Nearing the End

It’s that bitter-sweet time of year again, where I am so proud of my students’ accomplishments: their risk, failures, successes, and in all the ways they’ve learned and grown. No matter how exciting it is to see kids move on to the next grade, it’s also an incredibly emotional time. Next week, we have our fifth graders graduate and move on to various middle schools. Despite it being close to the end, it’s an amazingly busy time for everyone, including students. As teachers, we only have a certain amount of time with them, and then it’s over. We have to make each moment count. One thing a few of us do this time of year is have students reflect on their growth and create portfolios of some of the work they’ve done through the year and then share these with their parents. I like this for several reasons:

1) The kids take ownership of the evaluation process.

2) Both students and parents can see, through the actual work of their children, what they can and cannot do.

3) Through the students’ reflection of their work, parents can start a conversation about effort, motivation, future goals, etc.

4) Kids can convey so much when they talk about their work and we can learn so much from them.

5) It provides evidence of work and learning, that letter grades can’t. (Even written narratives have their limits)

6) It is rigorous work.

7) Students are highly motivated to show off their work.

Speaking of reflections, I haven’t been able to keep up with the Ralph Waldo Emerson inspired reflection per day. Instead, I’ll just copy the next 4 quotes below, not even mention the prompts, and write one reflection.

Life wastes itself while we are preparing to live. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

There will be an agreement in whatever variety of actions, so they be each honest and natural in their hour. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, that is genius. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Imitation is Suicide. Insist on yourself; never imitate. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

What would I say to the person I’m going to be five years from now? Wherever you end up, be it the same place because you love it, or  trying something new because you believe you can make a larger positive impact, stay true to yourself and your beliefs about education. Make sure, however, those beliefs are informed. Don’t base them solely on data you can neatly fit on a spreadsheet, nor simply because ‘it has always been done this way. ‘Don’t base those beliefs just because you have a ‘feeling’ about them. Use data, feelings, and even tradition as starting points, but use the evidence you see in front of you. Do what you think is right because you believe it is the right thing to do, not because you are told to do it. Always remember Emerson’s quote, “Imitation is Suicide.” Lead. Don’t follow. 

Reading Fluency – It Matters

What is fluency? Is it simply reading quickly and accurately, or does a fluent reader also need to read with expression as well as comprehend what is read? Interestingly enough, a more recent definition (Good and Kaminski, 2002) has left out both expression AND comprehension! You know a book is a good book when it makes you think about how you teach and why you do what you do. In Richard L. Alliongton’s book What Really Matters in Fluency: Research-Based Practices Across the Curriculum, he addresses those same questions I posed, and yes, fluency should include expression and comprehension.

One of the conclusions is that reading volume (the amount read) has a huge impact on reading success. The more one reads, the more fluent one becomes. A fluent reader also knows where to place stresses or inflections on words. An example he uses that I like is if you ask someone a question like, “Who threw the ball over the fence?” A normal response would be:

JOHN threw the ball over the fence.

The stress placed on the first word. But if we asked the question, “How did the ball get over the fence?” a typical response would be:

John THREW the ball over the fence.

The stress now is placed on the second word.

A fluent reader would know this and place the stress on the correct word whether speaking or reading. What the author worries about is that many teachers are in fact not teaching fluency skills. The kind of expression needed in order to convey meaning. Like the way we talk.

  • One of the most important strategies for reading fluency is reading aloud to children so that you model good fluency. Just imagine those who enter Kindergarden and have been read to every night vs. those who have not had that same opportunity. The gap between the amount of words, phrases, sentences heard (even if the child cannot really read by then) is in the millions.
  • Another strategy is making sure kids read appropriate texts. They need texts where they feel successful in order to foster fluency development.
  • Accuracy is also very important. Children need to develop “at-a-glance” recognition, also called automaticity with many of the words they read. Kids who have trouble reading often do so with the little words both in meaning and their orthographic similarities (of, off, if; where, were, there). When was the last time you asked a child to define the word “of”?
  • As mentioned, reading volume. The more they read or are read to, the better. One suggestion in getting struggling readers to read more, is by pairing them with reading to younger developing readers.
  • Repeated readings is also a strategy that works, but there are caveats, one being that it limits the opportunities of the child from experiencing unique texts.
  • Do not interrupt a reader when he/she is stuck on a word. One should pause, then provide a prompt if needed, and then praise the effort. Too often teachers interrupt the struggling reader too soon. In second grade, we teach our students to do this as well when partner reading.
  • Have students engage in Free Voluntary Reading or other sustained silent reading times.
  • Be careful of basal readers or anthologies – often the range in reading difficulties is so great. The author found a third grade anthology with texts ranging from 2nd grade reading levels to those of a 6th grade text. A teacher should not assume that the publishers have done their job in vetting the stories for reading levels.

Finally, what I found most interesting in this book is the author’s disdain for the assessment tool called DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills). Each subtests calls itself a fluency test, but all it is measuring is the rate and accuracy of reading with no regard to comprehension or prosody. Often children read for speed, score well, but don’t comprehend a thing they have read and are given texts that are inappropriately too hard for them. Others may fall in the “at risk” factor based on this assessment because they are reading slowly and carefully, but they read with more expression and understand what they have read. Unfortunately many of these students across the country are also given the wrong texts. Why do I find this interesting? This author devoted a whole chapter to assessing fluency, half of that chapter, he spent dismissing the reliability of DIBELS as an assessment of fluency. Our school uses it as one measure. It’s validating, though, that we take a lot of other things into account, many of which are mentioned in this book and use multiple assessment strategies as well, but if DIBELS is really all that unreliable, should we be using it at all?

In the end, I couldn’t agree with the author more, that both reading aloud to students and reading volume is important. It goes with the persistent practice theories mentioned in The Talent Code and other similar books. Kids need opportunities to read, at school, at home, wherever. My only complaint of this book is the $37 price tag for a 138 page paperback. Thank goodness it was left in the teachers lounge on Friday to be passed on, where it will return tomorrow for someone else to read. Thought provoking and written in a style that is easy for teachers to read, the book also offers many strategies for fostering fluent readers.



Looking Back at Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences

It’s funny how Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences seemed like a  ground breaking discovery at the time in the early eighties  when his first book Frames of Mind came out. Now, I think most people take it for granted. Anyone who works with kids can tell you that they are unique and that their brains are all wired differently. they also all have different strengths and challenges. Because of this instruction needs to be tailored to the students’ needs.

While reading a couple of articles on Edutopia, one of my favorite education sites, they featured a look back at Gardner’s theory. You can read the article here. One thing I found very interesting was that his interview, taken in 1997 focused on the following which still feel very relevant today:

  • On the importance of engaging students actively in what they are studying.
  • On the characteristics of student-directed learning.
  • On the theory of multiple intelligences.
  • On technology and multiple intelligences.
  • On the need for fundamental change in the curriculum.
  • On how assessment in school differs from assessment in other arenas such as sports or music.
  • On the need for a new approach to assessment in schools.
  • On what needs to happen in order that long-standing change occurs in public education.
  • Those topics above were the main focus of his interview. What I wrote in red above really resonates with me even today. Students need to like what they are doing. They have to be motivated and engaged. Providing them with some autonomy is not a bad thing, it gives them a drive to do something interesting. I also truly believe that technology has the potential to increase student achievement, but it has to be done correctly. How many times have you sat through a presentation where someone just reads the bullet points off their slide? That’s not effective use of technology. If it doesn’t enhance your objective don’t use it. But often there are many ways in which technology does. Also, the curricula needs to change to some degree. When I first started teaching, there was little time to stop and work on social-emotional skills, for example. There’s no way to teach every objective written in the standards of every discipline without finding ways to integrate. Finally, assessments need to be mostly formative: simply a snapshot of where that child is. That information should be used to then inform you how you teach that child. I think that holds true with teacher evaluations, rather than the assessment be summative, it should be formative and used for opportunities of growth.

    Below is the interview, and if you want to take a quick test to see your own learning style, you can click here. It doesn’t surprise me that intrapersonal learning is my strongest style and kinesthetic is my weakest. Years ago I  sort of wrote his theory off as something that was simply obvious, but it’s good to reflect on the past sometimes as I think I learned something this time around. This reflection on our practice will help us attend to the needs of our kids more.

    Authentic Assessment

    The second graders at my school just completed presenting their portfolios to their parents tonight. This year, I wanted the children to focus on learning and effort. When asked to select works for their portfolio that highlighted these areas, I was just delighted when so many of them had such a hard time choosing. They wanted to include everything. By the time they were done, they had scrapbooks bursting with artwork, writing samples, math problems, and much more. While these are a good place to begin, upon reflection, I need to try and tweak these to make them more meaningful. A book I just read, Student Portfolios: A Learning Tool (Lightfoot and Davidson), along with one I read a few years ago, The Portfolio Organizer (Rolheiser, Bower, Stevahn) both suggest that it is the quality of the portfolio process that can reveal progress and achievement. Key parts of the process should include:

    • establishing the overall purpose
    • selecting the type of portfolio
    • considering the audience
    • designing the criteria and selection process
    • determining the time frame
    • generating and/or choosing self reflection activities

    While we did include all of these things, I felt I rushed my kids a little in getting these put together and should really build the time throughout the year for them to self-select pieces of work and reflect on them. If done well, these pieces will also act as assessment pieces that can be used to taylor ones teaching as the year progresses. These pieces can then be used as assessment “FOR” rather than “OF” learning (Stiggins has a great book on assessment).

    Portfolios should be part of teachers’ assessment literacy. Though it was evident that parents and students had a great time, I will need to remember to have these resources out in September rather than wait until May.