Monday, July 27, 2009

Pass / Fail Assignments

My wife recently started her masters of social work at Portland State University.  Her first major assignment was a paper connecting her bachelor's level experience and learning with what she has now begun at her master's level internship.  The paper is a pass / fail assignment (as is the class).

The result I see is that she is less stressed during the writing of this paper than she has been with her entrance essay, scholarship essays or any of the other countless pieces of writing she needed to complete to get accepted to the university.  The stakes were so much higher.

Since my wife is a member of the "new" or "knowledge class" (a term from one of her social work readings), she didn't cut corners on her paper.  I'm wondering what balance I would have to strike to get my student's best work and also offer this nerve-liberating form of grading for papers or assignments.  I could always ask students to revise specific pieces of a paper to get it to a passing grade, but at what point do students say "why bother, I'm never going to get it good enough for him to be happy."  And I can think of a few students who would cut every corner they could - some of them did it last year.  But then again, maybe they shouldn't have passed because of it.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Library Thing for Unit Planning

I taught American Literature this year for juniors, and in an attempt to give the dry, American literature canon some much needed relevancy, I paired our Great Depression unit with the current economic recession and topical book clubs set during the Great Depression.

Thinking of only Steinbeck novels when trying to come up with texts in Depression-era settings, I turned to Library Thing. Using the search page, I searched for all books with the tag "great depression" and got these results. From there, I added the tag "young adult" and got these results.

I recognized some of these books. Out of the Dust was one I had read before, and Esperanza Rising was another I knew of but hadn't read. From the library I checked out these as well as Nothing to Fear, Bud, Not Buddy, and The Truth About Sparrows and began reading as quickly as I could.

My school librarian was able to find and bring from other schools all the books except for Nothing to Fear and The Truth About Sparrows. These were eliminated from the selection and Of Mice and Men was added.

Library Thing can be an excellent tool for thematic unit planning, or for finding literature of any kind. I also used it this summer to find current young adult literature to read and stay current with.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Explicit Reading Instruction

Out of everything I did last semester, the piece that I'm happiest with and the area with the greatest potential for improvement is my strategy for differentiating reading instruction.

At the beginning of the semester, I used Kylene Beers' book When Kids Can't Read to create a checklist to preassess reading skills.  She breaks her book into three basic sections: for students who have poor comprehension skills, students with poor word fluency and decoding skills, and students who have trouble finding books that are interesting.  Adapting the checklist she provided on page 28, I met with each of my students individually to determine whether they were dependent (the term Beers uses for struggling readers) or independent (able to read on their own), and if they are dependent, which single or combination of the three categories they fall into.  In my meeting with each student, I asked them to read a short, 300-word story from the anthology Micro Fiction aloud.  This allowed me to check for fluency and word recognition.  After they had read the selection, I gave them basic, open-ended questions like "what do you think the story is about," "who are the main characters," "what's the moral of the story."  These questions address reading comprehension.  Finally, I asked them some questions about what reading they do, like "what's your favorite book/author," "what genre(s) do you like to read the most." to determine if they have resources to find books that they enjoy.

After I figured out the needs of each student, I divided them into groups depending on their greatest weakness.  While this could be beneficial in instances where the teacher is modeling or given direct instruction, there were many times when a mixed group would have been better.  For example, when these same groups met in more self directed literature circles, the students who struggled with comprehension talked about how the text made no sense, and the group of students who had trouble finding literature they enjoyed talked about the relative "suckiness" of each piece.

When I was able to meet with these groups, it was most often with the comprehension group, where I modeled and guided practice of specific comprehension techniques, most often using a think aloud.  I broke down the internalized process of reading and stated what I was thinking and reading aloud.  There were seven specific processes I focused on with students: visualizing, questioning, clarifying, connecting, agreeing or disagreeing with a character, and predicting.  Each time I met with students, I tried to cover a different set of two or three.

I also met with students during class time in either small groups or individually to practice the think aloud strategy and give them some tips, like reminding them to reread or cue them to make a prediction.  When I couldn't meet with them in class, I asked them to complete double entry journals, creating a written record of their thinking.  In the left column, the student writes the quote and page number that gave them pause, and then on the right they write their response (either a question, clarification, prediction, etc.).  When my students read novels, we did the same thing, but students wrote their responses on sticky notes and stuck them to the page next to the quote.

The strategy was largely unsuccessful, not because of the pedagogy, but because I didn't follow through.  One of the hardest things for me was finding time to work with students and meaningful work for the other students to complete while I met with students.  Because of this, I was only able to do the initial preassessment in two of my classes, and meet only rarely in my third.  I only intermittently examined the half ream of written evidence I had from students.  I didn't fully address the needs of students who had decoding issues or trouble finding texts they could enjoy.  And I didn't find the time to do a post assessment at the end of the year. 

My general thought is that I can set aside either the first half of class or every other class period for sustained silent reading.  While many classes try to fit this in for 10 or 15 minutes, I think if I can keep it going for 30 or 45 minutes, I'd be able to meet with each student about once a week.  After I meet with individuals or groups, I can either send them back to silent reading, or direct them to another individual activity.  For each of my classes, I'll have a binder with a tab for each student.  There I'll keep notes from each of our meetings and I can insert work samples like the double entry journal, or sticky notes stuck to a sheet of notebook paper.  I'll work with the school librarians early in the year to teach students where to find specific genres of books, and create a "good books box" that will contain a rotating collection of good young adult literature pulled from the shelves in multiple genres for students to check out (Beers 293-5).  And I think quarterly I'll reassess students' with the checklist using a different text.

On days I'm not meeting with students and we aren't doing sustained silent reading, I'll read aloud and when we're doing units where each student is reading the same book or books on one topic, we can have large class discussion.

Then, at some point, I'll address writing, grammar, and all the other language arts.

Okay, so maybe the plan isn't fully refined yet.

What encourages me though is last year I had one student who was clearing affected by our two or three individual meetings and the modeling and guided practice we did as a class.  At the beginning of the semester, he struggled with reading comprehension and was a reluctant and often confused reader.  At the end of the semester, he wrote in his self assessment:
[I] really improved myself this semester i actually tired. your class was fun as many thought otherwise, i had to push myself to go hard.  only reason why i didnt get an A was because of the fact i didnt do book club i was gone i got zeros and then i fell behind on sticky notes.  then i read the whole book [Of Mice and Men] which is honestly a majr accomplishment for you not going to lie i have never actually read a whole book. i always never like them. but you made me realize reading is actually fun.  the truth is i actually read now at my house :).
He could have been lying.  I don't think so though.  It would explain why on the second to last day of the semester, to the surprise of his classmates and me, he asked me to model visualizing a poem we were reading.  If he wasn't lying, then I think one out of 70 isn't bad for my first year.  Maybe next year I can break 10% or better.

Beers, Kylene. (2003).  When kids can't read. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.