Preparing to Teach in the Middle

Photo by Tim Wright on Unsplash

When I was a 5th- and 6th-grade classroom teacher, my lesson plans primarily consisted of the following: the learning objective and how I would assess student learning. Little time was spent thinking about strategies and practices that would guide students to new understanding.

As a principal for the last twelve years, I can see now how limiting this approach to lesson preparation was. Teachers are wise to spend the majority of their time planning instruction in-between the two.

During a recent classroom visit, a teacher was focused on debate skills and how to make a persuasive argument both in writing and verbally. There was a learning target posted and an assessment planned at the end, yet the majority of the time was spent in the middle of the lesson.

  • They connected this work to how an attorney might have to take on a case in which they disagreed philosophically with the position.
  • Clear criteria for success were provided, including steps they should follow to develop their position for the upcoming debate.
  • The teacher shared the stage with another student to demonstrate how a debate might proceed. They discussed what the student did well and aligned their thinking with the goal of the lesson.
  • Students were placed in groups based on the issue they would debate, such as cell phone use in school, and partnered with someone who had their same position (for or against).
  • The majority of the lesson was spent with students working with peers to collect evidence, outline their argument, and share their ideas. The teacher walked around and conferred with groups when support was needed.
  • They finished this lesson, a part of a larger unit on persuasive writing, by practicing their debate skills in front of peers. The teacher video recorded them. She would later share the footage with each student so they could self-assess their skills and compare to the success criteria.

If I went back into the classroom, learning targets and summative assessments would not be a priority. The messier process of teaching and learning, with all of the interactions that occur in the middle, would be my focus. If we can get that part right, the results will take care of themselves.

My Students’ Favorite Read Alouds

In a previous post The Principal as a Writer, I described how I used Moleskine journals and a document camera to write book reviews with students. These reviews are based on a book I just read aloud to them. Here were their favorites from 2011-2012:

Best of the Year (five out of five stars)

Love That Dog by Sharon Creech

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Review (4th Grade): “I love that dog?? I love this book! It’s great because there were a lot of good poems to feel happy when feeling bad.”

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Meet the Dogs of Bedlam Farms by Jon Katz

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Review (2nd Grade): “This is one of the best books we have read because the different dogs had different jobs. For example, one dog makes people feel better and another dog herds the sheep.”

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Owl Moon by Jane Yolen

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Review (1st Grade): “Owl Moon is a five star book because the pictures are colored in really nicely. Also, lots of details helped us know what they mean. It was awesome!”

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Pete the Cat by Eric Litwin

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Review (Kindergarten): “We thought this was the best book ever because it was funny. Pete kept stepping in colored things like fruit.”

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A Stranger Came Ashore by Mollie Hunter

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Review (5th grade): “Really interesting, hard to put down. Edge of your seat and intriguing story. Amazing.”

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Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing by Judy Blume

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Review (3rd grade): “This book was excellent because it was funny, like when Fudge ate Peter’s turtle. These funny events remind us of silly things kids do that we know.”

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Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

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Review (4th grade): “The good, rhyming words and his voice made you want to read more.”

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Honorable Mentions (four out of five stars)

Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart by Vera B. Williams

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Review (3rd grade): “We thought it was very good because in the end, the girls’ father came back. The author gave different personalities to each person.”

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The Chocolate Touch by Patrick Skeene Catling

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Review (3rd grade): “I like how the book teaches you a lesson, of eating too much chocolate being a bad thing.”

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The 500 Hundred Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins by Dr. Seuss

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Review (3rd grade): “We thought it was really good because it had math in it. For example, it was interesting when the squire was keeping track of the hats as they fell off.”

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Hate That Cat by Sharon Creech

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Review (4th grade): “It only had Jack’s voice; wish we could have heard from someone else. We liked how he changed from hating to loving cats.”

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The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown

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Our Poem (Kindergarten): “The most important thing about a fire truck is it has a ladder. It is on wheels. It is red. But the most important thing about a fire truck is it has a ladder.”

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Lawn Boy by Gary Paulsen

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Review (5th grade): “We really liked this book because it was humorous. For instance, we laughed whenever the grandma spoke nonsense.”

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Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

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Review (4th grade): “We really like this book. The models of the buildings, the way the pictures described the story, and the way Ben’s and Rose’s story relate made this a unique and intriguing book.”

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Book Reviews as Book Marks

I was recently strolling through my local super department store when I came across these notecards.

They are book mark cards.

 

 

As you can see, they have a flap on top. It allows you to slide the card onto a book jacket or a page.

 

They come in five colors, fifteen cards in each color.

 

 

 

I think these book mark cards would be great for writing book reviews. Students could get blank cards from their school librarian or from their teacher.

Before they had a card in their hands, it would be wise to model how to write a book review. For me, I like to keep reviews short and reveal just enough to tempt the potential reader. Brevity is a virtue.

My present format for a quick book review:

  • I (liked, really liked, loved) the book (the title) because (give reason to support opinion).
  • For instance, (use evidence from the book to support your opinion).

To differentiate for students who struggle with writing, the bolded words could be provided on the cards as prompts.

Here is an example of what a book review could look like on one of these cards, using the excellent Wonder by R.J. Palacio:

 

Books with attached student reviews coud be displayed on the top of the book cases. Featured books could also have their own shelf in the library or classroom. It would be similar to how book stores designate an area for staff to attach reviews for their favorite reads.

How do you a) encourage students to recommend what they read, and b) celebrate your students' writing? Your comments are appreciated!

 

I Read (and Wrote) to the Principal

When I moved into my new office last August, I found approximately 800 green pencils with “I Read to the Principal” printed on them, left for me by my predecessor.

Save that thought.

In my last blog post The Principal as a Writer, I wrote about how I modeled writing for my students and staff using Moleskine notebooks and a document camera. The modeling component of instruction is essential, but so is giving students the opportunity to practice their skills. As I have learned, student work should be authentic and relevant to their own lives.

I hoped that the students would be as motivated as I was to write about books I enjoyed. With that, I purchased one Moleskine journal for each classroom in which I regularly read aloud. Once they had seen me write a review, I handed off their classroom journal, with the following expectations:

1. They only put books in the journal that they truly enjoyed (four out of five stars or better).
2. They had to write to an audience, namely their classmates, their teacher and me.
3. They had to include their name as the reviewer. The idea behind this is classmates would presumably read the book review journal looking for their next great read. When they found a book that interested them, they could talk to the reviewer to get more information.
4. When students completed a review, they were encouraged to read their review to me in my office. Their purpose was to convince me to read the book they liked, as I had limited time to sort through all the literature out there.

Moleskine journals were now available in an opportune place in the classroom. Student book reviews commenced! Some classrooms used them more often than others. When I had not recently received a visit from a room, I again modeled a book review for that class in my own Moleskine journal, then encouraged the students to do the same.

Here is a third grader reading aloud his book review to me back in April.

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This is the book that he was trying to convince me to read through his review.

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He had me at “gruesome”.

After sharing, I gave each student one of the “I Read to the Principal ” pencils. What was nice was that they read to me their own writing. This practice corresponds with a number of my building’s beliefs we unanimously agreed upon as a staff, including:

Young children do not need to know all their letters and sounds before they can write stories and read back their own writing.

Shared writing text involving common experiences are often the easiest text to read.

A Couple of Reflections

– Writing for an authentic purpose is so critical. I couldn’t imagine writing this very post if I didn’t think I had an audience to read it or an opportunity for some constructive feedback. I imagine students feel the same way.
– Book reviews are a form of persuasive writing, an essential skill for students and for informed citizens.
– The reading-writing connection is a concept stressed by Regie Routman and other literacy experts. Reading makes better writers, and writing makes better readers.
– As a principal, this is another opportunity for me to visit with students in a positive context.

“Making meaning is good. Doing meaningful things is better.”- Peter Johnston, Opening Minds