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Saturday, March 30, 2013

Teacher Evaluation and Me

My state, Indiana, has adopted a new teacher evaluation system called RISE. Reactions to this massive new method for assessing educators were varied. Most teachers were terrified. I was fascinated (and a little terrified too). "How hard can it be?" I thought. "I've been through National Board Certification twice."

With that thought in mind, I decided that I could help Indiana teachers by showing them how to take matters in their own hands. The website Teachers RISE Above was created, and the teachers at my school began preparing for really tough evaluations. We met several times over the summer to aclimate ourselves to the process and began documenting.

To date, I've had one long evaluation and two short (unannounced) evaluations. Frankly, they could have gone better.

The first short evaluation came as I was demonstrating how to create a website using gmail accounts. My fourth grade class was preparing to create a collaborative website on words we were studying for WordMasters, a national vocabulary contest. In my mind, building such a website was pretty high level stuff and incorporated oodles of Common Core State Standards, such as L.4.4cL.4.6, RI.4.4, and RI.4.9. They would be using technology at the highest level of Bloom's Taxonomy, creating. But the evaluator didn't really see it as a good example of my teaching. After all, I was not teaching content at that particular moment, only how to use a gmail account.

Then came my first long evaluation. I planned to teach students how to choose the correct definition in a dictionary using context clues and parts of speech. For the guided practice portion of the lesson, which I considered to be key, we would look at some words in context, study multiple definitions given in the dictionary, and pinpoint the correct meaning. In preparation, I enlarged dictionary pages using the copy machine and created corresponding practice sheets. To demonstrate my tech savviness, I would use my Elmo and my Mobi, moving around the room like a pro! Then the digital projector went down. Five minutes before my evaluation. As they say, "Keep calm and carry on." And I did. But it was not the lesson I hoped it would be.

The evaluator popped in for a second short evaluation as my students were working on a project called "People Who Made a Difference." Each of them had chosen a famous person and read a full-length biography about him or her. They were now engaged in the next steps in the project. Most were creating timelines of the person's life by measuring and plotting on large sheets of tagboard. Some were searching the Internet for pictures to add to their timelines. Still others, who had finished those tasks, were writing monologues for the grand finale, a presentation in which each students dressed a the person and talked about his or her life. Pretty good, huh? Everyone was engaged. It was a high level project. Still, I did not attain highest marks in "engage students in academic content" or "set high expectations for academic success." I heard that they were told to be critical. They were.

Now it's spring break, and I'm preparing for my second long evaluation. This time I'm not leaving anything to chance. Everything will be spelled out for the evaluator before she hits my classroom door. I have learned my lesson. The teacher DOES need to take matters into her own hands. The teacher needs to be proactive in this effort. The teacher is not only her own defense attorney, but also her own best cheerleader.

This week's blog will be dedicated to the process of building a solid lesson plan for a long evaluation.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Answering Questions and the CCSS

"Do we have to answer in complete sentences?" If I had a dollar for every time I've heard that question, I'd be a really rich woman!

When I began teaching, I decided that my students should write answers to questions in complete sentences. Each answer was required to use question parts, avoid pronouns, and answer the question succinctly. "A complete sentence makes a complete answer" was drilled into my students' heads.

But times are changing, and so must I. 

Question: What is the driving force of this change? 

Answer: The driving force of this change is the Common Core State Standards. College and Career Readiness Anchor Standard R.1 states, "Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text." Tucked in the Common Core State Standards website, two standards for each grade level spell out requirements for answering questions. One is listed under Reading: Literature, and the other can be found under Reading: Informational Text. This set of standards moves the expectation for answering questions from a complete sentence to a complete paragraph.

Question: How can a teacher prepare his/her students for answering questions?

Answer: A teacher can prepare his or her students for answering questions by providing a clear process and lots of practice. Expectations scaffold from grade level to grade level in the Reading: Literature and Reading: Informational Texts sections of the Common Core State Standards. RL.3.1 and RI.3.1 indicate that third grade students should answer the question using a topic sentence, paraphrase to provide evidence from the text, and conclude. Fourth graders need to do all of this and "refer to details and examples in a text" (RL.4.1, RI.4.1).  Fifth grade students (RL.5.1, RI.5.1) are required to quote from the text. Regardless of grade level, preparation must include thoughtful instruction on how to answer a question and ample opportunities for practice throughout the year.

In the above answers, I've attempted to model answers that your intermediate and middle school students should be writing. Each answers the question in the first sentence using question parts, provides evidence with citing and quoting in the middle, and concludes at the end. With guidance and practice, your students can master this process.

This year, I decided to take the RL.4.1/RL.5.1 plunge. During the first week of school, my students began answering questions for our summer read, The Black Stallion, in paragraphs. Although I did not expect full paragraph answers for every question in every subject, longer answers were required at some point nearly every week. I dug deeper into texts I was already using, such as Ella Enchanted and Hatchet, to offer plenty of opportunities for answering explaining and inferring questions. When that didn't seem like enough, I pulled excerpts from classic literature, such as The Wind and the Willows and Just So Stories, and provided more modeling and practice. Planning sheets and posters and rubrics were created. Was it worth it? Yes, with hard work and persistence, my students have become solid question-answerers.

Now it's time for classrooms across the nation to move their students from one-sentence answers to one-paragraph answers. How important is this standard? Well, let's just say that I don't think it is Standard #1 by accident. Come on in, the water's fine.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Planning the Fourth Quarter

When I don't plan ahead, things just don't go right.

With the fourth quarter upon us, it's time to do some long-range planning. First, I need to take stock of where I am and what I have:
  1. Concepts - What concepts have been taught and reinforced but not mastered? Are there any concepts that still need to be addressed? I need to look at the standards, compare student data, and make a list of what still needs to be accomplished.
  2. Materials - Even though I started the year with a plan, I have pulled some materials as needed and now see that some of my fourth quarter materials have already been used. It's time to look through textbooks, scan classroom shelves, and skim the computer hard drive to see what's still available.
  3. Weekly Grid - I can't function without this, especially at the end of the year. 
I start with a blank grid and fill in from the top and bottom. At the top are concepts and topics I am currently wrapping up or know I need to cover next. At the bottom are activities and subjects I want to do at the end of the year. Although humorous fiction and international studies are an unlikely pair, I want to do a big research project with international studies, which requires me to soften up reading and English. One thing I learned early: never plan two big projects at the same time!

Then I start to fill it in. Since I want the students to grow the biggest bean plants possible, I need to start my bean unit ASAP. That will go in science next, which means that the bean-related reading and English will be dropped into Weeks 2 & 3 as well. Working with beans is also a perfect match for the customary measurement unit I'll be doing at that time. Great! Connecting material and concepts across subject areas is one reason I create these grids.

I also plug in the economics unit I still need to do. Social studies - done! And I add remaining vocabulary units (which I also use to get my core spelling words). Check!

What's left? I'd like to tie the study of Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories to my animals unit in science. Although I have several other pieces of literature to choose from, The Cat Who Went to Heaven offers the most ties to concepts my students need to grasp (particularly figurative language, poetry, and making inferences). I'm anxious to teach Kipling for the first time, but it would be better to review figurative language before our standardized test. Oh, all right. Kipling and animals will be taught later, and cats will be taught earlier. By default, a health unit on disease also moves up into Weeks 5 & 6. That way I can link animals to the Just So Stories.

For math, I can just fill in the units that come next. There aren't any specific ties to other subjects, but that's okay. And that rounds out the year. Yay!

Now you know what Ben Franklin said: "The best made plans of mice and men oft go awry." It's true. This plan will likely change as unexpected activities and student needs pop up. But I have a plan! And that makes me feel really good about this grading period.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Meeting Instructional Needs with Literature

Books can be problem solvers! Have a problem with bullying in your classroom? Read a book! Trouble with making inferences? A book can help! Need to grab their attention for a new math or science concept? Grab a book!

Let's just discuss a few examples of this today.

Bullying - When my students aren't being particularly nice to one another, I pull out The Hundred Dresses. This Newbery winner is a heart-warming story about a girl who knows bullying is wrong but does nothing to stop it.

Making Inferences - This year I have a handful of students in my advanced reading class who still struggle with comprehension, particularly making inferences. I found that A Long Way from Chicago provides an opportunity to make inferences in every chapter. This novel about two kids who visit their free-thinking (and many times rather inappropriate) grandmother each summer is appropriate for upper elementary and middle school students.

Math - I wish I could find a great book for every math topic I teach! Opening with a short book really hooks the kids into the lesson. A Fly on the Ceiling is a fanciful story about Rene Descartes and how he may have developed Cartesian Coordinates. Betcha introduces estimating. And Spaghetti and Meatballs for All explores multiplication, division, and perimeter.

Science - Even for my bigger kids, Ms. Frizzle in the Magic School Bus series is great for introducing and/or reinforcing science topics. Well-known stories, such as "Jack and the Beanstalk" can really get kids thinking scientifically. (For example: Are any bean stalks strong enough to hold a human's weight? What is the maximum height of a bean plant? How quickly does a bean germinate?)

With that said, I need to pull more literature into my classroom! This weekend, my computer and I have a date. I'll be googling "books about cells for kids" and "books about algebra for kids" and much more! Why don't you join me?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Instructional Value of Literature

"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested." ~ Francis Bacon

Well said! We talked about books to be "tasted" earlier this week. In the classroom, I believe this means trying different genres. And books to be "swallowed," to me, are read for pleasure. Today I want to talk about books to be chewed and digested: those that require thinking and/or really teach something.

Pleasure books should be self-selected and read independently. On the other hand, novels used in instruction should be teacher-selected and accompanied by appropriate discussion and activities. This brings yet another facet to the process of selecting novels for your classroom reading list.

Where should you begin? First, make a list of the literature-related skills you want your students to acquire over the course of the year. For example, a list for my fourth grade classroom, based on the Common Core State Standards, might look like this:

RL.4.1 - Answer explaining and inferring questions; refer to evidence from the text
  • Novels need to offer opportunities for explaining and inferring.
RL.4.2 - Summarize and find a theme
  • Since this is students' first attempt at finding theme, novels need easy-to-find themes.
  • One or more novels should offer opportunities for summarizing.
RL.4.3 - Describe characters, settings, and events; refer to evidence from the text
  • At least one novel needs characters with distinctive personalities to describe.
  • At least one novel needs to have well-defined setting(s) to describe.
  • At least one novel needs to have several specific events on which the author has elaborated.
RL.4.4/L.4.4a - Use context clues to determine word meaning (including words related to mythology)
L.4.4c - Consult dictionaries and thesauruses to find precise word meanings
  • Novels must offer new vocabulary in sentences that are relatively easy to understand. This way students can use familiar context to determine definitions. 
  • One or more novel needs to offer opportunities to introduce/discuss words relating to mythology
RL.4.5 - Explain differences between poems, drama, and prose
  • Poetry - At least one novel must incorporate or refer to poetry, or related poetry must be available.
  • Drama - At least one novel must also be available as a play, or a related play must be available.
RL.4.6 - Determine point of view
  • At least one novel must be written in first person.
RL.4.7 - Make connections between text and visual/audio presentations of that text
  • One or more novels must be available as movies, graphic novels, etc.
RL.4.9 - Compare and contrast similar themes in folklore
  • Literature selections must include multiple forms of folklore, such as myths, legends, fables, fairy tales, and tall tales.
  • One or more novels should relate to folklore.
L.4.5a - Understand similes and metaphors
  • More than one novel should contain ample amounts of figurative language.
L.4.5b - Recognize and explain idioms, adages, and proverbs
  • Novels and/or folklore must present idioms, adages, and proverbs.

To address these standards, here are the staples on my present literature list:

The Black Stallion - This book is our "summer read." It provides wonderful opportunities to describe characters, events, and settings. Using the movie trailer allows students to compare and contrast text and video.

Paddle-to-the-Sea - Written and illustrated by Holling Clancy Holling, this 1941 Caldecott winner is filled with figurative language. Beautiful watercolors and line drawings accompany the story of a carved Native American figure in a canoe traveling through the Great Lakes (which also ties in with my regional geography study).

Aesop's Fables - These simple pieces of folklore present a variety of proverbs and offer lots of practice in finding theme.

Ella Enchanted - A parody of Cinderella, this novel ties easily with a comparative study of fairy tales. Its many chapters offer a great opportunity for summarizing, and the theme is easy to establish. Since it's written in first person, introducing point of view is a snap. In addition, a large cast of mythology-related characters facilitates introduction of words such as ogreish, gigantic, elfin, and so on.

The Westing Game - This puzzle piece mystery unfolds as a large cast of well developed characters try to solve a mystery. Opportunities for character analysis, critical reading, making inferences, and determining word meanings in context abound!

Hatchet - The main character in this story, Brian, wrestles with his parents' divorce as he struggles to stay alive when he is stranded in the Canadian wilderness. Finding evidence for explaining and inferential questions helps students understand this book. Since it's written in straightforward, contemporary language, it also provides ample opportunities for defining new words using context clues.

The Cat Who Went to Heaven - Here's a book with a poem to summarize the mood at the end of each chapter. It's filled with figurative language. Though short, this book is not easy to read and requires the reader to make inferences.

My list is far from finished! I need more folklore (especially mythology), more poetry, and a play. 

As you can see, these selections are not books to be "swallowed." Those belong in the recreational reading category. Instead, literature chosen for the classroom must be "chewed and digested."

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Satisfying Personal Interests

Whose interests need to be satisfied in the classroom? Everyone's!

You and I both know that not every student will love (or even like) every book you choose for instruction. But that's okay. Teachers should choose books for instructional value. When their students read them, those students' interests are being met. This is key: Even a book that isn't interesting to a student can be in the student's best interest.

That's Step #1: For instruction, choose texts that have specific instructional value and stretch your readers. Most classes have students reading at different levels, which may also mean choosing multiple texts for one unit of study.

With that said, you cannot totally satisfy personal interests without allowing students to select some books on their own. Bring back SSR (Sustained Silent Reading), DEAR (Drop Everything and Read), or whatever you want to call it. Schedule a time every week when your students can read whatever they want. Some students won't do it on their own time so we have to get them reading on our time.

In the middle grades, I also believe in monitoring student reading. We use Accelerated Reader. Now I know there's been a debate about AR and whether it kills the love of reading, but it's working for me. This year my class and I set a challenging (but doable) goal: 25 AR points per grading period. They can take tests on books we read in class and books they read independently. Our AR rubric has two other lofty goals: 90% correct and an average reading level of 5.0.

The first 30 or 40 minutes on Monday mornings are set aside for independent reading. That's when I check their AR records to see what they've read, what reading level they're choosing, and what percentage of the questions they're answering correctly. Sometimes it's obvious that a student doesn't understand what he/she is reading. That's when I step in to coach him/her with strategies such as reading for details, drawing conclusions, rereading, summarizing, etc. This strategy is not killing reading in my class. On the contrary, those reluctant readers are starting to bloom! I just love it when I hear, "Hey, Mrs. Kovich, I got 100% on this AR test!" and I turn to see one of those previously-less-than-motivated readers give me a big grin.

That's Step #2: Give students time to read what they want AND have some sort of mechanism to be sure everyone IS reading. The single best thing you can do to improve your students' reading is to get them reading on their own.

Now wait! We're not done yet! We can't forget the interests of that other person in the classroom: the teacher. Yes, I think the teacher should be able to choose texts that interest her (or him). Be sure to pick at least one book you really love to share with students.

That's Step #3: Show students that you are passionate about reading.

In closing, I'd like to recommend a book. If you haven't already read it, Kelly Gallagher's Readicide gives great pause for reflection. His premise is that schools are killing reading by placing too much emphasis on tests, limiting independent reading, and underteaching or overteaching books. It's a quick, thought-provoking read (118 pages of text).

Monday, March 18, 2013

Balancing Genres

Question #1: What's your favorite genre of literature? Maybe it's historical fiction, adventure, or mystery. Perhaps you love realistic fiction, folklore, or fantasy.

Question #2: What genres are you reading with your class? Tally them up and ask yourself: Am I a little one-sided? If you're like many middle grade teachers, you're reading a lot of contemporary realistic fiction. After all, it's stuff your students can really relate to.

Question #3: What informational texts are on your reading list? The first big shift for the Common Core State Standards is balancing informational text with literature. Check out this short video for more information (and maybe a little push) about bringing more nonfiction selections into your classroom.

Here's the big question: Does your classroom reading list need a shake-up?

You're probably thinking that all of this is well and good . . . but you really don't have the finances to add more literature and nonfiction to your classroom reading list.

Here are three ways to bring more reading materials into your classroom. For free!
  1. Visit Project Gutenberg. They currently offer over 42,000 titles with expired U.S. copyrights! You can even adapt the text for different reading levels in your classroom.
  2. Use pamphlets relating you your social studies or science curriculum. This week, instead of our tired old Indiana history book, my class is reading about the Indianapolis 500 with flyers and free teaching materials supplied by the racetrack!
  3. Give your students online reading assignments. For example, my class had a blast with "Adaptations" by Project Beak this year. They practiced online reading strategies while learning more about science topics.

Newbery Award Winners

When choosing books for my classroom, the first place I look is the list of Newbery Award Winners and Honor Books. These are the creme de la creme in children's literature.

The first Newbery Medal was awarded to The Story of Mankind in 1922. Since then dozens of fabulous children's books have received this award from the American Library Association. The ALA website lists Newbery Medal and Honor Books, 1922-2012. In my opinion, this list is a goldmine of middle grade reading material!

Many of the books I use or have used in my fourth grade classroom are Newbery winners:

  • Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo (2001 Honor Book)
  • Holes by Louis Sachar (1999 Medal Winner)*
  • A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck (1999 Honor Book)*
  • Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine (1998 Honor Book)*
  • Number the Stars by Lois Lowry (1990 Medal Winner)
  • Hatchet by Gary Paulsen (1988 Honor Book)*
  • The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman (1987 Medal Winner)
  • The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin (1979 Medal Winner)*
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle (1963 Medal Winner)
  • The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes (1945 Honor Book)
  • Call It Courage by Armstrong Sperry (1941 Medal Winner)
  • The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth (1931 Medal Winner)*
These books are spectacular for middle grade readers! They are motivational, well written, and teachable.

Next on my list of things to do? Read the 2013 Newbery winners!

*Books I currently use with my high ability fourth grade readers.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

CCSS - Hints in the Standards

The Common Core State Standards website provides hints on what your class should be reading. Take a look at Reading: Literature Standard 9. What does this mean for the middle grades?

Third Grade (RL.3.9) - Compare and contrast the themes, settings, and plots of stories written by the same author about the same or similar characters (e.g. in books from a series).

Fourth Grade (RL.4.9) - Compare and contrast the treatment of similar themes and topics (e.g., opposition of good and evil) and patterns of events (e.g., the quest) in stories, myths, and traditional literature from different cultures.

Fifth Grade (RL.5.9) - Compare and contrast stories in the same genre (e.g., mysteries and adventure stories) on their approaches to similar themes and topics.

Sixth Grade (RL.6.9) - Compare and contrast texts in different forms or genres (e.g., stories and poems, historical novels and fantasy stories) in terms of their approaches to similar themes and topics.

Clearly, the CCSS encourage third grade teachers to include author studies in their literature choices. Fourth grade teachers should go heavy on folklore, including mythology. In the fifth grade, genre studies are suggested. Sixth grade teachers would be smart to include units that compare and contrast stories, poems, and dramas, as well as those that take a look at the similarities and differences of different genres.

Since I teach fourth grade, I am in the process of developing a strong folklore unit. Each part of the unit needs to support students' understanding of folklore, stories of the people. At the same time, standards must be tightly woven into the fabric of the unit. My first attempt involved comparing Cinderella stories (folklore and parody), including the novel Ella Enchanted. A document entitled Ella Enchanted Grade 4 Overview, free on Teachers pay Teachers, describes my grand experiment: addressing nearly all of the Reading: Literature standards in one unit. Aesop's fables are featured in two sets of lesson plans: Finding a Theme and Summarizing and Writing Fables. I am currently working on materials related to mythology and Kipling's Just So Stories.

For more guidance, you can look deeper into the Common Core State Standards Initiative website. Tables list Range of Text Types for K-5 and Range of Text Types for 6-12, as well as texts that illustrate complexity, quality, and range of student reading for K-5 and 6-12.

Since today is St. Patrick's Day, I feel compelled to quote the Irish writer, Oscar Wilde: "The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on. It is never of any use to oneself." I hope this information helps you in your quest to select the best literature for your classroom!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

CCSS - Measuring Text Complexity: Three Factors

ELA Standard 10 of the Common Core State Standards deals with range, quality, and complexity. Three factors to measuring text complexity are suggested: qualitative evaluation of the text, quantitative evaluation of the text, and matching reader to text and task. To me, this is the starting point when choosing a novel for my class. The CCSS gives me clear guidance in selecting text at an appropriate and challenging level.

A supplementary document provides a much more detailed information and examples on choosing an appropriate text. Section IV, "Key Considerations in Implementing Text Complexity," has been most helpful to me. It details four important points:
  1. Look at quantitative measures first. Numeric values such as those provided by the Lexile Framework help teachers pinpoint texts with appropriate sentence lengths, word frequency, and so on.
  2. Analyze the text qualitatively. Think about the book's structure, clarity, language conventionality, knowledge demands, levels of purpose, etc. 
  3. Qualitative considerations will sometimes "trump" quantitative measures. For example, a novel written in a straightforward, conventional style is much easier than a novel requiring constant inference or written in archaic language.
  4. These measures don't always work for every text. Poetry and drama, for example, are difficult to analyze for sentence length and word frequency.
My team and I work with high ability fourth grade readers. Before this school year began, we reevaluated our novel choices. Quantitative measures revealed what we already knew: some of our novels were too easy. The Lexile "Stretch Bands" suggested for the Common Core State Standards range from 740L to 1010L for fourth and fifth grades. Here's how our novels measured up:
  • Because of Winn-Dixie (610L)
  • Holes (660L)
  • Number the Stars (670L)
  • Ella Enchanted (670L)
  • Elephant Run (750L)
  • The Westing Game (750L)
  • Chasing Vermeer (770L)
  • Paddle-to-the-Sea (840L)
  • Strider (840L)
  • Shiloh (860L)
  • The Cat Who Went to Heaven (1000L)
  • Hatchet (1040L)
In the end, we abandoned two of our favorite books, Because of Winn-Dixie and Number the Stars. They just weren't pushing our students to become better readers. Holes and Elephant Run were moved to morning book club options. Although Ella Enchanted was measured at 670L, its unconventional cadence and word choice make it much more challenging to read. It fit well with our Cinderella unit as well, so we kept it as an instructional novel. Hatchet, as you might have noticed, was measured above our "Stretch Band." Because of its conventional writing style and motivational story line, it also remained on our list.

In order to directly address the Common Core State Standards, I spent the winter months writing new curriculum units for Ella Enchanted and Hatchet. Both can be found in my store at Teachers pay Teachers.

I hope you find CCSS's Three Factors to Measuring Text Complexity to be helpful in your classroom too!

So Many Books, So Little Time!

How can we choose the best titles to read with our classes? This week I'll be discussing seven factors in choosing novels for middle grade classrooms:
  • Common Core State Standards 1 - Measuring Text Complexity: Three Factors
  • Common Core State Standards 2 - Hints in the Standards
  • Newbery Award Winners
  • Balancing Genres
  • Satisfying Personal Interests
  • Instructional Value
  • Instructional Needs