Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

Monthly Update sign up
Follow The Annenberg Learner on Facebook Follow Annenberg Learner on Twitter
Mailing List signup
Search
Follow The Annenberg Learner on LinkedIn Follow The Annenberg Learner on Facebook Follow Annenberg Learner on Twitter
MENU

Preparing Students to Read

Written by WGBH Education for Annenberg Learner, Part 3 of 3 (Go to Part 1 and Part 2)

LIT 7

Check out the new Reading & Writing in the Disciplines professional development course.

Accessing Prior Knowledge

When students read, their prior knowledge greatly impacts how they comprehend a text and learn new information from it. This prior knowledge includes both school-based and personal experiences, including previous instruction, academic and out-of-school texts, personal experiences, videos and movies, and discussions with teachers and peers. It is critical that readers are able to connect this prior knowledge to new learning for the most effective understanding of text ideas.

But prior knowledge isn’t just what students know about the topic itself; it’s also what they know about how to read a particular type of text, such as understanding the text structure, text features, language structures, and strategies for learning new information.

For example, students may come to a history unit about abolition knowing something about the slave trade, Abraham Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass. But they may also have an understanding of how to identify organizational text structures often found in history texts (e.g., cause and effect, problem/solution), how to use different text features that support informational text (e.g., headings, captions, timelines), and/or how to analyze, synthesize, and corroborate ideas by comparing and contrasting sources on the same topic.

Given that students will have a range of prior knowledge as they begin a particular reading, teachers need to assess the text (what prior knowledge is necessary for effective comprehension of new content) and the students (what they already know). Based on this assessment, teachers decide what content knowledge students need to develop, how to access it using a variety of resources, and how to help students connect what they know to new learning. It’s important to note that even when students possess prior knowledge, they often need reminders to activate and connect it to specific reading situations.

Setting a Purpose for Reading

Many students, especially struggling readers, have difficulty determining important information during and after reading, particularly as the disciplinary texts become more complex. Having a specific purpose for reading will support students’ comprehension of important text ideas, focus their attention on the text and accompanying text features, and provide motivation for learning new content. However, too often, students are given a generic purpose, such as reading a chapter to answer concluding questions. In this case, the purpose is simply to complete a task after reading.

In contrast, a specific purpose should address the text content—important information, key concepts, and author’s purpose or point of view. For example, in science, students may read to compare and contrast features of sustainable and non-sustainable energy. In math, they may read real world earthquake measurement data and use that information to create and interpret a graph.

In the earlier grades, teachers usually set a purpose for students before they read. However, the goal of this important component of reading is for students to learn how to set their own purpose as independent readers. As students become more proficient readers in each discipline, teachers may continue to model setting a purpose while still encouraging students to determine their own purpose, build upon their knowledge, and think more critically about text ideas. Setting a purpose often occurs before reading; however, as students read, they may revise their purposes and set new goals for learning. For example, a student may set an initial reading purpose of identifying the causes of the Civil War. During reading, the student may refine this purpose to focus on specific causes related to different geographical regions of the United States. In science, students may set a purpose for reading an article on climate change to understand the factors related to this issue. As they read, they may revise this purpose to discover specific human behavior that affects climate change. Again, this sophistication develops as a student gains an expanding view of the topic.

Using Prior Knowledge to Set a Purpose

Not surprisingly, students’ ability to set their own purpose for reading is closely tied to their prior knowledge. In other words, students must have a general understanding related to the topic in order to set a purpose for reading about it. A familiar strategy for connecting prior knowledge with purposes for reading is the KWL (Know-Want to Know-Learn) strategy (Ogle, D., 1986). With this practice, students determine what they already know about a topic, what information they want to know related to the topic, and finally, what they learned after reading and discussion. This process promotes connecting prior knowledge to new information, which leads to effective learning. Charting these understandings helps students to engage in the process of reading to learn. Also, teachers must have a clear understanding of what needs to be learned about a topic, because in many instances students have difficulty identifying what they want to learn due to limited understanding of the topic. These student and teacher understandings before reading influence the teaching that will occur.

Ogle, D. (1986). K-W-L: A teaching model that develops active reading of expository text. The Reading Teacher, 39 (6), 564-570.

Are you ready to incorporate discipline literacy strategies into your curriculum? Learn how with Reading and Writing in the Disciplines. – See more at: http://learnerlog.org/socialstudies/how-does-discipline-literacy-differ-from-content-area-literacy/?preview=true&preview_id=3168&preview_nonce=8d8bf65a26#sthash.6JEXI13f.dpuf

Are you ready to incorporate discipline literacy strategies into your curriculum? Learn how with Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

Read part 1 of this blog series on discipline literacy: “How Does Discipline Literacy Differ from Content-area Literacy?” and part 2: “Literacy in the 21st Century.”

Literacy in the 21st Century

Written by WGBH Education for Annenberg Learner, Part 2 of 3 (Go to Part 1 and Part 3)

LIT 16“Literacy is no longer a static construct from the standpoint of its defining technology for the past 500 years; it has now come to mean a rapid and continuous process of change in the ways in which we read, write, view, listen, compose, and communicate information.” (Coiro, Knobel, Lankshear, & Leu, 2014. Handbook of research on new literacies.)

Traditional views of literacy learning and development are changing to reflect a more global view of understanding and communicating in today’s increasingly complex world. It will come as no surprise that students spend a lot of time using technology outside of school. But what teachers are beginning to think more about is how this explosion of technology impacts the ways students read, write, think, and communicate about their world. Whether engaged in social media, texting, making videos, sharing images, reading e-books, or navigating the Internet, students are using a variety of literacy practices and tools. Combining these practices with other outside-of-school activities in which literacy plays a part—such as independent reading, writing, performance, and even sport—it becomes evident that many students engage in substantial literacy-based activities beyond their schoolwork. There is a high degree of motivation when students select their literacy practices and venues. Given this, it is important for teachers to understand the out-of-school literacy practices students bring to school and to relate them to school-based learning. This connection will expand and enhance their use of multiple literacies.

“Students engage in literacy practices and learning outside of school, learning they consider powerful and important. Typical approaches to secondary school content learning often overlook the learning and literacy practices that youth engage in apart from their school-based, content learning (Moje, 2008).”

Given the knowledge and expertise students have in using technology outside of school, digital literacy can play a significant role in school as a way to maximize productive learning. This requires instruction in new literacies, including how to determine where to find relevant information, analyze and evaluate websites, summarize and synthesize important information, incorporate videos, music, and other media of students’ choice into performance assessments, and produce projects that illustrate understanding. For example, when students are taught to evaluate the authenticity and reliability of websites, they are using the social studies strategies of sourcing and contextualization. When students create or locate images, or incorporate music into a project, they are making connections and demonstrating their interpretation and synthesis of key ideas. When done effectively, technology can provide a critical connection between home and school literacy and change the often-held view by students that reading and writing are things you only “do” in school.

For examples of how to blend these practices, check out the following:

Lapp, Fisher, Frey and Gonzalez (2014). Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 58(3) November 2014 doi: 10.1002/jaal.353 © 2014 International Reading Association (pp. 182–188).

Lapp, Thayre, Wolsey, Fisher, 2014. June 2014 doi:10.1598/e-ssentials.8056 © 2014 International Reading Association.

Are you ready to incorporate discipline literacy strategies into your curriculum? Learn how with Reading & Writing in the Disciplines.

Read part 1 of this blog series on discipline literacy: “How Does Discipline Literacy Differ from Content-area Literacy?” and part 3: “Preparing Students to Read

How Does Discipline Literacy Differ from Content-area Literacy? – See more at: http://learnerlog.org/socialstudies/how-does-discipline-literacy-differ-from-content-area-literacy/?preview=true&preview_id=3168&preview_nonce=8d8bf65a26#sthash.6JEXI13f.dpuf
How Does Discipline Literacy Differ from Content-area Literacy? – See more at: http://learnerlog.org/socialstudies/how-does-discipline-literacy-differ-from-content-area-literacy/?preview=true&preview_id=3168&preview_nonce=8d8bf65a26#sthash.6JEXI13f.dpuf

How Does Discipline Literacy Differ from Content-area Literacy?

Written by WGBH Education for Annenberg Learner, Part 1 of 3 (Go to Part 2 and Part 3)

LIT 15

Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

When students enter middle and high school, their teachers expect them to have mastered the basic skills and strategies necessary for reading and comprehending texts across disciplines and genres. Is this always the reality? Do the skills and strategies they’ve developed serve them equally well when they read a scientific journal article, mathematical proof, historical primary source document, Shakespearean sonnet, and technical paper?

The answer is, no. While basic strategies such as making connections, asking questions, inferring, summarizing, and monitoring understanding are important when reading across subjects, they are not sufficient unless they can be adapted to each discipline. Even if students have mastered these basic skills, they may still struggle to understand, analyze, interpret, and evaluate important ideas in discipline-specific texts because they do not have the topical language and specialized reading practices that are used by scientists, mathematicians, historians, literary analysts, and technical specialists. To understand how each discipline produces and communicates key ideas, students need to know what is specifically involved when reading across these disciplines. So how exactly is this discipline literacy different from content-area literacy?

Content-area Literacy

Content-area literacy strategies are traditionally defined as the basic set of strategies students use when reading and responding to texts, with little differentiation being made across the content-area subjects. For example, students may learn techniques for determining important information, making inferences, asking questions, and summarizing. They would then apply these strategies when reading science, history, and math.

Discipline Literacy

Discipline literacy skills support students in moving beyond the general reading strategies as they develop specialized practices for making sense of discipline-based texts through reading, writing, and oral language. These practices include understanding how information is presented in each discipline: organization of important information; specialized vocabulary and syntactic nuances; use of text features; and interpretation and evaluation of evidence. The focus is on teaching students different ways of thinking as they encounter texts by developing reader identities within each discipline—to become expert readers and communicators in a discipline by reading, writing, and talking like a historian, a scientist, a mathematician, etc.

Essentially, “[t]he difference is that content literacy emphasizes techniques that a novice might use to make sense of a discipline text (such as how to study a history book for an examination) while discipline literacy emphasizes the unique tools that the experts in a discipline use to engage in the work of that discipline” (Shanahan and Shanahan, 2012, p. 8).

What Does This Mean for Instruction?

It has been an unspoken expectation that elementary teachers would help students have content-area literacy skills in place by middle school. In contrast, the expectation around discipline literacy is that it’s the job of discipline teachers to build these skills. But in reality, these are not isolated tasks.

The Common Core State Standards have placed an emphasis on the need for ELA and discipline teachers to share the responsibility for teaching and assessing mastery of the ELA Standards. While this call for shared responsibility is certainly a change from what has occurred in schools for decades, it’s important because it has now been documented that discipline experts approach the reading of texts differently (Shanahan and Shanahan, 2008).

This does not mean that discipline teachers must also add “reading teacher” to the many hats they already wear. Rather, it means that they should model and share their own strategies for how to approach a text, how to determine and synthesize key ideas, how to critically evaluate the content, and how to engineer new possibilities. After all, who else is better able to support the reading of texts within a discipline than a discipline expert who knows the language and understands how students acquire text-based information?

They are, after all, the experts.

Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2008). Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: Rethinking content-area literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 78(1), 40–59.

Are you ready to incorporate discipline literacy strategies into your curriculum? Learn how with Reading & Writing in the Disciplines.

Read part 2 of this blog series on discipline literacy: “Literacy in the 21st Century” and part 3: “Preparing Students to Read

Are you ready to incorporate discipline literacy strategies into your curriculum? Learn how with Reading and Writing in the Disciplines. – See more at: http://learnerlog.org/socialstudies/how-does-discipline-literacy-differ-from-content-area-literacy/?preview=true&preview_id=3168&preview_nonce=8bf5a75fad#sthash.YEQZS0jD.dpuf
Read part 1 of this blog series on discipline literacy: “How Does Discipline Literacy Differ from Content-area Literacy?” – See more at: http://learnerlog.org/socialstudies/literacy-in-the-21st-century/#sthash.aM3Bw6Qw.dpuf
Read part 1 of this blog series on discipline literacy: “How Does Discipline Literacy Differ from Content-area Literacy?” – See more at: http://learnerlog.org/socialstudies/literacy-in-the-21st-century/#sthash.aM3Bw6Qw.dpuf

How to Use Twitter Chats for Professional Development

hashtag_wordswagIt used to be that teachers had to get together at conferences to share their expertise, their lesson plans, their ideas and opinions, their best practices, and their questions. Now teachers have a wealth of online options for sharing what they know and for discovering new professional development resources and opportunities to strengthen their practice.

Until now, sharing nuts-and-bolts resources has been the main focus of most online teaching sites. But if you want conversation between teachers, a live give-and-take that ranges far and wide and dives deeply into specific topics, where do you go?

The answer is, increasingly, Twitter. Teachers have been following each other on Twitter for a few years now, chatting here and there over the course of the day and checking in to see what the latest word is from their Twitter network. But in-depth conversations are beginning to take center stage now, too: regularly scheduled, hour-long, focused conversations that allow teachers to prepare their thoughts ahead of time, alert colleagues, and then deepen and detail their understanding of a certain topic through real-time discussion and debate.

Twitter chats are the solution to teachers’ familiar complaint that Twitter can’t sustain conversations, that Twitter networks too often provide disjointed streams of consciousness that can’t develop or sustain meaning. If you’ve ever tweeted a question only to hear back sporadically from your network over the course of a day or two, and then see the comments begin to track into unrelated areas, Twitter chats are for you.

Need examples?

  • Take a look at this Storify version of the discussion at the March 25, 2015 #CitSciChat about Spring-themed #CitizenScience. Nine panelists, including Journey North, and 10 participants took part in an hour-long discussion of what they are doing to document the arrival of Spring in the United States, beginning with their project goals and moving to the discoveries their teams have made, details on their volunteers’ experiences, teacher resources fueled by their findings, best practices in the field and on social media, and what’s on the horizon for future projects.
  • Another of our favorite forums for directed Twitter chats is #Edchat, which schedules two conversations every Tuesday, one at noon ET and one at 7 PM ET. You can read the archived transcripts of previous #Edchats, which range from “Will methods of Professional Development be better served by educators self-directing their PD?” to “Why is personal branding so important in the digital age? How can students and educators brand themselves?”

As with any social media, there are some outliers in any Twitter chat who don’t stay on-topic or, even worse, spam the discussion with ads. But these negative voices tend to fall away quickly after the first few minutes, and the discussion focuses intently on the topic at hand as teachers talk frankly about their experiences and opinions.

Take a look at the examples in this post and do some investigating on your own to find Twitter chats that speak to you, and get involved in a conversation that matters to you.

Also check out these two articles to learn more about useful twitter chats for teachers. (There is something for everyone!):

Twitter Chats: An Hour Well Worth Your Time by Pete DeWitt, Education Week

13 Great Twitter Chats Every Educator Should Check Out by Susan Bearden, The Journal

If you’re using a twitter chat for professional development that you love and recommend, please share below in the comments!

Eadweard Muybridge: Photography and Film Pioneer

English expatriate Eadweard Muybridge (April 9, 1830-May 8, 1904) is one of the most influential people in the history of American film. He was a pioneer in film and artistic photography, as well as in scientific and industrial photography. His exciting work has connections to art, social studies, science, and mathematics topics.

PUPMath_Kid looking at Muybridge work

A student looks at Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic study of animal motion. From Private Universe Project in Mathematics.

Art: Muybridge took daring steps, cutting down trees and venturing into dangerous places, to get landscape photographs that would distinguish him from his contemporaries. See the story of his shot, Falls of the Yosemite, taken in 1872 while on a six-month trip West in Art Through Time, program 10, “The Natural World.”

Social Studies: Find a slideshow of 17 of Eadweard Muybridge’s images of Guatemala in Teaching Geography, workshop 2, “Latin America.” Below each slide is information about the content of each photo and questions to compare the past with the present.

Science and film: Muybridge developed photography techniques that captured human and animal movements in new ways. Read about these techniques in American Passages, unit 8, “Regional Realism.”  Muybridge also invented the zoopraxiscope (image #8245 in the archives), a device that projected a moving image from still sequences.

Math: In the video for workshop 6, “Possibilities of Real Life Problems,” of Private Universe Project in Mathematics, ninth graders are asked to solve how fast a cat, captured in a series of photos by Eadweard Muybridge more than 100 years ago, was moving in frames 10 and 20.

How to Analyze Crafted and Captured Moments in Photographs

Photos are immediate—they are unstaged, unplanned, caught in the moment to stand as witnesses to history. …well, some of the time. Some photos really are all that, and they really do capture a moment that speaks to millions of people.

For example, John Filo’s famous photo of Mary Ann Vecchio screaming over the dead body of Jeffrey Miller at Kent State University in 1970: Kent_State_massacre

Filo did not stage this photo. It went out to the American public via LIFE and other magazines and communicated the shock of the incident, in which National Guard soldiers shot and killed unarmed students protesting the Vietnam War. But between Filo taking the photo and LIFE publishing it, one little edit was made: the pole behind Ms. Vecchio, that looks like it was coming out of her head, was airbrushed out.

Someone in Editing somewhere thought that pole coming out of the young woman’s head was too distracting and took it out. That someone wasn’t the photographer, in this case, but would it have mattered if it was? Does perfecting a photo after the fact take away from its integrity? If a photo is staged, can it be as powerful as a lucky shot taken on the fly? Is crafting a moment less authentic than capturing one?

We put this question to students in a continuing effort to give them more authority and control over their reading of photographs. (See Selfie: Bringing Personal Meaning to Photos). Photos seem to be unquestionable to most students: they have one clear, set meaning to give the student that the student must passively receive. We want to show students that this is not always, or not completely, true. As Makeda Best puts it, instead of stopping at asking ourselves and our students what we see in a photo, we have to “look more closely and ask questions of why we see what we see.”

In Selfie, we showed strategies to bring meaning to Dorothea Lange’s famous 1936 photo Migrant Mother:

This image is so famous, and so ingrained in our minds and eyes that it’s hard to believe that it was only one of five photos Lange took of this woman and her family. Lange saw them when she visited a pea-pickers’ camp in California while documenting the effects of the Great Depression. Lange made no secret of the fact that she took several photos before she felt she got just the right one to tell the family’s story. Here’s how Lange described it:

8014_BOWL_H_lowres

From Essential Lens: #8014 (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-USF34-9058-C)

“I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. [She] seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it. …I did not approach the tents and shelters of other stranded pea-pickers. It was not necessary; I knew I had recorded the essence of my assignment.”

Show your students the five related photos in Essential Lens, “Disaster and Government Response.” Start like Lange did, from a distance with #8015, then to #8016 – #8018. Then go to the final shot, and the one Lange knew was best: #8014. Ask students:

  1. What do you see as you “approach” the family? What was missing from the first four photos that Lange felt she finally got in the fifth?
  2. The first photos are taken at a distance. The first shows all of the children, while the next three show just two of them. What do you notice about the final photo? (It is a close-up.) Do you think Lange made this choice to get closer deliberately? If so, what was she trying to capture?
  3. Why do you think the two older children are in the final photo? Do you think Lange asked them to step in?
  4. The mother has the same worried expression in all five photos; what does she do in the fifth that makes it even more powerful? Do you think she did this consciously, to give a better photo? Why do you think the children hide their faces?

Discussing student responses helps them understand that crafting a moment for a photo can be just as powerful as capturing one by surprise, and that sometimes photos are a mix of lucky accident (such as Lange finding this family), and careful artistry (taking multiple shots and possibly asking people to pose a little). Also, they can consider how editing photos, even to remove objects that someone judges as distracting (like with Filo’s photo), can undermine authenticity.

Try this exercise with other photos in the Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum collection. Students can choose a photo that speaks to them and research the photographer to find other photos on the same topics. They may assess the artistry that went into that photographer’s work, and what makes one or two of their photos famous while others on the same topic are not.

Selfie: Bringing Personal Meaning to Photos

EssentialLens_MakedaBestWhen students see a photograph in a classroom, a textbook, or a school project, they often treat it just like a poem or short story: they try to clearly state what the photo “means.” They believe that a photo has a unique, incontestable meaning that is clear to the perceptive viewer. A photographer wouldn’t take a photo without having a message in mind, the reasoning goes, so that message must be clear in the photo s/he took, and if I can’t find it, there’s something wrong with me.

It’s hard to convince students that this is not true (for photos or for poems and short stories, but we’ll stick with photos here). Photos cross a line between art and reportage. They can have a clear message when they are reportage. When they are art, they are open to almost endless personal interpretation. When they are a mix of both, photos can challenge the most perceptive viewer. The student looking at the photo is not just a data analysis machine taking in information and processing it. The power of photos is in their immediacy: they are shots of real people in real situations that the viewer takes in through the lens of her or his own life experience. In short, the viewer makes the meaning. As historian of photography Makeda Best puts it, instead of stopping at asking ourselves and our students what we see in a photo, we have to “look more closely and ask questions of why we see what we see.” This is a big shift. It gives the student authority over the photo instead of the other way around.

To teach students to use their own experiences to analyze a photo, practice on the photo mentioned below using the Focus In activity from Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum. (Watch Makeda Best demonstrate the Focus In activity in the “A Closer Look” video.):

Start with Dorothea Lange’s masterpiece “Migrant Mother,” taken in 1936. Students may have seen it before. It is one of the most famous photos in the world. Too often, students move past their initial emotional reaction to this photo to try to discern its objective meaning. Following the steps in the Focus In Method for Analyzing Photographs, try to get your students back inside their own heads and hearts and experiences as they analyze “Migrant Mother.” Click on the link for a detailed description of each Focus In step. This step-by-step process can take the burden of finding meaning off students by encouraging them to make meaning.

Focus In Steps

Step 1: Observe

Step 2: Build on Your Observations

Step 3: Make Inferences

Step 4: Formulate Further Questions

Note: Here is a link to information about the photograph “Migrant Mother.”

 

How are you using photographs in your classes? Share in the comment section below.

Let Kids Read Whatever They Want!

“You can’t read that.”

“You shouldn’t read that.”

“Why would you read that?”

Leave kids alone. Let them read, for goodness sake!

Well-intentioned adults (teachers and parents) are doing a huge disservice to kids when we doubt their ability to read, when we censor what they read, and when we judge what they read. What happens? Kids stop reading.

We should celebrate that our kids are reading! Especially if they’re reading books (and not scores on video games). We shouldn’t be putting them down.

Isn’t it fabulous that our kids want to challenge themselves with a complex text? It shows initiative. It shows their willingness to grapple. It shows their desire to read more. STOP telling them they can’t read certain books.

Children looking at picture books at school, Santa Clara, Utah. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USF35-1326]

Children looking at picture books at school, Santa Clara, Utah. Credit: LOC, Prints & Photographs Division

Isn’t it fabulous that our kids want to read books about controversial or gritty topics? It shows intellectual curiosity. It shows an interest in perspectives and worldviews different from their own. STOP telling them they shouldn’t read certain books.

Isn’t it fabulous that our kids want to read all kinds of books? It shows they’re lovers of many types of writing and storylines instead of book snobs. Who are we to determine what are good and bad books for individual readers? Allow kids to form their own opinions. STOP judging their choices.

How many decisions do you think kids make in a day? We decide what they eat. We decide when they go to school. We decide what they read. We might give them options but ultimately, we decide what those options are. Kids make very few decisions – the ability to choose what they want to read should be one of them.

I take great pleasure in choosing books. One of my favorite things about finishing books is being able to choose the next one. I love being in book clubs because I eventually get to choose the book we read. (I pity the fool who tries to take that decision away from me!)

Instead of denying students the pleasure of choosing books, we should model our passion. Take, for instance, Ms. Bileni Teklu in Engaging With Literature, program 8, “Finding Common Ground.”

“…her students come to love reading because she is not dictating what they must read and when they must read it. These students have few choices in their personal lives, and so are especially appreciative of being able to choose what they read.”

In Classroom Lesson Plan: Independent Reading (also watch  the classroom video here), Ms. Teklu models her own decision-making process with students. She empowers them to make reading choices by sharing her personal experience.

I’m a literacy scholar. I’m a teacher educator. I’m a former classroom teacher. I know we need to teach district-sanctioned instructional materials. I know kids should be reading books at their independent level to build fluency. I know kids should be reading books at their instructional level during guided reading. I know kids should be reading complex texts during read-alouds. Effective literacy instruction requires us to make decisions about what kids read.

But, we should ensure kids have opportunities to choose their own books. And, we shouldn’t make them feel bad about their decisions. The consequences are too great.

Creating a High-Performance Learning Environment

learningclassroom_4All teachers want their classrooms to be engines of learning where students feel inspired to focus, think, and participate and know that they are expected to perform. There are many ways to create this kind of high-performance learning environment, from changing the way your room looks to rethinking your class structure. Let’s look at a few ideas and options to get started.

Setting the Standard

How do you set a high standard for student performance? It starts with your own vision for each class, before the school year begins. When you imagine your ideal classes, what do you see—what would you like to see? Students going over peer edits in pairs? Small groups analyzing a text or image? Whole-class discussions with full participation? Discussions led by students instead of you? Once you know what you want to see, brainstorm ideas for making it happen. How can you structure your classes to allow for this kind of activity? It might mean shortening lectures or moving them offline by flipping your classroom, at least part of the time. Or it could mean creating a new routine that allows students to move from lecture to discussion to individual work more frequently. As the school year progresses, you can fine-tune your changes. Learn more about “Starting in September”.

Once you have a strategy and a goal, explain them clearly to your students. Most teachers hand out a set of rules for behavior at the beginning of the year that describe policies for homework, grading, attendance, etc. Add your expectations for student performance to that handout. What level of analysis do you expect in class discussions? How often do you expect them to lead a small group through an assignment? How often will you ask someone to engage you in a dialogue in front of the class? How many revisions will they be expected to do for major pieces of writing? These specific guidelines alert students to the level of performance you are expecting of them.

Staging the Room

In the elementary grades, there can be more flexibility to create open spaces and small group learning stations than in the middle and high school grades because there is more understanding that younger students need to move around and shift focus over the course of the school day. Since their students are in the same room for most of the day, elementary teachers have developed many clever ways to change up the scenery from morning to afternoon. Gathering in reading circles, moving through stations, and creating places for quiet, independent work are all part of this environment.

Observe the classrooms in these workshops to see examples of engaging learning environments:

But what about the older grades? Most middle and high school classrooms do not feature cozy rugs and library corners. Step into the average 8th or 11th-grade classroom and you still find rows of desks facing the front of the room. Students don’t move around the room, and their focus remains in one place for the duration of the class. Teachers who are in constant motion may see this as a positive, but it can be paralyzing for students. When the body checks out, the mind often follows, and the longer a student is not allowed to move or speak, the more likely it is that s/he will drift. Students fight this battle to keep their minds alert while their bodies remain static every day.

In the older grades, you can address this threat to high performance in a few ways. An easy place to start is the seating chart. It’s easy to seat students in pairs without having to restructure your whole classroom; once this is done, take a few short breaks during your lecture to allow the student pairs to share notes, ask questions, or complete a quick activity or solve a problem. When you resume your lecture, begin by asking a few pairs for their thoughts or solutions. Change the seating chart frequently so students end up working with everyone in the class at least once a term. In addition, work in opportunities for collaborative grouping and for independent study to allow introverts time to work alone.

Making Tactical Changes

Here are some quick ideas for ramping up student performance:

  • Question the content. Why do we need to learn history? When will we ever use this math again? Why do we need to graph this data? Do regular reality checks on the subject at hand, and don’t provide the answers—guide students to find and describe real applications of and real meaning in the work they are doing. If that meaning is hard to find, challenge students to delve into the subject and find a purpose for it.
  • Re-evaluate your routine. Is every part of your class structure working? For example, if you always have students do a quick problem before your lecture, and you answer the problem in your lecture, students may just skip solving the problem. That’s wasted time for you and for them. Consider shifting the activity from written to oral by asking students how they would solve the problem. Then incorporate their responses into your lecture.
  • Create a space for vulnerability. This is hard. School is a public forum and many students don’t want to make themselves vulnerable by participating in class. It’s up to you to model vulnerability: be willing to say “I don’t know”, be willing to laugh at yourself, be willing to change your mind based on what you hear from your students. Be in real dialogue with your students—let them see that their ideas can impact your own. When you are willing to let students shine their own spotlight on you, they will be more willing to also step into it themselves.

Most important to high-performance is this golden rule: generate goodwill. If students see that you are consistently respectful and thoughtful, they will participate more readily and sign on to your vision. When students see that you are committed to increasing their performance, they will more readily share that commitment. Learn more about building student trust, no matter what subject you teach, by watching The Art of Teaching the Arts, workshop 5, “Creating Rich Learning Environments” and reading our blog post “Get Ready: Build a Learning Community.”

For more on creating a High-Performance Learning Environment, see The Learning Classroom: Theory into Practice for all K-12 teachers.

Teaching with Twitter

Twitter_logo_blue copyToday it seems like everyone is on Twitter, following and/or being followed. There’s a hashtag for everything (#chestnuts, anyone?) and much of the traffic is devoted to fun and games and news. But away from the chatter, there is also a steady stream of educational Twitter use. It makes sense: Twitter is free, easy to use, and most high school students are already on it.

But as late as September 2014, Ben Stern of TeachBoost described teachers who are heavily engaged with Twitter as “outliers”. Why? Some school districts don’t allow in-school use of social media, of course, but that’s not the whole reason. Many teachers who have not yet used Twitter as part of their curriculum may be holding out for some concrete examples of using Twitter with their students. If that’s you, you’re in luck. We provide some great examples right here:

Hold Tweet Chats and Conversations

Have students who don’t like to speak up in class? Of course you do. Twitter allows students to comment and contribute to classroom discussions without raising their hand. Have students who can’t stop speaking up in class? Twitter’s 140-character format discourages long harangues and allows for more equal participation.

The joy of Twitter is that it expands the definition of student participation, both in class and well after the bell rings. Tweet a question like “Who’s most responsible for the tragic introduction of Jim Crow segregation law?” during your U.S. history class at 9:00 AM and you’ll be reading tweet after tweet on the subject well after 9:00 PM, and into the next day and the next—for as long as you keep the topic open. Discussions that light up Twitter go on to feed vibrant and informed classroom discussions.

Don’t forget to add custom made hashtags so that you and your students can easily follow the conversation. George Couros offers some tips to create classroom hashtags for Twitter on his blog.

If you prefer more structure to your Twitter chat, ask students to discuss a question for homework within a specific time frame (on Tuesday evening from 7-9 pm, for example) to give students a window for participation. Designate a hashtag for the assignment and tweet out the question with that hashtag at 7pm to get the students going.

Elicit Peer Feedback in Real Time

Ever notice how people at conferences tweet like mad during the presentations? (Are you one of them?) They’re giving instant feedback on speakers and ideas to their network and getting responses right away. By the time the speaker is finished, their thoughts have already gone around the world twice and been thoroughly hashed and re-hashed by their peers before the live discussion in the conference room even begins. Your students can do the same thing: have them tweet questions and comments during videos or student presentations so that when it’s time to talk, the conversation is already in motion. For example, if your science class watched “Biodiversity Decline”, program 9 of Annenberg Learner’s series The Habitable Planet, they could tweet questions and comments about the episode using the hashtag #HP9discuss.

Have Students Tweet in Character

Taking on a persona can be a tough sell in the classroom. Few students want to stand up and deliver a presentation in character (especially in costume) as a figure from the past or from literature. But ask them to tweet from the perspective of a Revolutionary soldier or Effie Trinket from The Hunger Games and it’s a different story. Tweeting allows students to create a longer-term project of living inside a character’s head from day to day, expressing concise thoughts from their point of view over a longer time period that immerses them in the character—especially when they have to answer questions as the character.

Involve the Community

Students can also reach beyond their peers to begin meaningful dialogues with people outside the classroom. You can help them come up with questions for local political candidates, performers, business owners, and more to inform in-school projects and help create socially engaged members of your city and state.

Follow News and Issues

Have students track specific issues in the local, national, or world news as they are being tweeted about (#climatechange for example) to get a sense of how those issues are being discussed at large.

Encourage Group Work

Twitter can get students cooperating as a group. For your next reading or video assignment, organize your class into groups and have each group post a summary. It’s hard work to summarize any resource in 140 characters! Tweeting content like this forces students to really single out the main point of a text. You can have students vote on the best summary, or choose and retweet it yourself.

As students do all these things on Twitter, you are able to track their activity and get a good sense of where to go in your next classroom session. Afraid of spending hours each day tracking hundreds of student tweets? You can spread out Twitter-based assignments. Even one a month will give your students the benefits of the format without keeping you chained to your web browser. If your students and school have internet access, try one of the strategies above to join the “outlier” teachers who are teaching with Twitter.

What’s your experience with using Twitter? Let us know by posting a comment. (Don’t forget to follow @AnnLearner on Twitter!)