PD of a Different Sort: Try Something You Struggle With

PD of a Different Sort- Try Something You Struggle With

I’m guessing if you’re like most educators, you’ve found some way to professionally develop yourself this summer: a professional read, a workshop, Twitter connections, etc. These are all commendable steps that will benefit kids.

However, let’s talk about PD of a different sort–putting yourself in the shoes of a student who struggles.

Try something you’ve never done before.  Try to learn something you’re not good at.

I’ve ran since I was an eighth grader. I am now 37 and it’s been necessary for me to pursue others forms of exercise.  Swimming was what I chose for multiple reasons.  One of those reasons was because I wasn’t good at it.  I knew I wouldn’t pick it up right away.  I wanted the challenge.

I began swim lessons about three weeks ago.  And, here is what I’ve learned about effective teaching with a student who struggles (me, in this instance!)

  1. It takes a level of courage to do something you’re not good at in front of someone who is.  My coach is a very accomplished swimmer. Every time I show her what I can do, I know I am doing something wrong (and hopefully something right!)  I wish I were good and we could just fine tune, but that is not the case.
  2. I need one piece of feedback at a time. Something specific and something that I can visibly tell that I am doing correctly.  (Hopefully, you hear John Hattie whispering in your ear right there).
  3. My coach has told me the steps of where I am going..the end result (yep, success criteria).  I don’t think about all of those (see #2 above), but I do know the path. (Hattie, again).
  4. I know the struggle in not picking something up quickly.  I’ve been an athlete all my life. I will pick up the physical movements easily, but dang if I can’t get the breathing tempo down–that controlled breathing where you exhale under the water and inhale above the water…it is a challenge.  I have struggled for three weeks with this and I still struggle. There’s a lot of positive self talk in not letting this get me down.
  5. I see people who are doing it successfully as I pull myself out of the pool, wondering what I looked like swimming (not good!) only to see the next person, ten years older than me jump in and swim like it’s nothing.  There’s self talk of “this is okay, everyone has a starting point.”

Our kids have the same emotions, the same struggles, and need the same courage when learning in our classrooms.  I have more empathy for them now because I have “lived in their shoes.”  I have struggled, been frustrated, and wished I were better. I am not good at something, but it is necessary that I continue to try.

So, yes, pick up that professional read and get on Twitter.  But, also challenge yourself with something new, something you may struggle with.  It’s a learning experience I would not have found in any book or Twitter conversation.

Creativity: What We Can Learn from a Snow Day & Toddler Life

My three-year-old son and I are “stuck” inside today with nothing but time on our hands.  A welcome opportunity.  I allowed him to take the lead in activities and this is what he chose:

A caboodle turned car wash for his Hot Wheel cars

A dive down the stairs by his Hot Wheels into the Caboodle pool

A puzzle made of his magnetic building set

A dinosaur adventure through our man-made tent/home

A hunt for treasure in the snow

It was simply a day of imagination and creativity.

This got me thinking.  What allowed this?

It was two things:

  1. He had time where he had nothing on his schedule (like mom’s errands, for example).
  2. He was given the freedom to think on his own and take the lead.

Then, this got me to thinking, am I creative in my work life? Well, let’s examine those two  factors that facilitated my son’s creativity.

  1. Do I allow time on my schedule for creativity or am I always “doing.”  That would be an easy question to answer as I fell prey to the “doing cycle” much of the last several months, leaving little time in my schedule to use my creative capacities.  Did I got a lot done?  Sure, I did.  I checked things off my to-do list daily.  But, is this really success?  Did I really make the most impact?  Could I have made a deeper impact if time was built into my schedule to facilitate creative ways for deeper relationships, more effectively coach and building capacity with others?  Are you a leader that can build that time into your team’s schedule?
  2. Am I given the freedom to think on my own and take the lead?  I am fortunate to be in a position where this is often the case.  My role is an instructional coach in two elementary buildings.  I’m the only one in these two buildings with this position.  This, in itself, allows for individual initiative and ideas.  However, without that time mentioned in #1 above, this freedom goes unutilized.

So, let’s stop “doing” so much.  Stop the go, go, go lifestyle.  Stop the to-do lists.  And, instead, unleash the power of creativity in our world.  We will all benefit.

“I Know My Students Better Than I Ever Have”

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“I know my students better than I ever have.”

As this teacher’s coach, those words made me smile. They warmed my heart because I knew the impact this teacher was going to have on her kids because of the truth in that statement.

It’s been my pleasure to partner with a couple of teachers this school year as we (teachers and coach) have navigated the waters of small-group instruction in reading, incorporating the five components of reading into their instruction.

Teaching students to read is an astoundingly complex cognitive process.  When we sit down to read, we are using phonemic awareness (the ability to hear and manipulate sounds), phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension.  The goal in elementary school is to get our kids proficient so that these components are used simultaneously to create an enriched reading experience.

We could compare this to teaching the game of basketball.  A coach would not just teach a player to dribble and think they could hit the court and play the game.  That coach would have to teach multiple skills so the player could integrate them all on the court and create the magical moment when it all comes together to play the game.

There are times when that coach teaches skills in isolation, shooting a lay-up, for example. But, ultimately, the real measure of the player’s ability is if they can apply that ability to shoot a lay-up in a game.

The same is true for reading.  Best practice in reading instruction says that when we sit down to teach kids how to read, the most gains in student achievement come when we’re incorporating all five components in small group reading instruction in a text that is at the child’s instructional reading level.

That is the adventure I’ve had the pleasure of being part of as two of my teachers and myself have partnered in building our knowledge on how to do this.

Admittedly, this adventure was frontloaded with a lot of information and time in knowing the components and knowing how to incorporate them all in a small group lesson.

What gave me great joy was to see how easily these two teachers picked up the this ability.  Within a couple of weeks, they were planning their own lessons, incorporating the five components, and in their words, the planning was not nearly as hard as they thought it would be.

Within just a couple of weeks, my teachers were telling me how intimately they knew their students’ reading abilities…better than they ever had.

Each time I would I sit down with these teachers to partner with them as coach and teacher, I planned to ask them how their anecdotal notes on the five components guided their instruction for the next week.  Before I could utter that question, they were telling me which kids needing phrasing work (fluency), which kids didn’t know how to break apart words using the vccv pattern (phonics), which kids needed to be pulled for an invitational group on open and closed syllables (phonics),  which kids had a deficit in vocabulary,  etc.

They knew their kids abilities in reading…their strengths and their targeted need.  They knew this because the witnessed the kids either succeed or struggle with these skills right before their eyes.

This was just after a few weeks of going through a coaching cycle.  So powerful.

And, we’ve only been in school for a little over a month. Just think the progress these kids are going to make in reading after an entire year of targeted instruction.

Are you interested in knowing your kids’ reading abilities to this extent?  Here’s where you can start:

  1. Keep your whole group lessons down to mini-lessons. Just because you’re teaching during that whole group time, doesn’t mean your kids are engaged and learning. And, it’s impossible to glean the knowledge you need on your kids’ abilities in the five components if the majority of your time is spent in whole group instruction.
  2. Make small groups a priority.  Every day.
  3. Begin building  your knowledge on the five components of reading.
  4. Talk to your coach or colleagues who can guide you in incorporating this into your instruction.

Take these steps, and it could be you saying you know your kids better than you ever have before. 

A Reflection: Student-Centered Coaching

With one day left of school, educators are embracing that bittersweet time of closing a door on a year that was full of growth and opportunity.  As a coach who attempts to be proactive at having a growth mindset, and also one that has a huge desire to constantly learn how to facilitate and nurture growth within a school, I too am reflecting.

I was blessed today with a book that honestly touched my heart and represents the power of student-centered coaching, a model of coaching championed by Diane Sweeney.  In this model, we are not about fixing teachers. But, rather a partner who can sit side-by-side with teachers and navigate through the often murky waters of curriculum, instruction, assessment, and student learning.  A teacher I worked along side of this year presented her gratitude through the book What Do you Do with an Idea? by Kobi Yamada. In this book, a child has an idea that was “strange and fragile.” The child kept this idea to himself, because he wasn’t sure what the world would think of it. But, the idea followed him and the child began to embrace it. The child finally shared it and some people laughed at it and he contemplated whether he should abandon the idea.  But, the child re-embraced it, because after all, nobody understood the idea like he did. He fostered it. He fed it. His love for the idea grew and grew.  And, then, one day, the child built the idea a new house, one with an “open roof where it could look up at the stars–a place where it could be safe to dream.” The child said the idea made him feel more alive and  gave him the ability to think bigger.  And one day, his idea changed.  It spread its wings.  It changed the world. It wasn’t just part of him. It was part of the world.

The teacher said she felt like this book represented our work together.

Amazing.

After reading this thought, I had thoughts of gratitude.  For that teacher and her willingness to try ideas, to embrace the chance of failure, the chance of imperfection for the pursuit of growth.  Growth that would profoundly impact kids. And, boy, did she ever impact kids! I saw it on a daily basis. And, just as important, I saw her kids embrace their own ideas and become comfortable with failing forward.

I also had gratitude for the student-centered model of coaching.  Because this model is not about fixing teachers.  It’s about facilitating beside them and growing as a team, because that growth impacts kids.  And, that’s why we’re here.  We learned together.  We shared ideas together. We analyzed the impact of instruction together. And she modeled learning and the willingness to take a risk for her kids.

I felt lucky to have experienced this. Inspiring. Motivating. Change. Growth.  That’s what it was.

Step-Up Comprehension Instruction

For those of who teach reading, we know that the goal of reading is ultimately comprehension.  I would also venture to say that those of us who teach reading comprehension do so using the release of responsibility approach, where there is first ample modeling, followed by shared reading (where the students and the teacher think together), and then finally interactive or independent reading (where students have the opportunity to practice a reading strategy on their own).

The question for us today is to what level do we teach comprehension?  Do you expect children of all ages to read at a deep level (of course, a deep level that is determined by their cognitive abilities)?  This means there are different levels of comprehension even at the kindergarten level, and without a doubt at grade levels above kindergarten. Do you have an awareness or  a deep understanding of what different levels of comprehension look like at your grade level.  And if you do not, do not feel bad. Teaching reading effectively is tough work and there is always more to learn (and only so much time in the PD schedule districts have).

If you are needing more knowledge on the different levels of comprehension, consider using these rubrics: http://www.readinglady.com/mosaic/tools/Strategy%20Rubrics.pdf   (Thanks to the Reading Lady website for providing this to teachers).   These are strategy rubrics for grade levels K/1, 2/3, and 4/5.  I have used these rubrics as I model effective small-group and whole-group reading instruction.  It is also good practice to put this rubric in front of your students. Teach THEM what surface level and deep level comprehension is.

And remember, the method by which a teacher teaches comprehension (mechanically or strategically) is important in ensuring the effectiveness of comprehension instruction (Taylor, Pearson, Peterson, and Rodriguez, 2003). So, go forth and take your comprehension instruction to another level!

The Power of Fluency Instruction

As you look into most primary grade classrooms across the country, one would almost always see an abundance of phonics instruction.  If one would look into most upper elementary classrooms across the country, one would see an abundance of comprehension instruction.  Both of these scenarios are appropriate and supported by research.  In addition, it is likely to see phonemic awareness, particularly at the kindergarten and first grade level along with vocabulary at all grade levels. I would also venture to say that a multitude of reading programs hit these components hard.  But, the question is where does fluency fit in?  Is solid fluency instruction in our classrooms and in our reading programs?  According to Raskinski & Zutell (1996) programs and materials addressing reading instruction and teacher training seldom tackle reading fluency. Fluency is the bridge between phonics and comprehension, which necessitates the need  to examine its role, or lack there of, in our classrooms. In addition, oral reading fluency is one of the biggest predictors of reading achievement.

So, why does research say there is a lack of fluency focus in our programs and teacher training?  If you were to ask nearly every teacher if reading fluency is important, I have little doubt they would say absolutely.  However, if you were to ask if reading fluency is a major component of their reading instruction, the answer may not be the same.  The question is this: is this simply a matter of needing more professional development on the topic of fluency?  Perhaps this is not the only reason, but likely a big part of it.

So, here are some things to contemplate in relation to reading fluency in your classroom.

What is reading fluency?

Reading fluency includes the ability to decode words, automatic processing of material read (meaning the bulk of a student’s energies needs to be spent on comprehension, but that cannot be accomplished if they are not fluent), and the ability to read with prosody (expression, phrasing, smoothness and pace).

What does this mean for my classroom?

Do your students know how to decode (including at the upper elementary level)? Please note, the teaching of decoding strategies should not end after the primary grades.  Upper elementary students are exposed to much more complex words, some they have seen before and others they have not.  Definitely beginning in second grade, and to some extent in first grade, students should begin to learn and apply the types of syllables.  Fourth and fifth grade students need to be able to apply their knowledge of syllables and their patterns (such as the VCCV) to decode words.

Do you have students who have trouble in comprehension?  If so, do not always assume the problem lies in them not being able to apply reading strategies.  If they do not read fluently, they are only surface readers.  One cannot grasp the deeper meaning of text, if their energies are focused on reading fluently.

Do you teach expression, phrasing, smoothness and pace?  If not, do you need to seek out resources to help you with this?   Be sure to teach students that expression affects comprehension.  For example, pretend you are listening to a presenter and in your head, you are agreeing with everything the presenter is saying. In your head you are saying “right.”  Let’s say to your right though, there is someone who disagree with the presenter and they are also saying “right” in their head.  The way you say right is different than the way the person next to you is saying right. That affects meaning of the situation, just as it would in text.   So, teach your students expression and teach them how it affects meaning.  Do the same with phrasing, smoothness and pace.

Specific activities that teach fluency include the following: repeated readings, reader’s theater, modeling of fluent reading, read aloud performances, and  use of a prosody rubric, among a multitude of others.  See Timothy Rasinski’s work for more ideas.

In Conclusion

Take some time to consider your reading instruction and the reading program you use.  Does fluency instruction exist?  If so, is it sound and consistent instruction?  If not, what resources can you find to assist you?  Perhaps a book, a colleague, a reading specialist?  Whatever the case, continue to develop and build on your knowledge on fluency, the all-too-often forgotten component of reading.

Teaching Reading is Complex; Make a Commitment to Learn More

Teaching reading is one of the most complex cores to teach, one reason why us challenge-loving people take it on with such passion.  I’m not sure that an educator can (or should) ever reach the point where they know enough about reading to justify not continuing to learn about this area of study.

Reading is the foundational skill for success not only in work life, but also in personal life.  When teaching someone to read, you’re giving them a skill that may help them one day to pick up a book about marriage, because theirs is in shambles. Or, there may be someone who picks up  a book about autism, because they have suspicions that their child has characteristics of it.  In work life, I would venture to say that the majority of careers that exist have a component where someone either has to read as a part of the profession or may choose to read to continue their knowledge on a subject, and thus excel past those who do not read. (And yes, research shows that the most successful people in our society read).   The importance of reading is brought up because it is lacking in our society, even by some inside of education.  Knowing the importance is the first step. Then, the next step is knowing that reading instruction is a challenge to take on. It is by far more than “sound the word out” and “tell me about the story.”   It is a metacognitive process, which means we have to teach students to think about their thinking. (See Tanny McGregor’s Comprehension Connections book for more explanation).  Other challenges in teaching this subject include the following: elementary teachers are responsible for teaching more than just reading, making it harder to be an expert in the area of reading, having enough experience to fully grasp what reading is, having a deep understanding of the five components of reading, knowing how to pinpoint where a struggling reader is “caught up” at, and having adequate professional development in the core area of reading.

With all that said, let us not get caught up in the challenge, but rather some solutions.  How can we improve our knowledge of core reading instruction with limited time in our schedules?  Here are some options one may consider: devote 15 minutes of reading per day to continue your knowledge on the topic, commit to listening to one reading podcasts a day from itunes (such as Choice Literacy, Voice of Literacy or Teacher Created Materials), go observe a teacher you know is strong in reading instruction, use your district instructional/literacy coach, make a commitment to collaborate with your team on reading instruction for 10-15 minutes each week, and  listen to your students read as much as possible.

My Twitter profile says that I am a literacy advocate.  I absolutely believe in the power books have in changing lives.  But, I also know, teaching reading is complex and difficult to say the least.   The good news is we can always continue to improve as teachers, if only a small commitment is made. So go forth, make that commitment.  Your students deserve it!