Thursday, January 8, 2015

Reading & Writing Workshop in 42 Minutes . . . Continued

Today I felt a lot like this poor dog trying to fit through the door.  He could do it, if he'd only take another approach!  It happened with my continuing struggle to effectively fit reading and writing workshop into a traditional (42 minute) secondary schedule.

I keep a status of the class chart on a clipboard in which I record which students I conference with during independent work time, and take notes about those conferences.  I always feel rushed during this time, trying to fit in as many students as possible and scheduling those students who need the most support first.  This often focuses much of my attention on the "squeaky wheels" while those fly-under-the-radar kids continue to do just that.  Conferences are cut short, and often I'm left feeling like I got nowhere at all.

Status of the Class Chart
It occurred to me that there's got to be a better way to get quality conferences with students in the time that I have.  I took a look at my chart and started thinking about the kinds of information I was trying to collect about students.  I realized my conferences were filled with too much:  simultaneously conducting an observational assessment and then developing on-the-spot instruction for the gaps in understanding.  I'd have to decide right there whether or not a student was mastering the objective and then create individualized instruction, all within one sitting.  Whoa!  No wonder I was tired at night!  Why was I doing this to myself?

Going back to the poor dog in the video, I realized that Reading and Writing Workshops (the stick) are meant to be taught in a literacy block (the door).  I was trying to squeeze through that door with too many objectives for my conference.  I would have to find another way to get the time a literacy block offers.

I decided to give myself that time by stretching my workshop lesson over two days instead of trying to squeeze it into one.  So, on Day 1 of a lesson I'd give my minilesson, guided practice, and begin independent work time to apply the reading or writing skill. Then, that independent time could stretch over to Day 2.  On Day 1, my conferences were simply assessment:  who is mastering?  Who is struggling?  Why?  I took notes about what my teaching conferences on Day 2 would need to be about.  This gave me time to examine my observations and form small groups where possible and individual conferences where needed.

Plans for small group work and conferences

Why did I not think of this before?  Although I know that taking two days for a lesson that used to take one will eventually lead me to making some tough choices about curriculum, my gut tells me that depth is more effective than width when it comes to immersion in a skill.  I'll gladly scale back on what I teach to become more effective in how I teach it.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Writing About Reading -- What's the Real Goal?

My 7th graders have been working in their Reading Notebooks to "write about reading."  I never used to think that this was an authentic genre, but rather writing to learn:  the process of building understandings about a text (or topic) through writing about it.

This year I've got another angle that brings some authenticity to our work --- companion books.  This whole unit has been quite an experiment, and I have to keep reminding myself that there's an end in mind.  But, what is that end?  Yes, I want kids to create companion books for their self-selected texts, but what generative skills will they gain as writers along the way?  That is where the real objectives lie.  Although there are so many skills embedded in this unit, the major take-aways are:

  • Ladder of Abstraction.  I love this symbol from Lucy Calkins Units of Study.  She suggests that writers need to include both ends of this "ladder" in their writing; one end being the "big ideas" that are universal or theories and the other end being "details" such as quotes, descriptions, names and /or objects, etc. that create those big ideas.  In order to be at both ends of this, students need to discover big ideas in their texts through paying attention to the details presented to them.  

  • Various Text Structures of Informational Writing.  Informational writing doesn't really fall into any one structure.  It's a combination of structures.  This requires students to think in these ways about a text.  Students should be able to include description in some parts of the text, but also know when it's appropriate to include problem/solution, narrative (chronological), comparison and/or cause and effect.  It requires students to recognize how all the parts they include work together as a whole text.

  • Writing for an Audience.  Students need to be able to take their thinking from entries with notes and quick thinking to "writing long."  This requires free-writing to think through those big ideas and details that drove them there as well as structured writing that will make their ideas clear to a reader.

If my students can stash these in their writers' toolboxes, I know they can apply them in many different writing situations.  I'm guessing that as I work my way through this unit, I'll be adding to this post!