Making the Connection: Reading & Writing Belong Together

One blog post is simply not enough to encompass all that the reading-writing connection entails.  I have merely segmented out a small snippet from this chapter to highlight my thinking and reflections, but there is so much more…

Reading and writing should go hand in hand. Like peanut butter and jelly, each able to stand alone, yet so much better when layered together.  Unfortunately, for many of us in the education business, the two are treated as separate entities and often each has its own curriculum. This poses a problem, not just for teachers who want to marry the two, but for our students as well.  When taught in isolation, there is very little chance of making those strong connections that bond reading and writing as soulmates.

Regie makes me even more cognizant about being proactive and intentional with my instruction based on her writing under the heading; Read Like a Writer.  “Because I write for readers, I deliberately notice what other authors do in terms of tone, voice, word choice, language play, all aspects of craft, setting, character development, how I’m affected as a reader, and so much more. So it’s been a surprise for me how little of that we share with our students. We read aloud; we may write in front of our students; we talk about books; but in my experience it’s rare for us  teachers to make the reading-writing connection visible. Our students do not automatically think, ‘I’m going to try out in my own writing what that author just did.’ We have to explicitly demonstrate that transfer for them and encourage them to take risks and try out new styles, crafts, and language.” (183)

For years I had done all those things Regie talks about; read alouds, writing in front of my students, talking about books, etc…but it wasn’t until the last couple of years when I was immersed in graduate school that I began to truly understand the reading-writing connection. The minute I started being explicit and intentional about noticing and noting things authors did in their stories, I saw similar things popping up in my students writing, and they were excited about sharing their writing with everyone!  It made them feel like “real” authors. So even though I had thought I was doing some pretty good modeling and teaching of reading and writing, I was unintentionally denying them the richer learning that comes when one understands the connection between the two. As soon as I made that connection more visible, my students were able to run with it and enhance their own writing.

Beyond just being deliberate, intentional, and making the reading-writing connection visible to students, Regie gives great suggestions and ideas in the “Take Action” sections of the chapter on Embracing the Reading-Writing Connection.  From simple things like including “Hip hop, song, rap, dance, film and other art forms that resonate with our children,”(172) to “Teaching students to read like writers” (185), we are supplied with a gamut of rich ideas to help our students make stronger connections between reading and writing.  It starts with truly knowing our students and their interests, offering choice in their reading and writing lives, and building from there.

Even though I had thought I was doing some pretty good modeling and teaching of reading and writing, I was unintentionally denying them the richer learning that comes when one understands the connection between the two. As soon as I made that connection more visible, my students were able to run with it and enhance their own writing.

Regie closes out this chapter with some profound words of advice for educators; “Unique and effective craft, style, and technique have to be inhaled and digested by an engaged reader who is immersed in one unforgettable reading experience after another.” (191)  AND “Exercises in a book on craft might help us teachers know what to look for, but only deep, pleasurable reading and noticing what writers do will provide the sustenance and specifics that lead students to read like a writer and expertly craft their writing.” (191)  

I just keep reading and rereading those two quotes, (well… basically everything in this book, but I’m focusing on those two at the moment)  trying to digest them and think of ways to shift the mindset away from teaching them separately. Regie talks about a safe place to start being the content areas of science and social studies.  And it does work nicely there. So maybe that’s where we begin, but we must do more. Teachers need to be experts at understanding the reading-writing connection so that they can impart that knowledge to their students and stop relying on scripted curriculums that teach each as a separate entity. We can do better than that.  Our students deserve better than that.

Data – Doin’ It for the Kids

I am a self-proclaimed data nerd. I admit that I have played around on Excel more than once, and I create spreadsheets just for fun. What can I say, manipulating and looking at data is pretty awesome!

Data has been on my mind a lot lately. My school is currently looking at different ways we assess students and collect student data. There is a lot of focus on Collecting The Data, and Having The Data to back up various decisions related to students, including whether or not they should receive intervention services.

I highlighted a LOT in the section of this book “Applying Responsible Assessment”, p311. I kept reading sentences and thinking “THIS is what I’ve been trying to get across to my administration!!!” The last sentence on page 311 reads “…standardized tests are big business, with publishers lobbying hard for their adoption.” I am SO skeptical about using ONE textbook or ONE assessment to determine students’ growth or knowledge. In my last post, I wrote about frontloading and how background knowledge plays such a crucial part in students’ learning. Using one test or “curriculum” limits what our students are being exposed to, as well as costing tens of thousands of dollars for often scripted lessons with assessments that don’t always tell us what we need to know.

One of my latest pet projects is trying to get a diverse set of guided reading books to use for benchmarks so that my kiddos have a more fair shot at success.

But back to data.

Ms. Routman wrote on page 312, “Question any assessment that does not ultimately benefit the learner.” How many assessments do I see given, only to flesh out a data wall or provide more “data points” for a progress monitoring form? I LOVE that in the next section, formative assessments are given the spotlight. Anecdotal notes! Conferences! Teacher-constructed quizzes! Gasp – all things that educated professionals know how to do, really well!

But can we be trusted to do that?

Sometimes I get the feeling that my anecdotal data isn’t enough – that my observations are less than acceptable, because a number can’t be attached to it. My notes can’t neatly fit onto a sticky note to fit on the Data Wall, something else discussed in this book. One of the challenges for my intervention department this year has been figuring out how best to organize student data; do we enter it into a spreadsheet, do we keep hard copies, do we share in on The Drive?

I come back to the the sentence on page 322, “…but the key is the data must ultimately lead to improving learning…” THAT is the statement that I feel should be guiding discussions about student data. After all, the students are why we teach. Sometimes it doesn’t seem that way, particularly when it’s PSSA time, or the “Bigwigs” are coming to visit, or the charter is up for renewal. But it really is all about the kids.

Last week I created a spreadsheet to do Miscue Analyses on benchmark assessments. It figures out the percent of word ending miscues due to a missed inflectional ending, and the percentage of times a student self-corrected a meaning-changing miscue. I’m very proud of it, and it’s been very helpful for me in determining what I need to work on in my small groups, as well as to figure out how far “below grade level” my students actually are. (I’m less concerned about my students missing a few inflectional endings than I am if they are unable to decode long vowel patterns in 6th grade.)

For last year’s book review blog, I titled my data post “Data, Not Just Another 4-Letter Word”. I still feel that way. Data is awesome. It’s so helpful, collected in a meaningful, deliberate way. And just like anything in education, it all comes back to the “why” – we do it for the kids.

How Can Reading Conferences Work in Math?

I don’t even know if one-on-one math conferences are a thing. I’m “new” to the math instruction field – having taught high school Algebra 2 and Geometry for this current year and only exposed to this world for the second semester of last year. I’m not new to the profession. I taught middle school language arts for several years.

But I have spent last year and this trying to blend the worlds of “literacy” and math instruction. I know a preponderance of information is out there about math instruction. I’ve got a lot of info to tackle moving forward. But last year when I took over an Algebra 1 and Algebra 2 classroom mid-year, the immediate need, one of the most pressing and apparent needs of my students was how to access information about what they were learning.

I joined Matt’s book study group last year (studying the book Becoming a Literacy Leader by Jennifer Allen) with the idea that I would be examining what kind insights and connections I could find and make about literacy, in my case then, the math textbook, in light of what I saw in my new math classrooms: Kids could not access text to help them learn math.

My conviction after another year of math instruction has not changed. Kids are still having difficulty making sense of a difficult text. Enter this year’s book study on Literacy Essentials by Regie Routman. I was and am still convinced that I need to help kids broker that deal – that reading about complex math tasks is difficult, requires explicit instruction and practice, and is essential in moving kids to be independent consumers of math ideas and applications.

Somehow, I have been convinced that my training in writing and reading instruction is part of the equation. The two worlds should talk more! My participation here with Matt and his excellent team of knowledgeable practitioners is not a conclusive study. It’s not even a study. It’s an idea, really.

Just the other day, one of my students in Geometry had a breakthrough. “I am getting this! This makes sense!” I’d helped her individually many times during our work sessions. You know, those independent practice moments after direct instruction and lots of guided practice. But that day she got it. I realized that I needed more one-on-one time with some students to give them personal guidance. Asking her questions about where meaning broke down, where she didn’t “get it” helped to pinpoint exactly how to help her. Showing her that space was crucial. Trig ratios step into the world of fractions and students have a lot of walls up when you mention fractions. She did.

Ms. Routman says it this way about struggling readers in section 5 of Excellence: “Here is the crucial point: deliberate practice without effective teaching and coaching doesn’t guarantee growth” (222). I believe she is talking about one-on-one reading conferences. Ms. Routman shares the story of Maria who had a three-year discrepancy in her reading ability and her grade. She says that after just one reading conference, Maria started improving quickly. That is what has happened with my student. She finished the practice we did that day easily and successfully and left the room with a smile that told the whole story.

She’s been like a new person since then in math. Unafraid to tackle whatever faces her, she is now convinced that she can learn it. That is the kind experience I want to bring to all of my “math-ers.”

I’ve been trying to find a way to have math conferences with more of my struggling students. It is all informal with no model or structure at this point. But similar to my realization last year that I would have to help kids learn how to read math text, I am realizing at the end of this school year that next year is going to have to have math conferences. One-on-one time to assess needs and coach kids specifically.

May Round-up: Online Book Study for Literacy Essentials #litessentials

For the second year in a row, this blog has facilitated an online book study. In 2017, we read Becoming a Literacy Leader: Supporting Learning and Change, 2nd edition by Jennifer Allen (Stenhouse, 2016). This year, we are reading Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellent, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018).

The following links go to the five most recent posts from May for the study:

The rest of this post addresses a few questions readers might have about the study.

How do I participate?

An online book study hosted on this site is not like a Twitter chat, or an in-person book club for that matter. You could almost describe this learning experience as a “slow chat”. Contributors write responses (blog posts) to the common resource. Readers write comments. The contributor may respond to the comments, in which case an actual online conversation may ensue.

Blog posts are also shared on various social media channels. Any time a contributor publishes here, I share their post on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, and Linkedin. If you like what contributors here are writing, I would encourage you to do the same. If people are not on these social media channels, they can subscribe to this blog with their email address or their WordPress credentials.

Can I contribute to this study?

When a book is selected, a post is published calling for contributors to participate directly on this site. If you have missed this opportunity, readers are encouraged to still respond to the book by posting on their own blog or website. A nice example comes from the blog “Literacy Pages”: Meaningful Professional Development. By including the designated hashtag and Twitter handles when sharing out a post, it helps ensure that I and/or the author will pick up on it and promote it.

If uncomfortable at this time in writing your own posts, then readers are encouraged to comment on what is published. The goal of these online book studies, beyond promoting an excellent resource, is to grow every educator to become a better literacy leader. The more interaction we have in the comments, the smarter we may become.

Does the author participate in their book study?

Yes! As to how frequently and deeply depends on the author’s schedule. These are unique opportunities to interact with the author as you read and respond to their text.

Authors such as Regie are also likely to promote these posts on social media such as Twitter and Facebook. There is certainly a place for these types of connections in relation to their work. That said, high-quality professional development is a slow and steady process. There are no quick fixes. Improving in our own capacities is a lifetime of work, enjoyable and rewarding as long as we view it as more than just a brief encounter.

Question: How would you like to extend these conversations beyond the blog? For example, should there be a social media group set up to facilitate more discussion about the topics from the study? If so, where? Please leave your ideas in the comments!

 

Building Trust

As I began reading Literacy Essentials by Regie Routman, I felt as though she were sitting in the room with me. Beginning the book with an entire chapter discussing trust and building relationships, I wondered how she knew what I needed to read at that moment. For me, this school year has been unlike any other. I began my eighteenth year of teaching as a reading specialist who couldn’t wait to begin co-teaching writing in first and fourth grade. And the students did not disappoint! Those two chunks of time in my day were by far my favorite parts.

Fast forward to the middle of December…I had my second hip surgery of the year in December and just like that, my job as a reading specialist and my excitement about writing was diminished. I began the long road to recovery and put my job on hold for almost five months! I returned to work in May and found just how much I had taken trusting relationships for granted. I walked back into a building that had not stopped while I was gone. Instead, things changed, people changed, and I had changed. It has not been an easy road to begin rebuilding relationships with staff and students.

I think that something I have learned through my experiences this year is that while trust can be destroyed in the blink of an eye, it takes much, much longer to build a trusting relationship. Regie states, “When we feel personally and professionally valued, we are apt to be happier, more productive, and more likely to take risks as teachers and learners” (p. 10). How true! Coming back into a culture where I had not been for so long made it feel like I was invisible to the staff for a while.

I love that Regie give some simple suggestions on ways to build relationships with all involved in the school community. And one of the biggest suggestions that stood out to me was kindness. Seem simple, right? I find myself saying, “Be kind!” in all aspects of my life but sometimes I think it is hard to take our own advice. Reading this first chapter made me rethink how I approached each day, and I truly tried to focus on the kindness that I could spread to others. From the simple hellos when seeing someone to asking about his or her day to giving a hug when it was needed!

I think one of my favorite ideas from this chapter has to do with passion. Find your passion and run with it. Help students find their passions and use that passion to guide them on the road to learning. One final thought…as I walked down the hall taking two students to my classroom, a third student chased me down the hall to ask if she could come with me today. Umm…of course! She actually wanted to come spend time reading and writing with me. What a wonderful reminder of the trusting relationship I have created with this student.

This post is part of a book study around Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018). Check out more resources associated with the text at this website (https://sites.stenhouse.com/literacyessentials/), including a free curriculum for teaching an undergraduate course using Literacy Essentials.

Frontloading: The Great Equalizer

For years, one of my favorite subjects to read and study about has been the effect of background knowledge on reading comprehension and student achievement. In one of my graduate level ed psych classes, I did a presentation titled “School is So Boring” about how students come to school with different schema and that, depending on what they know, it does not always line up with the expected or assumed background knowledge they would have to have in order to be successful in school.

I’m now a reading specialist for grades 4-6 in Northeast Philadelphia, where my students and I bring varied background knowledge to the table. I’ve actually been thinking about background knowledge and frontloading a lot lately as I recently administered the last F&P Benchmark Assessments of the year. (My school uses these benchmarks to determine which students receive intervention services, and the levels also go on the report cards, but that’s a blog post for another day).

As I read through the section “Excellence 2 – Expert Teaching Through Frontloading”, I highlighted three phrases that stood out to me.

Make no assumptions

You know the saying “you know what happens when you assume…” and I think that this saying holds true in the classroom. Just through observation, it seems to me as if teachers (including myself) make assumptions about what our students know. “They are in ____ grade, so they should know _____.” When we find out they actually don’t know _____, we wonder “well why don’t they know this, they should??!?” But the truth is, it doesn’t really matter what we think our students should know; rather, it matters what they actually *do* know.

In the book, Regie writes that “make no assumptions” applies to our instruction as well. I agree with her thoughts that we should be constantly assessing our teaching to make sure that our students are getting the most out of our instruction. Just because something worked before with another group of students doesn’t mean that it will work with another group of students, or even with the same group of students on a different day!

Make it smart to ask questions

Through informal talks with my students, I have discovered that many of them are hesitant to ask questions in a large group setting for fear of being embarrassed, or because they feel as if they “should” know certain things that they don’t, for whatever reason (which is irrelevant, in my opinion, because our responsibility is to meet students where they are, not where we think they should be).

Asking questions is so smart! I mean, what do adults do when we don’t know something? We get on our devices and Google it! From correct pronunciation of a word to knowing when to use “i.e. vs e.g.”, information is incredibly easy to access. So why should it be different for students? Why create a stigma around asking questions? Asking relevant questions shows that our students are engaged in the material – they want to know more about what they’re reading. That hunger for learning should be encouraged.

Check to be sure students understand the purpose

Like the previous point, I considered this phrase from an adult perspective. If I am being asked to read something or do a task, I like to know why I’m doing it. Bonus points if the reason benefits me. I think it’s the same for our students. If students can see the value in why they’re doing something (Regie writes “‘…Then I want you to do the same kind of thinking when you read ______, so you can become an expert reader.’”) they take ownership of the task and are seem more likely to put effort into the task. My students love when I call them “good readers”! They know that reading is the key to so many things, so they have that buy-in when I ask them to do a task like read through the whole word or use sticky notes to jot down facts and information from a non-fiction text.

I know that I can be cynical about posting SWBAT, IOT on my board, but since I’ve started rephrasing it for the students (rather than administration), I feel much more focused on actually letting my students know why we are doing something.

So back to frontloading, and why I am so interested in it. The benchmark assessments are limited, in my opinion, because they ask for very specific background knowledge in order to be scored as proficient. There is one passage in particular, about hawks in the city, that my students seem to bomb every benchmarking season, regardless of their reading level. It took a while, but I finally came to the conclusion that my students were bombing it because the entire comprehension section was based on the assumption that students knew hawks typically lived in the country. My urban students have never seen a hawk in their lives, so they don’t know this. When I told them “hawks typically don’t live in the city,” it changed almost their ENTIRE response to the comprehension questions and understanding of the passage.

Interesting.

By simply providing students with this little piece of information, their understanding of the text improved so much! And this took less than one minute to do this simple frontloading. Imagine if I would have spent even more time frontloading! Until textbooks and educational materials become more diverse and representative of all our students, frontloading will be one of the most important ways that we can prepare all of our student for success, regardless of their background or experience.

This post is part of a book study around Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018). Check out more resources associated with the text at this website (https://sites.stenhouse.com/literacyessentials/), including a free curriculum for teaching an undergraduate course using Literacy Essentials.

Is joy the main event at your school?

When we work in a school, especially at this time of year, we all have much to think about and do. It is easy to get lost in the ‘to-do’ lists and lose track of the ‘why we became educators’ in the first place.

Now is the perfect time to pause.

When we pause to celebrate all that is around us, it refuels our minds, bodies and hearts so that we can walk these final steps with joy. In the final weeks of school it is more important than ever to pick joy back up. We can use joy to energize and focus our final opportunities of this year and guide our planning into next year.

Some of you may be deeply sighing and thinking, yes! While others are thinking joy sounds nice but come on, what does joy in our schools really mean? Thankfully Regie Routman offers some practical actions in her latest book Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence and Equity for All Learners (2018).

Routman remains steadfast in her commitment towards joy in her new book. She reminds us:

“Joy is the main event. In my work in schools, the main reasons the teachers and principals “buy in” is not because test scores go up – and they do – and  not because kids become better readers and writers – which they do. It’s because the work and the learning are so joyful for students, teachers and principals.”

When thinking about creating and maintaining joyful schools, Routman suggests three main leverage points: the physical environment, the social-emotional environment, and the intellectual environment.

 The Physical Environment

 The physical spaces in our schools, or ‘The Third Teacher’, can “add a sense of order, comfort, and calm that can make engagement, productivity and enjoyment more likely” (Routman, 2018, p. 40). What do you see when you intentionally look around and analyze your physical space? How does this change when you invite a new set of eyes to look with you? When we invite students, parents and/or colleagues to walk and talk with us and share their impressions of our learning spaces, we have the opportunity to see our spaces through new eyes.

Start at the front door of your school. Wander through your shared learning spaces and your classrooms asking what beliefs and learning are made visible. What is the culture reflected in your physical environment? How does your physical environment support the beliefs you collectively hold and are working towards?

In my work with teachers I have used this Literacy-Rich Classroom Discussion Guide to analyze school-wide learning spaces and open up dialogue. Teachers feel good about celebrating what is already in place and are usually open to choosing one area to approach with more intention. As educators, we can feel joyful about designing intentional learning spaces that invite students to engage with literacies in new ways.

The Social-Emotional Environment

 Routman’s attention to both students and staffs’ social-emotional learning felt like a warm hug when I read her words. This is a tough time of year for educators and it is important we take care of ourselves as we care for our students. I felt her suggestion to ‘take back time’ was an important one at this time of year. We have precious days left so we need to make sure they count. Take the five minutes you need to recharge – be it through a quick chat with a colleague or a quiet walk outside at lunch. As educators it is important to take care of our own social-emotional state with the same commitment and care we offer each day to our students.

One caution Routman (2018) reminds us is that, “it’s easy to organize our classrooms to fit our own needs and personal styles and to forget what it was like to be a child… “ (p. 52). If you are a leader, take the time to check in with staff and see what they need to finish the year with success. For those who teach in the classroom, consider how you might open up opportunities to check in with your students. Sometimes it’s as simple as standing at the school or classroom door and bookending the day with a smile, the question “How are you?”, and a pause to let them know you really care about their answer.

 The Intellectual Environment

 Sometimes joy and serious learning are mistakenly considered in opposition to each other. An intellectual environment is a key component in joyful literacy environments – “Joy comes from the celebration we do of teachers’ and students’ strengths and efforts” (Routman, 2018). In my work with educators, we have scheduled year-end meetings with celebration as our key focus. Scheduling time to reflect on professional learning and student learning has been a gift. Make time to celebrate with your learning community – trust me, the stories invite laughter, tears of joy and provide the energy to take us through the final steps of this school year. The joyful stories also provide us with tangible first steps when planning for next year’s success.

For students, engagement comes from a culture that “kids can sense is real and true” (Ripley, 2013, cited by Routman, 2018, p. 60). Our final days of learning need to be our most intellectually engaging. Plan lessons that you cannot wait to explore with your students. Fill your shelves and your read aloud times with new books to keep your students reading and talking. Consider your last weeks together as a school version of an advent calendar. Every day can become an exciting opportunity when we decide it will be. This includes time to nurture and follow our students and our own passions, as well as ‘relaxing our grip’ and just enjoying the learning time we have in our final moments of this school year.

I want to end this post with a special thank you to Regie Routman for her continued commitment to joyful literacy and providing practical suggestions for leaders and teachers in her book Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence and Equity for All Learners (2018). Regie continues to be a light that helps me find my footing when I stumble.

Thinking about joyful literacy and your own experiences, what can you add to this post? How do you make sure joy remains the main event at your school?

This post is part of a book study around Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence, and Equity for All Learners by Regie Routman (Stenhouse, 2018). Check out more resources associated with the text at this website (https://sites.stenhouse.com/literacyessentials/), including a free curriculum for teaching an undergraduate course using Literacy Essentials.