Preview: The Burning Question About Vocabulary Instruction Blog Series

It’s been an extremely long time since I’ve posted!  I’ve been reading, reading, reading all the good work of bloggers who’ve kept up with posting and I salute your perseverance.  The low-key summertime vibe kept me lulled into a state of relaxation…and then there was that little event…my wedding!  Yes, my wedding!  And to be honest, who am I kidding?  That was THE thing keeping my mind off all things literacy.

Indulge me for just a moment, please!
Indulge me for just a moment, please!

So, since I’ve lived happily in newlywed bliss for the past few months it’s time to get back to work!

The school year always starts with a flurry of activity.  Getting to know new students, learning new district and curricula changes, pre-assessing to know where students are in their learning, and the list goes on-and-on.  All these elements make that initial September rush something akin to jumping into a cold pool.  The initial shock stuns you, but you fight as quickly as possible to get through it.

And we all do get through it.  Inevitably, the craziness passes and we find ourselves functioning normally. Once the school year had settled into its normal day-in, day-out routine (just in time for the holidays to create their annual turmoil) I usually found myself beginning to think reflectively on what was happening in my classroom.  Ready to continue the good work of making my students the best readers and writers they can be, I turned my attention to what was working in my classroom as well as what was not.

Our school district, like many others, implemented the reading and writing workshop structure.  Last year, we adopted the Units of Study for Opinion/Argument, Information, and Narrative Writing by Lucy Calkins and Colleagues in grades 1-8.  Next year, we will officially begin using the Units of Study for  Teaching Reading in grades 1-5 (sadly, there are not reading units available for middle school).  Over and over, the question I get from the teachers I work with is,

“How do I incorporate vocabulary instruction into my reading and writing workshop?”

If you’ve taught the workshop approach, you know the answer that comes from The Greats.  We are told vocabulary instruction should be embedded into our workshop naturally.  We should expose students to various words through mentor texts and have them notice words during their independent read. Our job, as the teacher, is pop those words out and encourage their use.

But as a classroom teacher, this sort of response was frustrating.  In the many readers and writers workshop resources I’ve read, there was never a clear-cut answer to the burning vocabulary question.

The principles behind embedded instruction are very clear to me.  I understand the importance of creating vocabulary experiences that make meaningful vocabulary connections for students.  I understand the importance of using authentic words found in classroom readings.  I understand that “drill-and-kill” lists do not work (I only need to think back to the SAT class I took in high school to realize that the isolated learning of vocabulary words is ineffective).  But I don’t understand where it all fits in. Within the workshop structure, where and how, exactly, does vocabulary instruction fit? (I know that word is a near impossibility in workshop teaching, since each classroom and teacher will be different, but I like schedules and frameworks.  I need them to structure my thinking about my teaching.)

So, my quest began.  I set out to research three big questions about vocabulary instruction.

  • Which words do we teach?
  • Where do we get those words?
  • How do we teach vocabulary in the workshop model?

These three questions will be addressed in the following blog series, which will share findings and new understandings about vocabulary instruction.  Stay tuned…

Let’s keep the conversation going-

Lindsay

Congrats to all Education Graduates!!!!! And a few words of advice…

I recently attended the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education 2015 Convocation in support of my talented cousin (who’s actually more like my little sister), Alyssa (Congrats, again, Lyssy!).

My cousin, Alyssa, center at her RU Master of Education Graduation. (That's my mom on the left and me, on the right)
My cousin, Alyssa (center) just before her Rutgers University Graduate School of Education Convocation. (That’s my mom, on the left and me, on the right).

I sat there watching my cousin amongst the other graduates–her classmates, our future colleagues–a sea of mortar-board caps decorated with rulers, apples, primary colors, and the new title they would proudly answer to during the next stage of their lives, “Miss and/or Mr.  So-and-So”.  Their eagerness to enter the world of education apparent in their shining faces.  The promise of what this new cohort of educators stands for moving me to get a bit teary-eyed.  How exciting it is to have your whole career ahead of you! Something that you’ve worked toward for years.

As each graduate marched across the stage and accepted their diploma, I began to create a list in my mind of what I would tell each and every one of them.  They’ve been schooled in the pedagogy, theory, and practice of the education world, but what about things that cannot be taught in a class?  The small, seemingly insignificant things that one can only glean from experience.  The silly things that helped me survive my early years of teaching….

And so, this post was born.

My Unsolicited Advice for all New Education Graduates

Buy a notebook.

Keep track of PLC minutes, staff meeting information, professional development workshop notes, and anything else important.  Date everything!  Keep a record of decisions made and tasks assigned.  You can use your notebook to plan classroom groups, your teaching block, or content pacing.  It’s your thinking on paper and everything is in one place.  You will find that you (and your colleagues for that matter) will constantly refer back to and review this invaluable tool.

Some of my past notebooks, ranging from my first year in the classroom to last year.
Some of my past notebooks, ranging from my first year in the classroom to last year. Notice the telltale signs of how well-used they are: coffee stains, tabs, highlighting, additions and revisions.
Eat lunch in the faculty room.

Some teachers would advise against this, saying that the lunch room gets too gossipy or negative, and at times that may be true.  However, in some cases, you can actually learn A LOT in the faculty room – and that learning is two-fold:

  1. Put a bunch of females into a room and inevitable they will start talking about life, love, and their kids (Males within the education world, I understand this just might be your worst nightmare… but bear with me). As a new teacher, I learned a lot from them.  Whether it be marital advice, when to retire, how to set up a 403(b), the ups and downs of daycare, how to potty train, how to roast a chicken, the list goes on!  It seems like you’ll never need any of it, but I can promise you that time ticks on and you, too, one day will be ready to settle down and start a household–family and all. At least now you’ll have all that knowledge from your colleagues to stand on!
  2. Yes, lunch is a time to take a moment for yourself and decompress from the morning and recharge for the afternoon, and it’s good to take the time to do that.  However, teachers rarely ever stop thinking about their work. And this is where being in the faculty room at lunch time comes in handy. It’s a built-in meeting!  You can run lesson plan ideas or assessments past colleagues and get their feedback.  A teacher may come in to copy something that you realize you could use in your classroom. Ask for a copy!  And listen!  Listening in on other educators in your content area is like free PD.  Pay attention to what they are doing in their rooms, their pacing, their techniques and bring that back into your own room.  By being present and “leaning in” to the conversation as Sheryl Sandberg would encourage,  you can learn SO much.
Find a friend.

I’m not just talking about any old friend.  I’m talking about a trusted and respected colleague, who will challenge you and help you grow as an educator.  This should be someone who has educational goals and beliefs similar to your own.  Someone who you can easily work with and who’s feedback you value.  Mine happened to be my mentor.  Through our relationship, I became a much stronger teacher.  As I grew more confident in the classroom and in my practice, we began to function more as equals. We bounced ideas off each other, shared materials and resources, debated new classroom practices, and supported each other.  You will need this type of person because teaching is not always easy.  It’s hard work! And having someone to support you through challenges, offer advice, and keep you smiling is a necessary part of the job.

Say “Yes.”

As a new teacher, you have to build your reputation among colleagues and parents in your school.  One great way to do this is by volunteering for committees and extra duties.  Be a face that parents see at events outside of school.  Offer to become a member of school committees like the social club or an advisory committee.  Build your reputation as a team player and someone who cares about the positive culture and moral of your school.  A word of caution, however-do not take on so much that you become overwhelmed.  Your commitment, first and foremost, is to the education of your students.  Try not to lose sight of that.

Learn the name of every custodian and secretary.

These are the people who keep the school up and running.  They do a lot of work and are often not recognized for all they do.  Make friends, be kind, say “Good morning”, and thank them for all they do.  Then, hopefully, whenever you need a favor (and I can guarantee that at some point you will), they will be more likely to help you out.

Seasoned Educators, what else would you add to this “unsolicited” advice for our future colleagues??

Let’s keep the conversation going-

Lindsay

Skills Vs. Strategy

Throughout my teaching career, there was something that I always had trouble wrapping my head around: the difference between a skill and strategy.  Like many educational terms, the definition depends on who you ask, so it was always a bit murky to me.

During my time working on various curriculum writing committees, I started running with my own definition of the terms…

To me,

  • a skill is “content” necessary  for reading understanding
    • narrative elements
    • character traits
    • main idea and supporting details
    • text structures
    • text features
      •  Nonfiction (index, heading, caption, etc)
      • Fiction  (stanza, line, stage direction, cast of characters, etc)
    • Etc.

A reader would have to know that all of these exist and they would have to be able to name them out in any given text.

  • a strategy is, well, a reading strategy.  Based off the work of Ellin Oliver Keene and Susan Zimmermann in their groundbreaking Mosaic of Thought, as well as Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis’ Strategies that Work.
    • monitor comprehension
    • make connections
    • visualize
    • determine importance
    • Etc.

And so, I, Lindsay Pish, classroom teacher also threw my definition out there– adding to the myriad of voices.

However, in my work as a literacy coach I’ve come across some other definitions that have gotten me thinking about how my working definition might fit into the mix. Here are three others that I recently came across:

1. When I took this position as a literacy coach, I gained the responsibility of working with middle school teachers.  Middle school literacy was a new territory for me so I did a lot of professional reading on the subject, including Teaching Reading in Middle School by Laura Robb.

Robb describes strategies as the internal reading processes used to make sense out of print, while skills are isolated and out of context drills.  “Strategic reading means that when the learner practices a strategy, he has a conscious, in-the-head plan for comprehending, whereas skills are used without conscious planning.”  For example, students are told to practice a skill on a worksheet, but decide to use a strategy during their independent reading.  Skills are basic practice and can only be elevated to the level of strategy by linking practice to the student’s personal reading life.  “As students use strategies, they become more and more aware of their reasoning process as they make sense out of print, skills seldom involve this kind of self-awareness.”

This could somewhat fit with my definition of each.  The skills are the isolated parts of reading content, identifying narrative elements or text features, that are used to complete the more complicated strategies, inferring or synthesizing.  So you would have to have knowledge of the skill to consciously use a strategy.

2. While doing research for a new strategy-based resource curriculum that I am writing, a fantastic teacher let me borrow the book, Strategy Instruction for Students with Learning Disabilities by Robert Reid, Torri Ortiz Lienemann, and Jessica L. Hagaman.

In their book, the authors define a strategy as being facilitative, essential, willful, and effortful.  Meaning that strategies facilitate performance or help do a task better–easier, more quickly.  They liken a strategy to a tool.  Tools help us do a task “to a higher standard with much less effort” and strategies do the same.  Strategies are essential in that they are are necessary for success.  The highest achieving students use strategies.  In turn, these students make a conscious effort to use a strategy and commit to its use.

The authors go on to say that a strategy is a “cognitive process that occurs inside our head” and often one strategy is used in combination with another.  The point of strategy use in the classroom, according to this text, is to help structure the effort put into a task and to act as reminder for what the next step in the process is.  The conclusive definition of a strategy in this book then becomes, “a series of ordered steps that help a student perform a task.”

While I agree that strategies are facilitative, essential, willful, and effortful–a process that happens entirely in our head,I am not sure that I agree with strategies acting only as a series of ordered steps, likened to the the use of a mnemonic device to remember the steps in a math computation (“Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally”- parenthesis, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction).  I would feel uneasy boiling down something as complicated as synthesizing two texts, into such a simplified process because I want to make sure that deeper understanding is present.

3. Finally, as a blogger I make sure that I keep up with other literacy-based blogs.  Recently blogger Annemarie, on Teacher2TeacherHelp did a series of posts on teaching strategically.

Annemarie would agree with the definition put forth by the authors of Strategy Instruction for Students with Learning Disabilities.  She describes strategies as a mean to proficiently perform a skill.  Using Jennifer Serravello’s definition (from Teaching Reading Skills in Small Groups: Differentiated Instruction for Building Strategic, Independent Readers) that “strategies are the step-by-step how-tos for internalizing skills,” Annemarie explains that strategies are scaffolds put in place to help with the development of skills, and left in place only long enough for the student to become independent with the skill.

When a student has trouble with a skill, Annemarie describes how she asks herself, “How can I break this down?” and then works to find ways the skill can be broken down into manageable steps.  She reminds teachers to focus on their process for doing things, by listing across their fingers, “First, I…Then…Next, I…” to make internal processes more apparent.

Again, it boils down to the use of a step-by-step process.  However, I feel a bit more comfortable with Annemarie’s explanation, since I can see how it would work with say, determining the main idea.  The student has trouble with this skill and I can break that task down into steps:

  1. First, ask yourself what this passage is all about.
  2. Then, decide what the author is trying to tell you about that topic.
  3. Next, ask yourself if this is something that the entire passage focuses on, or just a small part.
  4. Finally, ask yourself what details you can find to support that idea.

The thinking behind the skill is being broken down, rather than the rote use of something like a mnemonic device.  And through my work with Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, I know that this definition would be their philosophy as well.  Their teaching points follow the form of, “Today I am going to teach you how to (a skill) by using ( a strategy).”  And that makes sense to me.

I also understand that skills can be leveled into a heirarchy, like Bloom’s Taxonomy or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge.  Identifying text features is a low level skill, where as using text features to determine the main idea is a higher leveled skill.

So, where do I go from here? Now that I’ve completely muddled my own thinking…

I think I need to adjust my idea of what a skill is.  What I previously thought of as a skill, may be more of a topic or umbrella term, rather than an actual skill that students must aquire.  For example, one can not “narrative element”, but one can identify narrative elements or summarize using narrative elements.  Those are skills that could be supplemented with strategies in order for students to be successful at them.

This idea does not exactly tie in the comprehension strategies set forth in Mosaic of Thought or Strategies that Work, but maybe that’s okay.  I can accept the two different “types” and move forward.  Maybe like so many of our students, these terms do not have to fit into perfectly labeled categories.

What have you thought about on this topic?  I would love to hear your ideas or musings.

Let’s keep the conversation going-

Lindsay

Is There a Culture of Teacher Growth in Your School?

A great article, by Irene Fountas, related to my last post, “An Invitation to Geek Out”. I am particularly intrigued by the idea of teachers and administrators viewing themselves as a team.

I’ve seen the pay-off of teachers acting as a team first-hand, at one particular school in my coaching travels. The teachers in this school truly work together, using their PLC time to talk out problems and come up with innovative solutions. They are educators that care deeply about their craft and it shows, in the way they are constantly trying to hone their practice. They debate issues, create new lessons and materials, and they SHARE it all! They work to keep each other up with curriculum pacing and they keep the standards in check as they go.

It’s inspiring to see their success and growth as a team of professionals. It’s also a model that others could replicate, by discussing some of the questions Fountas raises in this article.

Keep the conversation going!

– Lindsay

Lesley University Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

3.20.15 Irene Fountas Photo

by Irene Fountas, Author and Director of the Lesley University Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

In a culture of teacher growth, the educators in a school value their expertise and seek opportunities to expand it. They value teamwork and how it contributes to the achievement of all the students in the school. Think for a minute about the characteristics of your school culture.
  • What are the professional learning expectations for you in your school?  In other words, what is your understanding of what is expected of you in terms of continuous professional learning and what should you expect of your colleagues?
  • Are the expectations for professional learning by the educators communicated in a written document so everyone who works in the building has the same understandings and expectations of each other?
  • How generous are you in sharing your teaching and supporting your colleagues? How would your colleagues describe you…

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An Invitation to “Geek Out”

My colleagues used to lovingly poke fun at me for the vast amount of reading I did on literacy education.  They would shake their heads at me when I showed up at lunch with a professional book; highlighter and pen in hand, “just in case” I had a spare second to read.  They giggled at the thought of me reading and annotating in bed at night, when most would use that time to unwind by watching TV or reading much lighter fare.  And they would playfully roll their eyes when I talked about my summer beach reading, which consisted of books on reading and writing workshop.  But through it all, their raised eyebrows and skeptical looks never bothered me.

I unabashedly love “geeking out” on literacy.

Despite their chiding, my colleagues saw the value of my obsession as well.  If anyone ever needed a specific professional book, I probably had it on my shelf–already read through, highlighted, tabbed, and annotated–or, brand-new and still in my “To Read” pile.  When they wondered about a particular strategy or methodology, I could usually answer their question and pass along a resource to aid in their quest.  And our conversations about classroom practices grew much richer as I brought up ideas and theories that I had read about, and they learned along with me.

Due to the instructional gains I’ve seen from teachers who read widely about their field, it has become obvious to me that continuing our professional growth is an extremely important aspect of our lives as teachers.  It is especially one that we must perpetually work at in the ever-changing world of literacy education.

Penny Kittle recently tweeted an article by Rob Jenkins, from the Chronicle of Higher Education, titled “The 4 Properties of Powerful Teachers”.  One particularly poignant statement reads,

You must continue your education on a regular basis — by reading extensively in your field, attending conferences and seminars, conducting and presenting your own research, and remaining a practitioner of your art or science. You must also continue to learn and grow as a teacher by exploring new advances in pedagogy and technology that can help you in the classroom.

And in the short term, to be a powerful teacher you must go into every single class meeting as prepared as you can be, given the time you have. That means more than just reviewing your notes or PowerPoint slides. It involves constantly reassessing what you do in the classroom, abandoning those strategies that haven’t proved effective, or are just outdated, and trying new ones. It means being so familiar with your subject matter that you can talk about it off the cuff.

Some of that will come with time, as your level of familiarity with your subject will naturally increase the more you teach it. Then again, just because you’ve been teaching a course for 15 or 20 years doesn’t mean you shouldn’t approach it each term as if for the first time. It’s that level of preparation that allows great teachers to make it all look so easy.

(for the full article, click here)

Along with accepting new knowledge, we must also be open to the inevitable changes that will come about as new advances and understandings are made in the literacy field.  To be a truly great teacher, we must be open to the possibility that “our way” might not necessarily be the best way for our students.  That does not mean that we should wholeheartedly grasp onto every flash-in-the-pan theory that is presented, but that we should take the time to think about, evaluate, and possibly learn from each one.  A professional is, and always will be, a life-long learner within their field, even when they’ve been in that field for years.

So, whether you read professional books, follow educational blogs, or seek out every PD workshop you can in your area, I invite you to “geek out” with me, grow,  and share what you’ve learned.

Let’s keep the conversation going-

Lindsay

First Illiteracy, and now Aliteracy

A main focus of this blog will be the importance of engaging students in reading (and writing for that matter). Blame the “self-proclaimed literacy geek” title, but I think fostering a culture of readers is an extremely important component of a literacy program.

In my classroom days, I promised parents at Back-to-School Night that I would make each and every one of their children a reader.  I’ll admit– I was given many skeptical looks.  But I did not waiver. Literacy is just too important.

Classroom teachers  in upper elementary and middle school are facing a difficult challenge– a world where reading a book might not seem like the most interesting thing to do for a student who is bombarded with tweets, text messages, Instagram posts, Facebook updates, and online gaming challenges.  The decline in time spent reading can be seen in data from the Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report (2015).

Percentage of Children (Ages 6-17) Who Read Books for Fun 5-7 Days a Week

Decline in Time Spent Reading

Percentage of Children (Ages 6-17) Who Do Activities 5-7 Days A Week

Increase in Time Spent with Electronics

These technological distractions do not even factor in the vast amount of sports and after-school activities students are involved in.  Couple student disinterest with the pressure classroom teachers feel to “cover” material before the administration of high-stakes tests, and it’s easy to see why creating a culture that builds life-long readers has fallen to the wayside or been put on the back burner.

So, where we used to contend only with illiteracy  for a select population of students, now teachers must contend with aliteracy in a vast majority of students.  The National Endowment of the Arts even warned us of a world where the amount of aliterate individuals would surpass the amount of illiterate individuals in the report To Read or Not to Read, which was published in 2007.  

To understand the term, aliteracy, I would like to use Steven L. Layne’s explanation of a complete reader from his book Igniting a Passion for Reading (©2009 Scholastic), where he explains his idea using a circle visual.

Complete Reader visual

The left side of the circle is comprised of the skills necessary to be literate. The inclusion of the right side allows affective or will-driven components to be factored into one’s literacy as well.

In Layne’s description, a complete reader is one who has the skill and the will.  One who can and wants to read.

So, in accordance with this:

  • An illiterate student would be one who does not have the skill to read.
  • An aliterate student has the skill to read, but does not have the will/want to read.

Classroom teachers are confident in the imparting of skills to students in order to promote literacy.  We’ve been doing this all along.  The left side of Layne’s circle is an important aspect of the literacy process; as without skills, one physically cannot read.

But when do we address the will???  How do we bolster students’ intrinsic motivation to read and create life-long readers out of all who pass through our doors?  These are the questions we need to continue to attend to– questions that I will try to provide some answers to as we take this journey together…

Let’s keep the conversation going-

Lindsay

And…we’re off!

It’s been a long and slow process to this point.  One where I’ve been dragging my heels every step of the way.  My heart beats quickly and my stomach is all aflutter… But believe it or not, this is a good day—a great day!  For I am embarking on a journey that has been itching at the back of my mind for a few years now.  A challenge that I’ve shied away from.  A task that I deemed more advanced than my ability.

This is the start of my blog!

I am a seven-year classroom teacher veteran, who recently began a new position as a literacy coach.  A self-proclaimed literacy fanatic, who “geeks out” on all things literacy.  Calkins, Allington, Daniels, Harvey, and Keene are some of my idols.  I live and breathe the skills, strategies, and techniques required to get students to engage in, to love, and to learn literacy.

My journey had a humble start.  I began my career as a fourth grade teacher, teaching all subject areas: reading writing, math, science, and social studies.  Things took a turn, during my fourth year, when the district announced that we would departmentalize reading and math at my grade level.

I’ll be honest—I thought I wanted to teach math.

The ease of having a set program, where each next lesson was at my fingertips with the turn of the page, and grading was as simple as perusing a multiple choice exam as I marked right or wrong (misguided I know…) seemed much better than reading 50 essays (written by fourth graders, no less), the many hours spent lesson planning to find the perfectly succinct minilesson and mentor text for reading workshop (my district had recently done away with a basal reading program), and the daunting task of teaching reading, writing, grammar, and vocabulary in a way that would make these young minds love and want to read and write.

But who was I kidding?  I hated math as a student, and although I did enjoy teaching it, it was not my passion.  My books shelves were lined with professional books on how to teach guided reading, use literature circles in the classroom, and help struggling readers.  Every classroom resource I bought aligned to reading or writing instruction and I spent countless dollars at Scholastic to enhance my classroom library.

I was a literacy teacher, through and through.

Being able to focus largely on literacy gave me a great opportunity to hone my craft.  Reading, writing, grammar, and vocabulary became the air I breathed.  And I was hooked.

Over the years I read every professional book on literacy I could fit in, working around the very hectic, busy life of an elementary school teacher (My current to read pile is about 10 books high- you know how it is…).  I applied and worked for each district curriculum initiative that popped up and attended all the professional development opportunities I could.  I began to envision myself one day, down the line as becoming a literacy coach or staff developer.  My love for literacy was that strong and others began to see that strength and passion as well.

“One day” came a lot sooner than expected when a literacy coaching position opened within my district, and I threw my hat into the ring….

…And here I am.

I want to write to share what I’ve seen, heard, and learned from the wonderful people around me: teachers, staff developers, literacy professionals, and the gurus of our field.  I want to create a conversation about literacy learners and thinkers.  I want to support teachers as we work toward state and district demands and I want to provide a supply of current, engaging literacy instructional strategies.

But most of all I want to help foster classrooms where literacy is valued and loved.  Valued not only by the teachers who choose to be there with heart and soul each and every day, but by the students who walk through their doors. My goal as a classroom teacher, which is still my goal today, is to make EVERY student a reader.  A reader who has learned to love books.

Let’s keep the conversation going-

Lindsay