Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Teaching Literacy in Authentic Contexts

Recently, the third grade team was reviewing language standards (from the MN K-12 Academic Standards in English Language Arts, 2010) as they collaboratively planned how they would teach their students about nouns. The third grade language benchmark states that a third grader must "Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking" including: 
  • Explain the function of nouns ... in general and their functions in particular sentences.
  • Form and use regular and irregular plural nouns.
  • Use abstract nouns (e.g., childhood)
Before students are able to tackle these complex grammatical ideas, teachers knew they needed to first teach some prerequisite skills to their students. The teachers decided to focus their upcoming grammar instruction on being able to identify and create common and proper nouns.

In our Primary Years Program (PYP), "learners' needs are best served when they have opportunities to engage in learning within meaningful contexts," (p. 68 of Making the PYP Happen). The authors go on to explain that it is the school's responsibility to provide authentic contexts for language teaching and learning in all areas of the curriculum. Not only is this a requirement of the PYP, but teaching literacy concepts, processes, strategies, and skills in meaningful, authentic, relevant, engaging, and challenging contexts is considered best practice. After all, it is in authentic contexts that we adults actually use those literacy processes that we learned in primary school, so why shouldn't our students learn them in this way?

In their current unit of inquiry, Who We Are, students are constructing an understanding of the central idea that community forms when people realize they have things in common. During the unit, students study those who have left their community to come to a new one.

One way students learn about this is by reading the book The Long Way to a New Land by Joan Sandin. Since students were already reading the book, the teacher had the students use the text to learn more about common and proper nouns. Students were instructed to read through the book, identifying common and proper nouns by sorting them onto a t-chart that the students created from a blank sheet of paper. Common nouns on one side and proper nouns on the other.

When the students were given the chance to develop this literacy skill in a meaningful context they were motivated and engaged. And because the task was relevant, significant, and tied to the other learning that they were doing, students learned! When the teacher tested the students ability to identify and create common and proper nouns, all of her students (100%) demonstrated proficiency.

After reading about how one teacher successfully taught literacy, specifically grammar, in authentic context, how could you or have you explicitly taught literacy concepts, processes, strategies, or skills in authentic contexts?

Monday, September 22, 2014

The initial stage of an inquiry

In 2012, representatives from the International Baccalaureate evaluated our Primary Years Program. Among the 52 recommendations that came from that report was the following:

The staff review their planning process to ensure pre-assessment, with a variety of assessment strategies and tools, is included in order to consider students' prior knowledge so that learning can build on what students know and can do.

Before new learning can begin, students' current knowledge, skills, and conceptual understandings must be considered. However, this is not the only thing that happens in the initial stage of an inquiry. Provocations should also invite students to wonder and be curious.

At our public school, we do not often guide students through open inquiries, where they can investigate that which is intrinsically of interest to them. Therefore, it is extremely important that we work hard at the initial stage of an inquiry to get kids interested in the concepts/topics taken from the academic standards on which our units of inquiry are based.

In order to pre-assess her students knowledge, skills, and understanding and to get them interested in an inquiry under the Transdisciplinary Theme Who We Are, one third grade teacher lead her students through a Visible Thinking Routine Chalk Talk (from Making Thinking Visible by Ritchhart, Church, and Morrison).

Central idea: Community forms when people realize they have things in common.

An inquiry into:
  • Maps
  • Why people settle
  • Family histories and the histories of others
  • A student's place in the world
This teacher posed questions rooted in the Key Concepts of the PYP that fit with the lines of inquiry for this unit. Her purpose for leading her students through this silent conversation was to make their thinking visible so she could assess what her students already knew, were able to do, and understood. She also was inviting her students to think, to wonder, and to be curious about the topics they would be investigating.

As this teacher demonstrates, Chalk Talk is certainly a great assessment tool that gets students interested in the topics about to be investigated.

Below are some additional strategies, tools, and ideas that teachers can use to enter into the inquiry cycle with their students, from different researchers and educators who have created different models of the complex inquiry process.

Creators: Teachers at my school (created during a staff development day)
Initial stage calledInvitation
  • Invites students to wonder about a topic
    • Visual thinking routine: I notice, I think, I wonder
  • Creates a safe environment to take risks/ask questions
  • Allows a space for kids to think outside the box
  • Fully engages students
  • Ignites authentic interest in topics
  • Creates a desire to know/understand something
  • Captures the hearts, brains, and spirits of kids
  • Builds background
  • Starts with aspects that are interesting to students
  • Identifies topics to study (if based on standards)
  • Considers learners’ prior experience and current understanding
  • Pre-assess students to learn what they know, understand, and can do prior to the study
  • Wonder about a topic
    • What is it like that?
    • How does it work?
  • Identify what they already know
  • Are fully engaged
  • Get excited
  • Become curious
  • Are motivated
CreatorsStephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels
Initial stage calledImmerse: invite curiosity, build background, find topics, and wonder

  • Plans instruction and teaches with central curriculum concepts and focus questions in mind
  • Gathers and organizes curriculum materials and resources
  • Immerse kids in multiple sources to build background knowledge
  • Invites curiosity, questioning, engagement
  • Models own curricular inquiry
  • Conducts think-alouds with text and materials related to the curricular topic
  • Demonstrates how to ask questions about curricular topics
  • Facilitates small-group formation to ensure heterogeneous groups with compatible interests
  • Confers with small groups and individuals
  • Express their own curiosity
  • Explore, experience, and learn about topics using texts, visuals, Internet, artifacts, etc.
  • Read, listen, and view to build background knowledge about the curricular topic.
  • Talk, write, and draw in response to instruction
  • Wonder and ask questions
  • Meet with teams to set schedules, ground rules, and goals.

CreatorsKath Murdoch
Initial stage calledTuning In

  • Establishing the 'known'
  • Connecting to students' lives
  • Create a sense of purpose for inquiry
  • Invite first thinking
  • First invitation for questions
  • Ask:
    • What theories do we have?
    • How do you already understand this?
    • What connections can you already make?
    • How could we find out more about this?

CreatorsThe 5E Instructional Cycle
Initial stage called:Engage
  • poses problems
  • asks questions
  • reveals discrepancies
  • causes disequilibrium or doubt
  • assess prior knowledge

  • calls up prior knowledge
  • has an interest
  • experiences doubt or disequilibrium
  • has a question(s)
  • identifies problems to solve, decisions to be made, conflicts to be resolved
  • writes questions, problems, etc.
  • develops a need to know
  • self reflects and evaluates

Creating rubrics with students

In 2012, representatives from the International Baccalaureate evaluated our Primary Years Program. Among the 52 recommendations that came from that report was the following:

"The school provides further opportunities for students to participate in the assessment of their work, help develop assessment tools, and reflect on the assessment of their work. The school continues to support students in documenting peer/self-assessment activities to enable them to reflect on these over a period of time."

When our school’s staff had a chance to reflect on the recommendations contained in the report, one staff member commented: “I know we can create a rubric with the students, but I struggle with the ‘how’.”

Assessment in the classroom will include, among other things, developing clear rubrics, (Making the PYP Happenp. 45). In that document, a rubric is defined as, "an established set of criteria for rating students in all areas. The descriptors tell the assessor what characteristics or signs to look for in students' work and then how to rate that work on a predetermined scale. Rubrics can be developed by students as well as by teachers," (p. 49). 

Developing a rubric with students is important because they deserve to know the criteria on which their behavior, creations, performance, and thinking will be judged. When students have a hand in creating rubrics together with their teacher, they have a better understanding of what is expected of them and they also feel included.

One third grade teacher recently created a rubric with her students, outlining the expectations that they have for each other during "work time".

To begin, the teacher asked students to give her examples of "work time" that they had already experienced in third grade. Responses given included:
  • Morning work
  • Personal histories (unit of inquiry)
  • Grit reading (independent work time)
  • Portfolios
Next, the teacher set the purpose and explained what a rubric was with the following slides: 

To help guide their rubric creation, the teacher gave the students the criteria (focus & commitment, independent work/reading, small/guided reading group) and the predetermined scale (zones 1, 3, & 5). 

To create the descriptors for each zone, the teacher first asked students to identify exemplar behaviors for each category (Zone 5). Students were instructed to turn and talk with a neighbor to discuss ideas before sharing with the whole class.

Once students had collectively identified the behaviors that were favorable, students worked together to fill in descriptors for Zone 1, the behaviors to avoid. Again, students were invited to talk with a neighbor before a whole-class discussion ensued.

Finally students collaboratively thought about the kinds of behavior that one would exhibit to be in Zone 3.

Next, the teacher showed pictures of the students that she had previously taken during work time and asked the kids to place the students in the pictures in a particular zone, according to the criteria that they had just discussed. This practice allowed the teacher to formatively assess the students' understanding of the descriptors they had just created and would eventually be judged against.

Rubrics are important assessment tools and involving students in the creation of rubrics helps them better understand what is expected of them. After reading about how one third grade teacher created a rubric with her students, how could you or have you created a rubric with your students in your classroom?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Zoom In

A fifth grade teacher recently used the visible thinking routine Zoom In (from Making Thinking Visible by Ritchhart, Church, and Morrison) with her students to help them describe, infer and interpret multiplication arrays.

Read about the experience in the teacher's own words:

Beforehand, I created a simple picture array of identical plants, 3 rows by 6 columns, 18 total plants.

To start off, I told the students that we would start digging into our first math unit and we would be using the visible thinking routine Zoom In to help us do that. I explained that we’d start by looking at a small part of a picture and we’d reveal a little bit more each time. Their job was to observe and jot down what they noticed on their whiteboards.

First, I showed them just one plant.

The students focused on observations of what was in the picture - describing the plant.

Between each round, students shared out their observations and I recorded them on the SMART board. By having students share their thinking, it allowed their classmates to hear what others were thinking and noticing. This helped in making their own observations as they added on to what other students had shared. It also allowed me to ask students to tell more and explain what their thinking meant or how they came up with their predictions.

The next zoom moved across the row to show one more plant, doubling the plants but not yet revealing a full row or column. I asked them to again observe: "What did they see? What new things did they notice? How did their thinking change based on the new parts of the picture they were seeing?"

There were still many plant-based observations and a few mathematical words started to pop out (doubling, multiplying).

Again, I recorded their thinking on the board, as students shared their thinking.

Round 3 revealed two full columns. I reminded students at the beginning of this round that we were looking at the picture as mathematicians and asked them to think about their observations with a math mindset.

Again they wrote down observations, noting how their thinking had changed and how they might think about the picture mathematically. During this round, students independently began predicting what they thought might come next in the picture without any prompting from me.

A synthesis of the class's thinking:

Round 4 revealed a full row, in addition to the 2 full columns they had seen in the previous round. 

During this round of observations, students had discovered the pattern of rows and columns, and most observations focused on predictions of how many plants were going to be in the full picture. Some students were observing using row-and-column strategies, while others were using multiples of 3 or 6.

Everyone's thinking together:

In the last round, the full array was displayed.

By this point, all students could name it as an array and write the corresponding number sentence.

Everyone's thinking after the last Zoom In round:

To wrap up, I asked students to draw another array for 18. All students were able to create another array, which showed me they all understood the concept of a rectangular array and equal rows and columns.

After reading about how this 5th grade teacher used the visible thinking routine Zoom In to help her students describe, infer, and interpret in math, how could you use a visible thinking routine to help your students think deeply about mathematical concepts?

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Circle of Viewpoints

During the first several weeks of school, students and teachers must "spell out expectations, articulate rules, and establish predictable structures," say the authors of The First Six Weeks of School. Denton and Kriete go on to explain that students are able to participate, focus, ask thoughtful questions, cooperate and collaborate when they know what is expected of them.

Arguably one of the most important expectations to lay out during the first few weeks of school is how students in your classroom will be expected to THINK. They'll be expected to participate, to engage, and to dig deeply into life's big ideas, called key and related concepts in the Primary Years Program (PYP).

Therefore, during the first six weeks, in addition to knowing how to care for materials, to fill out their agendas, and to walk in line, students should also be introduced to the thinking routines that they'll use throughout the year.

One sixth grade teacher has been using various thinking routines since day one as a way to not only introduce her students to the expectations and routines of sixth grade, but also to introduce the particular thinking routines they'll use during the year. In this post, I'll explain how she used the visible thinking routine Circle of Viewpoints (from Making Thinking Visible by Ritchhart, Church, and Morrison) to help her students investigate not only how to walk in line in the hallway, but also why they should walk that way.

First, to introduce the concept of perspective, the teacher invited her students to sit in a circle and take note of what they were able to see. Then, she had the students sit in a different spot and take note of how their viewpoint had changed. As a class, they discussed that when you have a different vantage point, you see things differently and your perspective changes.

Then, as a class, the students identified the different perspectives that could be present in or affected by them walking down the hall in line.

Their original list included:

  • 6th graders
  • teachers
  • kindergartners
  • friends
  • Mr. Riley/Mr. Bretoi (the building principals)
  • other classes
  • lunch ladies
  • specialist teachers
Then, students choose one of those perspectives to explore further, using the following prompt as a starting place:

"I think ... [describe the topic from your viewpoint. Be an actor - take on the character of your viewpoint]. Because ... [explain your reasoning]"

To begin, the teacher modeled taking on the perspective of a kindergartner seeing a group of sixth graders walking in line. Then, students worked in small groups to investigate the other viewpoints present. Students took turns sharing their newly adopted perspectives with the rest of the class.

Some groups decided to tackle the prompt: "A question/concern I have from this viewpoint is ...," but not all groups did.

The next day, students wanted to further investigate the perspectives of:

  • substitutes
  • WIN teachers
  • parents
  • visitors
  • janitors
  • secretaries
  • nurses
  • cameras
Here are some students' thoughts that they shared:

“We’re looking at line basics from the viewpoint of the cameras and we think it is going to be Miss Linda watching the cameras. There are cameras everywhere so even if you think you’re hidden and not being in line, you’re still being watched and you could still get in trouble.”

“We’re looking at line basics from the viewpoint of other sixth graders and I think that if the sixth graders are watching the other sixth graders and the line is straight and no one is talking, they can do the same thing.”

“We’re looking at line basics from the viewpoint of friends. If I see one of my friend talking in the hallway, I would want to talk to them, because they’re my friend and I would want to talk to them. The question I have is, ‘Will I get in trouble for talking to them?’”

“We’re looking at line basics from the viewpoint of the custodians. One concern I have is that if kids aren’t in a straight line, they could end up bumping over our cleaning supplies.”

The teacher plans to continually remind her students of the understandings constructed during this thinking routine. Since this lesson that spanned two days, the teacher noted that the students have added the perspective of "art on the wall" to their list.

After reading about how this sixth grade teacher used Circle of Viewpoints within the first few days of school, how could you use visible thinking routines to expose your students to the kinds of THINKING they'll be expected to do throughout the year?

The Explanation Game

During the first few weeks of school, it is important to spell out essential expectations, rules, and predictable structures with students so that they are able to fully participate and engage in learning (The First Six Weeks of School by Denton and Kriete).

To help her students inquire into how to safely use two different kinds of stability balls in her Special Education Setting III classroom, one teacher used the visible thinking routine The Explanation Game (from Making Thinking Visible by Ritchhart, Church, and Morrison). 

Note: Special Education Setting III includes students who spend more than 60% of their day outside of the general classroom. This teacher works with students in kindergarten through third grade who have emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD).


During The Explanation Game thinking routine, students were asked to take a close look at the two types of stability balls (pictured above) that they were trying to understand and then:
  1. Name it. Name a feature or aspect of the object that you notice.
  2. Explain it. What could it be? What role or function might it serve? Why might it be there?
  3. Give reasons. What makes you say that? Or why do you think it happened that way?
  4. Generate alternatives. What else could it be? And what makes you say that?
The teacher said that the routine worked "SO WELL!" She went on to explain that the ideas the students generated were much higher-level than they have done in the past. Their ideas included "using it for floating in a lake because I can’t swim" and "squeezing it when I’m really upset."

The teacher decided to allow her students to verbally respond instead of having them write anything down, which allowed students to freely share ideas throughout the activity. Then, on their own, the students decided to reach an essential agreement about the stability balls after they had gone through the thinking routine because they had decided the stability balls could be dangerous to themselves or others if used incorrectly.

The teacher also led the students through a similar process to introduce the squeeze machine (pictured below).

Although the teacher already had a rule sheet printed up (pictured below), she gave students the opportunity to independently come up with the rules before she showed it to them.

Allowing students to create the rules themselves gives them a sense of ownership, which may increase the likelihood that they'll follow them in the future.

After reading about how this teacher used the visible thinking routine The Explanation Game with her students in Special Education Setting III, how could you use this thinking routine with your students to look closely at materials they'll be using throughout the year?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Got Grit? Writing a conceptual statement with 4th graders

In her TED Talk, Angela Lee Duckworth describes grit as:
  • passion and perseverance for very long-term goals.
  • having stamina.
  • sticking with your future, day in, day out not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years and working really hard to make that future a reality.
  • and living life like its a marathon, not a sprint.
As I was planning a learning engagement where students would be able to construct a conceptual understanding of grit, I originally had thought of reading them a picture book in which the main character perseveres in the face of adversity and eventually achieves a formidable goal.

But instead, I planned for students to play a counting game* so relatively difficult that it would be impossible for them to succeed. I imagined that this experience would allow students to demonstrate the necessary soft skills to succeed at any challenging task; in other words, I wanted students to show grit.

To add another dimension to the learning activity, I split the kids into two groups and led the game in completely different ways. With the second group of kids out in the hallway, I quickly introduced the game to the first group of kids, did not let them ask questions about the instructions, and showed great impatience whenever anyone made a mistake. As we played the game, students grew agitated and nervous and their performance reflected that. After five minutes, they hadn't been able to count past 17. Visibly frustrated, I told them we would have to give up because it was time for the second group to go.

When the second group returned to the classroom, I completely changed the way I acted and spoke. Adopting a growth mindset perspective (Carol Dweck), I clearly explained the instructions, asked them if there were any questions before starting, and showed great patience when the students made mistakes. I continually reminded them that the game was difficult and we might not reach our goal today, but we must work hard, remain focused and work together to see how far we could get. Every time a student messed up, we'd analyze what happened and make sure everyone understood the error so we could learn from the mistake. Within minutes, the kids exceeded the first group, reaching 22 before we had to stop.

To continue our investigation of grit, I had the class answer three questions using the visible thinking routine Chalk Talk (from Making Thinking Visible by Ritchhart, Church, and Morrison).

After students had the opportunity to discuss on paper, we synthesized their responses together by examining what everyone had written.

To provide students with one more concrete example of grit, I read Shel Silverstein's The Little Blue Engine (Where the Sidewalk Endsp. 158), a poem that teaches the idea that when taking on a challenging goal, one must do more than just THINK you can.

Finally, I asked the students to consider the game, the responses to the Chalk Talk questions, and the poem as they came up with a single statement summarizing what they should do when they face a challenging goal. 

Each color represents an additional idea students wanted to add to the statement, which started with "Keep on trying". After students were done collectively editing and revising their statement, we tested to see if it was Timeless, Abstract, Universal, and Transferrable.
After reading about how students in fourth grade wrote a conceptual statement, synthesizing what they had learned about persistence, resilience, and grit, how could you lead your students through an investigation that would allow them to construct understanding of this complex concept?

*For those who are curious, the seemingly impossible game we played was Buzz. To play Buzz, students take turns counting in sequence out loud. Each player says one number. Every time a particular number comes up (see which numbers below), the student says "buzz" instead of the number and the order reverses direction. For the version we played, students needed to "buzz" on the following numbers:
  • numbers with a 7 (7, 17, 27, 37, 47)
  • numbers divisible by 7 (7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49)
  • numbers with a repeating digit (11, 22, 33, 44)
The game is "won" when the group reaches 50. Every time someone makes an error, the group must start over at 0.