Clarifying Confusion

The common secondary literacy intervention we use in our district is intended to be Tier 2, based on RTI (Response to Intervention) framework. This means that it attempts, within the district parameters, to adhere to the following characteristics:

  • It builds on the literacy needs for Tier 1 and should be in collaboration with Tier 1 instruction.  One element of this collaboration for our model is co-teaching for the purpose of integrating the application of literacy strategies across disciplines.  
  • It meets 3-5 times a week.  It should meet 8-12 weeks, but we must honor a semester schedule.   
  • It focuses on no more than three to five foundational skills in reading.  We focus on comprehension and vocabulary (morphology) to contribute to comprehension, independent reading, and collaboration (building knowledge in a community of learners).
  • Teachers are intended to use consistent formative and diagnostic assessments to determine students’ strengths and needs.   With a focus on student data-driven instruction, teachers are supported through professional learning and by a literacy coach to use research-based intervention strategies and track student progress toward specific goals based on gaps.

Our model has only four comprehension standards, but they are dense.  They are taught in units built by using the Marzano Instructional Design.   This allows teachers to unpack a dense comprehension standard into individual learning targets and organize them in a logical progression that scaffolds skills for cognitive complexity and student autonomy with the standard. In intervention, autonomy with a standard means that students build independence with literacy strategies that help them make meaning of a text.  This is as complex, and sometimes as overwhelming, as it sounds.  However, when students are in an intervention, the goal is to help them practice and deepen the use of proficient reader skills that have long been unattainable. They need effective and thoughtful instructional processes to get them there.

Arguably our toughest standard is for clarifying confusion:

During reading, detect signs of confusion, diagnose causes of the 
confusion & determine effective reading strategies to resolve confusion 
and improve comprehension.


The thinking and processing this clarifying confusion standard, by far the most challenging of our standards/units, was born long ago while reading Cris Tovani’s classic book,
I Read It But I Don’t Get It.   Much of the vocabulary for the targets and the progression were shared by Tovani, but implementing them as replicable strategies that work for a diverse group of students with many layers of strengths and needs has been a long journey that continues to expand with every new student in need of strategies to clarify their confusion.

If you were to ask the secondary interventionists who teach around this standard, most would say that helping students identify, and give language to, what causes their confusion is a tall order.  The targets (based on the standards above) are ordered by complexity from bottom to top as follows:

3.0 Learning GOAL Targets   (“learning targets that demonstrate attainment and mastery performance of the academic standard”)

  • resolve confusion (apply strategy)  to improve comprehension.
  • determine effective reading strategies to resolve confusion.

2.0 Foundational Learning Targets  (“essential prerequisites, knowledge, and basic processes not explicitly stated in an academic standard”)

  • diagnose causes of the confusion during reading.
  • identify common causes of confusion.
  • identify confusion while reading text of different types.
  • identify signs of confusion during reading.
  • describe the six common signs of confusion.
  • recognize or recall specific vocabulary:  detect, diagnose, signs of confusion,  fix-up  strategies, sensory images,  clarify, text features, adjust

Over the next few blogs, I plan to provide resources and techniques for addressing these targets to facilitate progression toward the “mastery of the academic standard.” However, the challenge with learning to clarify confusion is that it is a “work in progress.”  From the ways my children first learned to acknowledge their “huh?” moments and try to fix their own discomfort to the ways I make sense of dense and complex academic research,  we must keep reading and growing.  Students must have replicable strategies with which they can begin their journey, but as they continue to progress through the reading challenges of this life, and hopefully as we keep challenging them as educators, they will deepen these strategies and develop variations of their own. Of course, they must believe they can. 

Resources:

I Read It, but I Don’t Get It  by Cris Tovani  (1999)

Creating and Using Learning Targets & Performance Scales: How Teachers Make Better Instructional Decisions by Carla Moore, Libby H. Garst, and Robert J. Marzano  (2015)

Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Success by Regie Routman (2014)

 

Strategy Discussion Cards

HelpTeensRead has added a new resource to Teachers Pay Teachers (TPT).   It has been a busy time for us both. We will try to be more diligent in posting resources in the future. Please respond to this post to let us know what types of resources interest you.  Our literacy resources are intended to support secondary literacy intervention and secondary disciplinary literacy strategy instruction.
Below is the explanation offered as part of the resource:

Reciprocal Teaching
Discussion  Cards

Our district secondary intervention requires reciprocal teaching as a way to encourage discussion and blend the strategies learned in class.  Although we started with the brilliant resources of Lori Oczkus (Reciprocal Teaching at Work), over the last decade, Help Teens Read teachers (Brian Hubbard and Tracy Cooper) have developed many variations on the reciprocal teaching techniques to scaffold and deepen student literacy skills through discussion with other learners. Our most successful variations and extensions have been in core content classes where we support literacy skills in disciplinary reading.   

At the upper middle and high school levels, our goal is authenticity of skill use. We build reciprocal teaching processes for meaning making strategies directly through the annotation of text.  We focus on disciplinary text and current events that build the students’ vocabulary and background knowledge.   We want students to apply the skills of developing predictions, clarifying confusion, asking questions, retelling and summarizing as they encounter complex text in school and life.
(Rationale for adding retelling, see Emily Kissner, 2006)

The discussion card set provided is one example of how we guide students through individual roles as they read segmented text (3-5 chunks with stopping points, see simple example provided) that allows for strategy application.  Each discussion card provides a student with a guide for their assigned role as he participates in the collaborative group. Traditional reciprocal teaching groups have four roles.  We have embedded a process for students to stop, think, and retell (a 5th role)  in order to address confusions and misconceptions along the way.

The role cards can be used in many ways.  Here are some example:

  1. The roles can be assigned as differentiation to address students specific skill needs. The role cards can stay with one student for the whole text or be shifted at each stopping point when you feel students understand process and product for each role.
  2. The teacher may wish to add the strategies as the students work toward autonomy. For example,  a teacher may wish to explicitly support the retelling process and allow students to read text in pairs and take turns reading, retelling, and adjusting the retell.  Maybe students are struggling with questioning and clarifying, the teacher may have students use only these strategies during reciprocal teaching until these skills are strong enough to blend with the other strategies. 
  3. After you teach each strategy through explicit and guided instruction, you may wish to only add that strategy to reading and retelling.  For example, one student may read a chunk of text,  the next student may retell (students will discuss accuracy) and then the third student may adjust predictions.  These roles may stay stable for this whole text, or students shuffle at the end of each chunk.   Once you teach the next strategy, clarifying for example,  then add that strategy to the discussions.

Whatever process you choose, you may ask students to individually or collaboratively write a summary at the end of the RT discussion.  Monitoring the reciprocal teaching discussion, student annotations, and the summaries allows you to adjust instruction for areas of strength and weakness.

Reciprocal-Teaching-Discussion-Card
This TPT resource includes PDFs for five role cards (example in image above), a sample text that shows how we chunk text for this variation on reciprocal teaching, and the explanation shown above.   If you find a reason to use this resource, please leave a rating. We like to know if it is useful to you.   Please feel free to contact me through the blog with any questions.

Growth Mindset Intervention

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”          ~Albert Einstein

Lately, I see more memes and posters with this quote than ever.  While I agree with the sentiment of not judging intellect based on weaknesses rather than strengths, I think it tells our students that they can acknowledge something is a weakness and call it done. If a proverbial fish out of water truly had a need to climb a tree, and the fish believed he could determine or learn a way to accomplish this task, he would indeed get up that tree somehow, even if by adaptation.  However, our kids aren’t fish. 

When students enter any intervention class, but for our purposes, a reading intervention class, they feel like a fish out of water.  They don’t need to learn to climb a tree.  They need to get back in the water a lot more and perfect skills they need for survival. 

“I am not good a good reader.”
“I don’t like to read.”
“Reading isn’t my thing.”
“I am good at math, not reading.”

Readers-in-need are “fish” who’ve been allowed out of water too long, and they no longer know how to swim effectively in the new, more aggressive pond (Tired of this analogy, yet?)   Many of our intervention students had one or both of two types of experiences, and these will be defined too simplistically.  First, they experienced a developmental challenge with reading early and found themselves in pull-out interventions that did not have actual reading at the heart of the process. As a result, they were in a perpetual gap.  Second, as they got older, they weren’t required to read much for learning or found ways to avoid it, (and possibly suffered from the first situation), so they aren’t convinced of the value of challenge in reading.  They now lack the skills to be successful.  One outcome of those two situations, is that students often think they can’t read well, that it can’t be changed, and they don’t want to keep engaging in risky attempts that make them look foolish or feel inadequate.  Some pretty outrageous classroom behaviors are born from these beliefs.

The majority of our reading intervention students suffer from what Dr. Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset.   All too often, in the name of support, students are told isn’t their fault that they struggle (and it probably isn’t)  and they can’t really do much about it because that’s how they’re built.  The fallacy being supported, mostly through actions more than words, is that the students can’t learn to be as good at reading (or wri
ting) at the same level as their more successful peers.  According to Dr. Dweck:

“Growth-mindset teachers tell their students the truth (about where they are) and then give them the tools to close the gap (where they CAN be)…Not just lip service to the idea that children can learn, but a deep desire to reach in and ignite the mind in every child.”

Depending more on Dr. Dweck to expand a point,  I would like to share the following coaching anecdote from her 2006 edition, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success: How We Can Learn to Fulfill Our Potential (2006).  In her chapter on the impact of growth mindset parenting, teaching and coaching, she shares a comparison between two coaches (Bobby Knight & John Wooden) and how their coaching style impacted player growth, especially players that weren’t perceived to have the highest levels of talent. Sometimes it’s our fixed mindset that might be the obstacle.  Consider the following (insert readers for players):

“Don’t you have to go with your talented players and give less to the second stringers? [John Wooden] didn’t play all players equally, but he gave to all players equally.  For example when he recruited another player the same year as Bill Walton, he told him that he would play very little in actual games because of Walton. But he promised him, “By the time you graduate you’ll get a pro contract.  You’ll be that good.”  By his third year, the player was giving Bill Walton all he could handle in practice.  And when he turned pro, he was named rookie of the year in his league.”

Are we teachers with a growth mindset, for ourselves and our students? Do we coach/teach all students as if at the end of the day our goal is to see them be as successful as any other student?   Do we believe that we can grow all students:  the high, the low, and the poorly behaved?  Do our students believe that it is within their power to have all they can image out of their literacy lives? If we believe it, we can help them believe it.  They have the power to change their stars even if they gave up hope a long time ago.  We just have to reignite the hope.  The recipe: a strong relationship with a motivating, interested adult, an understanding and belief in their own powers to grow and learn, and the skills required to develop.

Let’s clarify the terms.  The definitions of fixed and growth mindsets wer
e established through the aforementioned research of Dr. Carol Dweck, but the working definitions below are taken from
The Growth Mindset Coach: A Teacher’s Month-by-month Handbook for Empowering Students to Achieve (Brock & Hundley, 2016):

Fixed Mindset: “The belief that we’re born with fixed amount of intelligence and ability.  People operating in the fixed mindset are prone to avoiding challenges and failures, thereby robbing themselves of a life rich in experiences and learning.” As a result, individuals with this mindset may seek constant praise for the skills they believe they possess innately (extrinsically motivated).
Growth Mindset: “The belief that with practice, perseverance, and effort, people have limitless potential to learn and grow.  People operating in the growth mindset tackle challenges with aplomb, unconcerned with making mistakes or being embarrassed, focusing instead on the process of growth.”  As a result, individuals with this mindset tend to be rewarded by the growth challenge and overcoming obstacles (intrinsically motivated).   

It is not my intention to tout another series of buzzwords, but this concept applies
heavily to our students.  I do not visit a classroom where I do not hear concern over motivation. In our district, our intervention model reinforces a belief that without
motivation and a positive self-perception/self-efficacy it is difficult for secondary students to close the gap in their literacy skills.  Much of our students’ motivation is zapped by a fixed mindset that has been reinforced by years of inadequate progress.

Ok, how do we do it?  Well, just like anything else that really works for students, it depends on the individual.   Part of our district intervention, is helping students learn who they are as learners so they can leverage that knowledge by identifying their strengths to repair their weaknesses.   This is impossible if students don’t think that kind of power is even attainable. The first thing they may need to know about themselves is their current mindset, and how that affects their success. 

So I challenge you to do some research of your own.  Intentional effort spent on relevant challenge is something our kids deserve to experience and need to truly thrive. In our district we often repeat the phrase, “literacy is a civil right.”  I believe that, but more than that the skills to change and grow and overcome obstacles are life skills school SHOULD be providing all students as well.

There are some initial resources to consider.  I started with the 2006 edition of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, but there is a newer edition published in 2016.  I have intervened for teen readers for most of two decades, and I the book kept me rapt. The concepts are so central to working with underperforming students.  The second edition provides some new research and new insights about aspects of mindset that weren’t being used effectively.   If the book is too big a bite during the school year, start with Dr. Dweck’s Ted Talk: “The Power of Believing You Can Improve”  and an article from Ed Week, “Carol Dweck Revisits the Growth Mindset.”  Even if you have seen a lot of general information and posters about growth mindset, it requires some authentic research to internalize its breadth.  

For a practical support for practical application in the classroom, I recommend The Growth Mindset Coach: A Teacher’s Month-by-Month Handbook for Empowering Students Achieve by Annie Brock and Heather Hundley (2016)

If you are already engaging in this work with students, let us know what is working.  We have to be in this together.

Levels of Understanding Poster

We use this Levels of Understanding Target Poster in our secondary literacy (Strategic Reading) classes to help students pre-assess their level of understanding of a literacy strategy (pre-instruction), and reevaluate their understanding upon completion of instruction.  The question prompts for each level are intended to ignite students’ ability to verbalize what they know and what they still need to know or be able to do.

The complexity of the thinking for this process falls under the metacognitive level of the Marzano taxonomy under Monitoring Accuracy:  “The student can determine how accurate their understanding of knowledge is and defend their judgment.”  

Here is a sample plan for how to use this resource:

  1. Prior to engaging in new learning, students reflect on the learning target (or standard/objective) for the day’s instruction and rate their current understanding.  We have students write the learning target (or standard/objective) on their exit slip form (not included here).
  2. At the close of an instruction segment, students reconsider and reflect on how their level of understanding has developed. They again choose a rating from the target.
  3. In writing, students explain and justify their rating choice using reflection prompts prepared for each level.

My collaborator, a talented former graphic designer turned educator, and I are now beginning the process of adding our literacy intervention and general instructional resources on Teachers Pay Teachers.  This free resource is our first offering.  If you are interested in particular types of resources for literacy intervention, please let us know.  It is probably in our vault somewhere.

Motivation Starts Here

In our district, secondary literacy intervention teachers are asked to focus on three elements of development for a productive literacy learning community:  skill, motivation, and self-perception/self-efficacy.   Secondary struggling/striving readers are unspecified-5a complicated lot.  Many factors have contributed to their general lack of success with reading and writing.  Lack of skill and the reasons for that are important.  However, students must feel motivated to give the effort required for growth, and they must believe their effort matters.  That needed motivation is significantly fueled or hindered by a student’s perceptions of who he is as a learner, more specifically, as readers and writers. Students must find what intrinsically motivates them, or we need to help students determine what intrinsically motivates. According to Daniel Pink in his book Drive,  “humans are built to be intrinsically motivated, but have been taught to be extrinsically motivated through years of overt control applied to ‘encourage’ us to work,” or in this case learn.   Do offers of rewards or threats of consequences ever do more than get kids to comply?  The evidence suggests that learning is rarely the outcome of extrinsic motivators. 

Motivating a middle or high school student is no easy process.  Their journey has already been long and arduous.  Along the way students lose track of why reading is matters to anyone, and more personally, why it matters to them. We have to presume that many other capable teachers have attempted to build literacy skills in our students and many have tried to convince students that the extra effort will be beneficial.  More often than not, the students have decided that their ability level is a pre-determined, innate part of them. They are not readers.  They aren’t built to be good writers.  Their future will be built on something that requires some skill they innately possess, and reading or writing isn’t it. Now, after multiple years without proof to the contrary, a secondary literacy teacher is telling them that being a proficient reader is a life skill and that they must possess it to be successful.   Worst of all, it is going to take many challenging hours of practice with skills built around the very things our students have learned to despise: reading and writing and thinking about reading and writing.  

Relationship building is the first step, no matter what the next steps are.  The next steps may be more influenced by the motivation philosophy you accept, but relationships are first.  I’ve yet to see a student authentically motivated without the foundation of a positive relationship.   We’ve all heard that students need to “know that you care, before they care what you know.”  That is never more true than with adolescent students-in-the-gap.  A great deal of what we do and say to convince students that the effort matters to them, must be built on acceptance from the student that the message comes from a credible, fair and consistent source holding high attainable expectations. They must believe the message is built on sincere love and respect for students.  That’s heavy stuff.  Nothing life-changing really happens before that exchange of positive beliefs occurs.  Often, when an adult reflects on the place in their journey when they found focus and direction for life, it was through the relationship with an excellent teacher.  (No pressure, right?) 

Resources for building relationships with resistant, challenging students: 
Classroom Management Strategies for Difficult Students
The Teacher as Warm Demander

So I am on a rabbit hole journey through the concepts of motivation, habit development, and growth mindset.   My hope, over the next few months and through this blog, is to make practical connections between effective classroom instruction and the research on how motivation and growth mindset happen for humans in general. There is a great deal being published about these topics. Theories and research can seem overwhelming and difficult to apply.  However, above all else, teachers seem to want to understand how to motivate students and help them build the skills needed for an information-rich society. Frequently, teachers feel forced to desperately offer extrinsic rewards for short-term gains, but their sincere efforts rarely lead to good habit development, stronger motivation to engage or a change in the students self-efficacy.

Personally, I don’t believe that the universal struggle to motivate our readers-in-need is simple or easily assigned as a characteristic of a generation.  I am driven to help teachers address the causes and effects for our students.  I would appreciate hearing from you about your questions and concerns for your under-motivated students.   I will use the questions you offer up, along with the ones from my colleagues, to guide my posts about this topic over the next few months.

 

Environment Matters

Engaging adolescents in literacy intervention, which is often the hardest kind of work for teenagers, requires something different. Intervention can never be more of the same, especially for students who have been intimately aware of their own actual and perceived deficiencies since early elementary school.  Too often intervention IS just more of the same.  The effort we are making with secondary intervention requires focus on motivation, improved self-efficacy and self-perception in addition to data-driven, differentiated skill development and vocabulary enhancement.  This all requires intentional relationship building in a brain-friendly learning environment.

When students visit our classroom, one I have shared with another literacy teacher,  the first thing they notice is our environment.  We even have students who wander into our room, without true awareness of the metacognitive torture we offer, and ask how they can get into our class.  Although the appreciation is nice, our goal is building a learning environment that makes it clear to students that this class is not just more of the same.  We attempt to build an environment that respects student needs on multiple levels.

I have the privilege of teaching in a summer academy with high school students who are interested in becoming teachers.   We offer students many real-world experiences and lessons about what it takes to be an effective educator.  One of their favorite “ah-ha” lessons is the jigsaw we do with the chapters from a book called Shouting Won’t Grow Dendrites: Twenty Techniques for Managing a Brain-Compatible Classroom by Marcia L. Tate. Our future-teachers make immediate personal connections between enjoyable learning environments and their best learning experiences. As a literacy instructor of students who find reading mostly painful, the environment is an important contribution to encouraging sustained periods of silent reading and enhanced learning through the intentional structure and organization of the classroom.  Since this post comes at the heels of a post on Thomas Armstrong’s book on effective instruction for the adolescent brain, today’s post is focused on the physical environment.  This can not be undervalued. 

Below is a review of some physical elements from Tate’s book (first edition) that are among those my colleagues and I apply to the general environment of our classroom. The pictures are from literacy classrooms all over our district.  

LIGHTING  

Classroom Application:

  • Reduce or reject fluorescent lighting
  • When natural lighting is not available, use lamps or alternative soft lighting
  • Blend options to reduce fluorescent lighting 

Benefits of more natural lighting:

  • Improves learning and cognitive processing
  • Improves behavior by reducing impact on central nervous system
  • Allows for more focus, more relaxation, and improved performance

img_20161017_124434776img_20160503_075430408

SEATING/ROOM ARRANGEMENT 

Classroom Application:

  • Create a structure that promotes easy movement, allows all students to engage with classroom action, and enhances classroom processes and procedures.
  • Provide alternative forms of seating (especially for independent reading)
  • Choose tables and chairs over desks for reciprocal teaching and other collaborative discussions
  • Develop locations where students can stand and work
  • Develop processes for efficient student movement into a variety of grouping structures 
  • Get students moving around to talk, share and present
  • Change groupings and seating locations regularly to build relationships and improve episodic memory

Benefits:img_20161005_101356978_hdr

  • Enhances episodic memory
  • Allows for movement to enhance connections and kinesthetic learning
  • Encourages curiosity, novelty, and anticipation for new learning
  • Facilitates comfortable and efficient transitions
  • Allows easier access to monitor and support student learning

COLOR

Classroom Application:

  • Use high-energy, warm colors for collaborative, engaging activities
  • Use relaxing, cool colors for calming and focus (silent reading, etc)
  • Provide feedback or corrections in cool colors
  • Ask students to add color for annotations and graphic organizers

Benefits with intentional application:

  • img_20161006_080704567_hdrBright colors (bold reds, oranges, & yellows) encourage activity and enthusiasm
  • Cool colors (blues, greens, lavenders) encourage relaxation or calmness.
  • Color assists in semantic memory and visual recognition  
  • Colors improve comprehension and retention

MUSIC

Classroom Application:

  • Develop a collection of music of different genres (catchy & calming)
  • Start your day/class with calming music
  • Use upbeat, catchy tunes for active engagement
  • Identify tunes that fit content or help enhance memory of content

Benefits of effective use of music:  

  • unspecified-21Creates positive emotional impact
  • Enhances personal connections
  • Fills the background space with positive sound
  • Contributes to increased relaxation, stress reduction, and improved memory
  • Awakens the brain for engagement
  • Improves of concentration 

SMELL

Classroom Application:  

  • Encourage alertness with cinnamon, lemon, or peppermint
  • Promote learning and reduce stress with lavender, rose, jasmine, or chamomile  
  • Consider student allergy concerns when using aromas
  • Pair calming aromas with calming music.

Benefits of use of scents:

  • Creates a direct pathway to the brain
  • Affects learning by enhancing mood and mental clarity (proven with lavender and vanilla)
  • Increases concentration and attention (proven with lemon, peppermint)

Of, course the physical environment is only a single piece of a complex practice that must include intentional, thoughtful instruction and consistent classroom processes and procedures for learning (also included in Ms. Tate’s book).  The physical environment should only enhance good teaching practices.  A safe, warm, functional environment promotes learning.   Intentionality and an understanding of the impact all of these elements on the adolescent brain make for an experience that extends beyond your room, beyond a given day, or even beyond a given school year.

Where do you see the benefits of being intentional about environment?  Do you think students value  a classroom that honors their minds?  Which of these elements are you implementing and how is it benefiting your students?

Other resources to enhance the physical learning environment:

3 Quick Tips for a Beautiful, Brain-Friendly Classroom by
5 Research-Based Best Practices for Brain-Friendly Learning Environments
10+ Tips for Using Brain-Based Methods to Redesign Your Classroom  

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.

Co-teaching for Literacy Access

“…the 21st-century notion of co-teaching places it within the context of some of the most innovative practices in education” (Villa, et al., 2013).

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One of the unique elements of the secondary literacy model we currently implement in my district is the co-teaching piece.  We are in year four with an intervention model specifically used for students in grades six through nine. We’ve experienced a great deal of student success.  However, we are still growing, learning, and adjusting.

Over the last three years, many challenges arose in our work, and many of those were addressed by professional learning, collaboration and innovation from literacy teachers in our professional learning community. However, the co-teaching element needs more support and clearer direction over all.  With that in mind, I drafted a set of guidelines and expectations for literacy intervention teachers. This is not only intended to help literacy teachers gain a clearer vision of the plan and purpose of co-teaching, but it is also meant to be an additional data point for conversations with content teachers and building leaders.

Beyond the guidelines, I offer a few other resources to support initial thinking. To connect to our district’s work with Rigorous Unit Planning (Marzano), I developed a scale to help educators think about the progression of learning needed for this process.   I provide Dr. Richard Villa’s definitions and comparisons of four co-teaching approaches.  Lastly, I drafted a few ideas to troubleshoot common concerns.  I don’t presume these will be the solutions to all problems, but it is a place to start.  Additional support will be offered through collaboration, modeling and coaching.

Note: Literacy teachers in our secondary system teach two classes of  reading intervention (intended as a type of case load).  They also co-teach with two content teachers per semester in the same grade level as the students in their interventions classes. The hope is that they will also be an “indispensable resource” in the literacy initiatives of their buildings. We seek to contribute to a positive culture of literacy and to simply help teens read and write for learning.

The hope is always that the administrators and instructional leaders in each secondary building will be intentional about assigning co-teaching relationships with the students literacy development as the foremost priority in mind.   This is two fold.  First, both the content teacher and the literacy interventionist are clear on and committed to the ultimate purpose of providing students with research-based, strategies for processing text across disciplines.  Additionally,  there must be intentional time for planning.  Dr. Villa, among other scholars on this process, would say that where there is no intentional planning there is no effective co-teaching.

I welcome you to read through the attached document and offer feedback.  It is a fluid document meant solely to help teachers and building leaders deepen this valuable piece of our model.

2016-2017 Targeted Literacy Co-teaching Guidelines and Expectations

Continue to Be The Change

As we barrel towards the start of another new school year,  I want to take a moment to share one quote that syncs with my beliefs about the power of teachers to affect change for students in the gap.  Each new school year renews my hope that more lives really will be impacted by the effort of passionate, innovative teachers. 

“Allington and Walmsley (1995) remind us that there is no quick fix for our literacy dilemma, no silver bullet or one-size-fits-all recipe that can guarantee success for all learners.  Contrary to what some people in the field of education might want us to believe, effective literacy programs cannot be bundled into child- and teacher-proof curriculum packets and distributed throughout a building for all to use, one lesson plan at a time.  Rather, meaningful change must come from concerned educators who see a wrong and set about to right it, teachers who are willing to read about, reflect on, discuss, and experiment with innovative ideas in order to make a difference for their students.

“This is not a task to be taken lightly.  Change is difficult.  Change is slow.  Change takes time, effort and unwavering commitment.  It can be frightening, requiring us to take a risk, to leave behind something that we are comfortable with for the threatening shadows of the unknown.  It can be confrontational, as new beliefs and concepts clash with old ones.  It can be frustrating, as fresh ideas don’t pan out and untested methods backfire.  But meaningful change, evolutionary rather than revolutionary, can occur.  It can occur for one struggling reader, one class of lifers, one day, one week, one semester at a time.  And when it does, it surely makes a difference.”

Lifers by Pamela N. Mueller, 2001