Effective Interventionists

I have met many women and men who wholeheartedly want to be effective literacy teachers.  They want, as much as anyone can, to impact the lives of adolescent readers. In our district, those teachers accept the belief that an excellent education is built on literacy as a civil right.   When I am asked how to get an effective class or program started for struggling adolescent readers, the inquiry is typically about structure, standards, and resources, understandably. I also acknowledge that even the best research-based structure is subordinate to consistent building-wide and district-wide support for fidelity of that structure.  Beyond that need, the greatest factor for success in the individual classroom is an effective literacy educator that believes in all students, responds to the needs of the whole student, remains knowledgeable on effective literacy practice, and builds a classroom structure that facilitates success for all students.

Although this might be a great place to write a literature review citing sources that validate my choice of essential elements, I will instead share my knowledge and beliefs through the lens of my education and my experience with hundreds of real students and dozens of teachers.  Like many reading this, I have spent years, dedicated my life actually, to the work of helping teens read well, both in private and public contexts. I value data and spend a lot of time attempting to make sense of what the data says about what happens in actual classrooms.  I am genuinely saddened that neither my best intentions nor my best efforts have made a significant impact on the system as a whole. I have seen the impact of my work and the work of my fellow literacy educators at the building level, and most certainly at the individual class/teacher level. Students have experienced long-term benefit in these contexts.  However, even as a coach that supports middle and secondary literacy intervention in a large district, with a literacy model I developed and implemented over that past 5 years, I must admit I have yet to see our literacy work impact the system in a sustainable way. Our work is unique, innovative and research-based, but the moving parts are many and difficult to effectively support. Yet we continue to press forward, with our best resource: effective literacy educators.

In spite of my obvious frustration with system change and the state of affairs of literacy in our nation, I must continue to believe in the power of the individual teacher, site-based management, & effective instructional coaching.  I would argue that one of the reasons systems change is so difficult is individual teachers, and frankly, individual students, are undervalued. Again, a blog for another time. With that said, I have bore witness to excellent practice in many classrooms.  I don’t pop in and out, I sit through classes, typically many times with the same teachers, and I notice some commonalities among our most effective literacy interventionists.

Effective literacy teachers believe In all students.  Above all else, effective teachers function from a belief system that accepts that all students can learn and grow as readers, writers, and thinkers.  This is first on my list and of utmost importance. When a teen has spent years battling against reading challenges, he doesn’t believe in himself anymore. These students also don’t believe that anyone can help them change their reading stars. Frankly, many educators have fallen victim to the belief that some students are just not able to read well.  “The good news is that we now have an essential research base demonstrating that virtually every child could be reading grade level by the end of first grade” (Routman, 2014). In a reality where that is not happening, the individual teacher must believe that the potential to achieve and grow still lives within each adolescent.

Effective literacy teachers employ responsive teaching practices.  Of course, this happens as a result of believing in all students.  It also requires a clear understanding of the strengths and challenges of each student.  This is where gaining and maintaining a strong knowledge of literacy development and pedagogy is important.  At the center of all of this is an awareness of the cultural knowledge, experiences, and beliefs students bring to a learning community.  The curriculum and the accepted methodology for instruction are important, however knowledgeable, reflective, relationship-driven educators can be effective with students through nearly any curriculum and any model of instruction. (This is where you may want to refer to my disclaimer for this blog. This is my strongly-held opinion.)

Effective, Consistent, Safe, Fair Classroom Structure.  The reality of teaching adolescent struggling readers is that they are not all that excited to take another spin at becoming a “proficient reader.”  Depending on the district and the structure of the intervention in that district K-12, they may have experienced a great many instructional attempts to fashion them into grade-level readers.  In some cases, those attempts, according to my discussions with students, made them all the more certain that reading is a boring waste of time. More than that, these students have undoubtedly experienced intervention attempts within classroom structures where the teacher’s credibility and clarity were constantly in question (Fisher, Frey, & Hattie, 2016).  The culture of the classroom, dependent on teacher direction and modeling, must acknowledge mistakes and confusion as part of the path to growth. Creating a safe space for students who have not felt safe enough to take risks, may well be the greatest benefit of thoughtful classroom structures. In safe, consistent, responsive environments students begin to absorb the positive culture of the classroom, respect the teacher’s expertise, and believe that maybe, just maybe change is possible.

Are you seeking to develop a curriculum that changes the literacy stars for your students? A solid data-driven, research-based curriculum is essential, but the impact of an effective educator is paramount. Have I missed some fundamental elements of an effective literacy educator? Share your thoughts? Consider your practice and the practice of those effective, impactful teachers in your sphere. Students deserve dedicated, responsive educators that always seek to improve their practice and who care deeply about each individual student. What does student evidence of impactful instruction look like to you? How are we using the evidence of our students’ success or failure to enhance our practice to serve students better?

3 Stages of Good Reading

One of the challenges of teaching students to use strategies for making meaning of a text is helping them synthesize a series strategies into a logical process for previewing, making meaning, summarizing and reacting to the author’s message or argument.   We developed this Three Stages of the Good Reading guide as one option to help students practice the steps start-to-finish when they process a new piece of text for general meaning, clarifying confusion, activating schema, identify the author’s main ideas/arguments, etc.

Use of this guide requires some scaffolding through explicit instruction (mini-lessons in a workshop model, for example), but those lessons can follow students’ initial attempts at the process.  Through this, teachers can collect student evidence to inform instruction.  Once students are proficient in the process, and they can apply it to a variety of text types with increasing levels of complexity,  these steps can be applied authentically to text or be more of an internal mental process.  However, as it is initially taught and guided, this is a method intended to provide opportunities for students to make their thinking visible and gain much-needed feedback for growth. 

The Three Stages of Good Reading process is not intended to replace disciplinary reading strategies where “content determines process,” in ELA, science, social studies, math, etc.  This is an initial process to support general understanding of the text and can be used as the first-read in a close reading process in a content area followed by subsequent reading through the lens of the discipline.

     
(Click the document to follow the link.)

Signs and Fix-ups

As a follow-up to my April post about Clarifying Confusion,  I am sharing links to introductory lessons for clarifying and repairing confusion.  Below are two resources from the Help Teens Read page at Teachers Pay Teachers.

The first item is a Cornell Notes printable (student and teachers pages with visuals) for identifying the six common signs of confusion.  See description below:

This poster shows the concepts included in the Clarifying Confusion resource.

As the first step in helping our students be metacognitive about the process of identifying their own confusion, isolating causes of their confusion, and choosing options for repairing our confusion, we teach students the common signs readers experience when confusion occurs.  This Cornell notes task introduces students to the common signs,  engages students in Cornell note taking, and supports instruction of main ideas, supporting details and summary writing.  These are all targets within our intervention curriculum for students in grades 6-9.  The commentary and graphics are developed by the Helpteensread.org contributors, but the content is based on Cris Tovani text, I Read it, But I don’t Get It.

Elements provided with the Fix-up Cornell notes resource

The second item, also a Cornell Notes printable with visuals included,  is used once students have a fair grasp of when they feel confused and what causes the confusion. See description below:

Helping students use effective strategies to repair confusion as they read is an important and challenging step to helping secondary students become proficient readers.  The steps may be intuitive to proficient readers, but some students need explicit instruction and authentic practice.  This Cornell notes task introduces students to the ten common repair strategies,  engages students in Cornell note taking, and supports instruction of main ideas, supporting details and summary writing.  These are all targets within the intervention curriculum for students in grades 6-9.   The fix-ups are divided into three segments.  Students may find learning and practicing use in authentic ways a few at a time helps them become more independent at applying each when needed. Ultimately, students can develop a toolbox of many strategies that apply to their own common challenges.  The commentary and graphics are developed by the Helpteensread contributors, but the content is based on Cris Tovani text,  I Read it But I don’t Get It.

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.