Tuesday, August 26, 2014

What is ELA, Really?

ELA.  English-Language Arts.  Ages ago when I was a middle school student, ELA meant that I was assigned a book, I took quizzes on its content, and then moved on to the next text.  I took quizzes and tests in grammar and spelling in the same way.  "Reading" meant memorizing the plot of a story and listening to my teacher tell me its deeper meaning.  "Writing" meant having correct spelling and grammar as well as 5 paragraphs in my so-called essay (about what I was assigned to read).  Somehow it got me through; I found my way to being an English teacher despite my dull experience.

It's taken me a long time to figure out why it's so difficult to teach English-Language Arts.  It's because it's such a gray content area.  Math clearly defines the exact skills students are to learn each year.  Clear-cut.  No frills.  Either a student gets it, or he doesn't.  Science and Social Studies are the similar:  teach this topic and this topic and this topic.  Yeah, yeah, yeah -- these content areas are supposed to teach reading and writing too, but we all know that the brunt of that goes to ELA:  that big GRAY elephant in the room.

An example from the Common Core Standards:

Did the student cite textual evidence?  Yes.  Does that evidence strongly support and analysis of what the text says explicitly?  Uhhhh . . . maybe?  Kind of?  That's a pretty relative statement!  It takes a lot of thinking to push through what ELA is really  meant to teach students.  ELA has moved from the content of texts to the literacy skills it takes to read them.  Consider this from EngageNY:

Whoa.  That's a far cry from the education I experienced!

As I move through this school year, I hope to continually revisit the gray areas of my content area and make them a bit more concrete.  I hope to notice and name the skills in literacy that push students to "readily undertake the close, attentive reading that is at the heart of understanding and enjoying complex works of literature."  Most of all, I want my students to be able to say "I get it."

Monday, August 18, 2014

Reading Workshop: Making it happen with limited time

I've been working recently with how to structure and organize, as authentically as possible, Reading and Writing Workshop into my 42 minute periods of 7th and 8th grade ELA.  I've decided to start wrapping my brain around Reading Workshop, since it's where I feel most at home.  I view myself as a reader, and have somewhat successfully implemented Reading Workshop over the past few years.

After some thought, I believe these experiences are essential to a Reading Workshop:

  • Strict adherence to the Rules of Reading Workshop
  • Self-selecting books (with some guidelines . . . thanks to Calkins for pushing my thinking on this)
    • reflecting on self as a reader in order to grow
  • Individual conferences and small (temporary and homogeneous) group work
  • Writing about reading 
    • Reader's Notebook
    • various purposes for writing about reading
  • Discussions about reading with other readers
  • Read-alouds
  • Study the craft of writing
  • Study the characteristics of genre
Wow.  42 minutes.  Where to begin?

To start my year, I will assume most students have not been in a Reading Workshop setting since elementary school.  That means much of these structures will need to be revisited, if not retaught/re-established as routine.  With this forethought, the beginning week(s) of my year might look like this:

First Day:  Intro to Reading & Writing Workshop
I like to spend my first day with students as orientation and organization.  Students need to have a permission slip signed that allows them to create Google and Goodreads accounts, and get an overview of what their year in ELA will entail.  I also introduce the classroom library, filing systems, and the narrative assessment to be given the next day.  Students complete interest inventories for reading, writing, and technology.

Narrative Assessment:
This year we are rewriting curriculum K-12 in our district to better align with Common Core Standards.  ELA is focusing on genre studies, and our department has decided upon narrative as our foundation piece for the year.  I believe this is a great decision (more on that when I starting thinking through how to bring Reading and Writing Workshops together into Genre Study).  Needless to say, 7th and 8th grades are given a pre-assessment to see just what our kids know about writing narratives.  This will take the entire class period, and give us oodles of information about where to take our instruction.

Launching Reading Workshop
I'm a huge believer that all stakeholders in my classroom are required to have a say about what happens with the time we spend together.  It is essential that students collaborate in the creation of the rules and structures of Reading Workshop.  Our understandings and expectations from each other should not be top secret!  It's often eye-opening to hear what students expect from me and from themselves (and each other!).  This lesson is dedicated to establishing the groundwork of our workshop.  I collect ideas from each of my 5 classes throughout the day, and then share the best thinking to carry us through our year.  Also this day, we journey to the library to start choosing independent books.  This is not new for most students, and although I know there will be a few reluctant and struggling readers who fight me on this, I will begin to create a vision about our work together as readers.

Creating Reading Habits & Structure of Reading Workshop
I listed "Rules for Reading Workshop" today as a bit different that the "rules" we came up with together. Students have much say as to the environment they will work in, but when it comes to the instruction that will push them to my high expectations -- I set the rules.  This class is dedicated to the "set-up" of tools we'll need to push ourselves as readers.  These rules include the following requirements and assignments:

  • Goodreads.  Mandatory amount of reading (to be determined as the year progresses).  Reflection on self as reader.
  • Reading:  The expectations I have for students as readers this year are to 
    • Read:  Both self-selected and assigned texts and for a variety of purposes
    • Write About Reading for a variety of reasons
    • Discuss Your Reading with me as well as peers
For this first Unit of Study, I'd like the main focus to be reflection.  This habit makes growth possible.  Tools that will help students reflect are:

      • Goodreads:  Students will create (or continue) a Goodreads account.  This marking period they will simply track their reading progress and begin reflecting on themselves as readers  Students must finish at least one book by the beginning of our narrative Unit of Study (tentatively Sept. 29).  
      • Reader's Notebook:  Students will write about their reading, at first, to participate in discussion with a partner or whole group about our shared text.  I particularly like What Readers Really Do by Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton. They outline a process that requires me to reflect on what I do as a reader in order to teach students what readers do to make meaning.  I anticipate those minilessons in a later post as they occur.
My vision for this week is to strongly establish the foundational pieces of my 42 Minute Reading Workshop: ~  Illustrative Example-"Have a Go"-Application-Share (how our 42 minutes are structured)
~  Proficiency with Goodreads so it can be moved to an "outside of class" assignment
~  Regular use of Reader's Notebooks as a tool to support reading
~  Becoming a better reader by reading

I will also be collecting a great deal of data about my students.  I like to use this time to have each student experience a conference with me and establish my standards.  I jot many notes about what I see readers doing and saying, and begin to plan the minilessons for our first "official" unit of study:  Narrative.

Fingers crossed!