Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Reading & Writing Workshop on a Secondary Schedule -- Part 2

I wrote over the summer about my hope to have an authentic reading and writing workshop on my 42 minute schedule.  As I reread the post, I sure love my high hopes!

I am glad to say that although there are many obstacles, there are some pieces of workshop that I find falling into place, and these are pieces I plan to pour in concrete as I build this strong structure of instruction.

Classroom design has been my greatest accomplishment this year.  My students meet every day at the front of my room.  At first we met in a circle, but it was awkward because my class sizes are so big (nearing 30!) -- our circle couldn't include everyone.  So now we meet "movie theater style."  Students sit with assigned partners in assigned seats.  I used to be against this, but found that it is much more efficient for students to come to class and know exactly where to sit and who to sit next to.  Not all students are thrilled with their partners, but I make it clear we are there to learn and support each other.  Partners have a responsibility to each other, and in the future I plan to make this even stronger through community building (another area I need to strengthen, and will save that for future posts).

I work diligently to keep time at our "meeting" at 10-15 minutes, and then students move to their assigned seats to work independently and me time to conference.  I still struggle with coming back to share in our meeting, and mostly this happens as a whole group while students are at their tables.  All in all, it is the structure that I hoped for way back in that summer post.

What's Working With Workshop Structure in 42 Minutes

  • Having a meeting area.  This forces me to plan for minilessons that are short and focused on one skill.  We simply don't have time to move too quickly through multiple skills, which adds depth to our work as we master one objective at a time. 
  • Keeping a consistent structure.  Students move to work with a "signal" from me when the minilesson is over.  Something along the lines of "Ok, let's try this!" or "Time to get to work!" makes a smooth transition from guided practice to independent work.
  • Time to conference.  I love that I get time to move to individual students and small groups even though I only have limited time.  This really helps to differentiate where needed.
  • Classroom management.  Students know what to expect with the routine of the class.
What's Challenging With Workshop Structure in 42 Minutes
  • I have to let things go.  I simply am not able to fit in a full reading AND writing curriculum.  I constantly play tug-of-war with my conscience and balancing the top-priority of instructional objectives.  Which days are for reading instruction?  Which days are for writing?  Especially in my work with Calkins, in which a Literacy Block is assumed, I have to be very picky about what to keep and what to let go.  
  • Time.  I have one prep period in my day without students.  One period to plan, grade, evaluate, answer emails, contact parents, differentiate instruction, meet/plan with colleagues, use the bathroom, etc.  Workshop requires me to know where each individual student needs to go next, and 120 students is tough to do that with.  I have a life outside of work that is also a priority!
My Plans to Attack These Challenges
  • Be vocal.  As department chair, I plan to keep hounding my district about block scheduling.  We had this at one point, but by cutting the block my district was able to cut teachers.  The chances of getting teachers back is slim-to-none, but I won't stop trying!  Teachers also need time to work that doesn't involve students in the classroom.  This is a legitimate part of our job.
  • Being very reflective in my objectives.  With new Common Core curriculum, we are revamping everything.  As I experiment with pedagogy, instructional objectives, and curriculum I am keeping close notes about what is working and what isn't.  This will make planning next year even easier (I hope!).
  • Even more structure.  Although students know they are supposed to meet in the front of the room and sit with partners and be prepared for class, I still spend time waiting for students to get settled.  This wastes valuable instructional time.  As I learn about what works, I can see the weak areas to improve.
Does Reading and Writing Workshop work in 42 minutes?  I would have to give that a strong YES.  There are parts of an authentic workshop that have to be left behind, but at its core, it works!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Moving Students' Thinking Past Summary

When I first had students write about their reading, they mostly wrote paragraphs and summary.  When they explored other ways to respond, their responses were different:  charts, webs, and pictures . . . that were also mostly summary.  Ugh.

I needed to move their thinking deeper than this.  The resource I've been using, Writing About Reading:  From Reader's Notebooks to Companion Books, moves students right to noticing the details vs. big ideas they find in their entries, but my students' entries just summarized their books.  It seemed they weren't noticing any big ideas, and I needed to reshape the kinds of thinking they were doing.  I decided to take a detour lesson, and have students reflect on the kinds of thinking in their entries.

I started by sharing the three kinds of writing (not genres, but kinds of writing), and had students discuss with their partners what kind of writing they were doing in their reading notebooks.


Our first unit this year had been narrative, so they were quickly able to choose informational and share reasons why.  Each student then taped the following chart into the back of their reading notebooks (this is where we take notes).
Types of Text Structures in Informational Texts
I briefly reviewed each structure, and associated it with a kind of thinking.  For example, in order to structure in "problem/solution" the writer needs to think about the problems and solutions.  We tried a couple of practice entries in which students decided what kind of thinking the writer did.

Then, I had students turn to their own notebooks.  What kinds of thinking were they doing most?  Students had to label each entry (at this point they had 5) with the kind of thinking presented there.  As I moved through the group and listened to conversations, I noticed exactly what I was hoping for:  students were labeling their entries as "description" over and over again.

When we returned to full group, we shared this.  We brainstormed ideas about how to think differently in our entries, added the ideas to our chart, and then set off to write entries in which the thinking was different.

Entry #6: Deliberately write an entry in which you think differently than your other entries.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Writing About Reading as a Genre

The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is always difficult.  Starting a unit that lasts more than 3 weeks is asking for trouble because so much momentum is lost over the holiday break.

I've been dabbling with Lucy Calkins' Units of Study and came across the unit Writing About Reading:  From Reader's Notebooks to Companion Books. Dabbling isn't the right word.  I'm enthralled in this unit!  I'm lucky enough to work in a district that finds great value in the work of Teachers College at Columbia University and the Reading and Writing Project, who developed these units.

For years I've known the importance of students writing their thinking about what they read.  This kind of writing is considered writing to learn, and requires readers to pay close attention to the books they are engaged with.  Writing about reading has never been authentic, though. Until now.

This Unit of Study suggests turning writing about reading into an authentic genre in the form of a companion book.  These books are found for many top-selling books, mostly ones that are made into movies:  The Hunger Games, Twilight, Star Wars.  There are may mentor texts for students to set their sites on when writing this way.  I knew I was stepping into unexplored territory with this unit, so decided to approach it as an experiment:  what works?  what's missing?  how will it fit into my year with the time I have and the structure of my schedule?

What I'm loving most about this Unit of Study is the scaffolding that's suggested. Immediately I found it easy to adapt to my 42 minute periods (although it's tough -- I have to make tough choices about how to balance reading and writing workshop since this unit of study is only writing). Students start with just writing -- workable with any structure.  I allowed students to choose their own books to write about, with the only requirement being that their choice is fiction.  I gave them prompts for Entry #1, in which they had to reflect on their book choice.  I started ideas from the unit of study with Entry #2, which is just to see what students will do; will they draw?  Write a paragraph?  Plot out a chart or web?  Will they draw a blank without a  prompt?  What I found is that most students wrote paragraphs.  Even when the assignment suggested other kinds of writing, most chose the paragraph, and all chose summary.  I had my work cut out for me.  How would I move their thinking in new directions with this genre?

Most initial entries were paragraphs and summary

The way the authors of this unit suggest to start moving students' thinking is to have a gallery walk.  Since there were a few of my students whose entries were not just paragraphs, I was able to just use my own classes' work for this strategy.

Gallery Walk:
  • Students set out their entries on the tables in the room (I don't have desks)
  • Students browse entries with a partner, answering the questions:
    • What are you noticing about the variety of responses?
    • What did other writers do that I could try too
Students return to a full group and share out.  Since I didn't have much variety in entries, I decided to chart responses and even had students add ideas.  We ended up with a chart of possible ways to respond to reading that weren't necessarily just a paragraph.  I left students with homework for entry #3:  this entry must be deliberately different than entry #1 & #2.

The results were awesome!  Even though I noted that responses were still mostly summary, students began branching out in the ways they respond -- a great direction for informational texts, that aren't written with paragraphs only.

Monday, December 22, 2014

It Really Is All In the Details!

I've been setting some new foundations this year for our units of study.  I've thought a lot about what I want the enduring skills that will thread through each unit this year will be, and Falling in Love With Close Reading has really helped me with some of those ideas.

The first is the idea of having a reading "ritual."  My students get a kick out of this, asking me when we'll be sacrificing the chicken, but the idea that a ritual is much like an ingrained routine that one just expects or does without really realizing it is important with the reading and writing work we'll do this year.  It's especially important when doing the work of a close reader.

So far, I've had students working on the steps to this:
From Falling in Love With Close Reading page 12

We labored through each step using Of Mice and Men with eighth grade, and the short story "LAFFF" by Lensey Namioka with seventh.  When the "steps" to this ritual were individualized, students did great!  But, when asked to put them all together . . . disaster.  Hmmm.  There's no point in reading the details closely and finding patterns and relationships if a greater understanding doesn't occur.  Students are missing the point of our "ritual."

As I try this myself as a reader, I notice that I often overlook details that really do deepen my understanding.  Without these details, I still get the gist of the text, but don't have the understanding that makes me love to read.  Simple as that.