A few months ago, I ran into three former students who were back in town visiting family for the winter holidays. Asking me to join them at their table, we quickly found ourselves lulled by the ambiance of Cafe Steam--falling into a deep conversation about career paths, vocations, and ideal skillsets. In the midst of that conversation, there was shift: a shift toward what prepared them most for college, for job interviews, and for the various fields they now work in. The common thread? Writing.
This conversation has stuck with me. It reminded me of when I was in college: finding that I could write stronger papers than some of my peers, I took an hour or so one night to jot a note to a few of my past middle and high school teachers who had helped me build those skills. I still remember, to a small degree (it was over two decades ago), what I said to them in those letter--what it was I thanked each of them for.
It got me wondering. Do these same writing skills, strategies, and modalities that impacted me as a writer in the late 90's still resonate with today's students and recent grads?
To no one's surprise, I let the nerd in me take over. I created a survey. It was a simple Google Form that I shared on social media. Then, some fellow English teacher friends shared it, too. Less than a week later, I had responses from 31 Rochester Public Schools (RPS) recent graduates.
The results? Insight upon insight. Despite the small sample size, these 31 2011-2018 graduates provided more perceptive statements than can be squeezed into one blog post. (Hence, this is the first part of a three-part series.)
For now, here's some raw data and overarching themes.
Just the Facts
Success Ready Individual
We encounter so many unfamiliar things all of the time and need background knowledge to navigate our world. Yet, many of our students lack the background knowledge they need to navigate their learning. How do we provide this for them?
As an EL teacher, I always struggled with balancing providing students background knowledge when there was so many other things I needed to teach (decoding, comprehension, writing organization, and so much more!). How do I tap into my students’ prior knowledge and provide them with the information they need, and still have time to teach it all? I could teach background knowledge all day, but then my students would lack other essential skills. How should one balance it all?
How important is background knowledge really
Framework for Building ELs’ Background Knowledg
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Do non-ELs have background knowledge on the topic?
ELs should have a comparable amount of knowledge of a topic as their non-EL peers. This provides equity amongst all students.
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Does the background provide information in place of what the author is going to provide in the text?
If students are going to gather the information in an upcoming text, then don’t spoil it! It is still crucial that we provide students support and scaffolding as they access this information.
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Is the background knowledge about big issues that will help ELs make sense of the text?
Teachers don’t have to provide students everything about a topic. Rather, provide them information that is critical to comprehending the information.
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Is the background knowledge you’d like to provide concise?
There isn’t a need to take up an entire hour or class period on background information. Take just enough time to provide the critical information and move on.
The figure below is also a great reference to refer to when you are unsure about which background knowledge to teach. Keep it in your lesson plan book!
What are some quick strategies I can use to teach background knowledge?
- Brief video clips to share with students. These clips can be a great conversation starter so you can quickly discover what students are questioning or what they already know about the topic.
Visuals that clearly relate to your content or objective.
- Select visuals that will resonate with students and may connect to their interests or personal backgrounds.
- Also select visuals that give students plenty of opportunities to practice language that connects to your content or objective.
- Virtual field trips allow students to go to amazing locations without leaving your classroom.
Quick Write – What Comes to Mind?
- This Quick Write strategy activates students’ prior knowledge and provides the teacher with information regarding what students already know, or don’t know, about a topic.
- Prior to the lesson, ask or display the question, What comes to mind when I say…? Or show students a picture and ask, What comes to mind when you look at this picture? Students complete a quick write (5 minutes or fewer) about their thoughts and turn it in. (You may want to tell students that this isn’t for a grade, just to see what they already know.)
- Provide students a blank sheet of paper or a visual that relates to the content or topic.
- Students go around the table writing down words, phrases, or sentences that they think of in reference to the question, visual, or topic. Students can even draw their ideas.
Back to Rugby: an example.
Please reach out if you are interested in exploring more ideas for building background knowledge for your ELs.
Mr. Knipshield, 'Nipper' as we called him, showed us movies, told us stories and had us read articles about driving. Along the way, he would give us quizzes to ensure that we were ready to pass our permit test so that we could graduate from the parking lot driving to the open road. My guess is that he would adjust his lessons based on what we still needed to know.For this portion of our learning, the permit test was the summative assessment. If we did not pass, we would be stuck in the parking lot.
As we were driving back and forth or in an oval in the parking lot, Nipper was talking to us over the radio in our cars. “Slow down, speed up, car #6-leave more space between you and the car in front of you.”
On the road, he was continually giving feedback and was even equipped with a brake in case of an emergency. We had to do our part, but we knew exactly what we needed to work on at all times.
So, what does this reminiscing have to do with classroom teaching? Everything. When we think of the power of formative assessment, it is incredible. Many educators argue that this is the most integral part of effective teaching. With regular formative assessments, both the student and the teacher know the next steps for teaching and learning. The student knows what they know and don’t know, and the teacher knows what to do next. By gathering this information, classrooms become less of a “string of activities” and more of a direction on a clear path.
As an assessment expert, Paul Black put it, “When the cook tastes the soup, that’s the formative assessment. When the customer tastes the soup, that’s a summative assessment.” One definition of formative assessment can be found here.
When I think of Nipper, he was continually individualizing our learning based on what we were doing at any given time. He would adjust our classroom lessons based on our quizzes, questions, and answer during class. He would adjust and give feedback on our behind-the-wheel lessons based on our driving performance. Depending on our need, he interacted with us differently. We all had the same goal in mind-passing the driving test! We just may have needed a different way of getting there.
In this article , there are 10 examples of formative assessments. By choosing the appropriate one for the situation, a teacher will be able to adjust instruction or practice to fit the needs of a learner or group of learners.
As I think back to Mr. Knipshield and his many classes of 15-year-old adolescents, I am thankful that he gave us all the feedback that we needed along the way. We needed to learn and practice in many different ways in order to become roadworthy. I am also aware that my learning is ever present. I am now the one that is formally assessing my driving. After 37 years of driving, I still need to check myself to ensure that my practice is up to par. This is the highest level that we can hope for our students to attain; to internalize the process and using it through life.
[Also, check out this blog for a peek at how formative assessment and self-assessment go hand in hand. This topic just may appear in a future blog post!]
You see, as a kid I didn’t have any tangible women in my life with whom I really identified—at least not holistically. My day to day life was filled with men—my father, my older brothers, and most of my friends. And then there was my mom: my mom, who was 100% sugar, and spice, and everything nice—while I, on the other hand, was mainly spice. Unlike my mother, I enjoyed changing the oil with my dad, going fishing with my brothers, and shingling roofs with my guy friends. However, I wasn’t ‘one of the guys’ either: I had a Caboodle full of banana clips and Bonne Bell, Yankee Candle was my favorite store in the mall, and I wore Love’s Baby Soft every day of junior high. So, instead, I found kinship in Mallory from The Baby-Sitter’s Club series, in Jo from Little Women, and in June Osborn [Offred] in The Handmaid’s Tale.
The thing is, each of these friends were introduced to me by teachers. I met Mallory at Jefferson Elementary when Mr. Vanort pointed out the series to me one day in the Library. I met Jo at Kellogg when Mrs. Ollenberg noted in the margin of one of my journal entries that I might enjoy it. And, I met June at Mayo when Ms. Evans set her own personal copy on my desk and said I should read it over winter break (I still have that copy, by the way: if you’re reading this Ms. Evans, let me know if you want it back).
But the other thing is: I’m white and cisgender. I was also born in the United States and raised middle class. These factors made it easier for me to see myself in the books I read growing up. It also made it easier for teachers to put the right books in my hands.
Unfortunately, for many of our students, it’s uncommon for them to see themselves reflected in the books they read, and while the diversity we are seeing in children’s and young adult literature is on the rise, it still doesn’t match our student population. It only takes one look at the numbers to realize how true this is:
Statistics for “our RPS study body” (above) were pulled from Rochester Public Schools’ Student Management Systems on 12.10.2018 and from this 2017 MN State Health Assessment. Statistics for “books published for young readers” (above) were pulled from this 2017 study done by Lee & Low, this 2018 study done by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, and this 2014 independent study done by Melinda Lo.
As BJ Epstein, Ph.D., noted in The Conversation, “we know that children’s books can act like both mirrors and windows on the world. Mirrors in that they can reflect on children’s own lives, and windows in that they can give children a chance to learn about someone else’s life.” Knowing this to be true, then as educators it’s important we ensure students have opportunities to see characters who look like them, share similar backgrounds, and have comparable personality traits. Simultaneously, it important to ensure students are reading books that provide insight into worlds different from their own.
Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her 2009 Ted Talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” sheds light on how her personal view of how she saw herself and who she could aspire to become someday was inaccurate and thin because of the limited types of novels she’d had access to. In other words, the mirror she had access to—the one she was able to hold in her hands—didn’t give her a clear picture of herself.
Adichie goes on to talk about how the books one reads can also create windows into the lives and worlds different from one’s own. In fact, reading literary fiction helps build empathy.
For me, this was certainly true. My world view expanded greatly through literature. Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God helped me begin to comprehend the challenges of being black, poor, and female in America. Cisneros' The House on Mango Street helped me begin to comprehend the challenges of poverty and immigration. Dorris's A Yellow Raft in Blue Water helped me begin to comprehend the challenges of holding on to one's heritage when one is Native American and/or biracial.
No matter our cultural backgrounds and experiences, reading fiction “can usher us into other worlds—it can make us step into other realities” (Elemans).
When it comes to surrounding students with literary mirrors and windows, one of the first steps is accessing the right titles and then getting those titles into students’ hands. Below are a wide variety of resources that can help you find texts to then share with students.
Book List Resources:
- American Indians in Children’s Literature “Best Books” list
- IRIS Center’s “Children’s Books: Portrayals of People with Disabilities”
- National Public Radio’s “Book Concierge”
- When applying the filters ‘Young Adult’ and ‘Identity and Culture’ to the 2018 books, this curated list is created.
- It defaults to the 2018 list, but one can always go back to explore books published in previous years
- The NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) Blog, Literacy & NCTE—specifically these posts:
- “Build Your Stack: Widening Our Lens by Bringing Books from around the Globe into K-12 Classrooms”
- “Diversity in Graphic Novels”
- “Culturally Sustaining and Inclusive YA Literature: Valuing the Knowledge, Stories, and Truths of Adolescent Life”
- “Book Recommendations for the African American Read-In” (scroll toward the bottom for YA texts)
We Need Diverse Books’ subsite “Where to Find Diverse Books”
- Also, explore more suggested titles on Twitter: #WNDB
Reading Challenges that Honor Diversity in Literature:
- Rochester Public Library’s “Open Book Challenge”
- MacMillan Publishers’ “Reading Without Walls” challenge
The Academy of American Poets subsite “Teach This Poem”
- Educators can also sign up to receive a weekly email including one poem and supporting resources
National Education Association’s subsite “Read Across America”
- Also, explore more suggested titles on Twitter: #ReadAcrossAmerica
No matter what your role in education, you could be that staff member who hands out mirrors to and opens windows for our students. It’s important that we all work together to guarantee our students are able to see themselves reflected in the books they read and ensure that they’re able to build empathy for those who are different from them.
My childhood would have been rough without characters like Mallory, Jo, and June. My worldview would have been much thinner without authors like Hurston, Cisneros, or Dorris. To this day, I am grateful for those teachers who introduced me to these close friends and who showed me more of the world.
These protagonists taught me that being smart and outspoken, being strong-willed and brash was admirable—even if I was a woman. These authors taught me to empathize with others different from myself. Now, imagine what lessons our students will learn if we just introduce each of them to a wider array of books.
If you'd like to warm up a bit with some learning, consider signing up for some of these recently added PD Express courses.
As you try to warm up this winter, consider warming up with some learning.
Sign up via PD Express today!
When students hear the words 'journal entry', 'essay', 'research paper', or 'written response' the reaction that follows is typically not a positive one. They tend to elicit groans rather than celebrations.
For many students, large writing assignments are daunting and overwhelming. (In truth, even for me—an adult with an English degree—large writing assignments are daunting and overwhelming.) But writing assignments don’t have to be large to have a big impact.
I'm reminded of a quote from A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which Lysander explains, "though she be but little, she is fierce." That, in a nutshell, is micro-writing.
Micro-writing, defined as short bursts of writing that take only 2-10 minutes to complete, is a little-yet-fierce tool in our classrooms.
- Helps students activate background knowledge
- Enables students to reflect on and transfer knowledge
- Encourages self-explanation
- Incorporates creativity and draws on images
- Builds critical thinking skills
- Uses helpful frames and structures
As a bonus, the benefit extends beyond our EL students. For all learners—not just EL learners—the above bulleted list still applies. Plus, the recently published Ed Surge article “Micro-Writing is having a Macro Impact on Identity Development,” Bryan Christopher notes that micro-writing can be used as a check for understanding, a pre-write for what will later be shared aloud, or even as a vocabulary builder. Moreover, he notes that, “the value of micro-writing goes beyond academics, addressing social and emotional needs like self-perception and confidence.”
Personally, I love that micro-writing often pushes students to the highest level of Bloom’s, but without taking up large periods of valuable class time. When students write, even just for a small amount of time, they hit the “Creating” stage (level 6) of Bloom’s Taxonomy because they are generating something new with their knowledge. As a bonus, in getting to level 6 of Bloom’s, students often cross through the “Evaluating” stage (level 5) as they create an argument, make a value judgement, or evaluate a problem.
If you would like to try micro-writing in your own classroom, here are three strategies to help you get started:
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Six Word Compositions
- Q: How was the first week of school? A: Overwhelming, but I like my teachers
- Q: What was the theme of the novel? A: Love, when blind, can cause catastrophe
- Q: How did you approach the problem? A: Divided within brackets, multiplied by X
In her recent blog post, Kim Eversman explains how to use Six Word Compositions in memoir form; while Bryan Christopher, in his article, breaks down how they might be used in even more ways.
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If you want to explore the use of online Twitter Chats, check out the following articles:
- “Facilitating a Class Twitter Chat” by Jennifer Davis Bowman, published on Edutopia (December 2017)
- “Hosting a Class Twitter Chat in your Classroom” by Matthew Lynch, published on The Tech Edvocate (March 2018)
However, if you wish to try a low-tech version by using the worksheet shown below, access a copy of the handout, along with instructions, here (remember to first log in to your ‘@isd535.org’ Gmail account).
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So, the next time it comes time to write in your classroom, consider trying something short and sweet. If you would like to explore any of these ideas further, or have micro-writing ideas of your own to share, please reach out to me. I'd love to collaborate with you.
According to an article in the New York Times (May 2018), “94% of public school teachers in the United States reported paying for supplies without reimbursement in the school year that straddled 2014 and 2015. The teachers who reported spending their own money on supplies shelled out $479 each on average, according to the survey. Seven percent reported spending more than $1,000.” Additionally, this National Public Radio (Dec. 2017) report echoed the findings, noting that this trend occurs in Minnesota as well, although here in our home state teachers reported topping out around $2,000--almost double NYT's findings.
There are a few ways teachers are creatively getting their hands on the supplies they need for their classrooms. One solution: teachers are using is Donors Choose. Another solution: teachers are applying for grants. While these are both great avenues to pursue, they can take a lot of time to get up and running and/or written, and once funds are maintained it can take a lot of time before the materials make it into the classroom. So, don’t let cost become a stumbling block in your teaching, especially since you have a resource right here in town that can help: STEM Village.
STEM Village is a free resource that allows any RPS teacher to check out thousands of dollars worth of materials that help promote critical thinking, instructional dialogue, and hands-on problem solving--just to name a few.
If you're not a teacher of science or math, know that there are resources for you as well. Below, check out how even ELA and social studies teachers are utilizing such materials:
- "STEM & Writing: A Super Combination" by Heather Wolpert-Gawron (Edutopia: October 2014)
- "Why STEM & Reading Go Hand in Hand" by Stacy Kaczmarek (Reading Partners: April 2016)
- "5 Hands-On Activities for Connecting STEM & Social Studies" by Dorothy Crouch (STEM Jobs: June 2017)
See what is available for checkout via one of these three options:
- Kits and books will soon be able to be sent to district buildings via our inner school mail system (a benefit of being located directly next to the CTECH building)!
- Checkout forms will soon be accessible online (look for these at the start of next semester)!
- Soon, come see the STEM VIllage space and try out the kits during our Open House (this will be scheduled soon: keep checking the STEM Village Facebook page)!
If you have any questions or would like to brainstorm ways to utilize these materials available at STEM Village, please contact me.
We can not wait to see you at STEM Village! And, more importantly, we can’t wait to see your students problem-solving, collaborating, and growing their Twenty-First Century Skills!
When asked why this works for him Sam says, “When I have to talk about what I was thinking it helps me to understand it better. I also like hearing what other people think about things that I might not have thought about.”
We’ve all heard the adage, “More student talk, less teacher talk,” but why is this so critical in learning? Vygotsky (1962) suggested that thinking develops into words in a number of phases moving from images to inner speech to inner speaking to speech. Following this theory, talk is really the representation of thinking. We want our classrooms to be filled with talking because this means they are filled with thinking.
So, how can we build purposeful talk into the classroom and ensure that it really is deepening thinking and not just a recap of Friday’s football game?
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Ensure that everyone answers every question.
- T: What was today’s reading mostly about?
- S: The Cold War
- T: Yes, and the events that led up to the Cold War. (The teacher then summarizes the reading and students know they are off the hook )
Imagine flipping this scenario with the following moves:
- T: In your notebook write down what today’s reading was mostly about. Jot down at least three ideas.
- S: All student write in their notebook. (The teacher notices those who are struggling and provides some key words)
- T: Now, turn and talk with someone near you about what you wrote. Pay attention to what you have in common and what was different.
In the second scenario, all students had to write, talk, and summarize. In other words, all students had to think. (For two other strategies that help avoid the teacher-pivot, check out this post on spider-web discussions and this one on fishbowl discussions.)
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Ask open ended questions.
Seven Open-ended Questions for the Classroom:
- Would you explain that to me?
- What reasons do you have for that?
- How is that different from your classmates' idea?
- What do we know about this?
- When wouldn't that happen?
- How does that fit with what we said earlier?
- Can anyone think of how that might happen?
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Increase your wait time.
Vygotsky (1978) observed that “Children grow into the intellectual life around them” and that cognitive growth is “more likely when one is required to explain, elaborate, or defend one’s position to others as well as to oneself; striving for an explanation, often makes a learner integrate and elaborate knowledge in new ways.”
Our Rochester Public Schools classrooms should be filled with thinking and that means they should be filled with student talk.
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, in their book The Purposeful Classroom: How to Structure Lessons with Learning Goals in Mind talk at length about the importance of establishing a purpose for yourself as the teacher and for your students, and that instruction and learning should be focused on learning targets rather than tasks. Memorizing the Preamble, to me, seems like a task; whereas, understanding what the Preamble represents and means to us as Americans seems more like a learning target.
In just under two years my son will have the opportunity to visit Washington D.C. and I hope that when he does he is able to take the values and ideas presented in the Preamble (and the entire Constitution for that matter) and make them come to life as he experiences our nation’s capital. And, when that time comes and he’s touring a national monument or walking down the national mall, should there be a sudden need for the exact wording of the Preamble, I hope he is able to successfully search the internet for this:
If you would like specific ideas for how to increase student understanding, replacing memorization-focused activities with those that increase students' learning-by-understanding, please reach out to your instructional coach or one of us here at Secondary C&I.
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