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Monday, October 19, 2009

Mt. Blue High School Teachers Move Into Year Two

This is a very exciting time for Mt. Blue High School.  They are moving into year two of the Literacy Initiative and are maintaining the same momentum and focus as year one.  This is largely due to a team effort between the staff and Monique Poulin, the principal.

This is year two as principal of Mt. Blue High School for Monique.   she and members from the staff attended the Model Schools Conference in Atlanta, Georgia this summer and spent a great deal of time planning the 2009-2010 school year.  Monique and I met in August to schedule staff development days, she was very clear on the high school's intent to focus on literacy until it had been embedded in all classes.  This had been the message at the Model Schools Conference - be focused, consistent and thorough when dealing with schoolwide staff development.  In this time of state and federal mandates, it is refreshing to hear the voice of common sense and best practices.  Bravo, Monique.

On October 15, I visited the following teachers.

Jake B. teaches science.  I observed him teaching a physics class.  Jake was using the Frayer for vocabulary, but with a twist.  Students were divided into groups, given a word, and were asked to follow the standard Frayer model.  Students built the model on a brain board, but with held the vocabulary term.  Photos were taken of the brain boards and then projected with the LCD  projector.  Groups presented the frayer model and the rest of the class attempted to guess what the vocabulary term was.  Jake guided the presentation by asking clarifying questions and modeling connections for the students.  He modeled think alouds throughout the entire class.  As I moved among the groups I observed a high level of engagement, students embedding the strategic language Jake modeled as well as the strategies themselves, and a high level of metacognitive awareness.  Student feedback was very positive regarding how this process helped them understand the language and concepts involved.

A few key points common to all Frayer use in the content areas.
  • non-examples are the hardest, but require the highest level of thinking
  • teachers scaffold students during group work
  • many contents, like physics, are like a foreign language to students, so teaching key concepts in depth is definitely not a waste of time

Therese H. also teaches science.  Her lesson involved  living and nonliving things, focusing specifically on the cell.  Like so many teachers, Therese wanted to find ways to engage her students and increase their participation/learning.  She decided to go with a think pair share format that included a word sorting.   As the students worked in groups, deciding what was living and nonliving Therese moved around the room scaffolding students where needed.  The pace of the lesson was good and everyone was involved.  Therese also included a text feature preview of the chapter in the science textbook and focused on how the vocabulary is displayed and defined in this particular book.  She then included directions for dealing with the vocabulary and its importance to this topic.  The group was interactive and the lesson was a success. 

In order to provide the students with the opportunity to learn through conversation and collaboration, here are a few key points common to think, pair, share.
  • there needs to be a framework for the use of this strategy
  • think, pair share should begin with each student writing a response to the assignment
  • students need to be given a time limitation and be notified halfway through
  • students need to have purposeful language (discussion extenders) modeled for them
  • students need to use appropriate, purposeful language during the pair share
  • debriefing is key, giving the rationale for choices

I ended the day with a visit to Lisa D.'s room.  She is a foreign language teacher.  It was a pleasure watching her with her class.  Lisa's lesson embedded many literacy strategies.  Students monitored their understandings by identifying phrases that were difficult for them and then practiced saying and translating the phrases.  Students practiced meaningful chunks of language orally, written, and then identified them in reading.  Students were immersed in oral language with Lisa speaking to them in a meaningful context in class - giving them a context to boost their comprehension. (I even got the GIST of it!!)  Students were all engaged - often in pairs, groups, or as a class. 

As I watched her, I was reminded of the similarities between her class and the others I had observed that day.  Truly, content at the high school level is often like learning a foreign language.  It is concept dense - both in vocabulary and experience - and the texts, much like the language structure in Lisa's class, are presented to students in a text structure format they do not know.

Our challenge is to provide the bridges for our students to cross in order to access and comprehend the information.  All of these lessons supported students to that end.

On October 16, we began our first year of peer coaching.  Teachers who have completed year one  spend year two refining and expanding their literacy strategy teaching in the classroom with students and colleagues alike.  Based on Costa's meta-cognitive coaching framework, teachers teamed - one demonstrating a strategy, the other observing and debriefing.  It was great!

I began the day with Jocelyn W., a math teacher (demonstrating), and Beth W., a special education teacher (coaching).  

Jocelyn was introducing a new chapter in Geometry.  In order to tailor her teaching to her students' needs, she decided to use this first lesson to discover what her students knew.  She opened her lesson by explaining what and why they were going to be talking about triangles by reminding them that math texts are like building block, each chapter supporting the next and expanding the idea.  The strategy she used was KWL.  After asking what students knew about the strategy, Jo had  students brainstorm ideas while she recorded.  As they students shared prior knowledge, Jo asked clarifying questions - making sure concepts were untangled and clear - and modeled connections between previous learning and texts.  Next, Jo asked students what they wanted to know/expected to learn in the upcoming chapter.  Due to Jo's knowledge of her students and content, the pace was excellent and everyone participated.

Jo completed the lesson with a concept sort.  She used a closed sort, having students identify types of triangles from examples she provided.

Jo demonstrated several key factors teachers need to think about when activating prior knowledge or frontloading.
  • ask clarifying questions in order to identify confusions
  • clear up confusions - the extra time is worth it in the long run
  • have students use prior knowledge in order to firm up understandings as well as embed the information in the students' schema

Next, I visited Jim. B.'s room, a social studies teacher, with Hattie D. as a coach.  I had been looking forward to this visit.  Jim has taught both English and social studies and I was anticipating a cross curriculum approach.  I was not disappointed!

The class was transitioning periods of history and Jim was front-loading information with them.  He began the period with British terms - historically appropriate - some known, some new.  The students were engaged and enjoyed this.  My favorite was candy floss - ask Jim:)

Next, he introduced the frayer, with a twist.  Instead of a word, he used a concept - attitudes towards women in the middle ages.  Jim followed this with a read aloud from  The Fishmonger, a book by Edward Rutherford.  He modeled a think aloud as he read the book, making connections from text to text, text to self, and text to world.  During the think aloud, he invited the students to participate and make connections with him. In conclusion, he asked the students to infer attitudes as discussed by the book and the connections - extending the attitudes to the students' mothers lives.  This was higher level thinking at its best!  He kept the pace moving along and every student engaged.   The link between historical fiction and nonfiction at this level can enrich the students' understanding of history and make it  come alive.

Reflecting on Jim's demonstration, I drew three conclusions to offer you.
  1. Adjusting the strategies to your content area is what good teaching is all about - as long as you keep the cognitive process intact, as Jim did.
  2. Read alouds when combined with think alouds are powerful for all grade levels.  New language along with different text structures need to be presented in this manner, building a background for the student.  This is time well spent in all content areas and will assist students later when trying to access text independently.
  3. Many teachers use literacy strategies intuitively.  Teaching them explicitly and using the common terminology shared by the rest of the staff assists students in acquiring and applying them sooner.
 I concluded the day with a visit to Meadow S.'s room, an English teacher, who was coached by Sam D., a social studies teacher.  Meadow demonstrated a literacy strategy with a honors English class.  Meadow chose a strategy due to her concern regarding her students' ability to compare themes.  She wrote,

"I personally want to see that students are engaged and actually working/discussing.  I also want to make sure that students are actively reading and showing understanding and synthesis.  I think some of them have a tendency to say "good enough".  This should show them that YES the selected poem works well or NO the selected poem does not."

The lesson I observed was part of a unit that began with the entire class reading, The House on Mango Street.  Meadow and the class then recognized and labeled the key themes explored in the book.  Next, students paired up and were asked to find pictures, quotes from poems, books, and songs that supported the themes.  Meadow completed this activity by demonstrating how to make a text to text connection (including inference) and instructed the students to review their choices using this format.

As I observed this process, it was obvious Meadow had assessed her students accurately.  They did struggle with this process as outlined regarding the text to text connections.  Meadow moved around the room, scaffolding students as needed.

Lesson learned:  regardless of level, all students can use support in the area of literacy strategies and higher level thinking.

On Monday, October 21, I visited 3 of the teachers involved in the second year of the literacy initiative - and what an awesome day!  While all three presented great lessons, I want to focus on the teaming they were doing.

Dan R. and Sam D. are co-teaching a humanities course - social studies and English.  With the support of the administration they planned and scheduled the course this summer.  They have 30+ students with the two teachers in the room at one time.  While I could go on at length about the literacy strategies they have incorporated, our discussion today demonstrated the rich opportunities they are providing their students.  During class, they shared with the literacy team a think aloud they teamed on - one read and did a think aloud for the first paragraph followed by the other teacher for the next paragraph.  They switched off all the way through the text.  What better way to collaborate and model interdependency?  

As we continued to debrief, they shared the following insights.
  1. The content overlaps and creates a natural fit:  
    • Grade 9 English deals with issues of identity, belief systems
    • Grade 9 Social Studies deals with geography and contemporary issues 
       2.  Sam and Dan work well together building on one another's strengths and reflecting/problem           solving specific student needs
     3.  The course is formatted as a pilot, building on students' learning styles
     4.  Students were selected for the pilot by identifying those who don't work well in traditional 
     5.  Students are taught to recognize their own needs, i.e. which article can you read?
     6.  Students are challenged to think in a way they haven't thought before

Matthew A. and Maureen P. are teaming in another way.  Matthew is a math teacher and Maureen is a English teacher.  They are teaming around one of their freshman classes where they have a large number of students who overlap.  They went in a slight different direction.

Recognizing the link between literacy strategies and thinking strategies, this team went in a different direction.  Matt and Maureen co-authored a graphic organizer to teach students to read math problems and solve them.  

Students were asked to write what they know from the problem as well as any other pertinent information.  Next, they guess what the answer might be and then they attempt to solve the problem.  

This is an excellent format.  It requires students to engage in  a cognitive process involving:
  1. identify the important information
  2. decide what strategy (mathematical process) to use to solve the problem
  3. predict what the answer might be
  4. perform the process
  5. check the answer against the prediction (guess)
This process can be transferred to many other problem solving processes - math or not.

For freshman this is crucial.  There is a large body of research that supports the difficulty of the transition freshman are faced with and unfortunately, many students are so defeated by this experience they decide not to pursue post secondary education.  Some even decide to drop out.

Lesson learned: all four teachers have identified a need specific to this grade level and have put in place a plan to assist their students, targeting literacy strategies used in all content areas.  We will follow these pilots as the year moves ahead.  Stay tuned~


Jake said...

Build a set of your own classroom Brainboards!
Instructions at:

Jim B said...

I'm really intrigued with the collaboration between Sam and Dan in the 9th grade. I'd like to take this to the 10th grade, especially with a coordination between my Honors European history course and 10th grade Honors English which focuses on world lit. After a pilot, we might take it to all 10th grade classes.

Lisa Dalrmple said...

I would like to sit in Jim's class. I think that I could learn from some of the strategies that he is using in his class. I think that I can learn a lot from my collegues.

Melody Tinkham said...

My first comment is regarding Jim's read aloud/think aloud activity in his history class. I LOVE the idea of doing the read aloud along with the think aloud. I find that students really benefit from being read aloud to, but the common misconception is that they should be doing all the reading themselves (and usually outside of class). I think many teachers assume that it's wasted class time and students are "getting out of work" if we read aloud to them. That is not the case at all! Students truly benefit from hearing it read to them so that they can listen for key concepts and ponder what they are hearing.

This is the second year that Jim and I have talked about possibly working on a cross-curricular unit combining our 10th grade honors students. Hopefully this year we might be able to make that work. I'm looking forward to it!

Therese said...

The teaming was great. Time to plan this would be terrific.

kristel said...

Meadow-- I like how you connected themes across various genres of literature. I would love to be able to talk with you further about this lesson. My students have a hard time when theme is introduced. It usually takes a few pieces of literature for them to understand. This method that you used sounds like a great way for them to process more information---and simultaneously.

Karina Escajeda said...

I agree that learning how to think about and discuss ideas in any content area is like learning a foreign language- all those new terms ARE foreign! I love it when I hear students discussing concepts in class and really striving to use the terminology as they talk to each other. Modeling a peer to peer interaction, with another teacher, and then guiding a student volunteer pair, can really help to show all the students how to use terminology in conversation with each other in class as the teacher circulates. As with a foreign language, the brain retains new vocabulary best through contextual usage and speaking and listing the words in a conversational context is important for this. Talking is good!

Melissa A. said...

There are many wonderful things happening, These give me ideas and I've got to train myself to think in the different models and gain an understanding of how they can work in visual language. I use gist, word walls and Frayers, problem is I use others but do not realize it.

Jo said...

Like the idea of teaming - heard lots of positive feedback. Math and English teaming is great. Nice to see how you are making it work.

Melody Tinkham said...

I also love the team teaching that's going on between Maureen and Matt. Breaking down the language in those math problems in crucial for kids. I sure wish someone had done this lesson for me when I took math in school!!! ha ha!

Karina Escajeda said...

*....speaking and LISTENING TO the words...*" (correction)

Anonymous said...

I have been following your blog for sometime... though this is my first comment here.

Thought would drop by and send you some flashcards which I have found interesting.