Thursday, July 26, 2012

Child Forgetful, Data Foolish: Not Teaching Some

School Reform (M.A. Reilly, 5/2012)
I. The Invisibility Syndrome

There's something I've been noticing in some primary classrooms I visit: the children who are struggling the most to acquire alphabetic knowledge, to hear sounds, to remember sight words, or to apply this knowledge to actual reading are often left on their own.  You can recognize them easily as they are seated by themselves or when seated with other children they are not attending to whatever is in front of them (a book, a piece of paper).  Rather they stare.  Or they scribble.  Or they leave their seat and crawl on the floor. Now and then you will see them sitting very still almost as if their stillness might be an invisibility cloak.  Across time, it seems that if they are propped up behind a book it "counts" as reading.  Imagine what these young ones are learning about what it means to read as they sit behind texts they can't decipher and dutifully mimick what the other children do, turning pages and looking--and all the time not understanding or perhaps even knowing that understanding is a goal.

These are the children we (teachers, specialists, principals, superintendents of schools) most need to notice.

II. A Story

Pondering (M.A. Reilly, 2012)
Awhile ago I was in a classroom where a six year old sat by himself with a finger shoved through a piece of paper that he was twirling around.  The other children were seated on the classroom rug with their teacher.  The child happened to be seated at a reading table I was going to be using to model a high intensity reading lesson for the child's teacher with children who were just beginning to segment sounds and recognize letters.  I pulled out a small book and asked the child if he would like to read with me and he stopped twirling the paper.  I took that as a commitment of sorts and opened the book. 

So, we looked and talked about the pictures saying what we thought was happening in each.  I then began reading and as I did, I pointed to the words. I invited the child to point and read with me and at first he did not and then he began very, very softly to do so and to point.  I lowered my voice as I noticed he was able to read, chiming in at points of difficulty.  When we finished the book, the child told me he did not know how to read.  I explained that he had just read and did he want to do it again so he could see.  He reread the book a second time with very little support and was animated.  I happened to have a copy of the book as a flip book and showed it to him.  There was space for him to make his own illustrations and he said he would like to do this.  So as I taught a reading lesson to a few other children, he sat next to me and illustrated his story.  When he was done, I took a look and we discussed the pictures he had made. I then gave him the little book to take home to reread and to add to his home library.  I asked his teacher who the child might read the book to in the class and she quickly connected him with another child.  The two sat next to each other on the rug and read the story. When I asked the teacher about the child she said he was non-communicative and preferred to sit alone. She told me he did not want to participate.

Encounters like this give me pause. They make me wonder how it is permissible for a child to attend school and not be included, not be overtly taught.  How is it we misread such situations?  If this was one classroom and one story, it would still be wrong--but it is not an isolated tale.  The very children who need the most from us and need it consistently are often the ones who receive the least or when taught are relegated to the teaching assistant instead of the teacher.  Is it any wonder that across the country there are children turning 8, 9, 10 and 11 years old who cannot decipher or encode simple sentences. Who among us would not be 'impaired' by such treatment?

III. Counting without Reason

Stopped (M.A. Reilly, 6/2012)
In the mad rush to accumulate 'data' about children, I wonder if our failure to be more discerning and economical about what we value doesn't obscure the classroom landscape so that the very children we need to understand are situated as another set of figures in an already too large set.  Does counting children's assessment results oddly dismiss our responsibility to teach them?  Among the masses, the strugglers get missed or dismissed.
Sometimes when I talk with principals they want to share student achievement successes their students are experiencing.  These stories are grand and important and a pleasure to hear.  But the relative success of a school cannot be measured using only a part of the whole.  How focused are we on the silent children?  The children left alone?  The children whose progress appears stalled or perhaps not even started? 

I once worked in a district where the number of young people scoring 3 and higher on AP tests was well celebrated by superintendent and the Board, while those not completing high school were less discussed--less visible--even at times rationalized.  Practices such as forgetting the very struggling children in order to attend more directly to "those on the cusp" of passing the state test was becoming accepted practice at earlier and earlier grade levels. I know this system is not the only one where such actions are occurring.  I have even heard of these practices being touted as test smart practices--of ways to beat the test.  The only things "being beaten" are the children we allow to be forgotten, sacrificed. Does this administrative attitude set the stage for the teacher to forget some of the children in the classroom? Does it fuel the belief that there are children who cannot learn?  Does it work to undermine our own confidence to teach all?

IV. A Confession of Sorts

Here's what I want you to know though: in every classroom, the child who is struggling can and does make progress as a reader and/or writer when provided a mix of direct instruction and experiential learning that is consistently offered.  I don't want to suggest the nature of this work is easy--as it is not. I have found that it helps to have a partner to discuss the theories being formed about the work and the children's learning for this is complex work and as such, the way is nomadic.  There is no finished map someone can give you,  common core included, although there are other journeys you can study if so inclined. 

The made journey with others offers the most significant possibilities for deep learning.

The drive to make sense of the struggle and to build a bridge between what children know and need to know is powerful, demanding and enticing.  We are bound to make errors, lose our way,  and regroup.  We will be imperfect.  But know this:  It is this drive that education reform must produce and nurture.  Everything else misses the proverbial mark.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Thinking about Young Learners and iPads

Last week I was modeling a specific type of early literacy lesson with two young children who are entering second grade and whose letter identification skills are quite poor.  Neither can identify by sound, word or name most of the letters. For one child the lesson resonated and she made steady improvement exiting reading a very early text with one-to-one matching and identifying and writing letters.  For the other child, she continued to struggle throughout the lesson and demonstrated what appeared to be an inability to actually write many letters even with a model in front of her and to have confusion about letter direction.  For example, one task she did was to put together a name puzzle.  The name was her own and she had an envelope that had her name on it as a reference if needed.  She did put all of the letters in correct order, but half were upside down.  When I had her check, she was able to correct the direction issues by checking her work against the model.

This is a 20-minute lesson that asks children to:
  1. match a handful of magnetic letters to an alphabet card
  2. rearrange a name puzzle
  3. sort pictures by initial sound (two sounds are used)
  4. look through a very early reader and tell what is happening on each page, chorally read the text, and then try reading it on their own with my support
  5. participate in a brief interactive writing task and help to write a sentence related to the letter, sound, and book tasks
After the lesson, the principal and teacher who were observing and I discussed what we thought might be happening and what next steps to take. As we were talking I remembered that I had an iPad with me and loaded on it were two apps that are excellent for letter tracing and connecting letters and sounds. Although the child yawned mightily throughout the earlier lesson, I wondered how she might fare doing similar tasks but doing them on an iPad.

Screenshot from Alphabet Tracing app.
I asked the child if she would be interested in trying letter tracing on an iPad. She had never seen an iPad before (nor had any of the children in the classroom), but she was eager to try. I opened Alphabet Tracing, a free app, and showed her how it worked, which took less than a minute. She began to trace letters not paying attention to the guide as she worked.  I showed her letter formation (directionality to start) and pointed out the train that showed which way to trace on the guide letter.  She noticed it but did not pay attention to it.

After several letters she hit the back key and returned the beginning of the alphabet.  This time, I could see that she was watching the train to see what direction she should move her finger.  She was able to trace more than half of the letters by checking the reference and then copying it.  What felt significant is that she worked independently for about 15 minutes and was very successful. When she next looked up, I asked her if she would like to try a different letter tracing app that would ask her to say the sound of the letter as she traced and the letter name.  She said yes and I opened Intro to Letters (Montessori). In using this app, she learned that she needed to closely approximate the outline of the letter in order to be successful.  She quickly acclimated and was saying the letter sound, name and tracing it like a pro. She worked steadily for another 15 minutes completely focused on the tasks and met with much success.

I had a letter tracing book (upper and lowercase alphabet & picture) with me and asked her if she would like me to leave it so she could practice tracing using the book.  She said she would.

I am still thinking about the lesson, her response to it and her subsequent work using an iPad.  I am not sure what to make of all of it, really.  I will see her again this coming week and look forward to seeing what next occurs. Will keep you posted.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

"When I Make Art My Head Gets Calm"

I. An Art Story

I entered a second grade classroom today and witnessed a boy hit another child and yell when his group moved away from him.  The teacher, an experienced and excellent one, was engaged with 6 or 7 children at the time and hearing the outburst said to the boy, "Come and read with me. We'll work together."

The boy, though, was having none of that as he too was hurt as the group members had moved away from him and one had said he said a curse word which he was vehemently denying. He told the teacher no and began to run from her.   I gathered from the teacher's look and a quick exchange that the outburst and what one might read as defiance was more common than not.  I asked the child what his name was and he said, Charlie (pseudonym) and I introduced myself.  I then asked what work he needed to do.  He shook his head and ran from where I was standing.  I sat next to his desk and he quickly sidled over and when I asked if he had a notebook he said yes and took it out to show me.  I asked if he had a pencil and he said yes again and again pulled it out of his desk and showed me.  I asked if he liked to draw and he asked me if I did and I told him, 'Yes, I like to make art.' He told me he liked to 'make art' too.
Can you make a daisy? he asked.
Can you make it in my book? he asked opening his notebook. As he handed me the pencil he cautioned:  Be careful with the pencil, it's my last sharpened one.
I drew a daisy on one page and he drew an approximation of what I had drawn on the next page.  We went back and forth this way drawing a daisy,  a daisy caught in a fence, and a sky with clouds and sun--all things he had determined. He did not copy what I drew, but improvised.

Oddly, we seemed to be having a conversation as we traded images back and forth.

It was then that I recalled taking a picture of a daisy with my phone and pulled out the phone and asked if he wanted to see a photo of a daisy.  He was eager to and as we scrolled through images in the photo stream, he indicated which ones he wanted to see. For the next 10 minutes he would select an image and then create a version of it in his notebook.

The whole time Charlie worked he stood or leaned on his desk. Sometimes he looked like he was dancing as he put his whole body into his drawing.  For example when he had selected an image of a tree in fog, he made very light pencil strokes across the page and as he worked he narrated.
This is like fog. See it's light. I made the pencil light. 
The images he selected were interesting to me.  For example, he came upon a photograph of a red square and was captivated.  We talked about how making that image in pencil might not work as well and so we found a red magic marker and he made a large red square in his notebook.  This was followed by a black rectangle and an orange square.  I asked him if he liked the look of the blocks of color and he said he did.

I then pulled up a few images by Mark Rothko.  He wanted to see who the artist was so we looked at a photo of the artist and then spent the next five minutes looking at Rothko paintings--images he looked at with great intensity.

As we were making art a child Charlie had the altercation with came over and told Charlie that he was sorry for telling the teacher that Charlie had said a curse word when he hadn't. Charlie said he was sorry for hitting him. As Charlie's classmates made their way to the rug, I asked Charlie if he felt he could rejoin his class.  He told me not yet and continued to look at the Rothko paintings.
"I like these," he told me and then indicated one of the paintings he wanted to make.
He asked if I might start the drawing as he couldn't see it all.
I know it's not just red. You see, he said pointing to the edge of the work. But I can't figure it out.
You're right, it isn't a solid color, but a mixture of colors.  That's good noticing. 
I started and Charlie finished the work. He began what was his last drawing and said he was going to make it gold, not the colors Rothko used.
It's better this way.
When he completed the drawing he indicated that he was ready to rejoin his classmates and said,
I figured this out. When I make art my head gets calm.
Sounds like a good thing to know, I told him and watched as he took himself and his drawing to the rug.

II. Planning

When I was designing the summer literacy project, I did not imagine Charlie.  And frankly that's a problem. I wonder how many developers ever conjure Charlie when designing.  While Charlie's peers were working cooperatively to answer text-dependent questions based on a read aloud, Charlie was making his head calm.  I think about the grand schemes and plans that get made (like the one I did) and how the lived moments in the classroom must trump the pre-made plans. This is important to know, especially for administrators who often are entering into a scene already underway. 
With what eyes do we read this scene?   
What has happened before our arrival?  
Imagining the beginning coinciding with our arrival is to be mistaken.  We are always entering into a lived space.  Some caution is needed in order to recognize how partial our undertsanding of what we are seeing actually is.

Whereas many school officials are placing emphasis on CCSS-inspired tasks, we need to make sure that there is enough room for the teacher and the child to detour from the made plan.  This is so very important and once again highlights the necessity of teacher and child agency.  I think of this as in some districts, teachers are required to copy the standard(s) they are attending to on the board for other adults and/or children to view.  I'm sure this is well intended, but do wonder who is being served by this structure and what then might an outsider make of Charlie and his drawings. Is there enough room for novel learning in the classroom based on external standards?

There are all kinds of things to learn and I couldn't help but think that Charlie's insight was far more critical than responding to a text dependent question based on a read aloud.  I'm curious as to how you read it.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Let's Not Mistake DRA-2 For Reading Knowledge

1st grader reading a book about different types of farms.
I wonder if the singular use of the Developmental Reading Assessment 2 (DRA-2) as the sole reading assessment at some schools doesn't inadvertently contribute to reading difficulties. I wonder this not because there is something right or wrong with the assessment, but rather because over reliance on a single measure seems to also be a substitute for the necessary and critically important knowledge primary grade teachers must cultivate in order to best match children with books that are easy, instructional, and challenging to read.  Instead of understanding that reading levels are at best an approximation of what children might be able to read, I am seeing evidence that the DRA score is taken so literally that it determines what level books to put in the hands of the child.  As reading performance is influenced by prior knowledge, item knowledge (sight words, vocabulary, strategies), and interest--a single reading level can largely be erroneous, especially when determined using a single measure. Some district's use of the DRA-2 is replacing teacher know-how with the 'proven test.'  And this is a tragic mistake. The teacher must be able to determine which books in whose hands make sense.  One tool to do that is a DRA-2.  Additionally, teachers need to generate other methods to determine how they will help to grow early readers.

The DRA-2 is a standardized reading test.  According to the Pearson website, the DRA 2:
"provides teachers with a proven diagnostic reading assessment that not only establishes each student’s reading level but also gives the teacher a Focus for Classroom Instruction designed to assist students’ progression to the next reading level.
  • Students and teachers meet in a one-on-one conference – giving the teacher invaluable insight as to each student’s strengths and weaknesses
  • Progress Monitoring now included! Teachers are now able to monitor progress during a brief conference with struggling readers, providing a great tool to measure the effectiveness of current intervention strategies
  • DRA2’s assessment of reading comprehension is the most extensive of any assessment; truly designed to provide teacher’s guidance in pinpointing areas of need"
1st graders talking.
While the DRA 2 might complement a teacher's knowledge about students, it cannot be a substitution for the necessary knowledge.   Teaching reading rests in teachers' hands, especially for the challenged reader. 

A second concern with exclusively using the DRA-2 is that it is not a sensitive measure for a lot of the prerequisite knowledge necessary for reading, specifically phonological and alphabetic knowledge.  Knowing a child's reading performance was scored Level A does not allow a teacher to better understand what a child can do and what that child needs to learn. Knowing the oral reading rate, oral reading accuracy, and comprehension skills are important, but at the early levels of reading there are more critical skills to be developed. The DRA Word Analysis test does provide potential information about phonological awareness, metalanguage, letter/word recognition, phonics and structural analysis.  Again though, the teacher needs to understand what those aspects of reading mean.  Knowing how to conduct the assessment and follow the directions is not an apt substitute for deep knowledge about children and reading.The cost for these two assessments per classroom is a little less than $500.00. 

What is a concern is that the purchase of both kits does not ensure good, let alone great, reading instruction.  Great reading instruction needs a teacher especially for youngsters who are experiencing difficulty. A good test for districts is to ensure that all primary grade teachers are knowledgeable and practiced at assessing early readers with and without kits. 

"I love fish. They are great and awesome." 1st grader's journal.
When I want to better understand a young reader I tend to do a few things:

  1. I like to observe the child and see what he or she is interested in and curious about as he/she plays and often will join the child as a participant/observer as this stance allows me to better understand not only what the child has learned, but also what the child is on the cusp of learning (think Vygotsky's ZPD). Watching a child at play allows me to see how the child problem solves at points of difficulty, how the child establishes goals, and the skill level in physical play. It also often provides me a context in which to engage the child in conversation.
  2. I talk with the child and also listen as the child talks with another child.  Oral language is the foundation upon which reading rests.  How articulate is the child?  Marie Clay's Record of Oral Language is an excellent resource and it will cost you $15.00 instead of $500.00. Further instead of just learning how to administer and score an assessment, Clay's text will provide important background information.  It is a professional text.
  3. I also appreciate taking a look at what the child has produced as 'written' text.  When I think of written text, I specifically am interested in the generation of image, letter, words, phrases, and sentences. I am interested in seeing what language the child can produce that is correct and approximate. Again Marie Clay's Becoming Literate is a deep resource that can help a teacher understand development. Understanding what is meant by inner strategic control is of critical importance.  A study group of kindergarten and first grade teachers reading Becoming Literate is an antidote to reading failure. 
  4. Last thing I tend to do is to read with the child.  Like a DRA system, I pull together a collection of books that have been leveled and engage the child in reading some of these texts.  What is different though about my pulled together collection of books and a DRA 2 is that my collection of books is based on what I have observed about the child and choice in text is offered right from the beginning as I have controlled for level.  Choice in text is so very important.  
My son pretending to be an astronaut.
Once when I was making a film about administering the DRA (for graduate students who were becoming reading specialist), I asked my son (he was 6 at the time) to help me by allowing me to administer a DRA on video tape. What happened is important. His first grade teacher had indicated at conference time that Dev was at DRA level 4 and she was sure that was a mistake, but that was what the test indicated.  It was fall of first grade (Thanksgiving time) and my son allowed me to administer two DRA texts while being videotaped.  That day he read text level 6 and text level 8 DRA books at an instructional level.  He was able to retell the stories (such as they are) and concluded that he did not like either as they didn't seem to make a lot of sense.  He asked if we could stop and instead read picture books like The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq. He said to me, "I want to read books like we do at bedtime, Mommy."  Later that day, I was in the kitchen making dinner and I overheard my son who was sitting next to his grandmother ask her if she wanted to hear a story. She said, yes and he read The Berenstain Bears Play T-Ball (a text level 16 book) with fluency and nary an error. 

So what was happening?  How might a child score at 4, 6, 8, and 16 within the space of a couple of days? Like many first graders, my son had holes in his item knowledge.  He knew many sight words, but was missing some key ones which held him back on measures like the DRA.  He also was motivated to read the Berenstain Bear's book, had familiarity with the book and with T-Ball and wanted to please his grandmother. These factors influenced his performance.  We did a little at home work on sight words, and by the next month he was reading with confidence and considerable skill.

None of the tasks or DRA assessments on their own provided a clear picture of what my son knew, what knowledge he was approximating, and which of those things might be most important.  Piecing that together required a knowledgeable adult, not a test.  So whereas the DRA 2 might provide interesting and perhaps even important information, it is the teacher who needs to translate the findings, especially contrary findings, into actions.

Young readers would be better off if school district's invested $500 in professional learning, rather than in tests.

Monday, July 16, 2012

In Response to Karen LaBonte's Students' Inquiries...

The Alphabet is No Language
Karen LaBonte (@klbz) had included a piece of art I had posted on my blog last week as a text for students in her course, Literacies and Technologies in the Secondary English Classroom, to read.  She included the image on a wiki and then she and students conversed about the text using at least one format (google doc) that she then invited me in to read and to respond. So I thought I would post a response here and perhaps, extend the conversation. 

"The Alphabet is No Language" is a piece I have been working on (& avoiding) for some time. I often do not understand what I am making, but somehow when I slid the man on the bike into the foreground it felt complete--as if the man, who just happens by, bears witness to that which cannot be coded alphabetically.  (...think e. e cummings:  since feeling is first...) He had this WWI feel to him and I still don't know why that might be important, but it is.

I hoped the work might say something to you about the many ways that form (in)forms meaning--conditions it so to speak.  We spend considerable time at school privileging written texts and this overemphasis gives me pause.

There are some things in life for which the alphabet is no language. 

Years ago when I was writing an ethnography about young women who hailed from rural communities and attended a local community college, I met Fran. In receipt of welfare payments, each woman, like Fran, was obligated to attend school and none had been able to exit the remedial program regardless of the attempts they had made to pass the composition test.  At the time I was at Columbia working on my dissertation and was deeply steeped in all things Bakhtin.  And so when Fran, a 20 something year old mom, told me that every bit of bad news she ever received came in the form of writing,
                         her words

gave me

                   I dwelled in words and in ignorance.  Imagine, I had not considered how written text might injure--might kill.   I had been a high school English teacher at that point for more than a decade. I knew so little.

Words had been a significant source of pain for Fran. From eviction notices to court judgments to divorce decrees to teachers' notes sent home with her son--formal written text tended to reinforce difference, strip her of agency, situate her as less than, take advantage of her. 

Like Fran already knew, I too have come to understand that at times, words fail and I look for other ways to sign.

Here's an important moment from 1965 that has such relevance in these CCSS-times.  Then Ludwig von Bertalanffy wrote:
[i]f the meaning of Goethe's Faust, of Van Gogh's landscapes, or Bach's Art of the Fugue could be transmitted in discursive terms, their authors should and would not have bothered to write poems, paint, or compose, but would rather have written scientific treatises (p. 41)
Hmm. We need to expand out notions of composition to include multiple language systems.  Expression matters in and out of English class.  I like to think of transmediation as the work of English teachers. Expression opens possibilities, yes?

(Salton Sea, M.A. Reilly, 2010)
I had come through the desert with my friend Celeste and we came upon a town that had been deserted. The buildings stood.  It was a flat space with hundreds of telephone poles standing with wires strung between them.  And yet, there were no people--no reason for any of those wires to hum.

This place stood right at the edge of the Salton Sea. The memory of it haunted me until I could express it and then haunted me in new ways.

Meaning happens between and among us.  I think Rosenblatt was so right about the poem and how meaning is made between a text and its reader. We cannot forget that, especially as English teachers working in these times.

And so, sometimes I make art.


Work Cited

v. Bertalanffy, L. (1965).On the definition of symbol. In J. R. Royce (Ed.). Psychology and the
(pp. 26–72). New York: Random House

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Limitations of Language

Thinking about the limitations of language.

The Alphabet Is No Language. (M.A. Reilly, 2012)

Interactive Read Aloud: Dwelling, Talking, Feeling & Thinking

When I designed the Newark Public Schools' summer school literacy project for children in primary grades, I gave a lot of thought about how to infuse high quality text into that experience and decided to emphasize the daily interactive read aloud as one important component of the daily learning.  Because I am also teaching and coaching in the project, I have the satisfaction of not only designing, but also seeing that work interpreted and enacted with children.  I knew without a doubt that I would learn so much and that this partnership would give rise to questions, wonderings, and theories about teaching and learning. I have not been disappointed as I have seen super work being done with regard to vocabulary and text response and this work has prompted my thinking.

Because most of the read aloud texts are meant to be read across multiple days as well as reread, I imagined that teachers might chart the wonderings of students as they talked and might let sit a question of two across several days:  a question that the teacher and students would revisit as they reread a given text.  Unfortunately, I failed to make that clear in the guide I wrote and so I might be most responsible for what I perceive as an absence.  It is the dwelling in ideas that matter so.

Child's response to what happens at the beginning of The Firekeeper's Son.
In correspondence with coaches who are supporting teachers and students in the project, I asked them to be mindful of the presence of student talk and to support teachers in ensuring that children have lots of opportunities to talk about what they are hearing, seeing, feeling and thinking.  Whereas there is a good deal of turning and talking among the youngest children, there seems to be less of this being done with the older children.  Alongside this emphasis of student talk, I also wanted to convey to coaches and teachers that interpreting and evaluating text often requires enough space for learners to dwell, not to simply respond.   In many ways that space is a placeholder for Louise Rosenblatt's concept of poem: the transaction a reader and text create.  A challenge with text-dependent questions is that they are often efferent and can be 'answered' definitively.  Whereas understanding literal details is important, so too are interpretive and evaluative queries and certainly text dependent questions can also lead to interpretation and evaluation.  It is these latter ways of thinking about text that I want to suggest make for good potential places for dwelling. When I rehearse teaching in my mind,  I imagine saying to children: "This is a question we may not answer and one that we will need to think about across the next few days. I'm going to leave it printed here on our chart so that we can think about it when we're not reading the book. Then when we revisit the question we can see if we have any new ideas and questions." 

I am going to be paying attention to dwelling in text as I make my way through the next week with the teachers and children.  I hope to post another blog in which I follow children's lines of thought that happen apart from the read aloud text and yet is connected to it.

Thinking beyond the read aloud time about the text is an important goal.

Here are some of the texts children are hearing and interacting with this summer.


First Grade
Illustration by Edel Rodriguez from Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx.

Second Grade
Claire Nivola's illustration from Life in the Ocean.
Ida B. Wells by Stephen Alcorn from Let It Shine.

Third Grade

Friday, July 13, 2012

Cue the Rhizome: A Post-Better World

Pershing Square (M.A. Reilly, 2010)
So I was reading Will Richardson's latest post, Redefine Better in which he quotes from Umair Haque's recent HBR column, Declare Your Radicalness:
But to do it, we can't merely call for a set of broken institutions to work slightly better, to restore the present to the state of the past. We've got to redefine better; to redesign the future.
I read the column next and both Will's post and Umair's column got me thinking about what some of the conditions of a redefined better might be.  A quick thought that emerged is that perhaps a central tenet of a post-better world is that institutions can no longer be positioned as being containable--as being able to be represented as a single set. The idea that there is a set called school needs to be rethought. If we are continuously trying to make that set better, we will never find ourselves very far from the boundaries that have limited our vision.  Operating within the narrow little box we have called school, will at best get us surface changes as the borders will remained fixed and with them the opportunities to rethink, re-imagine, and express our radicalness.

This is a chief difference between understanding power as epic hierarchy and conceptualizing power as possibility that is rhizomatic. The old order that Umair writes about can be nothing more than an epic construct.  Think Race to the Top.  Is it nothing more than a new NCLB?  The old order is by definition and function: untouchable, self contained, closed.  It derives and maintains power by adhering to these very attributes.  So when Will writes about the need to think of different, not better schools--I begin to see this challenge visually, as closed sets no longer work.  

Declaring our radicalness begins with understanding that the way we have progressed--the very place where you can still almost see your breath--does not offer a viable method of continuing and must be boldly abandoned.  The set we call school is broken.   Reassembling those pieces into fixed re-presentations is a losing method.  Looking beyond that set is a worthy task that many are doing.

Cue the rhizome.

         the set.
Boldly step
                  into new definitions of learning

(that are not sanctioned by governments, municipalities, fortune 500 types).

It is not a big engine we need to make such movement.  Rather it is the anti-big engine powered by you, me, the guy over there, the child with an idea, the artist with a brush, the woman with a storefront, the connected group that meets, the happenstance we cannot predict.

It is about expression that pulls others to it,  not out of coercion like NCLB and RTtT, but out of desire.

Instead of a single place called school that is reiterated, imagine multi-expressions of learning that cannot be contained: we are a river that overflows, recedes, breaks, moves on and over.

Imagine a bit.

And then let's see how we might connect and break along the way.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Preventing Reading Difficulty: Key Work for Principals


Today I taught a dozen children and all learned. This was no small feat. The children had little sight word knowledge, an absence of phonological strategies, difficulty blending sounds of single syllable words, did not know short vowels sounds and in some cases could not recognize any vowels, had no automaticity in writing their name or in identifying letters and demonstrated ways (some were quite clever) to avoid attending to reading tasks. The avoidance struck me as a sign of intelligence as the amount of work it takes to try to read when you cannot decode or identify by sight most of the words is enormous.  Such struggle undermines confidence, reduces will, and often leaves the child (and sometimes his/her teacher) with the belief that "this child can't." It was humbling to see how hard these little ones were willing to work.

If these children were five, I would feel less anxious.  But these children are at least 8 and will begin third grade in the fall.  The expectations of not only reading, but reading grade level text with integrity, is significant.

The positive news is that each child made important progress during the high intensity, small group literacy lessons that incorporate talking, reading, letter/sound/word work, and writing.  All of the children were able to make progress on the very things they initially struggled with and they exited the lesson knowing they could learn the very things they struggled to know.  It baffles me that any child could attend school for three years (and given the mandatory preschool--closer to four or five years) and demonstrate such impoverished literacy knowledge.  When the, come, here, and are represent unknown words and you are 8-years-old living in the United States something is very wrong.

Preventing reading difficulties is doable. Intervening is also doable, and more challenging.  These students' teacher watched as I taught each group and then we debriefed discussing what we noticed and the next steps we would take.  The materials to take those next steps are in place. I'll be returning tomorrow to squeeze in two quick lessons with the same children before working in the classroom next to this one and will be drawing in others from my company to work at this site during the next four weeks.  We will work together with the principal and the staff to help the children build critical skills, confidence, and know-how and if parents are willing, I will work with them as well via a brief workshop.

We will not do enough, though.

When the children return to their sending schools, a nexus of support will be needed.  Although I will describe the children's accomplishments and try to name the nature of the supports they will need to make progress--some of these children will return to schools that have not served them well and my words will certainly not be enough. What the children will need mostly will largely be a matter of great leadership.

So much rests in the principal's hands.


At the elementary level, principals hold in their hands--kids' futures.  We often talk about the importance of the teacher and I don't doubt that for a minute, but we also need to talk about the enormous responsibility that rests in principals' hands. With that in mind, I offer a few things principals can do to lead and support literacy learning at their sites:

1. Silence is not golden. Silence is a killer. The development of reading is connected to the development of oral language. Allowing children to sit 'quietly' with folded hands in classroom after classroom for hours is wrong whether they are 5 or 15.  Learners need to talk, especially when they think they have nothing to say.  Insist on a gregarious literacy that is noisy, physical and joyful. Children should be able to move, at will.

Pictured here are some transformed oil pans and Jeff Williamson, a kindergarten teacher from Newark, NJ (image to the right) who uses these with his students to build requisite literacy knowledge.  It is not only the manipulation of letters that matters here, but all the languaging that accompanies the children's work. The agency that gets built alongside the alphabetic knowledge is critical. Insist that children talk, a lot--often.

Look to see how teachers are scaffolding children's talk. Notice what structures teachers have taught students so that their classroom talk can be fruitful.  Support teachers if having gregarious literacy practices is frightening or new for them.  Look to see if there is any time for children to talk without the overlay of a teacher's agenda.  Both are important types of talk: structured and unstructured.

Sit in and listen to the children--the paper work will keep.  Notice how lateral talk among learners produces different types of learning than the talk directed by the teacher.  Both are vital. Share your observations with the teacher. Put on a researcher's cap.

2. Be an Active Learner & Observe.  Curiosity is prompted by partial knowing.  What we don't know is cause for celebration as it allows us the opportunity to learn and build knowledge with others. The greatest damage I see is in schools where the principal blindly follows rules and implements what he or she does not understand even when the faculty tells the principal, This Doesn't Make Sense.  The level of error is often so high that actual damage is done.  The best advice I was given was to observe in the classroom of a teacher who understood what I was trying to learn.  The partnership that grew out of that act was more important than the specific learning that took place.  I also would advise in larger systems where there are multiple principals, to buddy with another principal you admire and want learn from and with.  In the summer project I am doing now there is a principal who has established a summer school guided literacy room for book loaning and has designed centers for and with teachers.  This type of know-how is so valuable. If you are not knowledgeable about teaching literacies, find a colleague (real and/or virtual) who can help you and get connected

3. Study What Matters & Do So with Others. Routinely study evidence of children's learning that most matter and discuss those findings with others. Make meaning together (you, teachers, students, and parents) as well as plans to intervene and then carry them out, revising as needed. Some years ago I designed a preventing reading difficulties project for a school system and then worked with them full time during the implementation year. We used Marie Clay's Observation Survey tasks as important measures that were set at the highest levels  as a goal aiming for at least 95% of all first graders in the district to meet those benchmarks.  We excluded no one. 97% of the children met or exceeded the benchmarks and the remaining 3% made good progress. One reason that the project was so successful was that principals paid attention to meaningful data. When measuring children's early literacy development, what is meaningful data changes across time. Instead of relying solely on DRA scores which often do not measure important foundational skills, these principals paid attention to observation notes of reading and writing behaviors, letter and sound knowledge, interviews with children, teachers' observations and insights, children's book choices, as well as children's sight word knowledge, writing products, and informal continuous reading records.  These measures mattered in different ways and at different times for the children and both the children and the teachers informed what mattered most. Relying on a single measure is not helpful and can lead to faulty practices occurring as teachers scramble to 'make' children reach the single benchmark.  Because both principals and teachers were attentive to each child and his/her progress, additional/refined resources were added as needed.

4.  Don't mistake surface concerns for root issues. Surface concerns take up a lot of time in poorly managed organizations and talking about them takes up any remaining time. I once worked in an organization where the district's leaders would meet every morning over coffee to discuss 'pressing' issues. When I first joined the group, I showed up with a laptop. I noticed quickly that nary a pen or paper made it to these meetings. The discussion rarely left the surface and all seemed quite content to stay mired in the unimportant.

Root issues are difficult as they often require us to be vulnerable and in such a state allow us to see how we are involved in a problem. For example, at the school level, we sometimes here adults say, These children can't... It is so important for principals to not accept such language as it is often code for:
We don't know if we can adequately teach the children. 
We don't know if we can lead this effort.  
We don't know what to do for our own children. 
Attend to the root issue: Our knowledge. Our confidence. Our commitment.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Sample Guided Literacy Lessons for Emergent, Early & Transitional Readers

I created a collection of sample guided literacy lessons (guided reading, phonics and writing) using Jan Richardson's templates for emergent, early and transitional readers. All of the books are from Lee & Low Book Publishers. Please note these are sample lessons.  You would adjust the lessons to meet the specific needs  of your students.

You can access a pdf or word doc version of the lessons here. (Note: The link will connect you to a Blueprints for Learning Ning I have created for the early literacy project I have designed and am participating in this summer in for a public school system in New Jersey.)

It is the combination of reading, related phonics, and writing in response to the text that helps to strengthen young readers foundational skills.  It is not a matter of choosing one of the three.  Together, the guided reading, letter/sound/word work, and writing helps youngsters:
  • to cross check at points of need, 
  • to develop visual memory of words, 
  • to read fluently, 
  • to problem solve as readers & writers, 
  • to develop inner control of these processes so that they become stronger and more confident readers.

Monday, July 9, 2012

What Rest in Our Hands

From here.
The Chatter

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and how teacher, administrator, board member, professor, consultant and publisher interpret the CCSS is particularly important.  I am already hearing statements and directives like these:
  1. The way for our kids to be CCSS-ready is to fill the classroom with informational text. That's our priority: Buy books.
  2. I told my teachers, 'No pre-reading. It's a waste of time. No one cares how you feel.'
  3. Let's based our curriculum on products. The Board has determined that there will be no curriculum writing until after we've purchased CCSS-aligned materials. Teachers are to teach these materials.
  4. Our students need to practice writing arguments. I don't want to see any narrative writing hanging up.
  5. Argumentative writing is the same thing as persuasive writing. I don't see what the big deal is.
  6. The only way for our students to be CCSS-ready is for us to make sure we have them read only grade-appropriate books. Nothing easy.
  7. We're not sure what text complexity means, so we're only using the text exemplars for what we teach.
  8. No feeling questions. Just text-dependent questions. 
  9. We're getting a jump on the CCSS by making sure we are emphasizing information books. No story books.
  10. Teachers are not allowed to read aloud to students. We need to stop doing their work.
  11. The 5 W's are text dependent questions: Who, What, Where, When and Why.
  12. Our kids must read like detectives and write like investigative reporters. That's our curriculum and our approach.
  13. All lesson plans will be reviewed to see that only close reading is being done. 
  14. We need to get kids ready for the test so they will take a CCSS exam every x weeks (insert: 2, 4, 6, 8, or 10).
  15. Stop asking students what they think.  It's not about their thinking. It's about the evidence in the text.
  16. I teach only academic vocabulary. That's what is most important.
  17. It's what the text says that is important.  We need to focus on that. What does the text say? Can you point to it?
  18. This CCSS is a fad.  I try not to get too worked up when something 'new' comes along. I just close my door and teach.
  19. Why are we following the ideas of someone who has never taught?
  20. We allow students to only read challenging books.
  21. These kids can't pass the old state test.  This new test will just put them further behind.
  22. Close reading will hurt children. We need to stop this.
  23. Kids need to have better vocabularies.  We need to buy vocabulary workbooks.  That's how I learned.
  24. I didn't read the CCSS, but I did skim it and I think...
  25. CCSS is just a way for publishers to make money. Nothing in it is any good.
  26. Where's the evidence? If I have to do CCSS-based teaching I want to know where is the evidence that supports these approaches?
As I listened to these statements and directives being uttered, I wondered if the focus on reading method and writing products which have garnered so much attention doesn't oddly limit learner potential--not because CCSS is 'good or bad", but more so because such talk signals an absence of agency and will.  Across the 30 years I've taught--matters of method and product have occupied large portions of debate--often obfuscating personal and professional responsibilities by substituting choosing sides for exercising one's agency and responsibility.

We are what we do.

We can't forget that as discussions about CCSS occur.  What is it that we do each day in our respective work?  How does what we repeatedly do matter?  To whom?

Getting Beneath Method

From here.
In the CCSS, close reading is a method referred to when reading narrative and informational texts. Garnering evidence from the text is clearly privileged in the CCSS and most likely in the testing that will accompany the CCSS (PARCC and  Smarter Balance). Close reading is a term most associated with New Criticism--an Anglo-American literary theory from the last century that emphasized the belief that meaning exists on the page. For such a stance, it is the reading of the text that must be privileged, with less emphasis on the author and the reader's experience. Close reading locates the text as self-sufficient and meaning is made through careful attention to language and text structure. Garnering evidence by reading and rereading a text so as to notice textual details, language, patterns, and structure represents important ways of coming to understand.

To make meaning, attention to a text is important, and so too is attention to author and reader.  The biographical, historical, ideological, and sociocultural contexts in which a work was penned and is read inform the meaning that is made. It is the reader who makes sense of a text's language and structure and it is his/her experiences, schema, knowledge of textual strategies and the context in which the reading occurs that will each inform the meaning that is made. It is not one of these: text, author, and reader which is most important, but rather complex readings occur when reader intention is purposeful and knowledgeable. There is no escaping one's prior knowledge, regardless of ideology.  Our prior knowledge informs the understandings we construct for simple and complex texts.  Reading and rereading the text is not sufficient for making rich understandings when the requisite prior knowledge is poor. No matter how many times one rereads, the absence of relevant prior knowledge will limit meaning and/or help the reader produce misreadings.

What Do We Need to Ask Regardless of Method & Product?

Out Walking (M.A. Reilly, 2010)
Learning how to read well and with authority is not simply a matter of knowing reading methods and processes, just as writing arguments is not simply a matter of knowing form. For many learners, sensitive and responsive teaching is necessary.  We may need to see/hear/sense how.  We may need to be coached.  We may need to find our own methods. We may need to try and refine our attempts.  We may need to cooperate with others.  Alongside these actions an attentive teacher can be essential.

How attentive are we?  To what are we attentive? In what ways are we knowledgeable?  No amount of described learner outcomes can substitute for what we attend to and how we understand. That rests in our hands.

Some questions to consider (generated in a random manner and hardly complete):
  1. How do we actively theorize based on what we perceive learners know, misunderstand and fail to know when engaged in making meaning and when we observe and evaluate learners' expressions of that meaning? 
  2. How often are learners' opinions sought when designing lessons, programs and policies?
  3. In the places where we work, who are producers? Curators? Receivers? Are we inclusive?
  4. What do we do when we are confronted with not understanding how, what or why learners' are progressing and/or failing to progress? 
  5. Is saying we don't know allowable where we work?
  6. How do we understand the complexity inherent in the acquisition of reading/writing processes and problem framing/solving strategies?
  7. Are we published and/or is our work exhibited?  Do we make anything? Do we apply this knowledge to our work?
  8. Do we participate in active learning beyond our workplace?
  9. Which of our assumptions about knowing, teaching, learning and doing do we question?  What does that look like and lead to?
  10. What is our commitment to learning? 
  11. What is our commitment to learning with developed and emerging technologies? 
  12. When we don't understand a teaching/learning procedure or practice, do we seek to understand what or why rather than acceding to just getting x done?
  13. Do our decisions and practices telegraph that getting done is more important than understanding?
  14. Are learners' achievement a shared responsibility?
  15. How often do we write?  
  16. How often do we read/reread?
  17. How often do we fail?
  18. How do we understand the complexity inherent in the critical application and evaluation of literacy processes and strategies?  
  19. When a learner's close reading of a text is misinformed, how do we fashion a response that will forward not only the meaning(s) that learner is making from that text, but also that learner's independence? 
  20. How do we create occasions where learners make literal, interpretive and critical understandings of text? How do we scaffold learners engaged in such work?
  21. What foundational skills are necessary for literal, interpretive, and critical understandings of text and how do we measure the presence and absence of such skills? How do we provide learners with methods to develop these skills, especially those who struggle to make meaning of simple and/or complex texts?
  22. What practices and policies do we adhere to when teaching learners who are experiencing difficulty learning?
  23. What role does vocabulary knowledge play in making meaning of text(s) and how do we provide explicit and implicit ways to grow such knowledge?
  24. What is curriculum? How is it determined?
  25. What is our personal responsibility to deepen and complicate our pedagogical and content knowledge? How are we supported?
  26. How do our budgets, practices, and policies support and/or limit learning? 
  27. Whose voice is mostly missing from the education conversations you participate in? Why?
  28. Whose voices is overly privileged in education conversations you participate in? Why?
These are a sampling of questions and ones that cannot be soothed by only attending to method.  If the CCSS represent a road map (potential or otherwise), we must also remember that we make that road by how and where we walk.

Your thoughts? Responses?

Thinking about Spaces of Permission as Curriculum

Milton Glaser says that the "most significant work comes out of misunderstanding."  Is Glaser correct?  If so, how do you grant yourself permission to dwell in problem framing and solving so that your misunderstandings can surface and be explored?  What does it mean to understand a misunderstanding?

If understanding one's misunderstandings are important, then how do you grant permission for learners you teach to do likewise?

What do these spaces of permission look and sound like?  Are spaces of permission a form of curriculum? How might you reconcile, if you can,  spaces of permission as curriculum with the CCSS?  Perhaps considering spaces of permission as descriptive curriculum and CCSS as prescriptive curriculum might be a starting point.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Video: Previewing Informational Text with Grade 2 Guided Reading Group

I was a guest for a school system in New York and I was working with second graders as their teachers watched. In this video, I introduce students to the idea of previewing text and text features (table of contents, photo) .  The texts are leveled at 16 and include fiction and informational texts.  The idea of choice is important and I wanted to demonstrate that providing students with managed choice  (teacher selects a range of texts and students preview texts and select one to read) enhances reading. This video was filmed in November. This is the students first encounter with informational text.


Saturday, July 7, 2012

Part IV Video: MTP: Solving the Mathematics Problem in Kindergarten

This is the last part of a video that was made in a wonderful kindergarten class of Margo Calderon, a public school teacher a few years ago.  This is the section of the lesson when the children solve the math problem.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Part III Video: Shared Writing: - Find Letters, Pound Syllables in Kindergarten

This video features public school teacher, Margo Calderon conducting shared writing lesson with kindergarten children in November of a school year.  In this section of the video the children find what they know (words, letters, symbols) within the message Margo has written and pound syllables.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Part II Video: MTP - Shared Writing: - Writing and Rereading the Message in Kindergarten

This video features public school educator Margo Calderon conducting shared writing with kindergarten children in November of a school year. This is a math embedded problem she does with students using CLI's Message Time Plus format. In this section of the video, Margo writes a message (Math problem) in front of the children and they reread the message.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Part 1 Video: Word Wall Dance and Short Vowel Warm-Up in Kindergarten

This video was made in the wonderful kindergarten classroom of Margo Calderon, a public school teacher, a few years ago.  This is the introduction to a shared writing activity that Margo conducts with her students in which she embeds a math message into the daily message time.  This was filmed in early November of kindergarten year. Message Time Plus was developed by CLI.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Crows Talking, Tacit Knowing

Crows Talking (M.A. Reilly, 2011)

I made the image above last summer while out walking.  A cawing, polyphonic nasal sound, caught my ear and had me turning toward it, camera lifting simultaneously, shutter whirling.  Between trees, green with summer, two crows sat on a large branch in the thick of the woods talking.  Between us: an exchange of energy. At that moment, I knew more than I could say.


Later, as I walked on I wondered if perhaps they were mates or neighbors--what they might have been talking about.  Crows, like us, are social beings.


I've always found crows fascinating: these birds whose vocal range is so significant. At 8 I entered a crow calling contest, surprising my family, as we were passing through a town and had stopped for lunch and in the town center there was a small autumn festival happening and on the posted schedule was a crow calling contest and I signed on.  My family cheered me.  I only knew the "caw-caw" of the bird and sounded it loudly--and was even more delighted to hear the other contestants make their varied sounds. They helped me to know that voice of the crow is varied, beautiful.  All the way home I looked for crows and made crow sounds.


Regardless of living in a city, suburb or rural space--crows have always been a backdrop to wherever I've lived--be it the hooded crow found in Ireland or the black crow I've come to better know here in the States.


Like the humans I joined who imitated the crow, so too have crows been known to imitate human voice. In Gifts of the Crow, John Marzluff (2012) describes a situation in which a crow rounded up local dogs by calling to the dogs in a human sounding voice, "Here, boy. Good dog." The crow lead dogs to a nearby college campus, gathering them beneath a tree. When the students let out of classes, the crow flew low with the dogs following it and their movement disrupted the students as they made their way across a large green, dislodging lunches in the process. The crow returned to eat. A trickster, for sure.

A Chance of Crows (M.A. Reilly, 2011)

Crows, like many songbirds, sing to define their territories and to attract mates.  But crows also interact with regular neighbors, engaging in sustained social relationships. 


Like crows, we too seek to make meaning--to frame and figure out problems, to talk our way in and out of ideas, hunches, and relationships.


Do birds dream?  Songbirds, like crows, do. They rehearse their songs in sleep.

On birds and dreaming: "During undisturbed sleep...The neurons spontaneously fired the same complex song production patterns in bursts. Interestingly, these activity patterns were at slight variance, as if the bird was rehearsing a variety of slightly different songs, sometimes with slower or faster tempos." (from here).


Here's an idea: Take one field. Add some children. Add some crows.

There's so much to know and (un)know through observation that I wonder why we don't make it a main activity of school.  Keenly watching and at times using tools to help us notice and understand what we notice is the stuff of conjecture, theory making, composing, experimenting, and insight.  It helps us code and fail to code.


There's so much one can and does learn that expressing the 'totality' of it in neatly and logically written standards is rather foolish and dangerous especially when coupled with a manic desire to test public school children constantly and narrowly.  We need to consider Robert Frost and the advice from the speaker of his poem, "Mending Wall" who has this to say about boundaries:
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
The very things that are 'walled in and out' through our understanding of standards, Common or otherwise, may be the necessary keys to learning for some.


Knowing is embodied in learners, their social networks, and in the processes and things that they create. Tacit knowing is the stuff we cannot list or code.  Much of that uncoded knowledge is systematically being diminished from school experiences, as what counts as content is what can be found on lists of things to know via standards. In our hyper attention to standards and the tests that measure students' acquisition of these coded bits of information, what will become of embodied learning?


Think about the crows who sat on the limb of the tree, calling.  I didn't know what their calls meant at the time or what that scene remembered might mean again and again or how such knowing might find expression.  I could not have anticipated you, dear reader.  It was a nothing moment, and one that was and is ripe with possibility.

Like learning, lifting the camera to make a moment was part reflex, part faith, part cooperation, and part coding. 



What might it mean for the generation coming of age if the majority of things we teach them to value are limited to that which can be coded?  What might our children learn about intuition, cooperation, community as knowledge?

Might we be teaching them to turn away from hunches, from self, from other? 

Omen (M.A. Reilly, 2011)