Watching our Words...
Sage advice! Our words are reflections of who we are. Our words become our actions. Our field has come a long way in the way we talk about kids. We've become much better about distinguishing between our kids and their behavior. We don't say that a student is bad, instead we describe their behaviors, so we can separate them from the students. As a field, we are now ready to examine the words we use when we talk about our instructional practices. It helps us to make good decisions about This means that we must most especially watch our words when we describe what we do. There are very subtle nuances to the jargon we use when we talk about our work. Here are some important reminders about how to watch our words when thinking, talking, and writing about our teaching.
Often, we're asked to talk about what we do. Sometimes we default to the word defending when talking about our practices. That simply sets others up for an attack. Instead, we have to explain or show what we do. Isn't that what teachers do anyway? If we're in defensive mode, we're not able to most focus on what matters most...the students. Although the climate around us might naturally put us into a defensive mode, it's too large a distraction from our real work. If we do feel the impending attack coming, instead of defending ourselves, we have to teach the heck out of it, modifying what we do to maximize the learning for our kids. We have to keep current on how kids learn best, engaging ourselves in our own professional reading, writing, and talk.
Another legalistic term we should try to avoid is in the teaching of writing and of having ideas. As Vicki Vinton writes in her blog, To Make a Prairie, we have become obsessed with evidence and claims. Vicki writes that the word evidence is almost too "aggressive," and that evidence is a word for crime scenes and courtrooms. She also references an awesome article by Mia Hood that this generation of students is being brought up to think that the only reason text exists is so that it can be used as evidence for something in school. These are definitely true. However, I'd like to relate it to the notion of defending everything we do. Yes, kids should show parts of the text that strengthen their ideas. Yes, they should make sure that those parts of the text line up. Yes, I know that the Standards are riddled with the term "text evidence." However, the entire thing might feel a little less...well, defensive...if we didn't just say, to kids they should find evidence to back up their idea. Maybe we can ask them, "What in the story made you know that's true?" or "How do you know?" It's much more natural in conversation to say it that way. I know we want kids to know the word evidence, especially in this context, but maybe we ought to tie it all together. "What evidence in the story makes you feel that way?"
Another subtle nuance to a word is when we refer to schools as buildings. A school is much more holy than that, because that’s where learning happens that shapes the future of the world. We don’t call houses of worship building. We call them by their true names: church, synagogue, temple, mosque. These indicate that something spiritual is happening in them. When we call school a building, unless we’re talking about the physical plan, we’re devaluing the important work that happens between our walls each day. Schools are schools. They're not apartments. They're not warehouses. They're not factories. They're places where teachers take rooms full of twenty- or thirty-something children, other people's babies, and find the key to making them excited to learn about the world around them. It's not a one-size-fits-all model. Every time we call them buildings we weaken others' impression of us and the work that we do.
Here's one for the principals. When I first became a principal, someone told me they heard I was going to be an administrator. The answer that just came out of my mouth was, "Hey, I don't call you names!" It's true. On the books, we are administrators, but our jobs are so much more than that. You see, an administrator is someone who executes another person's plan. However, principals, especially these days, are called to be so much more. We need to have a vision that takes the expectations of the world around us and makes them work for the hundreds of kids who count on us every day. That takes more than an administrator. That takes a leader. That takes a principal. In fact, the word principal is a remnant from the original job title, "principal teacher," or "head teacher." There are folks out there in the business world who think that anyone can be a teacher if they can manage a school, even if they never, ever set foot in a classroom. Today, principals need to be someone that teachers can turn to for both resources and advice on helping kids learn. Administrators make decisions on what to buy, and how to schedule, and who to hire, and how to evaluate. However, principals and educational leaders do those same things with the perspective of what's good for kids and their learning. The demands of the work are so much more than an administrator can truly deliver. So, let's use the word sparingly, except maybe with those who don't know any better! Calling ourselves principals or leaders is a subtle reminder to those around us about how complex our work really, really is!
It's a tough climate out there in our field! Walk lightly. Talk lightly, but in ways that gently remind others of the important work we do, and that it's all about learning.
Some Ideas about Ideas
In an effort to support our students as they try to analyze and synthesize the way Common Core tells them to, I'd like to offer some ideas about, well, having ideas. Often, when I listen to readers during conferences, there are certain predictable pitfalls into which they stumble. Here are some things for us to have our teacher-radar up about, so that we can help kids on their journey toward thinking at higher levels, like the world demands of them now.
1. Having ideas is more than just a retelling. This is a very basic one that you've definitely encountered if you've been teaching workshop for a while. Kids will sit there with the best of intentions and retell everything they've read, even if they're talking to a partner who may have read the same thing. I often say to kids that that's like going to the movies with a friend, coming out and retelling the movie to the friend. You're not supposed to do that. You're supposed to talk about what you think about what you just saw!
It's like Alfie Kohn says about some kids having had "school done to them." They've been asked to retell so much during their lives that that's what they think good readers do all the time. Instead, we need to have kids really interpret. According to Louise Rosenblatt's "Transactional Theory of Reading and Writing," true interpretation only happens when a text is met by a reader with real personal experiences and ideas. Interpretation feels like a reader is creating new, unique ideas each time he or she reads a text.
Isn't that empowering? You're allowed to have new ideas of your own! There's not one right answer. The albatross can actually represent many things, depending on your own experiences. It adds more value to the student instead of the reading just happening to them.
Yes, retelling is an important part of our teaching. It's a big part of what we do when we assess students' reading comprehension, but it's only a part of comprehension, especially now.
2. There's more to an idea than just predicting. Don't get me wrong. Predicting is good! It's a type of inference that all readers need to do, whatever they're reading, no matter how old they are. However, there's a time and a place to predict. Readers have to make big predictions about the whole text in the beginning, probably the first 20% or so of the book. After that, we continue to predict all the time, but in much smaller ways. We try to predict local details of whatever is going on, but by the middle of the book, we're more trying to affirm if our larger predictions were correct. We're making more educated guesses about how our characters behave, based on what they've done so far. Usually, we're not making Earth-shattering predictions by that point of the text.
There are also many ways to predict...based on personal experience, knowledge of the character, thinking about the situation, looking at illustrations. Predicting can be a way for us to see if kids are starting to synthesize. We can ask them to tell us what they think is going to happen and ask how they know. If they can line up text evidence, particularly if it's from multiple places in the book, it's usually a good sign.
However, when it seems that any time we sit down next to a reader and ask what they're thinking, and they keep trying to guess what's going to happen next, they are probably turning into prediction junkies. If the chronic retellers we read about in the previous section are living in the past of the book, the chronic predictors are living in the future. The best readers who synthesize live in the present of the book...able to understand what's going on because of what's happened already, and looking ahead to what is going to happen...and it all makes sense!
Try this simple Litmus test. During reading workshop, go around and ask all your students to name their idea. See how many of them are predicting, and how many are really theorizing. In the beginning of the book, kids should be predicting (along with empathizing and gathering information about their characters and other story elements), but see how many of them are actually in the beginning of the book when they predict. You can see if the prediction epidemic has swept your class.
3. Synthesis sounds like an answer, not a question. It's true that when readers think about their texts, they wonder and question. However, when we ask them to tell us what they're thinking about, we can do a similar Litmus test by tracking how many of them are stating their ideas, and how many are posing questions. For example, instead of asking, "Is she going to open up to her parents?" try pushing students toward saying, "I don't think she's going to open up to her parents," or even stronger [because it's not just about a specific event] "I think she and her parents aren't very open with each other." The best thinking sounds like a generalization that's supported by text evidence.
Sometimes, kids go for the question form of thought because it's safer. They don't run the risk of being wrong, but it actually holds them back. You can explain to them that it's like a scientist's hypothesis. It's a good guess that will probably change as we keep on reading.
4. Ideas develop across chapters. This means that just because I thought one thing in the beginning of the book, I don't have to agree with myself later on. It's not exactly the black-and-white of confirming whether I was right or wrong. Instead it's all shades of gray! For example, in Skinnybones by Barbara Park, I might be thinking in the beginning of the story that Alex is a joker. I see that in Chapters 1 and 2. When I'm in Chapters 8 and 9, I shouldn't be thinking exactly the same thing...it's not about whether or not he's a joker, but in what way [if being a joker is still a relevant thing to be thinking about.]
I can use some [what I call] filter questions to think about what's going on in the story. Some great filter questions include, "In what ways is (Alex a joker?)" or "In what situations is (Alex a joker?)" When kids read and reread with these lenses, we arrive at much more deep thinking, like, "Alex is a joker who uses his sense of humor to hide his sadness, because he's just not good at baseball." If you think about it, Skinnybones is a Level O text. Kids are expected to do this kind of thinking in this text, or it really isn't just right!! We need to be teaching toward this level of synthesis, even at Level O! If you feel this is too hard for a particular student, it might not be the right level [even if they are getting all the words right!]
5. All this is true...even in nonfiction! The reading of nonfiction is getting even more and more attention these days [as it rightfully should]. I remember thinking that reading nonfiction should feel like collecting all the Snapple cap facts in the world! However, it's now more synthesizing, just like in fiction.
It's not enough to just accumulate thousands of facts about a topic, but to grow original ideas and theories that continue to grow as we read on. Instead of, "Polar bears have black skin and translucent fur," you should think, "The polar bear uses the colors of its body to survive the cold weather because..."
You can also take your theory and place it into the container of a larger topic. Take the polar bear example and say, "Many animals use various parts of their body to survive in their habitat," and then read up on some other animals. This can possibly lead to tweaks in the theory as you read on.
Text evidence is just as important in nonfiction, as it is in fiction. The minor details used to be all kids would gather. However, today, it's just text evidence--crucial to hold on to, not because it shows we remember details, but because those details strengthen the good ideas we are having.
So, there you have it! Five big ideas about having big ideas in reading. I hope it prompts us all to have new ideas about the teaching having ideas in reading. When we read to create meaning and ideas about the world around us, and the stories we read, the entire act of reading will seem so much more important!
It's October! Congratulations! You made it through a month of school. Our feet are officially wet. We've come off of summer vacation and made it through about 20 days of school. Some cynics might say we've survived, but I like to think we've helped kids (and ourselves) to become 20 days smarter than they were. Awesome!
We might still have a little bit of juice left over from summer vacation, so there is still hope for some of our new school year resolutions to still happen, before we get totally caught up in the hamster wheel of day-to-day teaching. In an attempt to commit to my own resolutions, I'd like to publicly share some of them...my to-do list that I hope to make come true this year...so that I can stick to them and encourage you to do the same.
Make time for something in your teaching life. Think of the thing you realize or remember in January or April and you say, "If only I had time," or "I am definitely doing that next year!" Even if you haven't done it yet, it's still not too late. For me, it's making sure that I compliment someone, whether a teacher or a student, every time I walk into a classroom. Those positive conversations are critical toward building a learning community, and we principals often hurry-hurry-hurry to move along, because there is just so much to do, when this is really the most important thing there is.
This habit of making time for something in your teaching life might be a thing that takes a minute or two each day--adding word to your word wall every day or two, having a vocabulary moment, reading one more short read aloud, sharing a piece of your own writing. You can force yourself to add this in to morning meeting or in the 5 minutes right after lunch.
It might be about something in your teaching that you've sort of neglected because of all the other things you've had to pay attention to recently. Maybe it's making sure you pay a compliment in every conference. Maybe the active involvement of your minilesson has gotten away from you. Maybe the notes you keep during conferring need a bit of an overhaul. Do whatever you can to get that back!
Make time for something in your learning life. For me, this is making sure that I engage in some of my own professional reading or writing every day. This means that every day, I'm committing myself to blogging, or writing something for school, or crafting something that might become an article, or something else. This means that every day, I'm committing myself to reading the newest issue of Ed Leadership or some other professional journal, chipping away at my ever-growing pile of books that I'm hoping to read, or one of the countless blogs that are on my list of favorites like (here come the plugs!) Vicki Vinton's To Make a Prairie, Donalyn Miller's Book Whisperer, Marilyn Burns' math blog, Chris Lehman's new Educators' Collaborative, or anything on Edutopia, or checking out some TED Talks.
So, what is that for you? What will you do to nurture the learner in yourself? Maybe you want to rekindle the collegial relationship you used to have with a grade partner or someone. Maybe you're ready to dive into a study group or a new network with colleagues. Or maybe, there's an article or workshop brewing inside of you. (Remember, conference proposals for next November's NCTE Convention are due in January, so you're right on time!) Set a goal now...it's only October.
Finally, make time for something in your personal life. Pay attention to yourself, or you won't be able to work miracles in your professional life. Make weekends about weekends. Splurge on an extra 5 minutes after the alarm goes off, a funny movie, or TV time with your family. Go to the gym. Jog. Hike. Breathe. Then breathe some more. Garden. Cook. Scrapbook. Read for fun. Connect with old friends. Some people think you can't achieve balance in your life if you take your career seriously. That's simply not true...you have to do both, and it's not 50/50. It's 100/100. The other part of striking balance is not the total separation of the two...but the melding of them. Be a better teacher because of everything else you do. Be a better everything, because you are a teacher!
Let's all do this together in the name of balance, in the name of learning, and in the name of kids!
You need a learner's soul, a teacher's heart, a coach's mind, and a principal's hand!