November 23, 2014

Sending Children Off to Do “Big Things”

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We’ve been reading and studying Time journalist Amanda Ripley’s fascinating book The Smartest Kids in the World and How they Got that Way.  In this book, Ripley investigates schooling in three educationally high performing nations: Finland, Korea, and Poland.  In addition to carefully parsing apart the data revealed by the Program for International Student Achievement (PISA), which measures advanced thinking and communication skills, the author follows three American, foreign exchange students in these countries to obtain an insider perspective into what it’s like to attend schools in these nations. While we could talk ad infinitum about this book, today we want to focus our thinking on Chapter 7, titled “The Metamorphosis.”

In this chapter, Ripley closely examines education in Poland, a nation with child poverty levels greater than the United States, and attempts to figure out what happened there to catapult this country from the educational doldrums to educational excellence. Ripley explains that the transformation began in 1997 with Miroslaw Handke, a chemist selected to become Poland’s minister of education. Handke’s solution focused on injecting the Polish educational system with renewed rigor. By 2012, fifteen years after the initiative began, Poland “officially joined the ranks of the world’s education superpowers. That year, its teenagers performed at the same level on PISA as kids in Finland and Canada.” (p. 136)

Wanting to better understand what contributed to this grand transformation, Ripley sought insight from a high school student from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania who studied abroad in Wroclaw, Poland. When asked what he believed to be the fundamental difference in American and Polish education, he said his school in the United States “is not that concerned with sending people off to do big things.”

Reading that sentiment stopped us dead in our tracks. As teachers, we are propelled by idealistic notions of helping children to become lifelong learners.  In our hearts, we want nothing more than for the children that fill our classrooms to go off and do “big things.”  Yet, we fear that this posture–not concerned with sending people off to do big things–is all too common, and much of our work has long been around helping schools adopt instructional mindsets that support long range visions for children as doers of big things.

In chapter one of Reading Wellness, we explore this idea by looking at Jane Goodall ,who read “not because others set goals for her,” but rather “because she was driven by her passions.  Her reading was connected to the things she loved.” In addition, because she read, Jane Goodall imagined a future of moving to Africa to live with and study animals. When students read multiple biographies, looking to see the connection between a person’s passion, mindset, and effort (Heart, Head, Hands and Feet), they begin to imagine new possibilities for their own futures which instills a natural motivation to read more informational texts. We get giddy when we see the ways this kind of reading inspires children to imagine the “big things” they want to do.

Student HHHF


For those of you attending NCTE, on Sunday, November 23 at 12:00 we are facilitating a session titled “They Grew Up Reading and Writing: Using Picture Book Biographies to Support Authentic Explorations of Informational Text.” We’d love to see you there, however, if you’ve got other commitments and will be unable to make it to our session, plan to stop by the Stenhouse booth at 9:00 Sunday morning where we will be hanging out and signing books. We would love to meet you and hear about how you are preparing your students to do “big things!”

Challenging Instructional Dogma

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When the Common Core Standards were released, “close reading” was a nebulous term that left many not only seeking to better understand what it was and how it served children, but also wondering what it looked like in the classroom. Because discussions of the Common Core Standards placed such emphasis on close reading and most educators felt they knew so little about it, they scrambled to learn what they could. For many, this exploration began with this EngageNY video of David Coleman discussing how to closely read Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  In this video, Coleman discusses the importance of allowing the text to set the reading agenda and suggests a protocol for reading closely that involves asking students to read a short text with little to no scaffolding, followed by a teacher read aloud of the same selection, followed by a discussion anchored by text-based questions prepared by the teacher in advance.

At the beginning of this video, David Coleman clearly states that this protocol is “one model of instruction in alignment with the core standards of literacy. There can and should be several others.” However, in spite of Coleman’s words of caution, many understand it as the way to teach children to read closely and carefully, which inadvertently has elevated something that began as an instructional suggestion to instructional canon.

This relatively recent development makes us think a lot about some of the rules that govern how we approach literacy instruction that include things such as:

  • Children should read books at their level.
  • Always pre-teach new vocabulary and difficult-to-decode words.
  • Be sure to fill in gaps in background knowledge prior to reading.

While these ideas are rooted in important research about how children become increasingly proficient readers, we have to look closely at the ways in which we implement them and continually ask, “How are these rules serving children?”

For example, we have visited countless classrooms honoring the matching books to reader rule.  The classroom libraries are leveled and students only pick from the bin containing books “on their level.” However, when we ask, “how is this serving children?” we worry that this practice might do more harm than good as we repeatedly encounter children who shy away from reading challenges because “that book isn’t on my level.” Like David Coleman’s approach to teaching children to read closely and carefully, matching books to readers is a well-intended idea. There are many situations when it will serve an important role in helping to improve children’s reading skills, however, when it stops serving children, we can’t soldier on “just because.” Just because David Coleman or some other notable figure popularized a way of teaching children to read or write. We must remember that in education, we are always trying to outgrow our best ideas and that over time, even the best ideas evolve.

Using Interactive Writing to Teach “the Basics” in Upper Elementary

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By the time students reach fourth- and fifth-grades, certain writing “basics”–capitalizing proper nouns and the first word of a sentence, indenting paragraphs, using details to develop ideas–have been taught for years. However, many students are slow to “own” these basics, leaving teachers dismayed and wondering how to best use their already limited instructional time for writing. Do they reteach the basics or move on to teaching more sophisticated writing moves– how to merge ideas to create more complex sentences; how to include details that impact mood; or how to move from one idea to another using words besides first, then, and next? For many teachers, moving on without “the basics” in place feels remiss but the conundrum of time is too hard to ignore.  Fortunately for intermediate and middle school teachers faced with this dilemma, there is a skinny solution to the problem: interactive writing.

In interactive writing, students work together with the teacher to compose a text.  Decisions about how to introduce an idea, which words to use to describe something, or how to support an idea once it is committed to the page are made collaboratively. As the text is discussed, the teacher invites students to take the pen and publicly practice integrating the many aspects of the writing process. Doing this allows them opportunities to think aloud and ask questions about the parts of writing they find confusing.  For example, in a recent interactive writing lesson with sixth graders, the students were working to include the title of a short story in a text.  They weren’t sure whether to surround it with quotes or underline it.  One student mentioned that, in the past, she had thought about using a title in her own writing, but decided not to because she wasn’t sure how to punctuate it. There were nods of agreement from other students and clearly, these students appreciated the clarification.

Oftentimes, students’ apparent lack of “basics” has more to do with feeling disconnected from their audience than it does with understanding when and how to use these things in their writing.  Because interactive writing heightens students’ awareness of audience, remembering to capitalize, indent, and correctly punctuate sentences becomes easier as students recognize why these things matter to their readers.

In case you are wondering, we find upper elementary students just as excited about “sharing the pen” as the lower elementary students who are typically involved in interactive writing. The interactive writing format increases engagement and facilitates learning transfer to students’ independent practice.





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