Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Being Strategic

I sat around a large table with a handful of experienced teachers who combed through a district-provided curriculum. They marveled at how organized the materials were and sighed about the amount of information they were expected to "cover." They looked at the books the students were supposed to read and commented, "I just don't think most of my students care about these topics. I don't think these will engage them." We discussed students' current proficiency with the unit's goals and agreed they needed some more work on prerequisites before jumping into the focus of the unit. There was a collective groan and someone asked, "Do we have to do this unit exactly how it is written or can we do what our students really need?"

In this time where just about everyone thinks they know what is best for teachers to do, I find myself talking to teachers about being strategic as readers, writers, and mentors. I want to help them find their own path. There are three main dispositions that help me be strategic in just about anything I do. I try to bring awareness to what I am doing, I consciously make choices, and I adjust those choices as needed. This happens whether I am making an elaborate meal, competing in a race, or conferring with a reader.

I ask teachers to frequently spend a few minutes reflecting on where and when they are being strategic. When we are strategic we gear our decisions towards our students and what we know they need, not on what an outsider who has never met our students says they need.

Three Dispositions of Being Strategic

  • having awareness of what you are doing
  • having an awareness of your purpose or intention

  • making choices about what you are doing and your purpose
  • aligning your choices with your purpose

  • reflecting on whether your choices and purpose align
  • being responsive and open to change your direction as needed

We don't teach curriculum; we teach students. We have to be strategic to meet them
where they are. If we find ourselves teaching a curriculum without these three qualities present, we likely are not serving our students. Remember, a curriculum is just a destination. Choose your own route.

Of course, we want our students to be strategic as well. Perhaps it would be helpful to show and explain to students how to cultivate these three qualities as readers, writers, and thinkers. Consider where in your minilessons and conferences you are mentoring students to be more strategic-- not just copiers of our skills and processes, but thinkers who have awareness, make choices, and make adjustments.

by Gravity Goldberg, EdD

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Advent of Literacy

Among literally hundreds of universal and naturally occurring childhood passions, is that of the treasure hunt. A remnant of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, becoming excited by finding things, is in our DNA.

Understanding this principle from years of mentoring youth, my wife began a new holiday tradition last year that has brought literacy more deeply into the culture of Christmas and into the heart of our three year old daughter.

Using a string of 24 tiny pails clad in green and red ribbon, our advent calendar does not contain chocolate. Instead, each morning when she awakes, my daughter runs to the buckets hung carefully along the stairs that lead downstairs. With great pride she counts the days of December until she arrives at the one containing a note, or more accurately, a clue. A simple rhyme or riddle written by a Christmas elf (a.k.a. mom) points toward the hidden treasure.

One, Two, Three
You’ll find me where
the cat goes pee
(Okay, this classy example was mine but you get the point.)

With a finger in the air revealing her revelation, my daughter exclaims, “The litter box!” and off she goes, tearing through the house to where the litter box is kept. Near by, she finds wrapped the familiar Christmas cloth, a gift! Or more accurately, a book!

As excited as if it were actually Christmas morning, she unties the bow, pulls off the cloth and looks at the book for a few seconds before holding it up and asking one of us to read it to her.

The books are almost always library books so there is no expense and every year we can mix it up. And when Christmas has passed, while the pails come down and are put away, the desire to be read to has increased and the memory of the holiday has been enriched. Best of all, I am watching all sorts of pre-reading skills emerge in my daughter, forming a solid foundation for the advent of literacy.

by Michael Trotta, Sagefire Institute

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Reframing Character Inferences- Part II

Character Traits
Inferring and understanding character traits seem to be difficult for teachers and students to understand. I've come to see it as a very powerful yet often misunderstood aspect of literacy. A trait is often explained to students as something inside of the character, but this is not really true and often very confusing to children. A trait does not exist inside of someone, it is the opinion or judgement we as onlookers form of them. A trait is a label we put on someone based on what we see, hear, and experience.

Imagine you met someone who jumped out of an airplane. Some people might think this person is brave and adventurous while another person might form the opinion that the person is reckless and foolish. Any of these judgements of the person could be proven with evidence of what happened, but who you are, what you believe, and what you value will be the filter you view the person through and ultimately the “trait” you put on them.

When third graders are asked to infer the character’s traits they often are stumped. My theory is that they are not used to judging people yet. Eight year olds tend not to be judgmental and have a hard time labeling people, at least in the beginning of the year. We end up teaching students how to label people and assign them a trait. This realization has made me quite uncomfortable. I do not want to teach children to label people and certainly not that their judgements are fixed, real traits that live inside people.

I have partially reconciled this dilemma by teaching students that traits are opinions and judgements based on what we think of what the character did, said, felt, or thought. Then we have some fun debating how we might each view and form opinions about characters in different ways. For example, a student might form the opinion that Junie B. Jones is really funny based on what she did in a chapter. Another person (perhaps a teacher or adult) might form the opinion that Junie B. is sneaky and naughty. We could debate this by providing evidence from the text and also acknowledging that we have different beliefs and experiences that help us form our opinions.

When we teach traits as static, fixed, internal entities we are implicitly teaching children that people are static, fixed, and that the labels people put on them are real internal entities. If we reframe our teaching so students understand that traits are opinions and judgements that come from others, they can own them for what they are-- interpretations. As a human being this feels better to me and as a teacher it seems to free students up to form their own opinions and not try to find the “right answer” they think exists.

As for teaching about character change, I’ll leave that for another post... perhaps Part III.

by Gravity Goldberg

Friday, November 15, 2013

What Am I Really Saying?

I have been thinking lately about the language we use with our students and what it is we are really saying to them. I have been struck by the question, “Who can tell me..?” For example, "Who can tell me why Edward feels mocked by the crows?" This question implies quite a bit. First it implies that I am the one who holds the answers - that the students may try and guess what I am thinking. The answer will be either right or wrong based on my judgement. 

When I hold the knowledge, I rob my kiddos of the opportunity to construct their own answers based on their own thinking. If I hold the knowledge, they need me by their sides to learn and portion it out. I want my kiddos diving deep into books asking questions, building theories, and revising their thinking. How can they do this if the “knowledge-holder” is not side by side with them? This kind of questioning implies a “right” answer and the only evidence they need is whether I say the answer is good or not.

The other implication of asking the “Who can” question is that it defines kids as those who can and those who cannot. If day after day and year after year I am a student who raises my hand to guess the teacher’s thinking and am rewarded with a “good job," then I am a student who can. I begin to believe I am someone who can.

I remember these students well from my own schooling. My dear friend Amy, who had perfect cursive in 2nd grade, was a student who "could." Her hand was always up and our teachers could count on her to provide the class with the correct answer. Amy could. I also remember those students who could not. The ones that never raised their hands. Those that froze when called on even without their hands raised. The ones the teacher had to coach the answer out of, sometimes by sounding out the beginning sound of the answers, “because he was ssscccaaar..?” I wonder now if they really couldn’t or they just believed they couldn’t. 

I will be taking a look at my own language and what  messages I am really sending out. I invite you to do the same. Recognizing this is only the first step. I must consider what language, structures, and behaviors I can replace them with. My intention is for my students to be independent thinkers who can. All of them.

By Julie Budzinski-Flores

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Reframing Character Inferences- Part I

Almost every student I work with is asked to make character inferences and prove them with evidence from the text. In fact, this is listed as a standard in the Common Core and usually tested with questions like, “What word best describes this character?” Having spent time with students discussing characters in conferences, small groups, and in whole class discussions I have a theory about what makes this so difficult to do and ways we might want to reframe our teaching of these concepts.

Feelings and Emotions
“What do you think he is feeling?” is often asked when students are struggling to make an inference about a character. From my experience as a yogi and from studying healing arts I learned that feelings are what we experience in our bodies--what we literally feel inside of us.  A feeling is my throat closing up or tightness in my chest. An emotion is how we communicate and express those feelings outward. An emotion is sadness and might be expressed as wailing or sobbing.

Understanding feelings has implications for how we teach students to read, write and infer (as these are all connected). If we pause at different moments of the day for students to feel and sense what is going on inside of them we help them bring awareness to feelings. When they are reading a text and the author describes a character’s feelings (she felt butterflies in her stomach or her legs became heavy and stuck as she did not have the strength to lift them) students must infer what that means. It is much easier to infer a feeling when you are aware of how you feel in your body. This helps you create prior knowledge you can apply when trying to understand a character you are reading about or when creating your own characters when writing. Feelings are visceral and need to be experienced. They need to be sensed.

When we teach show not tell to writers and readers we are talking about emotions. When we ask students to find the words in their stories that tell a character’s emotions (thrilled, exhausted, disappointed) and then consider ways of changing them to show the emotion, we are asking students to draw on their prior knowledge with emotions and the subtle ways they are communicated. A character might stumble backwards and trip over his own foot, turning bright red in the cheeks. In order for students to infer the character’s emotions or for the writer to show the emotion, they need an understanding of what emotions are and how we communicate them. I have found it helpful to show the poster of cartoon faces that many guidance counselors have in their offices. Students can use digital cameras to recreate these posters with photos of their friends and classmates' faces. When they are writing their stories these posters become a concrete visual tool they can use to help them show not tell.

In my next post I will focus on understanding character traits and the ways we might frame our teaching for students. Stay tuned for Part II.

Written by Gravity Goldberg

Monday, October 21, 2013

I Don’t Know What That Means

Learning requires not knowing.

Allowing not knowing requires vulnerability.

Vulnerability requires a level of safety that is unique to each person.

To practice the art of not knowing and thus increase the potential for learning, I invite you to experiment with the use of the following six magic words:

“I don’t know what that means.”

I began experimenting with them myself, about a month ago, after paying close attention to a teacher who I have since come to admire greatly. 

I watched, as she listened carefully to each of her students. When someone said something that was unclear to her, she simply stated from a place of stillness, “I don’t know what that means.”  Then, without exception, each person would naturally offer an explanation or reconsider her own level of understanding and search for a deeper knowing.

I was amazed by this teacher and her comfort with not knowing. Her ability to be vulnerable. Her willingness to become the student in the presence of her students.

I’ve been surprised to find just how often I keep quiet when I don’t know something-- surprised to find that my silence is frequently a sign that I am afraid and avoiding judgment. 

Thinking about this phenomenon, having it confirmed that others experience the very same thing, has led me to wonder just how many opportunities to learn, by me and my students, have been missed. I do find, however, that a better use of my time is to wonder what I might do to make a change.

The answer is simple...

“I don’t know what that means.” - That is the answer!

Since being struck by the spell of these words, I’ve had great fun playing with them. I assure you they are magic. Anything that can create something from nothing, knowing from not knowing, is certain to have a bit of magic in it. See so for yourself.

By Michael Trotta, Sagefire Institute  

Monday, October 14, 2013

Eagle Vision and Mouse Vision

I projected a photo on the board and asked, “What do you notice?” This happened to be a photo that inspired my personal narrative about the moment before starting the swim portion of a triathlon. The picture showed a group of women in wetsuits and swim caps, staring into the water. 
The students took a few seconds to look at the photo and then turned to their partners and described what they saw-- well most of them just listed objects and descriptions. “There are a bunch of people with black suits on and pink swim caps,” or “There is a blue arch and people in front of it.”

My colleague, Michael, stood up on a chair, extended his arms wide, and told the students to imagine he was an eagle. As an eagle he could soar high into the air and look down at everyone and everything. He could see the big picture, the forest, the colors, but not the tiny details. “When we look at the world in big picture ways we are using our Eagle Vision,” I explained. “When you looked at this photo most of you glanced at it quickly, took in the whole of it and noticed the bigger parts up front first.” Students nodded their heads.

Michael drew his hands in close, squatted down, and pretended he was a mouse. He asked the students to notice how a mouse can only see the small little things around him. A mouse would not even miss a crumb on the ground because that would be dinner. A mouse lives close to the ground and cannot take in the big picture, only the little details around him.

“Look back at this photo,” I directed, “And imagine it was divided into four parts with a line down the middle from top to bottom and bottom to top. I drew the lines with my finger as I pointed. Then I asked the students to take out their notebooks and draw a grid.


I covered the other three boxes and asked the students to look closely at box 1 with Mouse Vision and to jot what they saw in that box. We continued this with each of the 4 quadrants until the students had looked closely like a mouse at each part. “Now turn and explain what you noticed to your partner.” The room began to buzz. The students noticed so much more. “They are barefoot and some have these black straps on their ankles.” “There are people swimming in the lake and wakes are moving from them. Oh, and there are people in kayaks in the water.” The had so much to say and seemed to notice many details they had previously missed.

“When we read, when we write, and when we live our lives,” I explained, “We have choices to make. Are we going to use our Eagle or our Mouse Vision? When we choose to be eagles we see the whole, the big picture, but we might miss the little, interesting details. When we choose to be mice we see up close, we don’t miss any little things, but we might not see how all those little things fit together.” I wanted the students, and their teachers who were watching this demo lesson to know that how we view the world affects the meaning and experiences we make.

When we read we are always making choices, even if we are not aware of them, about when to read wide, using our Eagle Vision, to get the gist of what happened and when we read close, using our Mouse Vision, to get the details. Some parts are worth reading closely and some may not be. As teachers, we can mentor students toward being more aware of when they are reading like eagles or mice and whether that is working for them. In Notice and Note by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst they offer us signposts that help us decide what is worth reading closely. And then of course we can teach students how to read closely-- how to identify tone and the ways an author created it or how to identify the relationship between characters and how this is revealed to us as readers. As literacy teachers we can show students how to decide when to read closely like a mouse and how to read closely like a mouse. Actually, those two areas could comprise much of the school year’s curriculum.

When we write we are making decisions about how we want our readers to experience our message-- up close like mice or far away like eagles. We get to decide this as writers and then craft pieces that show our intentions. For example, if we want the readers of our personal narratives to feel what it was like to be on the starting line of a race we would show all the tiny details-- we would write with Mouse Vision, including all the tiny actions, thoughts, and feelings (see the blue highlighted area in the excerpt from my writing). If, on the other hand, we want our readers to experience a part of the story from a distance, moving fast and getting the gist of that part, we can quickly narrate using Eagle Vision to tell what happened (see the yellow highlighted area).

Personal Narrative Excerpt
“Thirty seconds to the start Pink Caps,” the director announced.

I surveyed my competition and made my way toward the front of the pack. With our sleek, black wetsuits on we all looked the same- dozens of twins. We were like a hundred porsches lined up on the starting line of the track, engines revving up to high speed. Our breath lengthened, muscles tightened, eyes narrowed.

“Ten, nine, eight…” I heard the director count us down.

“Seven, six, five, four...” I looked at my watch.

“Three, two... Bang!” the starting gun went off and so did we.

As teachers we can mentor students by having them consciously decide what they want their readers’ experiences to be and to plan then draft and revise in ways that match that experience. There are writing strategies that involve being the mouse (such as breaking big summary actions into smaller actions that show bit-by-bit what someone did or adding specific internal thinking to reveal motivations) and there are writing strategies that allow us to use Eagle Vision (such as using time transition words that show a chunk of time has passed that we are glossing over). Just like in reading we can teach students when to use Eagle or Mouse Vision and techniques for how to use them.

In school we often ask people to use their highly focused Mouse Vision and I have to consciously remember to open spaces for them to switch to being eagles. The beauty is that both eagles and mice are perfectly wonderful as they are. We don’t need to change anything. But as people we can learn from both of them, not overvaluing one way of being over the other, instead intentionally choosing how we want to interact with our texts, our readers, and our worlds.

If we want our students to be aware of the decisions they make as readers and writers we can begin to have them bring their awareness to the ways they are living their lives. When are they using Eagle Vision or Mouse Vision in their lives? Why are they making these choices? Are these choices really just habits or conscious decisions? In this way they begin to see that Eagle and Mouse Vision can be used internally, as a metaphor for the way we study our own lives. By noticing how and where we put our attention in all the moments of our lives we can begin to be more intentional as readers and writers. One way I do this with students is to periodically stop and take a pause during the day. “Pause for a moment. Take a look around you. Feel what is going on inside you. Use your Eagle Vision. What do you notice?” Sometimes we discuss it and sometimes we don’t.

by Dr. Gravity Goldberg