Monday, December 18, 2006

Would you rather be smart or be a hard worker?

The debate over innate intelligence versus environment in the development of a peson's abilities has been argued for many years. This article provides some new data for the discussion. The bottom line is that intelligence is overrated and disciplined study gets a lot of the credit. This adds credibility to our Halecrest motto: "Work Hard, Play Hard ... Leave 'em in the dust".

Saturday, October 28, 2006

More on Fluency

An article from Educational Leadership by Timothy Rasinski gives some food for thought on the fluency question. It provides a balanced approach between reading for speed and comprehension.
If we emphasize speed at the expense of prosodic and meaningful reading, we will end up with fast readers who understand little of what they have read. Fluency instruction leads to impressive gains when it provides regular opportunities for expressive reading through assisted and repeated readings coupled with coaching; it doesn't require explicit reference to reading for speed. Students' reading rates will improve as they become naturally more efficient and confident in their ability to decode words.

Based on his research he has found assisted reading and repeated reading to be the most beneficial modes of instruction to promote fluency that leads to improved comprehension.
After reading a passage aloud to students, I ask them to follow along with me, first silently and then aloud, as a group. Sometimes I ask students to orally read a passage with a partner who is at the same reading level. At other times, I ask more fluent readers to read with students who are having difficulty with reading (Eldredge & Quinn, 1988; Topping, 1987a, 1987b, 1995) or I have students silently read while listening to a fluent rendering of the passage on tape (Carbo, 1978; Pluck, 1995). Such practices constitute a powerful strategy for improving fluency and comprehension.

Developing fluency in reading requires practice; this is where the method of repeated readings comes in (Samuels, 1979). Research indicates that repeated readings lead not only to improvement in reading the passage but also to improvement in decoding, reading rate, prosodic reading, and comprehension of passages that the reader has not previously seen (Dowhower, 1994; Koskinen & Blum, 1986; Kuhn & Stahl, 2000; National Reading Panel, 2000).

These are things worth considering as we seek to help students read for understanding.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Did I say that I love cats?

I promise you won't be reading any articles like this one about me anytime in the near future. I think I'll go give a hug to the neighborhood cat.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Talking about formative assessment

Here's a post that is a great perspective on formative assessment from a teacher's perspective.

The type of information that is valuable in making instructional decisions is what we are after with our formative assessments.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Writing in the content areas increase comprehension

Here are some ideas on integrating writing across the curriculum on p. 127.

Use shared writing to create informational texts based on content material your kids have studied or other knowledge they have.
Have students keep journals in content areas to explain their thinking, problem-solve, and document their observations.
In the primary grades, use current content area information to compose sentences to use with word work.
Help other students be more strategic, reflective readers: have them keep a notebook or journal ihn which they write predictions or summaries, copy quotations, make notes, and create charts.

I'm sure we can come up with even more to add to the list.

Writing improves Comprehension

Ok, I just have to quote this whole section from p. 126 because it hits the nail right on the head.

Composing text and comprehending text are closely related processes. Students who write better get better reading comprehension and vocabulary scores. Students who receive good writing instruction also become better readers. And when students have opportunities to do a lot of writing in the content areas (learning logs, summaries, essays, writing for specific audiences), they learn the subject matter more thoroughly than student who do not do much writing.

Children develop meaning as they write. It's what we all do, especially when we're writing about something we don't fully understand or haven't figured out yet. It's what I do when I write a book. Writing makes us think harder.

Write on Regie!

Higher Level Thinking

Many of our staff indicated they would like to see us work on higher level thinking next year. I was thinking of this when I got to Routman's comments (p. 125) on examining written responses to reading. She noted the following:

For example, research shows that when students answer teacher-originated short-answer questions, they quickly look for the needed information and copy it, with little thought or reflection. Basically, such exercises (which we have to read and assess) are not a good use of our time or the children's.

She goes on to advocate writing that enhances the reading. Here's how she puts it:

What we're after is a written response that deepens comprehension, causes the writer to reflect on the content, and/or fosters appreciation for the text. When children have to think about their response, meaning is likely to be extended . And be sure that before you ask students to explain, summarize, compare, evaluate, draw conclusions - all valuable activities- you first demonstrate and give adequate guided practice.

Well, there it is in a nutshell. We just need to clearly model that higher level thinking, provide guided practice, then actually give assignments that require students to do more than regurgitate information. Who needs staff development? Follow these three easy steps and your students will be out-thinking Stephen Hawking. :)

Reading widely supports writing

Read alouds are an integral part of the balanced literacy program. Routman encourages teachers to read aloud often, especially on topics that interest the students:

Teachers need to read aloud stories, poems, short books, long books, fiction, nonfiction, about topics and ideas that kids can connect to.

Quality Reading = Quality Writing

"Garbage in - Garbage out" goes the old refrain. This is Routman's basic premise when it comes to the type of literature students read and its effect on their writing. We need to surround our students with quality literature experiences to serve as models for their writing. She also makes a big push for non-fiction:

Children who read nonfiction have more information with which to write, have writing models at hand, and are more aware of nonfiction features such as visual aids.

English Learners benefit from Reading-Writing connection

Routman hails the benefit of the reading writing connection for English Learners:

When I cannot find texts students can easily read, we write our own. Students can read familiar stories that they tell and write far more easily than they can read commercial texts. Because it is easier to learn to read and write words that you already understand orally, creating original texts with familiar language Andy concepts makes good sense.

How are we doing on creating texts that are then used for shared, guided, and independent reading?

Routman on reading and writing

In preparation for our staff development I've been reviewing the notes from our staff meeting last spring to select work that both honors the wishes of staff for next steps and connects what we are to learn with our previous study on writing with Routman. Here's a good quote from Writing Essentials on the Reading-Writing connection:

Efffective teachers who have high-achieving students (including on high-stakes tests) do more writing and reading of whole texts and spend little time on "stuff" - activities about writing and reading.

So, consider your work during the school day. How much of your work with students is on whole texts as opposed to artificially created worksheets using language without context? For students to become more proficient writers they need to read lots of good pieces and not just isolated skills on worksheets.

Monday, May 29, 2006

High Expectations and Caring Support

In Closing the Achievement Gap 2nd Edition, a collection of essays highlight beliefs and practices that are making a difference with the most challenging students. Bonnie Benard writes about Turnaround Teachers and Schools and when asked what quality teaching looks like students say:
a caring teacher who accepts "no excuses" and who refuses to let them fail.

What I like about this is its perfect balance. Imagine the caring teacher who is not concerned with achievement. This person just wants students to feel good about themselves, but isn't concerned about real achievement or improvement. Clearly this type of teacher is doing no service to his students. But the other extreme is just as bad. The teacher who has unyielding expectations, but no emotional consideration for her students has just as negative an impact on her students. Students are sure to be exasperated by the intense pressure unaccompanied by gentle support and encouragement.

Therefore, we all need to strike that balance to show students that we truly care for them and at the same time we are not content to leave them as they are. We need to hold them accountable to reach their highest achievement, coming alongside to support them every inch of the way. May all of us at Halecrest aspire to be those caring and challenging educators that make a difference in the lives of children and leave an impression that will last a lifetime.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Not to early to start thinking about the SAT

This tidbit from Joanne Jacobs should encourage us continue to turn every Halecrest student into an avid reader. Just think, next year's kindergarteners are about 11 years away from their first SAT exam. :)

All for one and one for all

Here's another nugget from Andy Hargreaves by way of Margaret Scherer around the ideea of shared leadership:
High-performing schools are communities of grownups whose members have real input into conversations about reform.

Believe me the door is open for everyone to have a say. There is no blueprint for success because I don't know what it looks like. We need to create this school together and unless every one of us takes ownership for our direction we cannot succeed. It reminds me of Doug Smith, Principal of Helix High who said, "It's not OK to be here and expect someone else to make decisions".

Slow Schools Movement

The latest edition of Educational Leadership has a collection of articles on Challenging the Status Quo. Editor Margaret Scherer begins by citing Andy Hargreaves who articulated the seven characteristics of sustainable change for schools. The first characteristic is depth. Scherer explains:
...schools that undertook reform slowly and persistently produced greater lasting effects on student achievement than did those trying to get immediate returns. Teaching to the test, reducing learning to scripts and pacing guides, or concentrating primarily on lifting up only those students who are just below the proficiency line are short-term strategies. Instead, schools should join the "slow schools movement," he urged, and that means "concentrating on teaching for understanding and connecting to all students."

Although as a leader I feel like I have bounced back in forth from long-term to short-term solutions, I wholeheartedly want to see us engage in the type of slow school reform that leads to lasting change. That's why I'm optimistic that our renewed instructional focus, partnership with Debra Crouch, and our collaboration time will be the vehicles to help gain new insights into teaching for understanding that are developed and spread from teachers learning together as opposed to a principal or district office mandate. The former type of program has all the benefits of buy in and durability! Looking forward to the adventure with this amazing Halecrest staff.

Saturday, April 22, 2006


Frank McCourt's book Teacher Man is a biography that focuses on his days in the classrooms of New York City teaching English to some rather unenthusiastic students. As the teacher, he frequently received notes from parents explaining why their children had missed school. Mr. McCourt knew most of these notes were forged, but he didn't do much with them - preferring to stuff them in a drawer. One day he got an inspired idea to get students to write. He noticed that many of these creative notes were some of the best writing he had ever seen his kids do. So, he decided to analyze the notes with his kids to learn what made them such good writing. After their brief analysis, he assigned students the task of writing excuse notes for Adam and Eve. His previously lethargic students couldn't wait to put their pencils to paper. He even dared to assign the rest of the note as HOMEWORK!

Mr. McCourt discovered that his student could indeed write creative, well thought out letters if given the proper audience and purpose for writing. He went on to have student write excuses for historical and literary figures which earned him praise from the Superintendent of schools.

This story reinforces one our Halecrest beliefs that an authentic audience and purpose for writing is essential if students are to invest themselves in their writing.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Modeled to Guided to Independent

During some observations recently I've been thinking about transfer of skills into students' independent work. How can teachers create an environment where reading comprehension strategies, for example, are sufficiently modeled and practiced so that they become ingrained into students' independent work? How do we create a connection between the basal worksheet, STARS workbook, or any other resource to independent reading? Is there sufficient practice with support (guided reading) to help students play with the strategy? Is there monitoring of independent reading to assess whether the strategy has actually transferred? Routman talks about the gradual release of responsibility and I think that phrase says a lot. This is where the art and science of teaching collide. When to release students to independence does not have a simple answer. Any thoughts?

Saturday, March 11, 2006

So What

Here's another reminder from Ms. Routman. One thing she sees a lot of in schools is what she calls "So what" writing. So much of what students write doesn't say anything interesting or important. The remedy for this is AUDIENCE. Every piece of writing needs to have an authentic audience. After all, if there is no audience (including self), what's the point of writing?

I really think this tendency to assign writing for no apparent reason leads to much of the student's apathy about writing specifically and school work, in general. We need to help students make the connections between their work in school and real tasks that they will do in life, whether it's writing, reading to understand, or doing math. All of these skills are used throughout life. I do believe that some of the lack of motivation that students develop is because they see the work they are doing in school as pointless.

Therefore, the burden is on us to make that work relevant, for it truly is relevant. So, let's get those authentic writing tasks every day and watch our students shine.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Revising as you go

Another of the refreshers that was brought to my attention by the Regie Routman conference on Tuesday was the need to model and teach revision throughout the writing process. I remember my days as a 9th grade English teacher drilling students on the writing process "delivered from the mountain", which was: Prewriting, Rough Draft, Revision, and Final Copy.

In reality, writers are constantly revising, even as they are drafting. This authentic part of the writing process needs to be constantly modeled by teachers and expected from students. I think one of the reasons it's so hard to get students to revise is that most of the writing they see teachers do is either presented as a finished product or written without revision. They don't see enough of the authentic struggle that is involved in creating a worthwhile piece of writing.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Regie Reminders

This past Tuesday, eleven of us had the opportunity to hear Regie (that's pronounced Reejee!) Routman and it gave us cause to reflect on our progress in writing instruction. Here is the first in a series of posts on some of the "Ahas" from my perspective.

First, teachers need to jump right in and write in front of their students. By this, I mean authentic writing, revising as they go. This modeling is clearly part of the equation in the success that Regie has with her students. I'm looking forward to seeing lots more attempts at authentic modeling for students. Kudos to those staff members who have already made this a regular part of their Writer's Workshop. The benefits for our students will be immense.

By the way, we also learned that Regie is not too fond of cats, a point that shifted her even higher on my list, thought it might have knocked her down a little for a few of my colleagues.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Valuing What Students have to Say (Write)

Jeff Anderson has published an article in ASCD's recent Educationa Leadership titled Helping Writers Find Power. As a 6th grade English teacher, he comes across plenty of struggling writers. One of his first maxims is to:
Say something good about the content of students' writing before saying anything else. Hands down, that's the most important thing. This is their soul on the page. Be sincere; you don't neeed to go gooey over everything they produce. But do rummage for and celebrate what they've done well.

This fits hand in glove with what we have learned through our study of Routman's work. This type of encouragement and celebration will produce students who see themseles as writers with meaningful messages. They will be more invested in making those corrections that will make the meaning all the more clear and appealing.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Primacy of Literacy

In an article on Education World, Pete Hall describes some priorities for focusing the work of an elementary school. Here's what he says about meeting all the needs of content instruction through literacy development.

Teach content through literacy. We would be remiss to bypass the important content areas of science, social studies, mathematics, the arts, physical education, and baseball history. Each of those subject areas has its place in the education of every child, and each, surprisingly enough, can be taught through literacy. Success in integrating content into literacy instruction is not contingent upon having a ton of reading materials and every child's individual level for every topic; rather, it involves utilizing solid literacy-focused instructional strategies to teach the content areas. A serious dedication and laser-like focus on literacy-based instructional methods does not preclude a well-rounded education. In fact, it is a requirement of one.

What I like about this is that it helps solve some of the "time" issue. It's not a matter of maknig more time for literacy, but teaching literacy strategies while delivering all types of content.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

High Stakes Learning

I was reading an article in the Los Angeles Times this morning on the high school drop out problem, an issue that I became all too familiar with during my years in high school. I was intrigued by one stat that was quoted for the article. I'm familiar with the usual comparisons of graduates earning more money over a lifetime than non graduates, but this quote really caught my eye.
High school graduates live an average of 9 years longer than non-graduates.

Wow! There's an eye opener. Why is this important for Halecrest Elementary? Well, let me make the connection. Most students who drop out of high school drop out in their 9th grade year. They hit high school with either major gaps in their learning or face life-changing events or make bad choices (e.g. drugs). These students that have major gaps in their learning come from middle school where they are often socially promoted. I worked at a school that regularly sent approximately 15% - 20% of its 8th grade to high school as social promotions. These same students usually left elementary school well below grade level for a multitude of reasons. That brings us to our little cherubs. If we don't help students overcome learning gaps that surface in the primary grades, we are creating an almost surefire drop out! We must have a sense of urgency that every student leaves each grade at grade level or move heaven and earth to make it happen. Understand that the stakes are high. Not to be overly dramatic, but our students' very lives are depending on it.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

A challenge to my thinking

My wife handed me a book this weekend by Susan Ohanian which I couldn't put down. Ms. Ohanian has some strong opinions about the Standards movement. Although I think her response to the standards movement is a little harsh (The use of the term Standardisto occurs approximately 279 times in the book - I confess I didn't actually count, but I think I'm close.), she makes some excellent points about keeping students in mind. I can hear a few of our Halecrest staff cheering in the background :). I'll post more on this here later this week - time permitting.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

It's the principles, stupid!

Here Fountas and Pinnell describe the goal of our word study instruction.
The goal in phonics, vocabulary, and spelling instruction is to help upper elementary students expand the categories (in their head) by making connections among words and drawing out important principles that they know in a deep way.

I'm wondering how much we focus on these principles of phonics, vocabulary, and spelling versus memorizing a list of words for a weekly test?

What does word study look like?

My Principal Peer Group is reading sections of Guiding Readers and Writers by Fountas and Pinnell. This month we are reading the chapter entitled Teaching for Word-Solving: Phonics, Spelling, and Vocabulary. I'll be sharing some excerpts from this chapter followed by some thoughts and reflections. Here's a good introduction to the chapter.
Word study is not so much about learning individual words as it is about learning how written language is organized - how written language "works." There are many word-solving strategies you can teach students to help them learn important concepts related to decoding, spelling, and vocabulary. You can also support word solving during reading and writing.

It seems to me that the main idea of this chapter is that teachers increase students' knowledge of words by explicitly teaching word-solving strategies and helping students apply these strategies as they read and write.