw a scene from The Lottery. A picture of the box in which the lottery slips were kept would have been a good way to ascertain students' attention to detail.
The brain remembers what it experiences when it travels to places in the real world. Having students make written predictions regarding what they will see on the trip and then write about what was seen are good literary activities to incorporate. Virtual field trips enable students to travel to places that would otherwise be inaccessible or cost prohibitive.
Nothing facilitates a good review better than playing a game. Dividing students into three heterogeneous teams and competing in a spirited game of Jeopardy is a good way to review major concepts prior to a test. Tossing a Nerf ball for students to catch is a great way to call on students to respond.
Graphic Organizers, Semantic Maps, and Word Webs
I would be hard pressed to teach any comprehension skill without the use of graphic organizers. This strategy appeals to both hemispheres of the brain. Create mind maps for teaching main idea and details, sequence of events, cause and effect, compare and contrast, and many other comprehension skills.
The job of the "class clown" is to research an approved joke and tell it at a designated time during the period. This role rotates among all students who choose to fulfill it. Jim Carey related the story of how one of his high school teachers made a deal with him that if he participated in class and completed all homework, he could have the last minute of class to tell a joke. The rest is history.
Manipulatives, Experiments, Labs, and Models
Having students read and follow the directions for an experiment or for building a model is a way to integrate literacy across the curriculum.
Metaphors, Analogies, and Similes
One of the highest level thinking strategies is the use of metaphors. When a student can find ways to compare two or more dissimilar things, they are really using their brains. For example, when teaching main idea and supporting details, I compare it to a table and legs.
Every content area contains acronyms and acrostics, shortened ways of helping students retain content. While these may not foster higher levels of thought, they go a long way toward increasing the amount of content students can remember.
Movement is my favorite strategy, since anything students learn while in motion has a better chance of being remembered. Having students form a living timeline is an effective way to teach and learn sequence of events.
Music, Rhythm, Rhyme, and Rap
Have students create a song, rhyme, or rap that depicts students' understanding of a concept previously taught. While completing this assignment, they must employ one of the highest levels of thinking—synthesis—or the ability to take information and put it into a different form.
Project-Based and Problem-Based Learning
Take 10 or 15 literary objectives and incorporate them into a real-life project or give them a relevant problem to solve. These objectives will be mastered so much easier if students encounter them within the context of real life.
Reciprocal Teaching and Cooperative Learning
Having students sometimes work in pairs or teams to accomplish curricular objectives is a good way to ensure that they are career and "life" ready since the ability to work together is a major workplace and community competency.
Role Plays, Drama, Pantomimes, and Charades
When students act out the steps in a math word problem, pantomime a content-area vocabulary word as classmates guess it, or dramatize a scene from history, it goes a long way toward enabling them to remember the information prior to and after a test.
While invaluable in social studies, storytelling is a cross curricular strategy. Stories have a beginning, middle, and end and connect content together. These connections facilitate memory. Tell stories as you deliver content and then have students create their own and watch recall improve.
The use of technology is another workplace competency that every student should acquire prior to graduation. It is essential since so much literacy today involves computer literacy. However, I would like to add a word of caution. I have observed students who are so engrossed in technology that they have little time for anything else such as developing the social skills necessary for successful teamwork or the movement so essential for good health and long life.
Visualization and Guided Imagery
When authors do not provide visuals in a story, novel, or textbook, good readers are able to create their own visuals of what they are reading. Many students find this strategy difficult to implement since so many of the technological devices they interface with today have visuals provided. Pausing during read alouds and having students develop pictures in their brains of what they are seeing as they read is a good way is a good way to help them perfect their visualization skills.
We live in an extremely visual world. So visual, in fact, that at least 50% of students who walk into any classroom today will be predominantly visual learners. Comprehension is facilitated when students have visuals (pictures, captions, bold and subheadings, charts, and graphs) to assist them.
Work Study and Apprenticeships
Work study refers to apprenticeships, internships, and externships. In other words, it is on-the-job training. Can you begin to imagine how much informational text reading and comprehension would occur when students are learning to repair an engine, become a dental hygienist, or prepare culinary delights?
Writing and Journals
I have known good readers who were not necessarily good writers, but I have not known the opposite. Those who write well usually have a good command of the language which they use expertly to communicate their message. Even stopping periodically for quick writes facilitates memory and understanding.
The object of a learning experience is not to see how many learning strategies can be incorporated but to determine which ones are best for students and the content being explored.
Marcia L. Tate, Ed.D. is the former executive director of professor development for the DeKalb County school system. She is currently an educational consultant and CEO of Developing Minds Inc.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, November 2016.
Films can—and should—be more than time-killers in your classroom.
We all know the stereotypical image of the teacher who, tired of direct instruction, dims the lights, turns on the DVD player, and sits quietly while students stare at the screen. The problem here is not that students are watching a film in class—it's that the teacher is not constructing an educational experience around that film.
Incorporated effectively, films can support content and instruction in a brief, clear, and elegant manner, enticing a generation of viewers into a more engaged learning experience.
While we wish that all our students walked into class hungry for traditional texts, this is simply not the case. Jennifer Rowsell and Maureen Kendrick, in their article "Boys' Hidden Literacies: The Critical Need for the Visual," suggest that some learners prefer to read on screens, such as computers and televisions. Consequently, reading on screens may be one possible "in-road" to teaching literacy skills and may even stimulate an interest in print-based text.
Don't Just Sit There
Several years ago, my students were watching clips from the film "The Spiderwick Chronicles." In this movie, one actor plays twin brothers. Toward the end of the third or fourth segment we watched, my students expressed some confusion about whether the actor was playing one character or two.
I was a bit taken aback. I had assumed that the dual role of the actor had been established for them in the first clip we watched. Looking back, I realized that teachers cannot assume that a passive viewing experience will translate into a meaningful cognitive interaction; like all learning, viewing must be discussed, critiqued, analyzed, and scaffolded.
Just as teaching a novel or short story involves ongoing discussions of theme, vocabulary, and structure, instruction with a film must be intentional and include consideration of the elements of what makes the piece work. Reading or viewing without activity and follow-up discussion is simply "flicking the lights off" and hoping that learning takes place.
Learn in Under Five Minutes
Consider the analysis of the hero's journey presented in "Batman Begins," as modelled by the SpringBoard curriculum. Students watch video clip segments, rather than the entirety of the film, and answer questions about the main character's inward and outer journey as a protagonist. Classes can use this multistep analytic process to talk about elements of character development as the main character progresses through the story. What's more, this conversation can happen without spending time watching the entire film.
Students might examine the specific aspects of a scene in a film. Elements like lighting and camera angles can communicate a variety of messages, as can design details like music. Auteur theory in film studies discusses the director of a film as a kind of author and, like all authors, the director chooses what elements to include within a scene. In the same way that an author chooses the words on a page, a director acting as the auteur chooses the elements that viewers see on the screen.
Have students spend less than two minutes viewing the teaser trailer for a Daniel Craig James Bond film, discuss the elements of design, and then spend less than two minutes viewing the teaser trailer for an Adam Sandler film. In less than five minutes of total viewing, this brief activity can provide a meaningful and culturally empowered introduction to a discussion of mood and tone, character development, or theme. Students who are not readers will likely appreciate this visual and engaging introduction to content, which can then be extended to a traditional reading experience.
Consider the "Captain America: Civil War" trailer. YouTube reported that 17,030,584 viewers watched the trailer within 24 hours of its release by Marvel. No doubt, that viewership included many of your students. The "auteurs" behind this audiovisual presentation build suspense through a series of scenes collected from previous films, highlighting the emerging conflict between two primary Marvel Comics characters, and then close the segment by revealing yet another popular protagonist in the film. This use of these design elements capitalizes on suspense and surprise.
Interaction with the elements of film can be discussion-oriented or related to storyboarding activities or higher-level critiques. Moving beyond the surface-level system of critique, which usually consists of "I liked it" or "I didn't like it," students can use literary or content-specific terms in an open-ended critical dialogue about what they are viewing.
Consider these 10 stems as potential discussion starters for viewing experiences:
How did the director communicate to us in this clip?
What was the director trying to get across to us in this clip?
How does the director build suspense, create tension, or surprise us in this segment?
What did you hear in the clip that reminds you of our previous discussion?
How did this clip present information to you in a new way?
How does this clip add to our understanding of this concept?
What did the director include that made this clip helpful or understandable for you?
What visuals did you see that helped you think about our content?
How does the use of music, camera angles, light and shadow, and other design elements help us see what the director wanted us to see, or feel what the director wanted us to feel?
- How does this video clip support or refute what we previously learned about this topic?
Screen to Print
Film is part of our students' culture, and we should include film in such a way that, through an analytic and thoughtful process, students who may struggle to read can engage with content in such a way that may encourage them to read!
Jason D. DeHart, an eighth grade English teacher at Ocoee Middle School in Tennessee, is also a student in the Department of Theory and Practice in Teacher Education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2016.
Teaching students to skim and scan can hone their skills for college and beyond.
Regardless of their achievement level, students sometimes reach the end of a difficult reading passage with no recollection or understanding of what they have read. Even highly proficient readers may find themselves struggling with long and intricate textbook chapters and research articles.
You can come to the rescue by teaching students the techniques of skimming and scanning.
The Art of Skimming
Students have already been introduced to skim and scan techniques, whether they realize it or not, simply because of their interaction with social media, online learning, and text features in their textbooks. However, at some point, they will need to read from sources that have no such aids.
Basically, skimming is reading selectively to determine the main idea of a piece. Most teachers begin by teaching students to skim and deduce meaning from a limited amount of text and then gradually increase the length and complexity of the text. Abby Marks Beale, author of 10 Days to Faster Reading and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Speed Reading, suggests teaching skimming this way:
Choose a page or chapter for students to skim. Ask students to read just the first sentence or just the first and last sentences of each paragraph, keeping an eye out for proper nouns, dates, and unfamiliar words. Students might jot these words down in a notebook or journal to help with comprehension later.
When they've read first and last sentences of each paragraph, have them go back and read the entire page or chapter, reading closely this time and noting important information as well as questions about the information in the text.
Mark Warner (Teachingideas.com) suggests pairing students up and giving them an article that is obviously too long for them to read word for word in two minutes. Begin this exercise by asking the students to read the title and then state what they think the article is about. Students may make notes about what they believe is the topic of the article.
Next, have students read the first and the last paragraphs of the article and guess what the piece is about based on that information. Students may note how their idea about the topic of the piece changed based on the additional information.
Students then read the first line of every paragraph and make another guess based on what they read what the article is about. Finally, students read the entire article in two minutes and again to see if their predictions about the content based on skimming matched the actual topic.
Scanning for Specifics
Similar to skimming, scanning involves a much different process. Readers use scanning when looking for a specific piece or a specific category of information. Scanning is not reading and comprehending so much as searching for one thing, like Waldo in a Where's Waldo? book.
For middle school students, finding a specific word pertaining to a specific idea is a good way to focus on meaning. The key to scanning is making sure that, in spite of the fact the students have not closely read a piece, they have gained enough context to accurately represent the author's words and intentions.
Skimming and scanning exercises not only help promote alternative reading strategies, they also promote cognitive processing and literacy skills—skills that are the foundation of the Common Core State Standards. By varying our methods as teachers, and providing more skills in reading, we are encouraging our students to achieve well beyond the Common Core Standards.
Skimming and scanning are great techniques to help students read long, complex pieces. As they practice these skills, their research skills will improve as well. We need to give students permission to use strategies like skimming and scanning, emphasizing that there is nothing wrong with taking the “shortcuts.”
As we implement these basic strategies our students will become more versatile readers. The more strategies they have to pull from, the less they will need our assistance and the better prepared they will be for high school and college.
Kaitlyn Hartling is an English and secondary education major at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts. She hopes to teach middle school students when she graduates.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2016.
Using writing as opportunities for students to grieve and grow.
Teachers are perpetual students. Each day we learn some new piece of information from a book, an article, or a podcast, but we often learn a great deal more from our students. This following story is inspired by an experience with an 11-year-old student named Josie and who helped me understand the power of love.
Josie was a typical sixth grader – full of life, enthusiasm, and bounce! Not a day went by without her bounding into the classroom asking, "What are we doing today?" Her infectious laugh, collaborative spirit, and intellect found favor with peers as she navigated her first year in a middle school. Homework assignments were never late, projects generally preceded deadlines, and volunteerism was her middle name when it came to helping others. Additionally, she was a sophisticated writer who incorporated emotion into her work.
During the December holiday break, I received an e-mail from Josie's mom regarding the passing of the family's matriarch – Josie's grandmother. The note explained that the family would need to travel out of state to attend a memorial service, and the parents were requesting homework from their children's teachers for the duration of the trip. I responded with condolences and assured her that Josie could catch up upon her return. My only request was for the family to take the time necessary to grieve and focus on the matters at hand.
School resumed in January, and I launched into a new unit on analogies, metaphors, and similes. Josie returned five days into the new semester, when her smile and the bounce in her step were gone. After school she stopped by to pick up missing assignments, and to turn in an essay she had been working on.
She explained that her friend had stayed in touch with her while she was gone and gave her updates on assignments. Since she loved writing, she decided to start on the "Analogy" task during the airplane ride home. "I wanted to write something that would honor my Gramma ...", she paused, "... but I'm having trouble with the ending," her voice caught as she handed me the folder. I assured her that I would give it my undivided attention, and that we would work on the ending after the weekend.
On Saturday morning, I decided to pull out the draft essays turned in by my sixth graders earlier in the week. Since Josie's was the last essay submitted, hers was the folder I grabbed first and began reading:
The Love Bubble
by Josie C., Period 5 English
Analogies are the way two things are compared to show similarities. An example would be "He walks as slow as a turtle," this is comparing how the boy has a slow pace like the animal's. Or, "the pillows were as fluffy as marshmallows" compares the soft, squishiness of cushions to the same treat we put in our hot chocolate. The analogy I will use for this essay is to compare my Gramma's love to a soapy bubble.
To compare a grandmother to soap may seem unusual, but in this case it's the perfect fit. Gramma was my best friend, my secret-keeper, my smile-maker. When we would wash dishes together she would wrap her wrinkly fingers around mine and squeeze the soapy bubbles until the white foam oozed out and made us both giggle. "Josie," she would say, "Bubbles are like love – they are clean, limitless, and spread the more you share them." We would make a game of looking for bubble-love in our daily lives: like washing her dog, blowing air through a straw into chocolate milk, taking a bubble bath (of course), and even when my little brother blew a snot-bubble - I thought it was a gross example, but Gramma said any bubble that makes you smile is a Love Bubble.
I once asked her what happens when a bubble pops, "Is the love gone?" Laughing she would say, "No, sweetie. When a love-bubble pops it spreads even more - think about it." I studied her face for the answer, for the realization, for the light bulb moment (as our teachers always say). Sensing my hesitation Gramma continued, "A bubble's job is to expand to its fullest potential by cleaning, reflecting and working together (with other bubbles) - but, its most important role is making people smile! When its job is done it is absorbed in order to continue the cycle. Do you understand, honey?" I nodded, but still wondered how true the bubble cycle really was.
The more we would look for bubble-love, the more I found similarities with Gramma's love. If bubbles were considered clean, reflective, limitless and spread joy – then Gramma could be a HUGE Love Bubble! She was the most honest and moral person I knew, she always operated with a CLEAN heart. Gramma and I would have long conversations during meals, bedtime or even watching our favorite movie for the 20th time, each time she taught me how to REFLECT on my decisions, actions and character. Her love for family was LIMITLESS and came from a very selfless place – her heart. She told stories with details that made me feel like I was there, even if the event was decades old. No one SPREAD more unconditional love then Gramma did. And, she didn't just love us, she taught us "how" to love by forgiving mistakes, supporting others, and always looking for the good in situations. And, for my parents, brother, aunts, uncles & cousins she was the JOY-zone anytime we needed a boost in our spirits.
Gramma's bubble-love covered me from head to toe and oozed affection, tenderness, warmth and devotion. Even when we didn't see each other, I could feel her bubble-love surround me, like the way whipped cream seeps into hot cocoa, she sent warm hugs from far away. Our phones calls were chatter-fests (as she called them) and could go on and on, we would spend hours in the kitchen making gourmet meals out of the most basic supplies, and our slumber parties put any of my friends' sleepovers to shame (but don't tell!). Gramma was a fixture in my life just like eating, sleeping and breathing.
But then my Love Bubble burst. I couldn't feel her anymore or comprehend how she was no longer here or anywhere. I couldn't find the cycle she spoke of, where bubbles were supposed to continue. I looked around at our family to see smiles disappear, people moving away from each other, and even some family members arguing–very unbubble-like.
And, instead of feeling safe and secure, I feel like I'm just washing down the drain...
It was at this point Josie's essay ended. I choked back tears and reread it, her words, analogies and love-lost was so powerful I wanted to experience it again. She may have questioned her ending, but I found it to be exactly how one feels during grief. Her poetic descriptions and symbolism were spot-on and moved me, as an outsider, to connect with her emotions, and to empathize with her regarding this immeasurable loss. After offering some feedback on cosmetic corrections and mechanics, I reassure her this piece met all expectations.
The following week, Josie was somewhat back to normal, although sorrow remained in her eyes. Her BFF Rose had taken on the role of protector and sat with Josie during class, at lunch, and on the bus. Soon the duo was spotted giggling at recess and skipping through the halls: Josie's rebound was in motion.
During our Writer's Workshop sessions, students served as peer-editors and provided feedback and constructive criticism. Josie's piece made it through the editing and revisions stages smoothly as she prepared the Final Draft for assessment purposes. Upon final submission Josie turned her folder into the Period 5 basket, with a renewed twinkle in her eye she simply said, "Thanks for the help," then darted off to her next class.
Anxious to read her piece I grabbed it from the pile and began to read. The beginning stayed true to its course, so I just skimmed through, eager to see if she had revised the ending.
But then my Love Bubble burst. I couldn't feel her anymore or comprehend how she was no longer here or anywhere. I couldn't find the cycle she spoke of, where bubbles were supposed to continue. I looked around at our family to see smiles disappear, people moving away from each other, and even some family members arguing–very unbubble-like.
And, instead of feeling safe and secure, I felt like I had just been washed down the drain ... however,
She had changed the last line from present tense to past tense, and added a conjunction:
I remember Gramma pointing out the rainbow colors seen in a bubble when the light hit it just right, and how rainbows serve as reminders and promises. She had taught me to see a simple dome of soap as an analogy for a bigger purpose. And, even though my personal Love-Bubble was no longer with us, her absence reminded me that bubble-love is contagious and can be spread by love and a smile – something I can do in her honor.
Josie's conclusion put a smile on my face, and joy in my heart as I set the folder down, satisfied that she had successfully completed the task, while also using the writing process as the catalyst for her healing process. As I glanced across the room where a drippy faucet was pinging in the background, I noticed a bottle of liquid dish soap teetering on the edge of the sink. When I crossed the room and approached the counter I couldn't help notice the self-inflated bubble rising from the bottle's spout. Pausing to look closer I could see light reflecting through, and rainbow bands sparkling in the midday light. Smiling I realized although it wasn't grandparent's visitation day, it was pretty cool that Josie's Gramma decided to stop by to spread some Bubble Love.
Sandy Cameli is an author and educational consultant.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2016.
Imagine students wanting to improve their writing—just because!
What if students improved their writing because they wanted to, not just to get a good grade? What if their motivation to do better was fueled by teacher conferences and quick feedback?
That fantasy could be closer to reality than you ever imagined.
At Danville Middle School in Danville, Pennsylvania, our path to improved writing began with changes to our state-mandated assessments. When Pennsylvania's Department of Education unpacked the text-dependent analysis (TDA) question, it sent an enormous ripple into the stress pond for both teachers and students.
AMLE talks with Joy Smith and Pelle Nejman about Analytical Writing
Text-dependent analysis questions call on students to synthesize answers based on specific evidence within a reading passage and demonstrate their ability to interpret the meaning behind that evidence. Students must construct a well-written essay to demonstrate their analysis of the text rather than simply summarize the content.
We pushed our students and ourselves to master text analysis in writing, but after the first year, our results were mediocre at best. At worst, the students began to hate writing and we were all stressed out. Clearly, our plan needed work.
Part of the frustration we felt stemmed from students' inability to do what we asked of them. We expected our middle school students to analyze, yet we had not taught them the concept of analysis. For years, the push had been on comprehension, but it stopped short with the deeper literary analysis through writing.
Our initial throw-it-all-at-them-and-hope-for-the-best plan had proved unsuccessful for the majority of our students. So last year, we started with the basics, modeling our expectations and creating graphic organizers to help students map out the steps required for the reading analysis. We also included another key component: interdisciplinary collaboration.
When the language arts and social studies teachers began to discuss the TDA and its ramifications for all of us, the blurry line between content areas slowly vanished. We adopted the "divide and conquer" mentality.
Our first step as a team was to develop a common language. Students no longer needed to guess what this teacher wanted in an essay versus what the other teacher wanted. Our students heard a unified message about the importance of writing with an academic focus. We were on the same page. And so began what was in many ways a learning process for us all.
We started slowly. The language arts team collaborated to write the first TDA of the year. We read three passages as a class, and teachers modeled how to construct strong introductory and body paragraphs. We presented students with the state grading rubric and evaluated state-released samples that we scored and discussed as a class. When they were able to analyze the work of others, students were closer to being able to recognize and emulate the components in their own writing.
Students typed their first TDA response and, with the convenience of Google Classroom and Chromebook technology, language arts teachers printed their essays without their names and distributed them with detailed scoring rubrics that focused students on the specific skills required in each paper.
These essays were shared with groups of students wielding colored pens—perfect for positive reinforcement or gentle revision suggestions. For three days, students pored over their classmates' work, focusing on specific aspects of the writing and comparing them to the state evaluation tools.
During this exercise, small groups were able to discuss their opinions, compare responses, and recognize both good and poor examples. More than one student remarked, "I have a new respect for what you do for a living, Mrs. Smith," after muddling through a paper with typos and sentence structure issues.
When students got their original papers back, now covered in multi-colored comments from their peers, they set about revising them with renewed enthusiasm. Their only grades at this point were for class participation—a reward for a job well done when it came to wearing the editor's hat.
It was in social studies classes that students sank their teeth into their first "independent" TDA. By this time, our four-person social studies/language arts team had revamped the previous graphic organizer for writing and developed a student-friendly rubric that made expectations clearer for students and grading easy for teachers. The rubric also threw in a few tips for those students who struggled along the way:
- A checkmark system for "observable skills." (Did your teacher see a thesis statement? Was a graphic organizer completed?)
- A column for identifying "skills to practice" in order to improve.
- The all-important ownership section where students complete the sentence, "On my next TDA I will…"
Along with the ownership piece, one of the most valuable aspects of this collaborative effort has to do with the one-on-one attention students receive after each TDA. It may seem impossible to get 100 student-teacher conferences done within a short time period (we work with an average one-week turnaround time for grading and conferencing), but somehow we make it happen. Part of that success comes from expertly managing class time; the other part calls for maximizing "free" time during the day like advisory and RTII classes where groups are smaller and students can use that time for revision as needed.
Key Ingredients to Success and Sanity
How can teachers fit "one more thing" into an already overflowing to-do list? We work together. We split the team of 100 students into two classes each, and we alternate who grades which classes after each TDA
so we can track all students' progress.
Something miraculous happens to teachers when the daunting task of scoring 100 essays is cut in half. It's like a rush of adrenaline. Suddenly, the marathon has become a half marathon, and we just scarfed up a box of energy bars. Sure, it's still 50 essays, but the TDA rubric that's student-friendly is also kind to teachers. It makes scoring essays much less painful. We use a system of checks:
- Thesis statement: That gets a circled "T" on the paper.
- Text-based support in the form of a quote: That gets a circled "Q."
- Well-placed analysis: That gets a circled "A" (and sometimes even a few exclamation points depending on how excited or tired the grader has become).
We do very little, if any, line editing. As writers and teachers, and teachers of writing, it was difficult to train our brains to overlook glaring errors at first, but the reality of the state's holistic scoring process dictates that teachers be more concerned with content and analysis than the finer details of perfectly placed commas. Also, students who are not strong writers don't see their page saturated with purple ink, and therefore don't get discouraged from continuing to improve their essays.
After we score the essays, we divide and conquer again to review TDA results with individual students. They are eager for our undivided attention and task-specific conversation. As teachers using the same language, graphic organizers, and expectations across the board, we are sure our students are well-versed in what we expect, striving to improve, and seeing the evidence in their scores.
With manageable goals, even the students who struggle the most are making strides without feeling overwhelmed. The key is baby steps. Through scaffolding, we target the small pieces—structure and solid thesis statement writing—before moving on to analysis. More advanced writers get a nudge toward strengthening transitions and varying word choice.
The Home Stretch
As a final push before test season was upon us, the students filled out a bar graph charting their progress on TDA writing for the year. They honed in on the areas where they continued to struggle, but they also celebrated their accomplishments—and there were many.
Whether the standardized test results prove that our strategy worked is almost irrelevant. We have witnessed the progress, celebrated individual milestones, and instilled strong writing skills and structure in our students.
Although we have scored their TDAs, we have not counted them as grades to include in their average. No one seems to ask, and no one seems to care.
Joy Mushacke Smith is a seventh grade language arts teacher at Danville Middle School in Danville, Pennsylvania. Her awesome middle school team includes fellow language arts teacher Pelle Nejman, who contributed to this article, as well as social studies teachers Rebecca Blansfield and Christy Yohe, who helped develop the content discussed in the article.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, September 2016.
Exploring the five plagues of complex text.
One of the most important aspects of teaching literacy in the classroom is text selection, the process by which teachers choose what their students will read.
For many teachers, text selection boils down to choosing something that will engage students and motivate them to read. Reasonable diversity in genres and authors should be enough. But in fact, what students read shapes how well they read and how well they comprehend the topic in far more ways than what might at first seem obvious.
Common Core State Standards emphasize the importance of student interaction with complex texts. As teachers identify which texts to select for their classroom, they should be aware of some of the unique challenges—we call them plagues—of reading and understanding complex texts.
Plague 1: Archaic Texts
Charles Dickens' classic novel Oliver Twist begins with a 98-word first sentence crammed with not only anachronistic words and phrases such as "to wit" and "inasmuch," but also with the syntax of another era—as in "in this workhouse was born … ."
People spoke and wrote differently 50, 100, and 200 years ago. They used different words, in different sequences, within different syntactical structures.
No amount of practice reading even the richest contemporary young adult fiction will prepare students to be able to read those older texts, be they Oliver Twist or the Declaration of Independence. However, the task will clearly be required of them in college, so it's important that students be exposed to more dated as well as contemporary texts.
Plague 2: Nonlinear Time Sequence
Donald Crews's book, Bigmama's, is a meditation on the nature of memory and time. The narrative subtly switches back and forth between recollections about a specific trip to the narrator's grandparents' house and recollections of a series of visits made over the course of several years. It's the similarities of those trips—and just maybe the way the memory of them all blends into one—that make the book both a beautiful read and a challenging one. Even strong readers would struggle to tell you what happened when, making it a good choice for young readers.
Plague 3: Complexity of Narrator
R. J. Palacio's popular youth novel, Wonder, uses six different narrators to tell its story. One of them is the protagonist, Auggie, a middle school student with severe craniofacial disfigurement. Auggie narrates three of the chapters; five other characters narrate a chapter each—each one in a different voice, and in one case, without uppercase letters and with idiosyncratic punctuation.
It's a useful book, first and foremost as an object lesson in kindness and understanding. But it's also a starter kit for understanding books with complex and potentially confusing narration. The challenges that narrators present can be tricky and, like the other plagues of complex text, can challenge students' comprehension regardless of their skills.
Plague 4: Complexity of Story (Plot and Symbolism)
Grace Lin's Newbery Honor book, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, is a modern story that melds the tradition of Chinese folk tales with a western journey-of-discovery narrative. Lin describes it as a bit like The Wizard of Oz retold as a Chinese fairy tale, although the novel is more complex than that; it weaves fairy tales into the plot of the book. Characters tell other characters' stories, and those stories are inserted within the novel—texts within a text.
Not only that, but the characters in the book, who are imagined to hear the fairy tales as the reader reads them, often react to the tales, which shapes the plot. It's recursive—the tales change the story; the book reacts to itself.
A plot that happens on multiple levels like this poses challenges to readers. This makes Where the Mountain Meets the Moon an especially good book to prepare students to read the complex narrative structures of William Faulkner, for example.
Plague 5: Resistant Text
Some texts set out to be difficult to understand, often because part of the point is that the story cannot be told simply. Telling it stretches the bounds of the tools storytellers have available.
Consider the beginning of Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse-Five, written in the form of a memoir of a fictional writer who, like Vonnegut himself, was taken prisoner in World War II and experienced the fire-bombing of Dresden firsthand, and has set out to tell the story of that destruction, but struggles to do so.
Many readers find Vonnegut exhilarating precisely because of these resistant elements. The elements create a thrilling narrative unbounded by traditional rules. But confused readers—readers unaware that a text might deliberate try to disorient them, readers who have never struggled with that disorientation—may in fact be confused by the premise, not comprehend that they are not supposed to comprehend, and fail perhaps even give up on the narrative. What to do here?
As the example of Slaughterhouse-Five suggests, highly resistant texts are often made resistant by the use of a combination of the other four plagues. Exposure to those elements will help students unpack even the densest texts.
Poetry frequently does not conform to the "expectation of logic" that is characteristic of (most) prose. Because of this, poetry can be an outstanding tool for preparing students for resistant prose. Imagine the benefits of a lighthearted reading of Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky," a primer in filling in the gaps between tiny islands of meaning in a text, as a prelude to reading Slaughterhouse-Five.
Closely reading and unpacking short examples of resistant text are great ways to expose students to intense challenges without overwhelming them.
What About Student Choice?
Do students benefit from occasionally reading exactly what they and they alone desire? Yes! But it is important to recognize that the books students read and study in school are finite—a scarce and valuable resource.
From middle school through high school, they will only read and discuss with their peers a handful of books. Because these few books form the foundation of their knowledge of how literature works within and interacts with society, teachers must select them like the precious resource they are. Teachers should consider not just whether each book their students read is "good" but also what the totality of the texts they themselves choose for students achieve as part of their broader education.
It is also worth reflecting on the fact that what students "like" or more precisely think they will like is inherently limited. We can all name a handful of texts we read against our better teenage judgment—infallible though it seemed at the time—but which turned out to be transformative—instantly in many cases, years later in others.
A Balancing Act
To ensure students are ready for the rigors of college, teachers must give text selection greater attention and intentionality. This does not mean that every book needs to be selected based on a "maximum value for learning" calculation. Some should be; we hope many will. Choosing books for pleasure or on a lark is fine as long as the overall portfolio of books is intentional and balanced.
Thinking more deeply about aspects of the texts we choose for students does not exclude enjoyment as a criterion—even a major one. Part of the joy of teaching, in fact, is seeing the joy students derive unexpectedly from texts that surprise them.
Doug Lemov is managing director for the Teach Like a Champion team at Uncommon Schools.
Colleen Driggs is director of professional development for the Teach Like a Champion team at Uncommon Schools.
Erica Woolway is chief academic officer of the Teach like a Champion Team at Uncommon Schools.
They are the authors of
Reading Reconsidered: A Practical Guide to Rigorous Literacy (2016, Jossey Bass), upon which this article was based
Published in AMLE Magazine
, September 2016.
Meeting new science standards can be hard for students who struggle with reading and writing.
How do you teach the new science standards to students who struggle with reading and writing? Many middle school science teachers face this dilemma, which is especially challenging for science educators at my school. Like many urban schools across the country, we have a large population of students who are behind academically; many have specific learning difficulties. We also serve a large population of English Language Learners.
How can we ensure the success of these students and bridge their literacy gaps?
The South Carolina Department of Education (SCDE) developed new science standards in 2014 that are based on the Framework for K-12 Science Education. These new standards require students to develop and use models, obtain and use information, analyze and interpret data, and construct scientific arguments. SCDE also expects students to use reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills throughout their scientific processes. Meeting these requirements can be difficult for students who struggle with reading and writing. They also challenge teachers to bridge the learning gap and develop students' abilities to successfully use these higher-order literacy skills.
AMLE talks to Theressa Varner about Bridging the Literacy Gap in Science
Students are expected not only to be immersed in authentic science investigations, but also to effectively communicate what they learned during those investigations using observable and measurable information and accurate science terminology. With that in mind, I combined several tried and true, research-supported strategies to scaffold my students' learning and bridge their literacy gaps.
Prior to doing an investigation, students learn key vocabulary terms in order to communicate their findings. They use graphic organizers to compare and contrast concepts, and they engage in argument writing using evidence to support their claims.
According to Nicole Stants in her 2013 NSTA Science Scope article, "Parts Cards: Using Morphemes to Teach Science Vocabulary," teachers can use morphemes—prefixes, suffixes, and root words—to help students learn vocabulary. So, we break down words into these basic components. When students become familiar with common morphemes, they can use that knowledge to determine the meaning of unfamiliar words.
Each week, I also present four new science stems that are associated with our current vocabulary terms. The scholars keep a master list of the stems in the front of their science journal; an entry includes the stem, its definition, the concept that it is related to, and a vocabulary term. They also keep an index card book that includes modified Frayer models for each stem (see Figure 1) that they've constructed.
Another learning strategy is graphic organizers. Students use them to organize notes, classify or categorize information, or compare and contrast concepts. Some graphic organizers also require the students to draw visual models of concepts. BrainPOP (www.brainpop.com) is a great source for a variety of activities that reinforce science concepts.
Following the 5E Model
All of the lessons follow the 5E Model of Instruction: engage, explore, explain, evaluate, and elaborate. We begin with an engagement activity such as a video or question related to the content being taught, then follow up with an exploration activity. If the engagement or exploration involves text, I use a variety of strategies to help bridge the literacy gap.
For example, sometimes I think aloud while reading the text and have the students follow along. I may divide the text among the students and have them do a jigsaw activity. Each group of students reads and annotates the text using annotation marks that have been standardized and used school-wide. Then, each group presents what they have learned to the rest of the class. As the other groups are "teaching" the rest of the class, students are writing information in their journals.
When the students have completed their presentations, I provide direct instruction related to the text, followed by a check for understanding, such as exit slips or a quick write. Quick writes may require students to answer a question, write a summary, complete a Venn diagram, or write a question of their own.
Next, the students engage in an authentic lab experience or performance assessment. For example, when studying acids and bases, the students participate in an investigation using indicators to identify solutions. They then demonstrate a neutralization reaction between an acid and a base. The students record their observations and write an explanation of what happened when the acid and base were combined.
Writing a descriptive explanation is the most difficult part of a lab experience for my students. I have been working with them on writing from the third-person point of view.
Some educators make the argument for using the first-person in argumentative writing because they believe texts using "I" can be just as well-supported as those that don't. However, my students struggle with starting every sentence with "I think." If they take themselves out of the experience, they are forced to think more critically and objectively about what they want to communicate. I also encourage them to avoid the use of pronouns wherever possible and to write technically using proper science terminology.
Finally, to reinforce the concept, students write an argument based on a real-world scenario. They copy the scenario into their notebook and create a graphic organizer. I provide them with sticky notes on which they write down the evidence to show what happens when an acid and base are combined. All the students place their "evidence" sticky notes in a designated area on the board, and we group them with other similar responses. As a class, we review all of the responses and determine what evidence we want to use.
Step two requires students to repeat the process by writing an inference as to how the scenario could be solved based on the evidence we chose to use. The final step requires them to make a claim by combining their evidence and inference. We review all of the responses as a class.
After the group activity is completed, the students work independently to construct an explanation that solves the scenario. Again, students are required to write in the third person using technical vocabulary.
Bridging the Gap
It is still too early to tell what effect these strategies will have on bridging the literacy gap and helping all my students learn science concepts, but I am confident they will make gains. The strategy extends and expands their scientific reasoning and motivates and focuses their learning, helping all scholars bridge the learning gap.
Theressa Varner is a seventh grade science teacher at the ARMS Academy at Morningside Middle School in Charleston, South Carolina.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2016.