Cancel your participation plan. Create speaking events instead.

Here’s an embarrassing story that taught me a lesson:

Setting: my old classroom in northern NJ, sometime in the 2010s, 9:43 AM

As I rounded the back left corner of desks, a student elbowed another.  Feeling the nudge, she covered her notebook. On the page I caught a glimpse of the words “Mr. Dawson” and some tally marks. They traded nervous smiles.

Then it hit me. They were counting something about me. And if they were keeping a log in a notebook, it must be something I did A LOT.

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Seeds for Reading Lives: the Digital Scavenger Hunt

Most of what a literacy teacher does comes down to figuring out how to show instead of tell. If I want students to understand fluent reading, I show them better read alouds.  If I want students to understand revision, I show them real peer feedback. So when it comes to developing real reading lives, I have to show students the specific steps that real readers take.

All students will like the right book, but not all know how to find it. In the beginning of the year, I do the following activity to specifically show students how to systematically find books that they will enjoy. This process is adapted from chapter one of Hacking Literacy.

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For the new economy, curiosity before literacy

We exist in a world of uncertainty.

The following are true now and getting truer:

The traditional career path of high school > college  > lifelong career > stable retirement with pension is fading or gone in many industries.

My generation is crippled by student loan debt. This affects the decision to buy houses, pursue certain careers, and start families. This may affect students’ decisions to pursue traditional education paths in the future.  

My generation might not do better than my parents’ generation did.  According to a 2014 article from the Pew Research Center:

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No excuses for a culture of readers

Teaching students to read is a daunting task. Teaching them to become engaged, habitual readers? That’s overwhelming. It’s much more manageable to break the task into steps. I outline five of the most common problems and solutions in Hacking Literacy.

And a major inspiration for that book is the work of Nancie Atwell. Her book The Reading Zone discusses the place where nothing exists except the story. So, why mention this classic book?

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Writing and the Energy to Teach

This was post was inspired by a session at NerdCampNJ on teacher bloggers.  Go check out two of the other teacher blogs, written by Ms. Monica Crudele and Mr. Jeff Krapels

Sometimes people ask me how I have the energy to write a weekly post while teaching full time. Without trying it, people assume that it takes more time and energy to write and teach than it does to teach.

Those people are right about the time–I can’t make more of that. But, they are wrong about the energy.

Writing about teaching is one of the biggest sources of energy that I get from my profession. It’s right up there, second only to the energy from kids engaged in learning. So, writing gives me the energy to teach and teaching gives me the energy to write.

It goes some like this:

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Tool for shame or path to growth? How teachers can do “cold calling” right

First: Students with medical accommodations must be respected.  If these accommodations include specifics about speaking, then ideas in this post may not apply. 

Second: Those situations aside, it’s healthy for students to feel on-the-spot. Healthy discomfort leads to growth. This post explores how to push students to participate even if they’re shy in September.

Third: let’s define the term. Cold calling is when a teacher asks students to participate, hand up or not. This is powerful, but it has a bad image. Fear, anxiety, embarrassment. This connotation comes from practices, discussed below, that teachers use. These practices work against us.

Used with care, cold calling can:

  1. Build confidence: as I said, it can help to get shy kids talking
  2. Maintain accountability: through the year, students learn that everyone speaks
  3. Assess learning: the responses are a random set of student thoughts (not just outgoing kids)
  4. Improve conversations: the class hears all voices 

If your students are anything like mine, some are shy but full of ideas. Others work slowly. Others get distracted. This is a lot to consider.

There are two situations when teachers often cold call. Both of these situations make class discussions worse.

First, calling on students when they’re not paying attention. This is a way to assert dominance through embarrassment. The goal is to have students learn from this bad feeling and remain focused in the future.

That doesn’t happen. Cold calling as punishment breeds resentment. Plus, other students laugh. Now, the student further disrupts class for revenge. This erodes the classroom community.

Second, the initiate-respond-evaluate (I-R-E) discussion. You know the technique: Teacher asks the question, one kid answers, teacher says “wrong” or “right”…next question. This is brutal for everyone.  If the question has one right answer, students can read it or hear it from the teacher.

To recap, cold calling does more harm than good when it is a gotcha technique. And, it is a waste of time if there is only one answer. But, with care, cold calling (1) builds confidence, (2) keeps students accountable, (3) assesses learning, and (4) improves conversations.

At this point, you may be concerned about how shy students will react to cold calling. If they don’t have an answer to your question, they’ll feel embarrassed. If they feel that their answer is not good enough, likewise. You may worry about letting kids “off the hook” if they don’t want to speak. You don’t want to force kids. These are reasonable concerns.

To address those, make one change: Don’t use cold calling as a one-and-done event. Instead, use it as the last step in a process.  The process of asking good questions, giving time to think, and eventually hearing all student voices.

The foundation is asking good questions

The description of a good question is probably up for debate. It might be better to describe the bad questions. Everyone has been asked one of those. If you’ve sat through a class, a meeting, or a sermon, you’ve heard a bad question from a  speaker. Some examples:

  1. A fact-based recall question with one right answer
  2. A yes or no question with one right answer
  3. A question about the reading, when the teacher knows that students ignored the reading homework
  4. When you ramble on, adding lots of extra, ya know, descriptive phrases and modifiers, and what you actually mean, might be a good question, but you have to circle back around and make sure you clarify your point, and then at the end you say, so what I’m getting at here is, when your question is too long

My recipe for a good question contains three ingredients: short, open-ended, interesting. You might say, what about Bloom’s Taxonomy? What about that PD session I sat through?

You’re probably right that I’m oversimplifying this. But those three terms are my parameters for good questions.  I also use the questions from the three-part lesson that works with any text.  My overall point here is that no number of great discussion techniques will help if the question asked is a bad one.

Now that the foundation is built with good questions, we can get students thinking, and cold call to hear what they have to say.

Move + cold call

This one is so simple. I love it, though. It goes like this:

Ask all students to move to show that they’ve made a choice. After everyone picks, students talk about their choice. This can be in pairs or small groups. The last step is the cold call. The teacher selects students at random. These students share their choice. Additionally, students share the ideas behind a classmate’s choice.

Here’s an example you might here in my class:

From a scale of 1-5, 1 is low and 5 is high, how strong is Leonard Pitts Jr.’s argument in this piece? Put up 1-5 fingers. Remember, index finger for number 1. (This covers outstanding grudges.) Find at least one quote to prove your choice.

Please turn and talk with the people at your table. Tell them why you picked that number. Give an example from the editorial to support your choice. In three minute’s I’m going to ask three people at random to report on your conversation.

Students have two steps for preparing here. They make a choice and show me when they are ready by holding up a number of fingers. Then, they do an intellectual rehearsal in small groups before I cold call.

You can also have students move to sides or corners of the room. One side is agree and one side is disagree, for example.

An alternate version of this is the Take a Stand strategy.

Confer + cold call.

Listen in or speak with students during a turn and talk session. When their idea is valuable for the whole class to hear, ask them if they’ll share it:

That’s a great point, Kaitlynn. Do you mind sharing that with everyone in a moment?

If she says yes, then I’m meeting one of those objectives of cold calling discussed at the top of the post.

If Kaitlynn says she would not like to share, then I might say:

Ok, understandable. Do you mind if I explain the idea to your classmates?

So, Kaitlynn’s idea is still validated in front of the class. Hopefully that nudges her more towards saying “yes” to sharing during a future discussion and then participating on her own volition.

Quick write + cold call

After giving students time to process their thoughts with a 1-2 minute quick write, I’m comfortable with asking a few students to share a single line of their writing.

I’d most likely tell students the whole process when giving them the quick write instructions:

In a moment we’ll do a 90 second quick write. Remember that this is a first draft for everyone. After we finish writing, I’ll ask three people to read or paraphrase their writing.

There’s no “gotcha” here because students can read ideas they already have on their paper.

For a shy student who resists, I may suggest that a classmate reads their writing or I read it.  Then, I’ll still ask them to add any details we missed or clarify something. This, again, encourages the student to eventually participate without this prompting.

Notice that some writing lends itself to this type of sharing more than other kinds. I use my best judgement here when asking students to share personal writing as opposed to argumentative, for example.

Turn and talk + cold call with options

These are beginning to sound like clips from a football playbook. This is my most used and favorite cold call technique because it leads to organic discussion. (Organic discussion: when students continue the discussion with little/no facilitation.) Here’s how this would sound:

I want you to talk to the people at your table for two minutes about the way the character in your independent reading book relates to or differs from Holden Caulfield. Afterwards, I’ll ask three people to report back.

Then…

Ok,…Alex, Sarah, and Shreya. Share what you said or what you heard a classmate say.

This is my favorite because students can share the things they found most interesting in their conversation. Shreya says:

Well, I heard Andrew explain that Holden seems kind of stuck because he doesn’t do anything about his pain but the character in Andrew’s book is starting to act out in school because of it.

Then I follow up and ask Andrew to fill us in on the details.

Then, the process continues with Alex and Sarah commenting, too.

Because students can choose to share the ideas of their classmates, those classmates are more likely to enter the conversation. If the student needs to clarify or expand upon what the original speaker said, all the better.

So, in summary:

  1. “Gotcha” cold call
  2. I-R-E cold call
  3. Move then cold call
  4. Confer + cold call
  5. Quick write + cold call
  6. Turn and talk + cold call with options

These techniques gives students an intellectual rehearsal before they speak in front of the class.  Instead of shaming or boring students, we can lead students towards speaking with confidence.

Do you cold call on students? Why or why not?

Here are some comments from Twitter (all made from public profiles to my public profile) to get us started:

twitter-cold-call-conversationtwitter-cold-call-2

Better Read Alouds [Video]

Read alouds happen in my class nearly everyday. I teach sophomores, some of whom have twelfth grade or college reading levels. Still, read alouds, almost every day.

Why? Well, language is meant to be heard. Fluent reading comes from hearing fluent readers. Clear writing comes from hearing clear writers. 

In that way, the read aloud is a high value literacy experience. Plus, it engages kids, while requiring very few supplies or special circumstances. As literacy teachers, the read aloud is there for us, every day, a tool we can use in our class. But, it takes work.

Two steps towards improving read alouds: Practice the skill of reading aloud well to students. Create the circumstances that cause the read aloud to help us meet instructional goals. Here are some reminders to myself, followed by a video of me reading aloud to my students.

How to make the most of read alouds

Planning  

We have to know the section of the text that we want to read. Don’t open the book to the chapter that your class is reading and read “for a little while.” I’ve done that, and I drag it on too long. Even if it’s a great book, I select clear start and end point.

As you’ll see in my example below, identifying a “scene” is one option. The opening or closing of a chapter is another option. Or, a conversation between two characters. Students won’t know that more follows if you use your voice to make it feel final.

The read aloud should be the perfect length. Yes, that’s all I’ll say about that. A read aloud that is too short doesn’t have time to build momentum and get students sucked into the narrative. A read aloud that is too long has students wondering when the teacher will end, and unless the story and the reader are truly compelling, it is hard to hold students’ interest. That may just be my experience. I know that some books when read aloud can keep students attention for a long time.

Purpose

Are you reading aloud because you want students to read the book independently? Because you want students to learn specific information? Because you want to model a specific type of reading (reading a play, perhaps). Or because the excerpt will lead the class into a learning activity–more reading, writing, or scaffolded reading questions. That’s what I show in the example below.

Passion

This is a vague word that, in this case, means we should try our best when reading aloud. Change voices for different parts, characters, narrators, emotions, etc. It doesn’t have to be drastic. But it’s interesting if it is. My teacher Dr. Meixner was great at doing read alouds, and she was teaching 21 and 22-year-old students. I remember hearing her read aloud from Tangerine by Edward Bloor in our reading methods class. Similarly, my teacher Mr. Mahoney had a class that included many exhausted student teachers, yet he still captivated the class with his read alouds. So the passion that we put into read alouds matters a lot. It sticks in the memories of our students.

Plus, this makes it fun. Even when I’m a tired teacher, it’s energizing to do a read aloud and surprise myself with my animation, Students respond to this.

Post

The post-read aloud task should send students back into the text to find something that they noticed. After hearing the words read aloud, students will have an appreciation for the language that they might not get from silent reading. A simple question like “What sentence stands out to you?” works well.

Perhaps the last piece to improving our read alouds, as with any skill, is feedback. In this case, feedback comes in the form of self-reflection (and any comments on this blog post). And let’s be clear, I’m not immune to that unique feeling that comes from watching and listening to myself (Fear? Nausea?). But, I know that it’s essential for getting better. Again, at any area of life.

[Video: Part 1]

[Video: Part 2]

Reflection and notes:

[Side note: the lesson students are working on here is inspired by the 10 Beautiful Sentences project by Matt Morone. Click here to read about it.]

0:15 – 0:20 I tell the class that we will read a passage from The Catcher in the Rye where we gain insight into the meaning of the title. Andrew raises his hand.

“Andrew?”

“I don’t know…I just raised my hand,” he says. Kids are great.

0:30 – 2:00 First, I ramble a bit about the title. Then, I introduce the purpose of our reading, reminding students of their current project. This is finding and identifying powerful sentences in their reading.  I tell students that there is a powerful sentence that I’ve identified in the following excerpt. Next, I provide some context about the scene. 

2:20 – 2:24 “Just look for any sentences that stands out to you as powerful.” This was the task that I set for students. It was too vague. Better would have been to tell students to leave their finger on one sentence that they notice, or even make a light pencil mark next to one sentence. “Look” is too vague of a verb.

2:30 – 3:05 I’m doing my best to differentiate between the two voices, Phoebe and Holden. I do a decent Phoebe, making my voice higher and showing her frustration. Holden sounds too similar, though. Needs more apathy.

*This video was record with my cell phone and a Swivl. At the 3 minute mark, I got a call from an unrecognized number and had to block the call and press record again. Did I mention this was happening in a real classroom on a typical school day?*

Part 2:

0:00 – 0:55 The passage continues, a bit fast. Overall, I’m trying to convey the reflection that Holden is experiencing in this scene.  

0:56 – 1:30 I give a the follow-up task to students:

“Point to a sentence that sticks out to you and explain to the person next to you why you chose that sentence. Literally point to one sentence, read it to the person next to you, and tell them why you picked the sentence. Person closest to the back of the room can share first.”

Here is some redemption for those vague directions in part 1. This is a simple, manageable task that gets kids talking about the language of the passage. That was the purpose of this read aloud.

We finished by hearing three examples from students around the room. They identified the sentence that I had in mind as well as a few others.

So, with intention and practice, the read aloud is another tool we can use to build student literacy skills. Done well, it also helps to build a culture of readers.

What is your favorite text to read aloud? Tell us in the comments.

To be good writers, students need good taste

It takes a while, it’s gonna take you a while — it’s normal to take a while. And you just have to fight your way through that, okay?” – Ira Glass

The writing teacher should make him or herself more and more obsolete as time goes on. We are not shady chiropractors. We don’t want repeat clients. We want the students to learn the content and skills they need to succeed without us.

When it comes to teaching writing, we can encourage independence by teaching students to develop good taste for writing. Then they will know when, where, how, and why to revise.

When I write my blog posts, I rarely have someone read them over. And, you might say, it shows, because I often publish the post, re-read it and notice a few errors. Then I correct them. But I also go through a revision process on my own between drafting and publishing.

We can teach students to revise and edit their work without us. We can’t force them. We can teach them.

How do we do this?

We teach students to have taste for good writing. Then, students notice the difference between good writing and their first draft. We tell them to fix the first draft so it looks more like the good writing.

How do we teach students to develop taste in good writing?

We show them what good writing looks like.  We can do this through a variety of writing lessons.

Lesson 1: Analyze a writer’s style by comparing two texts

I stumbled on this lesson by accident about four years ago.

In the morning class, students read one piece by Leonard Pitts. They annotated with the purpose of identifying his voice. There were crickets when it came time to discuss.

In the afternoon class, students read two pieces by Leonard Pitts. This time, they looked for the elements of his voice that they saw in both pieces. Eureka! The students saw fragments, parallel structure, anecdotes, counterclaims, and lots more.

This lesson encourages good taste because students observe the moves good writers use over and over. Even if students can’t write like the pros yet, they can notice when their writing does some of these things.

Lesson 2: Socrative Writing Pedagogy

This one is by Jen Roberts. Again, it is simple and powerful. It helps students develop their taste in writing. Here’s how it works:

Teacher preparation: set a goal. It should relate to one aspect of students’ writing that you’d like to see improved.

  1. Students have a finished a draft, or at least a finished part of a writing piece.
  2. Students re-read their writing with the goal in mind (e.g. emulate the voice of Holden Caufield).
  3. Students select a part of their writing that best meets the goal. They copy and paste their writing into a short answer question on Socrative.
  4. After all students have submitted, press “start vote.” *This feature lets students anonymously view all of their classmates’ responses* Students  vote on the three best pieces by their peers.  Sometimes students vote on the ones that are funny instead of actually good. Watch out for that.
  5. Take a moment to copy and paste the three best student pieces onto some blank slides. This takes a few minutes. You may want to ask students to turn and discuss their votes with a partner.
  6. Display the three slides, each containing one of the best examples of student writing. Lead the class through discussing the postiive qualities of each of these examples.
  7. Send students back into their writing to revise with the best examples in mind.

Lesson 3: Circle the “betterness”

At NCTE Boston, Kelly Gallagher spoke with Penny Kittle and Cris Tovani. The topic was encouraging student revision.  Kelly began his part by leading the audience through this lesson:

[Side note: I’ll never forget the writing piece that Mr. Gallagher shared. It was a personal narrative he wrote about the death of his father. That was a meta-lesson in teacher vulnerability for me. Read his narrative here.]

  1. Select one of your best student papers and one of your average student papers. Use papers from last year. Or, use papers from another class. Or write two examples of your own.
  2. Ask students to read both papers.
  3. Have students circle the “betterness” in the best paper.
  4. Turn and talk, then discuss the traits as a whole class.
  5. Ask students to revise their writing, borrowing from that “betterness.”

You might say that this is copying. Everyone copies other people when they are learning. You have to have good taste before you can develop your own style. And part of the process of developing good taste is to copy the style of others. I’m doing it right now.

Developing good taste–that’s not an ending. It’s a beginning. It’s like you are wondering around lost and  finally recognize the neighborhood. You’re not at the destination yet, so there’s still work to do. But you know the direction that you need to travel.

This post was inspired by this video featuring Ira Glass.

Better PD (for introverts, too)

You’re up early on a Saturday. No teacher clothes, today, though. Jeans, baby!

The night before, your spouse said, “you’ve got that teacher camp thing tomorrow, right?”  

You’re a dedicated teacher, doing out-of-school PD. And whether it’s the weekend or a district-given school day, your time is valuable. So is mine. So I’m writing this post at 5:43 AM on the Monday morning after attending nErDcampNJ 2017 because Better PD involves a strategy. 

nerdcamp-matt-jerry

Matt Morone and yours truly discussing assessment in the high school ELA classroom at nErDcampNJ 2017 in Chatham, NJ.

[The headline says “for introverts.” I’m not sure about my personality assignment, but crowds exhaust me.  Not anxiety, but need-a-nap. These tips are for those who feel the same.]

What follows are reminders and realizations with some preferences too.

Prepare, preview, and plan. Review the session list, research the topics, Google the speakers, and plan out your day. This avoids time wasted.

Go for depth over breadth. This is a personal preference. I like to choose 1-2 topics of interest or urgency for my teaching and focus my time around those topics. This makes it more likely that I’ll find something useful to use in my classroom after the session.

After my first NCTE in Boston 2013, I got excited by seven different topics and came home with a stack of professional books from the Heinemann tent. Trying it all in the classroom was fun and exciting, but it also was unfocused and distracting. Now, I’d prefer to go deep on a few things that are useful right now.

Introduce yourself first.  Often, there are teachers at an event who I may recognize from the Internet but have never met in person. This is weird. Acknowledging this weirdness and still introducing myself with a handshake melts the weirdness. There are built-in conversation starters to use: what sessions are you attending? Where do you teach? How did you find out about today?  Many people are uncomfortable around large crowds, especially when alone. Introducing yourself to someone could make their day.

Sit somewhere random during breaks. The peak of social anxiety for a large PD event can be breakfast, lunch, or happy hour. Again, this is where introducing yourself to someone can improve the day. Further, begin a conversation with one person, then bring in a third person.  You might say, Hey, person X, this is person Y, I’m Jerry. We were talking about…

Speaking of breaks, take them. Even during a morning event, my brain absorbs more if I take a 20-30 minute break every 90 minutes or so. This gets me thinking about the strain of a typical school day for students. No wonder some students struggle to concentrate. Sitting is exhausting.

Bonus: go outside. I wrote the notes that became this post on the front bench of Chatham High School. Our students would benefit from a designated in-between-class break area outside, too. Weather permitting.

Do a brain dump as soon as possible.  We exchange so much information during PD. We lose most of it. Sit with a notebook, even in your car. Do a quick write and list the words, phrases, and ideas that you remember from sessions. Then, do the same about whole day. Here are my notes after nErDcampNJ:

notebook-conference-notes

I write in hieroglyphics for added security.

If you are a teacher-writer, this is more valuable. I wrote a draft of this post in 15 minutes because of my notes.

Use Twitter intentionally. This is difficult. At times, the super-dopamine-highway of Twitter gets me during a conference. So much engagement! Now, I like to listen, take notes, and go on Twitter later to reflect or share a picture. Again, this is a preference. Do what you like to do.

Try to plan follow-up actions. Matt Morone and I hosted a session on Innovative Approaches in the High School ELA Classroom.  Now, we will host #CELChat on June 7. This is a great way to take the discussion at this weekend’s nErDcampNJ and continue it. Plan to meet up with another educator again. Use an idea from a session and email the presenter about it. Read someone’s book and Tweet them about it. It’s good to follow-up.

Read this far? Next, go to the comments. Tell us your routine, hack, or strategy for making the most of PD.