Brain-Friendly Intervention

My post today is more a book review. A colleague and I recently decided that we wanted a book study this year that focused on our learners as much as our content or instruction.  We chose Thomas Armstrong’s 2016 ASCD publication, The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students.  As I read the first two chapters, I chased my own teenage children around the house telling them how amazing their brains are, how challenging it is to be an adolescent (so it IS all in their head, so to speak), and warning them of the side effects if they don’t use their mental capacities before their brains start the “pruning and wiring of circuits involved in decision making.”  The adolescent brain’s “pruning” process is introduced with a quote from Jay Giedd that summarizes the concept well:  “You are hard-wiring your brain in adolescence.  Do you want to hardwire it for sports and playing music and doing mathematics–or for lying on the couch in from of the television?”  When sharing this idea with my son, I might have switched out the word television for the term video games.  With his active teen brain, he understood my point.  Even though he passively said, “Okay, Mom,”  he is choosing to spend fewer hours hunting down zombies. Sometimes all adolescents really need is awareness provided as a friendly FYI, versus commands that say they can’t draw their own logical conclusions.

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As an educator, this book piqued my interest and increased my level of concern for how we engage students’ brains.  In a seven to eight hour school day, imagine how much we must contribute to or detract from effective hardwiring as our adolescent students build brains for adulthood.  I often refer to interventions classes as thinking classes.  Is that really true?  Do I or other teachers in our intervention “thinking classes” provide “brain-hostile” environments or “brain-friendly” environments to grow brains needed for college and career?  As I contemplated our intervention program for 6th through 9th graders and observed classes with Armstrong’s list of brain-friendly practices in mind, I wasn’t surprised that many intervention teachers make sincere efforts to engage students with brain-friendly instruction.  Although Dr. Armstrong provides eight brain-friendly practices, each with its own idea-packed chapters,  I am exploring the five recommended practices I see most frequently in interventions classes I’ve taught or observed.  We could very effectively use all eight practices, but I’ll leave the other three to your own reading exploration.

Below, I provide some examples of how I or my colleagues are striving toward brain-friendly practice.  Based on my knowledge of our work,  I can often think of more we all can do. When reading The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students, you’ll find extensive support for your own efforts to develop a brain-friendly learning environment, no matter what content/skills you teach.

Opportunities to Choose
What our students are doing:

    • Choosing independent reading materials
    • Choosing collaboration partners for metacognitive strategy practice
    • Developing class norms

What we could help our students do more of:

    • Allow students to choose topics for strategy articles
    • Facilitate student choice of roles for collaboration
    • Provide choices for demonstrating skill proficiency  

Self- Awareness activities
What our students are doing:

    • Responding to and reflecting on a reader self-perception survey
    • Responding to and reflecting on a reading attitude survey
    • Identifying personal learning goals
    • Reflecting on personal assessment data
    • Writing about personal strengths and weaknesses based on data and work

What we could do more of: 

    • Reinforcing a growth mindset over a fixed mindset
    • Helping students track their own growth
    • Exploring age-appropriate social-emotional topics

Peer-learning activities
What our students are doing:

    • Collaborating to make meaning of text in reciprocal teaching groups
    • Engaging in games to explore vocabulary

What we could do more of: 

    • Participating peer-to-peer feedback/ coaching.  
    • Reflecting on the use of strategies
    • Modeling effective thinking with and for other students

Affective learning
What our students are doing:

    • Honoring high expectations offered through consistency and care
    • Experiencing one-on-one conferences about skills, interests, and needs
    • Learning in safe environments that allow for risk and mistakes
    • Connecting to books that explore their own personal obstacles

What we could do more of: 

    • Providing students with articles and texts for strategy practice that connect to what matters in their lives immediately
    • Celebrating learning and growth

Metacognitive strategies
What our students are doing:

    • Setting their own learning goals
    • Tracking their own learning goals
    • Practicing metacognitive strategies with many opportunities for authentic application 

What we could do more of: 

    • Reinforcing growth mindset over fixed mindset
    • Coaching/conferring with students individually to make connections between personal effort and personal success
    • Monitoring growth with students in small groups and individually and adjusting practice as a result
    • Providing more opportunities for students engagement in authentic metacognitive strategies across disciplines (through effective co-teaching)

If you are a literacy intervention teacher, what would you add to these areas?  If you are an intervention-minded individual or an advocate for all students, what would you like to see added to any of these areas of brain-friendly instruction?

Literacy as a Survival Skill

I have been impacted as an educator, a parent, and a citizen by the work of Tony Wagner writer of The Global Achievement Gap (2014) and co-writer of Most Likely to Succeed (2015).  In the years before exposure to Wagner’s work, I was equally impacted by Thomas L. Friedman’s The World is Flat 3.0: A Brief History of the 21st Century.  I am not one to accept much I read as all-encompassing truth or holistically change my life- or work-style based on even the most solid work of an investigative journalist.  What I am willing to do is be reflective about what I know of the world around me and adjust where it seems most logical for me and those I influence.  

More recently, as part of my work on a cross-content curriculum team, I was asked to re-read an excerpt from The Global Achievement Gap.  One of the takeaways from a critical reading of what Wagner calls the “survival skills” for the “new world of work” is that literacy interventionists must possess many of these skills in order to be truly effective.  I suspect all educators must have a takes-one-to-know-one attitude about these skills. As professionals, Wagner posits that we should possess all of these skills to be employed, contributing citizens in the 21st century?  I can only assume they are also easier to pass on if one knows what they look like, feel like, sound like, etc. However, when asked to work with a population of students who have been through a plethora of ineffective instructional efforts intended to close the gap in their literacy journeys, impactful literacy interventionists at the secondary level have to possess something extra, something different.  We have to convince the nearly un-convincible that we have something essential to offer that is worth their effort and will contribute to their survival.  

So after contemplating for myself all the ways I engage these skills as a literacy educator, leader and advocate, I took the list before my professional learning community of high school literacy interventionist to see what they thought.  First, I wanted to know how they believe interventionists engage, or should engage, in these skills as we fulfill the requirements of our practice.  I also wanted to know how we require, or should require, students to engage these skills. Where should we make adjustments?

The World of Work and the Seven Survival Skills” (Wagner, 2008) How I use these skills as a teacherHow my students use these skills as they learn
Initiative & Entrepreneurialism Developing new and differentiated materials and processes to help struggling readers

Implementing action research for instruction to enhance metacognition and related skills
Analyzing personal assessment data and identifying areas of desired growth

Setting and monitoring personal goals and seeking growth through personal effort
Effective Written and Oral Communication Discussing data and developing instruction in professional learning communities

Writing and speaking to parents about student needs and strengths

Conferencing with students to provide feedback and to apply strategies to independent reading
Discussing data and developing instruction in professional learning communities

Writing and speaking to parents about student needs and strengths

Conferencing with students to provide feedback and to apply strategies to independent reading
Curiosity & Imagination Exploring research for areas of interest or to support action research

Engaging in action research to determine solutions for instructional challenges
Questioning to extend thinking about a topic and set a purpose for further inquiry.

Seeking information (inquiry) based on specific interesting or curiosity
Critical Thinking & Problem Solving Skills Matching student needs to instructional strategies

Monitoring for and reflecting on student evidence to adjust instruction

Using a variety of data points to diagnose and remediate literacy needs
Identifying what makes text confusing and determining clarification strategies

Intentionally thinking about thinking to solve cognitive challenges around literacy across contents

Evaluating sources, points of view, and arguments as part of making meaning of text
Collaboration Across Networks and Leading by Influence Collaborating with PLC members (literacy teachers across the district) to develop curriculum, assessment and instruction for intervention

Leading a literacy team and guiding professional learning for content teachers

Co-teaching as literacy access teachers in content classes to build student transfer of skills
Participating and leading reciprocal teaching group discussions about text

Relaying and modeling literacy strategies among peers in content classes

Leading class presentations around strategies and strategy application
Agility & Adaptability Monitoring learning & adjusting instruction in real-time.

Planning and adjusting to content needs in co-teaching setting
When encountering confusion, attempting and adjusting strategies to clarify confusion

Identifying and adjusting the purpose for reading a text

Identifying evidence to adjust predictions and inferences
Accessing & Analyzing Information Conducting pre-assessment, continuous formative assessment, and post assessment to identify patterns in student growth and needs

Analyzing student data to determine needs and strengths to differentiate instruction
Analyzing the connections between ideas in text and real-life

Evaluating sources, points of view, and arguments as part of making meaning of text

Reviewing personal data and identifying their own areas of strength and need.

I am sure we have missed some ways these skills are embedded, as I am sure there are many more ways we could be intentional and effective at deepening real-world application.   We must do that while not losing focus on our the foremost skill of need: to make meaning out of an overabundance of complicated texts with which they must engage as adults.

Wagner relays multiple times that these survival skills aren’t seen in educators or taught to students, repeatedly noting that we are still teaching for the needs of the industrial age. He veers away from blaming educators specifically and focuses more on blaming the educational system as a whole.  I do think there is a solid movement to engage students in truly practical and effective 21st century survival skills. Maybe that movement was fueled by voices like Wagner’s, but there are educators taking the lead on this. I believe I know some of them personally, and I have had the privilege to see them in practice.  I also realize the shift hasn’t been universal.   What do you think?What can education do to make a holistic, systemic shift? Where must that transition start?   Would you add any skills that aren’t listed among Wagner’s list of 21st Century “Survival Skills?”

Our district focus on employability skills includes many of Wagner's survival skills.

Our district focus on employability skills includes many of Wagner’s survival skills.

Summer Professional Reading

Have you put together your summer reading list yet?

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Even with several years of experience and training in reading and writing, I constantly feel the need to expand my repertoire of knowledge to help adolescents read, write, think, and speak better. Every year the needs of my students send me seeking more tools with which to intervene on their behalf.   I start each summer with a pile of books on my desk to read, books that I did not have time to read during the school year.  My professional learning focus is usually on my instructional queries from the previous school year, or on leadership or professional learning goals I’ve set for the coming year.

Below are a few titles I’ve read independently or in literacy courses that, in one way or another, altered my instruction or contributed to the development of intervention curriculum.  I could explain my reasoning for each, but my blogs already tend to be too lengthy.  The titles and the reputations of these authors provide plenty of justification for why each is on the list.

*Lifers:  Learning from At-Risk Adolescent Readers
Pamela N, Mueller (c) 2001

A Guide to Co-Teaching: New Lessons & Strategies to Facilitate Student Learning
Richard A. Villa, Jacqueline S. Thousand, & Ann I. Nevin  (c) 2013  Third Edition

*Summarizing, Paraphrasing, and Retelling: Skills for Better Reading, Writing, and Test Taking       Emily Kissner (c) 2006

Rigorous Reading:  5 Access Points for Comprehending Complex Texts
Nancy Frey & Douglas Fisher (c) 2013

51yVSHHSZvL._AC_US160_Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Learning for All Learners       Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison (c) 2011

*Reciprocal Teaching at Work K-12: Powerful Strategies and Lessons for Improving Reading Comprehension   Lori D. Oczkus (c) 2010  2nd Edition

Reflective Teaching, Reflective Learning: How to Develop Critically Engaged Readers, Writers and Speakers    Edited by: Thomas M McCann, et al.
Recommended:  “Reading Level Response: Helping Students Write About Literature” by Declan FitzPatrick

Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions
Dan Rothstein & Luz Santana (c) 2011

*What Really Matters for Struggling Readers: Designing Research-Based Programs    Richard L Allington  (c) 2012 Third Edition

41ynKI9kNAL._AC_US160_*I Read It, But I Don’t Get It: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers
Cris Tovani  (c) 2000

ESL (ELL) Literacy Instruction: A Guidebook to Theory and Practice
Lee Gunderson, et al.  (c) 2014 Third Edition

Qualitative Reading Inventory – 5
Lauren Leslie, Joanne Schudt Caldwell  (c) 2011

*Intervention Strategies to Follow Informal Reading Inventory Assessment
JoAnne Schudt Caldwell & Lauren Leslie  (c) 2013  Third Edition

Included on my professional reading list for this summer:

Visible Learning for Literacy: Implementing the Practices that Work Best to Accelerate Student Learning       Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, & John Hattie (c) 2016 

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*Qualitative Reading Inventory  – 6
Lauren Leslie, Joanne Schudt Caldwell  (c) 2017

Meeting the Challenge of Adolescent Literacy: Practical Ideas for Literacy Leaders   Judith L. Irvin, et al (c) 2009

The Motivated Brain: Improving Student Attention, Engagement, and Perseverance     Gayle Gregory & Martha Kaufeldt (c) 2015

*How to Make Decisions with Different Kinds of Student Assessment Data
Susan M Brookhart (c) 2016  

  • These titles are especially recommended for beginning literacy intervention teachers or content teachers who want to expand their literacy knowledge.

No matter how diligently I attempt to keep up with the current thinking and research around literacy, I know there is so much more out there. These are just a few resources that have impacted me.  I gain the best recommendations from conferences and other educators.

What books, journals, or websites have impacted your instruction?  For which challenges in the literacy classroom are you looking for resource support?  

 

The Adolescent Literacy Rabbit Hole

Credited to @RabbitHoleKC

Credited to @RabbitHoleKC

I started teaching in 1997.   My first teaching position was American History with 8th graders at a so called “suburban” school that had the unusual feel of being both urban and rural. Our district border butted up to the second largest urban district in the state, and at this point in the district’s history, it was experiencing the reality of a forced blending of diversity of culture and socioeconomic statuses for which it was wholly unprepared.   I enjoyed teaching in general, at-risk kids especially, but the challenges I had prepared for in college, mostly management concerns, weren’t the challenges that kept me awake or caused me to spend hours planning to teach.  I was surprised to find that the concerns that most plagued my existence were all connected to literacy. A predominant number of my students, probably about 67%, if it was near the the national average,  were non-readers or struggling/striving readers.  Ultimately, what that meant was that they weren’t effectively reading to learn.  When reading a piece of text to glean information and evidence about a topic within my content was the objective, that objective was rarely realized.  From a social studies teacher point of view, and a new social studies teacher at that, it felt like the time spent asking students to read to learn was wasted. I had standards to cover.  I was idealistic; I wanted them to read it, hear it, speak it, write about it, know it, use it.   I wasn’t yet using power points or prezis, flashing historical images from the internet, showing an array of video clips to build background knowledge or encouraging my students to create iMovies or engage in  PBL projects to get them to internalize content.  I could tell a good story, guide a good research project,  and lead a decent discussion or debate.  I could keep my students engaged. I was about collaborative learning before it was cool, but that wasn’t enough.  My students could take notes, have discussions, write mediocre essays without good evidence, and make posters.  Not life skills, necessarily. 

As I looked back on that first year of teaching, I felt a bit confounded about how I would ever help my students “see” and engage in the big picture of this nation’s history without their ability to truly read about it.  I felt that it was essential to be able to read, write about and discuss original documents. I understood the need to bale on the one-size-fits-none textbook and bring in my own sources.  I even wrote or rewrote passages.   No matter how many first-year-level activities I pulled out of my very small bag of tricks, my students needed to be able to read and grapple with difficult texts full of deep and original ideas intended to be grappled with.

I ended that first year of teaching with some successes, but they were mostly relational successes built on my appreciation of teens and my desire to advocate on their behalf.  I doubt one of those students remembers much else about that year.  Those students are in their mid-30’s now.  I still regret what SKILLS they really didn’t develop to help them be the citizens I hoped they would be now.

I spent another year at that school, before leaving to grow child 2 and child 3.  I was granted an English position, which for me meant teaching history through literature.  I was excited for the opportunity to connect literature to time and place and to make connections between the stories that fill our canon and the lives that bore those stories. (My focus quickly shifted from the canon, for those who are worried.) Year one hadn’t killed my idealism.  However, the struggle was real and prevalent no matter what I taught. Adolescents were struggling to make meaning out of all types of text, unless the text was significantly below grade level.  Frankly, many were struggling with texts well below grade level, as well. They had a severe lack of background knowledge and dangerously low vocabularies.   I was not so concerned that they couldn’t understand everything I asked them to read.  I wasn’t even concerned that some read much lower than others or that I would need to take a serious journey into differentiation land. I was concerned that they had no skills in how to GRAPPLE.  They didn’t or couldn’t “struggle with or work hard to deal with or overcome” confusion and challenges as they read.   When asked, they couldn’t tell me what specifically was the problem, why they didn’t understand a sentence, paragraph or passage. Nor did they have any practices of their own to deal with such problems.  More than that,  I was concerned I had no skills to help students, of any discipline, truly use strategies or grow as readers of content text or even as readers in general.  I had taken a “content area reading” class in college like every other education certification seeker.  I even enjoyed it.  However, by my second year of teaching, that felt like an insignificant collection of reading engagement tools that didn’t address the struggle before me.  A list of inquiries began to take hold.  How do I help struggling adolescent readers become better readers of my content, but more importantly, better readers, writers, thinkers in general?   How do I figure out what is tripping students in general and individual students specifically?  What are the processes the brain engages in to learn to read?  What then must the growing, developing brain do to make sense of complex text as it reads to learn?   I was feeling guilty for not having the knowledge or skills to answer these questions.  I once heard someone say, “guilt is the soul’s call to action.”  If that is true, I felt the call.

So that was the challenge before me when my second infant girl took over my world and my brain.   My refusal to leave her and go back to work also produced a hole in my budget.  A friend suggested I take a graduate class, so I could teach something called the Lindamood Reading Process.   By the end of the course, I was hooked.  The instructor of that class invited me to teach for her in a more clinical setting serving children with dyslexia and reading disabilities.  Just as will happen when you give a moose a muffin or a pig a pancake, or in my case, when you give a curious mind a new rabbit hole, a series of events developed before me that changed my life mission. I began a M.Ed program focused on secondary literacy.  Then I returned to teaching in the aforementioned second largest urban district in my state. That turned into a lot of action research and a return visit to graduate school for my reading specialist. The die was cast, and I was off to change the lives of urban adolescents any way I could manage.

What is your story?  Why do you care so much about the literacy lives of teens?  What are the struggles that absorb your thinking about struggling secondary readers?   I would like to hear about the journeys of other literacy-minded educators.