Blogs about Reading
The Common Core Classroom
Emily Stewart, M.Ed.
Guest blogger Emily Stewart, M.Ed., is a third grade teacher at Murch Elementary, a public school in Washington, DC.
During the 2012-2013 school year, Emily will be sharing the real-world strategies, challenges, and successes of implementing ELA Common Core standards in her classroom.
Last weekend I broke out my beach towel for the first time this year … it felt oh so incredible! I LOVE the smell of summer! Growing up in Southern California, I truly relish the summer sun, knowing that our two months off fly by. Every year, as I am taking down bulletin boards and filing my piles of papers away, I always have one thought: "this is the summer I will organize myself ahead of time, and plan like there's no tomorrow!" Anybody else have those thoughts (thumbs up)? I feel like organizing for the next year is two-fold. With the Common Core, sharpening my concept of what the shifts of the CCSS are and how they need to look to students is key. Also, organizing techniques and strategies for making sure content ideas are at my fingertips is a must. Here are some ways I challenge myself each summer to refine my teacher skills and organize my piles:
Sharpening Those Common Core Skills
Imagine it's the second week of summer break and you sit down and type "Common Core State Standards" into Google. A plethora of articles, curriculum units, boards on Pinterest and the latest curriculum to align pop up all over the place! It can easily leave you wanting to push that little "X" in the right hand corner, grab your flip-flops and enjoy the summer sun. So here I am, your Common Core Blogging Superwoman to save the day! I have narrowed down some of my favorite CCSS resources that will leave you searching less, and having more time for snowcones!
Achieve the Core
This site is from one of the top researchers who helped develop the Common Core Standards. This year I discovered some modules that helped me look at some of the shifts of the Common Core in ELA and Math. It also includes an in-depth look at how the standards are different from our previous state standards. Additionally, it includes tips for parents and the community on how they can support students as the CCSS rolls out at our schools.
** Just a thought … you can easily use this information to present at a Parent Education Night at your own school, teaching your parents and community how the CCSS will change instruction, and the thinking behind it! **
New York was one of the first states to publish online information about the CCSS shifts as well as professional development support. Many teachers are familiar with their site. I also like the videos featuring David Coleman, one of the writers of the Common Core. His ideas about how the Common Core looks give me a new perspective and is really challenging me in how I am looking at refining instruction in my own classroom.
Enough said. ASCD is one of the leading researchers and publishers of educational journals. Their writing is forward thinking, thoughtful and purpose-driven. My mom pointed me towards their journals at the beginning of my career, and I never looked back. Here you will find various resources and articles to read poolside!
Have you discovered Live Binders? I know that as teachers, having tangible file folders at our fingertips is ingrained in us, similar to the need for having endless amounts of post-its and sharpies on hand. However, Live Binders is SUCH a great resource for organizing your files online! I adore using Pinterest, but it doesn't organize your resources within a board, and I am not really a fan of having a zillion boards on everything under the sun. Scanning documents or saving those ideas from Pinterest to "the cloud" can really help you stay sane and remember all of the different resources you've collected over the summer. You can share documents, too, for that nifty collaboration thing our administrators are always talking about!
** Just a thought … if you have been moved to a new grade level, or are seeking a new position out of the classroom, Live Binders would help you organize your files online, so you don't have to store specific grade level materials, or teaching files that you just can't bear to throw away! **
Formative Assessments, organized by Common Core standards, at my fingertips? YES, PLEASE! Mastery Connect has premade formative assessments to help you with your lesson planning. Pre-testing, as you well know, helps to guide our instruction and differentiate instruction for our kiddos. On the Mastery Connect website, you can upload all of your students and track their data, too — which would be a great resource for re-teaching, parent conferences, and speaking to specific standards and skills on report card comments.
We know our kiddos need to stay motivated and sharp over the summer, so why shouldn't we?!? Take some time by the pool to sharpen your skills and organize all of your brilliant ideas, so your life might be just a tad bit easier next year. Happy planning!
There are many pressing issues we face in schools today — one of the biggest is student engagement. We have to change with our ever-changing society. Students in the 21st century are communicating with cell phones, iPods, G-chat, social networks, video games, Skype, webcams, flip cameras, and self-published web pages; e-mail is just a small component of our students' communication toolkit.
Marc Prensky calls today's kids "digital natives." In 2002, Prensky wrote, "today's students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors. These differences go farther and deeper than most educators suspect or realize." He suggests that "different kinds of experiences lead to different brain structures. It is very likely that our students' brains have physically changed — and are different from ours — as a result of how they grew up. But whether or not this is literally true, we can say with certainty that their thinking patterns have changed."
While our students' thinking patterns are changing, we are not. Teachers and instructors are remaining stagnant in their practices because it is difficult to recreate the wheel year after year. Prensky suggests that the single most serious issue facing today's teachers is that they do not speak "digital." The language that teachers are using in today's classrooms is outdated and old fashioned, and creates an instructional gap between 21st century content and students. So how do we mesh tradition and new technology to do what's BEST for our students? How can technology leaders help staff overcome the shackles of tradition?
The Common Core Standards have embedded technology within, challenging teachers to pair content standards with technology as they teach. Last year, I had the opportunity to complete my Master's in Educational Technology. The focus of technology within the Common Core is comfortable to me because of the opportunities and instruction I have had. However, many teachers don't feel as relaxed, because educational technology is an unknown and the path to fully implement it is blurry.
The goal is to remember that it's not always the teacher's hands that need to be utilizing the technology. Planning technology within lessons is the first step. Thinking outside of the worksheet, and focusing on student engagement is a next step — remembering that troubleshooting doesn't always need to come from the teacher, but that our kiddos are perfectly capable of working with technology, and in some instances can teach us a thing or two!
How the technology is incorporated, whether it is in the instruction or the student product of learning is dependent on the teacher and the standard. In third grade, our text features standard was elevated within the Common Core to include online search tools:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.3.5: Use text features and search tools (e.g., key words, sidebars, hyperlinks) to locate information relevant to a given topic efficiently.
This standard would utilize technology within the instruction, possibly involving web quests or research reports. One of my favorite technology tools is Delicious. This free bookmarking tool allows a teacher to create a "home site" linking other websites that have been preselected for students. This gives teachers more control over the use of technology, allowing safer searching online. Think: If you type Saturn into Google, what are the chances that a students would get a car website in their search results? Delicious helps teachers to eliminate these types of searching mishaps for students, enabling more appropriate and relevant online access.
If you're looking to incorporate the technology into student products, Joanne Meier, a fellow Reading Rocket blogger has some GREAT resources, but Mapping Media to the Curriculum particularly intrigued me.
As we're heading into summer and you're looking for ways to refine your knowledge and lesson planning of the Common Core … get connected! Here are a couple of resources I have found helpful. Some help teachers connect with other teachers to find support and troubleshoot questions. Others can help teachers take baby steps to utilizing technology with the Common Core Standards!
Connect with Other Educators!
Connect Your Kiddos!
It drives me CrAzY each year when kids enter into third grade, and it becomes clear that we have to review previous content to get them up to speed. It is such a loss of valuable learning time! If I have to spend so much time reviewing content from the prior grade, for me it begs the question: "Do I have a different definition of mastery than other teachers?" If students have two months off, should they really be that far behind if they have truly "mastered" the content? Just food for thought.
I am always looking for innovative ideas to get my kiddos engaged with content over the summer. With the new complexity of the Common Core Standards, we need to provide resources for parents in order for them understand the kinds of questions they should be asking their kids throughout the summer. Providing novel recommendations, journal prompts and reading games/task cards will help parents fill up some academic time with their kids, while keeping learning informal and fun!
Here are some fun summer learning recommendations for parents, paired with a Common Core strategy or shift:
Community Events and Discussions (Vocabulary Acquisition and Use)
Find book festivals, author talks, fairs and the like, happening in your neck of the woods. So many of these events are free to children, and offer different perspectives and opinions for students to ponder and write about. Experiential learning is absolutely a MUST during summer vacation, so take advantage of museum visits, craft fairs and local day trips (such as hiking), to get kids engaged and to broaden their schema! After the experience, parents will have endless amounts of topics to discuss with their child. Ask your child's opinion, have them justify their responses and encourage your child to ask reciprocal questions as part of the conversation. These are great ways to help students express feelings and ideas through writing poetry, as well as bringing in expository and descriptive writing, too!
Review It! (Defending an Opinion)
After visiting new places, have your kids compile reviews of their adventures in a scrapbook! From the new sandwich shop on the corner to their favorite ice cream store on their beach vacation, kids can record their thoughts and experiences. Help your students to connect Common Core strategies to experiences in their everyday life. As a teacher, expose your students to a few reviews before they head off for summer break. They will give them some schema to build on, and a foundation to understand how reviews are written. Parents can give their kids a 3-ring binder, some inexpensive scrapbook paper and a camera to take pictures of various hot spots. They can collect menus, trinkets, ticket stubs, favorite museum tour maps, autographs, hiking trail maps, etc. which will add to their scrapbook, and help them be specific in their reviews of places visited. Writing opinion pieces and justifying their conclusions is one of the paradigm shifts in the complexity of the Common Core. Why not go wild, and help your child create a blog to post their reviews! Kids can share the blog with family and close friends and encourage them to share comments.
Organize Book Clubs and Ask Questions (Finding Evidence Grounded in Text)
Partner up with some parents who have kids in the same grades as yours and organize a book club! Have students decide on a book (you may have to possibly read it ahead of time) and have the kids write questions to prepare for their book club each week. Students can organize and keep a calendar that breaks the book down into weekly sections, and write questions for each other every week. If someone goes on vacation, skip a week or use FaceTime (iPhone) or Skype to hold a World Wide Book Club! You can also use a list of pre-created Bloom's Questions, which are organized by levels to ensure that "meaty" questions are being asked! Here's another example of Bloom's questions.
Using technology and social media (such as a blog) helps to bring journaling to life and offer a novel technique for journal writing. I also enjoy sharing summer journal ideas that kiddos can write about, and compare their responses with those of students from the year before.
The goal in providing parents summer activities for their child is to make sure they are affordable, engaging and connected to content in a meaningful way for kids! Think OUTSIDE of the worksheet box, and enjoy putting together comprehensive summer learning activities that will change the way kids look at learning in the summer!
I just LOVE teaching poetry! I try diligently to incorporate it throughout the year at various times for general exposure, and specifically to help my kiddos see that our reading strategies can be used across a wide variety of texts. The writers of the Common Core started including poetry in the majority of the reading standards, so students would have many opportunities to read, decipher and distinguish poetry that they enjoy … or don't! Poetry can be a very useful tool when helping students understand and compare text. After state testing, I find that students enjoy some in-depth work within the poetry genre — especially rating poems and understanding their thoughts about various poetry.
We spend an ample amount of time discovering various poems! I enjoy giving students copies of the poems so they can highlight and write notes in the margins of the aspects they enjoy about each poem — rhyming words, alliteration, imagery, vocabulary, etc. I choose the poems at first, giving them a variety of poetry that utilizes different techniques. After students highlight or write notes, they must rate each poem (1, 3, or 5). Each student receives a poetry folder and a rating sheet, where they list poems they read, the name of the poet and their rating. One strategy I discovered was having students create a chart of two 1's, two 3's and two 5's. This helps students to see correlations between poems that they rate at each point level. We make it perfectly okay to NOT like a poem, but you must explain why!
I find that most kids can tell you what they do and don't like about a poem, but they don't have the vocabulary to name the specific technique. After a day or two immersing ourselves in various poems, we create an anchor chart with different techniques poets use, such as alliteration, repetition, onomatopoeia, rhyme, figurative language, imagery, robust vocabulary, etc. After we create this anchor chart, it is an expectation that when students respond to poetry that they use these terms when they critique poems. I also explicitly teach each term, so students have an abundant amount of examples to compare. I found this blog where the teacher used a poem to create a sense of wonder and collaboration, while critiquing the poem with deeper level thinking. This is what we look for when it comes to responding to poetry. Statements that begin with 'I wonder,' 'I enjoy,' 'I noticed,' and 'It creates in me' are all great ways to get students responding to poetry!
Poetry Anchor Chart: Structure
Poetry Anchor Chart: Vocabulary
I use Round Robin in my classroom quite a bit. It's a simple strategy that involves students moving around the classroom, working together to solve different questions/problems, read different texts, and discuss questions. In our poetry unit, I have different poems around the classroom and students move in their groups to each poem and rate it. They have a short discussion using the poetry vocabulary and techniques we have learned, rate the poem and then respond individually when they are back at their seats. I pass out this handy dandy Poetry Terms sheet. I enjoy making it into a bookmark, copying on cardstock and them laminating so students have it right there!
Bringing It Together
After immersing ourselves in poetry for a week or two, we continue to bring in longer, deeper thinking poems that challenge students to think outside the box, and break down poetry to discover its meaning or message. With many of our new Common Core standards, I try and bring in constructed writing opportunities with poetry as well! I also enjoy bringing in a poetry writing station, as this also opens up the creative, right-sided brain of my kiddos! Here's a list of 25 different types of poetry kids can take a stab at!
Poetry is a GREAT experience for students and their teacher — especially after so much of fiction and nonfiction throughout the year! Take time to immerse your class in a poetry unit that challenges their opinions and pushes their thinking to new discoveries!
Testing is over … so does that mean I don't have to teach anymore?!?!?
When the mints have been munched, and those newly sharpened testing pencils (as opposed to the nubs we usually find lying around) are now part of your classroom pencil collection, we know state testing has come and gone. We have spent the last eight months pulling our hair out to help each of our students master each standard, and now there's a silence in the air, begging the question … what do we teach for the next month and a half? Well, let's not kid ourselves, there's NEVER silence in a classroom!
The Next Level
The beauty of the Common Core Standards is they are always evolving. They move with our students! The Common Core Standards were not designed to teach specific skills, but rather incorporate critical thinking that can be utilized in a variety of different genres and tasks, and tackled through a variety of different strategies. As our students are making progress throughout the year, we can simply take their thinking to new levels, based on their progress thus far. So many of the same strategies we have taught throughout the year can still be utilized with a variety of more complex texts, including one of my favorites: poetry!
The latest poem my kiddos and I are tackling is "Dropping Keys" by Hafiz. If you have never read it, do yourself and your students a favor and read it together. The poem offers such a strong message about building each other up, and creates an opportunity for a great class discussion!
If you're looking for poems to read and study, here are several websites that can help:
Critical Thinking & Collaboration
I find that the weeks following state testing allows for ample time to have students work in collaborative groups on critical thinking projects. Some are smaller, isolated opportunities, and some are extended over multiple days.
Some of the strategies I use each year after testing include:
Marilyn Burns: Math and Literature Lessons
Logic puzzles: challenge students' deductive thinking skills
Funny puzzles and brainteasers
Figurative language: Idioms, metaphors, similes (especially in poetry)
Defend! Argue! Defend!
One of the essential strategies that is supposed to become innate to students within the Common Core is learning how to defend an opinion in a debate using evidence. I find using a complex text, especially one concerning a topic that hits close to students (e.g., video game violence, sports salaries, movie ratings, or seatbelts) helps students to use their schema and build their argument with fact-based text. From here, students can form opinions about a posed question, put together teams, and begin to research and defend their argument in a debate format. An Introduction to Classroom Debates is a great website to help organize your thinking about how a debate should run.
There are also many YouTube videos that can help students to understand the difference between arguing and debating.
There are endless numbers of ideas for instruction after state testing. The key is to remember that our job is to get our kids ready for their next grade, and within the Common Core, we can vertically align to prepare and scaffold our kiddos before they even get there!
Yes, the old Kool and the Gang song rings true — even for state testing! One of the things I feel very successful about as an upper grade teacher is my ability to kill test anxiety! Even though this doesn't have too much to do with Common Core tactics and struggles, I find that anything that lightens the testing mood always helps every classroom!
On our "Team" we always see testing as a celebration of Learning … because that's what it is! We have spent the last eight months working diligently to master everything in third grade and finally get to SHOW WHAT WE KNOW! I know state testing is very controversial in "teacherland." But that's neither here nor there, because the truth of the matter is that it's not going away, and our kiddos have to embrace it — so we should, too! Here are some ways we "test prep."
A long time ago, there was a boy in elementary school, and he was a nerd. All of the kids made huge fun of him, so he wanted to get back at them. When he grew up, he decided to write questions for state tests, in order to trick all those elementary students! So, all of those tricky questions — they're Fred! Yes, this is the story I tell my kiddos every year, and here's what they say:
"But that's not fair, Miss Stewart! It wasn't me who made fun of him!"
"He's not very nice, I bet he doesn't have many friends."
"Eww … I'm going to trick him back!"
They crack me up! I always keep up the story. Making sure to let them know that I have seen Fred's office, and although I haven't seen him, there has been a sketch done (in case we ever come across him). I usually just print a "nerd" photo from Google and put it on a poster like the one below. This way, when we find tricky questions, the kids have someone to blame it on and they can spot the tricks more easily!
Breakfast & Snacks
We make a big deal about what we eat for breakfast. Some of the best brain foods are oatmeal, cottage cheese, peanut butter toast, eggs and tuna sandwiches — yes, you heard me right! We sit around and everyone tells what they had for breakfast, even if it's just a school breakfast. The conversation puts an emphasis on eating right and the kids take it very seriously. We also organize snacks for testing. I often use SignUpGenius to have parents sign up for healthy snacks. Some of the best options are string cheese, yogurts, fruit, peanut butter (unless allergies, obviously), granola bars, etc. When I taught in a Title I school, I would buy boxes of graham crackers and bananas, which were cheap and still filling. I also sneak Jolly Ranchers® and mints to the kids throughout the test to help keep them awake.
I create a playlist on my iPod that gets the day started off on the right foot. It has upbeat songs like:
Celebration (Kool and the Gang)
You Make My Dreams Come True (Hall and Oates)
Poprocks and Coke (Green Day)
What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger (Kelly Clarkson)
Sweet Pea (Amos Lee)
I play the music until just before the test. It gets all of the kids pumped up and excited!
I print off little pictures that I give my kiddos each day to make them laugh and again, to lighten the mood so they know I'm not worried and believe in them wholeheartedly. Here are a couple of examples:
This was the first test strategy I ever tried. I have each of my kids decorate a poster with a Great Job saying and their name. We put these posters all around the classroom so everyone has a positive message just for them.
We also decorate huge pieces of butcher paper with positive messages and put them up over the classwork and posters on the wall that we are supposed to remove or take down for testing.
Bubble It Up!
Finally, we have root beer floats to celebrate all of our bubbling! It's exciting and fun, and always makes a great end to a great week!
There are all kinds of great testing strategies. I am ALWAYS looking for some to share, in case you have any in your bag of tricks. I created an Animoto video to share what all of these strategies look like when they come together in a giant testing celebration! Take a look at our Smashing the CAS! video.
Someone once said, "a rising tide lifts all ships." For so many years, the U.S. has been in the middle for reading on the PISA test (Program for International Student Assessment) — and lower in science and math. The PISA scores countries on the number of critical thinking questions their students can persevere through at various levels. One of the goals of the Common Core is to raise the bar on critical thinking, which in turn will affect our scores on the PISA … fingers crossed!
The interesting thing I am finding in teaching the Common Core is that my student achievement tiers are shifting. Since we're raising the bar, the number of students TRULY identified in the top tier is smaller. Many of our kiddos who were once in the highest tier are now falling into the "average" range because the expectations for learning are higher. I am loving the caliber of learning that my students are taking on. They expect deeper thinking, evidential support and synthesis from each other. This is allowing my higher achieving students to take part in discussions with each other they usually only get in small group learning.
I am discovering that the typical strategies with higher achieving learners still apply. However, The Common Core Standards do not focus on content mastery. Instead they rely on major concepts, ideas and skills that direct students to use the content to examine questions, look at multiple issues and find a variety of ways to solve problems. The level of complexity is allowing for less acceleration, but still the depth and the diverse learning strategies. The use of Webb's Depth of Knowledge has really helped to differentiate activities and tier assignments based on the level of thinking power behind them. Some of the different challenges I am still including in my classroom are these:
Integrating these types of assignments will help students to push their own thinking, and create independence and autonomy. Keep in mind one question everyday: Did you cause a change in every child's learning today?
We know them. We LOVE them. Our kiddos who fall just below that bar — the bar that the Common Core is challenging us to raise, day after day. I wholeheartedly believe that the Common Core is creating a climate of collaborative, critical thinkers that are raising the bar for THEMSELVES. But we still have our Tier II and Tier III punkins who need an extra boost.
Research is showing that many of our below-grade-level learners are actually successful in math with the new Common Core, because there are multiple avenues to come to an answer in the real world situational problems. However, in ELA we must create the avenues for our students. Creating these avenues is entirely about scaffolds.
Let me preface by saying that the developers of the Common Core do not want students to be dependent on crutches, like they have been for so long. It's depth (not breadth) that we're looking for. Instead of teaching all of the different nonfiction features in isolation, we must teach students how to use these text features, and how to utilize them to their advantage. So we must choose scaffolds that will give us the most bang for our buck. Some of these scaffolds will be ones you've heard me mention in previous blogs, and some might be ideas you've already incorporated in your classroom. Either way, these scaffolds should provide students with choice and flexibility, so that the supports meet the children's needs, and not the other way around.
The thinking behind the question
There are many different types of thinking: compare and contrast; main idea and details; finding the theme; analyzing characters; sequencing; cause and effect, etc. They all stem from our Common Core Standards. However, we must teach kids which type of thinking they are being asked for in different types of questions. Part of this process is making sure to spiral different thinking throughout the year. For example, if students are exposed to finding the main idea and details in September, don't wait until March to ask them to do this kind of thinking again — right before the state assessment. Constant exposure to different types of thinking, being applied to different types of text, will help to ensure student mastery. The other part to this strategy is making sure that the questions are asked in different ways. Instead of always asking for the main ideas and details of a text, students can be asked to find, for example, "the main point of the article and evidence to prove it." The thinking is the same, but students are exposed to different ways of asking the same question.
If you can't tell already from previous blogs, I am a huge proponent of graphic organizers. I truly believe that when students have the opportunity to organize their thinking, they can visualize what they need to produce. This is especially helpful with below-grade-level learners because it helps them to feel successful and "in charge" of their response, rather than overwhelmed. Lately, my students have been taking our district formative assessments, and they haven't been doing too well on their constructed responses. I was frustrated beyond belief! We read complex text, organize our thinking based on a question, and then write a response at least once or twice a week! Why on earth is this not sticking? So I was talking this through with my ever-brilliant mom (a principal that has truly helped to mold me as an educator) and she asked, "What do their organizers look like before they write their constructed responses on the test?" Such a simple question! Why have I not been asking myself the same thing?!? The answer is not so simple … they don't have them! Why, you ask? I keep passing out scratch paper for the math portion of the test, but not the ELA. They aren't organizing, so they don't know where to go after their topic sentence!
The most important thing to keep in mind when implementing graphic organizers is to not constantly give students the same organizer for the same thinking. There are multiple organizers for comparing and contrasting, main idea, and details, etc. Students should have the opportunity to find the organizer that works the best for them, not for us! This allows students multiple avenues to get to the same thinking!
Some of my favorite graphic organizers are called Thinking Maps. The theory behind them is to help students organize their thinking based on the verb: compare/contrast = double bubble map; sequencing = flow map; cause and effect = multi-flow map, etc. From the organizer it is incredibly easy for my kids to take their ideas and construct a response. You have to be trained to use them, but they are an absolute must! Music to my ears is when a student says, "Well let's just use a bubble map, since we are finding traits to define the character!" Happy teacher …
A few months back I wrote a blog on complex text. The tricky thing with complex text is that it's, well, tricky. Complex text should be tricky to read — that's the complex part of it. Instead of differentiating the complexity, we must teach students avenues to understanding it. The scaffolds empower students to feel successful with the complex text, instead of being given a lower level text. Differentiating text should be saved for guided reading, and complexity of text is a perfect way to allow students to hear each other's thinking. The help for lower level learners comes through the questions that are scaffolds to the text. The questions must start at the lower levels of Bloom's Taxonomy and move up to the Synthesis level. Lower level learners must have the lower questions to build and gather information upon, in order to synthesize the new information.
Creating avenues for our lower level learners is essential in the new world of the Common Core. The key is to create the avenues, and let students choose the path that is right for them!
When I think back to the positively LOVABLE characters that I truly adore discovering with my kiddos each year, here are the names that come to mind: Winn-Dixie. Edward Tulane. Despereaux. Mercy Watson. The true loves of our classroom life! That's the funny thing about teaching character analysis, our kids have already come to love these characters that they hold so dear to their hearts. We teach them to be empathetic through the discussions about the heartaches and triumphs that characters are rummaging through, and how they are similar to their own lives — even if the character is a scrawny little mouse. If you haven't discovered the world of Kate DiCamillo's sweet, friendly characters then you truly haven't connected with some of the best in children's literature! Her books, specifically her characters, connect with you (in a way that students cling to) and create in you a desire to have a friendship with them. They are characters that you want to walk down the street with, enjoying an ice cream cone together! Treat yourself … Make inferences first. Believe me … it'll help! Character analysis is the step after students master inferencing. I'm not sure how many teachers understand the significance of teaching how to infer first, then immediately begin teaching students how to analyze characters. This gives students the strong inferencing skills they need to really dig in deep and understand how an author weaves evidence in through dialogue and actions. That's the key: helping them to SEE the evidence in all the forms provided by the author, although typically through dialogue and character actions and reactions. Organize! Graphic organizers are critical for students — especially our younger sweet peas — to organize their thinking. Organizers help students record what literary characters say or do in a text so that students can identify patterns in behavior and relate them to broader themes within the text. The key to using organizers is to change them up. This will ensure students will not become too dependent on one specific organizer, but will equip them with many tools that they can store in their learning toolboxes and select the best that suits them when they need it.
Graphic organizers can help make the invisible visible. Here are a few I like to use:
And here are a few fun ideas that I have incorporated, and enjoy using year after year!
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes construction as: "The art of construing, interpreting, or explaining." I believe the key word is interpreting. Before students delve into text, we first must teach them how to break it apart and look for evidence. It's just as critical to teach our students what to do once they have collected the evidence. The art of interpretation is hard to teach, but if we begin with the basics, and model, model, model — then students can begin to understand the thinking process behind the interpretation they are expected to achieve.
I know many teachers feel that students should have the opportunity to just write, and that their "inner writer genius" will emerge in their constructed responses. I am not one of those people. I teach third grade, and truly believe the basis of all great writing begins with excellent structure. Structure is a MUST! When kiddos are faced with constructed response questions, they need to have strategies in their tool belt to feel confident attacking them.
Structural strategies are the first essential tool in that process. Solid sentence structure, followed by solid paragraph structure provides young writers with a strong base for their responses. From there, students can begin focusing on adding in the bells and whistles. I know this might seem like the wrong approach to some, but I find it works. The students who already come into third grade with a solid understanding of structure can work with me right away on adding the bells and whistles, in their differentiated writing groups.
There are many different acronyms I have heard over the years to help students with the structure they need to answer a constructed response question based on a piece of text. I find the acronym R.A.C.E. to be the best in identifying the four critical elements I expect from my kids in a text-based response.
R: Restate the Question
At the beginning of the year, my students are thrown into a sea of reader's response questions. They must, must, must ALWAYS use part of the question in their answer. I LOVE to start our days reading to my kids — truly my favorite part of being a teacher! Their first job in their reading contract (while I teach guided reading) is to respond to higher leveled questions based on the reading — which are also connected to our reading standard. When they respond orally, they are also expected to use part of the question in their answer. This creates a habit to automatically use part of the question in their answer. The difference in student responses is night and day after I set this expectation.
A: Answer the Question
When we attack this piece in our class, I simply help my students see that they need to have a strong statement — similar to a topic sentence or thesis statement — that states their answer, point, theme, main idea, etc., in order to guide their writing. It not only helps to keep their focus on their answers, but it also helps to answer the question right away, in case they are unable to finish their full answer.
C: Cite Evidence
In our transition from 5 to 8 sentence paragraphs, I try to teach my kiddos about conjunctions. This enables them to use evidence, pairing the text and connection to their schema. You might want to read my previous two posts: Grounded in Evidence. Part 1: Literary Text and Grounded in Evidence. Part 2: Informational Text — to help build your repertoire on how to teach your kids to do this!
E: Explain the Answer
"Explaining the answer" is actually based on the student's schema. When you have taught students to cite evidence and pair it with their schema, this "how" naturally falls into the student's answer — killing two birds with one stone!
Finally, always provide students with a rubric for guidance when they are working on various assignments. Below are a few sites that provide different kinds of rubrics. Or, create your own! The beauty of creating your own is you have the option to provide just the one step you are working on at a specified time, and later putting all the pieces together.
Mathematical Concepts Constructed Response Rubric
Always remember it is the formative piece of our instruction that is the most critical. Use every constructed response as a building block for student learning, and remember to let everyone shine in this process. Even our struggling writers have something to contribute! Focus on the positive pieces of their response, and use specific feedback with their writing to help bring their evidence-based responses up to par.