Monday, May 30, 2011

Benchmarking Wonders and Woes

We use the Fountas and Pinnell Benchmarking Kits at our school to assess our students reading levels and determine strengths and needs to plan for instruction at the beginning and end of each school year.  We have been using these kits for about 5 years now, so we are able to begin to dig deeply into them and really analyze them more and more now.

I am maybe a strange duck because I LOVE benchmarking.  I learn so much about kids, the reading process and our teaching every time I benchmark a student.  After each student leaves me, I need to spend at least 5 minutes jotting down revelations and wonders.  Being I do not have my own classroom anymore, I was able to benchmark a range of students at various levels and grades.  I taped the oral reading and conversations to use for teacher trainings/conversations in the future, so that we can really have discussion about our own perceptions about how well a student is really comprehending.  The assessments are subjective, but if we all can listen in on some common reading and talk about it, our subjectivity just might become more standardized.

I had many ah-ha's, wonders, woes and noticings benchmarking this year.  Here was a biggie. . .

1.  I noticed that for many students, meaning breaks down when they are not attending to punctuation.  For many readers who read through periods and dismissed dialogue, the intended message was skewed.  Much was missed.  I did a little research and discovered that sentence structure and dialogue becomes varied at about level I and J.  With effective reading instruction, kids at this level are able to decode many words, read sight words and are pretty strategic.  However, the importance for us to teach students how  "reading the punctuation" to help us understand who is talking and to express feelings becomes even more prevelant. Otherwise, we might be allowing our kids to only receive the surface level meaning.  They maybe only just get "the gist". (When benchmarking, I've found it helpful to add a code for reading through punctuation.  I circle the missed punctuation mark and draw a line through it.  I know this is not a counted miscue, but I think it needs to be noticed, especially if it is a pattern.)

So, I was thinking about how we could address this.  One thing I may encourage teachers to try is to implement 2 different units of study at this level (end of first grade/beginning of second or during guided reading at any level that has this need).  One powerful unit of study is on dialogue.  Significant Studies for Second Grade has a 5 week study on dialogue.  It can be broken up over the year or taught during a continuous 5 weeks.  When I first read this book a few years ago, my thinking was that it was silly to spend so much time on dialogue, but now I see why it's important.  I plan on bringing in various texts at these levels and having teachers study the various sentence structures.  We can than apply the mini-lessons found in this resource to these texts.

The second unit of study to try is one on fluency.  In Teaching for Comprehension and Fluency by Fountas and Pinell, the chapter on fluency is broken down into several components: rate, pausing, intonation, phrasing and integration.  Each component can be modeled and taught separately and then students buddy up and help to support and coach each other.   We developed a 1 - 2 week unit of study for fluency at our 2nd and 3rd grade levels at our school based on this need.  Hopefully, we will begin to notice an increase in attending punctuation in our students' oral reading.

Our kids are actually making huge gains in accuracy and comprehension, overall.  I know our teachers at our school work hard to help them become successful and I am so proud of them.  I am one lucky literacy coach to be working with so many professionals who truly care about their kids.

I will continue to blog on Benchmarking Reflections.  I'm hoping those of you who also use the F & P Benchmarking kits will comment on these reflections and also add your own wonderings.
Shari :-)

The Perfectly Orderly T-E-A-C-H-E-R

One of the things that I highly value is the importance of modeling for teachers as much as possible.  Interactive Read Alouds are the foundation of our reading instruction.  We use them to teach content, model reading strategies and think alouds, notice writer's craft and illustrations and build deep conversations about author's intent and interpretations.

Because interactive reading alouds are so important in the classroom, this makes it even more necessary to model powerful read alouds during teacher trainings.  The trick is to be able to tie them in to relavent content for the training that day.

A couple of weeks ago, I had my last new teacher training for the year.  We attempt to train new teachers for 40 hours during their first year teaching in the area of literacy.  Our last session was focused on planning units of study utilizing the standards, student needs and our resources.

The perfect interactive read aloud to model during this training is The Perfectly Orderly House, by Ellen Kindt McKenszie.  This is a story about an old woman who can not throw anything away and she decides to organize all of her belongings by having enough rooms in her house that start with each letter of the alphabet.  In each room, only items which begin with that letter go into the room.  It's pretty silly when she has to go to the closet to fetch cookies and cakes and her glasses in the garage.  Her organizational system is amiss and she has trouble finding anything.  At the end of the story, she realizes the simple, small four room house she had was all she needed.  It brought her peace.  The big message:  Less is More.

So, how does this tie into planning?  Many ways.  As teachers, we are constantly looking for ideas for the most fantastic lessons, via internet, books, collegues and such.  Of course, we can throw nothing away for we just might need this idea at some  point in time.  Our closets, filing cabinet, desks, computers and classrooms become an utter mess.  Finding anything we need is a task in itself.

A perfect example of this was a story I told for this training. I searched relentlessly online the night before for the perfect icebreaker activity.  I wasted at least an hour googling and going through all my bookmarked sites for that dynamite idea.  Needless to say, I never found it.  I ended up deciding to just do some various reflection notebook entries reflecting on frustrations, memorable moments and goals for the next year.  I've been using writers' notebooks in my classroom for almost 10 years.  Doing notebook entries is something I could do in my sleep.  Why didn't I just go to that in the first place?  Katie Wood Ray stands out in my mind here when she says to "teach from the heart".  We know what to teach, so just teach it.  We don't need some fancy lesson to do it.  Less is more.

The message we can ultimately leave with is that when we attempt to accumulate ton of ideas, activities, lessons, etc., we actually "teach" less.  By spending our precious time searching for the perfect lesson/idea/activity, we are taking time away from looking at our kids.   Think small.

It's a really big lesson to learn for a teacher.  Certainly, you don't want to end up like the old woman who has to go to the basement to fetch the butter.  Keep a few tools in your toolbox.  You'll always know where they are.

Shari :-)

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Building A Conversation

        I'm reading the book Comprehension Through Conversation; The Power of Purposeful Talk in the Reading Workshop by Maria Nichols. All I can say is, "Wow! Where was this book when I first started using interactive read alouds??????"
        As a literacy coach, one question I wonder a lot (along with a lot of teachers) is how do we get kids to talk TO each other, rather than to the teacher?  And, how can we get kids to stay focused on the same idea being discussed rather than to keep switching to their own ideas that totally drop the previous one?  We know that we have to model language that promotes adding on, agreeing and disagreeing, or to clarify a statement and I have seen success with this.  However, it always seems like when we model this language, it seems a little "canned" and not real.  It feels like the kids are saying it because they know I want to hear it whether they actually agree, disagree or even WANT to add on!  Quite often, I would hear a student say, "I disagree." and then go off on a totally different idea!  Ughhh. . .
         Maria Nichols, in her book, tells us that we FIRST have to start with teaching children to "listen with intent", or as some of us call it, "active listening".  Until kids can really listen to each other and think about what the other is saying without their own random thoughts swimming in their mind, they are unable to actually "build a conversation".  She tells us to teach students to "park your thinking for later" if something pops in their heads that is not related to the idea of the speaker. Surprisingly, kids can do this!  I used the "park your thinking" language with a group of second graders and they understand it!  Sometimes their original thoughts that they parked get forgotten, but, that's okay.  If it's really important, it will come up again.  They learn that it is important to build a deeper conversation on one idea to help us all understand each other more, the authors' true messages and shift our thinking.
        Nichols goes on to talk about our teaching of specific language to build a conversation.  You know, the "canned" stuff?  She stresses the importance of encouraging natural talk for having conversation and that if we notice it, much of this talk falls under the categories of agreeing, disagreeing, adding on and clarifying meaning.  For example, these phrases are all natural language for agreeing:
"Oh, yeah. . ."
"That's what I thought, and. . ."
"Me too, because. . ."
"That's just like. . ."
"I agree with you because. . ."
         So, I taped some of our second conversations during a read aloud, and sure enough, that's the language they used.  Before, I was always looking specifically for "I agree. . .", and was totally missing the boat.
         I'm only half way through the book, but I already know that this book is going to be a book study book with our staff.  Just the other day, a third grade teacher told me that she feels we need to go deeper with our interactive read alouds.  I was thinking, "Yup!  This book will take us there."
         Thank you, Maria, for all your insight!  And for helping us all "build conversations"! :-)