Taking an optimistic mindset into Professional Learning days

I won’t see my students tomorrow because our district has a designated Professional Learning (PL) day.  I can already hear the collective groans from teachers everywhere.  A good number of teachers view PL as a waste of time; something that is taking away from the smorgasbord of tasks that teachers already have piled high on their plates.  However, in my current district, the PL has been phenomenal, and I have gotten a number of wonderful strategies and ideas that have really shifted how I teach Language Arts to my 7th graders, several of which are listed below.

Three years ago, a University of Georgia professor gave me a copy of Reading in the Wild by Donalyn Miller at a PL session.  That booked totally transformed how I teach reading to my students.  Before reading Miller’s text, my classes read four novels a year as a class (or one per unit), with everyone reading the same book.  Today, my kids are all reading different books of their own choice for the first 10 minutes of every class period.  Needless to say, my students are reading WAY more than before and they are learning to explore various genres of books on their own.  In addition, the majority of my students are forming a relationship with literacy that previously was not present.  We only have our students for a year, so it’s our job as teachers to help them make reading a lifelong habit, and that can only be done if students learn how to take ownership of their reading lives.

Another instructional strategy that I took away from a PL that I have found to be highly effective in helping students master the concept of argumentative writing is the CSET strategy.  This technique shows the students how to craft an argumentative paragraph that contains a claim (C), a set-up that shows where this information is coming from (S), a piece of evidence from the text (E) and a tie-in (T) sentence that shows how their evidence supports their claim.  The CSET strategy can initially be taught to the students using cartoons, Pixar Shorts or New York Times Op-Docs to help them understand the basic structure.  Then, I can begin giving them CSET assignments that require them to support a claim based upon either our class novel or an informational text.  Because this strategy only requires the students to produce an effective paragraph, it doesn’t seem as daunting to them at first. However, once they master how to create one strong paragraph, I can challenge them to create another one that argues the same viewpoint. Eventually, students can produce multiple CSETs, and they are able to craft a well-organized argumentative essay with several reasons that all support a claim with valid textual evidence.

A final strategy that I have been using a lot this year comes from the text Reading Nonfiction: Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies (Beers, Probst), and guess what? I gleaned it from a PL day. When my students read informational texts, instead of just assigning a question set for them to answer when they finish, this year I have been applying a Notice & Note strategy and I have really seen a difference in how my students engage with nonfiction texts.  Before reading the text, we have a whole class discussion about how when we read or hear something that surprises or shocks us, it’s because we are usually learning something new. Then, while my students read a news article, they label three things that surprised or shocked them.  Once they finish, they confer with a partner or small group and review what surprised or shocked everyone.  The discussions that manifest from this one question are phenomenal to observe, and the students interaction with the text is at a much deeper level.  When we come together as a class to recap their observations, our whole group discussions are filled with rich and astute comments. At the end of class, students will typically write a short response that highlights one thing from the text that truly shocked them and why.  This strategy has definitely enhanced my students’ ability to identify central ideas in informational texts as well as their ability to pull out key details from the text.

A final blessing that I have gotten from PLs in my district is a host of educational apps that I have used regularly in my ELA classes.  Our school is 1:1 with computers, so it is imperative that I attempt to engage my students with 21st century tasks.  I’ve had students create oral arguments using Flipgrid, Youtube, Voki and Screencastify.  I’ve reinforced grammar concepts using NoRedInk. I’ve introduced new material to students using Edpuzzle. All of our classwork is pushed out to students using Google Classroom.  My exit tickets are often are done electronically via Linoit.  All of these aforementioned apps were presented to me in different PL sessions.

It’s certainly possible that I have been lucky by being in a district that values PL and provides us with strategies and tools that we can immediately take to the classroom, and other teachers elsewhere have not been as fortunate.  However, I also think there is a likelihood that teachers may be guilty of approaching PL days with a less than optimistic outlook.  Or, it could be a combination of the two. Either way, my advice to teachers everywhere is to head into the PL days with the expectation that you are going to be given something that can be applied to your classes.  I know that’s going to be my mindset tomorrow morning.

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Why my classes don’t finish whole class novels

“We’re not going to be reading this book together as a class anymore this year,” I told my students after finishing up a chapter somewhere in the middle of Jordan Sonnenblick’s After Ever After.  We had read a little over half of the book together in class over the past 9 weeks, but the unit and quarter were coming to an end, and there just wasn’t time left to finish the rest of the novel.

“Why aren’t we going to finish the book?” a young man in the back asked.

I hadn’t reached this decision easily.  I knew my students would be confused as to why their teacher wasn’t going to finish reading a book to completion with them.  Most likely, this was the first time a teacher had proposed such a move. It felt as weird to me saying it as I imagine it did to my students hearing it.

“Remember I gave you all a poll last week in Google Classroom asking you if you wanted to continue with our regular independent reading times or just read the class novel together?” I said. “And over 87% of you said that you wanted to keep reading books of your own choice several days a week.”

Heads slowly began to nod.

“Well,” I continued. “If you want to read your own books in here, then we don’t have enough class time together to dedicate to reading the class novel to its entirety as well. However, if you would like to finish After Ever After, you can continue reading it during our scheduled independent reading times.”

My students appeared fairly satisfied with this logic.

Before I go on, I need to pause and set a little context in relation to my school.  I have one class set of each novel that we read together.  That means I have 25 copies each of After Ever After, A Long Walk to Water, The Giver and Bronx Masquerade.  I have over 80 students, which means that I cannot send home a copy of each book with each of them and assign reading homework each night.  It just can’t happen; our school doesn’t have the resources, and I cannot ask my students’ parents or guardians to purchase copies these books.  If my students are going to read those aforementioned texts, then the reading must occur in my classroom during school hours.  To be honest, reading our class novels eats up a lot of time – nearly 40% of it to be exact.

As I mentioned earlier, I had mixed feelings about not finishing our first novel of the year together as a class.  I was thrilled at how well the students had bought into the independent reading, but I also felt nervous about breaking course from such a commonplace practice in English classrooms as the class novel.  I feared my fellow Language Arts teachers on the hall would judge me when they learned that I had stopped at page 166 of Sonnenblick’s book instead of page 272 (where it ends), that I had cheated my students out of the experience of completing a book.

However, something interesting happened the next day in class when students went to grab their independent reading books for the work session: half of the students in each of my Language Arts classes grabbed a copy of After Ever After.  Most of these same students finished the book on their own over the course of the next few weeks.  We discussed the complicated and incredibly sad ending of Sonnenblick’s book individually as each student finished. I was flattered that so many students WANTED to finish reading this book that I chose for them.

As excited as I was to see half of my students devour the final 100+ pages of this novel, I was equally pleased by the decision of the other half to abandon it.  In my previous two years at this school, I had taken all my classes through After Ever After, from start to finish.  But these students who chose to read something else revealed to me what a great mistake I had been making.  For two years I had forced a number of my former students to persevere through a book that they were not enjoying.  Seeing this group of students leave our class novel behind so that they could continue reading their own books gave justification to our independent reading program.  I had provided my students with a glimpse into a novel, and then I had given them the choice to carry on with it or not, rather than dragging half of my rosters through a text that they were not engaged in.

I did the same “experiment” near the end of the second quarter with The Giver by Lois Lowry, and the results were even more astonishing: only 5 of my students in all of my classes opted to stay with the novel.  I immediately felt terrible about making prior students read the whole book; but, I again enjoyed a sense of vindication for my decision to prioritize independent reading this year as I watched the majority of my students leave The Giver behind so that they could move forward with their own texts.

While my classes will no longer read entire novels together, I do want to point out that I fully embrace and still plan to utilize them in my classroom.  Whole class novels are a wonderful way to introduce students to new genres.  They can also be used to teach or reinforce a host of complicated literary elements such as point of view, characterization, theme, setting, plot, etc., and if students are using the same text, they can work together to uncover meaning when dealing with these complex subjects.

But as critical as whole class novels can be to a curriculum, giving students choice and time to read books on their own is equally as important.  Next year my students will be exposed to four highly-engaging whole class novels, but the decision as to whether they finish them or not will be totally up to them.